Social change needed to protect soils

Farming Online – Thursday 14th May

Research from the University of California, Berkeley, presents a stark picture of the state of the earth’s soils and the ongoing, increasing problem with soil degradation and erosion. It brings into focus a hugely important issue for our future – preserving the soil and ensuring its continued health. Soil is one of our most significant natural resources and without it global food security will be greatly impacted.

The way we have been farming is central to the acceleration of our soil crisis. The synthetic fertilisers that feed our industrial farming system are, in fact, depleting soils of critical nutrients and contributing to its erosion. The study notes that crop yields are plateauing – which is concerning as the global population soars towards nine billion people. Further, potassium and phosphorus – key minerals needed for soil fertility – are disappearing natural resources. Phosphorus deposits, in particular, are concentrated in Morocco and China, which could give these countries tremendous power over its availability.

But it’s not just our food security at risk – it’s also the temperature of our planet. Soil sequesters a huge amount of carbon that would otherwise be released as CO2 into the atmosphere. Any disturbance to the soil, as happens in agriculture, releases the greenhouse gas. So, as our soils erode, they sequester less carbon, which takes us ever closer towards the critical two degrees of global warming that will lead to dangerous climate change. We are also dependent upon fossil fuels to produce the nitrogen needed in our industrial farming – a further cause for the acceleration of climate change.

Sound and careful land management is required, but this has not been a big concern of the industrial farming system. According to Ronald Amundson, lead author of the Berkeley research, things can only be turned around through social change – a shift in how we think about soil. “It’s not a scientific problem,” he says. “It’s a societal problem.” We need to treat our soils as the vital natural resource that they are. But with the failure of the EU Soil Directive in 2013, it doesn’t look like this shift is anywhere near happening.

Children are harvesting your food. Are they safe?

Civil Eats – Wednesday 13th May

It’s pretty shocking to realise that child labour is alive and well in the wealthiest country in the world – the United States. A movement is starting to raise awareness of the number of children working on US farms. Some 260,000 children under the age of 16 are doing all kinds of agricultural work. From one perspective, this may not seem so surprising; family farms have long had their children taking on a range of ‘chores’ – feeding chickens, mucking out the cows, sitting on the planter, helping with the harvest. It can seem pretty innocuous. But one thing is important to remember: farms are dangerous places. Kids die on them pretty regularly: they fall into slurry pits and drown; they have accidents with machinery and livestock; and they are exposed to dangerous chemicals. Statistics from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reveal that some 38 children a day are injured on farms and every three days a child dies.

The other difference with current child labour on US farms is that it’s not a matter of kids having a bit of familial responsibility. Children are working because they have to – because their parents don’t make a living wage and can’t support their families. If a labourer is doing piecework harvesting, they make a lot more if their kids are pitching in with the picking. Children’s income can make a critical contribution to the family budget, and child labour is most prevalent among the poorest farm labourers. It’s a necessity and this inevitably opens the door to abuse. Children aged 12 and older are legally allowed to work on farms owned or run by their parents or legal guardians and children under 16 are not allowed to do overtly dangerous work. But, as Civil Eats reports, a number of farm and farm labour agencies have been fined over the past five years for illegal work by children as young as five.

Regulations on children in farm work are starting to tighten up, but many feel that the changes won’t come near to addressing the problem. Furthermore, NIOSH is about to stop keeping records of farm injuries, one of the means of documenting the dangers of farm labour to children. This will only make things worse. As one advocate is quoted as saying, “If you don’t have the data to show there’s a problem, it will be hard to get anything done to address it.”

Farmers most vulnerable to the health effects of pesticides

Farming Online – Thursday 14th May

Greenpeace’s recent report asserts that farmers are the people most affected by the health effects of pesticides. While this is a broad and obvious statement, it is one that inarguably needs restating. It’s one of the many ‘costs’ embedded in farming that the public will pick up along with the well-mapped environmental damage that pesticides have caused. It comes on the heels of recently released evidence about the UK government’s suppression of information on the danger of the organophosphates used in sheep dip in the 1990s. Following their exposure to the chemical, many UK farmers have suffered long-term health problems and an enquiry is likely.

