GMOs and Organic farming

There must be a term for it, when you fear and reject a new solution because of imagined risk and keep to an older solution that you are certain is not safe. GMOs are a good way to produce more food, while reducing inputs such as pesticides. They also will help us adapt to climate change or other quick changes.  There are no confirmed cases of anybody getting sick from eating GMO foods, yet they are widely opposed.  Organically grown foods, however, kill hundreds of people each year and yet are presumed innocent even in the face of evidence.  This is one of those cases where our fear of new science leads us down a more familiar but less healthy path.  

Let’s talk a little about organic foods.  The line between “organic” and conventional is not bright.  Most food we eat is grown primarily in organic ways.   Farming is now and has always been mostly an organic enterprise.  It makes sense to rely on natural processes when possible.  It saves effort and money.  However, most soils are deficient in key nutrients and a plague of insects or fungus can attack even healthy crops.   In that case, it is smart to apply inorganic fertilizers or chemicals to kill the bugs.  The key is to deploy the appropriate tools in the appropriate amount at the appropriate time.  Reasonable people can differ about such things.   But it is foolish to limit the tools you can safely apply.  As we learn more about soils, water and ecological relationships, we have become better at applying both organic and inorganic methods in complementary ways.

The recent outbreak of hepatitis in certified organic berries is only the latest.  A few years ago in Germany forty-five people died and almost 4000 got sick from eating organically certified bean sprouts.   Neither inorganic nor organic foods are automatically healthy or unhealthy.   But it is clearly true that if we applied the same scrutiny to organic foods as we do to GMOs, we would effectively shut down the organic food industry.  

Supporting organic farms and eating locally are lifestyle choices that we can indulge in the U.S. because we are a rich country, but we could not support the current world population using organic methods alone, even if we cut down the forests and invade the natural regions as the less efficient organic production methods would require.  

I favor of organic farming methods.  There is sufficient demand for organic products, as some consumers are willing to pay higher prices.   I like the idea of smaller farms with lots of people close to the land.  We should, however, be practical.  And we need to be vigilant with our food supply.  Just because something is certified as 100% organic does not mean that it is healthy.

In pre-industrial times, all crops were grown organically.  At those times, food-borne diseases and parasites were so common as to be ubiquitous.   We have learned a lot since the middle ages, but the even more ancient statement “nothing too much” still applies.   A smart course is a moderate one.  Eating only organic food will not make you healthier nor would it be good for the environment if everyone did that.   On the other hand we have to be circumspect in our use of chemicals and GMOs.  But we should welcome their use when they improve health or environment.

Good land management needs farm animals

Vegetarians are bad for the environment

CO2 contributes to climate change, although it works in complex ways. For example, higher concentrations of CO2 helps plants grow. Trees require less water when there is more CO2, so can we expect MORE forest growth, a benefit of climate change? A more straightforward factor in climate change, and maybe a bigger factor, is land use. As grasslands turn to deserts, climate gets worse. An unusual solution might be MORE cows and sheep.  

Watch this TED talk. Think about grasslands. Grasslands co-evolved with large grazing animals. It is easy to see how grazing animals depend on the grass they eat. It is harder, and maybe even counterintuitive, to see how grasslands depend on large grazing animals. In fact, years ago we were taught that grazing destroyed grasslands. But like everything else in nature, it was more complex than that.

Just as the difference between a lifesaving medicine and a deadly poison is often in the dosage, whether grazing animals destroy grasslands or save them depends both on the amount and on how it is done. Overgrazing makes semi-arid grasslands into deserts, but so does under grazing.

Alan Savory, the man featured in the TED talk, was surprised when he studied parkland that had been protected from grazing. As you can see if you look at the TED talk, some lands that were green and prosperous when a park was established and livestock was excluded, were in much worse shape thirty years later. Far from recovering in the absence of grazing, they degraded further.

Grazing good and bad

It is not a simple matter of finding the right number of animals to graze a field. More important is HOW they do it. I would think that a herd of animals spread evenly over a field would be optimal. They would nip off the top of the grass evenly, never trampling too much. But this is wrong. The grass needs to be grazed heavily and trampled down and then it needs to rest. The best thing to do is put lots of animals into concentrated areas but to move them around. Where the animals have been, it looks “overgrazed” and it would be if they stayed, but they don’t. The grass gets a chance to grow back and when it does it is stronger.

It starts to make sense when you think of how you might work your own lawn. If you just let the grass grow w/o ever cutting, raking or fertilizing, the grass gets patchy and starts to die. Grass thrives best when it is clipped down and the resulting thatch removed. Grazing animals do this and provide fertilizer in the process.

