Farm Bill Remains on Life Support

As former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is supposed to have said,

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

 

Inside the Farm Bill

What is the Farm Bill anyway? It’s a massive piece of legislation – 942 pages in one version before Congress, compared with about 1,200 pages in the average Bible. To many, it’s not blasphemy to think of the Farm Bill as the Bible for American agriculture.

The 2018 Farm bill contained 12 separate titles, including commodity support programs, crop insurance, conservation, trade, bioenergy, research, forestry, rural development, credit, nutrition and more. It provides the basic “rules of the road” for our entire food system.

The Farm Bill provides everyone, from farmers to consumers, with the guidance they need to make intelligent decisions about how we produce and consume our food and maintain a vibrant farming sector and thriving rural communities.

Historically, Congress has approved 18 separate farm bills since the 1930s, usually one every five years or so.

That’s no small feat legislatively.

But by combining farm support measures with nutrition programs – notably the old “Food Stamp” program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) – rural and urban legislators have been able to come together to produce a much too complex and far-reaching piece of legislation.

The process consistently has produced farm policies and programs that have fed the nation.

And much of the rest of the world.

Political Pushback 

Three of the past four Farm Bills have required one-year extensions, including the extension passed last November. Despite ambitious efforts by both House and Senate legislators, a fresh Farm Bill still hasn’t passed Congress. In fact, it’s so far from the final passage that many worry that yet another one-year extension is almost inevitable.

With a crowded legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, a looming presidential election, and continuing political divisions still in play, hope for passage seems to be waning with each passing week. The ostensible reasons for the delay are familiar.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle point to a long list of philosophic and practical differences, most seeming to boil down to matters of how to divide the funds in a bill estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to cost an estimated $1.4 trillion over the coming decade.

Some of the key issues under debate include:

Allocating funds provided by the Inflation Reduction Act

President Biden’s Act of 2022 added $19.5 billion to existing conservation programs for “climate-smart mitigation practices” that contribute to carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases.

  • Some legislators favor moving those funds into the Farm Bill spending and expanding eligibility for producers.
  • GOP senators point out that about half of ‘traditional’ farm conservation activities currently are excluded from the IRA and want to use more of the IRA monies to support those activities.
  • Environmental groups and their political supporters want to make sure any funding shift does not weaken the federal commitment to addressing climate issues or in any way contribute to a shift in overall funding away from these environmental goals.

Increases in reference prices

Basically, a means of raising support payments to food producers in the face of inflation-driven costs increases and historically weak commodity prices.

  • Critics of the increases worry that the money for such added Farm Bill expenses would come from savings achieved by reductions in SNAP costs.
  • SNAP supporters question why farmers’ economic needs are more important than feeding hungry people.

Changes in SNAP payments and program eligibility

The CBO estimates that revised calculations and refinements to its eligibility standards would save as much as $30 billion over ten years.

  • Nutritional program costs represent nearly 82 percent of all Farm Bill spending – a share that has been steadily increasing over recent years.
  • Critics wonder what the SNAP program has to do with producing food. They think this should be a separate bill instead of hidden in payment to producers.
  • Budget hawks seek ways of controlling the costs – or at least temper the rate of growth in nutrition spending.

The central issue is how to spend the available money. In highly simplified terms:

One camp argues for using the available pot of money on a wider range of traditional farm and rural community support policies and programsand

the other wants to preserve the Biden focus on policies and programs aimed at facilitating the movement of the farm and food community to more “green” practices – and equally important, protection of the people served by the SNAP program.

The Path to Passage

Part of the delay is procedural. Passing a Farm Bill is a complicated series of actions: developing and approving a bill by committees, passage by the House and Senate, reconciling differences through a House-Senate conference, and submission to the President for signature. It may not sound all that difficult, but it is.

Note that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have spent almost an entire year listening to and engaging farmers, farm and commodity groups, consumers, health and nutrition experts, academics, local authorities and many others in discussions about farm policies and programs. Legislation of nearly 1,000 pages reflecting all these interests takes time to develop.

Maybe more importantly, the calendar is not the Farm Bill’s friend. The legislative time available for action is limited, and competition for floor time is intense. The House of Representatives averages about 151 days in session each year, and the Senate 168 days. Election years—especially presidential election years—usually provide members with extended time to campaign. This year is no different.

In the final six months of 2024, the U.S. Senate is tentatively scheduled to be in session for 53 days. In the House, it’s 42 days. “Tentative” schedules are just that, and they may be subject to change. Lame-duck sessions also are possible. But whatever decisions might be made for keeping Congress at work, the calendar – and history – don’t suggest a rosy outlook for Farm Bill resolution in 2024.

Opposing Points of View

Beyond the realities of the calendar, simple politics is part of the delay in resolving the fundamental issues.

First, the farm bill process has succeeded for almost a century because of the willingness of all parties involved to come to agreement, if not total consensus. Compromise on any issue has proved elusive to this Congress, obviously. But old Farm Bill hands also point out that this time around, as much as 70 percent of Congress has never been through a Farm Bill process.

One in four U.S. senators has been in office for six or fewer years.  In the House, it’s 45 percent – almost half. There’s less experience with – or appreciation for – the importance of finding agreement on something as essential as the food security of the populace. Some members simply don’t have the background to see the Farm Bill as anything but yet another football to be kicked around the political playing field.

Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Growing up in northern New England, we were spoiled with abundant fresh, local seafood. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how good I had it eating freshly caught fish. The United States imports 70-80% of its seafood, mostly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador.   

My new reality was pulling out my phone at the seafood counter in my grocery store to find out where the catch originated. But with confusing adjectives, like “line caught,” “wild,” “farmed,” “no antibiotic-free,” “pole caught,” and “sustainable,”… I ended up just sticking with salmon farmed in Norway, where I knew the standard was high.

Turns out, I had every reason to be overly cautious. A study released in the January 2024 issue of Nature reports that 75% of global fishing vessels are untraceable. Research jointly conducted by Global Fishing Watch, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, UC Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth, gave concrete insights into this murky world of “dark vessels”. These stealthy ships roam the seas, plundering marine resources without a trace.

Understanding Dark Vessel Fishing

Dark vessel fishing ships operate well beyond the reach of regulation and oversight, hence the name ‘dark’.  Their impropriety threatens the delicate balance of marine ecosystems across the globe, not to mention posing a significant concern to global food security, economic stability, and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the ocean for sustenance.

The fishing industry has experienced a slowdown in recent years. Prolonged COVID shutdowns and overfishing in previous decades, as well as an increase in on-land and shore-based aquaculture operations, have contributed to decreased demand. Despite this, seafood remains a $250 billion market, with an estimated loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) activity continues to proliferate, prompted by an increasing demand for fish. As long as there are fish to capture, these stealthy ships will attempt to reap profits by exploiting fishing grounds beyond the reach of authorities.

IUU fishing vessels use a variety of tactics to evade detection, from turning off or manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to operating in remote and poorly monitored ocean regions. The result is a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and illicit operators, with significant implications for marine biodiversity and the sustainability of global fisheries.

“A new industrial revolution has been emerging in our seas undetected—until now. On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet.

In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view.”

 

          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Identifying Dark Vessels

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, analyzed satellite data and harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to track the movements of dark vessel fishing boats to identify hotspots of illegal fishing activity and gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving these activities.

The study’s findings paint a troubling picture of the prevalence of dark vessel fishing across various regions of the world, even in marine protected areas like the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Their study also found more than 25 percent of transport and energy vessels are considered “dark.”

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the world’s largest public resource—the ocean—is being used.

By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before.”

 

          Fernando Paolo, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Collecting and analyzing the incomprehensible amount of data (2 thousand terabytes worth) needed to find this specific information was no small feat. Thankfully, these brilliant researchers mined disparate sets of public data to pinpoint exact locations of fishing vessels, both traceable and non-traceable.

They started with amassing satellite images of coastal waters worldwide from the European Space Agency from 2017 to 2021. They then created proprietary automated technology to identify which of those vessels were fishing boats. Next, the researchers compared images of the ships with public records disclosing their AIS location to determine which vessels did not broadcast their whereabouts.

Armed with this information, they create a “heat map” to show legal and illegal fishing activity across the globe:

Targeting Dark Vessel Locations

One of the key insights revealed by the research is the concentration of dark vessel fishing activity in some geographic regions.

Despite public AIS records indicating a somewhat distributed sprawl across most continents, these researchers prove that most illegal activity occurs in Asia.

The study identified several regions in Asia as the primary hotspots of IUU activity, notably Southeast and East Asia.

These regions are characterized by complex maritime disputes, porous borders, a vast array of fish species, and limited law enforcement presence to oversee farmed aquaculture practices, environmental protections, water toxicity, and many other factors.

“Publicly available data wrongly suggests that Asia and Europe have similar amounts of fishing within their borders, but our mapping reveals that Asia dominates — for every 10 fishing vessels we found on the water, seven were in Asia while only one was in Europe.

By revealing dark vessels, we have created the most comprehensive public picture of global industrial fishing available.”

 

Jennifer Raynor, study author, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This lethal combination creates fertile ground for dark vessel operators to carry out an unconscionable number of illicit activities, especially in specific hotbeds of IUU activity:

Korean Peninsula

In East Asia, the waters off the Korean Peninsula have become premier battlegrounds in the fight against IUU fishing, with crustaceans, shellfish, and finfish populating the waters.

Also of note, South Korea is the largest global consumer of seafood. Surprisingly, 65% of their seafood is imported, despite their seemingly abundant waters.

Bay of Bengal

Similarly, the Bay of Bengal off the coast of South Asia’s Bangladesh and Myanmar, has emerged as a hotspot of illegal fishing activity, where 100% of all fishing activity is not tracked.

And to make matters worse, some fishers off of these shores use poison to catch the area’s abundance of finfish and shrimp. This not only damages the health of those who consume the poisoned products, but it also endangers the largest mangrove forest ecosystem in the world.

Strengthening Global Cooperation & Enforcement Efforts

This study can serve as a loud and clear warning sign for all of us. Addressing the scourge of dark vessel fishing requires international cooperation, significant investment in monitoring and onsite enforcement, and promoting sustainable fishing practices are all essential components of a comprehensive strategy to combat IUU fishing.

Though daunting, this undertaking would help recover an estimated global economic loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion annually. Not to mention the restoration of vulnerable coastal communities and local economies suffering from devastating poverty and food insecurity.

Furthermore, this methodology can be easily adapted to tackle other global issues, like climate change. Mapping all vessels can improve estimates of oceanic carbon emissions and track marine degradation.

“Previously, this type of satellite monitoring was only available to those who could pay for it. Now it is freely available to all nations.

This study marks the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.”

 

          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Much can be learned from this team of researchers in terms of determination to source discreet data sets around the globe, innovative implementation of artificial intelligence, and cross-organization cooperation. If we follow suit, we can find new ways to shine a light on these activities and hold those responsible for their crimes.

What We Can Do Today

We can empower ourselves right away by realizing the trickle-down effect of our everyday purchase decisions. If we don’t buy fish products sourced from countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other areas of the world with rampant dark vessels, fewer IUU ships will bother fishing in less lucrative territories.

As for discrete locations, if you prefer wild-caught, stick with fish caught in the northern shores of Europe. For farmed, consider fish from reputable countries like Norway, Scotland, Canada, and Chile.

Organizations focused on sustainable seafood can provide practical, research-based recommendations, too. Seafood Watch creates helpful guides to better navigate our grocery aisles and stick to more sustainable species and acceptable countries of origin (here’s the Watch’s guide for shrimp). You can also keep an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue “MSC” label to stick with sustainable fish species.

Still can’t find the country of origin for the fish you want? Ask someone, whether it’s the associate behind the seafood counter, customer service at the grocery store, or the waiter who must ask the chef. If many of us ask this question wherever we purchase seafood, more industry players will be compelled to start readily providing these details.

Food Security: A Critical Element of Global Conflict

Psychologists tell us we all have the same instinct. When threatened, our first instinct is to flee – just get away from the problem. Walk away from the bully. Leave the bar when the debate over the “greatest quarterback of all time” gets too heated.  Go to the other end of the table when that in-law starts on the all-too-familiar political rant at the family reunion dinner. (And in my family, just get out of town until the grand jury is no longer in session.)

And around the world, the issue is much more serious. For millions of people worldwide, the option has become more drastic —

Simply pack up everything you can carry and head for the border.

Recent migration trends

The United Nations in 2020 estimated there were 281 million emigrants worldwide, or roughly 3.6 percent of the entire global population. The flow of people occurs around the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America – no area is immune.

In the United States, authorities last year admitted over 820,000 migrants, up from 797,800 in the previous year.  Border officials report the flow of all immigrants into the United States – euphemistically referred to as “encounters with authorities” — was more like 2.8 million, up from 2.7 million in 2022.

Immigration has been a key factor in U.S. growth and development, certainly. “Migrant stock” – meaning those living in the country now but born in another country – in 2015 was estimated at more than 46 million – or more than 14 percent of our entire population.

The United States added 1.6 million to our population last year, bringing us to 334.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of that increase, more than two-thirds came from international migration. With a U.S. birth rate of just 12 births per 1,000 people, migrants drive our nation’s population growth.

Conflict ignites flight…or fight

The flood of people seeking to flee their home countries attracts widespread attention.

For instance, in 2023, 1.55 million people fled Sudan to nearby countries such as Ethiopia, Egypt and Chad because of a war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. Since the war began, over 6 million have fled Ukraine for parts of Europe. And so do a comparable flood of stories about armed conflict around the world. The two phenomena may have more in common than the headlines reveal.

Those same psychologists who explain our propensity for “flight” also point to another human characteristic – the “fight or flight” syndrome. What happens when it’s simply impossible to flee a bad situation? What happens when you simply can’t run to a new home, a new town, or a new country? And what are the reasons so many places around the world seem to have taken the “fight” option?

There are no easy answers to those questions.

The sheer scale of the problem is immediately daunting. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) currently follows more than 20 active global conflicts, spanning the entire globe, plus major lingering arenas of conflict in places like the Middle East, India and Pakistan, and large parts of Africa.

Some are long-standing territorial disputes, some the latest front in a continuing history of corruption and political instability.  The specific combination of contributing factors may vary from each situation to another. However, it is possible to see some of the broad categories of causes of open conflict. Think of the situation in just a few key areas:

Open and hidden aggression

As the long-running battle in Ukraine makes clear, sometimes conflict can be triggered by outside forces – one country or outside entity intent on seizing control, economic resources, or other perceived national interests. The aggression can be an open invasion, as in the case of Ukraine, or through continuing acts of terrorism designed to produce the same results.

Many regional conflicts are rooted in a continuing pattern of terroristic acts, with proxy agents providing a thin veneer of deniability among nations. This kind of aggression usually has been bubbling for generations and maintains perpetual full employment in diplomatic circles.

The vicious circle of poverty, food security & hunger-related disease  

When people can’t afford or are denied access to the nutritious food they need, their health suffers dramatically.  Poor, oppressed, starving people have nothing to lose by taking up arms, especially if flight is made dangerous or impossible. The “Arab Spring” of the 2010s sprung in part from the rising cost and increasing lack of food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that levels of malnourished populations have been rising steadily since 2014 around the world, reaching 8.9 percent of the world’s population prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Between 2018 and 2019 alone, the number of hungry people expanded by 10 million.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the ranks of the global malnourished have increased by over 150 million since then.  If people will take up arms over a tank of gasoline, imagine what they will do to ensure food for their families.

The incidence of natural disasters

Floods, drought, high temperatures, hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes – all destroy homes, communities, and lives. But some catastrophes can also fuel food insecurity or social unrest, destroying local agricultural productivity and the food supply chain.

Significant damage to the natural resource base can be a strong influence on the willingness of people to relocate – or to fight for those resources possessed by others. The conflict may be between nations, or within one, as the situation in Somalia has made clear. Civil war can be just as vicious as international conflict.

Breakdown in social order & institutions

Modern society is rooted in the presence of certain basic institutions and systems: efficient and effective government administration, a fair and impartial legal system, a stable financial system, some form of functioning, transparent market system to establish prices and value, and fundamental human services such as safe water, power and personal protection.

Criminality and especially criminal violence must be controlled. When any of those critical elements of society fail or are called into question, the foundation of social stability is threatened. When corruption and incompetence reach critical levels, strikes, street demonstrations, political resistance –and conflict – become increasingly appealing options – and the source of many civil wars plaguing nations on the CFR list.

Taking a closer look

Ask Venezuela for details, if you want – or any country plagued by government failure to protect its citizens and internal terrorist attacks. You can learn more about Venezuela’s conflict-ridden system below; Somalia and Gaza & West Bank are also listed to serve as tragic examples of designated conflict areas, too.

               

Return of El Niño Sends Up Red Flags


It’s an old cliché that whenever two or more farmers get together, it takes no more than three minutes before the subject of the weather comes up. But with El Niño’s return, we probably can cut that three minutes at least in half.

What’s El Niño?

There are two weather systems off the coast of South America that dramatically affect the winter and summer weather in the United States: El Niño and La Niña. Both of these are a result of the Pacific Ocean surface temperatures causing tropical rainfall that then changes the weather patterns around the globe. Each event typically occurs approximately every three to five years. They both tend to develop in March through June, peak substantially sometime between December to April, and then weaken from May through July.

The ENSO blog, written by experts who forecast El Niño and La Niña, tell us we’re in the very early stages of another El Niño – the climatic phenomenon that results when waters in key parts of the Pacific Ocean start to warm up abnormally, changing normal atmospheric flows and potentially triggering all sorts of weather extremes.

El Niños are nothing new. We’ve seen them periodically for decades, including some notoriously severe El Niños in 1985, 1997 and 2015.  The effects of El Niño extend around the world, with often dramatic – sometimes catastrophic – changes in weather patterns. The worst was the 1982-1983 El Niño that dramatically affected Australia, North & South America, Africa, and Indonesia. For instance, Peru had 11 feet of rain when it normally has 6 inches.

But this time around, the experts are particularly concerned.

The venerable British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) cites weather scientists are “warning there is a good chance that it could be a particularly strong El Niño this year.”

Such strong language may reflect our pre-occupation with global warming and overall climate change. Both have emerged as perennial – maybe “perpetual” is a better word – cause for global concern.

According to NOAA, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and the National Air and Space Administration (NASA), the world remains locked in an undeniable pattern of warmer temperatures. The eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2014, with 2016 the warmest year ever and 2022 clocking in as either the fifth or sixth warmest. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the last El Niño began in 2015.)

What’s more, experts note that these record global temps occurred during an “La Niña” event dating back to 2020. For three years, the Pacific waters have been cooler than normal, leading some observers to question just how bad the temperature levels would have been absent the generally cooling effect of a La Niña on atmospheric patterns.

In simple terms, there’s ample cause to question just how bad the effect of our latest El Niño could be on our planet – and especially our agricultural system.

What exactly does an El Niño do?

In June, NOAA announced evidence that the next El Niño already has begun. As in a typical El Niño event, water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean have been rising, and some experts also note that the area of warmer waters actually has begun expanding to the west.

The phenomenon usually first appears in the waters off Peru and Ecuador, occurring on average every two to five years and typically lasting nine to 12 months, and sometimes longer. This time around, the agency projects an 84 percent likelihood of a “moderate” El Niño and a 56 percent likelihood of a “strong” event. As the BBC report suggests, other experts offer more pessimistic assessments.

The warmer waters change the normal circular patterns governing movement of the upper atmosphere. Warmer waters “push” the overlying air northward faster than normal, altering the jet stream that guides weather systems around the globe. Normal east to west trade winds diminish and sometimes actually cease altogether, with resultant effect on normal cloud cover. Traditional weather patterns change.

The resulting problems come in many forms:

  • changed precipitation patterns, and greater risk of either drought or flood;
  • extreme temperatures; and
  • more dramatic weather events.

But the front lines of the fight against El Niño ’s pernicious effects lie with global agriculture. Farmers and ranchers face yet more uncertainty and enormous complications in managing their crops, flocks and herds.

Experts, however, caution that the complications created by global warming and climate change make such generalizations problematic. One NOAA official observed, “we’re in unprecedented territory.” As an example of the complexity or making predictions, note that hurricane experts acknowledge El Niño ’s dampening effect on the number and severity of hurricanes but nonetheless project a “near-average” hurricane season.

What’s at stake for agriculture?

True optimists hope producers in northern areas will be spared the worst from El Niño, while increased rainfall in other parts of the country might help deal with the lingering effects of drought in some key producing areas. But optimists have been hard to identify since weather agencies made their El Niño pronouncements in early June.

Weather extremes obviously can be devastating for both crop and animal producers. Heat and dry conditions stress crops and animals alike, increasing the need for water and often nutritional and veterinary support. Water supplies and shelter facilities must be managed and maintained more closely than ever. Monitoring of herds and flocks must be stepped up to identify and deal with threats to animal health and well-being generated by the extreme conditions.

Nor are the threats posed by temperature extremes limited to excessive heat and resulting dry conditions. The phenomenon fuels both higher high and lower low temperatures. Risk of damaging frosts and the need to shelter and protect animals from the cold and chill also increase.

More broadly, the added elements of unpredictability generated by El Niño mean farmers and ranchers have to place even more time, money and energy into planning for worst-cased weather scenarios.

Where are the biggest risk areas?

No one who has dealt with previous El Niño s will attempt to predict specifically how the emerging El Niño will play out in each and every agricultural region or situation. But experience and sound science can identify some of the areas most likely to be affected as El Niño continues over the coming months.

Among the areas to watch closely:

United States

El Niño is most likely to trigger drier, warmer weather in the northern United States and Canada, and more and heavier precipitation in the southern United States.

Some optimists argue El Niño could generate more rainfall for key areas of California – a trend that normally would be seen as a positive. But this year’s abundant snowpack and melt might further complicate the water-management challenge for the state. Some observers express similar hopes for the pockets of midwestern drought – but acknowledge the equal risk of seeing dry conditions become even drier.

Australia

Australia sits firmly in the historic El Niño bullseye. The 2015-16 event proved especially troublesome for a country that plays a central role in global trade of commodities and diverse food products. Australia’s efforts to step into global markets with abundant wheat and barley crops, for example, played a major role in helping mute the adverse effects of last year’s devastating loss of grain and oilseed supplies from the Black Sea corridor.

Australia exports 80 percent of its wheat, half of its barley and 90 percent of its wool. With more than 25 million head of cattle, the country trails only Brazil as the globe’s largest exporter of beef. By any measure, the country is a major supplier to a hungry world.  The 2015-16 El Niño helped drive the fourth-warmest temperatures on record.

With the world’s demand for wheat and other foods still increasing, Australia once again is a major factor in global food security.

Southeast Asia and the western Pacific

Disruptions to the normal monsoons could adversely affect many of the mainstay crops that dominate this region, providing food staples to literally billions of people.

Palm oil, for example, makes up more than half of all the vegetable oils consumed globally. About 60 percent of global palm oil comes from Indonesia; another 29 per cent is grown in nearby Malaysia and Thailand. Rising demand and tight supplies already have led to export restrictions among some major producers. Changes to traditional monsoon patterns and other weather-related complications can only add to the threat of further supply disruptions and drive further market gyrations.

Rice markets face similar concerns. Rice, a staple food for billions, is the second most important cereal crop in the world (behind only corn). Markets look to China, India, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Thailand for 75 percent of total production.

India

India’s role as a major player in global agriculture often is overlooked. India leads the world in acreage planted to wheat, rice and cotton, and ranks very near the top of global production charts for fruit, vegetables, sugarcane, sugar, rice and cotton. India farmers feed what is soon to become the world’s largest national population (1.5 billion by 2030) – and still export large quantities of the essential commodities sought by global customers.

China and Brazil

Both countries are critical elements of the global food system, both as exporters of commodities and food products. El Niño projections place China largely outside the areas expected to be most affected by weather events tied to El Niño.

Scientists also predict the worst of the potential “dry” conditions affecting Brazil will fall in the northern part of the country, which trails the southern areas as key agricultural producing regions. Brazilian produces soybeans, sugar cane, corn, cotton, beef and other commodities and food products – many of which should continue to compete aggressively in what could become an even tighter market supply picture.

But the same experts caution that specific abnormal weather events may occur  nonetheless across the globe as a result of El Niño, especially when coupled with overall global warming patterns. El Niño only adds to the weather and climate challenges facing today’s global food system.

What does all this mean for the food consumer?

The losses imposed by El Niño are far from inconsequential. Experts measure their economic costs in the trillion of dollars — on average around $3.4 trillion, and as much as $5.7 trillion from the severe 1997-98 El Niño. Those costs ripple through national economies – with consumers ultimately paying their share.

Russian Wheat & Global Food Security

The Russian wheat situation is somewhat different from Ukraine’s, which you may have read about in last week’s post. Despite the conflict, Russian wheat production and exports have shown remarkable signs of rebounding from the trade disruptions that accompanied the Ukraine invasion. Russia is still the number one wheat exporter in the world…and by a large margin. (Want to learn more about wheat? Click here to read an informative post.)

Russia & Wheat: We’re Number One

Various media reports place this year’s Russian wheat crop at 92 million metric tons, compared to a five-year average of around 78 million metric tons. This is despite lingering problems with drought in some production areas and spot shortages of high-priced inputs. (Global fertilizer supplies and prices remain a major concern.) The Russian trade ministry recently raised projected wheat exports for 2022-23 to 41.5 million metric tons.  Russia remains the number-one wheat exporter to the world, selling more than $7.3 billion in 2021.

russian wheat import export

Other trade sources report similar numbers and point out that Russia exported 24.9 million tonnes of wheat, 3.2 million more than a year ago. Exports more than doubled to 3.8 million tons last month from January 2022, before the invasion. Russian wheat shipments were at or near record highs in November, December and January, increasing 24 percent over the same three months a year earlier, according to British-American financial market data firm Refinitiv.

russian wheat yieldsRussia’s investment in agricultural-related infrastructure and application of improved production techniques have helped drive the significant yield improvements essential to this growth.

Estimated crop yields of 3.2 tons per hectare in 2022-23, when compared to 1.8 tons per hectare as recently as 2012-13, powerfully reflect the commitment to continuing growth of both Russian wheat production and export capacity that have been underway and established for decades.

Russia has become the world’s leading wheat exporter not by accident…but by design.

The first year of the 21st century, Russia exported a modest 696,000 tons of wheat. In the late 1970s, they were struggling to import wheat. Ten years later, having made tremendous inroads into Asian, Middle East and African markets, Russia increased that total to 18.5 million tons.

By 2018, Russia more than doubled that total when it exported a jaw-dropping 41.4 million tons of wheat, which still stands as a record. Since then, the country has exported around 35 million tons per year.

World Grain, Dec. 27, 2021

Apart from the need to feed a population of 148 million, at least some of the drive to maintain and grow wheat exports today can be traced to Russia’s need for foreign exchange to help cover the costs of a potentially prolonged conflict. With energy demand from major customers in Europe reduced by a mild winter and astute European supply-management steps, reduced energy income must be offset somehow. Wheat exports offer an important alternative source.

Russian wheat & food security

But from the Russian perspective, optimism clearly may not be the operative word.  Maintaining exports of the agricultural commodities the world needs must remain a top priority for Putin, if only for national economic interests.  But as a further concern, Putin has to be sensitive to the absolutely critical role played by wheat in providing political stability across a large swath of the world on its southern border.

When you look at the last two decades, Russia has shown such impressive growth. You look at the acreage changes; they’ve gone up 30% to 50% for many of the grain crops such as wheat and sunflower seed. Production has grown three times more than it was.

Wheat production nowadays is 150% above where it was 20 years ago. It’s been impressive to see how much this country was able to scale up production.”

Stefan Vogel, Rabobank’s global sector strategist for grain & oilseeds

A staple around the world, wheat – and bread – provide basic nutrition for literally hundreds of millions of people, often in regions where the need for an affordable source of life-sustaining nutrition is most critical. Egypt is the number one importer of Russian wheat. Right now, they are in an economic crisis where one-third of their population lives below the poverty line.

