Will microbes save agriculture?

LA Times – Saturday 28th May

The answer to that question is, undoubtedly yes, but implications of commercially developing soil microbes taints their promise of a sustainable future for agriculture. Environmentally sensitive farmers have sought to distinguish their practices from high-input industrial agriculture by focusing on cultivating soil’s natural microbiome, but that could all be about to change as bio-tech digs into the soil for new ways to improve yields.

The discovery by companies such as Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and other big bio-tech firms, that soil microbes can be turned into yet another agricultural product to patent and profit from, should concern us. It belies the feel good pronouncements of CEO David Perry of Indigo, one of an array of bio-tech start-ups working in the area of soil science. For Perry, its about making healthier plants, “and healthier plants have a greater yield and need fewer chemicals and fertiliser and water to produce that yield.” In the last few years, these bio-tech giants have been buying up companies like Perry’s, giving them access to valuable bacterial strains and microbial libraries, identified and produced through years of research.

In many ways, this should be a promising direction for agriculture, but the corporate ownership of soil microbes, as with seeds, raises too many red flags. If we’re not careful, we will be paying large companies to create our healthy soils rather than adopting the centuries-old sustainable agriculture practices that many farmers already use.

Germany promises a €100m emergency package for dairy farmers

Financial Times – Monday 30th May

German milk producers are facing a similar industry crisis as British producers. Caught in supermarket price wars and a glut of overproduction with the lifting on EU quotas last year and the loss of their biggest market as Russia cut trade relations, they are struggling to avoid going under. But unlike British farmers, they are getting an aid package to help them weather the difficulties and buoy them against the down-turn.

The nature of the support is still being hammered out, but it will include loans and tax relief among other measures. The German government is giving hard thought to how to support their dairy industry, which is the largest in Europe, and recognises that long-term structural changes are needed. The lifting of EU quotas generated overproduction in the past year, and with milk consumption “stagnating” across Europe, and Russia refusing to buy German cheese, the price of milk has fallen to almost half the cost of production. German agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt, has been calling for “an up-to-date and flexible way of controlling of supply.”

While the chair of the European Milk Board, Romuald Schaber, feels the aid would have “little impact” and could even lead to further overproduction, the German farmer’s association welcomed it. Certainly from a British perspective, Germany is, at least, doing something to ease the pain of its dairy farmers. The British government has yet to make a move of support, in anything but words, to help struggling dairy farmers here.

Farmers must ask for help before it is too late, say rural charities

Farmers Guardian Insight – Tuesday 31st May

With late subsidy payments pushing farmers closer to the brink of financial collapse, this plea on behalf of rural charities is very timely. Britain’s agricultural sector has been taking a beating – dairy farmers are desperate as the price of milk continues its free fall and livestock producers are also watching the bottom fall out of their market. The stress of financial difficulties can be a breaking point for many in agriculture when it is piled on top of exhausting physical labour and an inability to get away and relax. Farming is also almost always a family business, and when it fails, the responsibility falls entirely on the family’s shoulders. It’s not surprising that farming has one of the highest suicide rates of any profession in Britain.

Mental health is not something many farmers are comfortable talking about, but it is so important, not just to the individual farmer but to the wider farm business. Stress impacts decision making and can intensify the sense of isolation and failure. Becky Davies of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, comments that “There is often a reluctance by farmers to accept help even though the situation is dire.” Getting sound financial advice and support for the business is an important step in avoiding failure.

France planning a trial of origin labelling on milk and meat in processed products

Farming UK – Monday 30th May

France is pushing through a trial on origin labelling for processed milk and meat products, in a move that will provide further valuable information to consumers on where their food comes from. Though origin labelling is required on fresh meat and dairy, processed meat and dairy have escaped this requirement because the EU Commission has argued it would increase regulatory costs.

An origin label, however, gives vital information that consumers are increasingly interested in knowing – it can tell you if your bacon is French or British or Danish or otherwise. Processed foods contain an array of ingredients, many of which may come from places far and wide. An analysis of a typical chocolate bar turns up a list of ingredients that hail from China, India, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, South America and the EU.

Even our most humble foods are revealing – see Holly Black’s analysis of the origins of quintessentially British marmalade on toast. Who knew that ‘British’ flour is often tempered with foreign flour to make the perfect blend? Knowing the country of origin for processed meat and milk is especially important because it also tells us how far these have travelled. As the TTIP may introduce a major trade agreement between the EU and the US, Europeans might want to be able to identify not just where their steak is from, but also their chicken nuggets and ice cream. So we  should all say a big thank you to France for breaking the ground on the provenance of processed foods that we might all otherwise be in the dark about.

Drought and ‘rice first’ policy imperil Vietnamese farmers

New York Times – Friday 28th May

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is in the throes of its worst drought since 1926, hard hit by El Niño which typically brings reduced rainfall and increased temperatures to Southeast Asia. The Delta is the country’s richest agricultural region and its “premier” region for growing rice. But the lowered water level in the Mekong from the lack of rain is making its waters more saline, killing crops when it washes into them, causing water shortages and creating a dire situation for the region’s farmers.

Additionally, the region is also suffering from a combination of government policy which has encouraged intensive rice farming and the extensive damming of the Mekong River by countries upstream of Vietnam – China, Laos and Cambodia – all of whom ignored sound advice on the impact of this. All this has left little resilience in the region’s agriculture and the damming of the river is likely to have a long-term impact, ultimately destroying the fertility of the land as the Mekong gets saltier – a result of the reduced freshwater flow due to the dams. Shrimp farming may replace rice cultivation as the water becomes more saline, which will lead to rice farmers losing their livelihood.

Photograph: Aftab Uzzaman

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