The best thing about this method of grassland restoration is that it is sustainable and profitable. This means that farmers can use it, stay in business and benefit the environment at the same time. In the long run they can graze MORE animals on the same land because the method also restores and builds soils.

Soil is the basis of all our prosperity, but we usually just treat it like dirt. A healthy soil gives us many benefits. Besides growing better plans, healthy soil can absorb water better. Pastures with strong soils resist drought better. There is another advantage important today. Strong soils sequester carbon.

Before I finish, let me make a few points clearer. First, this grazing method is used for grasslands that don’t get much rain or get rain in large doses, as in wet and dry seasons. In places where it rains all year around, such as in Western Europe or Eastern North America, you can let grazing animal just spread out. This is because the grass grows back quickly and, as importantly, the residue rots rapidly in the humid environment. Neither of these things happens in the drier places. That is why you need the grazing animals deployed in intense groups. Second, MORE animals can be grazed on the same land. It is a real win-win. Farmers and ranchers benefit directly by being sustainable. And finally, eating meat is good. In many of these drier areas, grazing animals are the most efficient makers of food. If the system is done properly, there were will more animals than the land can support. Some need to be removed and if there is not a strong market for them, farmers will be unable to support sustainability. Sustainable agriculture and strong markets are mutually supportive.

On a related topic, I saw on an article on Globo Rural about a multiple land use with cattle. On a farm in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, they divide their land into five sections. Four of the five are planted in soy. The last one is corn with grass planted under it. After the corn is harvested, they put cattle on the land to eat the grass. They move around the fields, so that every five times the field is in corn followed by cattle. This increases profits on the farm, improves that soil and reduces inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.

We really can be sustainable w/o radically changing our ways of life. Profit is not only compatible with a good environment; it is a necessity. Strong markets and sustainability go together. And clearly meat-eaters are better for the environment than vegetarians.


We are experiencing a wonderful time in Brazilian-American relations. Our priority to link American and Brazilian education networks coincides with those of Brazilians. Brazilian leaders have resources to fund their aspirations in ways previously impossible. Changing Brazilian demography and a burgeoning middle class are creating new demands for quality education and related PD items like English.  Building on work of earlier colleagues, we enjoy spectacular relations with Brazilian leaders.  In this auspicious time for public diplomacy, Mission Brazil is expanding, with two new consulates set to open within the next two years.  We have taken and extended opportunities and will continue on this path that will influence Brazilian-American relationships for generations.  

Landscape for Public Diplomacy 

Brazilians are confident in their country and its growing importance. This colors their view of the U.S.  Some anti-Americanism persists, particularly among older elites, but it is diminishing with generational change and most Brazilians have a positive view of the Americans, seeing the U.S. as Brazil’s most important partner. Millions of Brazilians entered the middle class because of the most sustained economic progress in the country’s history and innovative social programs designed to lessen inequality.  This provides insulation from boom-bust cycles that have too often affected Brazil. For the first time, a middle class makes up the majority of the Brazilians and they are demanding better government, better schools and luxuries like international travel. The population is still young, but Brazil is experiencing a rapid demographic transition, with fertility now below replacement level, providing space to improve education and social standards.  It also creates urgency, since Brazilian leaders know that they must develop the skills of the Brazilian people during a brief “demographic sweet spot,” when fewer dependent children have yet to be balanced by more dependent senior citizens. Internet is creating new channels of communications and fostering a boom in distance education.  Adult literacy is improving, expanding the universe of readers and making Brazil an exception to the rule that print is losing ground.  Brazil has become a major venue for international mega-events; it will host the Confederations Cup and the World Youth Day in 2013, FIFA World CUP in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016.  The number of official visits has increased exponentially in recent years, especially in resurgent Rio de Janeiro.  

To this generally positive picture must be added the caveat that Brazil stiff faces infrastructure deficiencies, physical, human and institutional.  An overactive political system has sometimes impeded Brazil’s economic and social development and government has been perceived as distant from the needs of civil society. The judiciary and law enforcement is not seen as meeting the demands of citizens.  This will be both a challenge and an opportunity and PD programs have addressed these issues, especially through the VV and IVLP programs.  