Neighbor Turkey remains the largest per-capita consumer of bread in the entire world. Governments across the Middle East and Africa often provide generous consumer subsidies to assure it remains affordable and available. Elimination and reduction of these subsidies have been major factors cited in the “Arab Spring” uprisings of the early 2010s. To this day, a steady stream of wheat remains a top priority for these nations.

The larger issue of food security remains very much unresolved, despite the remarkable achievements of the past year in restoring the flow of wheat and other commodities from the Black Sea region. The global community will be watching closely for signs of what comes next.

But is it enough?

Capitalizing on the value of its wheat may not be a simple process, however. Much of the global community remains committed to imposing a high cost on Russia for its Ukraine actions. Shipping costs, primarily insurance, remain unsettled in the region, due to the lingering threat of further escalation in the conflict.

The continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that opened the door for resumed exports also must be renewed this spring.

While the benefits to Russia of maintaining the agreement may seem obvious, observers nonetheless caution that the enormous pressures facing Russian leaders could prompt still more logic-defying actions.

Maybe just as important, the much of rest of the wheat-producing world seems intent on fighting to supply the world’s rising demand for wheat. Australia, for example, has enjoyed back-to-back record wheat crops, and in December reported a 50 percent increase in monthly wheat exports.

Significantly, Australian trade officials note that many of the country’s current export customers are the Middle East and African nations so dependent historically on Black Sea shipments.

And then there’s weather, finance, politics….

Reports of a renewed offensive by Russian troops have circulated widely, with evidence of an increase in Russian troops to about 500,000  and more equipment along the eastern Ukraine border and occupied territories. Heated rhetoric from the Kremlin has only added to the tension, and President Joe Biden’s recent daring visit to Kyiv has prompted yet another round of dire threats and warnings of an escalated conflict.

China’s top diplomat paid Putin a visit in February which sent nervous energy throughout the western world. National leaders worry that support from China and more aggressive action by Russia could expand the conflict still further, prompting more and more retaliatory response from the West.

The unspoken fear is the emergence of voices seeking to “weaponize food” – that is, to punish Russia by limiting or attempting to cut off Russian agricultural exports.

Leaders so far have recognized the enormous damage to food security everywhere in such a misguided effort. But if Russian aggression expands, the risk of overreaction is always a worry.

In such an environment, the risks associated with moving grains, oilseeds, fertilizers, and other commodities through the Black Sea corridor also might drive shipping and insurance costs even higher – and at some point, to unacceptable and uneconomic levels.

Russian political upheaval

The conflict has been expensive for Russia, in every way possible. The Hill reported the cost of the first nine months of the conflict alone at $82 billiion, including equipment losses of $21 billion.  At that level, the conflict is eating up as much as a quarter of Russia’s 2021 earnings.

Human costs have also been high. The protracted battle has created an enormous need for more Russian troops.  Six months into the conflict, Russian officials increased the size of their armed forces by 137,000, to 1,150,000.  U.S officials cited by the BBC estimate that between 169,000 and 190,000 Russian troops are involved in the conflict.  This spring it is estimated that at least 500,000 civilians will be called into action.

Speculation over possible changes in Russian leadership has become a global parlor game.  But ample credible evidence exists of frustration with the current situation, and reports of paranoia and competing leadership cabals can’t be dismissed. Should change occur, the question might well become whether a new regime would seek to unwind the conflict, or escalate it in search of a final victory, no matter the international consequences.

In the meantime, many Russian citizens are fleeing the country. One media report in September claimed that as many as 700,000 citizens fled to western Europe and more easily accessible neighboring former Soviet satellite countries in a single two-week period.

Wikipedia claims that “following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 300,000 Russian citizens and residents are estimated to have left Russia by mid-March 2022, at least 500,000 by the end of August 2022, and an additional 400,000 by early October, for a total of approximately 900,000.”

The Moscow Times in May 2022 reported that 3.8 million Russians left the country in the first three months of the year alone. Whatever the actual figure of emigres, the exodus of Russian citizens during the conflict has been enormous.

Our Daily Bread: Uncertainty in Global Wheat Markets

A year ago, the world held its breath as Russian troops poured across the Ukraine border and sent global energy and commodity markets into a panicked spiral. Food security for millions seemed at greater risk than ever before, as vital exports of wheat, corn and oilseeds from Ukraine and Russia through the Black Sea corridor simply ceased.

What’s in store for wheat now?

But today, the picture seems to have changed. The Russian onslaught has been stymied if not totally repelled. Exports from the area have resumed, and energy and commodity markets have calmed a bit and retreated from record-high levels. Crop production in Russia has rebounded, and Ukraine producers have proven to be remarkably resilient in the face of continuing battle and devastation in important eastern agricultural regions.

So why are so many people still holding their breath about the ongoing conflict, and its potential threat to food security? The answer is simple.

Despite the signs of hope that have emerged over the past year, the list of potential threats remains substantial, each with dire consequences.

Solving all the remaining threats is a Rubik’s Cube of agronomic, economic, political and other decisions and actions involving the entire global community.

The complexity of the challenge can be seen in the open issues facing just one segment of the global agricultural system: wheat.

(Want to learn a little more about wheat before you dive in? Read this.)

What’s so important about wheat?

Wheat is the source of bread. Virtually every citizen of western society knows the simple common prayer at the heart of western religion and the social contract that makes civilization possible: Give us today our daily bread.

Six simple words express the essential role of wheat in the food security we require in our daily lives. The bread that wheat makes possible is one of our oldest foods – with evidence of a primitive form produced more than 17,000 years ago. Scientists tell us that bread became a dietary staple during the Neolithic era, 10,000 years ago.  The wheat we recognize today originated in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose headwaters begin the mountains south of the Black Sea in today’s headlines.

Wheat is a cornerstone agricultural commodity. Flour is used to bake breads, cakes, pizza, tortillas, pasta, pastries and more – all the elements of the “daily bread” of human existence.

The word ‘bread’ – in all its linguistic variations – is a common and easily recognized element of virtually every language on earth. 

Pain, brot, xleb, roti, nan, akara, mkata… all mean bread, and all are part of the foundational vocabulary in their respective linguistic training.

Bread remains something all of us both need and want in our lives, every day. It drives a relentless demand for wheat – a basic human need common to the entire western world.

Ukraine and wheat

This apparently incessant increase in demand for wheat may be one of the largest reasons for worry that persists about the Ukraine conflict.

Over the past year, the world has been told over and over again just how important Ukraine has become as a major supplier of grains and oilseeds to the global marketplace.

News of the courage and resiliency of the Ukraine producer and the entire national agricultural sector has been inspirational.

But the fact remains that the Ukraine agricultural sector’s rebound has been built on a pivot to greater emphasis on export of corn and oilseeds specifically sunflowers, more than wheat.

Regardless, Ukraine is still the 5th largest exporter of wheat, just behind the United States and France.

Reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the devastating effects of conflict on Ukraine’s wheat sector:

The 2022-23 wheat crop just harvested showed a 37 percent decline from the previous year’s production, down 25 percent from their five-year average.

Not surprisingly, Ukraine wheat exports have dipped as well, falling from roughly 18 million metric tons last year to a projected 10 million in 2022-23, according to the Ukrainian Grain Association.

Ukraine wheat remains very price competitive, and the near-by European Union still relies on available rail and other transportation channels to buy as much as 45 percent of Ukraine wheat exports, the USDA estimates.

Ukraine’s uncertain future

The risks associated with the conflict continue to generate high shipping and insurance costs, and Ukraine trade officials seem content to focus undamaged resources and energies on more lucrative market opportunities for corn and oilseeds.

Imagine trying to farm when your country is at war. You know growing food is important, but so is your freedom. In a country slightly smaller than the size of Texas, it is hard to separate farming and fighting. In addition, wheat production overlaps areas of Russian invasion.

As a dire result, Ukraine has even less land as the Russians have taken over 3.8 million hectares of beautiful rich black soil of Ukrainian farmland and another 3.8 million are too close to the frontline, either destroyed, and/ or full of landmines.

In addition, even the land further away is difficult to manage because of financing, lack of working capital, and high fuel and fertilizer costs. All of this makes it difficult to sow seeds this spring.  Yet, it is a credit to human nature that the farmers are optimistic they will win the war.

It is expected that the fighting will pick up this spring. Russia is moving 500,000 recruited Russian troops in the area and the 60,000 Ukrainian troops have been training with NATO countries (watch operational update here). It seems that May will be a telling month.

Next week, D2D will explore the importance of Russia’s wheat exports and why they are important for global food.

[Subheadline: Despite Progress, Resolution of Russia/Ukraine Conflict Remains Critical to Global Food Security  |   Keywords:  Russia, Ukraine, bread, wheat, food security, hunger, invasion, conflict, Black Sea, shipping, exports, emigration]

A new take on the old shell game


Richard will introduce us to the wonderful world of peanuts – and the important role they can play in helping the world satisfy its hunger for more protein.

Listen to him explain the different kinds of peanuts, and the amazing nutritional benefits of this plant protein. Hear him describe how the peanut industry is working to find more ways to deliver peanuts to kids and adults around the world. If you still find comfort in a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you are going to love to hear Richard tell us about some of the imaginative ways that old favorite is being delivered in new and creative ways to accommodate our modern lifestyle.

Richard also will tell us about some of the opportunities for American peanut farmers in foreign markets – and how the industry is making sustainability one of its top priorities.

There’s something for everyone in this episode of Digging In. It’s a conversation you’ll find interesting and informative. So grab that handful of peanuts – or maybe a nice PB&J – and join us for what we believe is a very special podcast.

And maybe a glass of milk, too.

China’s Plight with Food Independence

Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) want China to have food independence. But they can’t. Each day, China must feed 20% of the global population on a land mass slightly smaller than the U.S. As a result, China has become the largest agricultural importer in the world. Overall, they import 12% of the global food trade and only export 5%. They are consumers of 27% of the world’s meat, 45% of global soybeans, and 18% of global corn.

What is the CCP importing?

China relies on other countries to supply them with items such as beer, tree nuts, wine, fresh fruits, dairy, and meat.

And let’s not forget corn and soybeans to feed their own pork and poultry.

China’s population has peaked out at 1.4 billion people today, but even with an expected population decline, that’s still a lot of people. Yet those who live in rural areas are still moving to cities. As their diets become more sophisticated, it is projected by 2025 that each Chinese citizen will consume 20% more meat at 116 pounds from just 99 pounds per year today. (This is compared to the U.S. at 225 per person.)

More meat on China’s table means more hogs and chickens, and a three-fold increase in milk consumption means more dairy cows – all waiting to be fed with more soybeans and corn.

On top of that, Chinese consumers are increasing their use of soybean oil for cooking. Put the pieces together and the enormity of the challenge facing China becomes readily apparent: China’s hopes for food security rest substantially on the need for help outside its borders.

Aside from food security, Xi is having a tough time. Just to mention a few things…

  • Citizens all over China protested Covid lockdowns and encouraged Xi to resign. He discontinued restrictions, gave the Chinese their freedom, and it is anticipated that one-third of their population will end up with Covid and one million could die.
  • GDP has declined from supply chain issues, a drop in real estate prices, lower infrastructure spending, and reduced corporate profits due to weak domestic demand.
  • The world is watching and speculating about a possible invasion of Taiwan.
  • Companies are leaving China to produce their goods in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
  • Chinese espionage is rampant. 
  • …And finally, the crimes against humanity by the CCP toward the Uyghurs adds to the global dislike toward Xi and the CCP.

While we can’t read Xi’s mind, we can look at some of China’s decisions that give us insights into their strategy for food security.

The Five-Year Plan

Food security concerns were confirmed in March 2022 during the Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) presentation at the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Here, Xi stressed that eating matters most, and food is the most basic necessity of the people.

Their Five-Year Plan may sound reasonable – but in reality, it is fraught with insurmountable challenges.

Their strategic plan called for annual grain production such as corn, rice, and wheat of no less than 650 million metric tonnes and meat production of 89 million tonnes. Meeting the production goals of this lofty plan demands a 102% increase in domestic grains. They are achieving their meat goals at 88 million metric tons, but how will they produce the volume of grain-based animal feed necessary to maintain that production level for meat?

Over the last few years, China has increasingly relied on imports of agricultural goods to meet these demands. In fact, they bought $33 billion of ag imports from the U.S. in 2021 – a 33% increase from 2020 – making China its top purchaser.

And China’s dependence doesn’t stop there. Brazil continues to be its top ag supplier with 22% market share in 2021. The U.S. is close behind with 18%, followed by the European Union with $24.4B in ag imports.

A future without food shortages requires an improvement in the quality and farmland and an increase in crop yields. The CCP is upgrading 16.5 million acres to withstand droughts and floods to produce higher yields through technology, irrigation, and pollution control.

But is their arable land fixable? China’s limited environmental regulations combined with an aggressive move to middle-class urbanization has polluted both the soil and water, creating major strains on-farm resources. Not to mention toxic human waste, agricultural and industrial chemicals can be found everywhere in the soil. The story is grim.

About 80% of food grown in China is produced by 250 million smallholder farmers, many of whom work very hard, albeit with limited machinery. So they struggle to grow their crops on a large scale like the U.S. and Brazil, as some of their yields are only 60% of full capacity.

An academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering said, “In terms of typical agricultural machinery such as tractors and harvesters, there is a gap of more than 30 years between us and foreign countries.”

To ensure these farmers can make a living and prevent them from poverty the CPP provides higher prices for food grown at home than that imported. To help their farmers, and to mitigate climate change, there is a minimum purchase price for wheat and rice. Overall, the price support was 14.8% of gross farm receipts.

“Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop to drink.”

Their arable land is not pristine. China has 20% of the global population but only possesses 6% of the world’s groundwater. About 40% of China’s agricultural land is polluted with unsafe water. Almost all of China’s lakes and rivers are also polluted and the wild-caught fish is not really edible. Their farmed fish isn’t so great either.

The Ministry of Water Resources tested 2,103 wells in three different watersheds and found that 80% of the groundwater is polluted with toxic metals and other contaminants. Another research study by Tsinghua University found that at least 100 million Chinese drink unsafe water with high concentrations of toxic chemicals which take centuries to degrade and cannot be easily detoxified by the human body.

Extreme weather in the form of floods and heat has also affected their food production. It has damaged at least 14 million acres of crops, ruined roads, and displaced millions of people.

GMOs will help. A little worm called the Fall Armyworm also arrived in China devastating about 2.7 million acres of crops in 26 provinces and regions. It attacked mostly corn but also wheat, ginger, sugarcane, and sorghum. While the worm started in the America’s, U.S. farmers are able to prevent crop failure due to GMOs, specifically Bt corn. Currently, China’s reconsidering its stance on GMOs.

Their pork industry was cut in half in 2018 by the highly contagious African Swine Fever. Pork is their favorite meat and China farms half the world’s pig population. In 2018, during the crisis, they lost almost 50% of their herd. While most of the herds have been built back up, this deadly virus took its toll on both the farmer and the consumer. Farmers had to rebuild their herds and the consumer paid $3.50 a pound compared to $1.50 before ASF.

Strategies to secure U.S. food supply

Acquiring U.S. land is one strategy to alleviate food security. Concern over China purchasing U.S. land is running high.  Even though they own just under 1% of U.S. land, their interest in U.S. agriculture has grown significantly since 2000. Since 2020, Chinese investors own about 192,000 acres valued at $1.9 billion. As of December 2020, 37.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land is owned by foreign investors. That is 2.9% of cropland, pasture, forest, and other.

It is not the amount of land that is concerning but the location. As of December 2020, China has purchased over 352,140 acres of U.S. land. Part of this purchase included 370 acres in Grand Forks, North Dakota. A Chinese company called Fufeng Group purchased this land right next to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Of course, this has sent off alarms among citizens and government officials alike.

Associated with the CCP, Sun Guangxin has spent the last five years buying up 140,000 acres in Texas for his own Blue Hills Wind Farm – right next to the Laughlin Air Force Base. Luckily, this was stopped by the Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act which is to prevent hostile nations from accessing Texas’s electricity grid and other infrastructure.

Mike Pence was reported to have said at the Heritage Foundation, “America cannot allow China to control our food supply.” In addition, three Republican senators wrote a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to review this purchase. The House Appropriations Committee voted to prevent China from buying more U.S. farmland. But in reality, it is hard to tell who is buying our farmland and some loopholes allow the Chinese to purchase our land through an American investor.

Chinese companies investing in U.S. companies

China’s Shuanghui Group purchased Smithfield Foods, which was the largest U.S. pork producer. Besides acquiring their technology, the purchase included 146,000 acres to house hog farms, processing plants, and feed mills. Since the acquisition, WH Group (formerly Shuanghui), now a state-run meat packing facility, purchased Clougherty Packing from Hormel and Kansas City Sausage, LLC. In addition, they have canceled contracts with U.S. grain co-ops and purchased their own grain elevators to feed their hogs.

This acquisition has helped China grow its pork outside China in the U.S. This makes it easier for them to purchase corn and soybeans in the U.S. and then feed their hogs in the U.S. The pork is cut and packaged here in the U.S. and then shipped to China. It also alleviates any corn and soybean tariffs China would have to pay for U.S. imports.

Similar U.S.- China channels like this can also offset China’s substantial demand for grain production. COFCO, a Chinese food processing company, partnered with GROWMARK a U.S. grain logistics company. This gives them access to grains exported to China via the Mississippi River. This important waterway exports 92% of U.S. agricultural exports and 78% of grains and soybeans.

Lost at Sea: Ukraine Struggles to Revive Ag Sector

Sea-borne exports had ended following Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, disrupting international agricultural markets, which depend upon Ukraine for a significant portion of the corn, wheat, and sunflower oil moving in international markets. Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s agricultural exports reached almost $28 billion in value.

After the cessation of exports due to the invasion, an international agreement allowing the resumption of shipments through the Black Sea helped restore trade. But the Ukraine Ministry of Trade nonetheless has reported a decline of 30.7 percent in grain exports. Global commodity prices have receded from the peaks reached immediately after the invasion, but price volatility (coupled with comparable uncertainty in global energy markets) continues to worry inflation-conscious leaders far beyond the Black Sea theater.

A Refresher Course in Ukraine Agriculture

Dirt to Dinner first reported on the situation in Ukraine in January, including a recap of the significant role played by that country in global agricultural markets.

But as a reminder of why this subject remains so important to our global food system, here are some important facts:

  • Agricultural products are Ukraine’s most important exports. In 2021 they totaled $27.8 billion, accounting for 41 percent of the country’s $68 billion in overall exports.
  • In 2021, Ukraine was the largest global exporter of sunflower oil and meal; #3 in barley and rapeseed exports; #4 in corn exports; #5 in global wheat trade, #7 in soybean markets; #9 in sunflower trade. Ukraine exports at least 75% of total production of these top crops.

  • Largest fertilizer producer in the European Union, with exports of mineral fertilizer and ammonia to nearly 70 countries worth more than $2 billion; exports account for roughly 10 percent of the global mineral fertilizer market
  • 33% of the total population is engaged in agriculture
  • Has 80 million acres of arable land (#10 globally)
  • Prior to the invasion, it had 45,000 ag enterprises (55% gross output), and 4 million farming households. Agriculture also represented 11% of Ukraine’s GDP and 38% of total foreign exchange earnings
  • Major export partners: #1 Russia, #2 China, #3 Poland
  • Major import partners: #1 China, #2 Russia, #3 Germany, #4 Poland (energy)
  • Most Ukrainian exports pass-through ports on the Black and Azov Seas: Odessa, Pivdeny, Chornomorsk, Kherson, Mariupol, and Berdyansk
Sources for bulleted data: National Investment Council of Ukraine; International Trade Administration; www.trade.gov, US AID, Successful Farming, USDA WASDE & PSD Database, USDA FAS.

What’s the current situation?

As has been widely reported, the invasion promoted an immediate shutdown of exports from Ukraine. Government officials, humanitarian groups, and others almost immediately began expressing grave concerns about the effect of the shutdown on the markets traditionally served through the Black Sea corridor.

Many of these customers included some of the most food-insecure populations in the entire world – markets across the Middle East and Africa, in particular. Ukraine alone provides more than 40 percent of grain distributed in the developing world by the United Nations World Food Program.

In response to the dire situation, national leaders responded by negotiating the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed a resumption of shipments under controlled conditions.

Ukraine officials reported in early November that grain exports from the country had reached 15.1 million tons since the start of the 2022-2023 agricultural year that began in July. That includes roughly 8 million tons of corn, 1.2 million tons of barley, 5.7 million tons of wheat and smaller volumes of rye, flour and other agricultural commodities.

Exports levels for wheat still are down more than half from their peak, barley shipments down almost 75 percent, and rye down by more than 80 percent. But corn shipments have shown a strong recovery, and while the export volumes remain largely well below pre-invasion levels, the success of the Sea Grain Initiative has been a major step forward for Ukraine, Ukraine farmers, local consumers and foreign customers.

Prior to the recent Ukraine announcement, data from the United Nations already had shown the progress being made. UN estimated that more than 10.4 million tons of grains and other foods have shipped from Ukraine ports since the Initiative was signed in July.

The United Nations Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) notes that 19 loaded vessels await inspection in Turkey. Ukraine officials, however, place the total number of vessels having loaded under the agreement much higher – closer to 150 in all.

Meanwhile, as many as 110 vessels are poised to enter key Ukraine ports for loading, according to some media reports.

The growing signs of the success of the initiative allowing the resumption of sea-borne shipments have raised hopes of a return to more-normal commerce, despite the continuing conflict – with commensurate hope for greater food security for the needy nations dependent upon grain and oilseeds from both Ukraine and Russia.

Recent developments are less cause for a victory parade than a reminder of the importance of a return to normal commerce for not just Ukraine but the entire global food system.

International observers express cautious optimism that the agreement allowing resumed exports will survive, despite the political bluster from Moscow and the continuing hostilities. European politicians have speculated Putin’s saber-rattling might be simply a negotiation ploy to strengthen his hand in future international discussions and negotiations.

Political figures around the world decried Putin’s statement, accusing the Russian leader of attempting to “weaponize food.” President Joe Biden called his threat of withdrawing from the agreement “purely outrageous.”

When the initial outrage over Putin’s threat subsided a bit, officials also pointed to other more-encouraging signs. For example, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently announced the creation of a special project office in Ukraine dedicated to the success of the shipping agreement.

Rippling Effects

What may be overlooked in the discussion may well be the economic interests of Ukraine and its agricultural community.

Ukraine producers are wrapping up a harvest marked by the predictable effects of prolonged conflict. Ukraine agricultural officials report a total grain harvest of 50-52 million tons this year, down from the record 86 million tons recorded in 2021. The World Economic Forum estimates for the July 2022 to June 2023 season showed the predictable drops: 5.4 million tons of wheat, 7.7 million tons of corn, and 1.2 million tons of barley. (Last year’s export figures were 23 million tons of corn, 19 million tons of wheat, and 5.8 million tons of barley.)

     

The outlook for Ukraine’s oilseeds sector is equally dark. The numbers are more than a little mind-numbing to the average person. But the bottom line is clear: the conflict has seen one of the world’s largest players in global agricultural markets suffer some serious downturns in its economic interests.

International information group, Interfax, cited Ukrainian officials predicting the 2023 sunflower crop could be down as much as 43 percent, dropping to 9.4 million tons from 16.4 million tons last year. That would be the lowest production level in more than a decade.

Ukraine should harvest 14.86 million tons of oilseed crops this year, including 9.4 million tons of sunflower seeds, 2.87 million tons of rapeseed, and 2.59 million tons of soybeans, officials added.

About 96 percent of the harvested sunflower seed, or roughly 9 million tons, are expected to be processed, compared with 38 percent of the soybean crop (1 million tons) and 7 percent of rapeseed.

Ukraine will produce 4 million tons of sunflower oil this year, but strong global demand will prompt a draw-down of reserve stocks, resulting in total exports of 4.2 million tons.

Even so, that’s down almost a million tons from last year.

But what about the Ukrainian farmer – and consumer?

Despite the success of Ukraine’s efforts to drive out Russian invaders, farmers across the country face a difficult situation. In many regions, such as the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions, the devastation of battle has destroyed infrastructure, equipment, and even homes, leaving the entire population without the necessities of work and life.

Farms and granaries have been completely destroyed, lives lost and futures decimated. Ukrainian officials say as much as 30 percent of Ukraine’s infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed in the conflict, at a cost of $100 billion.

To make matters even more dire, land mines are strewn throughout farm fields worrying farmers each time they go out on foot or their tractor.

For the survivors and those operating outside the areas of major conflict, the outlook is only marginally better. Economists and agronomists worry that the higher input prices that followed the invasion, coupled with the “minor” matter of continuing armed conflict and political turmoil, might reduce plantings for next season.

Planning and planting for the future have become a critical issue for the entire country. A hungry and desperate population must be fed. A significant sector of the national economy needs to revive. International agencies and universal goodwill won’t be enough.

Ukrainian producers face an enormously difficult future, and functioning if not thriving export markets offer the best hope not just for financial success but perhaps more so for simple survival.

Is it all doom and gloom?

Backed by help from the international community, Ukraine has made great strides toward resuming its leading role in global agricultural markets. That’s good news for consumers everywhere. The subtraction of this important contributor to global food security has been a major worry for the entire civilized world. The resumption of grain, oilseed, and other commodity exports from this critical part of the world should be reason for celebration.

But we’re not completely out of the woods, as recent bluster from Russia has made clear. The agreement critical to renewed Black Sea shipments remains fragile, and the world must remain diligent in supporting efforts to sustain it – and assure its success. Without it, we risk more than continued turbulence in the food and energy markets that dictate much of the cost of our food.

Bobo’s Global Balancing Act at TNC


Prior to TNC, Jack Bobo served as CEO of Futurity, a food foresight company and is the author of the 2021 book, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices“. Recognized by Scientific American in 2015 as one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology, Jack is a global thought leader who has delivered more than 500 speeches in 50 countries on the future of food.

He previously served as the Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President for Global Policy and Government Affairs at Intrexon Corporation. Prior to joining Intrexon, Jack worked at the U.S. Department of State for thirteen years as a senior advisor for global food policy.

An attorney with a scientific background, Jack received a J.D., M.S. in Environmental Science, B.S. in biology and B.A. in psychology and chemistry, all from Indiana University.

Feeding the World while Healing the Planet

Food is the ultimate convener…

It transcends language barriers. It is a vehicle for unity. It brings people and countries together. Food is culture. It’s no wonder food could be one our greatest solutions to the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

The global food system accounts for nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, 90% of habitat loss and 70% of water use globally. At the same time, climate change and biodiversity loss will make it much harder to produce food in the future, threatening the livelihoods of producers and ultimately making it more difficult to feed a growing population.

Swift improvements must come to our global food system. Business as usual cannot continue; the pressures the system faces are too great. By mid-century, accelerating climate change will generate acute stress, just as increasing global population and  affluence shift demand towards more protein-heavy diets.

Repositioning the global food system as an environmental solutions provider requires moving from high-level concepts to action. It means changing underlying incentives and norms. It means shifting global policies and markets. But how?

Foodscapes. By using a foodscape-scale approach to planning and action, we can help drive progress that benefits both people and the planet.

The Nature Conservancy is pleased to present its Global Regenerative Food Systems Director, Saswati Bora, for this in-depth Q&A session.

Many thanks to Saswati for her time educating us on foodscapes and the potential they bring to solving our humanitarian, climate and biodiversity crises.

 

What is a foodscape?

Foodscapes are distinct geographic areas where healthy land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems coincide with critical food production systems. They accelerate the transition of food systems from degrading and extractive to productive and restorative for nature and people.

In our science report, Foodscapes: Toward Food System Transition, we define a foodscape as a distinct food production geography with specific combinations of biophysical characteristics and management attributes, including the political, cultural and economic influences of food production.

How does mapping foodscapes help provide the scientific framework for the transition needed in the global food system?

