Pesticides are polluting our waters – and we often don’t know it

The Washington Post – Monday 13th April

A new meta-analysis of pesticide levels in waters close to agricultural sites raises fresh concerns about the extent to which we are all being exposed to pesticide residues. Pesticides regulations are supposed to ensure that the concentrations in food and water are below what are considered to be safe levels. This recent review of existing scientific studies on pesticide levels in water sources near farms across the world has found that more than half the time the concentration is above regulated levels, in both developed and developing countries.

Possibly of even greater concern is the researchers found that there is hardly any information at all on levels of insecticides in water near farms. That’s a serious concern since these chemicals are often the more dangerous than other pesticides. Many of these chemicals affect and harm what is known as ‘non-target’ organisms – that potentially includes humans.

Organophosphates are one of the chemicals often found in these sites, and a recent case coming to the fore illustrates their devastating impact on the farmers that handled them. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s they were used in sheep dip, as required by UK government regulations. There were significant health and safety issues around exposure to organophosphates and recently released documents from the period show that the UK government was aware of this. Nevertheless, the government insisted that farmers use the chemicals despite poor instructions on how to limit exposure and an increasing incidence of neurological problems in British farming communities through this period. The documents may well prompt an enquiry into the government’s lapse of judgement: exposure resulted in over 500 farmers developing significant and permanent health problems. Clearly, perceptions of how ‘safe’ these chemicals were has been warped in some way.

What is accepted as safe can change over time as more information is accumulated; the more detail we have, the better we can understand the dangers. Too often, the precautionary principle is given short shrift. We push ahead and continue to use chemicals whose long-term impacts are not yet fully assessed – as research on both glyphosate and neonicotinoids is beginning to show.

As the researchers state themselves, “Our results seriously challenge the protectiveness” of the systems in place to reduce the risks posed by pesticides.

UK supermarkets dupe shoppers out of hundreds of millions, says Which?

The Guardian – Tuesday 21st April

The consumer group Which? has lodged a super-complaint with the Competition and Markets Authority on a range of offers that are marketed by various UK supermarkets. The offers – which frequently masquerade as money-saving deals when they aren’t – include multi-buys, ‘special value’ and dubious pricing reductions in ‘was/now’ terms. Apparently these offers aren’t always as good as they appear and consumers are spending literally hundreds of millions of pounds on them by being encouraged to buy more.

Our favourite example cited was a frozen pizza offer at Asda. The pizza priced individually was raised from £1.50 to £2 each, and then offered as a multi-buy at two pizzas for £3. The blatancy of the Asda ‘rope-a-dope’ is worthy of a true old-time con artist whipping around his shell game. But it’s also yet another example of the bad practices that seem to be endemic in the supermarket chains. The past few years have seen a string of stories come out that should shame these big retailers, starting with the horsemeat scandal. This was followed by the revealing of payments from suppliers for ‘shelf money’ and other supplementary charges that are being reviewed by the groceries adjudicator. Further, the supermarkets are currently sinking their suppliers with their latest round of price wars, doubling the number of food and drink producers going into administration in the past year. To top it all off, a shocking abuse of labour in their supply chains has emerged (see above) despite all of the major supermarkets signing up to the Global Ethical Trade initiative.

How rice farmers in Africa can point us out of California’s water crisis

Food Tank – Friday 17th April

Rice farmers in Asia and Africa could teach the developed world a great deal about how to manage the water it uses for agriculture much better.

Devon Jenkins, technical specialist in sustainable rice intensification (SRI) at Cornell University, invites us to think about how techniques used by (mostly) small-scale farmers to increase yields while cutting water use might give us some ideas for saving California’s drought-stung agriculture industry. SRI focuses on improving both soil and individual plant health without the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides – the soil’s humus is key. This decomposing organic matter is rich in microbial life, which breaks it down and makes the nutrients available to plants.

The focus on the individual plant means that much less water is used. These farmers don’t flood rice fields as has long been traditional practice: they water plants individually. The two principles combined result in healthy productive plants with strong yields and dramatically reduced water usage. And SRI isn’t just for rice – its techniques can be applied to a wide array of crops, and used in horticulture as well as agriculture. When you think about it, its ethos is one of giving the plant just what it needs, nurturing the health that will help it thrive.

Aligned with SRI is permaculture, another agro-ecological approach described by Jenkins as “… smart design, based on observation of nature and combined with an ecological and humanistic ethic … permaculture allows us to create functional, resilient, and abundant spaces for water in harmony with natural systems”. It provides a blueprint for thinking differently about agriculture’s relationship to nature. No longer adversarial but rather symbiotic, it seeks a consonance with it.

