The Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems (CSAS) in the Institute of
Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) at the University of
Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is an interdisciplinary center formed in 1991 for the
purpose of bringing together people and resources to promote an agriculture
that is efficient, competitive, profitable, environmentally and socially
sustainable for the indefinite future. The newsletters are also available
along with other sustainable ag information on our World Wide Web page:
Note: The electronic version is not sent to individual e-mail addresses. To
be added to the "hard copy" newsletter mailing list beginning with the next
bimonthly issue (not sent to overseas addresses), or for questions or
comments, contact the newsletter editor, Pam Murray, Coordinator, Center for
Sustainable Agricultural Systems, PO Box 830949, University of Nebraska,
Lincoln, NE 68583-0949, 402-472-2056, fax -4104, e-mail: pmurray1@.unl.edu.
Comments about the content or usefulness of this newsletter are always welcome.
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CONFERENCE SHOWS LARGE INTEREST IN SMALL FARMS
UNIVERSITY ROLE IN BIOTECHNOLOGY: WHAT DO PEOPLE SAY AND WHY?
LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY A GROWING CONCERN
DID YOU KNOW...
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CONFERENCE SHOWS LARGE INTEREST IN SMALL FARMS
According to the USDA criterion, a small farm has less than $250,000 gross
annual income. In the U.S., these farms hold 75% of all assets and 72% of
all land, and they produce 41% of all farm receipts. The profile in Nebraska
is similar, although our family farms tend to have more acres and larger
equipment. Small farms have provided the families, the support for schools
and businesses, and the backbone of rural communities. The classical
Goldschmidt study of communities in California in the 1940s showed the much
higher quality of life in a community of small, privately-owned farms
(Dinuba) compared to that in a community surrounded by large, corporate
farms (Arvin). The same structure and social consequences are equally
important 50 years later in that place.
The Second National Small Farm Conference in St. Louis (October 12-15) this
year explored both the current contributions and the future potential of
small farms in the U.S. The recent USDA report "A Time to Act" listed
several principles that should guide small farm development:
- produce safe, healthy, and diverse foods
- connect farmers with consumers
- promote rural communities
- encourage natural resource stewardship
- live in a safe and responsible environment
- support competition in free markets
- allow people to own farms
- generate family income comparable to other economic sectors
These principles provide a stark contrast to the singular profit motive of
corporate, industrial agriculture. In conclusion, the report states that
"Small farms are the most entrepreneurial and possibly the most innovative
in U.S. agriculture."
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman reported to the conference that small
farmers were at the top of the USDA agenda, that the agency is enhancing
rural development efforts through small farms, and that small farm owners
must share in the general prosperity of the U.S. Under Secretary Miley
Gonzalez added the importance of education as well as new products and new
uses in agriculture.
In a keynote presentation, John Ikerd from Missouri described the takeover
of agriculture by corporate agribusiness, a process driven by greed and the
final step in industrialization. He cited the concentration of wealth in a
few corporations and how this led to deterioration of both natural and human
resources. "Industrialization is not good for farmers and is not good for
the environment," according to Ikerd. In a call to action, he said the time
for quietness is past, and that a post-industrial agriculture would be built
on small scale, site-specific management and solutions, local ownership, and
local markets. Ikerd insisted that small farms are the only viable route to
equity and participation in the fruits of agriculture, and a system built on
individual ownership and management with a large number of small farmers and
business people is the one in which a free market will flourish while
benefiting local people. He said that the current banner is sustainability.
The Small Farm Conference brought together more than 400 people with
interest in small scale, entrepreneurial agriculture. It was obvious from
the displays that federal and other public agencies have a large interest in
the small farm sector, and that the non-profit organizations are among the
most active and useful in this arena. The universities have much to
contribute, but thus far have spent most of their energies developing
technologies for a large-scale, industrial model. Many speakers at the
conference asked for a change in land-grant research and education
priorities toward smaller, more sustainable farms and the appropriate
technologies to make them profitable.
Submitted by Chuck Francis
UNIVERSITY ROLE IN BIOTECHNOLOGY: WHAT DO PEOPLE SAY AND WHY?
Sixth in a Series. There is growing debate about the emerging role of
universities in research and applications of biotechnology. Current interest
and investment in production and use of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) have sparked a revolution in university research laboratories and
fields. Perhaps no single set of new techniques and potential technologies
has caused such a substantial short-term shift in focus of people and
resources in universities. We hope that encouraging debate within the
university community and among our clients will help inform people of the
issues and aid in charting a rational strategy for the future.
