US farms becoming less diverse over time

Civil Eats – Monday 5th October

A new study in the United States maps declining crop diversity across many parts of the country. It shows that farms are moving increasingly towards monocultures and that’s worrying news for long-term food security. 

Growing only one crop, while bad for biodiversity, is profitable for many farmers. This is creating a long-term problem for the country’s ongoing agricultural viability. The United State’s most recent Farm Bill continued the habit of paying farmers to produce monocultures rather than encouraging them to diversify what they grow. In the EU, increasing crop diversification has been one of the key greening measures of the Common Agricultural Policy – and for good reason: it is key to building soil fertility and can help break cycles of pests and disease.

In many parts of the United States just four crops are grown, with corn, soya and wheat production dominating. Counties across the US are losing their crop diversity rather than increasing it and this has quite serious implications in the long term. Crop monocultures breed a host of issues for food production, including pesticide resistance, soil degradation and environmental problems. But there are solutions: we need to change the way we farm and make it more financially viable for farmers to grow a more diverse range of crops.

Africa’s agriculture needs new blood, says report

BBC News – Thursday 1st October

Farming in Africa is suffering from something of an image problem and more needs to be done to attract young people into the industry, according to the 2015 African Agriculture Status Report. However, on closer inspection, its image may be only a small part of the problem. Africa has the largest amount of arable land in the world, and farming provides 65% of the continent’s jobs. But, like the world over, young people aren’t going into farming and this is a significant threat to the continent’s food security. Hyping farming to African youth – which comprises 65% of its population – is going to be a hard sell when there are so many issues making it a difficult profession to enter. 

First and foremost is the difficulty in accessing land. In Africa, this is less because of cost and more because of land policies and other issues. What land there is available is often inaccessible to young people because of a lack of financial support. Only a quarter of youth in Africa have access to finance such as a bank account.

The image problem of farming in Africa is the smallest of the issues. If there are significant economic deterrants to land access, this must first be negotiated in a meaningful way – in Africa and in many other places around world. The difficulty in accessing land to farm may be the biggest threat to food security in Africa and elsewhere. It will be hard to lure a generation of young people into farming if they’ve got nowhere to work.

High cancer rates spark pesticide debate in French wine growing region

Farming Online – Monday 28th September

A spike in childhood cancer rates in a small village in France’s wine growing region has ignited a debate about the health impacts of pesticides, after a report acknowledged that heavy pesticide spraying near a school could have potentially been a factor. 

Cancer and other disease ‘clusters’ are not unusual in agricultural areas, though how much pesticide use may have to do with this remains unclear. However, it has long been recognised that children are more acutely at risk from exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals than adults. So it would make common sense to regulate pesticide spraying near schools. In Preignac, the village in question, a community buy-out of agricultural land next to the school is in process in order to protect the children from exposure. In 2014, a nearby school was exposed to fungicide spraying that made 23 children and a teacher sick. As a clear and present health risk, shouldn’t more be done to ensure that children and the wider public are not unduly exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals?

Amazon takes on retailers with launch of food delivery

Farmers Weekly – Sunday 3rd October

Online ordering and home food deliveries seem like an obvious choice in our over-pressured world. The omnipresent Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Ocado trucks in every nook and cranny of Britain testify to this. Now there’s a major newcomer to the food delivery scene, one that’s been our go-to company for just about everything else we need: Amazon. ‘Amazon Fresh’ is being launched in Britain, having previously been rolled out in a number of US cities.

But do we need another competitor in this already flooded market? Amazon has clearly decided it wants a piece of the pie. The more interesting question is, what piece? Is it going to go head to head with supermarkets that already have loyal customers, or is it going to offer something different? Though Amazon hasn’t been clear about the details, one defining feature is the delivery of fresh food within one hour – throwing down a challenging gauntlet to other suppliers. The National Farmers Union has suggested that it could be opening up a new market for British farmers, but whether it will seek out sustainable producers remains a big question, along with what this means for the scale of the operations they develop relationships with. It could benefit mid-scale farms which may be able to deliver both on quantity and locality; but will Amazon take an exacting slice from them for their patronage?

It will be interesting to see if one of the biggest retailers in the world can succeed in being local and fresh. If it does, our shopping habits could be in for a huge change – but it sounds like a big ask…

BSE found in cow on Welsh farm

The Guardian – Thursday 1st October

Mad cow disease, or BSE, was recently found in an isolated case in Wales, and was discovered thanks to rigorous regulation that ensures all bovine deaths on farms are investigated. Action was immediately taken to identify other cows that may be affected and they will also be put down, so there is no concern that the meat will enter the human food chain.

It’s a small and, this time, inconsequential outbreak. But cases are still identified with some regularity – there have been six in Britain since 2013, and also cases in Canada and the United States in the past five years. With the horsemeat scandal of 2013, which served as a reminder of how little control we have over our food chain, it is good to know that the careful protocols in tracking BSE deaths have been effective.

Photograph: Spaceamoeba

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