Toxic legacy: Nitrate pollution in California could affect 260,000 people

Author(s): Swetha Manian

Issue: Apr 30, 2012

Nitrate contamination has grown worse in agricultural areasTHOUGH nitrogen and nitrates occur naturally, they are at levels that do not harm. But concern is increasing about high concentrations of nitrogen leaching into aquifers from synthetic fertilisers and manure applied to cropland, resulting in nitrate pollution. High-nitrate levels can cause cancer, reproductive disorders and can be lethal for infants.

Now a study has shown how nitrate contamination of groundwater in some of California’s most intensely farmed regions has grown worse in recent decades. The contamination will continue to spread, threatening the drinking water supplies of more than 260,000 people, it says. The team from UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources analysed groundwater data of Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley of California. They found that more than 90 per cent of the contamination comes from farms, ranches and crops. It says that nitrate in drinking water today came from nitrates introduced decades ago. “Decades from now nitrate in water will be from today’s discharges. Nitrate contamination will be an issue for years to come,” says Thomas Harter, the lead author.

The study which was mandated by legislation in the state in 2008 also notes that removing nitrates from groundwater is costly and not feasible. It says the cost of treating drinking water would increase over time as more nitrate percolates. The study thus suggests an approach based on fertiliser management and water treatment systems. Laurel Firestone, co-executive director of Tulare County’s Community Water Centre, suggests a fertiliser fee could help control nitrate contamination.

In India, high levels of nitrate contamination have been reported from agricultural areas and have been linked to intensive use of fertilisers. A study conducted by Greenpeace India, a non-profit, in November 2009 in Punjab found an average fertiliser application rate of 322 kg nitrogen per hectare, higher than the average rate of 210 kg nitrogen per hectare, set by the Fertiliser Association of India. The Davis study found an application rate of 221 kg nitrogen per hectare in high nitrate area. “While nitrate pollution can stem from many sources, overuse is prevalent mainly in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and coastal peninsula, which comprise 10 per cent of all agricultural area,” says N Raghuram, associate professor at Indraprastha University, New Delhi. He adds, preventing accumulation of reactive nitrogen is the best solution. “Recycling unwanted nitrogen compounds from other sectors towards agriculture could be an option.”

Importing Disaster: India’s power elite is still seeking US solutions for our problems despite the havoc they have wreaked upon American society

Author: Latha Jishnu
Posted on: 29 Dec, 2011

India’s power elite is still seeking US solutions for our problems despite the havoc they  have wreaked upon American society
Photo: Franco FoliniMany decades ago when my generation was in its early teens and was captivated by the Merseyside beat of the Beatles along with bell-bottom pants of that era, disapproving elders told us that we were mindlessly aping the West. As far as I can see, dalliance with the rock music of the Liverpool Fabulous Four did us little harm—either in the appreciation of own music or in our outlook and values, much less in our dress sense. But “aping the West” was a scathing indictment and we preferred not to be accused of such mindlessness.

One of the oddest things about the Indian establishment though is the complete mindlessness with which it has been lapping up practically anything hawked by Western governments, corporations, financial institutions and other snake oil salesmen. And unlike adolescent whims, this kind of aping is far from being harmless; they can have deleterious effects on economies, livelihoods and societies. The wholesale import of policies more suited to developed societies that have gone through their industrial and post-industrial revolutions are hardly the panacea they are made out to be for the disparate problems of a developing country, specially one which carries the burden of the largest number of the wretchedly poor, the unschooled, the diseased and vulnerable people. Nowhere is this determination to import disaster more evident than in agriculture. Farming in the US and India are as different from each other as the atmosphere in Jupiter is to that of Earth. Take some basic facts. The US has less than one per cent of its population claiming farming as their occupation and just about 960,000 persons who say farming is their principal occupation. The average farm size is a whopping 167 hectares (ha) while a large chunk of farms are between 40 ha and 220 ha. When it comes to farming in India, about 550 million people are dependent on agriculture and the vast majority of farm holdings are between 0.8 ha and 2 ha. Most of the farmers are, needless to say, dirt-poor.

