Food Fights Could Get Ugly December 2010
The raising, harvesting, distribution, and consumption of crops and animals is the most fundamental activity of human life and culture, but most modern humans have little direct connection to the cultivation of their food or knowledge of its provenance. Societies have built food cultures over hundreds of thousands of years without concern for global impacts. Today, though, scientists study how crops reflect sunlight and heat, how fertilizers in use in one area affect the acid rainfall in another, how the price for biofuel crops in one region affects the price of food for humans in another, and so forth. In recent years, growers and consumers alike have adapted information technology (IT) to track dynamics of and environmental and social impacts of agriculture. As the IT infrastructure for agriculture develops, new agricultural-information cultures may spring up.
Social and political groups alike tend to form around individual issues, which may create a complex monitoring headache for large corporations that do business in multiple aspects of agriculture and food.
Information collection and analyses, though, span a wide range of purposes, including reduction of carbon emissions, concerns about genetically modified (GM) food, and social issues such as fair trade and affordability. Other suggested best practices extend to planting of trees to prevent soil erosion and desertification and to avoiding clearing of forests to plant crops, which satellite imaging can now easily detect. Some recent studies indicate widening issues for monitoring:
- Stanford University (California) researchers recently surmised that high-intensity farming increases the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions from fertilizers and industrial machinery but results in a net reduction in emissions because of the amount of land that it saves from agriculture.
- In 2009, the Joint Global Change Research Institute (www.globalchange.umd.edu)— whose staff are part a joint institute of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Richland, Washington) and the University of Maryland (College Park)—found in a study that increasing crop yields could reduce emissions on the same order as those of many renewable energy programs.
- Wheat crops worldwide, which provide 20% of humans' calorie intake, may once again be susceptible to wheat rust, a disease that researchers believed they had largely eradicated but that has shown up again in parts of Africa, Yemen, and Iran. The world's food supply would be highly vulnerable to a wheat-rust epidemic if it occurred in one of the major wheat-growing countries, which include China, India, Russia, and the United States.
- Researchers from more than 20 institutions in the United States, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, and Sweden collaborated on a recent paper stating that annual crops have much higher carbon, chemical, water, and financial footprints than perennial crops do and that governments should invest in perennial versions of grain crops.
Although satellites and sensors might measure sunlight and emissions from various forms of agriculture, farmers themselves must report other forms of data—and they have little capability or incentive to do so. Although cell phones are increasingly widespread, data communications can still be expensive and unreliable in many developing countries. But as digital IT and cell phones become prevalent in developing countries, they provide the infrastructure that can change the agricultural business substantially.
For instance, Kilimo Salama (http://kilimosalama.wordpress.com) provides crop insurance by using a combination of mobile phones and 30 automated solar-powered weather stations, which were set up by UAP Insurance (Nairobi, Kenya); Safaricom Limited (Nairobi, Kenya), Kenya's biggest mobile-network operator; and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (http://syngentafoundation.org), which operates independently from the Syngenta agribusiness corporation (Basel, Switzerland) that formed it. The system encourages "precommercial" and "resource-poor" small farmers to invest in improved seeds and the use of fertilizer and herbicides that can help increase their yields. Participating farmers register at the weather stations and pay a 5% microinsurance premium on each bag of seed, fertilizer, and so forth, using the bar code on the bags to register. MEA Fertilizers (Nairobi, Kenya) and Syngenta East Africa (Nairobi, Kenya), which stand to gain from crop yields, match the premium with an additional 5% payment. If weather conditions deteriorate in a way that results in crop losses—as measured at the weather stations—Kilimo Salama pays out for losses directly to the farmers' handsets using Safaricom's M-PESA mobile money service.
Some countries may begin to monitor sources of food according to farming practice. As the price of radio-frequency-identification tags decreases, it may eventually be feasible to tag every food package with information that makes grocery-store checkout automatic and easier but also to provide information about the farming practices and provenance of each item. Ingredients can also be an issue. Some consumer segments in European countries and parts of Asia are opposed to GM crops, for instance, but segments in the United States and many other countries appear to be less so. In a recent example, Chinese public officials and intellectuals are protesting the issuance of biosafety certificates for GM rice and maize crops in China by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. The protesters say most of the profits from selling GM crop seeds go to companies like Monsanto (Creve Coeur, Missouri) and Syngenta, although small Chinese farmers say they benefit as well.
More comprehensive issues are under consideration too. Walmart (Bentonville, Arkansas), for instance, has begun developing a Sustainability Index for the products it sells, but how Walmart customers or its suppliers will respond to it is not clear. Some restaurant chains have started disclosing the carbon footprint of all their menu items according to an international standard. Water use is another concern of some consumers. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (Geneva, Switzerland) offers a Global Water Tool that allows corporations to compare their water use against that of other organizations and standards worldwide and includes geographic mapping on Google's (Mountain View, California) Google Earth. However, social and political groups alike tend to form around individual issues, which may create a complex monitoring headache for large corporations that do business in multiple aspects of agriculture and food.