Some attributes of foodscapes, including biophysical and agricultural management characteristics, can be mapped at a global scale. The global mapping used in our foodscapes report resulted in more than 80 foodscape classes that showcase the diversity of food production systems around the world.

Understanding the diversity that underpins our global food system is a first step toward making improvements. It can provide useful insight that can be further developed, adapted and applied using local, place-based knowledge.

We believe that mapping foodscapes helps realize the potential for nature-based solutions with varying impacts that are sensitive to local conditions, while also understanding how economic, political and community systems intersect when producing food.

© The Nature Conservancy
This map shows all 86 global foodscapes classes, making it possible for food system leaders to go from analysis to a realistic vision of the changes that need to happen at local and subnational levels in order to meet demand, improve ecosystem services and address the challenges of climate change.

What are some of the solutions that will help create a food system transformation?

There are solutions that can mitigate the interrelated climate, biodiversity and water challenges, while at the same time improve livelihoods and wellbeing of producers. Any actions we take must keep producers and rural communities at the center of the approach.

For example, in intensively cultivated breadbasket foodscapes, such as the Punjab-Haryana in India, crop residue burning due to the short window between rice harvest and wheat planting is causing respiratory harm that disproportionately impacts the poorest population and contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Supporting producers to mulch-till the residue instead of burning helps to clear the air and keeps people healthy. This also constitutes a regenerative ag practice which, in turn, will improve soil health, nutrient content and water management — all which lead to better outcomes for people and nature.

Amandeep Kaur, pictured here in her tractor, farms 45 acres in Punjab, India, with her father. She is a leader in adopting regenerative practices, such as using a Smart Seeder, which eliminates the need to burn and improve the soil health by trapping moisture and creating natural fertilizer.

In a mixed-use foodscape like the Argentina Gran Chaco, global demand for beef and soy has driven the destruction of native habitat and forests. The adoption of agro-silvopastoral techniques — where farmers allow cattle to graze in forests instead of clearing more land to open pastures — offer the potential to protect the traditional mixed-use landscape while producing economically important commodities that provide a livelihood to rural communities and protecting globally important biodiversity and carbon storage.

What are the challenges in transitioning to a regenerative food system?

While the foundation for a regenerative food system has been laid and long been employed by Indigenous peoples and local communities, regenerative approaches have not achieved the scale necessary. Our current economic systems are just beginning to incentivize on environmentally and socially positive outcomes. For instance, trading carbon credits helps incentivize the farmer to store more carbon through regenerative ag practices.

Behavioral norms are entwined with existing systems, and change towards regenerative outcomes is focused on marginal change, rather than systems-based approaches. There is a move to align and coordinate among entities that can create change at scale.

We also know that the diversity of production systems emphasizes the need for a place-based approach rooted in local ecosystems, market structures, cultural norms and institutions. If we are to quickly move the food sector to champion regenerative practices, we must address a fundamental gap: how do we support the producers on our food frontlines – farmers, ranchers, fishers and pastoralists – to translate this global charge into on-the-ground change?

We believe that by taking an integrated systems change approach at the level of a Foodscape can help build bridges between global ambition and local implementation. In doing so, foodscapes provide policymakers, private sector leaders, economists and community leaders an additional tool to help map a relevant path towards food system transformation.

How can we translate all of this into action?

To help propel a transition to a regenerative food system, The Nature Conservancy aims to catalyze a transition to regenerative practices in a diverse and representative set of Foodscapes in a manner that charts a course for global food system actors to move more quickly.  Through a systems-level and science-based approach that includes coalition building, coordinated planning, market development, supply chain actions and public policy, we want to unlock the pace and scale that is needed for these regenerative outcomes to impact the world’s climate, biodiversity and human welfare goals.

Over the coming years, we plan to support a portfolio of 12-15 diverse regenerative foodscapes that can be a positive force for people and nature. Here, we plan to demonstrate how to engage local producers, the private sector and policymakers to accelerate regenerative practices. By scaling deep in a portfolio representing the diversity of geographic and food production archetypes, we hope to develop pathways that other regions and organizations can replicate.

At the global level, we want to build the science, partnerships and investment pathway that catalyze change at scale. We want to influence success by building coalitions and continuously learning, adapting and replicating what works — while balancing pace and scale with equity and inclusion of local communities.

Foodscape In Action: Northwest India

In India, the economy is dominated by agriculture and key production regions – like the states of Punjab and Haryana in the Northwest – are already experiencing acute climatic stressors. As a result, many of the prevalent agricultural practices are impacting the region’s scarce groundwater levels, decreasing air quality, and negatively impacting the health of the population, reducing long-term viability of the land, and adding to global greenhouse gas emissions.

But transitions are happening, with science-backed and viable alternatives to business as usual. Farmers in the region are recognizing they can be climate heroes while simultaneously supporting their own bottom line by adopting regenerative and no-burn agricultural practices. These natural climate solutions are benefiting farmer livelihoods and climate mitigation efforts.

Ukraine Conflict Clouds Outlook for Global Food System


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Life is full of unintended consequences. And unfortunately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided classic proof of the old adage.

In this environment, daily events — military and political — have an increased influence over daily commodity supply, causing gyrations in prices that obscure buying decisions. Further complicating matters is filling the 7 million metric-ton gap created by the dramatic decreases in Russian-Ukraine wheat export levels. In short, prices are not only higher than historic levels, but also subject to wider swings.

Far beyond the carnage facing citizens of Ukraine, the world faces some very real and substantial costs from the war. We risk facing a hefty tuition bill for once again learning the unforeseen dangers too late.

The immediate threat to our global food system

The threat posed to our global food system by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been well documented. At the core of the threat is one simple truth: the world depends upon an interconnected network of agricultural trade. No country can credibly claim complete food self-sufficiency.

We’re committed to a system based on comparative advantage, in which all nations seek to exploit their natural advantages to supply the world with the commodities and food products they produce most efficiently.

If economics alone didn’t create such an integrated marketplace, our tastes would. Consumers everywhere simply want to have a wide variety of foods all the time, regardless of local growing seasons.

That fundamental reality of modern life has made Russia and Ukraine critical elements of the global food system.

The rich productive capacity of each nation has firmly established them as critical providers of a range of commodities, notably wheat, sunflower oil (see below chart), barley and corn.

The charts and graphs that accompany this post paint a sobering picture of just how significant Russia and Ukraine are to our modern food system – and suggest why both economic experts and political leaders are so concerned with more than just the carnage of battle.

The war’s rippling effects

When the flow of those commodities is interrupted – by war or any other factor – the effects ripple across the entire global food system. As just one example, the conflict has promoted a dramatic increase in insurance costs for shipping commodities in the region, effectively altering if not limiting trade flows. And the longer the interruption continues, the greater the uncertainty that fuels steady and often sharp increases in commodity prices.

How long prices will remain at current historically high levels is almost impossible to predict. Normally, high prices trigger increased production. But these aren’t normal times. Open conflict obviously will affect how much land in the embattled region is planted for next year’s crop.

Equally important, the corollary effects of rising energy prices also will complicate decision-making by producers everywhere who face dramatic increases in the cost of fuel for field equipment and especially the fertilizers needed to produce the best possible production levels.

Other producers of food grains, feed grains, and oilseeds around the world may not farm under the sounds of guns, but they can’t escape these high costs.

Production uncertainties – and price volatility – measured in months if not years will be among the most significant unintended consequences of the conflict. In the modern, interconnected food system, uncertainty translates into risk – and higher costs and higher prices for everyone.

The Threat of Immediate Hunger

But another, more pernicious effect of the conflict remains to be addressed: the very real threat of immediate hunger to millions – or more – of the world’s hungriest and neediest people.

Remember, wheat is the food of the here and now.

Most often, it’s the daily bread sustaining a majority of our world’s population, especially in the less economically developed areas of Africa, the Middle East, and other areas currently dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

And feed grains and meal from oilseeds are tomorrow’s food staples.

Oilseeds go into the feed rations that produce animal protein – a kind of investment in the protein-rich foods making up a greater share in more economically advanced markets.

But whether you live in an economically advanced country or lesser developed, disruptions of these commodities that threaten hunger become very real and very immediate for all.

Just how important are Russia and Ukraine to world agriculture?

Probably more than you think:

The two nations account for a combined 80 percent of global sunflower seed oil and meal…

  • Sunflowers account for about 9 percent of the vegetable oils consumed worldwide, mostly for cooking and processed foods
  • Linoleic acid from sunflower oil is in skincare products to lock in moisture, reduce inflammation and promote healing
  • Competing suppliers face price pressures of their own, with lower acreages in Brazil and Canada and export restrictions in Indonesia

…30 percent of global wheat production…

  • Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, accounting for over 19 percent of global wheat trade, worth roughly $8 billion
  • Ukraine accounts for about 9 percent of the market, with sales of roughly $3.6 billion. Almost 41 percent of Ukraine’s wheat exports go to African countries.
  • In comparison, the U.S. and Canada each provide 14 percent of world wheat exports, worth about $13 billion in total

…30 percent of world barley trade and 16 percent of global corn exports. 

 Sources: FAS/USDA; S&P Global Market Intelligence GTAS Forecasting

Energy, Food Costs: The Unexpected Pain of Ukraine Invasion


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For more information on Ukraine’s ag system, check out our recent post, Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food Security

Putin and Russia are being canceled, to say the least. The most immediate and visible effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – beyond the awful carnage inflicted on the Ukrainian people – is a massive shift in global international relations. The world is watching Putin try to transform an independent nation into a satellite state loyal to Moscow — a transparent effort to re-establish the model of the old Soviet Union. And the world, except China, is stepping up to defend Ukraine.

The West has been fairly swift in launching a widespread and coordinated effort to inflict economic costs on Russia for its actions. Russia’s exports totaled $39b in November 2021. If every country cancels the bulk of their imports, it would be financially difficult for Russia to survive.

  • Restrictions on Russian banking have made doing business more difficult and costly for them, with likely further declines in the Russian ruble.
  • Further economic sanctions against the Putin regime and his oligarch cronies will add targeted economic penalties. The EU and the U.S. are even chasing these supporters out of countries where they have their yachts, as well as freezing some of their assets.
  • Germany is cutting its dependence on Russia’s natural gas and coal and rethinking the timing of its green carbon-neutral strategy.
  • Turkey is limiting Russian ships through the Bosporus from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
  • A long list of European countries and the U.S. have banned Russian aircraft from their airspace.
  • The U.S. banned exports of high-tech goods, such as semiconductor microchips, to curtail Russian defense production.
  • Daimler Truck Holding, Volvo Car, General Motors and Harley-Davidson are all reconsidering their business dealings with Russia.
  • Apple, Google and Nike, and energy companies such as BP, Shell, Equinor, and TotalEnergies, are starting to pull out of Russia.
  • Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is freezing and eventually exiting from its $2.8 billion in Russian assets.

The list grows every day, and the overall effect is to make Putin and his oligarch pariahs in the larger community of nations, and to highlight what many see as a growing international polarization that pits democratic, market-oriented Western economies against the controlled societies built around socialist and communist principles.

As the conflict continues and the world’s attention remains focused on the day-to-day events, average citizens in the United States are likely to see the beginning stages of the consequences of conflict. The most apparent signal will likely come in higher energy costs, notably at the gas pump. 

Russia’s top export category is fuel and energy, representing just over half of its total export value of $335 billion in 2020. Imports in May 2021 reached a record 26.2 million barrels, second only to Canadian shipments (over 125 million barrels in May 2021) and ahead of Mexico (22.6 million barrels in May 2021).

By February 2022, Forbes reported that Russia had eclipsed Canada as the largest supplier of imported gasoline for all of 2021. Russia’s Federal Customs Service also noted the United States purchased almost one-fifth of the country’s heavy-oil products, making it Russia’s largest single buyer.

In advance of the invasion, petroleum prices already had peaked above $100 per barrel. As of March 2, the AAA National regular gas price was $3.66 a gallon, up from $2.71 last year. California is now over $5.00 in some spots. Energy experts can’t agree on just how high prices will go – but agree that further increases are on the way.

Source: Forbes, US Gasoline/Energy Imports, 2-24-22.

U.S. efforts to expand domestic energy production could help bring more balance to the supply-demand picture. But expanding domestic energy production will take some time to ramp up and already faces numerous concerns from the green energy group.

Ag in the Energy Crosshairs

Higher energy costs will have a ripple effect across the entire U.S. (and global) economy, and agriculture promises to be among the hardest hit. Energy costs represent as much as 15 percent of total production costs for farmers, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Much of the energy is consumed as fuel for all the various machinery and equipment that drive the efficient production of crops and animals. But another factor becomes especially important for the ag sector: the enormous energy component of the fertilizers farmers around the world depend upon. Rising costs of diesel and gasoline will have an immediate effect on the economics of farming and ranching. But the longer-term implications for fertilizer costs may prove even more serious.

Russia’s major role in global fertilizer markets often goes unnoticed by the average consumer. The country produces and exports petroleum, natural gas and other energy products.

In fact, its leading export category is mineral fuels, worth more than $143 billion each year, or just over 42 percent of all exports.

Russian natural gas is a key source of ammonia that serves as a building block for many nitrogen fertilizers. To add to its prominent role in global fertilizer markets, Russian exports of potash represent 21 percent of the entire global market for the product. (Neighboring Belarus accounts for another 21 percent of potash market.)

The prospect of losing access to these important energy sources concerns the entire ag sector – especially after a year of extraordinary increases in fertilizer costs, even before the threat of invasion fully emerged. Farmers already had seen anhydrous ammonia prices rise by 300 percent, urea by 214 percent and liquid nitrogen by 250 percent over the year before. Potash prices had increased by 213 percent, as well.

Such dramatic increases in energy-related prices – and the prospect of still higher costs to come – can’t be ignored. They threaten significant increases in the cost of production for cornerstone crops such as corn and soybeans, indicating that the food price inflation consumers have seen for the past year is likely to continue. The extent of those inflationary pressures – and the speed at which they spread through the food system – remain the subject of intense debate among economists around the world.

The significance of energy in determining the fallout from the Russian invasion on the average person reflects a bigger truth in modern international relations. We are seeing first-hand just how interconnected all nations have become in a global economy built around a global trading system.

It’s increasingly difficult – and perhaps practically impossible – to function in a vacuum, in which the economic links we have built can be ignored.

A military threat can easily make a normally invisible economic relationship highly visible – and highly important to consumers everywhere.  This economic interdependence may offer a powerful tool to resolve the conflict.

It’s all about the trade

The outlook for U.S. farmers and consumers isn’t totally bleak, however. The response to the Russian invasion is built around the significant economic advantages enjoyed by the United States and its allies – and the leverage these advantages can apply to resolving the conflict and restoring more-normal international relations.

The value of Russian exports dipped in 2020, falling from $423 billion the previous year to $335 billion, according to Russian customs data.  Statistics also show a mutual trading dependence between the United States and Russia. U.S. imports of Russian energy and minerals create a significant trade deficit in goods. But Russian demand for U.S. services creates a trade surplus that helps offset the deficit.

Overall, Russia remains only the 20th largest trade partner for the United States – and only 40th in terms of the total goods imported into this country. 

In contrast, the United States is the sixth-largest trading partner of Russia.

Because we have lost our energy independence, the United States – and the EU – needs Russia’s energy offerings notwithstanding this invasion. But Russia needs U.S. machinery, automotive, aircraft, sophisticated electronics and medical equipment – over $9 billion in 2019, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC). Total imports from the United States reached $13.4 billion in that same year, according to the World Bank. Russia needs and wants what the United States has for sale.

Other statistics suggest the Russian economy needs the West – including the United States – far more than Putin would like to acknowledge.  On average, the United States generally imports more from its trading partners than it exports to them – roughly 62 percent imports, to 38 percent exports, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. However, the U.S. exports far more to Russia than it imports – roughly 82 percent exports, only 12 percent imports.

In other words, Russia needs the United States – and other western markets. The potential loss of trade promises to hit hard on a broad spectrum of Russian interests. (The notable exception is China, which remains Russia’s largest single trading partner.)

How Does U.S. Agriculture Fit into the Picture?

U.S. farmers also stand to benefit from the disruption to key global agricultural markets created by the invasion. Markets for wheat, barley and certain oilseeds may be among the commodities most affected by the invasion and its after-effects.

Russia is the third-largest producer of wheat in the world, with Ukraine rising rapidly in the mix. Together, the two countries also account for more than one-quarter of all global wheat trade and about 70 percent of the world’s total trade in sunflower oil. Ukraine also supplies 13 percent of the world’s corn exports, much of it bound for China, according to USDA. Agricultural export sales from Ukraine have been rising in recent years, climbing to $22.2 billion in 2020. Russian wheat exports mainly go to Egypt and Turkey but the rest of the countries such as Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Kazakhstan will be hard-pressed to afford rising wheat prices.

Trade at-a-glance – 2019 Russia/Ukraine Percent of Global Export Market Share:

  • Sunflower Oil: 70%
  • Wheat: 25%
  • Coal: 14%
  • Corn: 13%
  • Crude Petroleum: 13%
  • Mineral Fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas): 11%
  • Liquified Natural Gas: 6%

Disruptions to Ukraine’s exports of these and other farm commodities could open the door for U.S. growers, especially if restrictions on Russian trade emerge. Rising world prices would help offset the continuing rise in energy and input costs facing the U.S. and other producers. U.S. wheat production and exports have declined slowly in recent years, in part due to significant growth in wheat production around the Black Sea area. The conflict could be the trigger to reverse that trend.

Today, U.S. farmers account for about 6 percent of total world production and 12 percent of export markets. But with wheat prices currently at their highest levels since 2008 and the invasion promising to add fuel to the upward trend, the economic incentive to capture more of the world demand is very strong. Should the conflict expand beyond Ukraine, the risks become even higher.

Increased reliance on the United States as a major source of supply for wheat, corn, oilseeds and other farm commodities also could have another ancillary benefit to the global food system. As the conflict further complicates the regional and global export picture and the associated logistics, the relative stability and continuity of the U.S. food chain might help mitigate further disruptions to the global supply chain.

The U.S. farmer may well prove to be the global food consumer’s best ally in holding the line on further food price inflation.

Ukraine: Quiet Pawn in Quest for Food Security


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What is at issue here? Why is Ukraine valuable?

The current tensions can be traced to a complex combination of geography, history, and geopolitics.

Ukraine is more than just the second-largest country in Europe, with a total area only slightly smaller than the entire state of Texas. It exists at a critical juncture between Europe and Asia – a geographic gateway between two cultures opening all the social, commercial and other opportunities created by trade and political interaction.

To begin, Ukraine offers an abundance of natural resources, including agricultural products such as corn and oilseeds, minerals and other staples of living. Its central location between European and Asian markets makes it a natural source of supply in both directions. Its river system and access to warm-water ports promise steady and reliable delivery.

And as any student of history will attest, such conditions attract a lot of outside interest. The roster of countries seeking to control or occupy Ukraine is a who’s-who of history: Scythians, Samaritans, Romans and many others figure into the country’s long national story.

In the 9th century, different Baltic cultures formed what came to be known as “Kievan Rus” – the first eastern Slavic state, centered in what is now the modern city of Kiev, and in the 11th and 12th centuries one of the most dominant states in all of Europe.

The name became the root word of the modern state of Russia, and by the 18th century, Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian empire. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine gained its official independence. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets in an “Orange Revolution” to demand western-style changes to national government, and in 2014 launched the Maidan Revolution to oust a pro-Soviet government.

But Russia and Ukraine have remained intertwined nonetheless, as progressive, independence-minded Ukrainians clash with a significant portion of the country’s population that retains lingering affinity for their Russian heritage and the old Soviet ways of doing things.

Official estimates say as much as 17% of Ukrainians still speak Russian as their first language, especially in the eastern and southern areas proximate to the Russian border. Unofficial observers contend as much as one-third of the Ukrainian population retain a sense of Russian identity. Regardless of the actual numbers, the Russian presence in Ukraine in both body and spirit remains very much alive.

That reality has played out in the continuing uprisings regarding election results and the unchallenged re-annexation of Crimea by Russia in early 2014, immediately following the ouster of the pro-Soviet government. Crimea was part of the Russian Empire since 1783, and Kremlin officials used many familiar arguments of history and residual identity to justify the militarily unchallenged occupation.

What’s behind Russia’s aggressive posture?

Modern diplomacy would hold that the rest of the world should leave it to the Ukrainians to determine their own future. But as current events and the Crimean example indicate, larger forces are at play.

From the Russian perspective, much of Ukraine remains Russian and should be reunited with their natural and preferred choice in identity. Perhaps more important to Kremlin leaders, Russia simply can’t allow a further drift of neighboring, and former Russian, countries toward the West.

Soviet (and now Russian) geopolitical strategy long emphasized the need and value of a ring of buffer states between the “Mother Country and the decadent West.” The fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in an age of independence, notably still vibrant in the Baltic states. The idea of Ukraine remaining neutral or uncommitted to the West might be tolerable to Russian leaders. But a clear shift to the West by a massive and economically vital neighboring country in such a critical geographic position – through stronger economic ties, or worse, through membership in NATO – is simply unacceptable.

The fear of losing control of a country so rich in industry, agriculture and energy is a foundational geopolitical interest – and would prevent Russia’s status as a true superpower, not just in Asia but all of Eastern Europe as well.

So where does agriculture fit into the picture?

In many respects, Russia’s geopolitical ambitions mask a less visible but important issue in the Ukrainian conflict. It’s food security.

The world needs more food every day. Countries worldwide are hard at work thinking about how to assure access to enough food for their citizens. Many are actually hard at work doing something about it. And many of those see the enormous potential role Ukraine could play in that food security paradigm.

Ukraine’s most productive agricultural regions claim as much as a quarter of the earth’s “black soil.”

Often referred to as “chernozem,” this soil is built up over centuries of the growth and decomposition of grasslands, leaving a deep layer (10 inches or more) of soil rich in organic carbon. By comparison, the U.S. Midwest is down to about 3 inches. Beyond its highly fertile qualities, the unique nature of the soil often minimizes the need for extensive plowing or tilling.

As a result, the soil has maintained its fertility, making Ukraine one of the breadbaskets of the world growing corn, oilseeds, wheat, and barley.

This important agricultural production advantage has made Ukraine a significant factor in the global agricultural system – despite some lingering problems with how the production system is managed.

A Snapshot of Ukrainian Agriculture

  • 33% of total population engaged in agriculture (17.5 million)
  • 80 million acres arable land (#10 globally, #3 as % of all available land)
  • Average topsoil carbon content: 2.3% of weight (US 1.5%, Argentina 1.5%, Brazil 1.2%, Australia 0.6%)
  • Crops 72%, animals 28% of all ag output
  • 45,000 ag enterprises (55% gross output), 4 million farming households
  • $22.2 billion in ag esports 2020 (45% of all exports)
  • #1 exporter of sunflower oil, #4 in corn and barley, #6 in wheat, #7 soybeans (2017)
  • Major export partners: #1 Russia, #2 China, #3 Poland
  • Imports fish, fruit & nuts, tobacco and various other food ingredients, roughly half from EU, one-quarter from Asia
  • Major import partners: #1 China, #2 Russia, #3 Germany, #4 Poland (energy)
  • 10-12% of GDP (3rd largest economic sector); estimated 9.3% Covid year 2020
  • Largest export category (2x larger than next category, metals)

– Sources for data: National Investment Council of Ukraine; International Trade Administration; www.trade.gov

The transition from the state-managed approach of the old Soviet Union days has been a difficult and often frustratingly slow process. Despite ambitious plans to modernize the system to capitalize on the country’s enormous natural advantages, political resistance to change remains firmly in place in select areas, notably among some officials still rooted in the philosophy of the old Soviet-controlled system.

Civil unrest and outright street battles between independence-minded progressives and traditionalists still clinging to a Russian heritage haven’t helped attract investment or accelerate comprehensive change.

But the protracted political back-and-forth can’t mask Ukraine’s enormous productive potential – and the role the country could play in meeting the food security goals of major international players, such as Russia and China. In addition to the geopolitical ambitions of so many countries, the attractiveness of Ukraine as a major source of food needs can’t be overstated.

Studies by academicians and various international organizations vary in their estimates of just how much untapped potential resides with Ukraine’s agricultural sector. One analysis reported by the International Trade Association placed just the country’s total grain output potential at 140 million tons – more than 60% above current levels. Improvements in production of food and feed grains could pave the way to similar explosions in productivity in the production of oilseeds, animal proteins, vegetable crops – and more.

In other words, despite all the problems created by its political and sociological history, Ukraine is a significant factor in the global agricultural picture.

The productive potential still present in the country has attracted the active interest of any number of people, commercial organizations and governments concerned with long-term food security.

Remember, nations can exert control through many means, not just the use of military force. Economic ties also can bind nations together, and both Russia and China have been actively seeking to use economics as well as troops as a key part of their foreign policy agenda. Note that over the past three years, Russia has quietly assumed the role of Ukraine’s number-one trading partner and largest export market. China is number two.

How does this affect me?

Political disputes and threats of conflict are nothing new, and it’s easy to dismiss something unfolding halfway around the world from our dinner tables. But we all have a stake in how this is resolved. Make no mistake, Russia and China are searching to expand their borders and food security cannot be taken lightly. If Russia succeeds in dominating Ukraine, when and where does it stop?

From Russia’s perspective:

  • National security
  • International standing
  • Practical economics: access to energy, food, minerals
  • Food security

From the West’s perspective:

  • National sovereignty
  • Human rights and self-determination
  • East-West balance
  • Investment/economic opportunity

And for the food consumer…

The immediate risks to the average food consumer are small. Our global food system continues to function well overall. As important as Ukraine is on the global food system, any significant disruptions to the global food picture are unlikely.

The bigger risk is long-term consequences of outright conflict and punitive economic sanctions. Conflict in any part of the Middle East could easily lead to further complications in unraveling the supply chain issues still lingering post-Covid. Higher energy costs in particular would work through the food system (and the entire economy), raising the prices we pay every day.

There’s also the risk of unintended consequences. Past international disputes have led to punitive actions that proved counterproductive in the long term. For instance, Germany halting the Nor Stream 2 pipeline, which brings natural gas from Russia to Europe, could influence natural gas prices around the world.

Restrictions on the flow of money and goods are double-edged swords. Ask any farmer how well past trade embargoes and trade restrictions have worked for producers and rural communities – and how those costs rippled back through the food system. Food consumers need to call for cool heads to prevail in international disputes, for everyone’s sake.

Drought: The “Hidden Global Crisis”


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How widespread is the drought problem?

Drought conditions have been reported around the world, often involving some of the major agricultural producing nations.

In the United States, drought remains a very serious issue across much of the Western States and large portions of the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, including important production regions for wheat, feed grains, and oilseeds. California agricultural growing areas—including key centers for production of fruits, vegetables, and dairy — have been experiencing drought conditions described as “extreme” and “exceptional.” Conditions in the North and Southeast also are described as “moderate drought.”

Prolonged drought in these areas can have a significant effect on overall U.S. food supplies. California, for example, provides one-quarter of our total U.S. food supply. The Golden State is the nation’s largest dairy producer and grows as much as 80 percent of all the fruits and vegetables produced in the United States. North Dakota farmers provide more than half of all U.S, durum and spring wheat, key components of pasta and bread.

In contrast, conditions across much of the Midwest, South, and other portions of the country are generally in good shape for moisture.

Seriously dry conditions have steadily expanded across South America since at least 2018, moving from key areas in Brazil to include parts of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina.

Regional and local droughts also have plagued major crop production areas in Australia, Ukraine, and parts of Africa and Asia in recent years.

The mixed bag of conditions has farmers and others across the agricultural sector keeping a close eye on weather patterns. Timely rains during the growing season can help make up for the early lack of moisture to some degree. At present, forecasts call for another good year of overall food production. But as with any “average” assessment, the forecasts mask the severity of potential damage to the most hard-hit areas.

What are the causes of drought?

The debate over climate change has produced some widely divergent points of view about the causes of drought and extreme weather conditions in general. Most experts tend to agree that the reasons most likely involve a combination of natural and man-made causes. But opinions vary on the relative importance of each set of factors.