Mission’s Strategic Objectives 

The Mission’s top priority is creating sustainable partnerships with Brazil and other things follow from that.  The most impressive opening is in education.   The Mission is encouraging Brazilians to study in the U.S. and supporting President Obama’s 100,000 strong for Americans studying in Brazil as well as fostering institutional linkages for the long term.  This is not limited to educational linkages.   The Smithsonian Institution, for example, signed long-term cooperation agreements with Brazilian counterparts that will facilitate a myriad of partnerships.  Post is creating similar partnerships in English language and distance learning.  Within the partnership theme, the Mission is actively seeking to meet the changing Brazilian demography by engaging Brazilians where they live and in their areas of interest.  This involves outreach to new populations and geographic regions. 

Public Diplomacy Tactics in Support of Objectives 

Mission Brazil consists of the Embassy in Brasília and consulates in Rio, São Paulo and Recife, soon to be joined by Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte. Each has its particular emphasizes, but we are one Mission in priorities and programs. 

Education, English and youth outreach dominate our programming and we are making significant headway.   Our youth outreach programs include a robust Youth Ambassador program (last year nearly 17,000 applicants), a Youth Council with representatives from every Brazilian state and various specific programs, such as girls science camp and English immersion programs, as well as electronic and social media programs targeted to youth audiences. 

English competence is a big challenge for 21st Century Brazil and has been the major obstacle in the way of getting more Brazilian involvement in the U.S. and with U.S. programs.  Post is addressing this through our network of thirty–eight BNCs as well as Access programs that reach hundreds of students and boast a dropout rate of less than 4% over two years, as well as programs targeted to underserved communities, especially in Rio and Salvador.  In the last two years post went beyond this and in cooperation with the Ministry of Education (MEC) created partnerships to improve Brazilian English competency on a massive scale.  “English w/o Borders” rolled out this year.  The Mission helped inspire this strategy and works with Brazilian partners to guide.  We placed a senior English Language Fellow in the Ministry of Education to help with the implementation.  He has helped the GOB with plan to cooperate with us to bring 118 English teaching assistants to Brazil, with two going to each of the 56 Federal Universities in the country.   

In 2013, 1080 Brazilian secondary English teachers took six-week courses at U.S. universities in a cooperative Mission/MEC program and we recently signed an agreement for 1080 more in 2014.  This year MEC is testing 54,000 Brazilian students in English and provide support for them to improve sufficiently to take part in programs such as Science Mobility.  MEC expects to reach 7 million Brazilian students in the next four years, many through distance learning, another fertile area of Mission cooperation. 

U.S. Brazil education cooperation was transformed after the Brazilian President’s July 2011 announcement of the Science Mobility Program to send 101,000 Brazilian students overseas in the STEM fields. The U.S. got there first with the most, confounding our fears and perhaps expectations of competing countries that the decentralized nature of U.S. higher education would suffer in competition with ostensibly better organized centralized systems in Europe and elsewhere. The Mission’s goal in working with Brazilian partners was to make U.S. the easiest and most logical choice and quickly get qualified Brazilian students places in a broad array of U.S. schools.  More than 7000 Brazilians have gone to the U.S. on the Science Mobility Program; another roughly 5000 will go in the next months; more than 10,000 are already in process for 2014 and and tens of thousands more will go in coming years.  For comparison purposes, there were fewer than 9000 Brazilians studying in the U.S. on ALL programs and private support in 2011.   The amount of money direct deployed (not counting any multipliers) by GOB in the U.S. on the Science Mobility Program was US$ 418,715,000 as of July 10, 2013.  It is fantastic leverage for us.   

Post is now pivoting to sustainable institutional linkages by supporting visits by U.S. institutions as well as taking Brazilian education leaders to the U.S.  This is all on top of our already active educational advising and Fulbright exchange programs. 

Reaching underserved populations is a key priority that suffuses all PD programs, specifically through focus on JAPER and support for favela pacification and women’s empowerment.  As Brazil is and perceives itself to be a leader in sustainable development and clean energy, post remains active in this field. 

The Mission cannot expect to get the human resources adequately to reach the “new” Brazil while keeping relationships with the still most important parts of traditional Brazil, but leveraging the great resources of the American nation is expanding our impact by creating sustainable connections.  American institutions are eager partners who often need only advice and minimal support to create connections that will last for generations.  We also reach previously inaccessible audiences using new media and taking advantage burgeoning broadband in Brazil.  

PD Brazil’s enviable problem is too many excellent opportunities. We prioritize those that involve full partnerships with Brazilian institutions and government, use our local expertise and flexibility, and provide significant leverage to produce outstanding results.  These may not look like traditional programming, i.e. bringing a speaker or placing an article.  Building on the great networks constructed by our predecessors, we have been able to concentrate efforts where they are most effective. We think this is the bright future of PD in Brazil.  

Wood: sustainable fuel of the past/future

It is an exciting time to be in the biofuels industry and all forest owners are now in. In the last five years, the situation for forest producers in the southern U.S. had changed dramatically. Within easy driving distance (and so market distance) of my farms, three pellet mills have recently opened. Couple this with a probable return of demand for structural timber, plus the decision of utilities like Dominion Power to substitute wood chips for some coal and things are looking good.

I participated in an online seminar about the growing demand for wood pellets, sponsored by “Biomass Magazine” and learned some interesting things. Wood pellets represent an old technology. People use them for home heating. It has not been a very sexy part of the market because, unlike solar, wood pellet use tended to be concentrated among poorer parts of the population, especially ordinary folks in rural areas. The most important reason for this was availability. Wood pellets are bulky and so shipping them far from the forests they came from was cost prohibitive and unlike solar or wind power, which would also be cost prohibitive w/o subsidies, pellets got few breaks from governments. But that has changed.

The European Union wants to get 20% of its power generation to renewables by 2020. There is no way this can be done by ramping up solar and wind, even in the most optimistic scenarios. Only woody biomass can get them to their targets. Even in Germany, with its enormous subsidies for solar and wind power, 38% of non-fossil fuel energy is generated by wood & in Europe as a whole, about half of all renewable power comes from various incarnations of wood (sticks, chips, pellets or sawdust). In fact, good old-fashioned wood has been the chief beneficiary of renewable energy mandates and its role will grow for at least another quarter century. Europe consumed 13 million tons of wood pellets in 2012 and demand is expected to rise to 25m-30m a year by 2020.

The big practical advantage of wood is that it can be used in existing power generators and substituted for coal w/o major renovations and with only two caveats. The big differences between wood and coal have to do with its energy density and reaction to water. Wood is only about 2/3 as energy dense as coal, so more bulk is required. Coal is also essentially waterproof. It can get rained on for days and still burn just as well. Wood has to be kept dry. These disadvantages can be addressed. The bigger “problem” for the Europeans is that they cannot produce enough wood to meet their own energy demand. American forests have come to the rescue.

The southern U.S. sustainably produces enough wood every year to fuel as many generator plants as the Europeans are likely to convert to wood in the next twenty-five years. We have several advantages in being the big suppliers. Logistically, it is inexpensive and easy to move wood pellets from the eastern U.S. to Europe. Our forests are near roads and railroads that lead to ports that can take bulk cargoes. Once on board ship, it is about a ten day voyage to Europe. Sea transportation is efficient and cheap. Another important reason is that American forests are managed for sustainability.

Most of our forests have third party certification through organizations such as the American Tree Farm System, the world’s oldest third party certification & the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the biggest forest certification program in the U.S..

Most of the wood used for pellets comes from “round wood,” i.e. stems too small to be used for lumber and or residue from logging operations. Some of this was/is used for pulp and paper, but that market has been declining.

Let me make the point that healthy forests MUST be thinned. If the trees grow too close together, you invite insect pests and all the trees grow more slowly and are not as healthy. There has never been a time since the last ice age when North American forests were not “managed” by humans. Native Americans regularly burned forests and so forests in Virginia in 1607 tended to be more open, i.e. fewer trees per acres and less understory, than they are today. We have learned to manage forests much better in recent decades, using good thinning techniques and proper use of fire. Most pine ecosystems are fire dependent and trees like oak and hickory require some fire in order to regenerate. Intelligent thinning of trees and some grazing can substitute for fire in some cases and is desirable where fire dangers are high.

Strong markets and sustainable forestry are mutually supportive. Forest owners rarely can afford to do good management if they cannot find a market for their forest products. If you just “let it grow” it will grow poorly, invaded by exotic bugs and invasive species, and be prone to disastrous fires, as well as devastating insect attacks.

Our goal is to protect biodiversity, preserve wildlife habitat & safeguard water quality while we sustainably harvest our trees and promptly regenerate the forests. To do that, we need help from markets and reasonable public policies. I don’t know enough about the relative value of pellets versus coal in an economic sense to voice a strong opinion. But in the ecological world, it is a great initiatives, not only or even primarily because it replaces a polluting fuel like coal, but because it helps us manage our forests the way they should be managed, the way we want to manage.

BTW – Americans forests sequester about 12% of the CO2 produced U.S. industry, cars and homes. Well managed forests do it better, not only in the wood, but also in soils.  Wood is good.