Recent Articles About Agroecology

It is nearly impossible to calculate the real costs and benefits—including the externalized or invisible costs—of any human activity: growing soybeans, making car tires, cooking dinner for your family. When growing soy, for example, it’s easy enough to calculate the total price paid for inputs like fertilizer or pesticides and the price received for the finished crop. But accounting for the total costs and benefits—things like environmental damage from fertilizer runoff, or the social benefits of putting land to productive use—isn’t something we tend to do as a culture. Read more

Many of us buy and consume organic food every day, but few of us know its history. While the demand for organic products is exploding (up 11 percent between 2014 to 2015), less than one percent of U.S. farm acreage is classified organic, and there’s still not enough organic seed to go around. A look back at how it all started might provide some insight for the future—and inspire young farmers, too. Read more

When Kip Bichsel of Love Farm Organics in Forest Grove, Oregon started growing organic vegetables over a decade ago, there was almost no organic seed in the market. Availability has improved every year, but he estimates that even today, 40 percent of the seed the farm buys is not organic. And, for some crops—notably broccoli and cabbage—“it has been really hard to find available organic seed bio-adapted to our specific land needs,” he says.

A new report out today from the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) underscores Bichsel’s experience. It found that the supply of organic seed isn’t keeping pace with the rising demand for organic products, which grew 11 percent between 2014 and 2015, and last year saw sales totaling $43 billion. Read more

Until recently, Vermont dairy farmer Jack Lazor has been an enthusiastic grain famer. The owner of Butterworks Farm, Lazor spent years growing grains—for animals and people—and then wrote a conversational and encyclopedic guide on grain growing in the Northeast The Organic Grain Grower. In person and on the page, the affable man offers advice on tools and practices for grain growing, harvest, and storage. Read more

A campaign aiming to prevent further consolidation of the seed industry has a new spokesperson. Meet Mr. Seed, a foul-mouthed organic cartoon character that decries the agrochemical industry’s control of seed.

In the space of 4 minutes and 22 seconds, Mr. Seed’s bleep-filled tirade mocks the chemical dependency—and virility—of modern seed, touts the vigor of organic seeds’ tougher roots, and delights in field-based breeding tips he reads aloud from the “Kama Seedra.”

“The video challenges the myth that giant agrochemical companies are feeding the world,” says Matthew Dillon, director of Seed Matters, an initiative of the Clif Bar Family Foundation (CBFF), based in Emeryville, California. In fact, Mr. Seed physically destroys that message in the edgy animation, released today.

Dillon hopes the video goes viral, accomplishing two goals. CBFF wants to start a conversation about both the importance of plant breeding and seed—and the consequences of a seed industry largely controlled by agrochemical companies.

Secondly, viewers will be steered to the Seed Matters website where they can sign on to a letter requesting that the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) block pending and future mergers of the seed industry. The letter makes the case that more, not less, diversified approaches to crop improvement are needed for food security.

Currently, the so-called “Big Six” agrochemical seed companies control 63 percent of the commercial seed market and 75 percent of the global agrochemical market. The R&D budgets of these companies is 15 times higher than all U.S. public spending on agricultural research. If the mergers and acquisitions that are currently on the table—such as Bayer’s recent $63 billion offer to buy Monsanto—take place, the number of major seed companies would be reduced to just three.

These types of mergers could have far-reaching consequences, says Dillon, such as further reducing the genetic diversity in the seed market, and leaving more farmers marginalized. Such mergers would also likely increase seed prices, he says, which have already doubled, and in some cases tripled, for many crops in the last two decades. “Fewer choices for farmers (no matter what type of farmer) increases risk for all farmers,” he says. And yet, he adds, the lack of regulatory oversight in the seed industry is “frightening.”

The widespread loss of regional seed companies has been a frustration voiced by thousands of farmers in recent years. “No other industry has concentrated so much power so quickly. It took 500 years of global banking systems to concentrate to the point where they are today—and they are not even as concentrated as the seed industry,” says Dillon. “Yet no other industry is as necessary for our sustenance and survival.”

Whether Mr. Seed can deliver signatures on the letter, crafted by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Farm Aid, Organic Seed Alliance, and Seed Matters, remains to be seen. Michael Sligh, director of RAFI’s sustainable agriculture program, says any traction that helps educate consumers about how consolidation impacts competition and farmer access to seeds will be welcome. “I don’t think people understand that farming barely resembles what it used to be,” he says.

 

 

 

Civil Eats is a 2015 grant recipient of the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

Most Americans have never heard of permaculture. And although the approach is gaining traction among U.S. urbanites (full disclosure: I teach urban permaculture), ideas differ about exactly what it is. An environmental philosophy? An approach to ecological design? A particular set of farming practices?

Some new and beginning farmers are also becoming interested, as evidenced by a recent discussion on the role of permaculture in agriculture at a gathering organized by the California-based Farmer’s Guild—a network for “the new generation of sustainable agriculture.” Read more

Beekeepers in Maryland have had a devastating few years. Last year, they lost nearly 61 percent of their bees; the year before it was nearly 50 percent.

Pointing to a growing consensus in the scientific community about pesticides’ impacts on honey bees and other pollinators, beekeepers in the state have worked with environmental groups to effect local policy. Last week, the Maryland state legislature passed the Pollinator Protection Act, which would ban consumers from buying pesticides that contain “neonics” beginning in 2018. Read more

Go to your average grocery store, and the color palette can be very bland, the result of the strict cosmetic standards that these stores are up against. Go to a farmers’ market however, and the many shapes, sizes, and varieties of produce not only make for a more interesting shopping experience, but also a chance to reduce food waste while celebrating the uniqueness of different foods.

On her Instagram account, Lucia Litman captures a little bit of that extensive natural color palette in her #pantoneposts series. She finds inspiration from the market, both for what she eats and for what she creates, by pairing the colors of nature with swatches from color authority Pantone. Read more