What influences weather patterns?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cites a variety of contributing factors:

  • Uneven heating and atmospheric pressure close to the earth’s surface cause global winds. These winds then push around large air masses, which meet and collide to create storms or clear skies.
  • In the atmosphere, jet streams send weather systems, heat, and moisture around the globe.
  • El Nino and La Nina are significant factors for temperature, rainfall, air pressure, atmospheric and ocean circulation that influence each other
  • Variations in the location and size of the ozone layer

Climate activists, in particular, are quick to note the importance of human behavior in creating water issues. Reducing fossil fuel use, employing more aggressive water conservation and water-use practices, curtailing agricultural practices that require intensive use of water, protecting water supplies from contamination and other practices are major goals. Whether such efforts deal with the causes of climate change and drought or merely its symptoms, continue to be debated.

What effects will drought have on our food system and our families?

Drought affects both crop and livestock production, obviously. Dealing with the problem poses different sets of problems and issues for both.

Livestock producers can reduce herds and flocks or bring in water supplies to deal with temporary needs. Bigger issues emerge for them when drought limits their ability to grow their own feed stocks.

Of equal concern, drought harms crop yields. That means we have less food from the land in production. Just watch the below clips of Western Growers interviewing farmers who had to abandon their crops due to drought conditions.

Joe Del Bosque, farmer, had to sacrifice his asparagus field due to drought conditions. As a result, 70 people lost their jobs. Click here to view an almond farmer and del Bosque’s melon farm. Source: Western Growers via YouTube.

The amount of reduction in food production can vary widely, depending on the severity of the dry conditions.

Academic studies show divergent projections of the effect of climate change on global food production. One study led by Cornell University estimated that global food productivity has been reduced by 21 percent by climate change. Other studies by USDA’s Economic Research Service project yield declines across corn, soybeans, sorghum, rice, oats, cotton, and silage as a result of climate change (and alterations to irrigation patterns that are driven by water concerns). The journal One Earth warns that forecast increases in global temperatures will alter rainfall patterns and shrink the globe’s food-productive areas by as much as a third.

Buried within what is likely a mish-mash of science, hyperbole, ideological bias, and sincere passion is a single obvious truth: the world faces changing climatological conditions that already are affecting our ability to produce the food the world needs. What we do in response will determine how significant the effect of drought and other possible manifestations of climate change will be on our long-term food security.

Are our prime growing areas changing?

Where drought occurs is a critical factor, too. When drought hits major production areas for cornerstone commodities – food grains, feed grains, or oilseeds, for example, the adverse effects are magnified across the entire global food system. Reduced supplies in the face of continuing strong demand result in higher prices, or even spot shortages. Smaller crops of fruits and vegetables can hit consumers harder and more quickly, especially if the normal distribution system that supplies products from distant sources has been disrupted.

Those sorts of traditional concerns regarding the effects of drought have been joined by rising concerns about climate change. Some scientists worry that an increase in the frequency, duration, and severity of drought conditions could signal a fundamental shift in climatic conditions and weather patterns.

If so, that would mean the areas of historically highest productivity – the prime growing areas of many crops – could be shifting, moving generally northwards in the Northern Hemisphere and southerly in the Southern Hemisphere. Imagine the heart of the American corn belt stretching from Ohio to the Dakotas moving north into Canada, or traditional southern crops like cotton and sorghum migrating north. Such new cropping patterns would mean a massive change in the structure and functioning of the current global food system.

What can be done?

The issue of drought – and the larger matter of climate change — won’t be resolved by any single action or practice but rather through a comprehensive long-term approach that touches on virtually every sector of our society. Remember, humans are resilient and innovative. We will adopt new solutions to address our changing climate.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take immediate steps to deal with the issue of drought that has plagued humankind long before the term “climate change” was coined.

  • More attention to soil health. The use of cover crops reduced tillage, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help make the soil “spongier” and better suited to the retention of moisture
  • Better conservation of water and water use techniques
  • Better use of technology to monitor and manage soil conditions
  • Continued development and use of drought-resistant seeds
  • Continued reliance on open trade is a critical tool in assuring a steady supply of the foods consumers want and need every day

What about us consumers?

Perhaps the most important role the consumer can play in dealing with drought and other climate-related problems is that of an active participant in our food system.

Consumers can recognize the up-and-down nature of food prices as a result of disruptions to normal food production patterns. Even with severe and pronounced drought in areas around the world, there is no shortage of food. Our food security is not at risk.

But we all have a role to play in assuring that we react positively to the possibility of longer-term changes to our food system, driven by climate issues. The days of profligate and extravagant use of water or other natural resources in our food system are gone – long gone. Farmers and others across the food chain are working hard to adapt to this new reality, and consumers can speed that process by demanding responsibly produced food products.

Look for food products that have been produced sustainably, using the techniques and tools available to us to make the best use of water and other natural resources. Speak up to food suppliers about it. Look for labels and other product information that makes the techniques and standards used in food production, manufacturing, and packaging more transparent. Your voice counts, so make it heard. Email us at connect@dirt-to-dinner.com!

Why are my groceries so expensive right now?


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Dirt to Dinner decided to take a deeper look behind the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recent projection of a 2.2 percent increase in food costs in May, on top of a 3.5 percent increase the year before.

Just how much more expensive is our food?

The most immediate thing we learned was how complex the answer to those questions really are. No one or two simple causes are out there. Instead, it’s a complex mix of factors – some matters of macroeconomics, some of unique circumstances and situations, some of the changing demands placed on our food system both here in the United States and around the world. What’s more, it seems likely at least some of them will continue for a while to come. Let’s dig into the details behind the numbers, and see what we can learn and what we can do about it.

Inflation is all around us. The latest Consumer Price Index from BLS tells us prices have climbed by 5 percent year over year, the largest jump since 2008. Sharp rises in energy costs (29 percent) are a major factor behind that number, as anyone who filled a car with gas recently can readily attest.

The prices we pay for our food are right at the top of the list of greater expenses. On a global scale, the BLS numbers sound downright reasonable. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently estimated that the global Food Price Index has jumped 30.8 percent above last year’s figure, to its highest level since 2014. Higher costs for oils, meats, dairy, and cereal products all contributed to the rise – and the increasing worries about food insecurity that come with them.

That sobering picture makes the 2.2 percent number from BLS sound almost reasonable. But for anyone who does the daily shopping, the reality behind that innocent-sounding figure quickly gives way to an immediate and personal recognition of just how significant 2.2 percent can be – especially as part of a steady stream of superficially innocuous annual increases.

What’s making it more expensive?

Let’s look at some reasons for food price increases, from the big-picture perspective.

  • The cornerstone commodities that provide the raw materials for our food are more expensive. Remember what you paid to fill your tank with gas a year ago? Wheat that sold for just one $5 per bushel one year ago today is near $7. Corn that sold for roughly $3 per bushel in August 2020 today is $6.85. Soybeans that were $8.33 in May of last year are almost $16 today.
  • Demand for food and commodities is growing, and our supply of reserves is tighter than before. No one today needs to be reminded of the increases in global population and economic growth that fuel steady growth in food demand. What’s less well recognized is the narrowing gap between global food production and global consumption. The simple fact is, in the current environment we are drawing down our reserve stocks. And when strong demand meets shrinking supply, prices go up.
  • Weather problems in key parts of the world add to the supply and demand imbalance, pushing prices up and increasing price volatility. Whether it’s climate change or normal weather cyclicality, some important growing regions around the world are experiencing record dry conditions in key production areas in South America, Russia, Australia, and the American West and Upper Midwest. Worries about crop sizes fuel a steady upward pressure on commodity prices.
  • The cost of producing commodities is rising. The rapid run-up in energy costs has a profound effect on-farm costs. Diesel fuel for farm equipment, gas for vehicles, propane and natural gas to dry wet crops, even fertilizers – all contribute to higher production costs, which inevitably factor into the final prices paid by food consumers.
  • Labor shortages complicate both farming and food manufacturing. Farmers and food manufacturers alike complain that they simply can’t find all the workers they need to cope with the current situation. And when they do, they often find they must pay more, if only to contend with the disincentives created by COVID relief payments. Department of Agriculture labor statistics indicates the number of workers hired by farmers and ranchers was down 11 percent from year-ago levels as recently as April, to about 613,000. The drop occurred despite an April increase of 6 percent over the previous April’s labor rates, to an average of $15.97 per hour.
  • Supply chain disruptions add to costs. As if labor shortages and higher fuel costs for hauling commodities and delivering food products weren’t enough, our finely tuned food distribution system is still adjusting to yet another cycle of changes and interruptions in delivery channels.  On a global scale, we’ve had to wrestle with complications in the location and availability of the ocean freight used to carry commodities around the world – not just what the United States exports, but also what we import to satisfy our food demands. Events such as the recent shutdown of the Suez Canal and the cyberattack that paralyzed JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, provide evidence of just how quickly and pervasively these disruptions can ripple across the entire food system.
  • More out-of-home dining. The Covid pandemic led to a dramatic decline in the amount of food eaten out of the home, requiring our food system to adjust to moving a greater share of the food supply to retail channels. With the pandemic now appearing to ease, the system must once again adjust to a more traditional pattern. That means change to packaging, more complicated transportation logistics and a raft of other costly changes. BLS points out that the overwhelming proportion of the increase in food costs came from a run-up on prices for food eaten away from home – a whopping 4 percent, compared with 0.7 percent for food eaten at home. We’re going out to eat once again – and paying more for the privilege.
  • Food waste remains an issue. We waste as much as a third of our food every day and every year. One online firm specializing in market data analysis estimates that about 1.6 billion tons of raw food products are never turned into consumable food to feed the hungry. Such waste only adds to the inflationary pressures of the big supply-demand picture.

We also need to remember that we may have been lulled into a touch of complacency about our food prices over the last decade. Food price inflation has been largely muted in recent years. Between 2013 and last year, for example, annual food price inflation averaged roughly 1.4 percent, with 2016 and 2017 both coming in with less than a single percentage-point rise.

Economists say the current inflationary prices eventually will ease. But few are willing to say when, or by how much. As our look at the causes of food price inflation showed, many of the factors driving up food costs are likely to be with us to one degree or another for some time to come.

But what does it all mean for me?

For most of us, the dizzying array of things that influence our food prices are less important than their immediate effect on our pocketbooks.

Dirt-to-Dinner decided to take a look at the real-world – or at least an admittedly unscientific glimpse of what the CPI data actually means to U.S. food consumers.

A sincere thank you to the D2D Network of Unofficial Field Reporters: Gary Tomasello of San Jose, CA; Jake Cuaron of Denver, CO; Dick & Tanyia Williams of Jacksonville, FL; and Frank & Kathe St. Lawrence of Fairhope, AL.

We asked our network of friends across the country to help us with an exercise that builds on some insightful and valuable work done by the Toledo Blade. That highly respected newspaper created a market basket of 15 common food items and tracked its cost in 2003, 2008 and 2011.

We elected to continue that work by seeking current price information for the same 15-item food basket, but with data from the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, deep South, upper Midwest, Gulf Coast, Mountain region, and West Coast.

Our results are intended to provide a simple snapshot of what food price inflation really means at the consumer level – not a rigorous, statistically reliable economic analysis. Our results show the cumulative effect of what may seem like small annual cost increases.

We invite our readers to use the item checklist to take a closer look at what food inflation means for each of you.

The exercise taught us as consumers one very important lesson: shop smart.

We were surprised and pleased to see that the retail food industry seems to be doing its part to help consumers deal with rising food costs.  We found numerous examples of sales and discounts for various items on the list, as well as some potential savings from house brands and locally sourced food items. In some cases, those savings helped reduce the overall basket costs significantly.

Are Farmer Protests in India a Cautionary Tale for Americans?


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What’s behind the protests?

How can you keep food prices low for consumers but expect farmers to pay more to grow that same food? The brouhaha between farmers and the government of India began in 2018 with the passage of three farm laws altering long-standing farm policies. In simplest terms, the laws sought to change the way most farmers sold their products into the market, largely by deregulating wholesale markets. Rather than rely on the traditional middle-man system of wholesalers as purchasers, farmers would be allowed to sell to other commercial entities, and to use electronic and other new mechanisms for finding buyers.

On the surface, it all sounds very reasonable. The idea: give farmers more freedom to seek the best deal for what they produce. They no longer would have to rely only on the middlemen to provide the minimum guaranteed prices dictated by the government.

But change is rarely warmly embraced. And for India, the idea of reform affects not just the interests of farmers and overall food security, but the national economy and social structure, as well.

Over time, opposition to the laws has steadily escalated. News reports around the world tell of tens of thousands of protestors, many living in tent cities indefinitely, and many using tractors and other farm equipment to block and disrupt traffic to call attention to their cause. Video footage of angry men and women has become commonplace, seen by consumers around the world.

What prompts such intense debate – and protest?

To understand the impasse between the government and farmers, it’s essential to recognize the unique nature of Indian agriculture.

Farming and agriculture represent by far the largest component of the country’s employment. In India, just over half of its 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Some credible estimates say as much as 70 percent. That means any changes to fundamental agricultural policies stand to affect between 600 and 800 million people in very meaningful ways.

In the United States, by comparison, farmers represent only 2 percent of the total population. The food and ag sector accounts for about 22 million jobs – or roughly 11 percent of our national workforce.

Despite the presence of a robust commercial farming sector in the United States, the overall agricultural picture in India is dominated by small land-holdings. America and India have comparable arable land areas. But the average farmer in India works roughly two and a half acres of ground, compared to the average U.S. farm of 444 acres. The prevailing small size of India’s average farm limits income opportunities and discourages investment in equipment, infrastructure, and other productivity enhancements.

Many farmers simply eke out a year-to-year existence. In many cases, their families have to live on less than $1,000 a year. They look to state support as the principal means not of growth, but of basic economic survival. This struggle to survive on very low, if any, profits, has manifested in over 300,000 farmer suicides since 1995. In 2018, there have been an average of 10 suicides a day.

So Indian agriculture isn’t simply a food-producing sector. It is a cornerstone of the entire society. Since the 1960s, national policies have attempted to accommodate both needs.

Government subsidies assist producers and rural residents in a number of ways: financial assistance for fertilizer, free electricity for water pumping, loan forgiveness, and direct financial aid all help hundreds of millions of producers stay afloat.

Protestors are deeply concerned about what happens to the government-guaranteed minimum prices for commodities such as rice, wheat, sugar, and other staples, which drive annual production on even the most un-economic farms. These supports have assured ample supplies for the domestic marketplace – and economic survival for millions.

In some instances, this policy has made exports possible. Today, for example, India is one of the world’s leading producers of wheat, cotton, groundnuts, fruits and vegetables, and even livestock — and among the largest global producers and exporters of rice, sugar, and wheat.

To protect consumers, the government has provided additional subsidies to keep prices low for basic foods, including rice. On one hand, food prices have to remain low to alleviate hunger and poverty and on the other hand, the low food prices are making life extremely difficult for over half the Indian population. This financial double-whammy of supporting two sometimes opposing sides of production and consumption can lead to unbelievable price distortions.

For example, the price of rice on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CMA) was actually lower than the fixed government price of rice in India, the largest rice-producing country in the world. A metric ton of rice costs $233 on the CME yet it costs $254 a ton for consumers in India. “A kilo of rice, which has an economic cost of 37 rupees to the taxpayer, is sold to two-thirds of the global population for 3 rupees.” as reported by Bloomberg’s David Fickling and Andy Mukherjee. Wheat support prices in India were 25 percent above the prevailing Chicago wheat futures price, the report also noted. To shield consumers, subsidies make the cost disparity magically disappear.

Changing market prices may have altered the arithmetic since that day, but the larger point remains valid.  Subsidies can distort markets – and create unintended but difficult consequences.

Arguments for reform:

  • Existing policies are economically unsustainable
  • Policies perpetuate poverty/dependence on state support
  • Policies create environmental concerns (fertilizer overuse, water depletion)
  • Reform promotes productivity improvements, long-term competitiveness for global market opportunities
  • Best for long-term interests of nation, economy, farmers, consumers

Arguments against reform:

  • Smaller producers (which are the majority of farmers) would lack the market clout to bargain with larger, more powerful commercial entities – and thus would wind up at their mercy
  • Increases the power of the larger commercial farming interests across India and invites greater involvement by multinational agricultural companies
  • Leaves far too many people economically vulnerable
  • Potential displacement of a huge number of people
  • Accelerates migration to urban centers

Is there a future for small and independent Indian farmers?

Proponents of reform say existing policies are simply financially unsustainable. Opponents of change say the risks are simply too large for too many people – and the threat to social order too great.

Both sides in the dispute say they won’t budge. All three farming laws have been passed but suspended by the Indian courts as discussions among farmers, farm groups and government officials continue.

But the clock is ticking for India. As the debate drags on, India’s population continues to expand. As it does, the twin responsibilities again emerge. Population growth means more mouths to feed – and more people dependent upon agriculture for their livelihood.

Various international agencies and institutions project that India will become the world’s most populous country within this decade. The total population is projected to climb from 1.3 billion to 1.7 billion by 2050 – within what amounts to a single generation.

That means another 400 million consumers and job seekers will enter the fray – well above the entire current population of the United States, and only slightly less than the number of people in the 27 nations making up the European Union.

The situation in India may add a perverse new economic dimension to the notion of agricultural “sustainability.” Can the country continue to afford the enormous expense of the current approach? Or must it seek some form of greater engagement with an open, competitive marketplace? What approach will best allow Indian agriculture to survive? What’s best for both producers and consumers?

What does any of this mean to Americans?

For the average person watching the video of men and women protesting the new laws, the situation may seem a world away. The truth is that decisions made in the coming months will have an impact on food prices, availability, the stock market, and more. And the same goes for here in the U.S.

Most obviously, the simple humanitarian aspects of the situation should matter to everyone. We are all food consumers.

Food is something we share. It unites us and ties us all together in a shared common basic human need. It is a cornerstone of the philosophy behind Dirt-to-Dinner. When any person’s food security is at risk, we all should pay attention.

For students of the global food system, the outcome will have important ramifications for how food moves around the world.  India already is a major factor in many global markets – rice, cotton, sugar, and wheat, to name just a few. Future policy decisions will help determine whether that involvement in global markets expands – or not. If India’s producers elect to apply their productive capacity to capturing more foreign market opportunities, the world will see an even larger player in the international food marketplace.  Consumers everywhere could have more choice, and also enjoy the discipline imposed on food prices when nations truly compete to supply the world’s food needs.

On another level, the situation in India should provide a cautionary tale for food consumers everywhere. It demonstrates the importance of making balanced decisions about the agricultural policies and programs that create our modern food system. It shows what happens when our best intentions — to provide food and incomes for all — veer too far from economic reality. The tragic decline of Venezuela’s economy and rampant food insecurity already have provided one important object lesson in fundamental food economics. It’s a lesson we all need to remember, from Delhi to DC, and everywhere in between.

Saving Our Soil…One Billion Microbes at a Time

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

The Dirt

Soil microbes are hard to see and understand, yet we know that they have a significant impact on plant health, your health, and the Earth’s health. New microbial research and technologies are beginning to change how we understand and direct the soil microbiome to increase soil fertility and plant health, which then help our understanding of your microbiome.


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Pouring algae on the soil, sequencing soil DNA, and measuring soil diversity are just a few of the new technologies used to keep our soil from becoming just ‘dirt’. And it seems as though diversity is the key. When I hold a teaspoon of healthy soil in my hand I squint and try to see the billions of microbes. Apparently, in this little amount there are more microbes than all 7.8 billion people on earth today. This handful has greater diversity than all the animals and insects in the Amazon Rainforest. This is a powerful group made even more exciting when you think they originated from our celestial bodies.

Since the beginning of time, these soil microorganisms are fungi, insects, bacteria, algae, and more than happily coexist in the soil. They control soil pathogens, reduce disease outbreaks, keep plants nutritious and resilient, give plants the power to pull carbon out of the air, make land less prone to wind and water erosion, clean and filter water, and are a source of human medicines.

As a D2D reader, you have likely read about the projected increase of the global population to 9 billion people in just 30 years. That means more fruits, vegetables, and row crops needed to feed more animals and more humans. To achieve this growth, the traditional thought has been that farmers will need more and more pesticides and fertilizer to eliminate bugs and increase their yields. Or do they?

A Booming Agricultural Microbial Market

New entrants in the biostimulants space. Sources: iSelect Funds, IDTechEx.

Think of the microbiome in the soil like the one in your gut. Similar to your health, plants need diversity in the soil to keep you healthy and strong. Microbial technology is a serious solution that uses bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoans, and yeasts instead of conventional agrochemicals.

Companies in this niche produce biostimulants. These include biopesticides, which are natural materials like canola or baking soda that eliminate pests, and biofertilizers, natural fertilizer compounds such as manure, algae, or decayed material that increase the availability of nutrients to the plants.

Additionally, since microbial crop protection poses fewer risks using than conventional pesticides, the EPA generally requires less data and has shorter review times before the various solutions can be used in the field. This reduces the timeline to development by years and the cost of product development by millions of dollars.

According to Research and Markets, the global agricultural microbial market is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.5% and reach $11 billion by 2025 from approximately $6 billion in 2020.

Innovations in the microbiome tech space have to address the challenges of soil needs.  The goal is to increase yield and reduce pests, and weeds with less chemical inputs – all while enhancing the soil microbiome. While this is a highly fragmented market, it is dominated by just a few players.

Innovations in soil microbiome technology

Here are four examples of new technologies that make our soil healthier…

AgBiome partners with the microbial world to improve our planet.  Started in 2017, the company is focused on discovering and developing innovative biological and trait products for crop protection. On March 23rd, Mosaic Fertilizer Company and AgBiome announced a collaboration to develop biological alternatives for soil health.

AgBiome is sequencing a library of microbes sourced from environmental samples from across the globe. As of today, the North Carolina company has more than 90,000 sequenced microbes and identified 3,500 insect control genes from that collection. Their technology can discover microorganisms and proteins that kill insect pests, fungal pathogens, and weeds.

For instance, Howler, the first of AgBiome’s biological fungicides, harnesses the power of the plant microbiome to create an efficacious fungicide with multiple modes of action that provide preventative, long-lasting activity on a broad spectrum of soilborne and foliar diseases.

Biome Makers measures the biological quality of soil to deliver agronomic insights to farmers. Based in Sacramento, Biome Makers was created to solve a fundamental problem facing the future of food: How do we recover the microbial diversity in today’s modern agriculture system?

Using an AI system, Biome Makers assesses the health of a field based on a farmer’s current practices as well as the soil functionality for any crop. What is the right soil microbiome community for a specific farm and farmer?

Working with Bayer and about 70 other ag input manufacturers, they will help farmers understand what works well and how it affects their soil’s health. It’s about measuring crop health and functional biodiversity by using DNA sequencing and intelligent computing.

Their team reads more like a Silicon Valley group with experts in genetics, software engineering, microbiology, agronomy, and data science. We are not in Kansas anymore…

Pivot Bio provides a clean alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. In April 2020, the company raised $100 million co-led by Breakthrough Energy and Temasek. Their technology reduces nitrogen fertilizer and increases crop yields.

Fully half of the world’s food supply is dependent on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, yet overuse, misuse, and runoff can bring serious environmental impacts such as dead zones and C02 emissions. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen – and the only crops that can take it out of the air and convert it into a nutrient are soybeans, alfalfa, and cowpeas.

Wheat, corn, and rice don’t have this ability – therefore they need fertilizer.  As Pivot Bio explains: “Nitrogen is essential to life. It’s a building block of proteins, DNA and amino acids. When plants have the right amount of nitrogen, they grow well and yield abundantly. Pivot Bio makes nitrogen fixation as natural as breathing for the microbe. Microbes inhale nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and release ammonia to plants. Enabling nitrogen-producing microbes as a crop nutrition tool for farmers will transform agriculture.”

MyLand replicates algae in native soil to grow as fertilizer. “Building strength beneath the surface,” explains Board Member, Bill Buckner, in reference to the company’s purpose. MyLand takes live, native microalgae from the farm to improve soil health, increase crop yields, and capture carbon.

Each farm has its own naturally specific algae – just like we have our own gut microbiome. MyLand technicians go out and take samples and isolate which algae are the most suitable for multiplication. They grow the algae in small vessels with lights and correct temperature. They make millions of cells and it is put back in the soil through the farmer’s irrigation system.

As a result, farmers use approximately 25% less fertilizer, 15% less water and reduce tillage by 40%. Voila, yield increases by about 25% and revenue by 40%.

Beyond farming and onto human health

Direct contact with the soil is key. When my oldest son was just a toddler, he was my garden helper. He would happily eat handfuls of dirt and my pediatrician assayed my worries and told me it was good for him. Now I understand why. As humans have evolved over time, we have had a close relationship with the earth first through hunter-gatherers then through farming, and now to our children crawling and running around the garden.

Humans and soil share common bacteria such as lactobacilli which breaks down our food and soil’s organic matter. We can even look to soil to give us new antibiotics that would kill multidrug-resistant pathogens such as MRSA.

But for more than half the global population living in cities and suburbs, this gut connection to the soil is missing. We primarily receive our microbiomes from the food we eat.

The above chart illustrates the difference in human contact with the soil from pre-industrial days to today.

Hot topic: The link between soil health to human health

We eat what we sow, so to speak. The essential nutrients, such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, that we need to thrive as humans come from the soil (originally from the stars). In speaking with Dr. Stephen Wood, Sr. Scientist of Agriculture and Food Systems at The Nature Conservancy and Lecturer at Yale, “Very simply, plants receive their micro and macronutrients from the soil.

“In order for humans to thrive, we receive those same nutrients that come from the plants.” Dr. Wood highlighted studies undertaken in parts of Africa that show a correlation between low selenium and zinc in the soil with low levels in the blood of the local population who ate the local rice.

But he is quick to point out that this is not as simple as low levels of nutrients in plants equate to low levels of nutrition in humans. While there is emerging research, the actual evidence where “soil management impacts human health through changes in crop nutrient densities is small.”

In Africa, where nutrition and food scarcity are real issues, studies have been done but the correlation is not always strong. The chart below shows the inconsistencies of zinc in the soil versus in the corn, cowpea, millet, and sorghum.

Even so, we want healthy, not degraded soil, to produce a higher yield of crops to feed a growing population. It is because of the nutrients in the soil that the plants receive their nutrients. While industrial fertilizer gives specific nutrients to help crops grow, increasing the organic matter helps build the microbes in the soil to increase yield.

Regenerative agriculture practices such as cover cropping, no-till farming, and adding livestock from time to time all help increase the diversity and abundance of microorganisms.

How do changes in microbial soil affect the future?

There are benefits to increasing the microbial content of soil – but it is not a perfect science. The added microbes only live in the soil for about three months and can easily be taken over by other microbes. They are hard to apply – which is tough for small holder farmers. Finally, if too much is applied for too long, they can saturate the soil of salts and nutrients.

That said, the technologies keep improving. If we can grow our food with healthier soil and less fertilizer runoff and create better nutrients in our plants and soil we will have a healthier planet and healthier people.

5 Considerations for Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Whether you’re looking for quick information, or want something to impress your friends at dinner, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

When Covid swept through our nation, it took red meat, milk, and a lot of toilet paper with it — showing shortages of products across the supply chain. With Thanksgiving so close, can we expect the same thing with our turkeys?

5. The Number of Turkeys Grown Did Not Change

Covid brought turkey production down a few percentage points this year by impacting supply and demand, thus slowing down parts of the supply chain. This created a back-up at the processing facilities in spring and early summer, which in turn did have an effect on the weight of some turkeys, however not enough for us to see any difference in the grocery stores.

When production slowed down, turkeys had to keep getting fed, so they gained more weight than companies originally thought they would, but it did not change the number of turkeys grown. We will still see the same amount of turkeys on the shelves at the same weights we usually see them.

