UK GM wheat ‘does not repel pests’

BBC News – Thursday 25th June

The debate on the development of GM crops for Britain continues to rage. Recent research into creating a wheat that repels aphids, a key pest of the crop, has failed, generating heavy criticism about the amount of money being spent and whether it’s worth continuing the game of one-upmanship with nature. GM does regularly raise the question, ‘but do we need this?’ Nature always has the upper hand, reinventing the rules to keep its edge on us – resistance a favoured innovation. It does make you wonder whether our striving to overcome the fundamentals of the natural world is doing more harm than good.

The GM ‘whiffy’ wheat, which has been in development for five years, sought to “better mimic what happens in nature”, creating a wheat that gives off a smell repellent to aphids. Compared with the major GM crops, this looks like a relatively benign development geared towards reducing pesticide use. But we will never be able ‘mimic’ nature very well – its complexity is greater than anything we can control and in our attempts to do so there is always the potential for unforeseen consequences.

SNP urged to stop land reforms breaking up family farms

The Telegraph – Saturday 27th June

This is a thorny issue if ever there was one – the Scottish National Party (SNP) is overhauling the law of succession in a bid to make land ownership more equitable. Half of Scotland’s private land is owned by a mere 432 people. That statistic reflects the growing inequality across the globe and the SNP wants to do something about it on its own patch. The plan, on which the Scottish Government has been consulting, is to allow spouses and children left out when land passes from one generation to another, the opportunity to claim up to 20-25% of the value of the property. There are concerns this could lead to the break up of some family farms, and the Government has been asked to consider making exceptions in such cases to retain the viability of farm businesses.

But what needs to be thought about carefully is, what constitutes a ‘family farm’? As Sally Geisler pointed out in discussing the ‘family farm’, in the United States, we are wise to be sceptical about how this term is used. Family farms are increasingly becoming corporate entities that have consolidated smaller farms into an empire of land for exploitation. They are a world away from where they started – small and local, built on the sweat equity of immediate family.

The SNP recognises the difficulty here, stating that a “clear, fair and effective” definition of what kind of farms could benefit from an exemption was hard to determine. Without this, an exemption could merely reinforce the status quo, keeping ownership concentrated within the hands of a few. But without an exemption, some farms may be lost.

North Korea awaits rain as drought lingers

The Washington Post – Tuesday 23rd June

North Korea may be facing a hungrier year than usual due to drought that is hitting the north of the country. In a country already facing severe food shortages it’s left 30% of rice paddies dry, when they should be partially submerged at this time of year. Some 70% of the population does not have access to a balanced diet and the drought will certainly increase this problem, unless the summer rains deliver needed water.

North Korea’s predicament can be added to a long list of countries also experiencing significant drought. Its increasing frequency in many parts of the world – linked to climate change – predicts a difficult future. Water shortages and ensuing ‘water wars’ are a key focus of many recent risk reports from the United Nations, the US Pentagon and a number of independent researchers. It goes without saying that water is critical to the world’s food security. In a country like North Korea, which already struggles to feed its population we get an insight into how bad things may become more widely. It’s time to pay serious attention to how we manage agriculture beyond water.

Why are bees hurting? A line-up of suspects

Grist – Thursday 25th June

If you really want to understand the complexity of what’s happening to bees, have a read of Nathanael Johnson’s extensive analysis. Not one to leave a stone unturned, he details the list of possible contributors with trenchant commentary, drawing heavily on the insights of Randy Oliver and other experienced beekeepers. It is indeed a complicated picture that points to the simple fact that, unsurprisingly, the problem is (largely) us.

The article makes some interesting points and claims, among them that colony collapse disorder in the United States ceased to be epidemic in 2009 – and yet honey bees are still dying in great numbers. Parasites – in particular the varroa mite – are aiding this, in part because the honey bees used in intensive food systems in the States have been bred to be so hard working that they don’t stop to groom themselves and so are especially susceptible to parasites.