The shift in thinking is what points a way out of California’s water crisis. Jenkins highlights a systemic change that fundamentally alters our approach to the problems at hand, “showing us that a life lived in greater harmony with natural systems isn’t one of scarcity, but of abundance”.

Two farmers’ stories: the fall and rise of the mid-size farm

Grist – Friday 17th April

The squeezed middle of farming has some difficult choices to make: go big or reinvent its business model, which can mean an overhaul of everything mid-sized farmers do. While small-scale farmers are cashing in on the lure of the local, that’s harder to do when you’re a bit bigger. Farmers’ markets alone can’t take your entire product and selling into big wholesalers is increasingly a matter of throwing away your money. Mid-size farms are those most at the mercy of the market; with the costs of fertilisers and pesticides significantly increasing, expenditure is frequently exceeding income. The cost of producing a tonne of grain is now often higher than the price of selling one, and for mid-size farms a discrepancy like that will quickly erode a viable business.

Grist takes the stories of two farms in the United States – one a failure and one a success – to look at what works and what doesn’t in the mid-size farm. What quickly becomes clear is that the old model doesn’t work. Selling to the middlemen of the global commodities market leaves a farmer vulnerable, and when things go wrong, the mid-size farm doesn’t have the resources to pick up the pieces. Ultimately, that’s what happened to Traci and Brian Bruckner: a series of questionable business decisions, followed by a bout of bad weather and problems with pigs put them in a difficult financial position. Then the pig market crashed and the bank foreclosed on them, even forcing them to sell their house. There was no economic resilience in their business.

What is needed for success in the mid-size farm is innovation, and Gabe Brown gets this. After struggling with the same business model as the Bruckners, he changed how he was working. He put his cows into a holistic grazing system, gave up the fertilisers and pesticides and treated his soil as a vital, living resource. This saved him significant costs and pushed up his profit margin. He moved to direct sales of high-quality grass-fed meat, for which he receives a premium, and realised that his presence was key when making sales – he is the real live farmer who produces the meat. Brown is selling his product to a growing market of people who want more from their food – they want quality and care with less environmental impact and better animal welfare. It’s starting to pay off.

Why India’s cotton farmers are killing themselves

CNNMonday 20th April

CNN has reported on the issue of farmer suicides in India, which has been going on for some time. In the country’s cotton belt, farmer suicide is a common occurrence – some 2,900 farmers have killed themselves in the past two years. This is tragic and speaks to the desperation of poverty and financial ruin. It is devastating debt that drives farmers to this act. Cotton production has been plagued by bad weather on the one hand and falling prices due to record production on the other. Farmers are in trouble even when they have a bumper harvest, so it is truly a ‘lose-lose’ situation. Meanwhile, increases in fertiliser and pesticide bills are exacerbating their debt.

Calls are growing for the government to intervene and provide the farmers with some support. Many are unhappy with Prime Minister Modi who, despite raising the amount of compensation given to farmers for failed crops, has also introduced a Land Acquisition Act, which will facilitate government acquisition of private lands. Farmer advocacy groups are calling for meaningful measures to be introduced to alleviate debt, such as regulating the price of cotton and waiving long overdue debt. The state government is making some headway on this, cutting interest rates and ‘forgiving’ loans from private lenders, but more help is needed.

This is one of the more tragic examples of the serious growing problem of farm profitability, which is affecting producers on all continents.

Political parties clash over plans for British farming

Farmers Weekly – Friday 17th April

As Britain’s political parties head towards the general election, little new thinking on farming is emerging. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all seem to realise that they should have something meaningful to say about the state of agriculture and its future in Britain, but they’re short on much of the detail. All have committed to implementing a long-term strategy for the country should they get power, but generalised statements – such as the Tories plan to “grow more, buy more and sell more British food” – are rife. Labour will be revising its 2010 strategy in the longer-term Food 2030, while the Lib Dems are also looking further into the future. However, the NFU’s Matt Ware astutely points out that “We don’t just need a long-term plan – we need short- and medium-term targets that benefit farmers too.”

While long-term strategies sound grand, they are often short on specifics, particularly on the ‘how’ of what they propose. This is where all the parties fall down. There are significant pressing issues coming in the immediate future: GM crops could shortly be planed widely across the country; the UK milk industry is in crisis with a record number of dairy farmers going out of business; and more and more people are reliant on food banks to survive, which makes a serious comment about food justice and security in Britain. What are the parties going to do about these issues now and not 20 years down the line?

Photograph: Blue Square Thing

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