4. Retailers Settled On Amounts and Prices Before Covid Hit

Every January, retailers negotiate with turkey producers on how many frozen turkeys they want to buy for the upcoming Thanksgiving and at what prices they will pay per pound. In late summer, they do the same thing for fresh turkeys.

This means that retailers will carry the same amount of turkeys, at a similar cost as they do every year since these decisions are pre-set.  Right now, frozen turkeys are already on the shelves and will continue to be stocked right up until Thanksgiving day. Fresh turkeys are just starting to appear now. So, there is no reason to go out and stock up on turkeys. There is plenty to go around!

3. Size May Matter

Many believe there will be a higher demand for smaller birds this year because Thanksgiving gatherings will be with immediate families rather than extended. Due to this projection, any families may keep dinners small to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Conversely, others believe that consumers will still get the same big turkey they normally do because they want to go all out this year due to a lack of normalcy. And, you know what big turkeys mean? More leftovers!

So, if you do want a small turkey or any of a certain size, it may be smarter to shop for one earlier rather than later. But, if you’re like us and still want that big turkey to have lots of yummy leftovers, shop as you normally would—both sizes will be available!

2. Frozen vs. Fresh

Like we said above, the amount of frozen and fresh turkeys hasn’t changed. Similarly, the window for producing fresh turkeys hasn’t changed either. The difference is that fresh turkeys have a limited shelf life. Between leaving the warehouse to being stocked at the grocery store and getting home to the consumer, there is a smaller window for fresh birds prior to needing to be cooked.

There is a common misperception among consumers that fresh is better. However, this is not always true, as there are definitely upsides to frozen. More nutrients may be retained in frozen birds, moisture is locked in so frozen turkeys tend to be less dry, and there is less of a chance for bacteria growth and food poisoning since the bird is stored in a temperature-controlled environment and the consumer controls the defrost process.

So if you’re thinking of getting a fresh bird this year, reconsider frozen. You may be surprised!

1. Do NOT Panic-buy!

The supply of turkeys from last year vs. this year has remained the same, so there is no reason to stock up on turkeys.

Both producers, processors, and grocery stores have done everything possible to make sure that every American has a turkey on their Thanksgiving table this year. Panic-buying will only cause local shortages — so shop smart, shop calmly, and make this holiday the best one yet!

For more information, check out the full article on Thanksgiving turkeys here. And be sure to safely cook your turkey with our tips here!

Sustainable Seafood & Healthier Oceans


On the run? Listen to our post!

Wandering the seafood counter in the grocery store can be overwhelming. There’s a global map at your fingertips of Pacific cod, Ecuadorian mahi-mahi, U.S. Gulf shrimp, New Zealand mussels, and Chilean swordfish. For a healthy dinner, should you choose fresh or frozen, or farmed or wild-caught? Conversely, when ordering online, are specific items like frozen wild Icelandic ocean perch or ahi poke cubes tasty? And how do you navigate sustainability and eco-friendly labels?

In the U.S., the fall season is highlighted with October as National Seafood Month. And with the approaching holidays, what better time to eat healthy, sustainable seafood and learn how wild-caught seafood can help to meet global food demand? We can use this information to make a difference in improving the health of our global oceans.

Challenges facing our ocean and seafood supply

As our population grows, we are faced with an enormous challenge of meeting the increased demand for overall protein.

By 2050, projections for global population and income growth suggest a future need for more than 500 megatonnes (Mt) of meat each year for our consumption – a substantial increase from today’s needed volume of 360 Mt.

To put this in perspective, this increase equates to producing the weight of approximately 780 billion servings of salmon, or about 16 million school buses, each year.

Seafood can actually provide a solution to these protein demands — one that can have a much lower carbon footprint than land-based meat production and fewer impacts on biodiversity.

Making healthy seafood choices depends on being informed, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming – in fact, it can be simple.

Let’s start with a quick guide to define common seafood terms seen in our grocery stores:

  • Sustainable marine fisheries provide some of our best tools to ensure healthy oceans while producing seafood. For instance, U.S. marine fisheries are scientifically monitored, regionally managed, and legally enforced under strict sustainability standards.
  • Wild-caught, or wild capture, refers to seafood directly caught or “harvested” from the sea, rivers, or other natural aquatic habitats. This includes sustainable marine fisheries, like wild cod.
  • Farm-raised means that the seafood was not captured in the wild, but grown in a farm, pen, or other systems. These systems can either be on land or in water.
  • Aquaculture refers to the broader category of farming aquatic species (both fresh and saltwater). The use of the term “aquaculture” generally encompasses farming that occurs both on land or in the sea, such as land-based tilapia farms.
  • Mariculture exclusively refers to species farmed within the marine environment or saltwater, such as seaweed or mussels grown on ropes in the ocean, or salmon pens near coastal areas. Mariculture is the correct term for sea-specific farming, even though “aquaculture” is often used here.

Aquaculture is a fast-growing part of our food system that can provide increasingly sustainable options for consumers and – when done right – can offer ecosystem restoration benefits for the planet. The below chart shows wild-capture fisheries as relatively stable when compared to aquaculture’s increase in supply, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Sustainable wild-capture marine fisheries

Globally, wild-capture fisheries are unbelievably unique in that no other large-scale food sector continuously removes a comparable sheer volume of wild animals from any natural habitat on earth. This demonstrates the incredible capacity of our oceans to regenerate so future generations may reap its benefits.

Wild-caught seafood holds enormous potential for increasing food supply, yet is heavily dependent on improving management practices in the ocean. Wild-capture provides both an opportunity and a threat to our oceans. Threats include overfishing, unsustainable labor practices on ocean vessels, throwing away bycatch, destruction of habitats (e.g., coral reefs), and ocean pollution.

Although these challenges exist, the status of world fisheries is far from a completely “doom and gloom” situation. Sustainable interventions provide our best opportunity to reform our global seafood system and create thriving, healthy marine ecosystems. If we effectively manage fisheries, marine ecosystems and species can recover.

Recent research supports this good news for well-managed global fisheries. New research published in early 2020 examined the status of 882 global fish stocks (the term for defined populations of fish) and found big improvements, especially in developed countries.

There are also bright spots in smaller-scale fisheries around the world. For example, Kenyan fisherwomen recently closed nearshore reef areas with the goal of helping octopus species recover. Upon returning to fish, the women caught far more octopus, leading to greater sales. Community-based interventions like this can support population recovery, protect valuable habitat, and even improve the livelihoods of coastal fishermen and women.

“Effective fisheries management is actually one of our strongest tools to conserving the health of our oceans,” says Carmen Revenga, who leads the Global Fisheries Strategy at The Nature Conservancy. “Science-based fisheries management and direct engagement with fishers, industry, and governments produce not only sustainable seafood, but benefit marine habitats and species while maintaining coastal communities and fishing-dependent jobs worldwide.”

Who monitors sustainable fisheries?

Before being sold at the grocery store, seafood is produced and regulated by a diverse group of fishermen and women, scientists, fish processors, lawmakers, technology providers, and NGOs. Each group tackles ocean challenges and drives seafood products towards sustainability.

Seafood eco-labels are one mechanism to ensure sustainability – and they can help guide you at the grocery store. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides third-party assurance of seafood sustainability and supply chain traceability. Look for the MSC blue fish label to feel confident that your seafood purchase comes from sustainable sources. In addition, large retailers have made seafood and fishery sustainability commitments, from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart, which can help drive improvements down the supply chain.

Let’s look at the details of how MSC certification can spur action that benefits communities and the ocean ecosystem. The spiny lobster in the Bahamas is one of the island nation’s most important fisheries. Each year, around 6 million pounds of spiny lobster tails are sold in the $90 million fishery. Through a collaboration of stakeholders determined to ensure the sustainability of the fishery, the spiny lobster fishery became the first Bahamian, Caribbean fishery to obtain the recognized MSC seal of sustainability. Even after certification, this fishery must demonstrate continual improvements to ensure sustainability, such as refining the assessments of lobster populations and continuing to work on decreasing illegal fishing.

© Jeff Yonover / TNC

On the other hand, another important fishery in the Bahamas, Queen Conch, is experiencing a decline. Conch not only supports thousands of Bahamian fishers but is a national cultural emblem. It is featured in typical dishes and even displayed prominently on The Bahamas coat of arms. Bahamian conch is in decline due to overfishing, which has led to fewer individual conch in the water that can reproduce. A music video called “Conch Gone” draws attention to the plight of conch and the need for conservation measures – and what may happen if we aren’t careful. Today, scientists, fishermen, and government officials in the Bahamas are working to address challenges in the conch fishery.

Eyes on the ocean to ensure sustainability

Seafood certifications and regulations such as the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program or E.U. Catch Certification Scheme provide mechanisms to reduce illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices. And new technologies are revolutionizing the ways we monitor compliance on the water and collect information.

Recent advances in electronic monitoring (EM), essentially video cameras, sensors, and GPS on fishing vessels, can provide verifiable data on where and how fish are caught and what types of fish are brought on board, including bycatch of unintended species, like sharks or turtles.

“Sustainability can’t happen without transparent supply chains – and this has to start right at the point where fish are caught,” says Mark Zimring, who leads The Nature Conservancy’s Large-Scale Fisheries Program. “Electronic monitoring provides a mechanism for transparency and accountability, while also providing better data so we can improve management of our fisheries”.

An example of EM in action can be found in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, a region that produces approximately 60% of the world’s tuna. This region also harbors incredible marine biodiversity, including sharks, turtles, and many fish species.

© Tim Calver / TNC

EM data from fishing vessels can be combined with data on locations of protected animals, such as sea turtles, to identify hotspots where fishing may threaten them. This information can be used to avoid certain areas while fishing in others – a win-win for sustainable tuna fishing and marine conservation. In addition to Western and Central Pacific nations, more and more countries are adopting EM at scale, including the Seychelles and New Zealand.

What you can do

The future of seafood can be bright if we acknowledge the challenges instead of shying away from them. Educating ourselves and purchasing seafood from sustainable sources supports businesses that are doing the right thing and can contribute to ensuring healthy oceans. Our choices directly impact the future of sustainable seafood and our oceans.

Here are a few ways we can make a difference:

  • Diversify your plate! Branch out from the familiar salmon and shrimp with other choices that are lower on the food chain, such as sardines, or bivalve shellfish such as clams or mussels. These less popular species can be really good for the ocean and good for you – and may often be more friendly on your budget. Friendly new recipes and seafood health tips can be found in the #EatSeafoodAmerica campaign by the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.
  • Find a local seafood supplier. To support local businesses and get fresh or frozen seafood delivered to you, check out Local Catch, an easy-to-use seafood finder to help you find local seafood in your area or learn about community-supported fisheries (or CSFs, a similar concept to a CSA produce box, but with seafood).
  • Order seafood online. Many seafood businesses have been heavily impacted by COVID-19 but are adjusting to online ordering when restaurant demand is lower. Look for websites that offer pick-up or home delivery, and help support their businesses during these challenging times. You can check out sites like Vital ChoiceMonterey Abalone Co., and CrowdCow
  • Look for eco-labels or use a guide. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council blue fish label to ensure sustainability. Or, when considering new seafood choices, Seafood Watch has a user-friendly app to use at restaurants or the grocery store.
  • Learn more about the connections between seafood, healthy oceans, and the science behind wild-capture fisheries. Scroll through this interactive publication by the FAO about the global state of fisheries and aquaculture. Follow work by The Nature Conservancy and its partners to implement sustainable fishery management reforms around the world. For science updates, check out this Sustainable Fisheries blog by scientists at the University of Washington.

How COVID Affects Global GM Crops

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to introduce accomplished Ghanian agriculture journalist, Joseph Opoku Gakpo, to Dirt to Dinner. A 2016 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow, Joseph contributes to the Multimedia Group Limited in Ghana, working with Joy FM, Joy News TV, and MyJoyOnline. He has a master’s degree in communications studies from the University of Ghana and is a member of the Ghana Journalists Association, where he was awarded the 2015 prize for Best Journalist in Poverty Alleviation Reporting for “Poor Millionaires,” his story about cocoa farmers. His main interest is telling the story of how farmers and rural residents struggle to survive, with the objective of bringing development to their communities.

The Dirt

The demand rising from COVID-19 has ramped up vaccines using various genetic modification technologies, but when it comes to agriculture, the inverse has been true. Covid significantly slowed down the global process to commercialize genetically modified (GM) crops, and no one feels it more than farmers in developing countries, like Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh, where significant progress quickly came to a screeching halt.

Although many countries have approved the fast track use of genetic modification in the production of COVID-19 vaccines, the contrary is the case when it comes to approvals for GM crops. Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh are some of the countries where efforts to get GM crops into the hands of farmers have either stalled, or timelines for approval been rescheduled because of COVID-19. Genetically engineered crops bring more food to a continent that struggles with food security. And these crops can grow with fewer pesticides, thus keeping us healthier while working in the fields.

“In Kenya, we have had regulatory delays in the continuation of the national performance trials on [insect-resistant] Bt maize,” Kenyan plant breeder Dr. Murenga Mwimali told Dirt to Dinner in an interview. “There were planned national performance trials in six sites in Kenya. However, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, the activities by all stakeholders were all stopped.”

Bt maize has been genetically modified to produce a protein -safe for humans and other animals-but can kill the destructive stemborer insects that destroy maize crops. Bt crops have been shown to reduce pesticide use. Bt maize also often contains traits for drought tolerance, which can help increase productivity on farms by at least 10%.

It is Essential to Continue Moving Forward

Dr. Mwimali is worried the situation with COVID-19 will push back the expected time frame for commercializing GM maize for use by Kenya’s farmers. It is already being grown in South Africa, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, among other countries.

“It takes about 100-150 days to gain [government] approval but now it is taking longer and longer given the many requirements for a team of regulatory institutions to sit and approve the processes,” Dr. Mwimali explained. “This [approval] period may now double and the food and nutrition security of more than 80 percent of smallscale farmers will continue to suffer.”

Stakeholders, however, remain confident things will change in the months ahead as COVID-19-related lockdowns ease. Recently, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and Fisheries, National Biosafety Authority, National Environment Management Authority, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, and other regulatory stakeholders have been meeting to brainstorm ways to proceed with the national performance trials on Bt maize.

“Despite the current COVID-19 situation, there is hope that the national performance trial activities on Bt maize will proceed with the teams observing the safety requirements by the Ministry of Health,” Dr. Mwimali said.

Dr. Rose Gidado, assistant director of the National Biotechnology Development Authority in Nigeria, said the situation there is no different. For some years now, the government has fast-tracked the adoption of GM crops and has approved Bt cotton and cowpea for commercialization.

Since last year, the multiplication of seeds has been ongoing to allow for the mass sale of GM seeds to farmers. But COVID-19 has slowed down activities so the farmer does not have access to the seeds. “The process is only affected by COVID-19 in terms of restricted movements, limited travels, and social distancing,” she told Dirt to Dinner. “You cannot do so much at this time. Things are moving at a slow pace.”

Dr. Gidado argues, however, that Nigeria needs GM crops now more than ever in the COVID-19 era.

“There is the need to step up production in order to measure up as well as prepare for the high demand for food in the country in the post-COVID-19 era,” Dr. Gidado said.The potential for economic growth arising from the cultivation of genetically engineered crops in Nigeria is high with increased access to food, good health, and productivity. It will also attract foreign investments and earnings, leading to wealth creation.”

As the Nigerian government eases COVID-19 restrictions, work has begun to revive the GM crop commercialization processes. “We are still on track to produce GE cowpea,” she said. Insect-resistant cowpea is the country’s first GM food crop.

Complicated GMO regulations

The regulation of GM crops in much of the world is guided by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement currently ratified by about 170 countries to ensure the safe use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. The protocol requires that products arising out of technologies like genetic modification be regulated based on the precautionary principle, which requires that countries pause and review new technologies extensively before they are adopted.

A lot of countries have thus passed new legislation that lays out extensive, in-depth and complicated processes that need to be exhausted before GM crops are approved for use. When plant researchers finish breeding a new GM seed, it has to be taken through trials in confined areas, then contained trials on a fairly large scale. If it passes both of those reviews, then governments authorize an environmental release, which allows it to be grown by farmers in several areas of a country.

The next step is applying for commercialization so farmers can legally access and cultivate the seeds. It can take more than a decade, and tens of millions of dollars, to bring a GM crop to market.

In Ghana, efforts to allow for the commercialization of GM crops started more than 10 years ago but crystalized in 2011 with the passage of the National Biosafety Act to guide the process. In 2018, Ghanaian scientists completed field trials on the insect-resistant Bt cowpea, the country’s first GM crop variety. This GM crop is expected to help farmers dramatically reduce their use of pesticides, while also enjoying better yields of this important staple food. “When you look at the conventional seeds, you can spray as much as eight times (a season). But with the Bt, you spray only two times.

“Just the two sprays can confer resistance in Bt crops like the eight sprays in the conventional,” Dr. Mumuni Abdulai, principal investigator in charge of the Bt cowpea project, explained.

After years of additional background work following completion of tests on the varieties, scientists were hoping to zoom into the final approval processes by applying to the National Biosafety Authority for environmental release of the variety in the first half of 2020. But the process stalled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The document is ready for submission. Everything is ready…if not because of COVID-19, we would have done it by now.”

Burkina Faso is the third West African country, apart from Ghana and Nigeria, that is working to get the Bt cowpea variety into the hands of farmers. Burkina Faso is hoping to use the GM cowpea project to re-establish itself as a nation that puts science first after its government halted the cultivation of Bt cotton in 2015. But the Bt cowpea approval process has slowed down there, just as in Ghana and Nigeria.

Farmers in Burkina Faso are calling on the government to fast-track the approvals for Bt cowpea in response to COVID-19. Burkina Faso farmer Wiledio Naboho said COVID-19 has negatively impacted production this year and farmers are counting on GM crops to help them increase productivity.

“Really, COVID-19 has impacted us as farmers negatively,” Naboho said. “First, it’s limited our access to quality seeds. And also, the few [seeds] we have are sold at a high price. Secondly, access to food is limited because of lockdown… So, COVID-19 came to add more sorrow to my people. I can tell a lot of families don’t have food to feed themselves.”

Of the 53 countries in Africa, only South Africa, Eswatini, and South Sudan farmers are currently growing GM crops commercially. More than 20 nations are currently undertaking trials on about eight GM crops, including banana, cassava, and maize, in preparation for their introduction into the food supply. The research and approval processes have slowed down in virtually all these countries as a result of COVID-19.

Situations elsewhere

The challenge in Africa is being experienced in Asia, as well. In the Philippines, the COVID-19 pandemic has added energy and vigor to the activities of anti-science groups campaigning against Golden Rice, a GM rice variety rich in vitamin A, a nutrient to prevent blindness and other serious health challenges in millions of children. In December 2019, the Philippines Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry issued an official notice of permit approving Golden Rice for direct use in food, feed or processing.

In early August, the Stop Golden Rice Network launched its annual week-long line up of activities to protest plans to commercialize Golden Rice. “There are enough reasons to safely conclude that non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are exploiting the dire situation of our food system during COVID-19”, Mr. Cris Panerio, one of the coordinators of the campaign claimed, even though Golden Rice is a philanthropic endeavor.  Such re-invigorated campaigns linking COVID-19 and GM crops will make it more difficult for the authorities to introduce the lifesaving varieties.

In Bangladesh, following the success of genetically modified Bt brinjal (eggplant), the country is also researching Golden Rice, potatoes resistant to the devasting late blight disease and pest-resistant Bt cotton. Bt brinjal, which is the first GM crop developed by public sector scientists for farmers in South Asia, increased farmer income by $658 per hectare over the four years between 2014 and 2018. GM rice, potato, and cotton are expected to make an even higher and better impact on the population, but COVID-19 is now serving as a distraction against its approval.

“COVID-19 is having a grave impact in Bangladesh and soon we might have more positive cases than Italy. It has slowed down the whole system and our economy. So, the government has many burning priorities other than speeding up the process of research and development of Golden Rice and other biotech crops,” Arif Hossain, executive director of Farming Future Bangladesh, told Dirt to Dinner. “We hope that our research system will resume all its activities in full swing after this pandemic. But right at this moment, the government is giving priorities to production, mechanization, and market value chain, along with large scale subsidy programs for farmers and others engaged in agriculture.”

The opposite appears to be the case in some South American countries. Over the last few months, reports indicate that the transitional government in Bolivia has approved 5 GM crops, including sugar cane and cotton, as part of its efforts to boost agriculture during the pandemic. A pilot project for GM wheat is also being planned.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in Mexico, a group of researchers at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León have begun work on using bioinformatics and computational genetic engineering to possibly produce a tomato that can deliver an edible COVID-19 vaccine. In the US, very little movement has been seen on the GM crop front since the pandemic broke. Europe continues to resist the technology, though the United Kingdom is considering its adoption as part of its break from the European Union.

How to Lend Your Support During COVID

Below are some of our favorite ways to help those in need right now. From Relief Funds and Volunteer Programs, to making Small Gestures While You Shop, Dine, and Post on Social Media – we can all contribute to making things better for those who have lost their jobs, loved ones, and all those experiencing hardships during this pandemic.

Though this list mostly focuses on workers in the restaurant industry, we also encourage finding ways to help local operations and industries near and dear to you. For instance, if you’d like to help a farmer you know by connecting them to business-saving resources, take a look at the USDA’s Farmer Funds page and read our post about FarmLink, an organization connecting farmers to food banks. By extending our hand to those in need, we find connection and fulfillment in surprising ways.  

Relief Funds

Restaurants and Restaurant Workers

Relief Funds are being set up for various efforts, such as direct donations to unemployed restaurant workers and independent restaurants. Inevitably, the economic burden from this health crisis most directly affects those workers who are in the most vulnerable financial situations, as they are not considered essential workers and are at the greatest risk of being laid off. Here is a list of funds to consider that particularly resonated with us.

The James Beard Foundation is a foundation that celebrates, nurtures, and honors chefs to make America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.

The Open for Good campaign, set up by JBF, is designed to help independent restaurants survive this crisis and help them thrive long-term by providing financial assistance.  (@beardfoundation)

One Fair Wage Emergency Coronavirus Tipped and Service Worker Support Fund puts cash in the pockets of impacted restaurant workers, car service drivers, delivery workers, and personal service workers. Specifically targeting hourly workers facing unprecedented economic hardships, this fund provides direct, urgent financial assistance to those most directly impacted by food industry closures. (@1fairwage_official)

Another Round Another Rally is a fund set up to offer relief grants of $500 to food hospitality workers, ranging from dishwashers, busboys, chefs, and sommeliers who lost their jobs or had their hours cut because of COVID-19. They are offering a range of ways to tailor your financial support, either by scholarship opportunities, direct financial assistance from the grants, or emergency help. (@anotherroundanotherrally)

Independent Restaurant Coalition is a way to make a difference at the local level. This coalition is designed to provide supporters a way to donate directly to their local restaurants and restaurant workers. They do this by connecting you to your local community and uniting voices to speak directly to lawmakers about decisions regarding industry policy—what they are calling critical investments to bring our economy back. (@indprestaurants)

Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund is created by and for restaurant workers. Their mission is to support hospitality workers who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Before COVID, over 40% of this workforce was living on poverty-level wages, and now, many are unemployed—exacerbating an already challenging financial plight in an industry fraught with high turnover and poor job mobility. This underserved and vulnerable population needs our help now more than ever. (@rwcfusa)

Communities and Families Most Vulnerable

Poverty-stricken communities that relied heavily on aid and resources before COVID-19 are feeling the effects of this pandemic ten-fold. Many families, children, and the elderly who cannot work or rely on schools or organizations for meals and support are in great need of additional assistance. Here are a few organizations that are doing their part to help both locally and globally to assist these communities in need.

Dream Center is a Los Angeles-based outreach program that was suggested to us by our readers. This program offers free assistance to communities struggling with basic needs, including food and clothing donations. Dream Center also uniquely allows you to “Adopt a Block”, which provides the opportunity to directly help 23 underserved communities that have been identified as highest risk. (@ladreamcenter)

Midwest Food Bank is one of hundreds of food banks throughout the nation helping to fight hunger. This faith-based organization’s goal is to alleviate malnutrition and starvation locally by providing food relief to those in need.

This national food bank has over 32,000 volunteers who collect, pack, and distribute food. You can consider donating food, funds, or if local, your time. (@midwestfoodbank)

Feeding America is a larger, more global foundation that bases its work on the statistic that 1 in 9 people in the U.S. struggle with hunger, equating to over 37 million people. To combat this, Feeding America is creating the nation’s largest network to connect people in need of food. Target is a major supporter and partner of the foundation, helping to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of families. (@feedingamerica)

No Kid Hungry focuses on children at risk of losing healthy, balanced meals otherwise provided through their local school system. The organization estimates that over 438 million school meals have been missed because of the pandemic, making it more important than ever to provide families the meals that they need, as well as emergency grants to food banks and community groups. (@feedingamerica)

Meals on Wheels delivers so much more than just food. Founded by a small group of Philadelphia citizens in 1954, the organization supports senior citizens by extending independence and health as they age through food provisions. This has been hailed as one of the most effective social movements in America. Currently, MOW provides meals to over 2.4 million seniors annually in almost every community around the country. (@mealsonwheelsamerica)

Volunteer & Connect

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Volunteering is so much more than just providing help and support. Volunteering is good for the soul. Not only are we helping those less fortunate, but our role as volunteers provides a sense of pride and accomplishment. There is nothing like the feeling of giving back to others.

Here are some great resources for those of us looking to get involved by lending their time or expertise.

National Service is an incredible resource that provides ideas on how to serve your community based on your ability. They provide links to various food banks and food pantries that require volunteers to assist with food sorting and delivery.

They help guide you to your local school systems that may require a helping hand. Furthermore, they bring to light the need for blood donations for those hospitalized. Outside of donating time and blood, they also provide ideas for those who wish to stay home but also help, such as: donating medical supplies and equipment, donating clothes to local charities, and reaching out to loved ones who need added emotional support.

All for Good is another wonderful platform that aggregates how and where to get started with volunteering, both out of the home and at home. They recognize that there is a desire to help others and give back, while also prioritizing safety – they provide a comprehensive list of ways you can help your community without leaving the house.

They have also created a search function that allows you to search locally within your zip code for projects and connections. Furthermore, their platform is also designed to help startup projects and missions by providing a launch point to get their philanthropy off the ground.

Shopping Habits

Hard to imagine that ordering your favorite sushi rolls for delivery or picking up a meal at your local pizzeria could make any sort of real impact, right? Wrong! Small acts of changing the way we spend money and being deliberate in our spending can offer support for local eateries and make a huge difference in the lives of those food-industry workers impacted by COVID-19. Here are a few ways the Dirt to Dinner team has changed the way we shop for food, in hopes of providing monetary support to our favorite restaurants and their employees.  

Consider Take-Out

Do some research into your local eateries! Check out who is open for delivery or curbside pick-up and order from them. 

The best way to directly support your local community is to keep the economy thriving by meaningful spending.

Some restaurants have come up with creative ways to serve their loyal customers and entice spending. For example, see if your local pizza joint is offering an at-home pizza-making kit that you could pick up and enjoy preparing with the whole family. Or see if your favorite weekend spot is providing food plus a wine pairing, for a special at-home dining experience.

Considering take-out goes beyond just the restaurant, as some businesses are partnering with various delivery services to help keep both the storefront and the drivers employed. A delicious win-win if you ask us!

And if you were worried about whether take-out is safe, it is! According to the FDA: “ There is currently no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.” They recommend that if you are concerned, the best thing to do is to wash your hands after removing food from packaging and before meals. The CDC echoes these sentiments.

Purchase Gift Cards

As we look to the future of what life will look like after COVID-19, we can’t wait to get back to our favorite corner bistro to get our hands on that famous burger or specialty dessert that we have been missing for months.

Buying gift cards from a restaurant is a wonderful way to support businesses now and also to give you an outing to look forward to later– talk about a silver lining! It also puts much-needed cash in the hands of struggling food service employees.

