A Home For Potato Knowhow

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 A selection of the thousands of native potato varieties that grow in Peru. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

Thanks to Dan Collyns (last seen in our pages in 2013), writing in the Guardian, for this:

How Peru’s potato museum could stave off world food crisis

Agri-park high in the Andes preserves the expertise to breed strains fit for a changing climate

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A worker picking potatoes high in the Andes. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

With a climate changing faster than most crops can adapt and food security under threat around the world, scientists have found hope in a living museum dedicated to a staple eaten by millions daily: the humble potato.

High in the Peruvian Andes, agronomists are looking to the ancestral knowledge of farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods and frosts.

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 A selection of biofortified potatoes, grown to be higher in zinc and iron. Photograph: David Dudenhoeffer/The International Potato Centre

The Potato Park in Cusco is a 90 sq km (35 sq mile) expanse ranging from 3,400 to 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level. It has “maintained one of the highest diversities of native potatoes in the world, in a constant process of evolution,” says Alejandro Argumedo, the founder of Asociación Andes, an NGO which supports the park. Continue reading

Moderating Methane

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Cristina Byvik

During June and July last year we were in residence on a dairy farm, and the prospective benefit of cows having seaweed added to their diet came to my attention. Today another briefing on this topic, from Rowan Walrath writing in Mother Jones, notifies me that this idea is making progress:

One day in January 2014, police rushed to a farm in Rasdorf, Germany, after flames burst from a barn. They soon discovered that static electricity had caused entrapped methane from the flatulence and manure of 90 dairy cows to explode.

Headline writers had a field day. But the incident pointed to a serious problem: Ruminant livestock, mostly cattle, account for 30 percent of all global methane emissions, pumping out 3 gigatons of the gas every year in their burps, farts, and manure. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas: During its 12-year lifespan after being released, it traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, and its effect on global warming over a century is 34 times that of CO2. According to the United Nations, reducing methane emissions from cows could be one of the quickest ways to slow climate change. Continue reading

Climate, Wine & Adaptation

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Don Valley, Australia John Laurie for The New York Times

Eric Asimov, wine critic, is also a pretty good explainer of the practical implications of climate change:

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Catena Zapata, Argentina Horacio Paone for The New York Times

Wine, which is among the most sensitive and nuanced of agricultural products, demonstrates how climate change is transforming traditions and practices that may be centuries old.

Around the wine-growing world, smart producers have contemplated and experimented with adaptations, not only to hotter summers, but also to warmer winters, droughts and the sort of unexpected, sometimes violent events that stem from climate change: freak hailstorms, spring frosts, flooding and forest fires, just to name a few.

Farmers have been on the front line, and grape growers especially have been noting profound changes in weather patterns since the 1990s. In the short term, some of these changes have actually benefited certain regions.

Places, like England, that were historically unsuited for producing fine wine have been given the opportunity to join the global wine world, transforming local economies in the process. Continue reading

Elderberries, Up & Coming From The Past

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Heiko Wolfraum/dpa/AP

Thanks to Marisa Endicott at Mother Jones for this:

This Ancient Fruit Holds Secrets for How to Farm in Climate Change

Respect your elder-berries.

Cloverleaf Farm, a small produce operation in Davis, California, managed to do okay during the extreme drought that lasted from 2012 to 2016. But in the first wet year after the long dry period, the farm lost its entire apricot crop to disease—$40,000 to $50,000 down the drain.

Researchers predict that as climate change worsens, there will be more frequent shifts between extreme dry spells and floods. As Cloverleaf learned the hard way, the phenomenon is already taking a toll on growers in the country’s largest food producing state. During the drought, California’s agricultural and related industries lost $2.7 billion in one year alone. Big cash crops like almonds and grapes are at particular risk in the future, unnerving farmers and vintners already taking hits from erratic and extreme weather. Continue reading

Cleaning Up Productivity

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Harvard scientists and landscapers are testing a new fertilizer that could reduce pollution in water supplies. Unsplash

Thanks to Caitlin McDermott-Murphy for this story about cleaning up our growing systems:

Ending ‘dead zones’

How a biofriendly fertilizer could offer a greener way to grow plants

Every year, a “dead zone” the size of Massachusetts sprawls across the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River, which travels through the nation’s farm belt, sweeps excess fertilizer and dumps the chemicals into the Gulf, where they feed rampant algae, deplete oxygen, and kill marine life.