Perspectives from the Midwest
Through this series we have discussed many of the basic causes for debate on
the issue of transgenic crops: ownership of germplasm, potentials for gene
escape, food safety, economics and who benefits, consumer attitudes, and
impacts on agriculture and communities. The debate continues to grow, often
focused on the issue of labeling, preserving identity of non-GMO grains, and
economics of using these technologies. There is great concern among farmers
who planted hybrids and varieties that included this new technology and who
paid a premium for seed, only to find that they must now sell the product
for a lower price.
Some people in the system call for labeling so that consumers can make
informed choices in their food purchases. Others maintain that we just need
better education on the safety and contributions of GMO-based crop
products—to negate the unfounded fears in what they consider an obviously
valuable new technology. Many in the U.S. seed industry are quick to blame
the European consumer and politician for creating barriers to trade. Organic
farmers and food advocates insist that this technology is both dangerous
and unnecessary. Most consumers are confused about the issues, even if they
have read articles and seen TV bytes about the debate. How do we sort out
all the information we hear, and what do different people in the food system
say about new, genetically engineered crops and foods? And why?
First we must assume that people say what they believe—any other
interpretation would be second guessing their motives and usually would be
pure speculation. It seems rational to examine what is said about crops and
products derived from transgenic-based technologies, consider the source and
vested interest behind that source, and then try to make sense of what is
happening. Ultimately, the consumer will determine the success of any new
food or other technology, and educators can contribute to making that
decision an informed one. The following are paraphrased quotes from personal
interviews, along with my comments and interpretations.
Dean in a College of Agriculture: "The university has been relatively silent
about GMOs, and it is time for knowledgeable faculty to share their
expertise to help shape informed public policy. We cannot be biased, but we
can provide information about the usefulness and safety of GMO crops to
allow the public to make an enlightened decision for themselves." This
administrator is a well-informed scientist, a person who understands
genetics and some implications of technology, and is responsible for helping
other scientists find research support from industry and government. A bias
is clear when there is no mention of non-utility and potential dangers of
the technologies—the statement appears to be advocacy rather than education.
Conventional Farmer in the Midwest: "This is a good type of technology, one
that helps me to farm more responsibly with fewer chemicals on more acres.
We don't want to go back to old systems." The farmer is convinced of the
production benefits of GMO crops, and would not appreciate any interference
in the availability of a new technology that makes the operation more
efficient and stable.
Alternative Crop Farmer: "There is a premium paid today for non-GMO crop
products, and this is something that we should be able to take advantage
of." This farmer is not convinced of the value of the new GMO hybrids, and
chooses to stay with standard seed rather than pay the higher price for new
seed hybrids. Now it could be rewarding to sell what the market wants: a
product without the GMO technology.
Food Processor: "How can you really guarantee that a product is completely
free of GMO grains? There are tests available, but they are too expensive
and unreliable." Here the complexity of GMO technology and products becomes
relevant. Unlike foods that are evaluated by appearance, quality, and
uniformity, we see the effects of an industrial and global industry based on
regulation and control.
Elevator Operator in Midwest: "This will be an incredible hassle to separate
and maintain identity of different grains. We are not prepared for this, and
the costs of such an investment in facilities would have to be charged to
the farmer and eventually the consumer." The costs and inconvenience faced
by many in the grain trade far outweigh the opportunities for unique
identity and marketing niches for new products.
Non-Profit Group Director: "The entire GMO industry is anti-small farm, and
this technology promotes the industrial approach to agriculture." The
impacts of a specific new technology are seen as symptomatic of changes in
the structure of agriculture, resulting in a loss of small family farms and
the strength that they bring to communities. Although the new varieties are
not the only causal factor, they are an obvious high-profile example of what
many consider to be scale-specific technologies from research that provides
yet another advantage to an industrial-model farm.
European Cereal Breeder: "The terminator gene could prevent cereals from
sprouting in the ear or head; that would be an advantage to farmers who are
faced with rain and high humidity during the harvest period." This answer
typifies the discipline-specific thinking with which we currently approach
research and new technologies; we think in terms of a single cause, a single
effect, and a technology that can solve that single problem.