You can also consider gifting gift cards. Right now, buying a birthday gift that consists of clothes, or something for the home seems meaningless, as we likely have no outings to attend or dinners to host—why not buy a gift card to a favorite restaurant to celebrate the occasion at a later date?

Tip Generously, When You Can

Tips, especially cash tips, are a sincere and actionable way to say “thank you!”, not just for service, but also for the workers’ decision to put their health and that of their family members at risk so we can enjoy a delicious meal. Consider bumping up your tip to 25% or 30%. We promise you, a little bit goes a long way.

Use your platforms to raise awareness

Restaurants and food services that can open are doing their best to stay that way! This means that their budgets for marketing are nonexistent – but you can help. Take a photo of your favorite eatery and post it to your social pages. Give the restaurant a great review on Yelp or Google. Tweet a photo of your delicious meal and tell your followers to try it for themselves! If you see a restaurant trying to promote a new item or a special deal, help them out by re-posting or sharing their story.

Helping to mobilize the community is a simple, effective way to show your support for restaurants outside of donations. If you are financially struggling, this is a costless way to lend a hand! Something you can do right now is to take a look at the handles we have included above in our Relief Funds section and consider following these organizations. That way, you can show your support by raising awareness and stay up-to-date with initiatives and efforts they are working on.

Actionable Change

While a $5 donation, buying a large pizza, or sending a tweet might seem like nominal actions, they add up and become greater than the sum of their parts. Do what you can with what you have. When made by the collective, these small gestures can change lives.

If you have a foundation or a relief fund that is near and dear to you, please email us at connect@dirt-to-dinner.com and we will include it in our list.

FarmLink: Connecting Food Waste to Food Security

Going to the grocery store is suddenly accompanied by a strange anxiety – do I have my mask? My sanitizer? Will they have what I need? What if I can’t find any milk or meat? In the midst of all of this stress and chaos, very few of us have stopped to think about the people less fortunate: those who can’t even afford to shop at the grocery store. Where will they get their food?

Food Problems in the U.S. Existed before COVID

Food insecurity is an increasingly large problem in the United States, even when we are not dealing with a pandemic. We’ve always faced challenges with feeding our entire nation, especially in low-income and food desert communities. In 2018, 10 million adults in the U.S. used food pantries – that’s 5% of the population. Since COVID, Feeding America gave out 20% more food in March than the average month and estimates that 1 in 6 Americans could face hunger.

Now, this does not mean that we don’t have enough food to feed our people. In fact, we have more than enough. The COVID economy is not helping. In addition, the problem currently lies with how much food we waste, how much goes uneaten, and how much food we lose along the food production chain. In fact, the FDA estimates that between 30 to 40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted and lost every year. Each year, it’s estimated we waste about 140 billion pounds of food, with produce on farms accounting for 20 billion pounds. How is this possible when so many people are going hungry?

It is a perfect storm: food is being wasted and food banks need food. Seems counterintuitive, right? With unemployment at 13.3% due to businesses closing and workers being let go by their companies, people suddenly find themselves in a position where putting food on the table is no longer a simple task. Lines outside of food pantries run for miles long, but because of the disturbance in the food supply chain, many return home hungry and empty-handed.

Then came FarmLink…

FarmLink is an organization that started about 2 months ago by some pretty incredible young people: Will Collier, a Brown University graduate; James Kanoff at Stanford University; and Aidan Reilly, Ben Collier, and Max Goldman at Brown University. They came up with the idea after reading about the lines at food banks and the amount of food being wasted in the country. From there, they connected the dots, or linked them, if you will. Aidan Reilly and James Kanoff, who volunteered at their local food bank in Los Angeles in earlier years, saw the effects COVID was having close to home.

“COVID spurred our creation of FarmLink because of the unprecedented amount of food waste in the system and demand at food banks. Food bank lines were miles long. There’s more demand than in the Great Depression. Seeing food waste and food security, we wanted to attack both and combine two pieces of the process.”

– Will Collier, co-founder

The goal of FarmLink was simple: to rescue wasted and surplus food from farms and connect them with food banks around the country in need of food during COVID. The first transfer they made was with an onion farm in Idaho, Owhyhee Farms. At Owhyhee, there were millions of pounds of surplus onions going straight to the dump because they had nowhere to go. FarmLink called the farm and inquired about rerouting the onion truck to a foodbank in L.A. instead of the dump. They successfully transferred the onions, and FarmLink took off from there.

How It Works

FarmLink, though early in its inception, launched with what has proven so far to be a well-oiled transfer system from farms to food banks. With efficiency top of mind at every step, they get in touch with farmers and food banks with the use of research teams. The researchers figure out where to find surplus and what farms are in surplus of what items, depending on which items are in harvest. They then look to see what counties around those farms are underserved and in need of food.

The method is not to move food more easily, but rather to fill in the gaps and get food to communities truly in need. Some places where FarmLink has already provided food are the Navaho Nation in southwestern U.S., New York City, Detroit, Chicago, L.A., and Siskiyou County in Northern California, which was labeled the hungriest county in California in 2017.

FarmLink is 100% volunteer-operated and all proceeds go to the purchasing of food from farmers and transportation. They work hard to pay farmers that need compensation for pick-and-pack fees, which include harvesting, labor, and packaging, and also provide breakeven money on a crop so farmers can continue planting that crop. FarmLink also compensates truck drivers and any essential workers in the process to support the supply chain.

“The growth and support we’ve gotten and sheer volume we’ve been able to move has been completely overwhelming … we’ve been in awe with the scale we’ve been able to grow at and seeing so many people come together.” – Will Collier

FarmLink Today and Going Forward

Today, FarmLink has hundreds of volunteers all across the country and from more than 20 schools, and it’s still growing! They have a weekly newsletter to keep donors and supporters up to date on what’s going on and how they can continue to help the process. Every piece of FarmLink has been developed and continues to operate virtually, proving you can do anything you put your mind to, even with limited human contact. The founder and most volunteers are young college students or recent college graduates.

Will Collier recognizes the benefits to this: “It’s been incredible for all of us to see how interested and motivated our generation is. One thing you hear is millennials are looked at as selfish with phones, technology, social media, but I think this has been an amazing way for all of us to share that we do have interest in helping out our communities and people across the country.”

Even once COVID is no longer an issue, this will only be the beginning of FarmLink in fulfilling their continued goal of leaving no person hungry.

Will says, “the cusp of what we’re trying to get to is still undiscovered.” In May alone, FarmLink moved one million pounds of food, and in just the first half of June, they have already moved over three million. The possibilities are endless for this incredible company!

Want to be part of the change?

FarmLink is always interested in volunteers! Applications can be found on their website and donations are always welcome! You can also subscribe to their weekly newsletter, join their Facebook group, and follow them on Instagram @farmlinkproject to stay in the know!

Demanding Equality: Women Farmers in Africa

Editor’s Note: These days, it feels like a challenge to find stories of unity and empowerment. So we feel very honored and proud to present our readers with these uplifting stories of three African women farmers who not only challenge the status quo, but have dramatically improved the well-being of their families, their countries…and beyond.

In sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers make up 80% of all farms, with women comprising at least half of the work force. However, a pervasive gender imbalance exists here, with men dominating the industry and given opportunities and resources their female counterparts can only dream of. Motivated by the stories of their mothers and their own experiences in rural Africa, these three inspiring women, Ruramiso Mashumba, Slyvia Tetteh, and Sussana Phiri, have created a better life for themselves, their families, and all women farmers through their educational and empowerment efforts.

From Ghana to Zimbabwe to Zambia, here are the stories of our farmers.

These are the stories of Ruramiso Mashumba, Slyvia Tetteh, and Sussana Phiri, exemplary women who have changed the face of farming in Africa. Together, they unify their voices through their Facebook page, Women Who Farm Africa, which shares resources, experiences, and information to empower women around the world. They take pride in Africa’s culture of leaving no one behind by educating women on preventing food insecurity and encouraging their role in strengthening the local and global economies.

These women believe that “closing the access gap between men and women farmers would increase agricultural productivity by 2.5 – 4% in developing countries – thus reducing hungry people by 150 million. The result is a thriving community, country, and world.

Ruramiso Mashumba, CEO & Founder, Mnandi Africa

I was born in the capital city of Zimbabwe, Harare. My mother worked in the rural areas. I remember when we were younger, she used to sit us down and tell us about the women she worked with in agriculture. Many of times they couldn’t afford to send their children to school if there was a drought in the country. The women worked tirelessly day in and day out to earn just a few dollars.

From that age, I made up my mind that I, too, want to work in supporting women in rural communities.

When I was 14 years old, my dad bought a farm and I was moved to a school next to the farm that had a focus on agriculture. This is where I learned about commercial agriculture and the power it had to transform the rural economy by transforming lives of farmers. I decided to further my studies at school and receive a diploma. My experience wasn’t easy. The school was not ready for women. They didn’t have a uniform for us. I had to wear khaki shorts, shirt and long knee-length socks as there was no uniform for girls.

For two years, I studied agriculture at my school. Throughout the entire time, I was bullied. They called me a boy because of my uniform. I remember the boys would pull my chair and laugh at me every day.

Despite how difficult it was, I was determined to make sure I didn’t give up. I felt I must persevere because I was an example for little girls in my school who were younger than me. I wanted to show them you can achieve anything, even when the odds are against you, if you put your mind to it. So I made sure I studied hard.

After two years, I graduated third in my class out of fifty students. I’m happy to report the two people above me were also girls.

We stuck together and yes, we did persevere.

I then went on to further my education in the UK. I remember my first day on a British farm. These farmers were so cool! They had tractors, combine harvesters – worlds apart from the women my mother described in her story who farmed with manual tools and torn clothes.

After I graduated, I decided to return to Zimbabwe. My goal was to change the face of my country’s agriculture. I was encouraged and motivated. I wrote a business plan.

I remember the day I finally got an appointment to see my bank manager. He was dressed smartly in a pin striped suit and looked very important.

I sat down anxiously and presented my proposal. After what felt like a lifetime, he inhaled and said, “Young lady how old are you?” I replied 25 years old. He said, “Hmm…do you have collateral?” I replied, “No, just my University degree.”

He replied, “Soon you will be married and what will that mean for our money? Hmmm, unfortunately, we are unable to assist you.” I went home in tears.

I sat down with my parents crying. My mother got up, got a box, and took out her savings she had put aside to buy a car and said, “My girl, you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it. Now, go and conquer the world.”

That year, I planted 1 hectare of cabbages, oilseed vegetables, and king onions. I used the knowledge I had learned at university that farming is a business and within one month, I was already selling, and my product was very successful.

The reason for my success was because of the education I gained not only in practical farming, but also business management, which included modules like how to secure markets.

As a result of my high-quality products, the next year I got my first big break. My company was contracted by a local producer to grow snap peas for them to export into the EU and became their first woman grower, as well as their first grower younger than 30 years old.

The company had seen proof from the quality of my current crop that I was competent to produce high-quality product for them to export.

I have since shared my story and inspired other young ladies in rural areas, as well as in the urban areas. I tell them that agriculture is male-dominated, but women farmers can and should stand shoulder to shoulder with men.

Together, we can do more. Together, we can change the image of the continent and we can feed the world.

Today, I am the first woman chairperson of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union youth. I have represented women in ag across the world by sharing not only my story, but also the stories of the many women food producers who need access to education in agriculture, technology, and finance.

A lot of people see me today winning awards, traveling the world, farming with tractors, working with planter and center pivots, and think I have arrived.

In many ways I have, but honestly, as a farmer I am still faced daily with army worm, increases in pests and diseases, and climate change. I understand personally how hard things are and have the education to know that there are solutions. That’s why as a farmer, I have become an advocate for women in science.

Together, men and women can feed our growing population. Science is not moving fast enough for us as farmers. We need seeds that can adapt to today’s challenges and my involvement with Cornell’s Alliance For Science is motivated by my strong belief that science needs to hurry up.

The technology is there. I conclude by this popular African saying, “alone you can go faster, but together we can go far”.

Let’s come together — farmers both men and women, scientists and innovators — to help feed the world and leave no man behind.

Slyvia Tetteh, Administrator, Chamber of Agribusiness, Ghana


My name is Slyvia Tetteh. I’m from the United States of Africa; specifically, Ghana.

Famous Ghanaian educator Dr. James Kwegyir Aggrey famously once said: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation”. I believe this to be true. I want to share with you why I’m dedicating my life to empowering the women farmers of Africa.

My passion for empowering women began with my mother, Lawrencia Larbi. Despite so many obstacles, my mother had a dream of completing her education. Unlike here in America where families live on farms, in Africa our farms are usually located far away from our homes, and you must travel by foot because the paths are too narrow for vehicles. My mother would wake up every day at 4am. She would do this to help her parents feed the family and to raise money for her education. After putting on her school uniform, she would walk one hour to work on our family farm.

After working for several hours, she would then walk upwards of two hours with her mother to the market. There, they would sell our farm produce, and sometimes banana leaves. My mother did this every day. Only then did she depart for school. Unfortunately, some days it took hours before she and grandma could sell any of our farm produce. Often, by the time they made enough money, morning classes had already ended. Sometimes they did not sell anything until midday. By then, it was already too late for my mother to go to school. My mother was pressed between a rock and a hard place.

She was the youngest in her family. Her brother and sisters had found this schedule impossible to maintain. She had worked so hard to try to finish school, but eventually reality hit her. It was literally and physically impossible to follow the daily routine and achieve academic success. With no other options, she had to marry early and start a family, just like generations of women before her.

While she was being educated, my mother dreamed of becoming a lawyer and eventually a Legislator who served her nation. But with no support financially, and unable to achieve an education, my mother had to give up her dream.

My mother was seventeen when she got married.

No one should give up their dream at seventeen years old. My mother was determined to give me and my sisters the opportunities she didn’t have. And she did. She didn’t always have the money to keep us in school. But despite the fact that she didn’t finish school, she remembered everything she had learned. When we couldn’t afford school, she used her knowledge to homeschool us. I believe my mother was an exceptional woman, but in terms of what she did with the education she had, she was not atypical.

In my country, if you educate a father, he is expected to take his education out of the home and into the workplace to earn money for his family. A woman’s role is to stay home with her children. When mothers are educated, they keep their education in the home and use it to educate their children. If you educate a woman, you educate her children, and by extension, her community. A nation of educated women is an educated nation.

Out of 80% of women farmers with children in the 1990s, I’m one of the lucky ones to obtain a higher education. I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Information Studies. My mother’s hard work gave me the opportunity to stand on this platform before you here today. This is why I work so hard to help other women. My mother’s unwavering dedication to educate me drives my passion.

Today, I educate womenI work with women farmers so that they can farm successfully and more easily using modern agricultural biotechnology. I do this because I believe if you educate a man you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation. Our male counterparts also have challenges, yet the current system advances men. Men hand their farms down to their sons from generation to generation.

Therefore, only less than 20% of agricultural land in the world is owned by women farmers. Because men own their land, they have the collateral to secure loans to buy machinery, which allows them to scale their farming.

Meanwhile, so many women are still farming with manual tools.

Research has shown that women farmers produce 70% of food found on the continent, and yet 5 million people die of hunger every year. 5. Million. People. To be able to feed the continent with the expected population increase of 1 billion, things must change. Women must have the tools they need to farm more efficiently, maximizing output on every inch of farmland. Strong policies must be put in place.

The only way to bridge this vast gap of inequity is to educate women. Women Farmers Must. Be. Empowered. Equally. In order to increase yields and achieve sustainable growth, women must be educated about agricultural biotechnology and have access to other available breakthrough technology. Only then will women become productive, independent, and financially stable. Families with educated women are empowered to provide for themselves. Unlike my mother, these families can realize their dreams. There is no reason we can not empower the women of Africa to empower themselves. We. Can.

And when this day comes, we will be able to say the following: We have educated women. We have educated an entire nation. And the world IS a better place.

Sussana Phiri, Farmer & Advocate of Zambian Agriculture

I am Sussana Phiri and I am from Zambia. Chilanga is my hometown. Zambia has abundant arable land, many water bodies, and hardworking women. Zambia is home to a vibrant mix of cultures and is also widely considered to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming nations in the world.

In America, you’re either a farmer, or you’re not. It’s not that simple where I come from. In my country, we are all farmers. When I was little, my father made small farming tools for me and my siblings. They were cute. We weren’t doing much, but it was our introduction to farming being a part of the fabric of our lives. We farmed during the rainy season so we had enough maize to feed our big family through the next year.

My mother always used to say “pang’ono pang’ono ndi mtolo,” translated it means: ​bit by bit causes a heap.

Although we didn’t have endless supplies of food, we all worked together, bit by bit, to ensure we never went hungry. I am so thankful. ​No child should ​ever​ go hungry. Like many people in my country, there were early mornings, long days, and late nights. All day, every day, every year. By the time I was 22 years old, I was studying remotely to earn my degree in education, while farming my family’s land and also teaching pre-school.

Seeing children I worked with suffer because they did not have enough to eat was painful. Despite being hungry, these children worked hard and went to school every day. Theirs is a difficult yet inspiring story, but that is not the story I want to share with you.

I want to share a practice in my country which hurts me, but inspired me to make change.

I want to tell you about a practice called mashanga – a practice which taught me to question what is not right and think outside of the box for solutions. After the rainy season, we wait for the maize to dry. Once it dries, my family harvests it. Mashanga is what happens next, but it shouldn’t happen at all. ​After Harvest season, women with little babies on their backs would ask for permission to go on our land. We would grant it and they would walk through the field, looking for ​any grain we had accidentally left behind. ​They would walk our field for hours, hoping to find any scraps we left behind, and then they would go to other fields after that.

Mashanga is considered normal in my community. Mothers with little babies on their backs, looking for scraps.

This practice made me realize many things. First, in order to live in a better world you must question the world you’re in. Second, just because things have always been done one way, it does not mean they are right, fair or just. And finally, there can be better ways to do things than the way we have always done things. We must question what we think is normal to create change. And if we are to feed every hungry child, we must question what that looks like.

In Zambia, women farmers comprise over 70% of the farming labour, yet they do not have access to information on how to farm better beyond just thinking farming is a way of life.

We also do not have access to technology that would reduce labor while providing greater yields. Women’s work is not valued as it should be given the majority of labor we provide.

We can question this. It should not be normal. No. Things must change. ​Women farmers in Africa are feeding the African continent even under unfavorable conditions. But it is not enough. 1 in 4 children go undernourished everyday. Now imagine the year 2050, when Africa’s population is projected to have 2.4 billion people. ​We cannot move forward accepting things as they have always been. ​This is not sustainable.

pang’ono pang’ono ndi mtolo… bit by bit causes a heap.

I am a twenty-five year old who is working for that heap of change.

Change does not have to happen overnight, but it can and we must work bit by bit to cause a heap.

Today, I am a co-founder of the Women Who Farm Africa campaign. Women Who Farm believes that if we empower women farmers in agribusiness, agricultural technologies, and communication, we can​ feed the world in 2050.

Whether you are a business expert, scientist, communications expert, farmer, or policy maker, you can contribute a bit to create ​a heap of food for all of us. ​

Bit by bit, we can create change together. ​It’s time ​for a new normal, one that empowers women.

It’s time for a heap of change, a heap of change that feeds the world.

 

Why produce aisles look so barren right now…

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to have Richard Owen contribute his knowledge and expertise to our site. Richard is Vice President at the Produce Marketing Association, where he has worked since 2009. Richard’s career includes serving as Director of Agricultural Affairs at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative where his portfolio included Russia, Eastern Europe, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Israel. Richard also served as head of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, Montana Grain Growers Association, and National Association of Wheat Growers Foundation.

The Dirt

Many of us see the lack of fresh fruits and veggies in some of our supermarkets, but we hear on the news about produce wasting away in the fields. How is this happening? And will it get better?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, you may have gone into your local grocery store and noticed that the full range of fresh produce you’re accustomed to seeing is no longer available. It could be limited supplies of some apple varieties, only one type of lettuce, or no table grapes. What you are experiencing is the disruption of a very complicated supply chain that brings a highly perishable agricultural product from all corners of the world to your local supermarket. All made much more challenging by the multi-faceted complications of COVID-19.

The issue is made more challenging when you consider that in 2018, Americans spent $678 billion on food from full-service and fast-food restaurants, compared to the roughly $628 billion spent at grocery stores, according to USDA. Furthermore, Politico reports that about 40% of fresh produce grown in the country goes to food service, and the remainder to retail.

So in reality, you have two unique supply chains: one serving retail, and one serving the food service sector.

The Produce Supply Chain

According to Nielsen, U.S. fresh produce sales at the retail level was $61 billion in 2018. The product, whether it’s fruit or vegetable, originates on a farm. That farm could be in the U.S, Mexico, Canada or another country in the world. Starting almost at the time of harvest, if not before, the product is picked and, in some cases, grown with the end destination in mind.

Take a banana for example. If it’s going straight from the farm to a restaurant, it will be picked close to ripeness. If it’s going to the grocery store, it will be picked well before ripeness so it has a chance to ripen in the home. Even the container size is different. If it’s going to a food-service distributor like Sysco, it will go in a bulk container without specialized packaging. Broccoli is a good example where it will be bagged for a restaurant and just loose for the consumer in a grocery store.

Or, for instance, the frozen blueberries used in Wyman’s brand of products are bred to be hardier to last through the freezer period. On the other side, you have a different variety of blueberries from Driscoll’s that are made to last in the clamshell packages you find at the market.

Distribution along the Chain

For retail, it’s often branded along the way, whether that be a prominent name familiar to many consumers, or a retail store brand. Retailers often have their own specs for size and quality of certain produce items. For example, Walmart might even have a different grade for different markets based on demographics. As a side note, a system for tracing the product through the supply chain for food safety purposes is similar whether it’s for retail or food service.

Large brands, such as Driscoll’s or Sunkist, typically have contracts to supply retailers and major food-service distributors with their products. They assure product supply by either operating their own farms, but often have contracts with many growers to produce and deliver specified products directly to the major brands. The specs typically include the variety and quantity to be grown, time frame for delivery, and compliance with food safety and specific Good Agricultural Practices.

Mid-size, smaller, and independent growers may sell to multiple distributors, or even directly to retailers. Local retail markets are especially important when produce is in-season. For example, locally grown tomatoes, blueberries and peaches are delivered to retailers less than 100 miles away, as is the case with Heinen’s grocery stores in the Midwest. Also, seasonally, an important outlet for produce are local farmers markets.

How has COVID-19 Impacted Produce?

The impact of COVID-19 on the procurement process is manageable. Most relationships for purchasing are grounded in contracts, along with the need to communicate by phone and e-mail, something that can easily be done from a home office or other alternative.

But a bigger challenge is the highly perishable nature of fresh produce. When a product, say tomatoes, are ripe in the field, they need to be harvested within a short window of several days. If the retailer or food-service distributor is not able to take delivery, you can’t just put the crop on hold and pick it up in a week.

The product needs to be harvested, or the entire crop will deteriorate.

It then carries over into the planting window for the next crop going on the same piece of ground.

Labor for harvesting the crop is also carefully timed to match the predicted ripening and picking date. If a crop is delayed for harvesting due processing delays or closures, the crew may already be scheduled to move to the next crop or farm.

Transportation plays a huge role in the fresh produce supply chain. In the United States, most fresh produce moves by truck. The most perishable of products, like raspberries, can move by air if the market demands it and the customer is willing to pay for it.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, trucks were in tight supply and freight prices were elevated as many industries competed for a limited number of trucks in the system. Most fresh produce requires refrigerated trailers to travel longer distances, which are always in demand. The supply and demand of trucks are now in more equilibrium as the supply shifts have become more transparent.

Directing Supply to Those in Need

The government also regularly procures fresh produce for military institutions, schools, universities, and aid agencies. With the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in mid-April, the government will play an even larger role by providing $100 million per month to fund produce distributors and growers to deliver directly to food banks, food pantries, churches, and non-profit organizations serving citizens in need.

The purpose is to provide an alternative way of getting food directly from the field to the neediest at this time of lost jobs, furloughs and disrupted economies. This is a completely new venture for the U.S. government, and everyone will be watching closely to see if this can take some pressure off the current supply chain.

And speaking of food banks, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented demand on food donation agencies. Reports of a 70-100% increase in the number of food bank customers are common in almost all regions of the country. But many food banks have no or limited ability, if any, to store perishable fresh produce in refrigerated storage for ongoing distribution.

And food banks are now operating with fewer volunteers due to social distancing requirements intended to prevent further spread of the coronoavirus. So, this combination of lack of storage and staffing means that not all produce that is left in the field can make its way to food banks or related distribution routes. The industry has been stepping up and providing refrigerated trucks for use at food banks where possible.

Will the Waste Continue?

So, all this brings us back to a hard truth. The distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables is a complicated endeavor, made even more difficult by the many constraints added by the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are some incidences of produce going to waste in the field, these will only be temporary as the supply chain adjusts to whatever this ‘new normal’ turns out to be, similar to what the meat industry is experiencing, as well.

But our part in helping the produce industry during this time is by eating your 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Not only does this help the industry to better find its supply-demand equilibrium, but it’s unquestionably good for us, as well. Strengthening our immune systems with healthy, nutrient-dense foods is more important now as it’s ever been. Just make sure not to fall into the panic-buying trap so there’s enough for everyone in your community.

The Meat Industry & Shifting Consumer Behavior

Remember when we all went grocery shopping in the beginning of COVID?  The grocery store shelves were practically empty. I couldn’t find black beans or even plain pasta. The milk and meat sections were bare. We certainly do not want that to happen again – going to the grocery store is stressful enough given our masks, sanitizers, and maneuvering our carts to a socially acceptable distance. Let’s not allow the news about meat plant closings force us back into ‘panic buying’ habits.

Rest assured, there is enough meat to go around…if we shop responsibly. Here’s why.

Meat Update

Due to COVID-19 among facility workers, it’s no surprise that things look a little grim. As of the week of May 4th, about 40% of hogs, 35% of beef, and 12% of chickens were not processed, which is where livestock meat is separated into cuts, and then packaged for distribution to grocery stores and food service operators.

The country’s largest meat suppliers, JBS, Hormel, Tyson, Conagra, Cargill, and Smithfield, have all suspended or shut down operations at one or more of their meat processing plants across the country. We shouldn’t worry too much because when some close, others open. All of the meat plants will not shut down at the same time.

President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act that designates chicken, pork, and beef plants as critical infrastructure under the law. This also ensures that workers are first in line for PPE (personal protective equipment). In addition, the CDC wrote general requirements for meat processing plants to operate under COVID-19.

New Meat Protocols

At the end of the day, every single meat company is working hard to keep their employees safe with appropriate distancing and PPE.

“It is a challenge and it will continue to be a challenge. We are doing a lot of investments, changing cafeterias, food separation, changing shifts, we are investing in our team members, we put a bonus out there to retain the team members and keep them working. But it is a challenge, and we will continue to face this challenge as long as this crisis continues.”

– JBS earnings call, March 26, 2020

Right now, meat facilities are taking the highest precautions. They have put up plastic barriers, given all employees enough masks, increased the cleaning and social distancing in common areas like the lunchroom and locker rooms, kept high-risk population at home, and are taking employee temperatures before they enter the facilities and during their breaks.

Smithfield Foods reported in their recent press release, “media and other reports pitting the company against its employees are flat out wrong. There is no such division. The company and its team members all want the same thing: to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply.” (image to the right: Plastic shields at Smithfield Foods, the largest global pork producer)

Employers are also increasing the worker’s pay. For instance, Tyson Foods is providing $120 million in bonuses and increasing health benefits for frontline workers, and Cargill added $2.00 an hour to all jobs.

How does the meat supply work?

Our food system is a resilient, finely-tuned machine. It operates more like the SpaceX shuttle by Elon Musk than a Wilbur and Orville Wright bi-plane. On average, Americans eat 227 pounds of meat every year, or  about 9 ounces a day. Before COVID, we could plan on 120,000 cattle, 400,000 pigs, and 25 million chickens getting processed every single day to meet U.S. and export demand.  It is a tremendous system. Think about how much planning goes into creating a consistent and safe food supply for grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, schools, institutions, and fast-food franchises all across the country.