Across the U.S., smaller versions of similar dead zones infect lakes, ponds, and rivers. In years with higher rainfall — like 2018 — Massachusetts’ Charles River collects enough pollutants from surrounding city streets, parking lots, and landscaped campuses to cause the water quality to drop. Unchecked algae growth, often the result of excess fertilizer, can damage marine, human, and even pet health: This year, several dogs died after swimming in water choked with toxic blue-green algae. Continue reading

Impossible This & That

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Pat Brown, Impossible’s founder, argues that we can’t fight climate change unless we get rid of cows. The Voorhes for The New Yorker

What can you not live without? Better yet, what might we live without that would have a positive impact on climate change? The answer to that is Pat Brown’s mission. And his story is better told in the story below than any other place where I have read about impossible this, and impossible that. I am heartened to read of Impossible’s progress as much as I am embarrassed by my own failure to cut meat consumption more than I have. My reduction has been dramatic, but not radical. Compared to my most meat-intensive eating days I have reduced animal protein intake by at least 70%; until I get to 100%, I will remain embarrassed. Thanks to Tad Friend for cheering me on with this longform view into Impossible this and that:

Can a Burger Help Solve Climate Change?

Eating meat creates huge environmental costs. Impossible Foods thinks it has a solution.

Cows are easy to love. Their eyes are a liquid brown, their noses inquisitive, their udders homely; small children thrill to their moo.

Most people like them even better dead. Americans eat three hamburgers a week, so serving beef at your cookout is as patriotic as buying a gun. When progressive Democrats proposed a Green New Deal, earlier this year, leading Republicans labelled it a plot to “take away your hamburgers.” The former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka characterized this plunder as “what Stalin dreamt about,” and Trump himself accused the Green New Deal of proposing to “permanently eliminate” cows. In fact, of course, its authors were merely advocating a sensible reduction in meat eating. Who would want to take away your hamburgers and eliminate cows?

Well, Pat Brown does, and pronto. A sixty-five-year-old emeritus professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, Brown is the founder and C.E.O. of Impossible Foods. By developing plant-based beef, chicken, pork, lamb, dairy, and fish, he intends to wipe out all animal agriculture and deep-sea fishing by 2035. His first product, the Impossible Burger, made chiefly of soy and potato proteins and coconut and sunflower oils, is now in seventeen thousand restaurants. When we met, he arrived not in Silicon Valley’s obligatory silver Tesla but in an orange Chevy Bolt that resembled a crouching troll. He emerged wearing a T-shirt depicting a cow with a red slash through it, and immediately declared, “The use of animals in food production is by far the most destructive technology on earth. We see our mission as the last chance to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.” Continue reading

Farming Energy & Food Simultaneously

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Crops grow under solar panels at the Biosphere 2 Agrivoltaics Learning Lab operated by the University of Arizona, north of Tucson. Patrick Murphy/University of Arizona

When we think of farming, we know sunlight is important, but too much sun is not normally a good thing. For solar, no such thing as too much sunlight–the more the better. But counterintuitive though it may be, here is a story about overlapping advantages of sunlight for farming and solar energy production:

The Best Place for Harvesting Solar Energy Is Not Where I Expected It to Be

And the same land can produce loads of food and electricity simultaneously.

Even after a boom in recent years, solar energy delivers less than 2 percent of power generation to the US electrical grid. But if we’re going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the sun’s contribution is going to have to ramp up dramatically. Where to put all the solar panels? You might envision vast solar farms stretching across the sun-scorched barren lands of the Southwest. But according to two recent papers—one from Oregon and Utah researchers, another from a team centered at the University of Arizona—a much different kind of landscape makes the most sense for harvesting solar power: the land currently occupied by food farms.