European Ecological Agriculture Scientist: "Why do we need this technology,
and who will benefit from its use? As I see it, transgenic crosses are not a
natural process, and GMOs seem to move more control over agriculture to the
multinational corporations." Here is a holistic and critical view of the new
technology, and a suggestion that wider issues are important even as we
evaluate the potential impacts of single technologies.
Urban Consumer in U.S.: "I've seen plenty of publicity and controversy about
the GMO issue, but I really don't understand what people are saying. If the
government agencies say that this is safe, I assume that it is. Why not shop
for cheap food as long as it looks good?" The average consumer in this
country is not concerned about food safety, other than reading about some of
the more spectacular problems when there is a well-publicized outbreak of
food poisoning. People generally believe and trust the government as well as
commercial food companies.
Urban Consumer in Europe: "It's hard to trust the government. Just look at
the mad cow disease in England! And when multinational corporations come in
with cheap food, this leads to loss of culture as well as business for local
shops." A much different attitude seems to prevail in Europe about what is
safe, what is nutritious, and what is culturally acceptable. Organic food
consumption is much higher in several of the northern European countries,
compared to the U.S., and there are multiple reasons for this difference,
one of which is avoidance of food containing GMOs.
What is the university's role?
As stated by the dean in the first example, our main goal is education. As a
public institution, we design programs for the public good—as perceived by
each individual instructor or Extension educator. Individuals in the public
domain have opinions, specific experiences in their own education and
training, and personal connections with groups inside and outside their
organizations. When sorting out the different messages about GMOs from a
plethora of sources, including universities, it is essential to consider the
qualifications and the vested interests behind those sources, and who will
gain from society's acceptance of a given opinion or information source.
In universities, we write grant proposals and seek support for research and
teaching beyond what is available from our state employers. As a university
researcher, I can best serve the public good by getting more funds to do
more and better research. Yet this process also puts me in a position of
considering the grant source and their opinions about technologies—an
especially critical factor if that source is a company involved in
developing and marketing GMO crops. It is no easy task for people to sort
out the many conflicting reports about the positive potentials and serious
possible consequences of these new technologies. An informed and objective
debate is the best possible avenue to rational decisions by society for the
Submitted by Chuck Francis
Editor's Note: The UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources has
formed a nine- member ad hoc task force to address current public issues
related to biotechnology. It is chaired by Dr. Anne Vidaver, director of the
UNL Center for Biotechnology and head of the Department of Plant Pathology;
Dr. Darrell Nelson, Agricultural Research Division Dean and Director, will
serve as the administrative liaison for the task force. The group is to:
"develop a plan for communicating factual information regarding the benefits
and risks of producing biotechnology-enhanced plants and animals for human
food; develop a series of letters to the editor and/or opinion/editorial
documents that are scientifically correct and address the major issues
raised by opponents of biotechnology; and work with CIT (communications
unit) to disseminate information to newspapers and magazines and through a
special IANR Web site."
LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY A GROWING CONCERN
Crop improvement is based on access to a wide range of genes, for resistance
to insects and pathogens, for stress tolerance, and for quality traits. The
high-yielding varieties and hybrids we use in Nebraska are the result of
crosses with land races or wild relatives of current crops. When we lose
farmers' original varieties or habitat for wild ancestors, or fail to
preserve these materials in our germplasm banks, the long-term effect will
be a compromising of future potential for improving crops.
"Biotechnology is no solution to this loss of genetic diversity," according
to John Tuxill in a recent report from Worldwatch Institute. "We are
increasingly skillful at moving genes around, but only nature can create
them. If a plant bearing a unique genetic trait disappears, there is no way
to get it back."
The gene banks maintained in Fort Collins by USDA and numerous other banks
around the world attempt to maintain collections of most important food
crops. These banks are poorly funded, and some gene sources are lost while
waiting in boxes to be catalogued and stored. Botanical gardens, seed
savers' networks, and other private initiatives are trying to help save this
inheritance to provide a rich genetic resource to future generations. In
addition to importance for agriculture, genetic diversity is critical as a
source of new medicines. Current moves toward globalizing the food system,
homogenizing diets and food sources, and concentrating ownership in a few
multinational corporations all emphasize short-term profits at the expense
of long-term sustainability. This should be a concern to all Nebraska citizens.