If you ate a juicy hamburger this past Saturday, the calf was conceived in July 2017 and born in April 2018. It then took approximately two years from the time it was born until it came to your plate.

The hog supplying the bacon and sausage you recently had for breakfast was bred last July and took about six months to grow.

Conversely, the chicken you ate on Sunday night was a new egg only eight weeks ago – and took six weeks to grow from an egg to a chicken. Because of these timetables, you cannot just turn on or off the spigot with cattle and pork the same way you can with poultry.

Each category has a unique supply chain that brings specific challenges to bear as we face COVID-19. There are hundreds of thousands of farmers, growers, and operators that grow the animal or bird. When the system operates smoothly, all the animals go from the processor to the food distributors and then directly to the grocery store and food service. But when disruptions like COVID hit the chain, challenges arise that our food supply has to address. In the case of meats, the bottleneck occurs at the processing level.

Slower processing: The effect on poultry, pork, and beef

When meat processing volume slows down, it creates an excess of animals on the front end.

Poultry. Chickens take such a short period of time to grow that farmers can hold off on hatching the eggs to let the chicken supply flow through before starting the next flock. But then you might end up with too many eggs.  Many breeders have euthanized some of their chickens already.

Pork. Pigs are a different story. Most of the pig farms breed and grow their pigs for the entire six months. A pig cannot just be put out to pasture to wait it out. A pig takes up room – a lot of it – and the next crop of piglets is being born every day. The only option here is for the farmer to begin euthanizing either their piglets or the mature hogs.

Beef. The beef industry can slow down the supply as the cows can remain in a holding pattern on the range, in the feedlot, or on the ranch. The feedlots can reduce the cows’ feed enough to keep them from gaining weight.

There is no doubt about it: farmers and ranchers are hurt by having to hold on and feed them – or worse – in the case of pork – euthanize them.  Until we are clear of COVID-19, the USDA announced a $19 billion relief program to help farmers, ranchers, and distributors who have been adversely affected.

But if the supply is slowing, won’t we run out of meat?

With production slowing from bottlenecking at the processing level, consumers are starting to fear that a decrease in meat production will mean a decrease in availability of meats at their grocery stores.  However, the economy is leveling out meat demand. With the U.S. GDP falling almost 5% in the first quarter, it is estimated that more drops are on the horizon, with a 30% anticipated decrease by the end of the second quarter.

The stock market is providing a very real and very scary read on the health of various industries. In the last few weeks, the S&P has seen price drops of between 8 to 25% due to decreased earnings. And at least 30 million American are applying for unemployment.

Why is this important?  As many industries get hit hard and workers get furloughed or let go, many of us are forced to adjust our spending to meet a tighter budget. Generally, when incomes drop, one of the first food-related budget cuts are expensive red meats; the second is pork, and finally chicken. For instance, we might switch from a filet to ground beef. Or, we might stretch meat to last longer by making casseroles and soups. This is why the USDA is forecasting an increase in chicken production, but a decline in beef and pork.

Prices will be higher because of the disrupted supply. At the week ending on May 1, the 85% lean hamburger you ate on Saturday night cost $3.74 a pound compared to $3.59 last year. But a much more expensive filet mignon at $12.23 a pound has experienced an 18% price increase from just last week.  Conversely, the bacon you had for breakfast is 10% cheaper than last week. But the pork tenderloin you might buy for dinner is 5% higher than the week before, and 14% higher than last year. Yet your wallet is relatively safe with the chicken breast for Sunday night’s dinner, as the value pack dropped by 5% since last week.

Retail versus Food Service

The money we spend on food in this country is allocated almost 50/50 between direct-to-consumer retailers, like the grocery store, and to food service operators, restaurants, cafeterias, and the like. Today, the food once headed to your favorite corner bistro is being rerouted to your neighborhood Stop & Shop. Yes, thankfully, our food system is flexible, and set up in a way that enables it to change allocations from food service to retail relatively quickly.

JBS indicated their flexibility:

“Very few lines, in our case, cannot be immediately used for retail. Maybe some of the lines in bacon is specific for food service, in that specific you don’t have the proper package, but it’s very small. I would say irrelevant. So in our case, we can change pretty much 100% what was done before for food service. If demand reduces in 50% for food service, we can immediately transform that to retail with very, very little impact.”

It’s unlikely that the same volume of meat purchased at food service will entirely be picked up by demand at the grocery store. America has approximately 660,000 restaurants closed or operating at limited capacity right now. Just at the end of March, the restaurant industry lost approximately $25 billion in sales and 9 million people lost their jobs. Even the top-two fast food enterprises, McDonald’s and Starbucks, are seeing a significant impact on their revenue.

Should we run and fill our freezers?

There will still be enough meat in the grocery stores for you to meet your protein requirements of 80 – 100 grams a day, depending on your activity level. Your favorite cuts might not be available, and some might be more expensive, but there will be enough. To help manage this, stores like Kroger’s and Costco are encouraging customers to limit meat purchases to 3 to 5 items per visit.

We have enough meat moving through the system and the meat supply chain is resilient and adaptable. If you run to fill your freezer for the next months’ worth of meals, you will just be putting more pressure on the grocery stores to stock their shelves and more pressure on the meat lines to increase their supply. And within your community, you’re also denying your fellow neighbor their selection.

Whether our meat turns into a toilet paper crisis – that is up to each one of us.

Where is our Food?!

First, we walked into supermarkets and found empty shelves. The milk section is cleaned out, but we read about dairy farmers pouring milk into the ground. It was hard to find fresh fruits and veggies, like bananas and potatoes, yet we would see breathless television reporters showing us fields of produce being plowed under. And most recently, we’ve been reading about more and more meat processing plants shutting down.

The Chairman of Tyson Foods told us the meat supply chain is broken. Dire warnings of upcoming shortages of meat for supermarket shelves pop up almost every day, it seems. Experts tell us farmers, ranchers, and others across the food chain are facing losses measured in the billions of dollars.

What’s going on here? How can the world’s most advanced and productive food system have come to this situation?

Is our food system really broken?

No, it is not broken. Our food supply chain is resilient and innovative, but right now, it is being forced to make some substantial adjustments to a very changed world, and it will take some time to work out all the necessary modifications.

A Dramatic Change in Production

The heart of the matter is basic economics: the global pandemic has fundamentally changed how we buy our food. The whole system functions much like a carefully choreographed and extraordinarily complex ballet to ensure that we get the products we want at prices we can afford.

The path from dirt to dinner includes farmers, ranchers, transportation to food processors, then consumer product companies, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hotels, and much more – all interconnected and dedicated to providing a steady stream of the food we eat every day. Much of the turmoil we see in our food system today reflects a massive disruption to the ballet’s staging.

The pandemic has skewed demand in all links of the food supply chain to make the current system look more like a square dance with tractors than Swan Lake.

Our Food Supply Channels

We sometimes forget; over the past 20 years or so, we have significantly increased the amount of food we eat outside our homes. We have two basic types of “demand” for food – one focused on the retail market, the other on the food service sector. Before the pandemic, we consume about half of our food dollars for at-home meals and the other half in restaurants, fast food outlets, specialty shops, and a burgeoning array of food providers.

The food service industry is defined as eating at restaurants ordering take-out, dining at hotels, schools, hospitals, corporate offices, the military…just to name a few. Our carefully choreographed food chain is structured to serve those two segments.

Our food system has developed the unique tools and processes needed for both at-home and food service channels. Each channel demands somewhat different tools and processes. And each reflects a massive investment in channel-specific machinery and equipment, and careful development of processing, transportation and storage systems.

The pandemic devastated the food service channel of the demand picture – not by eliminating the need for food, but by shifting more and more of it back to in-home dining.

Adjusting to a “New Normal”

When lockdowns and social distancing effectively closed the food service industry’s ability to provide dine-in eating and curtailed school lunches, hotels, and other mass feeding programs, we lost a significant portion of the “demand-pull” these food operations create. As important and valuable as home food delivery, food banks, and other charitable outlets for food are, they just can’t make up for the loss of demand from this critical food-service side of the system.

In some situations, operations didn’t have the storage capacity, processing and handling equipment, the right packaging, the right distribution systems, or some other element of the system important to handling the changed demand pattern. In some cases, the food supply simply backed up, as is the case when meat facilities began slowing down.

The disruptions to a finely-tuned system of just-in-time delivery left some producers and other parts of the food supply chain with nowhere to go. At the same time, all workers need to be kept safe, with social distancing and necessary protective equipment.

The carefully executed ballet for our pre-COVID world needed some modification and adjustments in response to our new demand patterns. But we don’t need a whole new ballet – we just need to make changes to our system and take advantage of the existing flexibility.

Americans in the food production industry are improving the food supply chain every day to make sure it gets to all of us. How much of that change remains in place in a post-COVID world is yet to be determined. But if history is any guide, the system will adapt to whatever we as consumers want.

At D2D, we are going into depth with the meat, dairy, and produce sectors to help clarify some of the misperceptions from the media and provide some context to our current food supply chain and what changes are taking place to make sure we have the food we want and in plentiful supply.

This week, we’re taking a look at how the meat industry is working to meet demand…as long as it doesn’t become fashionable to hoard it like we did with toilet paper…

Bettering Farms in Zimbabwe…and Beyond

Dirt to Dinner is excited to introduce Nyasha Mudukuti, a science communication and network associate with the Cornell Alliance for Science, where she was a 2019 Global Leadership Fellow. Nyasha is a Mastercard Foundation scholar from Michigan State University, where she majored in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology. She is also a BSc honors graduate in biotechnology from Chinhoyi University of Technology, Zimbabwe. Nyasha served as the 2016 AGCO Africa Ambassador, advocating for agricultural reforms across the African continent. 

Nyasha is a member of the Global Farmers Network, a proud Global Youth Ambassador fellow of the United Nations initiative, “A World at School”, and a 2016 Young African Leaders Initiative fellow as an emerging young leader.

Nyasha’s dream is to help her continent see the importance of biotechnology in agriculture and use it to improve the livelihoods of African smallholder farmers.

It’s 2 a.m. and I am sitting in my apartment in Ithaca, New York, trying to call home to check on my family in Zimbabwe. My sister picks up and says, “Let me call you back, I am in a queue.” “For what?” I ask. “Mealie meal,” she replies. “I need to send some to mum!

Concerns amidst a Food Crisis

Our mother lives in a rural area, Chikombedzi, which is where I grew up, while my sister works in the city. It’s 8 a.m. her time and panic-shopping has started there, too. With the government’s announcement of a 21-day nationwide shutdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, basic commodities are now scarce. She hangs up and I try to get some sleep but I can’t. There is a level of comfort knowing that my family will be OK but there’s a restlessness in my mind as I wonder what the next 21 days will be like for the majority of Zimbabweans, who rely on the informal sector and feed from hand to mouth.

What will they eat? The government had announced a shutdown without providing a strategy of how to feed its struggling citizens in abject poverty. This shutdown exposes them to a silent threat, and the very real fear that hunger may kill them before the coronavirus does.

Thirty minutes later, I am still tossing and turning in my bed, contemplating how times have changed. It used to be that people in rural areas would send food to those in the city. But now, my sister has to send food to my mother, whose small piece of farmland has not been yielding much. I remember her recent calls complaining of how the fall armyworm had destroyed her maize. I would then try to put a smile on her face, laughing about how back in 2011 we used to handpick and squash stem-borers with our feet because we could not afford pesticides. Yet we still survived, even after losing almost half of our three hectares of maize and sorghum to the stem borer. “It will be OK, Mum,” I would try to assure her over the phone. But the truth is, it’s NOT going to be okay.

Farming in Chikombedzi

See, I grew up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe. From it, we could feed ourselves, sell the surplus, and pay the fees that allowed us to attend school. But I took no pleasure in farming. I didn’t want to get up early, before school, to weed the fields. I didn’t like the long days in the hot sun. I didn’t want anything to do with agriculture. I wanted to be a doctor, a profession I thought of as “classier”.

However, everything changed in 2011 when I was admitted to study biotechnology as an undergraduate student at Chinhoyi University in Zimbabwe. That is where I started learning about the role of science in agriculture and its potential benefits, especially for African farmers like my mother, in developing drought-tolerant, insect-resistant herbicide-tolerant crops.

An Agricultural Disconnect

My journey began with a Facebook post. While scrolling through my timeline, I read an article about genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa and how some of my people were destroying the products. Reading the comment section, I realized there were a lot of misconceptions about GM food products. I decided to engage in the conversation, and of course, that didn’t come without a backlash! It didn’t make sense to me that the very same people earning less than US$2 per day, struggling with weeds and crop failures due to climate change, were the very first to object. Misconceptions fueled by fear can paralyze people, so I took on a mandate to raise awareness of ways we can leverage this technology to our benefit.

My first Facebook post on GM ultimately got the attention of Dr. C. Prakash from Tuskegee University, who later invited me to tell my story with the Global Farmers Network (GFN) at the World Food Prize in Iowa in 2014. During my time in Iowa, I got to see a GM cornfield for the first time.

By visiting farms in Iowa, I witnessed the tremendous potential of modern agriculture to help us overcome enormous challenges. I took those lessons and observations and ran with them to ensure African farmers are not left behind.

After returning to Zimbabwe, I continued to participate in GFN activities and wrote columns on my country’s anti-GMO attitudes. Our government recently relaxed and lifted the ban on the importation of GM products. However, the ban still stands on planting GM crops. Upon completing my undergraduate studies, I decided to advance my knowledge on biotechnology issues in agriculture.

Finding A Platform

In 2016, one of my articles was published in the Wall Street Journal, where it caught the eye of Robin Buell, a professor of plant biology at Michigan State. She connected me with the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which recognizes academic achievement and a commitment to Africa. She later served as my principal investigator in her genomics lab, where I researched dry beans. This gave me a deeper understanding of the science behind GM crops and an appreciation of the amount of work scientists put into developing new varieties.

However, knowledge of genetic engineering is just not enough to ensure that those who need this technology can benefit from it. What’s the point of making a product that the end-user doesn’t fully understand? They will eventually reject it, no matter how beneficial it may be to them. This brings me to one of my biggest challenges as a scientist: how do I communicate in ways that people like my mother, without a scientific background, can understand?

Spreading the Message with Science

Today my work with the Cornell Alliance for Science involves addressing some of these issues. One of our approaches is hosting a “seeing is believing” activity, where we bring non-scientists to the lab so they experience the extraction of DNA and realize it’s not rocket science! They even participate in a hands-on, personal DNA isolation from their cheeks. Another example is bringing media professionals to GM field trials and exposing them to peer-reviewed scientific literature so they can better report on agricultural innovations.

I might not have become a doctor but nothing gives me more fulfillment than knowing that with these modern technologies, I am helping farmers feed their families and send their children to school as they farm better and smarter.

As I finally begin to drift off to sleep, I make a silent prayer thanking the farmers for risking everything so we can have food on our tables. They are the truly essential workers! For once, it seems that no one cares whether food is organic as we hoard food like there is no tomorrow. The empty shelves should help us understand how privileged we are to be able to choose. In desperate times, food is food — it all comes down to survival.

When this pandemic is over, I hope we remember how anxious we were about stockpiling sufficient food and realize that more than 815 million people go to bed hungry every night, in desperate need of food.

Why are we buying so much toilet paper?!

Such behavior has become common amid the global spread of COVID-19. The empty shelves bear witness to the fact that consumers around the world are stockpiling hand sanitizer, canned foods, toilet paper, and other goods.

The Mob Mentality

A number of books have been written about the “wisdom of crowds” and how groups of people often arrive at better decisions than individuals. Unfortunately, crowds can also become mobs. When that happens, the decisions they make generally ignore their own conscience or rational judgement – thus are not in the best interest of society or individuals.

When people are stressed, it can be difficult to think rationally. As a result, we look around to see what others are doing. When we see people scrambling for toilet paper or spaghetti, we tend to engage in similar behavior. The funny part is we may be stocking up on foods that we wouldn’t normally eat, such as lots and lots of pasta and chips. When was the last time you ate canned peaches?

For this reason, it may not be a good idea to post your photos of empty shelves on social media. If you do, you are sending signals that goods are in short supply, which could stress your friends and family and encourage panic-buying that hurts us all.

Why Are We Acting Like This?

While panic-buying may seem irrational—does anybody really need 80 rolls of toilet paper?!it isn’t unreasonable for us to emulate the behavior of those who came before. After all, if everybody else is stocking up on toilet paper, it won’t be long before there isn’t any left for reasonable people. Better to grab the last couple packages while you can!

Behavioral economics and cognitive psychology can help us make sense of these behaviors. Information cascades and herd behavior describe how it sometimes makes sense to go along with the crowd even when you do not believe they are behaving rationally.

Understanding what is happening in the grocery store means recognizing that we do not shop simply to meet our physical needs but also to meet our emotional needs. “Retail therapy” occurs when we make purchases to manage our emotional state. Such purchases allow us to take back control in situations where we feel particularly out of control.

Where We Find Value

The coronavirus pandemic makes it particularly difficult for people to get control of their lives. It isn’t clear how long the crisis will go on or how bad things will ultimately get. In reality, sitting at home doing nothing may be the best course of action for most of us, but it does not contribute to a sense of control.

While panic buying may be irrational, other consumers behaviors make better sense. In particular, we are looking for longer term value in our purchases. This can be seen in the types of goods that consumers are buying and the shelves they are picking clean. Consumers are drawn to canned and dried goods that will keep for a long time as well as frozen foods. This was especially clear during the first couple weeks when consumers were advised to stock up.

This search for value also explains why some foods and brands remained on the shelves while seemingly similar products disappeared. In my local store, consumers focused on store brands over premium products. Pricey sauces and expensive oils remained on the shelves while lower cost versions were absent.

Planning for the Long Haul

As the coronavirus situation develops over the weeks and months ahead, we can expect to see further shifts in consumer behavior. I’ve seen some changes already at my local grocery store. While it may not reflect broader patterns, I noticed last week that the shelves of beef products were empty, while chicken remained readily available. This week, I noticed the opposite was the case. This could mean that consumers stocked up last week on beef and are now looking to do the same with chicken, or it could mean that they are shifting purchasing patterns to lower cost options in anticipation of the crisis lasting longer. Time will tell.

As time passes, economics and refrigerator space, will overtake consumer psychology in dictating purchasing behavior. Panic-buying of products with limited shelf life won’t make sense. Consumers will find a new rhythm for their purchases.

Many consumers will also begin to feel the financial pinch of lost earnings soon, if they haven’t already. Consumers unable to work will need to make their savings last longer. 27% of Americans have little or no savings, and the average American has about $183,000 in all bank and retirement accounts. Sheltering-in-place will impact tens of millions of Americans who have jobs but are not able to work, therefore not bringing home a paycheck.

Mapping the Road Ahead

Looking much further out, to a time when the worst of the crisis passes, we may see lasting changes in consumer food purchasing patterns. Consumers may find that some labels that seemed so important at the beginning of the year no longer seem quite so meaningful any longer. They may be reminded that “natural” does not guarantee safety, as the coronavirus demonstrated. On the other hand, it won’t be surprising if interest resurges in superfoods and functional foods, which can demonstrate real health benefits, perhaps helping them fend off the next COVID-19.

For now, pay attention to your behavior. Do you really need that extra roll of paper towels or toilet paper, or are you just stocking up? Pay attention to your own conscience and your own household needs rather than the frantic person pushing the grocery cart next to yours. Rest assured, the grocery stores will continue to be stocked with food and supplies.

The Case for New Breeding Technologies

dna corn gmo

Joan Conrow is a longtime journalist, editor and communications consultant specializing in agriculture and biotechnology. Her clients include the Cornell Alliance for Science. She resides in Santa Fe, NM, with her two rescue dogs.

With the global population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, and climate change impacts likely to reduce crop yields 25-30% in that time, the question increasingly becomes how to keep everyone fed.

That query assumes particular urgency in light of a new global report that calls for revolutionary changes in agriculture and other key areas to ensure that people aren’t pushed further into hunger and poverty, leading to increased conflict and political instability.

The Time is Now

The report by the Global Commission on Adaptation noted that climate change is already worsening food insecurity, and urged governments to promote “climate-smart” interventions to boost agricultural productivity.

Technological innovations, such as gene editing and synthetic biology, offer tools for developing crops that can withstand climate change impacts, such as drought, heat, intense rainfall and plant diseases — if they are allowed to move forward.

“Food production today continues to face old and new threats in ways that are more complex than ever imagined,” said Nassib Mugwanya, an agricultural communications expert from Uganda who is now pursuing a doctorate at North Carolina State University. “The situation gets even worse in developing countries, where much of the food production is reliant on an increasingly changing climate and less productive farming practices. The urgency needed to address these threats requires opening doors to all options that can be of help.”

Bill Gates, the co-chair of both the Global Commission on Adaption and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, expressed similar views in a statement that accompanied the release of the report.

“People everywhere are experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. Those most impacted are the millions of smallholder farmers and their families in developing countries, who are struggling with poverty and hunger due to low crop yields caused by extreme changes in temperature and rainfall. With greater support for innovation, we can unlock new opportunities and spur change across the global ecosystem.”

– Bill Gates, co-chair of Global Commission on Adaption

Though Gates and the Global Commission outlined specific steps for achieving these revolutionary changes, such as investing in crop research, the call for using new breeding technologies (NBTs) to help agriculture adapt to climate change is not new.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued a similar endorsement in its 2016 report: “Biotechnologies, both low- and high-tech, can help small-scale producers, in particular, to be more resilient and to adapt better to climate change.”

More recently, Petra Jorasch of the International Seed Federation published a study that underscored the need for plant breeding innovations to effectively address challenges associated with climate change and a growing population.

Improved plant varieties developed through NBTs have a better capacity to withstand pests and diseases while using fewer resources, her report noted. They also offer stable yields in an unstable climate.

“The new tools of breeding, such as oligonucleotide mutagenesis or CRISPR-Cas9 are more helpful than the previous techniques because these tools allow breeders to do their job in an even more precise and efficient manner,” Jorasch wrote.

 “New breeding technologies have a great potential in tackling major threats to food security in more promising ways than old technologies. Closing doors to these new breeding technologies is like stopping a major required ‘software upgrade’ in food production, which may lead to a ‘freeze’ or serious crash in the system.”

– Nassib Mugwanya, Ugandan agricultural communications expert

A Global Front for NBT Innovations

Innovations in plant breeding can also help agriculture shrink its sizable environmental footprint by making more efficient use of limited resources, such as freshwater, and reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers, the manufacture of which results in substantial carbon emissions. Equally important, these crops have the potential to deliver good harvests by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, as an example. Achieving better yields on existing acreage can reduce the pressure to bring wildlands, such as the Amazon rainforest, into production.

The United States, Japan, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries have streamlined the regulatory process for these new breeding techniques, and China is investing heavily in gene-edited crops in a bid to feed its 1.4 billion citizens.

However, the European Union and some developing nations in Africa and Asia are lagging behind, in part because they either have a regulatory system that is cumbersome or none at all. In an effort to support gene editing, the African Union recently began exploring ways to harmonize the biosafety regulatory framework among its 55 member nations.

Elizabeth Wangeci Njuguna, a plant molecular biologist who is currently pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Cape Town, South Africa, sees that as a positive step toward embracing NBTs.

“If Africa does not adopt new breeding technologies, I think it will lose a great opportunity to improve its agricultural production system to ensure food security and the general wellbeing of its people,” Njuguna said. “Economically, this will be a poor decision since an enhanced agricultural production system, coupled with vast land and favorable climatic conditions throughout the year, would not only ensure a thriving local food market and employment for Africa’s people but would also give individual countries a competitive edge in the world food export market, making the continent the world’s breadbasket.”

Gene editing also can make a significant contribution to food security, in part by improving the so-called “orphan crops,” like cowpea, pulses, and cassava, that are nutritious staple foods in developing nations, seven international researchers wrote in a recent article in Science. These crops also represent an important source of income for smallholder farmers, thus helping to alleviate poverty, the article noted.

Supporting Innovations for Generations to Come

Albert Caraan, a pioneer member of UP Grains, an organization that offers informational workshops on biotechnology concepts to high school students in far-flung agricultural communities in the Philippines, sees other potential benefits.

“Adoption of NBTs could, in some way, entice the youth to be involved in agricultural research,” he observed. “Gen Z has more affinity for new technologies, thus giving them the chance to get hands-on experience in this field and possibly bringing more young people to agriculture.”

This is important, since many of the world’s farmers are over the age of 60, and young people, including Gen Zers, have been reluctant to pursue the economic uncertainty and hard physical labor that often accompanies farming.

Njuguna also believes that people will welcome NBTs — provided they are accompanied by adequate public education. This includes information about how the science works, safety procedures that are in place and the various benefits that these breeding technologies hope to confer.

“I think that there will be great expectations among the people since this touches on their food and livelihood,” Njuguna said.

“In my opinion, people will expect that the new technology will be a game-changer and solve a good number of challenges that they are currently facing. For instance, farmers will expect most pests and diseases that affect their crops and livestock will be eradicated for good and they can also grow plants that survive drought and salinity. Pastoralists will expect that they don’t have to walk miles to find fodder for their livestock. I also think that most end-product consumers will expect that the technology will result in higher amounts of foodstuffs available throughout the year at affordable prices. For the growing middle class that is more aware and cautious with their food, they will expect that the new breeding technology will result in food produced safely for consumption, with higher nutrient content and more variety at fair prices.”

– Elizabeth Wangeci Njuguna, plant molecular biologist, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Cape Town

Ultimately, Caraan said, NBTs likely hold the key to preventing the “push into poverty” that the Global Commission on Adaption hopes to avoid.

“I believe that the adoption of new breeding technologies in agriculture will boost global efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger,” Caraan said. “Embracing NBTs will provide a powerful tool in our arsenal to combat the negative effects of climate change by expediting the breeding processes. However, strict and stringent regulations will hamper our chances in achieving global goals, most importantly, no poverty and zero hunger.”

Solein: A Space-Age Protein

Wait, what is Solein, you may ask? Well, to put it in its most basic terms, it’s a protein-rich powder made from carbon dioxide-eating bacteria, and with just a touch of space dust. Put it all together, and poof, you have a bland compound that can be mixed with practically anything to give it substantive nutritional value – and with all essential amino acids, to boot! But that’s just the beginning.

A Stellar Feat for Protein

We know most good things come from the land, but the idea for this protein began in space! Based in Finland and founded by CEO, Dr. Pasi Vainikka and his colleagues, Solar Foods got its start in 2017 from VTT, a Finnish research institute.

The original intent of the project was to provide a continuous supply of protein for astronauts en route to Mars in the NASA space program. From there, the founders further refined their process at VTT and the Lappeenranta University of Technology.

Completely disconnected from agriculture, Solar Foods plans to feed the world while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

What is Solein?

Solar Foods has a vision to solve the world’s food crisis beyond agricultural limitations. Dr. Vainikka and his team found a way for bacteria to eat CO2 instead of sugar, thus completely changing the dynamic of protein conversion. Another factor that makes Solein wholly unique? This protein source is devoid of any agriculture involvement – no arable land, no irrigation…no problem!

Solein, a complete protein, is created from the combination of a proprietary bacteria, CO2, water, and electricity. The fermentation process is entirely natural and similar to the production of yeast. But instead of sugars, their unique microbes consume CO2 and hydrogen for energy via water electrolysis, a process of splitting water cells using electricity. Other nutrients are added, too, such as potassium, sodium, and phosphorus.

All this occurs in a bioreactor, from which the team must continually remove the liquid that the process creates. Once the liquid dries, what remains is the elusive Solein powder. Currently, Solar Foods produces about one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of Solein per day.

Solein Applications

You may be wondering what this airy powder might look like. Well, it looks like wheat flour – quite a nondescript ingredient. But with its nutritional profile of 50% protein, 20-25% carbs, and 5-10% fat, it has a slightly savory taste that’s similar to eggs. Despite this unctuousness, the product is also vegan.

