Please join us–Wed. March 19, 2014, 7:30 pm, at the Boys and Girls Club to discuss and come to consensus on the study questions!
LWV members from Newton and Needham gathered at the Boys and Girls Club on March 12 to learn background information for the current LWV US Agriculture study. The study’s motto is “If you eat, you are involved with agriculture,” and we quickly realized that we had a lot to learn. Speakers were Steve Goodwin, Dean of College of Natural Sciences at UMass/Amherst, and Greg Maslowe, Farm Manager at Newton Community Farm. Local Leagues in Wisconsin and the Midwest have been pushing for an agriculture study to enable LWV US to lobby on issues associated with the Farm Bills and other food related issues. In order to narrow the scope of the study to a do-able size, we are focusing on current technology issues in agriculture, finance issues, including consolidation in agriculture industries, crop subsidies, and the federal regulatory process; as well as food safety and labeling issues.
Dean. Goodwin talked about the role of top research universities in agricultural and economic research as they attempt to be honest brokers of information and research among all the competing interests in the industry: Big agriculture; corporations such as General Mills and Pepsi, chemical industries, consumer safety and security advocates are among the many players.
The term “organic” for food products came up for discussion first, with Dean Goodwin pointing out that the basic meaning of the word “organic” is really “having a lot of carbon molecules”—which makes DDT pesticide a very organic product. He believes the term is the worst possible for negotiating issues among famers, consumers, retailers and researchers. In some ways it is a “catch all” term used to mark best agricultural practices, including low pesticide use, responsible use of chemical fertilizers, Integrated Pest Management, and sustainable farming techniques. Dean Goodwin pointed out that agriculture is the industry with the largest “carbon footprint”, and that much of that is due to trucking and the global distribution of food products.
Greg Maslowe, on the other hand, encourages the use of the term “organic” and pointed out that information on what the term means in food labeling is available on the USDA website. However, there are different standards in different locations , and among different certifying groups. Small independent farmers generally don’t use the term because it requires some practices that are unpractical for small scale operations. Consumers frequently have mistaken ideas about what “organic” labeled produce really is..Mr Maslowe believes our entire food supply system in broken; for instance we are on a treadmill of using antibiotics in animal feed, and pesticide development that requires continual upgrading to keep up with resistance that builds up naturally in organisms treated with any synthetic or toxic substances. We have sorely depleted the soil in our most productive agricultural areas, and we have not solved the problem of overuse of aquifer water in the west, which threatens water supplies for all uses in the not very distant future. Mr Maslowe recommended getting to know nearby producers, and keeping as much of your purchasing as local as possible, as the most practical steps to take.
Discussion included reminders that the USA has long history of subsidizing agriculture in order to keep food prices low. The systems of that subsidy are open to increased debate: crop insurance as opposed to farm subsidy payments is part of the current Farm bill. Many well -established American agricultural practices, are, when looked at squarely, open to a great deal of question. Consumers were urged for many years to look for “corn fed beef”, but since cattle digestive systems had evolved for pasture grazing, and not the digestion of corn, the use of antibiotics has become standard because it enables cattle to digest feed corn, and that practice allows farm producers to meet consumer demand. Does this make sense? Perhaps we may want to pay higher prices for meat that is not “corn fed”?
Major commodity farming of feed corn, soy, wheat and so forth has been very successful in the USA, but we are heading to disaster if we continue current practices. How can we provide food security by having a reasonable amount of most people’s diets from local food? Dean Goodwin thought that a manageable goal for New England is to produce one third of the food we need within the region.
With climate change we can expect more variation in the weather, with seasons of too much rain and too little rain becoming more common, which will have major impacts on our food production.
Other topics mentioned included: Wisconsin’s lead over Massachusetts in cranberry production with widespread construction of artificial cranberry bogs; meat production has such a high carbon footprint that reducing meat consumption is really necessary for environmental reasons, never mind health issues. No solution has been developed for dealing with the animal manure by- product of large and intensive scale cattle, pig, chicken farming.
Neither speaker thought there is any inherent harm in genetically modified crops, but issues around testing of new technologies for food production—premarket? post market? by whom? and using what standards? are all problems we have not reached resolution on.
Issues of sustainability for natural resources and food labeling and safety were also discussed.