Submitted by Charles Francis
Nature's Cornucopia: Our Stake in Plant Diversity, $5. Widespread losses of
plant species and varieties are eroding the foundations of agricultural
productivity and threatening other plant-based products used by billions of
people worldwide, reports a new study by the Worldwatch Institute. See
USDA Economic Research Service has a Farm Structure Research Program that
identifies, measures, and analyzes forces contributing to current farm
structure and farm structural change, investigates the role and future of
small farms, examines efficiency/size relationships in major U.S. farming
subsectors, measures farm enterprise cost structure, level and distribution,
quantifies farm diversification, and advances analytical tools for
conducting farm structure and performance research and analysis. For more
information, see http://www.econ.ag.gov/briefing/farmstructure/index.htm.
Organic Farming and Marketing Research: New Partnerships and Priorities.
Free. Proceedings of October 1998 conference sponsored by Organic Farming
Research Foundation, USDA and Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture.
Focuses on current status and future prospects for organic agricultural
research and education within USDA and elsewhere. Includes text of
presentations on research needs from farm inspector's perspective, data
needs of the organic industry, international issues pertaining to organic
agriculture, and more. OFRF, PO Box 440, Santa Cruz, CA 95061, 831-426-6606,
The Nebraska Cooperative Extension has a new Web site, ruralroutes.unl.edu.
It is designed to help farmers and ranchers and rural communities maneuver
through today's changing agricultural economy and includes the following
categories: marketing, finances, stress and change, families and
communities, crops, livestock, alternatives, and policy.
Pest Management in U.S. Agriculture. $18. USDA Economic Research Service
report (ERS Handbook No. 717) has a wealth of data based on the 1996 ARMS
(Agricultural Resource Management Study) survey. Will serve as a good
baseline for various analysts and organizations wanting to project the
impacts of GMOs. See http://www.econ.ag.gov/epubs/pdf/ah717, or call
Editor's Note: The following four reviews by Charles Francis are of books
published between 1915 and 1999; all have relevance to living in balance
with natural resources plus human decisions to create a sustainable future.
Herland and Selected Stories (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1992, Signet
The title story originally published in 1915 provides brilliant insight by
an early feminist who presents an idealistic view of a utopian,
2000-year-old society of women. Published long before environmental issues
and educational reform were hot topics, Gilman explores agroforestry, food
production without chemicals, integrating work with pleasure, and how a
village can raise the children. I highly recommend Herland for the
thoughtful reader who wants historical perspective on sustainable agriculture.
Hope, Human, and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth (Bill
McKibbon, 1995, Little, Brown & Co., Boston):
Best known for The End of Nature, McKibbon explains two current models where
sustainability is high on the agenda and there is progress toward that goal.
In Curitiba, Brazil, the successful efforts of an energetic and
forward-thinking mayor have catalyzed the imagination of planners and
citizens alike. The result is a beautiful city with viable transport and
other public services, support for people of all classes, and progressive
industry. In stark economic contrast is the state of Kerala, India, where
per capita annual income is $330 per year, yet resources are shared and
enhanced for future generations. In contrast to the people-oriented
capitalism in Curitiba, the pragmatic communist governments in Kerala since
achieving independence have built a a viable society on a limited resource
base. McKibbon then applies these lessons from Third World models to his own
threatened Adirondack home—and shows clearly that sustainable ideas can come
from a wide range of places around the globe.
Believing Cassandra (Alan AtKisson, 1999, Chelsea Green Publ., White River
An articulate and light-hearted book about a heavy subject, Believing
Cassandra urges the reader to take seriously the warnings of those looking
into the future. Cassandra, youngest daughter of the last King of Troy, was
blessed with the ability to foresee the future, but cursed with the fact
that no one would believe her prophecies. Alan AtKisson carefully
distinguishes between the needs to stop Growth, to encourage Development,
and to embrace Sustainability. The book is best summarized with a quote:
"...we are not talking here about a dull, earnest, melancholy, hair-shirt
king of existence, where everyone wears identical tunics and gives thanks
for their daily servings of gruel, content with the knowledge that Nature
has been protected and the Collective equitably served. A sustainable World,
properly understood, is not only an abundant World: it is a wildly diverse
and fascinating World. This is a World spilling over with opportunities for
personal advancement, business development, creative expression, exploration
of the unknown. Sustainability is beautiful and reasonable and profitable,
all at once. Sustainable solutions come in every imaginable shape and size,
reflect every cultural variation, make possible the highest aspirations of
individual human beings. Sustainability itself is not Utopia, but something
much more realistic and more interesting: it is the process of trying to
reach Utopia from a thousand different directions." This is a goal worthy of
our attention. The book is available from Chelsea Green Publishing Company,
PO Box 428, Gates-Briggs Building #205, White River Junction, VT 05001,
Changing the Way America Farms: Knowledge and Community in the Sustainable
Agriculture Movement, (Neva Hassanein, 1999, Nebraska Press, Lincoln):
Who says that doctoral studies always sit on the shelf and gather dust? This
exciting book by recent University of Wisconsin graduate Neva Hassanein
describes the alternative information network developed by farmers seeking
answers to complex, systems-level questions on their farms. She worked with
the Ocooch Grazers Network who practice intensive rotational grazing and the
Wisconsin Women's Sustainable Farming Network, a group that focuses on farm
systems as well as family quality of life. The result is a readable book
that provides an attractive direction—farmers taking responsibility for
their futures. They show how science can be combined with practical
experience, and thus made available in a common language that is accessible
to farmers. To order, call 1-800-755-1105, or e-mail email@example.com.