That’s because the technology that drives solar power—photovoltaic (PV) panels made of silicon that convert light photons directly into electricity—works most efficiently under a specific set of conditions. Most important for this power, of course, is abundant sunlight, which is why deserts make tempting sites for solar energy production. But air temperature is important, too. Above the threshold of 78°F, the hotter it gets outside, the less efficient PV panels are at converting sunlight to electricity. And that’s why blazing-hot deserts pose some problems for solar panels. Continue reading

Perennial Grain’s Future

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Harvesting heads of Kernza, a newly developed perennial grain, on a research plot in Salina, Kansas. THE LAND INSTITUTE

Thanks to Jim Robbins, as always, and Yale e360 for brightening our day just a bit:

With New Perennial Grain, a Step Forward for Eco-Friendly Agriculture

A cereal and beers are now being made with a new variety of perennial grain known as Kernza. Proponents say this marks a significant advance for a new agriculture that borrows from the wild prairie and could help ensure sustainable food production in a warming world.

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A tractor plows a field of wheat stubble on a traditional farm near Pullman, Washington. RICK DALTON/ALAMY

Some 40 years ago, Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist, founded The Land Institute on the prairie near Salina, Kansas. Concerned that modern agriculture destroyed native grasslands, he asked a question that came to define his life: How can we harness the inherent strengths of the prairie ecosystem — the natural resistance of native plants to insects and weeds, the ability of those plants to grow perennially, and their evolved resistance to cold and drought — and marry those traits to the task of growing domesticated crops for food?

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Kernza’s long roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion. THE LAND INSTITUTE

Jackson, the recipient of a 1992 MacArthur “genius grant,” set out to create a new kind of farming he called “natural systems agriculture,” which has the “ecological stability of the prairie and a grain and seed yield comparable to that from annual crops.”

After four decades of breeding and testing, the institute has introduced its first commercial grain, a trademarked variety called Kernza, a domesticated wild grass — intermediate wheatgrass — that has a long, slender head that resembles wheat seeds. Described as sweet and nutty, it is now being made into a cereal called Honey Toasted Kernza by Cascadian Farms, and Patagonia Provisions — an offshoot of the clothing company — has brewed it into beers, including Long Root Pale Ale. Both are being produced now in limited runs.

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The perennial grain is currently being used to make small batches of cereal and beer. THE LAND INSTITUTE

The development of Kernza is being held out as a prime example of a new way of doing agriculture that borrows from the perennial nature of the wild prairie. “The goal is to mitigate a lot of the problems inherent in annual grain farming systems,” said Tim Crews, research director at The Land Institute. For example, he noted, “Farmers write off 50 percent of their fertilizer as not being taken up by the crop.” Continue reading

Learning To Eat Right

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According to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, deforestation, along with unsustainable agriculture and food systems, is contributing to greenhouse emissions. Photograph by Lalo de Almeida / NYT / Redux

Thanks to Carolyn Kormann for this reminder of the impact our diet has on the future of the planet:

Deforestation, Agriculture, and Diet Are Fuelling the Climate Crisis

In the Amazon, or in the parts of the Amazon that people have mowed down and converted into grazing pasture, the average abattoir-bound cow has nearly three acres to himself. Nice for the cow, perhaps, but senseless and dangerous in every other way. Every year, on average, tropical deforestation adds ten to fifteen per cent of global greenhouse emissions. Of this amount, around half happens in South America; deforestation in the Amazon recently increased. If the rate continues, scientists have found, it could lengthen the forest’s dry season, triggering even greater warming and drying, killing trees in the nearby (still intact) forest, and eventually causing mass tree mortality and an entire ecosystem shift—from rainforest to savannah. The tipping point in the Amazon would be a rate of twenty-twenty-five per cent deforestation—fifteen to seventeen per cent is already gone. “If you exceed the threshold,” Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian climate and tropical-forest expert, told me, “fifty to sixty per cent of the forest could be gone over three to five decades.” Continue reading

Creating A Market For Misfits

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Thanks to Henry Alford for all the references in this New Yorker short piece on efforts to establish market value for produce normally treated as misfits are treated, which is to say shunned at best:

For “Ugly” Produce, Beauty Is Rind Deep

Misshapen fruits and vegetables and the farmers who love them.

