A group of researchers and plant breeders based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Thursday announced a new initiative intended to break the monopoly control over plant genetic materials promoted by the use of patent law in seed research. The current system, rooted in intellectual property law, provides a 20-year exclusive patent to seed breeders who develop a new variety. Defenders of the current system argue it is necessary to encourage and reward innovation, and to make commercial seed breeding profitable.
But critics have long argued that this system rewards commercial seed breeders at the expense of farmers, undermines in situ conservation, denies the important role played in seed breeding and conservation by farmers, and undermines innovation by restricting access to seed.
So last week, a group of seed breeders launched a new initiative rooted in the Open Source Software movement. The idea is that the genetic material embodied in the seed should be freely available and exchangeable. The Open Source Seed Initiative is passing out 29 new varieties of 14 different crops, including carrots, kale, broccoli, and quinoa. The seeds may be used for growing crops, saved for future plantings, and used freely in future research. It is subject to only one restriction: that any new varieties developed from the source seed must also be open source and made freely available to others to use in the same way. It’s a fascinating idea that recalls traditional practices of seed breeding and exchange by farmers around the world. And it’s one I hope takes off!
Wal-Mart, the largest grocer in the United States, yesterday announced it would increase the availability of organic produce in its stores, setting a goal of making more than 100 new natural food products in available in at least half of their stores. The move will partner Wal-Mart with 17 different natural foods suppliers, including Annie’s, Burt’s Bees, Clif Bar, and Horizon Organic. And while the expansion of the organic and natural food markets is heralded as a good thing, the entry of Wal-Mart into the organic and natural food markets raises some important questions.
Wal-Mart has a history of employing hardball negotiating tactics to force suppliers to reduce their prices, a practice which Wal-Mart defends as allowing it to pass lower prices on to consumers. But manufacturers have long claimed that the practice forces them to cut wages, lower product quality, and sometimes even forces them out of business—often to save a fraction of a cent per item.
But the natural food market has been built on the idea of crafting a premium product and charging consumers a premium price. How will Wal-Mart’s strategy of aggressive negotiations play out in the context of the premium price market for natural foods? Can natural food producers compete against one another, traditional or mainstream suppliers interested in moving into the “green” market, and Wal-Mart’s drive for lower prices (and thus lower margins for its suppliers)?
And more broadly, will organic production even be able to keep up with the increased demand from Wal-Mart? Organic, natural, and fair trade suppliers traditionally operate in a fairly small niche market, often comprising less than 5 percent of market share. And while farmland dedicated to organic production is increasing, it is not clear that it can increase quickly enough to keep pace with the anticipated increased demand for organic products from Wal-Mart.
So while Wal-Mart’s decision can rightly be celebrated as a good step in the right direction, it’s clear that we need broader discussions around sustainable food production that address deeper economic questions.
A new study by Harvard University suggests that recent changes to the federal school lunch program are having a measurable impact, increasing children’s consumption of fruits by 23 percent and vegetables by 16.2 percent in the four low-income urban schools that were the focus of the study. The study’s lead author, Juliana Cohen, issued a statement declaring, “There is a push from some organizations and lawmakers to weaken the new standards. We hope the findings, which show that students are consuming more fruits and vegetables, will discourage those efforts.”
The new program, which began as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, has faced a number of challenges. Republican lawmakers have used the program as an example of government overreach. A study by the Government Accountability Office found that the number of students paying full price for lunch declined by about 1.2 million students (a 3.7 percent decline) as the program was instituted, likely as a result of smaller portion sizes and increased quantities of fruits and vegetables served.
The USDA has already responded to some criticisms of the program, relaxing caps on grains and meats and permitting greater flexibility in school lunch programs. The new study will likely do little to quell the growing chorus of debate over the federal school lunch program, which has become a lightning rod for broader debates over the proper role of government in the United States. Nevertheless, the news that children are consuming more fruits and vegetables (and correspondingly less processed foods) should be welcomed.
