Urge U.S. Leaders to Focus on Food Security at Rio+20 Summit

Food security is a problem for not only citizens of developing countries, but also for many Americans, who don’t have regular access to healthy food. Concerns surrounding the issue of food security relate to access to food as well as to the development of sustainable agriculture in order to preserve the environment and natural resources such as soil, water and animals.

The Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a United Nations climate change and development summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro this June, will assess global environmental progress over the past 20 years, from the first UN meeting held in Rio de Janeiro to assess how the world’s leaders could implement environmental policy. The conference will result in an international policy document and will focus on sustainably developing a green economy, eradicating poverty, and building an infrastructure to support sustainable development, in correlation with UN Millennium Development Goals number 2 and 7, which deal with poverty and hunger and the environment. Rio+20 will attract environmental officials from all UN member countries, who will focus on a variety of issues surrounding the environment and sustainable development, including food security.

The United Nations defines food security as covering “availability, access, utilization and stability issues, and — in its focus on individuals — also [embracing] their energy, protein and nutrient needs for life, activity, pregnancy, growth and long-term capabilities. Sustainable agriculture is not officially defined but generally refers to the capacity of agriculture over time to contribute to overall welfare by providing sufficient food and other goods and services in ways that are economically efficient and profitable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound.”

A petition letter on thepetitionsite.com urges American environmental leaders to consider stepping away from industrial agriculture and its harmful practices. Traditional, industrial agriculture encourages the use of pesticides and unnecessary growth hormones and antibiotics in livestock; allows agricultural corporations to exploit the land, consumers’ health, and animals; and receives large subsidies from the federal government. Conversely, organic farming supports small businesses and promotes health by eliminating the use of chemical pesticides.

The petition letter outlines five ambitious demands, along with a timeline for implementation: to stop the use of unnecessary antibiotics in animals by 2017; to decrease unnecessary subsidies to farming corporations by 2022; to ban the use of animal byproducts in livestock feed by 2015; to support small farms and family-owned farms; and to convert 50 percent of farmland to agroecology by 2022 and 100 percent by 2050. Agroecology is a whole-systems approach to farming that applies ecological principles to the food production process, in order to promote sustainable farming and preserve biodiversity and resources.

A global commitment to food security and food production would ensure that forests, soil, oceans and other bodies of water are protected from the effects of climate change, such as pollution and ocean acidification, and that biodiversity and the health of species is preserved worldwide. An estimated 925 million people are hungry today, but the planet still has to sustain all of its 7 billion residents, as well as the additional 2 billion people that are expected to be born by 2050. By addressing food security and food production and creating a sustainable agricultural system, nations can not only provide for their citizens, but can also help mitigate the effects of climate change.

As a large and powerful nation, the United States should take the lead in addressing and committing to sustainable agricultural practices and establishing an environmentally friendly food system. If you agree that food security should be addressed at the Rio+20 summit, add your name to the petition at thepetitionsite.com to show your support.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/16502322@N03/4806634131/

During a Drought, Texas Farmers Face a Severe Hay Shortage

This summer’s Texas wildfires, brought on by a crippling drought, have left farm animals across Texas without grass or hay to eat – and there is still no guaranteed sign of rain to bring relief to the drought-stricken farmers and animals. The drought and fires, which killed several crops, including hay, are now impacting the surviving livestock, even after the fires have been extinguished. A lack of rain in what state climate scientist John  Nielson-Gammon have called the worst drought in Texas history has led to an decrease in hay supply and a decrease in Texas’ agricultural production. Many small farms begin to send their animals to feed in the pastures and harvest hay to store for the winter during the autumn season, but this year, hay is scarce and its price is increasing, driving small farms to desperation.

Farmers across Texas have reported driving long distances to pay a premium for hay bales, which are in short supply and high demand across the state, as hay prices have doubled or tripled in some areas since July of this year. Many farmers can’t afford the fuel to drive and pick up hay from farms that still have it, and others are unable to find hay in their areas at all. Farmers from other states, such as Wisconsin, have shipped hay to Texas to support the farmers, but farmers still need more hay. Without hay, small farms are being forced to make the difficult decision to sell their animals to farms with food, so that their animals don’t further risk starvation or death. Some farmers have already sold a significant portion of their flock, but are still struggling to feed the remaining animals. Some farmers, unable to sell, feed or transport their animals, are abandoning them to starve on dry land.