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Illustration by João Fazenda

You did not anticipate this plot point: you’ve decided to pony up twenty-three fifty a week to receive a regular shipment of organic “ugly produce,” perhaps because you’ve read that about half of the produce in the United States goes uneaten, or maybe because you’ve been charmed by a Web site that boasts of “rescuing” foodstuffs such as “onions that are too small, potatoes that are shaped like your favorite celebrity, and carrots that fell in love and got twisted together.” You glow with a sense of mission. But, when your first shipment of ugly produce arrives and you peer inside the recyclable cardboard box, you do a double take: the produce is not ugly. And not a single potato looks like Abe Vigoda.

“I would first redefine it as misfit produce,” Abhi Ramesh, the founder and C.E.O. of Misfits Market, said on the phone the other day. (It is Misfits Market’s Web site that is quoted above.) “The market calls it ugly produce, but ‘ugly’ ends up being only a small portion of it. The variations are standard: produce that’s too small or too large or that has slight discoloration.” Continue reading

The Not-So-New New Renewable

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A manure and food waste-to-energy facility at Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts. VANGUARD RENEWABLES

Biogas came to the attention to most of us contributing to this platform while in India. It has remained on our radar as an important, if quaint farmland quirky skunkworks. Thanks to Yale e360 for highlighting its emergence as a scaling alternative to other forms of natural gas:

Could Renewable Natural Gas Be the Next Big Thing in Green Energy?

For decades, small-scale biogas systems have collected methane from landfills, sewage plants, and farms. Now, in Europe and the U.S., the growth of this renewable form of natural gas is taking off as businesses capture large amounts of methane from manure, food waste, and other sources.

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A truck delivers food waste to an anaerobic digester at a Massachusetts farm. VANGUARD RENEWABLES

In the next few weeks, construction crews will begin building an anaerobic digester on the Goodrich Family Farm in western Vermont that will transform cow manure and locally sourced food waste into renewable natural gas (RNG), to be sent via pipeline to nearby Middlebury College and other customers willing to pay a premium for low-carbon energy.

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A covered lagoon manure digester on Van Warmerdam Dairy in Galt, California. MAAS ENERGY WORKS

For the developer, Vanguard Renewables, the project represents both a departure and a strategic bet. The firm already owns and operates five farm-based biogas systems in Massachusetts; each generates electricity on site that is sent to the grid and sold under the state’s net-metering law. The Vermont project, however, is Vanguard’s first foray into producing RNG — biogas that is refined, injected into natural gas pipelines as nearly pure methane, and then burned to make electricity, heat homes, or fuel vehicles.

“Producing RNG for pipeline injection and vehicle fueling is the evolution of where everything is going” in the biogas sector, says John Hanselman, Vanguard’s CEO. Continue reading

The Corn Of The Future Is Valuable Patrimony From Mexico

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A Mexican scientist inspects a field of olotón maize near Oaxaca, Mexico. ALLEN VAN DEYNZE/UC DAVIS

Thanks to Martha Pskowski and Yale e360 for this:

Indigenous Maize: Who Owns the Rights to Mexico’s ‘Wonder’ Plant?

A nitrogen-fixing maize grown in an indigenous region of Mexico has the ability to fertilize itself, recent research shows. Now, as a global company and U.S. scientists work to replicate this trait in other corn varieties, will the villages where the maize originated share fairly in the profits?

In a 1979 visit to Totontepec, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, naturalist Thomas Boone Hallberg marveled at the local maize. The plants grew nearly 20 feet high in nutrient-poor soil, even though local farmers did not apply any fertilizer.