Contact CSAS office for more information.
Jan. 5-6 – Mid-America Fruit Growers Conference, St. Joseph, MO
Jan. 7-8 – Great Plains Regional Vegetable Conference, St. Joseph, MO
Jan. 19-22 – 20th Annual Ecological Farming Conference, Pacific Grove, CA,
Jan. 27 – Nebraska Forage and Grassland Council Annual Meeting, Lincoln, NE
Jan. 28-30 – Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society Annual Conference,
Feb. 2-5 – Aquaculture America 2000: Unmasking the Marvels of Aquaculture,
New Orleans, LA, http://www.was.org/confer/neworleans/neworleans.htm
Feb. 11-12 – North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association
Educational Sessions, Cincinnati, OH
Feb. 14-18 – International Conference on Managing Natural Resources for
Sustainable Agricultural Production in the 21st Century, New Delhi, India ,
Feb. 26 – Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society Healthy Farms Conference
& Annual Meeting, Aurora, NE
Feb. 28-Mar. 2 – International Plant Resistance to Insects Workshop, Fort
Collins, CO, http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/bspm/Meetings/ipri.html
Mar. 7-9 – Farming and Ranching for Profit, Stewardship, and Community
Conference, Portland, OR, http://wsare.usu.edu/2000/
Mar. 13-16 – Conference on Land Stewardship in the 21st Century: The
Contributions of Watershed Management, Tucson, AZ,
Mar. 27-29 – Soil, Food and People: A Biointensive Model for the New
Century, Davis, CA, http://www.universityextension.ucdavis.edu/biointensive/
For additional events, see:
DID YOU KNOW...
According to critics, the recently passed agricultural assistance package
loosens rules that were intended to target government payments to
family-size operations. Chuck Hassebrook, program director of the Center for
Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, is among those who contend that the
looser rules will hasten the demise of smaller-scale operations as big farms
use the extra cash to buy up land from the neighbors.
The crop value of all horticultural production (including dry beans and
potatoes) in Nebraska in 1997 was $160,427,000, an increase of 61% compared
Research at Iowa State U. has shown that corn gluten meal has potential as a
natural pre-emergence herbicide for use on turf and organic crop production.
For details, see http://www.hort.iastate.edu/gluten/.
Among the recommendations in the September 1999 issue of Consumer Reports
magazine is that "all foods containing genetically engineered ingredients be
labeled as such, including milk with recombinant bovine growth hormone," and
that the USDA "set a single, national standard for certified-organic food
that excludes genetically engineered food from the definition."
The Organic Materials Review Institute has developed a catalog of allowed
and regulated products in organic agriculture, and a new seal for organic
farmers and processors that identifies the OMRI-approved products that they
use in their organic operations. See http://www.omri.org/.
Susan Seacrest of Lincoln, Nebraska, founder and president of The
Groundwater Foundation (formerly the Nebraska Groundwater Foundation), was
honored by TIME magazine for educating the public about the importance of
aquifers as a natural resource. Seacrest is one of seven "Heroes for the
Planet" profiled in the August 2, 1999 issue of TIME. The Foundation has
about 2,000 members.
1.4 million acres of rural land is devoured by development each year.
Pam Murray, Coordinator
Center for Grassland Studies and
Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems
PO Box 830949
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, NE 68583-0949
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