Changing Policy to Reflect Changing Times

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

– William Arthur Ward

From rapid deforestation to vast species extinction, heavily contaminated soil, water, and air, and anthropogenic climate change, we are living in an era of global quickening.  Changing weather patterns are occurring faster, to extreme degrees, shocking plant and animal species with unusual events, to the extent that now even the most uneducated layperson can visually and experientially understand what scientists have been warning of for several decades.  Regardless of why these changes are occurring, the fact is the Earth is changing, and if we have learned anything from the past lessons gleaned from fossils and glacial analysis of past climate change and mass species extinction it is imperative that we must adapt to these changes if we expect to survive.  With such rapid changes, we need to move beyond rhetorical questions of “is climate change real” and away from the optimistic apathy of “it will all work itself out” to active participation in physical solutions and adaptive behavior.  We need a shift in awareness of our own unconscious individual choices that result in actions that contribute to these problems to conscious decision making and action.  We need a shift in our collective community awareness that is translated into social and environmental policies that protect all living systems and reflect inherent value in Life itself.  We need policies on all levels, local, national, and global, immune to corporate pressures and financial temptation, policies that stand strong with integrity for the wellbeing for all, and not just those who can afford it.

Current approaches to addressing the complex web of environmental, social, and economic problems facing us today includes fining businesses and individuals, lodging complaints in public records, or filing lawsuits, but these don’t solve the root of the behavior that caused the problem in the first place.  It’s like swatting flies without removing the garbage they are breeding in.  True solutions to these anthropogenic problems are rooted in whole system thinking.  Here are just 2 examples of solutions that take a “whole system approach”:

 Problem:  Heavy industry polluting air and water supplies while producing excessive amounts of unrecycled materials that end up in vast landfills.

Solution:  Investment is needed in the innovation of scientists and systems designers to design a “soft” industrial model founded on recycling of all materials including cycling “wastes” back into the system, creating a net zero carbon footprint modeled off of the principles of nature itself.  Materials must biodegrade. Policies are needed that regulate the production of material items, assessing the true value of an item based upon its total environmental cost and benefit to humanity, resulting in the reduction of needless garbage and ecosystem degradation.  Policies are needed that place industries accountable for the garbage found in landfills and on sides of roads; it is this current system of industry whose name is littered across the highway.

 We live in an age of incredible technological knowledge and skill and the common person now walks around with powerful gadgets that are connected to satellites in space that enable them to communicate with anyone around the world.  We need to harness that innovation towards the development of technological systems that allow humans to enjoy the goods they want without sacrificing the rest of the Earth for them.  Innovation is needed in material engineering, to find low-cost options of degradable materials for items that are not intended to last a lifetime (a quick survey of national landfills would provide us with enough information as to which brands/companies need this innovation most).  Innovation is needed in mechanical engineering, to design filtration and production facilities that are manmade “green machines” that harness nature’s powerful tendencies to produce materials without emitting toxic wastes and chemicals.  We need innovation in architectural design that builds using natural patterns of stability and structural integrity, while installing internal systems that regulate the interior climate much like the body regulates its internal organs.  We need investment in education to make these innovations a national priority.

But before we can even do that, we need to ask ourselves some very difficult questions as a society.  Are the “goods” industries create even worth the “bad” they produce?  Do we really need these things?  What is the measure of worth we are basing value upon?  Why don’t we have any “checks and balances” for the inevitable quality of human greed?  If government is set up to protect its citizens, than these questions must be at the top of the list to consider, regardless of political fears of campaign finance monies being pulled.  Many government reforms need to be made, to bring the political process back to a state of transparency too seldom seen on The Hill.  To finance these critical investments in national innovation, we need to shift political priorities from where they currently stand, and invest in education and innovation to solve these great problems facing humanity.

Currently, for every tax dollar from 2011:

–  27% goes to fund military operations

–  21.4% goes to Medicare and Healthcare

–  14.5% goes to paying off our national debt

–  2.2% goes to social security, unemployment, and labor

–  4.5% goes to the government

–  4.4% goes to veteran’s benefits

4.3% goes to food & agriculture

– 3.9% goes to housing and community

–  2.5% goes to Education: Energy and Environment

–  1.3% goes to Transportation

–  1.2% goes to International Affairs

–  1% goes to Science  (www.nationalpriorities.org)

National security is rooted in the ability of a nation to protect and provide for itself.  Our security is at greatest risk with polluted water sources, artificial food sources, and ecosystem destruction, dangers we are doing to ourselves.  National security is at risk when our nation no longer invests in domestic jobs and local businesses.  By consolidating our understanding of “security” into terms that genuinely reflect the dangers facing humanity, and reforming the political process that allows for campaign finance contributions from powerful corporations (whose own self interests and profit margins are not in line with the greater good for the ecosystems they reap from), we can put national taxes to work on domestic innovations that serve multi-functions:  1) create long-term jobs, 2) restores ecosystems and reverses pollution, 3) produces perennial crops for food, fuel, fiber, pharmacopoeia, and animal fodder, 4) funds environmental education grounded in ecological science, 5) national security is secured by reduction of international conglomerate corporations exploiting international peoples and territories and by the domestic investment of all of the above.