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MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

The maize had aerial roots that grew a mucous-like gel just before harvest season. It seemed impossible, but Hallberg wondered if the maize was fixing its own nitrogen: extracting it from the air and somehow making it usable for the plant. He had visited countless towns since moving to Oaxaca in the 1950s, but what he saw in Totontepec stuck with him.

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The maize variety olotón has aerial roots that produce a mucous-like gel that fixes nitrogen, meaning that it can effectively fertilize itself. MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

In 1992, Hallberg returned with a group of Mexican scientists. The maize, known as olotón, was almost ready for harvest and its aerial roots glistened with gel. Ronald Ferrera-Cerrato, a microbiologist, took samples back to his lab outside Mexico City to test the bacteria in the gel. His preliminary results, published in a 1996 report, showed that the maize received nitrogen from the air, through its aerial roots, meaning that it effectively had the ability to fertilize itself.

At the time, scientists around the world were puzzling over similar questions. In a 1996 paper in Plant and Soil, microbiologist Eric Triplett, then at the University of Wisconsin, described the possibility of corn plants that fix nitrogen as “the ‘holy grail’ of nitrogen fixation research” because of the potential to reduce fertilizer demand. Continue reading

Two Sides of a Conservation Story – With Wolves in the Middle

Karin Vardaman, pictured left, walks the pastures with Breanna Owens, the owner of Cobblestone Ranch, in Los Molinos, California.Photographs by Lucas Foglia for The New Yorker

The return of apex predators to both national parks and rugged, yet unprotected areas of the United States impacts conservation and regeneration of biodiversity for both wildlife and native landscape.  Not surprisingly, it also creates challenges within the well established ranching community.

We’re grateful to all those who participate in the process of navigating a successful middle ground.

The Persuasive Power of the Wolf Lady

To bridge the divide between wolf-lovers and ranchers, the conservationist Karin Vardaman had to change many minds—including her own.

Early one morning in April, 2016, Karin Vardaman and four travelling companions woke in a motel in Siskiyou County, a rugged and remote region where rural California meets the Oregon border. They were in a town called Montague—a dot on the map that had begun, in the eighteen-eighties, as a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad. After visiting a small market to pick up breakfast and snacks, they continued on to the old community hall, a narrow, low-slung building by the railroad tracks. Large, glass-paned windows ran the length of one side; below them, murals depicted horse-drawn wagons from the area’s pioneer days. Outside, a few dozen people were gathering. Watching them, Vardaman had an uneasy feeling. Oh, boy, she thought. Here we go.

Inside, chairs were arranged in a semicircle. Vardaman stood at the center, near a screen on which a PowerPoint slide displayed the title of her workshop, “On Wolves and Livestock.” Tall and sturdy, in her fifties, she has a flowing mane of lustrous red hair, framing slate-blue eyes and a narrow face. She introduced herself to the crowd as an advocate with the California Wolf Center. The Center, she said, was sponsoring a new, collaborative project called the Working Circle, through which it hoped to find a way for cattle and sheep to coëxist with endangered gray wolves.

Before Vardaman could continue, a man in the audience stood up, interrupting her. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He calmly thanked her and her team: they had helped the local economy, he said, by shopping at the market. What he didn’t appreciate, he went on, was their coming into town and dictating to the community what it should and shouldn’t do about wolves. As he spoke, his voice rose in anger, and he stepped suddenly toward Vardaman; at the same moment, more than twenty other people rose to their feet. Some waved anti-wolf flyers above their heads. Others held rifle cartridges, their brass glinting in the light. They chanted, “Shoot, shovel, and shut up!”—an anti-wolf slogan. Vardaman watched as several people opened their jackets, revealing handguns.