With a versatile texture and profile, you can expect this product to be in almost anything and everything, from shakes to cultured meat in the coming years. Given its malleable consistency, Solein protein powder can be used as an added ingredient in yogurts, breads, drinks, and pasta. Not much different than a protein powder we may use in our shakes, but with fewer ingredients and demanding fewer natural resources.

Solein can also contribute to the dizzying array of alternative meats, making these products even more protein-dense while keeping the mouthfeel intact. It can even be 3D-printed to give it a more textured look and feel. And because Solein has all of the essential amino acids, it can feed cultured meat cells in lab-grown environments.

Sustainability with Solein

Perhaps the most compelling part of Solein is that there’s no limit to the supply. Solein can even be produced anywhere a lab can be sustainably built, including on land where conventional protein production has never been possible – like deserts and the Arctic.

Also compelling? Instead of adding to greenhouse gases, Solein actually consumes carbon dioxide. Moreover, Solein is produced by using renewable electricity such as hydropower. And given its lower energy demand, this process can be adapted for other alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind power.

And there’s no need for arable land or irrigation, either. Dr. Vannika states that Solein is “completely” disconnected from agriculture. The soil microbes used for their proprietary bacteria only require collection from natural land just once. From there, the microbes are grown in a lab, and the inorganic nutrients they use are obtained from mineral deposits that don’t require the use of fertile land.

Production metrics show Solein’s substantial impact, or lack thereof, on natural resources. Solar Foods conducted research at its lab and reported the following findings:

Solein is reported to be at least 100 times more climate-friendly than any animal or plant-based alternative. And unlike conventional protein production, which can use over 2,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, Solein only needs just over a gallon of water. 

Furthermore, Solein is 10 times more efficient than soy when measured by protein yield per acre.

Plans for Growth

With a pilot lab already underway, Solar Foods appears to have an aggressive roadmap for their planned global commercial launch in 2021. The first factory producing Solein is scheduled to open at the end of 2021, producing 50 million meals per year, scaling up to two billion meals by the end of 2022.  Their picture on their slide show would be good here.

Solar Foods plans to price Solein powder between $8 and $11 per kilogram, which Dr. Vainikka hopes will compete with current plant- and animal-based proteins. Though this price seems reasonable to us consumers, keep in mind this pricing is for food producers that will integrate Solein into their product line. They will then sell their end product to consumers, so the price by that point will most likely be higher than conventional protein sources, or at least initially.

Can this really work?

But our tastes and purchase patterns have everything to do with the long-term success of a product like this. With all the hype and media attention, it’s easy to see Solein as an answer to many of our global woes. But some consumers may have a hard time eating a lab-grown protein like this, as we don’t like the thought of our food coming from anything other than a farm or garden, no matter how eco-friendly the product.

And some critics find the scalability of this powder unachievable:

“This is a technological marvel, perhaps, but it’s not a food system,”

– Peter Tyedmers, Dalhousie University

At one kilogram per day, Solar Foods’ low production yield concerns food expert Peter Tyedmers, a professor in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He doesn’t believe Solar Foods can even begin to dent the production yields of our current agricultural system. And even if yields were impactful, the price for Solein would still be too high to decrease global hunger levels.

But should large-scale production be feasible, a product like Solein would be a feat for humankind. And it will take all kinds of protein sources to feed our growing population: plant, cell-based, air-based and animal proteins alike. Ingenuity, technology, and innovation are the key to our future. The key component will be getting consumers on board with eating alternative protein whether it is made in a lab or grow in a feedlot.

Back to Business: D2D News Recap

Glyphosate Wars Continue to Rage

The battle over the potential health risks of glyphosate – the key ingredient of the popular weed killer, Roundup – saw new developments that seemed helpful to both sides in the debate. The number of U.S. civil lawsuits against Roundup’s parent company (Monsanto, later acquired by Bayer AG) has grown to 18,400 – a number prompting courts in California to consolidate various actions into class-action suits and multi-court district litigation. Initial jury awards in the hundreds of millions of dollars have been lowered afterward by judges reviewing the cases. But Bayer reportedly has offered to pay as much as $8 billion to settle the outstanding claims. The company also welcomed the Environmental Protection Agency’s following announcement:

“It is irresponsible to require labels on products that are inaccurate when the EPA knows the product does not pose a cancer risk,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “It is critical that federal regulatory agencies like EPA relay to consumers accurate, scientific-based information about risks that pesticides may pose to them.”

However, California officials said they will maintain their labeling requirement.

FAO Food Security Report Offers Grim News

The Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations released its annual assessment of global food security, highlighted by the grim news that the number of people facing food insecurity rose again for the third straight year. For more than a decade, the number had been declining amid a collective effort to deal with the problem by member nations. But the 2019 FAO report estimates the number of people without enough nutrition rose to 822 million – over 10% of the planet.

Poor economic conditions attracted much of the blame, but continuing episodes of natural disaster and disruption to local food production, political instability, outright conflict, and displaced populations also drew attention. In contrast, the report also noted the still-significant role played by obesity in contributing to global malnutrition.

Further Evidence of Weather Woes

The lingering effects of wet weather in key U.S. agricultural areas resulted in almost 20 million acres of cropland going unplanted this spring, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s the largest “prevented planting” area since the USDA began collecting such data back in 2007. Despite this, other USDA crop production estimates point to robust crops this year for most major commodities. Soybean farmers, beset by the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, are expected to cut production by a whopping 19% as they shift to planting more of other crops, notably corn. USDA continues to predict modest overall food price increases for the year.

FDA Cautions Against Certain Pet Foods

As Dirt to Dinner previously reported, growing concerns with the adverse health effects of certain pet foods have attracted the attention of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has now issued a consumer advisory on the issue, naming several specific dry dog food products and launching a recall of products found to have toxic levels of vitamin D. To see the complete list of products covered by the alert, please visit this site.

Like We Also Said….

Following our recent post on the emergence of aquatic dead zones in the U.S. Gulf and other locations, the Trump Administration has spoken out about plans to use $100 million already authorized by Congress to fight “red tide” – the toxic algae bloom blamed for damage to fishing, recreational activities, and aquatic wildlife, notably in many Florida waters. Local authorities and water-related interests welcomed the attention called to the issue, despite the political overtones of the discussion. Red tide has played havoc with commercial and recreational fishing in some areas and made swimming in contaminated areas a very risky proposition.

Brexit Prompts Another Salvo in Debate over Genetic Engineering

British and European officials continue to trade barbs as the Oct. 31 deadline approaches for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. New UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson added to the fun by distancing his government from last summer’s gene-editing ruling by the European Court of Justice imposing stringent regulatory requirements. Many believe this “CRISPR” approach to genetics holds the key to the rapid development of better plant varieties that will increase food production and enhance food security.

Johnson recently promised “…to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bio-science sector from anti-genetic modification rules and…develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”

UN Climate Report Urges Attention to Ag Production

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has jumped on the growing effort to curtail the role of modern eating habits and the global agricultural production system in contributing to what it warned could be “climate change-induced environmental catastrophe.”

In a report issued this summer, the panel of international scientists observed that “Earth’s climate is entering a qualitatively different stage.” Adding insult to injury, the IPCC claims that current ag practices misuse resources and actually make global warming worse, creating a “vicious cycle” that makes food more expensive, scarcer and less nutritious. So far leaders of major farm and food organizations have avoided substantive public comment on the report.

So what solutions does the report offer? One big idea: consuming less meat (especially red meats) and more plant-based foods. Other suggestions include more environmentally-friendly tillage techniques and more targeted use of fertilizers, coupled with serious efforts to reduce food waste. Such efforts would cut greenhouse gas emissions and make better use of precious natural resources, the experts concluded.

A Tax on Traditional Meats?

The broad subject of meat alternatives – both plant-based and cultured cell products – doesn’t seem to be losing any steam across the news media. Stories abound of efforts by fast-food chains and independent restaurants to add meat alternatives to their menus, including novel new offerings such as an “Impossible Burger” and a “Beyond Meatball Marinara.” Who would have thought these products would push us toward meat taxation?

A sign of the economic steam behind this emerging food product category might be in comments from government officials about the need to add taxes to the competitive mix. A study lead by Dr. Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food estimated there will be 2.4 million deaths due to red and processed meat consumption by 2020.

Governments with socialized medicine might also be licking their chops to recoup the estimated $285 billion in health care costs. German politicians have suggested an increase in taxes on traditional meats, from today’s 7% to upwards of 19%, with Sweden, The Netherlands and Denmark considering similar taxation practices.

And to Wash It Down

The Natural Hemp Company has announced launch of a CBD-infused sparkling water for people with an active lifestyle, creatively positioned as “the Gatorade of CBD beverages.” The product is called Day One CBD Sparkling Water and claims to have no sugars, calories or carbohydrates. The company didn’t elaborate on what constitutes an appropriate “active lifestyle.”

Rallying for our Flooded Farmers

nebraska-flooding-Farm-Near-Fremont

At Dirt-to-Dinner, we love working with farmers and telling their story. We want to take a moment to not only inform others of the flooding’s magnitude but also to consider a few ways to help those in need.

Floods sweep away livestock and buildings

Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska and Iowa have been suffering through a natural catastrophe that has yielded unprecedented damage. The flooding that began in March was so strong that it literally swept away cattle and other livestock, never to be seen again. But the devastation doesn’t end there. As flood waters continue to roll in, farmers’ losses are compounded as time eats away at what would otherwise have been used to plant crops for the upcoming harvest.

“The extensive flooding we’ve seen…will continue through May and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream.”
– Ed Clark, Director of NOAA’s National Water Center

The timing of these floods couldn’t be worse for farmers and ranchers, many of whom currently struggle to keep their farms in operation. Farmers have been working on very slim profit margins with historically low commodity prices and punitive export taxes in ongoing trade wars. When this flood rushed in, it hit our farm belt like a tsunami.

The flooding also wiped out farmers’ reserves. Many farmers strategically store last season’s crops to protect against a downturn, like a rough trading climate or a bad storm. In fact, because of tensions with China, farmers stored more of their harvest last year than in previous years for such protection. Sadly, all those efforts – and lost income – went to waste.

Damage is in the billions

Nebraska and Iowa were hit the hardest by the flooding, with initial damage estimated at $1.4 billion and $2.0 billion, respectively, and these estimates exclude long-term damage, which can multiply the loss, especially when you consider all the unplanted and unharvested crops this year. Furthermore, other affected factors like feed, soil quality, and water supply, will have a profound ripple effect throughout the system that lingers far beyond the current flood.

“This flood isn’t just bigger; the effects will last longer. Long after waters recede, the sand and debris left behind must be cleaned up before planting. But the equipment to remove that debris is not always available quickly and fields may not be ready in time for farmers to get a crop in at all this year.”
– Sam Funk, Iowa Farm Bureau’s Senior Economist

More than 500,000 acres of land were flooded in total, mostly comprised of corn and soybean crops. That’s the equivalent of the area of 35 Manhattans! While floodwaters are now receding in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, river levels are increasing across the northern Plains, with more flooding likely. In Nebraska alone, $400 million worth of livestock have been killed or displaced. This affects not only the ranchers’ operations and livelihoods, but also our dinner plates as the market seeks to find a new balance, leading to beef price fluctuations.

Additionally, with 81 of the 93 counties in Nebraska in a state of emergency as of March-end, many of the roads, bridges, and tunnels are in disrepair, leaving farmers unable to get their goods to the market or transportation hub. For instance, what normally took one Nebraskan farmer around 15 minutes now takes more than three hours to bring his food to market, increasing costs during an already extremely challenging economic time.

A farmer’s limited protection

Our nation provides protection in such disasters at both a federal and state level that farmers can utilize. Of particular aid to farmers in need is the Farm Bill, which significantly extended disaster assistance as of 2014 to include livestock loss from weather events, livestock emergency assistance, and other relevant programs. Also, farmers and ranchers not previously signed up for protection prior to these catastrophic events now have access to coverage.

Despite the breadth of programs offered to those in need, they can still leave the farmer vulnerable to massive loss, as many of these programs only cover a fraction of the damage, if even at all. For instance, with the stored crops we mentioned earlier, neither insurance nor the Farm Bill will cover the loss. In more typical weather events, farmers would have enough time to relocate their grains and seeds in the event of flooding. However, the recent flooding filled the fields too quickly, leaving farmers with no time to relocate their millions of dollars’ worth of stored crops. Any farmer depending on selling those crops for necessary operations and taxes will likely go out of business.

Given the magnitude of loss and the lack of farmer protection in particular issues like stored crops, we expect that new legislation may be proposed in the near future to cover such devastation. But, for many hurting families and communities in the Midwest, those funds can’t come soon enough.

Humanity at its finest

For those who have lost so much, not all hope is lost. Thanks to the compassion of many individuals, companies, and organizations, these farmers and ranchers can find more relief from the storm. Addy Tritt, a recent college graduate, found a remarkable way to help: she purchased a stores’ worth of shoes to donate. Now some may think she must have pretty deep pockets to donate over 200 pairs of shoes, but she used her ingenuity to provide relief. Knowing that Payless was going out of business, she called the corporate office and negotiated over $6,000 worth of inventory down to $100. Talk about a good deal!!

Ralco, an ag tech company, has donated over $15,000 of their animal feed and wellness products to farmers in need. With products that help cattle overcome high-stress situations, Ralco’s donation will go far with livestock that may have temporarily suffered from malnutrition and trauma.

And organizations like Farm Rescue are continually seeking ways to help farmers and ranchers by providing the necessary equipment and manpower to plant or harvest their crops. They also provide livestock feeding assistance and other services.

What can we all do to help?

For one, know that it’s never too late to give. And two, every little bit helps. Even providing a can of beans, donating $5, or just sending a hand-written note of support and warmth will go far. You can donate money or other services at Farm Rescue which has locations throughout the farm belt.

Nebraska Farm Bureau established a Disaster Relief Fund, where 100% of the donations will be distributed to Nebraska farmers, ranchers, and rural communities affected by the disasters. And if you are a farmer in the area and have hay, feedstuffs, fencing materials or equipment to spare, please consider donating to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, where they will provide supplies to those in need.

Should your spring cleaning leave you with extra gently-used clothes, the United Way of the Midlands’ Omaha office at 2201 Farnam Street in Omaha, NE 68102 is set up for donations. They have established the Nebraska & Iowa Flood Relief Fund to help people who lost homes or suffered other setbacks in the flooding. 100% of every donation will be given to nonprofit programs that provide shelter, food and other services in the area.

FAO Reports an Increase in Hungry People Around the World

women mixing grains in large bowl - Africa

In its 2018 report, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports an increase in the number of hungry people around the world. After years of steady improvement in reducing hunger, the number of people facing chronic food deprivation in 2017 is nearly 821 million, up from 804 million the year before.

What is the definition of hunger? According to author Robert Paarlberg, in his book Food Politics, What Everyone Needs to Know, hunger is defined as “those that are living on less than $1 a day, with a daily energy intake below 2,200 calories or a diet lacking in essential diversity. ” A bowl of rice or corn, for example, may be heavy on calories but lacks essential nutrients.

Hunger results in malnutrition which is a deficiency in macro and/or micro ingredients needed to maintain healthy tissues and organ function. Malnutrition results in a weak immune system more susceptible to disease.


Hunger in Sudan. WorldVision.org /Stephanie Glinski

Malnutrition can also be synonymous with obesity, which is the consumption of overeating foods without nutrients. For many people around the world, foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat can be cheaper and more readily available than fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, and other nutrient-dense foods. According to the FAO report, childhood overweight and obesity rates are rising in most regions and adult obesity is increasing in all regions.

Chronic malnourishment is widespread, but there are regions of vulnerability. Sub-Saharan, Eastern, and Middle Africa have more than 20% of undernourished people.  While not as severe, Southern and Central Asia hover around 15%. Even the sunny Caribbean doesn’t escape with 16.5% undernourishment.

What is the cause of hunger?

FAO pointed out that there are three major forces that contribute to chronic hunger:

Weather and climate. Climate-related events have consequences of food safety and availability. In fact, the FAO reports that from 1990-2016, the number of droughts, floods and storms has averaged to 213 per year. Those countries with high exposure to climate extremes have a higher malnourished population. Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, for example, not only have been experiencing lower rainfall but also fewer days of rain.

In some cases, hunger can be a direct result of a specific event, like a tsunami or hurricane. As a result, international food aid comes from a collaboration of the FAO, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other NGOs until the crisis is over.

Of the extreme climate-related disasters, drought is the most destructive for crops and livestock.

Global Conflict. Wars and civil upheavals are a double whammy for food security. Political uncertainty and terrorism force mass immigration toward the developed world. The endless stream of images on television from Syria, North Africa, and other global trouble spots tell the story vividly.

Conflict events in Africa, 1997–2015. The final boundary between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan has not yet been determined. SOURCE: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and FAO 2017 Report of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

Economics. People go hungry when fundamental economic principles are abandoned.  For example, the people of Venezuela have suffered from poor government choices. Socialism-gone-awry has triggered rampant food insecurity, refugees, and a collapsed country.

Venezuelan migrants fleeing economic meltdown at home. Source: The Times, UK

There are more mouths to feed today than yesterday…

As the population increases, so will the number of hungry people. Let’s look at 2035—just 17 years away. We will have 1.1 billion more people to feed. It is no surprise that 51% of the population growth will be in India, China, Europe, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In India alone, 339 million people currently live below the poverty line. That is more than all the population in the United States! If the percentage stays the same at 10.9%, in 2035 there will be 100 million more people facing starvation.

“Access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food must be framed as a human right, with priority given to the most vulnerable. Policies must pay special attention to the food security and nutrition of children under five, school-age children, adolescent girls, and women in order to halt the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. A shift is needed towards nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems that provide safe and high-quality food, promoting healthy diets for all.” (FAO)

Waste Not, Want Not

discarded food in a landfill

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HOW DO YOU FIGHT FOOD WASTE?

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Imagine this…you have a vegetable garden about the size of a football field where you grow fruits and veggies for your family. Now, once you’ve harvested the entire football field, take everything produced from the goal post to the 35-yard line and throw it all away!

Yep, put that beautiful bounty straight in the trash. According to the USDA, food waste in the U.S. is estimated at between 30-40%.

Food loss and waste has certainly become a hot topic around the world. We’ve made significant progress in raising public awareness while also implementing improvements across the food chain to decrease overall food loss. But, the problem still remains: how can we reduce the amount of food going to waste while the world grows larger and hungrier every day?  

We see the subject of food waste more and more: on television, in newspapers and magazines, and in the places we shop for and consume food.  It’s of growing importance to everyone along the supply chain: food producers, handlers, transporters, processors, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and restaurants, food banks and food pantries, and, especially, a growing number of concerned consumers.

Where is the greatest opportunity for improvement?  Where can we have the most immediate positive impact in addressing food loss and waste?

Most observers point to simple human behavior.

In our previous post, “Such A Waste,” D2D discussed the annual loss and waste along the entire food supply chain. Much of the public attention to food loss and waste sensibly focuses on the way food is packaged, sold, or otherwise used.

But statistics show that the greatest portion of food loss and waste in the United States and other developed economies can be traced to what we as consumers do every day.

The decisions you make about the food you purchase and prepare for your family, how you store it in your kitchen, and how you deal with the leftovers from food preparation and meals can make a significant impact on the amount of overall food waste.

And let’s go back to the imaginary vegetable garden for a second. Don’t forget about the resources inevitably wasted with food waste. Think of the pesticides, fertilizer, and water to keep those crops alive in the field— that’s money and natural resources flushed down the drain!

source: Business Insider

So how much water is wasted when you throw away produce that may have gotten lost in the back of the refrigerator? When you throw away an orange, you are throwing away a portion of the 13.8 gallons of water it took to grow that orange.

Yes, it is true that the majority of that water is eventually returned to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration, however, it is important to acknowledge the number of resources that go into something as simple as one orange— and how quickly those resources can be wasted! And if we think about this waste on a global scale, the amount of wasted resources gets even bigger.

Here is where YOU can come into the picture. Back to the football field— take all the food from the goal post to the 12-yard line – that is about how much food is wasted at home. In fact, just about every household wastes almost $1,000 in food each year!

Strategies to help reduce food waste

Such a Waste!

wasted food in a landfill

Though the FAO estimates that 33% of our food goes to waste, other organizations like the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) puts the total at closer to 40%. That incorporates food lost or wasted in the field, in handling and processing, in retailing, in the home, and in all steps along that long chain. Whichever stat you choose, the information is still hard to ignore – we must curb our own food waste if we want to be more sustainable and mindful of a growing population.

“Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted each year [globally] could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.” 

– UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Food loss and waste is a worldwide problem. According to the FAO, the amount lost is roughly $680 billion annually in industrialized countries and $310 billion annually in the developing world.

While exact figures and statistics on food loss and waste can be debated, we can agree on the enormity of the problem.  With an annual estimated price tag of food waste and food loss approaching $1 trillion and a world in which the UN estimates one in seven people goes hungry, the issue has emerged as a high-priority action item. It has now become the intense focus of a coalition of global initiatives, led by diverse government and international agencies, dedicated charitable and religious organizations, the commercial food sector, and concerned individuals across the public and private sectors.

The prevailing government agencies involved include the FAO, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the European Commission, the Japanese Environment Ministry, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Commercial companies include Walmart, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s, General Mills, PepsiCo, ConAgra, and Cargill. The challenge is immense, but so are the stakes…

Where do food waste and loss occur?

On the farm and in the field.
Food production poses a variety of challenges and the FAO estimates that about one-quarter of global food waste and food loss (24%) occurs here. At this stage of the food chain, the problem is largest among fruits and vegetables. Commodities may spill from equipment onto the ground or simply rot in the field. These losses are greatly affected by weather problems and labor or equipment shortages. Some products may simply not be harvested, due to cosmetic or quality issues, or even simple market considerations. Seafood is also a source of waste. You may recall in “What’s the Catch,” the D2D team reviewed the issue of bycatch waste in aquaculture.

Post-harvest handling and storage.
Similarly, practical matters involving equipment, labor, and technology often contribute to the problem.  Lack of effective refrigeration and shortages of available storage are examples.  If not managed with food safety in mind, pests and diseases can also attack food supplies.  FAO estimates total food waste and food loss at this stage of the chain at about the same level as production— approximately 24%.

Processing, packaging, distribution.
Technical problems often contribute to food waste and food losses at this stage of the chain. As with post-harvest storage, lack of refrigeration, mechanical and other environmental malfunctions, and a host of other complications may contribute to the problem.

Food manufacturers acknowledge that a good deal of the waste associated with their work comes from a byproduct that is technically edible yet hugely unpopular – fat and skins (primarily pork and chicken) in animal processing, for example, or peels, crusts, and husks in fruits and vegetables.  However, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as much as three-fourths of the more than 44 billion pounds of such waste created annually are reintroduced into the food stream— not for human consumption, but as animal feeds and feed ingredients.

Retail and consumer.
FAO estimates that the largest portion of food waste and loss occurs at this stage— roughly 35%. At the retail level, this waste can be contributed to the overstocking of product or rejection by customers on the basis of appearance.  Perishable items, such as bakery goods, fruits, and vegetables, fish, meat and dairy, are notable examples of the problem retailers – and often restaurants – face on a continuous basis.  At the consumer level, buyers also often fail to plan consumption needs, properly store or protect food products, or simply forget that the food is in their refrigerator.  Confusion over packaging terminology (“use by” or “best by” or “sell by”, for example) also is cited as an issue.

Which countries have the biggest problem with food waste and loss?

The problem is acknowledged as a global issue, rather than the sole problem of any country, region or group.

Analysis of FAO data suggests that about 56 percent of total food waste and food loss occurs in the developed world – meaning North America, Oceania, Europe and the industrialized Asian nations (China, Japan, South Korea).  The other 44 percent occurs in what is commonly called the ‘developing’ world.  On a per capita basis, food waste and food loss seem to be more pronounced in the developed.

In the developed (or industrialized) world, an estimated 40 percent of food waste and food loss occurs at the retail and consumer segments of the food chain.  Here, the problems seem to center more on behaviors – the decisions made and actions taken by individuals acting within the food chain, and especially at the consumer level. For instance, have you heard of the expression, “never go to the grocery store on an empty stomach?” Well, when it comes to food waste, there’s the truth here when you don’t consume what once looked so good on the shelf.

In the developing world, 40% of the food waste and food loss occurs at the early stages of the food chain – in the field and in post-harvest handling, especially.  Here, the problem is tied most closely to practical matters– the availability of equipment and related resources, often linked to necessary investment and adequate financing, as well as shortages in the best technology and lack of established technical or managerial expertise. For example, if a tractor breaks down at the end of the growing season, the parts might not be available in time to harvest the crop! Additionally, there might not be enough labor available to pick the crop at peak ripeness.

What other problems do food waste and food loss create?

Many environmental groups point to the enormous resource implications hidden within food waste and food loss.  The amount of energy, water, fertilizers, and other crop inputs lost through wasted or lost food is a serious concern— not to mention the financial costs that must be absorbed.  NRDC often cites a Scientific American report that estimates that as much as 10% of the total U.S. energy budget is related to farming.

Beyond the obvious links to food security and hunger, food loss and waste also raise significant issues about the potential waste of valuable natural resources. Lost and wasted food also wastes water, energy, money, and time – and creates a myriad of associated problems in how unused food is handled or otherwise dealt with.

Practical-minded local officials join environmentalists in another often overlooked issue: how they dispose of wasted or unwanted food.  The USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently noted that food waste is the largest single component going into municipal landfills – by some government estimates, more than 20 percent.  Environmental groups point to what they contend is a significant contribution to total methane emissions resulting from food waste in landfills.

FAO estimates the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten at 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, making food wastage the third top GHG emitter after the U.S. and China.  The same study concluded that food loss and food waste may account for as much as 30 percent of the world’s land in agricultural production. The significance of the link between food waste and the environment is becoming increasingly clear.  The Ogallala aquifer, for just one example, provides critical irrigation for as much as $20 billion in U.S. food and fiber production annually.  With aquifer levels showing a steady decline across major U.S. crop production areas, efforts to avoid food waste and food loss have taken on an increasingly prominent and important place in efforts to sustain our natural resource base.  Food waste and food loss are inextricably linked to water waste. Wasted food is also wasted water.

What is happening to deal with the problem of food waste and food loss?

Response to the challenge of food waste and food loss has been gaining momentum through the efforts of a diverse set of members of the public and private sectors.

Much of the drive to address the issue comes from grassroots efforts.  Churches, charitable groups, food banks, and concerned individuals have been at the forefront of various efforts to reduce waste and loss, often through better coordination and communication among those who have food and those who need it.  Collection of food that would otherwise go to waste from wholesalers, supermarkets, and restaurants is a high priority for these groups.

The roster of organizations devoted to dealing with some aspect of food waste and food loss now numbers well over 50 worldwide.

USDA and EPA recently joined forces to create the U.S. Food Waste Challenge – a united effort to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste.  Among its various activities, the initiative provides a platform for collecting and sharing information, especially on best practices in waste and loss reduction.  In its initial year of existence, the Challenge surpassed expectations in attracting almost 4,000 participants from across the entire food chain and appears well on its way to meeting an ambitious target of reducing food waste and food loss by half by 2030.

What are some of the proposed solutions to food waste and loss?

Efforts to reduce food waste and food loss address a wide range of issues.  Some relate to the nature of the food system and its activities. Others focus on behavioral changes based on greater recognition of and attention to the causes of food waste and food loss.

The Food Waste Challenge, for example, points to three major areas for attention.

Reduction of food waste and food loss, through such things as improved food product development, enhanced storage mechanisms, cooking and preservation techniques, smarter shopping and ordering, and better labeling.

Recovery of food waste and food loss, by connecting organizations committed to alleviating hunger (such as food banks and pantries) with food products that otherwise would go unconsumed.

Take a look at the below table for additional proposed actions to curb food waste: