Blog | February 15, 2013

Toni’s Farm and Food Roundup

ToniThe U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released projections last week that U.S. net farm income will reach $128.2 billion, the highest in 40 years after inflation adjustments. That is almost a 14 percent increase compared to 2012, which was plagued by massive drought. 2013 would mark only the fourth year since 1973 that net farm income exceeded $100 billion after inflation adjustments. The USDA said this development would mean a significant increase in crop production, resulting in a greater year-end crop inventory. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “I am heartened that our farmers’ keen business sense is continuing the recent trend of strong farm finances, with farm equity set to reach another record high in 2013.” Farmers still have a long haul ahead, however; net cash income is expected to drop 9 percent from 2012. In other words, the cost of farm production is anticipated to be at a record high this year with an anticipated $19.2 billion increase.

Grist’s Philip Bump took a look at the reality behind the USDA claims about farm income. The drought in 2012 led to $15 billion in crop insurance payouts from the government in addition to rising food prices, which lent no added yields to farmers. Also, he notes, the USDA disclosed that the forecasted net income does not take weather conditions into account and some states are still facing the same drought that troubled the agricultural industry last year.

A recent study shows that China, already the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics, is heavily using the drugs in animals as a way to enhance growth and prevent disease in crowded conditions, giving rise to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This could lead to serious problems for people who depend on those drugs to fight infections and researchers are questioning if this is directly correlated to the rise in antibiotic-resistant strains of viruses in humans. But China is not alone in their reliance on antibiotics; in 2011 in the U.S., nearly four times the amount of antibiotics administered to treat humans was used for livestock. Further, producers aren’t required to disclose what the drugs are being used for or how much is given to each animal. The lack of regulations makes it difficult for researchers to study the direct impact of the high level of antibiotics in commercial meat production.

Monsanto has used U.S. patent law to control the use of seeds by farmers, filing infringement claims against anyone that uses its patented seeds without a license, even if they were unknowingly harboring Monsanto traits via contamination. A new report finds that by the end of 2012, Monsanto had received over $23.5 million from patent infringement lawsuits against farmers and farm businesses. Now a conventional farmer is getting a chance to fight back in Supreme Court. Hugh Bowman, a 75-year old soybean farmer from Indiana, is at the center of the case after purchasing commodity grain from the local elevator, which is usually used for feed, and plant it. But that grain was mostly progeny of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beans because that’s what most Indiana soybean farmers grow. Those soybeans are genetically modified to survive the weedkiller Roundup, and Monsanto claims that Bowman’s planting violated the company’s restrictions. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this month in the brief that asks the court to end the practice of allowing corporations to place conditions on the sale of its seed and to reject an “end-run around patent exhaustion” for regeneration. “Farming is using seeds, not constructing or manufacturing seeds,” the brief states. Bowman was open with Monsanto about the use of the Roundup Ready seeds, but he was sued for $85,000 when he did not adhere to their order to stop. Mark P. Walters of a Seattle intellectual property law firm is representing Bowman pro bono in the case.

In related news, Mother Jones released an article explaining there is a massive spread of “superweeds” throughout the Midwest at the hands of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide. An estimated 70 percent of all U.S. corn, soy and cotton crops are now resistant to the glyphosate that makes up Roundup Ready. In 2012 there was a 34 percent increase in glyphosate-resistant crops in the U.S. from the previous year, meaning 49 percent of all surveyed farms revealed they had superweeds. Additionally, 27 percent of farms said they faced more than one strand of herbicide-resistant weeds. There seems to be no clear solution to this problem as Monsanto prepares to release stronger herbicides and new genetically engineered seeds, but that would likely lead to even more resilient weeds. So far the USDA has not approved any of Monsanto’s new products for the market, meaning new pesticides or seeds cannot be sold until 2014 at the earliest. Penn State released a study estimating that approximately $1 billion was spent in 2011 coping with the resistant-weeds. An Iowa State University explained that diversifying and rotating crops reduces weeds with less herbicides.

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