For most of the last century, there have been no wolves in California; government-sponsored livestock-protection campaigns exterminated the state’s wolf population by 1924. But in December, 2011, a lone male gray wolf from Oregon, known as OR-7, was tracked via radio collar as he crossed into the Golden State. Slowly, over time, a few others followed. In 2014, the gray wolf gained protection under California’s Endangered Species Act; not long afterward, in Siskiyou County, two wolves were spotted by a trail camera. Today it’s thought that there are at least twelve to fifteen wild wolves in the state. This nascent comeback has opened a rancorous breach between California’s agricultural community, which fears losing livestock to wolf attacks, and its environmentalists, who have been galvanized by the idea of an iconic predator resurrected.

A version of this polarizing conflict has played out wherever wolves have reappeared, from Michigan to the Northern Rockies and Washington State. To an extent, livestock producers and wolf conservationists are divided for pragmatic reasons. If a wolf kills a heifer calf, a rancher can suffer a substantive economic hit—one or two thousand dollars, plus the loss of income from all the calves that the mature cow would’ve had over her lifetime. (Since the wolves returned to Northern California, an estimated eleven calves and cows have died in wolf attacks.) Conversely, if a rancher kills a wolf in an area where the wolf population is still recovering, it could be a significant blow to the animals’ survival.

And yet ranchers and conservationists are divided in other ways, too. Continue reading

Climate Change, Coffee & Solutions

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A worker harvests coffee near the town of Santuario, Risaralda department, Colombia in May. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In Costa Rica, where we have been paying attention to the plight of coffee farmers in the last year, there are numerous scientific and sectoral organizations dedicated to assisting with the impact of climate change.  Richard Schiffman, who last appeared in our pages nearly a year ago, has this about Colombia’s approach:

As Climate Changes, Colombia’s Small Coffee Farmers Pay the Price

Hundreds of Colombia’s small coffee growers have stopped cultivating the bean in the face of low prices and reduced harvests linked to a shifting climate. As farmers struggle, the nation’s scientists are seeking to develop new varieties that will flourish in a changing environment.

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Women sort coffee beans at the 44-acre Finca El Ocaso farm, near Salento, Colombia. COURTESY OF FINCA EL OCASO

At first glance, Finca El Ocaso, located in the hills outside Salento, Colombia, could be mistaken for a natural forest: rows of squat Arabica coffee trees are interspersed with plantain, banana, and lime and shaded by towering nogal cafatero trees, whose high canopy hosts flocks of chattering parrots and other birds. The 44-acre coffee plantation has been certified by international organizations for being sustainable, climate-friendly, and fair to its workers.

But Finca El Ocaso is struggling under the weight of intensifying economic pressures.

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A coffee weighing station at Finca El Ocaso. Coffee prices have dropped so low that the family-run farm has started hosting tourists to make extra money. COURTESY OF FINCA EL OCASO

“Lots of smaller farms near us have gone out of business,” said farmer Gustavo Patiño. “It is no longer sustainable to have a medium-size farm that pays high taxes and expensive production costs, when in the end they may get paid less for their coffee than their expenses.”

Several years ago, in an effort to keep the plantation afloat, Patiño’s eldest daughter, Carolina, opened the farm to foreign and Colombian tourists. The plantation now attracts more than 1,000 visitors a year. “Our farm can only survive because we offer tours and sell our coffee to the tourists,” Patiño said.

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An aerial view of coffee plantations in Santuario, Colombia in May. Small farms such as these have been hit hardest by climate change and low coffee prices. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In the last 18 months, Colombia has lost nearly 100,000 acres of coffee plantations, more than 4 percent of the land under coffee cultivation, according to a statement issued last week by Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers (Fedecafé). Continue reading

Pulses Improving Life In Multiple Ways

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Chickpeas are often called by their Spanish name, garbanzos or garbanzo beans, in the United States. Inga Spence/Getty Images

Whitney Pipkin, appearing for the second time here, has another great story about healthy food with environmental benefits:

Your Hummus Habit Could Be Good For The Earth

Hummus is having a heyday with American consumers, and that could be as good for the soil as it is for our health.