Greenpeace’s report further argues for a systemic shift away from synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, calling for a “move towards ecological farming – for healthy food and healthy farmers.” The NFU, however, a staunch defender of “the tools our farmers need to produce disease free, high yielding crops”, has lobbied hard against the regulation of pesticides. The two organisations – Greenpeace and the NFU – stand at either end of an increasingly polarised discussion on pesticide use.

The dangers of pesticides to human health are still hotly debated. In response to the World Health Organisations’ recent announcement that the endocrine disruptor glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”, journalist Michael Specter, writing for the New Yorker, argues that we are perhaps throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Where is the line between safety and danger drawn? Is being a little bit dangerous OK? What is an appropriate level of risk?

The problem is that often, when we think we know for sure what’s safe and what’s not, we really don’t. Smoking was once thought to be fortifying; DDT was believed to be harmless. With science becoming increasingly subjective and framed by conflicts of interest, it is a less valuable tool for assessing safety and danger. Specter cautions against “blindly invoking the ‘precautionary principle’” – but surely we should always be willing to recognise our own possible ignorance? Perhaps the question we should be asking is, what are we risking if we turn out to be wrong?

Farmers versus big business: the politics of irrigation in Tanzania

The Guardian – Thursday 14th May

Water rights are bound to be tricky to negotiate, especially when the regulation around them is murky. In Tanzania, farmers in the Ulugulu Mountains are coming into conflict with urban demands – a common problem as water resources are stressed between agriculture and growing cities and towns. Resolving the issue is further complicated by water boards that have little power to regulate: the only thing they can really do is sell water and, as a result, it’s the ability to pay for it that determines the right to have it. This makes small-scale farmers, who comprise the bulk of the population in Tanzania, the losers, which is not a good scenario for a peaceful future. The issues facing Tanzania are a microcosm of a future we all face where demand for water increases without an equitable infrastructure to govern its fair distribution. Meaningful monitoring and regulation of water is a must for governments across the globe as we head into a century set to be marked by drought.

Indian land bill: “We’re losing not just land, but a whole generation of farmers”

The Guardian – Tuesday 12th May

Farmer suicides in India continue to rise at an alarming rate. In the autumn, bad weather led to the suicides of nearly 100 farmers and in the first three months of 2015, 601 farmers killed themselves. The recent spike in suicides is thought to be related to the Indian government’s ratification of a new land bill that facilitates the forced acquisition of land from farmers and indigenous tribes. No longer will the consent of people affected by the loss of land be required in government land acquisitions. Further, farmland could be subject to forced acquisition where previously it had been exempted. The Modi government is seeking to situate land acquisition within its framework for economic development, giving itself greater powers. The bill will make a poor and vulnerable population of farmers more vulnerable. There have been protests and political rallies around the controversial bill, but it is unclear if this has been effective.

Farming has been in crisis in India for some time and its failing economic viability has been at the root of the ongoing tide of farmer suicides during the past 20 years. The land acquisition bill will further increase the precarity of the India’s farmers and could seriously affect the next generation. Many small-scale farmers are locked into a cycle of debt that has grown with the green revolution – a nationwide move towards expensive synthetic fertilisers and pesticides in the pursuit of an industrial model that does not fit most farmers’ economy of scale. Land is their only asset and if it is lost, their ruin is complete.

Human rights lawyer and activist Usha Ramanathan has commented, “We’re devaluing our primary producers without a thought to food security, natural self-reliance, or their own person…” Indian agriculture desperately needs an overhaul, with more government support for small farmers to up-skill and to gain better access to local markets. It’s hard to not see the government’s land acquisition bill as the last nail in many farmers’ coffin.

Photograph: USDA

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