Gabriel Cortez and the Bigger Picture Project have produced a new video, “Perfect Soldiers,” that offers a powerful message. It’s definitely worth a watch.
You may remember that voters in the State of California in 2008 approved a referendum requiring egg producers in the state to engage in more humane production practices. The measure, known as Proposition 2, prohibited egg producers in California from using small cages in which hens were unable to stand or extend their wings. California egg producers then spent millions of dollars to comply with the new requirements, either by increasing the size of cages, transitioning to cage free production, or by relocating operations to other states with laxer regulations. To ensure that California egg producers did not face price competition from states without such requirements, the state legislature passed a law requiring that all eggs sold in the state be produced under conditions that met the same standards even when imported.
Now six other states are suing California, alleging that the requirements violate the US Commerce Clause. They are also worried that similar requirements might be extended to other animal production, including pork or beef.
California has long used its market size to dictate national standards. California’s imposition of stricter emissions and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, for example, has long driven the adoption of stricter national standards. Because the California economy is so large, producers find it more efficient to meet California’s standards for all cars produced in the nation than to produce cars to one standard for California and another for the rest of the United States. Auto producers have unsuccessfully attempted to sue to block California’s auto standards in the past. But a more conservative Supreme Court might indeed find California’s stricter standards for food production to violate the Commerce Clause, turning back the clock on establishing a more sustainable (and humane) food system. It will be an interesting case to watch.
A new report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week found that incidents of obesity among children aged 2 to 5 declined by 43 percent over the past decade. While the rate of obesity in children 2 to 5 declined from 14 percent in 2003-04 to 8 percent in 2011-12, the rate among the broader population remained unchanged, with about 17 percent of youth aged 2 to 19 and 35 percent of adults considered obese. The report does not attempt to determine the cause of the decline, but notes that improved nutritional and physical activity standards in preschools over the past few years may have contributed to the decline. Others suggested that a greater reliance on breastfeeding instead of infant formula may also have helped.
The report was welcomed by public health advocates, as obesity rates in children under 5 bear a strong correlation to obesity as an adult. It was also noted that this was the first time since the federal government began tracking such data that there had been a significant decrease in the rate of obesity for any group.
Valentine’s Day is celebrated across the United States on February 14, and is often marked by the gifting of flowers. But we rarely stop to consider how the global trade in flowers—which increases sharply ahead of both Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day—connects us to the broader world.
The global trade in cut flowers is estimated to be worth $100 billion annually, with the United States alone accounting for about $13 billion. About 82 percent of all flowers sold in the United States are imported from abroad, with the majority of US-destined flowers arriving from Latin America. Europe, by contrast, tends to import the bulk of its cut flowers from Africa.
The sharp seasonal fluctuations in flower production presents challenges to customs and border officials responsible for inspecting imports. Concerns over pests and disease are the primary focus for their inspections.
Developing countries looking for a comparative advantage in the context of historical subsidies offered to food and cotton producers in the developed world have often transitioned to specialized crops like cut flowers, spices, or specialty coffees in an effort to carve a market niche where they can complete on a more equal playing field.
While the global flower trade has increased sharply over the past decade, concerns over the environmental impact of the practice are growing. A 2009 report by Flowerpetal.com noted that about 80 percent of the estimated 100 million roses sold for Valentine’s Day were produced abroad, generating an estimated 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. A similar study by Cranfield University in 2007 found that a single rose imported from Kenya generated about 1.1 pounds of CO2. The same report noted, however, that imported flowers were far more carbon efficient than flowers raised in greenhouses in Europe, the production of which generated an estimated 6.4 pounds of CO2 per flower. In such a case, the higher CO2 emissions associated with transporting the flowers are offset by the more favorable growing environments abroad.
Then there’s the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers in the growing process, all of which raise potential questions about the ecological suitability of the cut flower trade.