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High in fiber and protein, chickpeas are playing a starring role on menus at fast-casual chains like Little Sesame in Washington, D.C., where hummus bowls abound. Chickpeas also good for soil health — and growing demand could help restore soils depleted by decades of intensive farming. Anna Meyer

Formerly relegated to the snack aisle in U.S. grocery stores, the chickpea-based dip has long starred as the smooth centerpiece of Middle Eastern meals and, increasingly, plant-based diets. Occasionally, it even doubles as dessert. Last year, Americans spent four times as much money on grocery-store hummus as they did a decade before, according to the latest consumer surveys, and a growing number of snacks and fast-casual concepts also feature the fiber- and protein-rich chickpea as their pièce de résistance.

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Anna Meyer

Part of a subcategory of legumes called pulses, chickpeas — along with lentils, dry peas and several varieties of beans — have been a critical crop and foodstuff for centuries in Middle Eastern and Asian countries. The crops are so promising that the United Nations deemed 2016 the “Year of Pulses” to expand interest in these ancient foods and their potential to help solve dueling modern-day conundrums: hunger and soil depreciation. Continue reading

Schools as Frontline Against Food Deserts

These greens are among the hydroponic crops grown by students at Brownsville Collaborative Middle School, in Brooklyn, N.Y. In June, the students started to sell discounted boxes of the fresh produce to community members. Robin Lloyd/for NPR

Thanks again to the Salt for more inspiring stories about communities cultivating more than just smart students.

How Hydroponic School Gardens Can Cultivate Food Justice, Year-Round

After a full day of school a few weeks ago, 12-year-old Rose Quigley donned gloves and quickly picked bunches of fresh lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, mint and oregano. But she didn’t have to leave her school in Brooklyn, N.Y., or even go outdoors to do it.

Quigley is one of dozens of students at Brownsville Collaborative Middle School who in the past year built a high-tech, high-yield farm inside a third-floor classroom. They decided what to grow, then planted seeds and harvested dozens of pounds of produce weekly.

The vegetables never stop coming because the crops are grown hydroponically — indoors, on floor-to-ceiling shelves that hold seedlings and plants sprouting from fiber plugs stuck in trays, each fed by nutrient-enriched water and lit by LED lamps. The students provide weekly produce for their cafeteria’s salad bar and other dishes.

Later that same day, for the first time, Quigley and several of her schoolmates also sold some of their harvest — at a discount from market rates — to community members. It’s part of a new weekly “food box” service set up in the school’s foyer. Each of 34 customers receive an allotment of fresh produce intended to feed two people for a week. Three students, paid as interns, used digital tablets to process orders, while peers handed out free samples of a pasta salad featuring produce from the farm. Continue reading

Are Certifications Doing Enough?

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Cocoa producers of the Yakasse-Attobrou Agricultural Cooperative gather cocoa pods in a certified Fair Trade-label cocoa plantation in Adzope, Ivory Coast. Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

Our friends who generally oppose regulations and other efforts to protect people and the environment, saying that these protections inhibit growth and innovation and often fail to achieve the protections they are supposed to create, may sometimes have a point. But from our perspective, they too often point in the wrong direction. Constant monitoring to evaluate the efficacy of these protections is a point we might agree on, assuming we are not ideologically driven on either side of this topic.  With every big step forward towards greater sustainability, it is important to pause and consider the impact. Among other things, we must ask whether we are doing enough:

Fair Trade Helps Farmers, But Not Their Hired Workers

It’s a disturbing question that haunts many shoppers with good intentions: What am I actually accomplishing by buying coffee or chocolate with the Fair Trade label? Does the extra money that I pay actually benefit the people who harvested those beans?

Researchers have been curious, too. They’ve found that, in fact, small farmers in Latin America and Africa do benefit from the minimum price that Fair Trade guarantees and the extra money it delivers to farmer cooperatives. Researchers have documented higher wages, greater participation in community decisions, and even greater gender equity. Continue reading

Free The Seed

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Today, just four giant companies control more than 60 percent of all the world’s seed sales.