Problem:  Massive corporate-owned mono-agriculture is depleting biodiversity with genetically modified organisms, and poisoning local water sources with contaminated soil erosion and agrochemicals, while local economies falter.

Solution:  Support local organic farmers who provide local employment, fresh food, and cultural nourishment to their communities as they support biodiversity of local wildlife and reduce carbon emissions through reduced transport of their goods and services; invest in the “crop insurance” of heirloom varieties that provide viable seeds for the following season; invest in perennial crops that can withstand fluxes in climate; invest in the education of new farmers that focuses on regenerative methods of agricultural production and ecosystem restoration.

The new 2012 Farm Bill was recently passed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.  This five-year, $500 billion Farm Bill would eliminate direct payments to farmers, slash subsidies, bolster crop insurance, and consolidate conservation programs.  Committee chariwoman, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) commented, “By eliminating duplication, and streamlining and consolidating programs, we were able to continue investing in initiatives that help farmers and small businesses create jobs.”  As noted on the United States Committee for Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry newsroom, among the bill’s benefits are the following:

  • Eliminates direct payments. Farmers will no longer be paid for crops they are not growing, will not be paid for acres that are not actually planted, and will not receive support absent a drop in price or yields.
  • Consolidates two remaining farm programs into one, and will give farmers the ability to tailor risk management coverage—meaning better protection against real risks beyond a farmer’s control.
  • Strengthens crop insurance and expands access so farmers are not wiped out by a few days of bad weather.
  • Expanding export opportunities and helping farmers develop new markets for their goods.
  • Investing in research to help commercialize new agricultural innovations.
  • Growing bio-based manufacturing (businesses producing goods in America from raw agricultural products grown in America) by allowing bio-manufacturers to participate in existing U.S. Department of Agriculture loan programs, expanding the BioPreferred labeling initiative, and strengthening a procurement preference so the U.S. government will select bio-based products when purchasing needed goods.
  • Spurring advancements in bio-energy production, supporting advanced biomass energy production such as cellulosic ethanol and pellets from woody biomass for power.
  • Helping family farmers sell locally by increasing support for farmers’ markets and spurring the creation of food hubs to connect farmers to schools and other community-based consumers.
  • Extending rural development initiatives to help rural communities upgrade infrastructure and create an environment for small businesses to grow (Stabenow 2012).

As positive as many of these changes are, many believe that this important bill missed an opportunity to truly address the systems of agriculture in theUnited States.  Craig Cox, Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Environmental Working Group said, “The 2012 farm bill should do more to support family farmers, protect the environment, promote healthy diets and support working families…It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses” (Folimer 2012).  Indeed, with so much influence from lobbying agribusinesses in Washington D.C., the voices of the local farmer who is struggling to keep the farm that was passed down for generations is often lost.  The concern is too much emphasis is being placed on “crop insurance” while GMO seeds with “suicide genes” engineered into their DNA is used in large, conventional agriculture.  As farmers have always known, true crop insurance comes with carefully selecting hardy seeds year after year, feeding the soil with organic composts and green manures, and diversifying species in the agro-ecological system.  Just as U.S. health insurance companies have profited from poor American diets that are largely comprised of hydrogenated corn syrups and artificial flavorings, so too would agricultural insurers benefit from the continued destruction of viable seed banks through the spread of GMO seeds and anthropogenic climate change.  True insurance comes from the prevention of such things.

In addition, funding has not been mobilized for programs designed to support new farmers as they begin the process of starting their own farm.  New farmers need incentive and support to start family farms before wealthy developers can scoop up prime agricultural land for housing projects that neglect to look longer than immediate profits.  We need policies to promote and protect our next generation of family farmers.

The complex interweave of problems facing us today requires an equally innovative approach to solving them.  Responsibility falls both on the individual to shift awareness of unconscious individual choices that result in actions that contribute to these problems to conscious decision making and action, and in our collective community awareness that is translated into social and environmental policies that protect all living systems and reflect inherent value in Life itself.  For this to happen, reforms in a broken political system must be made, and pressure by individuals must be placed on the democratic representatives bound to protect its citizens.