It is in such starkly different circumstances that the top officials of the Planning Commission, the farm minister himself and the Prime Minister’s Office seek to transplant the US model of industrial farming here. And there’s one other detail that should not be overlooked. American farmers receive huge subsidies. Between 1995 and 2010, less than a million farmers were paid $167.3 billion under the direct payment subsidy programme. These subsidies were doled out to grain and commodity farmers as a safety net regardless of their actual production. In the very same period, a total of 256,913 debt-ridden Indian farmers committed suicide.

It is in such a situation that the government has rolled out the red carpet for seed and pesticide multinationals. It is only a matter of time before the retail giants too walk in. As for the World Trade Organization (WTO), the intransigence of the EU and the US to cut its farm subsidies has resulted in a decade-long deadlock in negotiations to conclude a new round. But it matters little to New Delhi’s power elite. Inspiration still comes from the West, and, as a corollary, subservience to its demands will also continue.

It is not anyone’s case that the West has nothing to offer us. One policy worthy of emulation is its public-funded school system of quality education that covered the entire population. But, interestingly, this is one issue policymakers here have ignored while opting for shortcuts such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhayan, which is on the whole a shabby programme of third-rate schooling. That, however, is another issue.

What is curious is why the establishment, whether it’s the political, bureaucratic, academic or scientific establishment, still continues to draw its inspiration from a system that appears to be in tatters. Europe and the US are enveloped in a pall of gloom and seething rage against a theology that has failed the vast majority of people. And nowhere is the anger more widespread than in the US where an extraordinary mix of people across racial and ethnic divides, from laid-off workers, teachers and young and middle-aged professionals to the elderly and perpetually homeless, are living on the streets to seek a more equitable system.

Here are some of the reasons that have fuelled the mass outburst:

  • Americans living in poverty: more than 46 million
  • Americans without health insurance: close to 50 million
  • Americans without jobs or underemployed: between 24 and 26 million
  • Homeless Americans: 3.5 million

All this in a country with a population of just 312 million. If nothing, these statistics should serve as a reality check for those who believe the free market economy is the solution. Does it have to be said that India needs to find its own ways of dealing with its many crises?

Arkanas Court Affirms $50M Verdict for Rice Farmers affected by GM contamination

By JEANNIE NUSS Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. December 8, 2011 (AP)



The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed a nearly $50 million verdict for farmers who say they lost money because a company’s genetically altered rice seeds contaminated the food supply and drove down crop prices.

Bayer, the German conglomerate whose Bayer CropScience subsidiary produced the seeds, had argued that Arkansas tort laws set a limit on punitive damages and that courts should set aside jury awards that “shock the conscience.” In the April 2010 verdict, a Lonoke County jury awarded $42 million in punitive damages and $5.9 million in actual damages.

The company said a lower court erred last year in ruling that a cap on punitive damages is unconstitutional.

But in its 24-page opinion released Thursday, the state Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the cap on punitive damages was unconstitutional. Associate Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson wrote that the cap “limits the amount of recovery outside the employment relationship,” while the Arkansas constitution only allows limits on compensation paid by employers to employees.

The latest decision comes years after Bayer developed an experimental strain of rice called LibertyLink to withstand its Liberty herbicide. Federal regulators had not yet approved it for human consumption when trace amounts were found mixed with conventional rice seed in storage bins in Arkansas and Missouri.

No human health problems have been associated with the contamination, but that wasn’t known at the time.

The fear that the rice was unsafe, along with the notion that genetically altered rice was somehow impure, quashed sales in major markets. Rice futures plummeted by $150 million immediately after the contamination announcement. European nations quit accepting shipments of rice from the U.S. that hadn’t been extensively tested to show they weren’t contaminated. Japan banned all American rice.

Growers in Arkansas — where about half of the nation’s rice is produced — as well as California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas sued Bayer, claiming rice prices fell so severely that they received much less for their crops.

Bayer argued that any damages were minimal and short-term.

“This case is only about economic losses,” Bayer’s attorneys argued in a court document filed in Arkansas this year. “Mixing conventional rice with less valuable (LibertyLink rice) did not constitute ‘physical’ damage to the rice (as seed or as crop), the land, the farming implements or anything else.”

Bayer CropScience announced in July that it would pay up to $750 million to settle claims, including those from farmers who say they had to plant different crops and made less money from them. The farmers in the Lonoke County suit cannot receive money from that $750 million pot.

The Lonoke County farmers argued that Bayer knew of the contamination as early as January 2006, before that year’s crops were sowed, and was thus not only negligent in its handling of LibertyLink rice but acted with malicious intent by not announcing the contamination as soon as it learned about it.

Lawyers for the farmers said their clients didn’t learn of the contamination until the USDA’s announcement in August 2006, when it was almost time to harvest that year’s crops. The company said it notified the government as soon as it discovered LibertyLink had shown up in commercial rice.

The lawsuit and settlement apply to long-grain rice, the kind used in pilaf or typically mixed with beans. They don’t affect farmers who planted medium-grain rice, which is often used in sushi, or short-grain rice, which is often used to make cereal.

Thursday’s decision calling the cap on punitive damages unconstitutional drew sharp criticism from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, a pro-industry interest group, which said the ruling would allow judges and juries to punish businesses without limit.

“This will have a chilling effect on the business climate in Arkansas,” said Randy Zook, the president and CEO of the chamber and Associated Industries of Arkansas.

But Scott Powell, an Alabama lawyer who represented the Arkansas farmers in the case, said the decision marked a victory not only for his clients, but for people and businesses in Arkansas.

“It helps them in deterring bad conduct,” said Powell.

Bayer said it is studying the court’s opinion and considering its options.

“Bayer CropScience is disappointed with the decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court,” spokesman Greg Coffey said in a statement.

Farmers Markets Could Generate Tens of Thousands of New Jobs with Modest Federal Support, New from Union of Concerned Scientists Report Finds

They’re Growing Nationally, but Federal Policies Favoring Industrial Agriculture Hold Them Back

WASHINGTON (August 4, 2011) – Over the last several decades, thousands of farmers markets have been popping up in cities and towns across the country, benefiting local farmers, consumers and economies, but they could be doing a lot better, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). What’s holding farmers markets back? Federal policies that favor industrial agriculture at their expense.

“On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, the author of the report and an economist with UCS’s Food and Environment Program. “But our federal food policies are working against them. If the U.S. government diverted just a small amount of the massive subsidies it lavishes on industrial agriculture to support these markets and small local farmers, it would not only improve American diets, it would generate tens of thousands of new jobs.”

UCS released the report just a few days before the 12th annual U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Farmers Market Week, which starts on Sunday, August 7. According to the report, “Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems,” the number of farmers markets nationwide more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 jumping from 2,863 to 6,132, and now more than 100,000 farms sell food directly to local consumers.

All that growth happened with relatively little help. Last year, for example, the USDA spent $13.725 billion in commodity, crop insurance, and supplemental disaster assistance payments mostly to support large industrial farms, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The amount the agency spent that year to support local and regional food system farmers? Less than $100 million, according to USDA data.

In 2007, the most recent USDA figure, direct agricultural product sales amounted to a $1.2 billion-a-year business, and most of that money recirculates locally. “The fact that farmers are selling directly to the people who live nearby means that sales revenue stays local,” O’Hara said. “That helps stabilize local economies.”

Keeping revenues local also can mean more job opportunities. Last summer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked Congress to set a goal in the 2012 Farm Bill of helping at least 100,000 Americans to become farmers by, among other things, providing entrepreneurial training and support for farmers markets. O’Hara’s report takes up Vilsack’s challenge and argues that supporting local and regional food system expansion is central to meeting that goal.

In the report, O’Hara  identified a number of initiatives the federal government could take to encourage new farmers and the growth of farmers markets in the upcoming Farm Bill. For example, the report called on Congress to:

  • support the development of local food markets, including farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, which can stabilize community-supported markets and create permanent jobs. For example, the report found that the Farmers Market Promotion Program could create as many as 13,500 jobs nationally over a five-year period, if reauthorized, by providing modest funding for 100 to 500 farmers markets per year.
  • level the playing field for farmers in rural regions by investing in infrastructure, such as meat-processing or dairy-bottling facilities, which would help meat, dairy and other farmers produce and market their products to consumers more efficiently. These investments could foster competition in food markets, increase product choice for consumers, and generate jobs in the community.
  • allow low-income residents to redeem food nutrition subsidies at local food markets to help them afford  fresh fruits and vegetables. Currently, not all markets are able to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

“Farmers at local markets are a new variety of innovative entrepreneurs, and we need to nurture them,” said O’Hara. “Supporting these farmers should be a Farm Bill priority.”