 

Thanks to the New York Times for this opinion:

Save Our Food. Free the Seed.

By Dan Barber

Additional reporting and graphics by Ash Ngu. Photographs by Ruth Fremson

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Flowering curly kale, a variety called Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, being grown for seed at Fresh Roots Farm in Montana. The farm is collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance on a toolkit for farmers who want to produce seed.

Not long ago I was sitting in a combine tractor on a 24,000-acre farm in Dazey, N.D. The expanse of the landscape — endless rows of corn and soybeans as precise as a Soviet military parade — was difficult to ignore. So were the skyscraper-tall storage silos and the phalanx of 18-wheeled trucks ready to transport the grain. And yet what held my attention were the couple of dozen seeds in my palm — the same seeds cultivated all around me.

We are told that everything begins with seed. Everything ends with it, too. As a chef I can tell you that your meal will be incalculably more delicious if I’m cooking with good ingredients. But until that afternoon I’d rarely considered how seed influences — determines, really — not only the beginning and the end of the food chain, but also every link in between.

The tens of thousands of rows surrounding me owed their brigade-like uniformity to the operating instructions embedded in the seed. That uniformity allows for large-scale monoculture, which in turn determines the size and model of the combine tractor needed to efficiently harvest such a load. (“Six hundred horsepower — needs a half-mile just to turn her around,” joked the farmer sitting next to me.) Satellite information, beamed into the tractor’s computer, makes it possible to farm such an expanse with scientific precision.

The type of seed also dictates the fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide regimen, sold by the same company as part of the package, requiring a particular planter and sprayer (40 feet and 140 feet wide, respectively) and producing a per-acre yield that is startling, and startlingly easy to predict.

It is as if the seed is a toy that comes with a mile-long list of component parts you’re required to purchase to make it function properly. Continue reading

The Fate Of Food

9780804189033_custom-d872d405185775dec7efba71e353dfdbc66d0130-s600-c85.jpgAn interview about a book that picks up on themes that we have been following since we started this platform:

‘Fate Of Food’ Asks: What’s For Dinner In A Hotter, Drier, More Crowded World?

Environmental journalist Amanda Little says the sustainable food revolution will include meat cultured in a lab, 3-D printer food, aquaculture and indoor vertical farming.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Climate change is affecting the weather. And droughts, floods, storms and unseasonal temperatures are affecting the global food supply. Tech startups, as well as mega companies, are developing new, high-tech ways of growing vegetables and fruits, farming fish and growing meat without harming animals.

3D food printers, laboratories where meat is grown from cultured animal cells, robots that can weed crops without using chemicals and indoor farms where vegetables are grown without soil or sun are some of the new approaches investigated by Amanda Little in her new book “The Fate Of Food: What We’ll Eat In A Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”

She’s traveled to 13 states and 11 countries researching changes in our food system. Her reporting on energy, technology and the environment has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and other publications. She’s a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University.

Amanda Little, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us some of the ways in which climate change is affecting the global food supply. Continue reading

Reducing Waste As A Personal & Community Commitment

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Keiran Whitaker, the chief executive of Entocycle, which takes so-called pre-consumer local food waste and feeds it to fly larvae, which eats the waste and converts it to protein. Andrew Testa for The New York Times

We believe in waste reduction as a key component of individual and community responsibility for securing the future. Our thanks to Tatiana Schlossberg for this:

Waste Not — if You Want to Help Secure the Future of the Planet

If there’s one vital, but underappreciated, subject in the conversation about climate change, it’s waste: how to define it, how to create less of it, how to deal with it without adding more pollution to the planet or the atmosphere.

The issue has gained some acceptance, whether in the form of plastic straw bans or anxiety about e-commerce-related cardboard piling up.

But experts say these aren’t necessarily the biggest problems. Reducing the damage from waste might require expanding the traditional definition of waste — not just as old-fashioned garbage, but as a result of wild inefficiency in all kinds of systems, which often results in emissions of greenhouse gases, among other problems.

Continue reading