Farmers Union Youth Discuss Current Issues at All-States Camp

Posted on | July 17, 2014 | No Comments

By: Andrew Slupek, NFU Government Relations/Education Intern

While attending the National Farmers Union All-States Leadership Camp, campers were given the opportunity to express their concerns about the issues of the day to Mike Stranz, NFU’s senior government relations representative.  The activity, called “Open Mike,” allowed campers to debate topics that other campers presented.  The younger members of Farmers Union wanted to learn more about legislation and NFU policy on the following issues:

  • College Tuition
  • Agricultural Education
  • Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Research
  • Oil Drilling Research
  • Keystone Pipeline
  • Pesticide Research
  • School Lunch Programs

Discussions led to several key points and well-rounded debates about each topic.

Most campers believe that the price of college tuition is too great for many capable high school graduates to attend. It was also stated that most scholarships are not sufficient in comparison the full price of tuition. They believe that a college degree in nearly a necessity to be successful in today’s world and the price holds back the ability of some young people to be successful.

Many of the campers’ lives are deeply rooted in agriculture.  They would like to see more agricultural education in today’s school system. The more educated the American public is about where their food comes from, the easier it will be to understand the importance of agriculture to the American economy and way of life. Farmers Union youth made it clear that they would like agriculture classes to be a requirement in grade school, too.

Genetically Modified Organisms, particularly corn, wheat, and soybeans, may well play a large role in the future of agriculture, but several campers thought it is very important for further research to be conducted regarding GMO safety.  They believe that when the public has a greater understanding of GMO safety, the agricultural community will be able to move forward confidently.  They would like to debunk myths from both sides of the GMO issue.

The Farmers Union youth are interested in the issues connected to natural gas and oil drilling.  They would like to see safer and ecofriendly ways to drill. They would also like research to be conducted pertaining to the benefits and consequences of drilling to the communities and farms surrounding extraction areas. Many campers also had deep concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and hoped for future action on climate change.

The Keystone XL pipeline is an issue that had the interest of many campers.  They are concerned with oil transportation though the American heartland.  Many were afraid that a pipeline accident could cause catastrophic damage to the surrounding community.  They are also concerned that Americans may not reap the benefits of the oil being transported.  Several campers, however, stated that all transportation methods include risks.

There was an interest in pesticide research from the campers.  They would like to see more information on the benefits and consequences of pesticide use.  Some campers pointed to the ill-effects of DDT on wildlife as an example. More research would also contribute to the development of more effective regulations on pesticide usage.

The issue that had the campers’ greatest interest, however, was the school nutrition program.  The majority of campers had strong opinions about the school nutrition program.  The issues that the campers brought to the table included the freshness of the food, portion sizes, and preparation. One camper referenced a comparison study that indicated the quality of food in prison is better in than the quality of some school lunches. Campers said that open campus policies, which allow students to eat away from school during lunch hours, are used by a majority of students when available. In some cases, snack bars school serve junk food, which defeats the purpose of recent efforts to bring better nutrition to school lunches.

Interestingly, a good portion of the campers felt their school lunch program was adequate, although most had some suggestions for improvement. They proposed including fresh, healthy produce from local farms to improve the quality of school lunches and to create economic opportunities in rural areas.

The “Open Mike” activity gave the campers the opportunity to stress their concerns to Mike, who took their ideas back to Washington for discussion with NFU leadership. The NFU youth are important members and their opinions matter in our grassroots organization. After seeing the next generation of America’s leaders at NFU All-States Camp, it’s clear that they want to be informed and involved in important policy issues.

Feed the Future links agriculture, nutrition, and infant health

Posted on | July 16, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org.

Among the recent reports that address the issue of global food production is the “2014 Feed the Future Progress Report: Accelerating Progress to End Global Hunger” (http://tinyurl.com/n7xumhf). Feed the Future is the US government’s response to the 2007-2008 spike in global food prices that resulted in a significant increase in the number of people experiencing hunger and undernutrition.

At the 2009 G-8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy, President Obama pledged $3.5 billion toward an initiative to increase global food security. The 2014 report, which reviews the progress of the initiative in the years since 2009, makes the point that the US commitment has “leveraged additional commitments of more than $18.5 billion from other donors.”

The Feed the Future initiative uses a “whole-of-government” approach to reducing hunger and undernutrition and their effects. This approach is designed to move from a piecemeal strategy of addressing global hunger and food production activities by various agencies, each with a different area of responsibility—agriculture, trade, development, commerce, etc.—to a coordinated effort by all agencies.

“Feed the Future’s top-level goals are to improve food security through increasing incomes and reducing undernutrition among the world’s poorest, especially for women and girls. The initiative is unique in its focus on nutrition; it is committed to reducing stunting rates by 20 percent in its zones of influence and sustainably reducing hunger and undernutrition by recognizing the link between nutrition and agriculture and the critical 1,000 days from pregnancy through a child’s second birthday. Feed the Future also works to address the root causes of food insecurity and increase the resilience of vulnerable populations to shocks, particularly in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.”

The initiative “is driven by country-led priorities and rooted in partnership with governments, other donor organizations, the private sector and civil society to enable long-term success.” To increase the effectiveness of the program, the US government works with countries that “are chosen selectively, based on their willingness to invest in agriculture and commitment to policy reform.” It also works with more than 160 companies as well as researchers in the US and around the world.

To provide an understanding of the scope of Feed the Future, the report spotlights activities in three countries, Senegal, Bangladesh, and Honduras. In Senegal, activities have included increasing rice and maize production, helping small farmers obtain financing and insurance, and assisting them in negotiating contracts with processors.

“Intensifying rice production while helping farmers diversify into higher value, nutrient-dense commodities such as horticulture and fish” exemplifies the initiative’s work in Bangladesh. Honduran farmers have benefitted from programs to “help ensure higher maize and bean production for home consumption and encourage farmers to devote more cropland to high-value coffee and horticulture crops to increase income.” Despite a drop in coffee prices and an outbreak of coffee leaf rust “more than 4,300 households…were moved well above the $1.25 poverty threshold. Average per capita daily income shot up 237 percent, from $0.71 to $2.39, among these families.”

Given limits on the availability of land, “the [Feed the Future research] strategy emphasizes a unique approach called ‘sustainable intensification,’ which focuses on growing greater amounts of more nutritious food using fewer resources.” Activities that are a part of this effort include protecting wheat yields from wheat stem rust; developing and introducing climate-resilient maize varieties; making more varieties of the common bean available through seed production networks; making the most of soil through improved soil management technologies; increasing the availability of animal-sourced food for nutrition, income, and resilience; and producing more fruits and vegetables for market sales.

“Every year, undernutrition contributes to 3.1 million child deaths—45 percent of the worldwide total.” Feed the Future links agricultural production and nutrition in order to reduce hunger and undernutrition. “The initiative has an integrated, multi-sectoral approach to increase access to nutrition services, improve hygiene and sanitation, and support the cultivation and consumption of nutrient-dense crops.”

“Looking to the future, we must continue what works and forge ahead in the fight to end poverty, hunger and undernutrition once and for all,” the report concludes.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

Chicago Council on Global Affairs identifies “blue skies” research areas to improve global food security

Posted on | July 2, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org.

The recommendations offered by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in its publication, “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate (www.tinyurl.com/mb4pj5s), follow directly from its analysis of the challenges to increased global food production and food security posed by human-caused climate change. Our overview of the Council’s analysis can be found at http://agpolicy.org/articles14.html in columns 723-725.

In this column, we want to focus on a few of the ideas that can be found in the discussion of the four major recommendations. The US government needs to:

  • “Make global food security one of the highest priorities of US economic and foreign development policy;
  • “Bolster research on climate change impacts and solutions, increase funding for data collection, and partner widely;
  • “Include climate change adaptation in trade negotiations; [and]
  • “Advance climate change adaptation and mitigation through partnerships.”

In order to ensure their own access to water and food production, some nations have either leased or purchased large tracts of land in some the least developed countries where the level of food insecurity is already among the highest in the world. These types of agreements could increase in the face of climate change. The Council notes that “in at least some cases the long-standing informal use rights of local farmers were ignored…. Efforts to address climate change and food security should be sensitive to the rights of farmers in places where these rights are not already well enforced. Better developed property rights and transparency in all land purchases are important for food and nutrition security generally and adaptation to climate change.”

The Council, as a part of its call for greater funding of agricultural research, identifies a number of broad areas that it calls blue skies research. The term, “blue skies, refers to scientific research where ‘real-world’ applications are not immediately apparent but could potentially have great value.” Each of the areas identified draws on examples from nature.