America’s $24bn subsidy damages developing world cotton farmers

The developing world can’t compete with the US’s giant $24bn subsidy for its cotton farmers. Barack Obama should end the payouts

A man works in a cotton factoryc in Mumbai

A man working in a cotton factory in Mumbai, India.

US subsidies of $24bn to its cotton farmers have driven down world prices and damaged livelihoods of developing world cotton producers. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

I’ve been looking forward to President Barack Obama’s state visit to the UK this week and to hearing him address MPs and peers at Westminster Hall.

President Obama will no doubt focus on many matters of great international importance. I think cotton should be one of them. I have seen for myself just how vital cotton is for millions of farmers in west Africa and the damage caused to their livelihoods by developed country subsidies. I have pressed for EU reform, but action from the United States is critical.

President Obama could, and should, take a lead in addressing this.

The US government continues to subsidise its cotton farmers – $24bn (£15bn) over the past 10 years – despite the World Trade Organisation ruling some of these subsidies illegal. And when the WTO backed Brazil’s case that the subsidies were damaging, the US government simply offered to pay subsidies to Brazilian farmers too.

I can’t be alone in spotting the irony of the world’s greatest free-trader continuing to violate the system so blatantly.

America’s payments to its farmers are designed to shield them from the volatility of cotton prices. But they also enable the US to export cheaply, depressing the price for other cotton producers in some of the poorest regions of the world and leaving them unable to compete with their richer American counterparts.

The voices of African farmers and others in developing countries are being ignored. In 2008, a group of African leaders tabled specific proposals to which the US has so far failed to respond.

It is now nearly 10 years since the WTO Doha Round talks first began. In 2001 there was a clear objective – to lower trade barriers around the world and help facilitate the increase of global trade. But the promise to make the Round deliver for development has clearly failed and the talks are now on the brink of collapse.

The world needs to focus on rebuilding faith in the multilateral trading system and also respond to the concerns raised time and time again by governments across Africa. An immediate commitment by the US to implement the WTO’s ruling and to cut cotton subsidies further would be a good place to start.

Taking this action would send a clear message to farmers in developing countries that the world is serious about its commitment to trade reform.

Discussions around the latest US farm bill have just begun. Now is the ideal time to raise this matter and bring about real change for millions of farmers who depend on cotton for a living. The coalition government has promised to do more to address the impact of European subsidies and must honour this, but action from the US is vital. The president’s state visit provides a unique opportunity for the government to raise the profile of this important issue.

The United States and others made a commitment in Doha to farmers from developing countries. But, almost a decade later, there has been no change. Whether Doha fails or succeeds, President Obama can and should, take a lead on removing illegal cotton subsidies and ensure that the promises made are honoured.

• Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead is the opposition’s spokeswoman on international development in the House of Lords and an expert on trade and development. She was minister for Africa in Gordon Brown’s government

How we feed us will go to American hands by Shalini Bhutani

Pacts favourable to the US may be signed, posing a threat to Indian farmers

THE BUZZ has been growing about US President Barack Obama’s visit to India next month. And yet again before the visit, news is about the possible arms deal, joint military exercises, bilateral trade and investment, rather than what it would mean for India’s food and farming. When George Bush came calling, the nuclear deal hogged the limelight, and the agriculture-related aspects, which have consequences for something as basic as food, didn’t make the headlines.

Farmville Hillary Clinton visits the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, in 2009


This cycle of events sounds like a cruel joke. But the situation is far from funny when it comes to our agriculture. Several laws and policies related to seed, food and farming in India have in the past been made to either facilitate American entry in these sectors or forge so-called US-India ‘partnerships’ in agri R&D and trade. Control over these sectors in other countries has strategically been core to American foreign policies. Also, agri exports are a big part of Obama’s economic recovery plan. So, his visit will yet again be marked by decisions, which will have implications for Indian agriculture.