Texas farm animal rescue organizations are suffering as well. Farmers send their animals to the rescue operations for food, but even the non-profit rescues are in short supply of food and money due to the high cost and demand of hay. Agriculture, especially cultivating livestock, is central to Texas’ economy and without hay and grass to feed their animals, Texas will lose money and business on its small farms. The Texas AgriLife Extension Service has estimated that the state’s agricultural losses already amount to more than $5 billion, and that number will rise if the drought continues through the winter and spring seasons.

Texas residents are reaching out to Texas Governor Rick Perry and asking him to intervene and support the state’s economy by using state funds, as well as the Texas National Guard, to buy hay and bringing it to Texas. Other regions of the country have enough hay and some – like Wisconsin and Indiana farmers – are willing to ship it to Texas, but for most, the cost of driving hay to Texas is too high. The Texas Department of Agriculture has established a Hay Hotline to help farmers find available sources of hay, but the cost of transporting the hay from these sources is often too high.

Without hay or the resources to buy and obtain it, farmers risk having to close their businesses and lose their ranches. In addition, as adult animals begin to starve and die, the population of baby animals will be diminished come spring: if mature animals aren’t healthy enough to reproduce, farms will lose not only these animals, but their potential offspring as well.

Bob Williams of Ranch Hand Rescue, a nonprofit farm animal rescue program in Texas, has created a petition on Change.org to rally public support and ask Governor Perry to invest in Texas’ economy by providing relief to farmers who are in great need of food for their animals. Add your name to the petition and support Texas farmers and livestock.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/carlwwycoff/3795093739/

Biochar: Improved Agriculture and Reduced CO2

Global climate change and soil degradation from industrial agriculture are threatening the world food system.  Extreme weather events, brought on by climate change, will likely make food even more difficult to grow in the coming decades. These added costs to food production are also due to increases in the price of oil.  A higher population will also drive up demand.  As a result, Oxfam International has projected that food prices will double in the next 20 years.   Biochar is the answer to this looming crisis.  Biochar was first discovered in an investigation of the extremely fertile, “terra preta” or black earth of the Amazon.  This soil was created by an early Amazonian civilization hundreds of years ago, and continues to be productive today.  The productivity of the soil owes itself to the micro pore structure of the biochar itself.  The pores of the biochar hold nutrients essential to plant growth, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in the soil.  This allows for farmers to decrease the cost of food production while using less nitrogen fertilizer derived from fossil fuels.  This is critical to the most poverty-stricken areas of the global south often that do not have access to artificial fertilizer.

Africa is one of the areas in which biochar has shown the most promise. Africa has some of the worst soil in the world and is also most affected by famine.  Yet a recent study in Cameroon, demonstrated that biochar and organic fertilizer increases grain yields by 140 percent.  Similar studies from around the world show increased production in other food staples such as potatoes, corn, soybeans, and wheat.   Biochar also retains water better then un-amended soil, allowing for lower irrigation rates.  Less irrigation means conservation of dwindling water resources, lower food cost, and better resilience to climate change induced drought.  Water availability also helps to increase root growth and density leading to healthier crops that are more able to meet global food demand. If that was not enough, biochar also increases the growth of micorhizzal or root fungi.  These symbiotic fungi increase the surface area of plant roots, allowing for even more efficient absorption of water and nutrients.   

The agricultural benefits of biochar are many, but you may be asking how is biochar made and what is it made of?  Soil scientists found that biochar is produced from the burning of organic matter in an artificially created low oxygen environment, through a process called pyrolysis.  In other words, wood, plant waste, or other agricultural byproducts are baked at an extremely high temperature.  This process converts the plant material to carbon.  When organic waste is converted to carbon it removes carbon from the carbon cycle, storing it in the soil for thousands of years.  Pyrolysis, effectively produces the, “carbon sink” that climate scientists have proposed as a solution to global climate change.  The process also creates a combustible byproduct called wood gas.  Wood gas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that has been used as fuel for standard internal combustion engines. This could one day entirely replace the use of oil.

Overall, biochar is a true panacea to many of the current problems of global food security, resource depletion, and climate change.  It all starts with soil, black soil.  If you would like to learn more about current studies of biochar please visit the International Biochar Initiative.org.


Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/sustainableharvest/2292587221/sizes/m/in/photostream/