Johnson’s analysis is that neonicotinoids aren’t a major culprit with honey bees – that doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to ban these insecticides, though, as they do significantly affect wild bees. It’s just that honey bees are more tolerant of them, even at the low doses they encounter. However, the array of chemicals in the environment more broadly are stressing their immune systems. It weakens them and leaves them more vulnerable to parasites and disease. This isn’t helped by the fact that bees are worked very hard and fed badly in intensive agriculture – yet another impact on their health.

What is much less talked about in the decline of honey bees, however, is habitat loss, and this is proving to be very significant. Put simply, bees aren’t getting enough to eat. This is where industrial farming along with urbanisation has had a real impact. Many farms are effectively ‘green deserts’ for bees – bees need flowers for nectar and pollen and vegetable crops have short flowering periods, so there needs to be variety and suuccession. There is much less pasture as grassland has given way to monocultures of crops that can be cut with a combine harvester and even field margins where there were once a variety of wild flowers on which bees could feed have disappeared in much of the US. Add this to the amount of land paved over and built on in urban centres and there is simply not enough food out there for honey bees. That’s pretty fundamental – food is the keystone of health.

Johnson’s focus in this article is honey bees – he’s going to move on to wild bees in his next piece, so look out for that.

What’s it really like to cook on a food stamp budget?

Huffington Post – Thursday 25th June

Gwyneth Paltrow has a bad habit of sticking her foot in things she may not quite fully understand – such as poverty. Her recent photo of what she had bought for $29 – the weekly payout of food stamps for the poor in the United States – has elicited a wave of criticism. ‘Seven limes – really?’ was the general tone of it. But even in the elegant presentation of her Instagram snap, you can tell it’s not much food. She was, at least, trying to raise awareness of what is faced by recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) living on food stamps in America. Shame it looked like the latest celebrity diet fad.

There’s a wider context of eating in poverty that goes way beyond what you purchase. Buying food is only one of the difficulties faced in feeding yourself (and your family) on a limited budget – there are many others. They start with finding somewhere to purchase food and then actually being able to get there. Many of the poorest communities are in food deserts devoid of anything but corner shops and convenience stores, which carry little or no fresh produce. Beyond that, of course, being able to afford the electricity to run appliances is definitely not a given when you are very poor. Cooking – assuming you have the time, the article points out – presents other challenges, like having butter, oil and the extravagance of seasoning on hand. There are also nuances in the deprivation such as needing to plan how every item is going to be used so the food stretches the week. As one recipient commented, you have to say, “Okay… we can have three meals a day if no one grabs the peanut butter and makes a snack for themselves.” There’s no spontaneity, no “I’m really in the mood for a burger tonight”, no giving in to a hankering.

In general, it’s good that SNAP benefits are based around cooking fresh food. The fact that you can redeem them at farmers markets keeps food local, fresh and affordable (their benefits go farther when used there) and helps recipients eat more nutritionally rich food. Further, the SNAP redemptions brought in almost $19 million for farmers at the 6,400 markets now set up to accept SNAP benefits. That’s a big win-win for both recipients and farmers.

Harness technology to exploit food and farming opportunities, says Truss

Horticulture Week – Friday 26th June

Britain’s agriculture minister Liz Truss has called for more use of technology in farming and food production. She’d like to see British exports increase some 40% and technology is the way to get there. She wants to see it connecting the local to the global through free dataset giveaways to companies, satellite imaging, universal access to broadband and mobile services, and much, much more. She wants to make Britain a player in global agriculture.

Farmers are becoming much more technologically savvy, but there is as much need to turn these new strengths towards the domestic market as there is to rush out into the global one. Support is needed not just in connecting up with the great world-wide-web of consumers, but also to help farmers find their markets in the 50 miles around their farms, to help them connect to resources that make their agriculture more sustainable, and to open dialogues between farmers, sharing knowledge and expertise. In the technological up-skilling, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs to ensure that it’s not all focused on getting food out of the country, but also on supporting the farmers that want to keep it here.

Photograph: Brad Higham

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