The first area deals with the concept of increasing the efficiency of carbon fixation in photosynthesis in food plants. Three percent of all plants, including corn and sugarcane, use a method that scientists call C4; all other plants use the C3 method. “C4 plants have an advantage in environments with drought, higher temperatures, and low nitrogen availability and use carbon dioxide more efficiently.” If varieties of the most important food crops could be bred to use the C4 method, it potentially would go a long way towards “improving the productivity” of these crops “in the face of climate change.” Who would own this technology was not addressed in the report.

The next “blue skies” idea is one that has long been promoted by Wes Jackson and the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (http://landinstitute.org)—the breeding of food crops that are almost exclusively annuals into perennials. As Jackson has pointed out and the Council’s publication notes: “fields with perennial crops offer many benefits for food security and climate change adaptation. The benefits include reduced soil erosion because perennial crops have greater root mass and protect the soil year-round; reduced chemical runoff and more effective fertilizer uptake because their extensive root systems are more efficient at absorbing chemicals; and lower fossil fuel emissions than annual agriculture because annual tillage is not needed.” Many of today’s crops have wild ancestors that are perennials.

A large number of plants have the ability to either fix nitrogen or grow in saline soils. Breeding other plants to carry either or both of these traits has the potential to increase the security of food production. Growing plants that have the ability to fix nitrogen would reduce the need for inorganic fertilizers. “If [the saline tolerance] mechanism could be transferred to food crops, it would make production possible in some marginal areas and keep coastal agriculture viable in the face of rising sea levels.”

In addition, research into the mechanism that bacteria use to fix nitrogen “might reduce the cost and energy use of current fertilizer manufacturing technologies.”

Most of the water in the world is the salt water of the oceans. At present, the desalinization of sea water is “expensive and requires large amounts of energy.” Research that finds ways to reduce the amount of energy required for desalinization could increase the availability of fresh water.

The report also raises another area of research that Jackson has long advocated for: the benefits of polyculture—growing multiple crops at the same time in the same field. In the report this is called a mixed farming system. These systems have many advantages.

“To benefit from mixed farming systems, farmers must experiment continuously to find desirable practices. On individual farms, farmers experiment over generations to find combinations that take advantage of local conditions and meet local needs. The question is whether these local optimizations can be scaled up. If recent breakthroughs in analysis of big data, application of information technology to farm management (including automated devices), and computational biology are combined with farm-level data of sufficient quality and diversity, the scaling up [of mixed farming systems] may indeed be possible,” the Council writes.

The details of the Council’s recommendations that run 35 pages—much more than we can cover in our column—provide a starting point for identifying strategies that will increase food security in the face of climate change.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

Family Farming and the Future of Agriculture

Posted on | July 1, 2014 | No Comments

By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union President

In the United States, farmers are getting older, farms are getting bigger, and the number of farms is decreasing. According the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), between 2007 and 2012 the United States saw a net decrease of 95,489 farms. The most recent census showed that the average age of a farmer is 57, up from 54 in 1997. This may not be news to some, but it creates real problems in rural America.

The quality of life in rural communities depends on its people. Not long ago, rural communities were sustained by a robust segment of the population actively involved in agriculture. However, due various factors, making a living in agriculture became tough. Farmers sold their land and moved to urban areas where there was more opportunity. Big farms swallowed up smaller farms. With fewer and fewer farmers, rural communities began to suffer. There is now an acute need for new, beginning and transitioning farmers and ranchers to enter the agriculture sector.

Getting into farming isn’t easy. Access to capital, financing and land are major hurdles that potential farmers face. Technical expertise is also often lacking, so a strong support system is needed to fill the gaps. Luckily, the 2014 farm bill provides various incentives to make it easier to get into agriculture.

An unlikely place to look for new and beginning farmers is in our nation’s veterans. USDA data shows that although rural Americans make up only 17 percent of the population, it accounts for 44 percent of the military. When soldiers return home from tours abroad, they are looking for a career that gives them a sense of purpose. Since many are from rural communities, farming can provide an excellent way for our men and women in uniform to make a valuable contribution here at home.

NFU is doing its part to support beginning, new and transitioning farmers and ranchers. Besides championing policies on Capitol Hill, NFU created and implements the Beginning Farmers Institute (BFI). This is a unique program that develops and encourages agricultural leaders from all backgrounds. Leadership training and farm management skills are taught to promising individuals eager to enter or expand their agricultural operations. NFU is proud to have represented family farmers and ranchers since 1902. We will continue to support policies that encourage new and beginning farmers to enter agriculture.

Please join NFU as it celebrates 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

Chicago Council strategizes response to climate and food security issues

Posted on | June 30, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org.

After examining the impact of human-induced climate change on agriculture—along with an overview of climate science—and the reasons that agriculture needs to take immediate steps to adapt to climate change, the publication, “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate” (www.tinyurl.com/mb4pj5s), produced by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs outlines a series of strategies that they believe will both mitigate the impact of climate change and advance global food security.

While, in the next 35 years, many farmers will experience weather events that are beyond anything they have experienced to date, they will also have to contend with the increasing scarcity of inputs as well as volatility in the price of those inputs. During this same period, the need for agricultural products will increase because of a larger and more affluent population.

But the future need not be as bleak as this analysis suggests if decisions are made by “governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations” to help agriculture adapt to climate change. The publication then identifies a series of strategies that it believes will enhance food security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the resilience of agriculture as it faces unprecedented challenges.

Increasing the level of agricultural research stands at the top of their list of strategies. The research program needs to include plants and animals, both domesticated and wild. The challenges researchers need to address are higher temperatures, increased weather variability, the efficient use of water, and growing crops on marginal soils, while increasing crop nutrition and yields. They call for the preservation of the germplasm of both plants and animals. To accomplish this, it will take both public and private research in the US and in research centers and universities around the world.

To guide the agenda of researchers and the strategies of producers, climate scientists will need to have access to a growing array of data to improve their models. The needed data include increases in weather variability, changes in ground-level ozone, increases in the salinization of soils and aquifers, increases in the prevalence of  pests, and diseases, as well as the resistance of pests, pathogens and diseases to treatments.

Other issues that will need to be incorporated into the models are changes beyond the farmgate like the disruption of food distribution channels and social unrest.

The scale of farming operations around the world goes from mega-operations that have access to hundreds of thousands of hectares to those that operate on fractions of a hectare. The large industrial-like operations produce the bulk of the agricultural products in commercial trade, while the vast majority of farmers operate on small plots of land. For research and policies to be effective, they must be tailored to the individual farm whether it is large or small, high-tech or low-tech.

The report identifies a number of existing technologies that could be used by smallholder farmers if local circumstances were taken into account.

In addition there are existing practices that farmers on larger operations could begin to use immediately. Together farmers could begin to adapt to climate change even before the fruits of increased research become available. One point the report highlights is the importance of recognizing the contribution women can make “in enhancing agricultural productivity and resilience.” In addition, “the financial needs of smallholder farmers must be met.”

The report issues a word of warning about policies that hinder food security. These include the pricing of agricultural inputs—by subsidies or taxes—as well as policies that interfere with agricultural trade and the transmission of price signals to farmers as production areas change in response to a changing climate.

The report points out that “Although future weather patterns remain uncertain, some climate change adaptation can already be built into infrastructure design for agriculture. It is usually much cheaper to build with likely climate change in mind than to retrofit. Some examples follow:

  • New rural roads should be built to withstand higher temperatures and more extreme events.
  • Dams and irrigation systems should be designed for more extreme rainfall events.
  • Construction of levies and coastal defenses for countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam should be built for rising sea levels.
  • Soft’ landscape engineering such as the planting of riverine forests should be considered in flood control projects.
  • Passive policy measures such as the preservation of forests, natural grasslands, and mangroves should be put into place.”

This section of the report concludes that agriculture can make a significant contribution to slowing global warming while “supporting food and nutrition security.” Farmers can intensify production on existing land rather than increasing the land area under production, avoiding the surge in greenhouse gas emission that results from bringing new land into production. This strategy would include the remediation of farmland that has become degraded due to a variety of circumstances.

Improved animal feeding practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “In some parts of the world, meat consumption can be reduced to slow the growth of agricultural emissions,” the report points out. Improved water and fertilizer management can also help mitigate climate change while improving food security.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

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About NFU

National Farmers Union was founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, to help the family farmer address profitability issues and monopolistic practices. NFU works to protect and enhance the economic well-being and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities through advocating grassroots-driven policy positions adopted by its membership.
Learn more at nfu.org

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