References

Folimer, Max.  “Massive Farm Bill Clears Senate Committee” April 26, 2012.  http://www.takepart.com/article/2012/04/26/massive-farm-bill-clears-senate

Stabenow, Senator Debbie.  “Chairwoman’s summary of the 2012 Farm Bill Committee Print.”  April 20, 2012.  United StatesCommittee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.  http://www.ag.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/2012-farm-bill-committee-print

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Whole Ecosystem Design

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Agro-ecology is a methodology of producing food, fibers, fuels, or pharmacopeia (agro-) in a symbiotic manner, supporting both the local environment and its interdependent organisms, as it mimics a natural ecosystem (-ecology).  Rather than combating natural phenomenon such as topography, annual rainfall, climate, and the propensity for nature to fill spaces with plant matter (i.e. “weeds”), agro-ecology recognizes these natural patterns as assets to the local environment and seeks to nurture and produce an abundance of resources in a whole-system design that maximizes the utility of a unique growing environment.  Just as a virgin forest contains a myriad of levels of productivity (large canopies protecting smaller shade-loving trees below, shrubs and bushes tucked beneath the smaller trees, low-growing grasses or groundcovers, ephiphytes and orquids tucked into branches, vines  connecting the overstory to the understory, mycelium running between tree roots, etc.), an agro-ecological system designs its’ production to maximize vertical growing niches, with every season bringing a perennial abundance to harvest.  Each element of a successful agro-ecological system supports and interacts with every other element in symbiosis and requires very little external inputs to the system, demonstrating true sustainability.

According to Professor Stephen R. Gleissman, of the University of California-Santa Cruz,  the ecological practices that sustain traditional agriculture are benefits to both the natural ecosystem and the producer.  Traditional agro-ecology has been utilized by our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors all over the world, and the wisdom of its ways has nearly been lost in recent years to industrial agriculture’s maxim, “Bigger is better”.   The benefits of traditional agro-ecosystems are that they:

  • “Do not depend on purchased inputs.
  • Make use of locally available and renewable resources.
  • Emphasize nutrient recycling.
  • Are beneficial for both on- and off-farm environments.
  • Are adapted to local conditions.
  • Take full advantage of micro-environments.
  • Maximize yield while sustaining productive capacity.
  • Maintain spatial and temporal diversity and continuity use production to meet local needs first.
  • Rely on and conserve local genetic diversity.
  • Rely on and conserve indigenous knowledge and culture” (Gleissman).

In an article highlighted by the Sierra Club, “Agroecology: How to Feed the World Without Destroying It” (Spinks, 2011), agro-ecology systems design is quickly gaining recognition for its ability to address a multitude of diverse problems.  In addition to “shifting the view of agriculture’s and natural systems’ roles in our lives — from one of dominance to coexistence, ” agroecological food systems also offer a solution for the dependence our industrial model of agricultural production has on carbon-based fossil fuels (Spinks 2011).  In a world where imminent depletion of fossil fuels plays a huge role on global economics dependent upon the fossil fuels, this solution is a welcome sign of hope the world over.

In fact, according to a United Nations’ Human Rights Council report submitted on “The Right to Food,” by Olivier De Schutter (2010), which was drawn upon extensive review of five years worth of published scientific literature:

 “[The U.N.] identifies agroecology as a mode of agricultural development which not only shows strong conceptual connections with the right to food, but has proven results for fast progress in the concretization of this human right for many vulnerable groups in various countries and environments. Moreover, agroecology delivers advantages that are complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties, [a]nd it strongly contributes to the broader economic development” (De Schutter, 2010).

Agroecology not only raises productivity at the field level but also has a far-reaching effect on local economies by increasing accessibility to a diversity of food and production across socio-economic levels, thereby reducing rural poverty.  Not only does it improve local nutrition through diverse food production, addressing food insecurity at the local level, but agroecological design also generously contributes to the sequestration of carbon, crucial in our increasingly important adaption to climate change.  The transformation of our industrial-modeled agricultural systems to whole ecosystem design for food, fuel, fiber, and pharmacopeia production has far-reaching beneficial local solutions to our global problems.

Works Cited

De Schutter, Olivier.  “The Right to Food,” The United Nations Human Rights Council:  2010. http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20110308_a-hrc-16-49_agroecology_en.pdf.

Gleissman, Stephen R.  “Sustainability in Traditional Agroecosystems:
Ecologically sound practices that sustain traditional agriculture.” University of California- Santa Cruz. http://www.agroecology.org/Principles_Trad.html

Spinks, Rosie.  “Agroecology: How to Feed the World Without Destroying It.”  Sierra Club,  2011. http://sierraclub.typepad.com/greenlife/2011/03/real-food-can-feed-the-world.html.

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