It is useful to recall history here. In 1960, it was by an Act of Parliament that India’s first agricultural university, Pantnagar University (now the Gobind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture), was set up with US assistance. It is here that the so-called Green Revolution was started, the ill-effects of which are only being fully understood now. And ever since, right up to the introduction of American company Monsanto’s now infamous Bt brinjal, public sector agriculture research institutes are being used as base stations from which the American interests springboard into the Indian landscape. And in the process — from seed, to tractors, to processing, to retailing — American companies such as Cargill, Walmart and Monsanto have got more than a foothold in India.

India’s agriculture legislations are also beginning to mirror elements from the US. Some come in via the route of the US-led multilateral system, the World Trade Organisation (WTO). On Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), the US took India to the dispute settlement body of the WTO for non-compliance of IPR obligations. Yet, despite amendments to the Indian patent law, it is still not good enough for the US-India Business Council and American lifescience corporations. Bilateral trade relations also come with prescriptions for legal and policy changes. The legal makeover of India continues.

Another American clone under consideration is India’s version of the Bayh-Dole Act — the Protection and Utilisation of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill, 2008. This advocates for IPR for agricultural scientists and research institutions. Meanwhile, the controversial Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2010, is waiting to resurface in Parliament. This will easily facilitate the clearance of genetic engineering for application on our seed, feed, food and livestock. Through its South Asia Biosafety Programme, the USAID gives funds for biotechnology policy formulation for countries such as India and Bangladesh. The US is the birthplace of biotech giants and American agencies are scouting worldwide to create markets for their products.

So, a visit by an American bigwig almost always leaves Indian agriculture in trouble. It points to more changes before or after the trip. In 2005, before the Bush visit, a US-India Trade Policy Forum (TPF) was set up. One of its five sub-divisions is the Agricultural Trade Group whose key objectives include facilitating export of Indian mangoes to the US. Aren’t we better off eating them in Asia, thereby reducing food miles in an already climate- and energy-challenged planet? And what India gets in return, through another Non-Tariff Barriers group under the TPF, are more insecticides manufactured in the US. And, the Indian government agreeing to cut regulations on buying and selling of carbonated drinks, which mean colas. More poison for our land, water and health.

During the Bush visit in 2006, India was signed up for a US-India Knowledge Initiative in agriculture education, teaching, research, service and commercial linkages. It is run by a board including American giants such as ADM, Monsanto and Walmart. In July 2009, Hillary Clinton visited the Indian Agricultural Research Institute at Pusa, where she unequivocally sounded her commitment to see through policy changes in our agriculture sector, which are favourable to American firms. At that time, the countries signed a bilateral pact on agriculture.

The US is the birthplace of biotech giants and American agencies are scouting worldwide to create markets for their products

Philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates, who backs agricultural biotechnology, visited India recently and made headlines by ‘adopting’ a village in Bihar. Soon, there was a report that the Borlaug Institute for South Asia is being set up in Bihar to unleash a second Green Revolution in the region. Could there be any connections there? After all, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds two major global agriculture initiatives: the first is on rice research that pushes GM and hybrid varieties. Second, it has pumped dollars into the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa. This will create a market for US seeds, pesticides and proprietary technologies. It has already spent a lot for India’s ‘poor farmers’ to modernise farming methods and link them to the global market.

AS A run-up to the US-India Strategic Dialogue in June, top officials held a series of meetings, including one on agriculture. But India doesn’t need that level of interaction with the US. In agriculture, a diversity of local alternatives do exist. The current food crisis, despite the grains rotting in FCI godowns, amply shows there is no shortage of foodgrain production. Therefore, there is no justification for new proprietary agricultural technologies to be brought in from the US. The move away from traditional methods of farming to the industrial agriculture and modern food production that the US prescribes, in effect, hugely adds to the climate crisis and creates unequal wealth.

There is no shortage of foodgrain production. Therefore, there is no justification for new technologies to be brought in from the US

There are several local initiatives that point to the way forward. For instance, dryland millet-based mixed farming practices, livestock integrated farming, safeguarding uncultivated agro-biodiversity, non-pesticide management agriculture and the time-tested natural farming or ‘rishi kheti’. Indian farming has its own solutions. The obstacles are not technical but political.

India does not need its food menu to be written by the US. And irrespective of what Obama’s speechwriter pens down for his parliamentary address, any word on democracies will be meaningless if his visit leaves India as a less self-defining nation, which no longer chooses how and what it feeds its own. The link between arms and alms is not as distant as it may seem.