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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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We still need alternatives to supermarkets – perhaps now more than ever

If you were a child in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you will remember that food shopping meant traipsing round several specialist shops whilst your mother chatted to the knowledgeable shop staff about what was available that week. But even by then, this way of buying food was already in decline. In March 1948, the London Co-operative Society had opened Britain’s first fully self-service store in Manor Park, East London. And this changed everything.

The massive expansion and dominance of supermarkets has had profound impacts on most aspects of our lives, sometimes positively, but certainly not always. By 2019, the traditional independent retailers made up just 5% of the entire food sector.

2019 share of UK food market:

The rise of the supermarkets had a devastating impact on the local independent specialist food shops.

Butchers – in 1960, there were some 43,000 butcher’s shops in the UK; by 2019, it was nearer 6,000.

Fishmongers – in the late 1940s, there were around 8,000 fishmongers, and today there are about 950.

Greengrocers – from 43,000 in 1950, by 2018 there were 2,500.

And, as the national economy grew, so the average proportion of household income we spent on food dwindled from 33% in 1957 to 16% in 2019, although this masks significantly higher proportions for low income families.

Food as a Social Event

Past generations had a far better understanding of how their food was produced than we do and eating together was a major social event to be savoured. Being the first industrialised country, in the UK we have had more time to lose the folk memory of rural life and producing food, and with it the social aspect of eating together as families…

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Who eats local food?

The question of who eats local food is a tricky one to pin down.

There is first the question of what constitutes ‘local food’ – if you’re a farmer raising grass-fed beef or lamb in Wales that you then sell across country, most people would say that’s local enough; but what if you sold across the UK? How about the local jam producer that sells locally at farmers’ markets in their region but buys in fruit from Spain to make the jam? It’s something of a conundrum. You’ll also find that distance is yet another variable – many would agree that ‘local’ in the UK is within 50 miles, but in a big country like the US, food 500 miles away can also be ‘local’. So, it’s complicated and to a certain extent, how we define it may be idiosyncratic and particular to how each individual feels about the food they are eating.

‘Local food’ also suffers from an image problem – it’s assumed to be niche, more expensive and the purview of the upper middle-classes. A number of years ago, food critic Jay Rayner had a notable go at farmers’ markets, touting them as selling ‘over-priced fare’ as a ‘status symbol’, angering Welsh food producers. But ‘local food’ isn’t what many people posit it is – I know, because I’m a local food producer. While my evidence is inevitably anecdotal, I know we feed a diverse range of people. We run a box scheme serving well over 100 households and also do a weekly producer’s market in Newport, Pembrokeshire. The people who buy from us are anything but uniform in terms of their demographic make-up – I say this because we know a lot of our customers…

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What does a global pandemic mean for a global food system?

What does a global pandemic mean for a global food system?

In the last few weeks, we have all experienced the impact that COVID-19 has had on food supplies. With supermarkets picked clean, many are wondering whether this is a short-term reaction to the crisis or a prelude to more significant shortages as global trade grinds to a halt. Uncertainty about food availability could spark a wave of export restrictions, resulting in shortages on the global market and price spikes.

Already, there is increased price volatility due to the perceived likelihood of trade restrictions, with wheat prices climbing 8% and rice prices by 25%. Of even greater concern is Nigeria, where rice prices increased by more than 30% at the beginning of the outbreak in March in response to panic purchasing. This volatility, coupled with the domestic restrictions that many nations have placed on their citizens to control the spread of the disease, has led to worrying developments around the world, particularly in the Global South. In Zimbabwe, police confiscated and burned three tons of fruits and vegetables from farmers who had broken movement restrictions, while a stampede broke out at a food distribution centre in Nairobi, resulting in numerous injuries.

In order to head it off at the pass, the WTOWHO and FAO put out a joint statement encouraging countries not to limit their exports of food. The joint statement by their respective Directors-General highlighted the fact that ‘millions of people around the world depend on international trade for their food security and livelihoods,’ and continued to say that, ‘now is the time to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition and improving the general welfare of people around the world’.

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Beware of the N-bomb

Beware of the N-bomb

There are good, and frightening, reasons to closely follow the changes in the nitrogen cycle. We should not be surprised if the effects and costs of disturbing it turn out to be as dramatic as those for the carbon cycle. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizers are around 3% of global emissions, but they are not visible in greenhouse gas inventories. The abolition or drastic reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers is a pre-condition for a sustainable food system.

In farming, the availability of nutrients, particularly of nitrogen, potash and phos­phorus – mostly referred to by their chemical symbols N, P and K – is a major limiting factor. All traditional farming systems have had some strategy for replacing nutrients in the soil. One is to rest the soil and allow a natural re-charge and release of nutrients from the soil and through atmospheric decomposition. Crop rotations with leguminous crops can fix nitrogen from the air and the nutritional demands of the various crops can complement each other. Phosphorous, from deeper layers or bound in the soil, can be ‘mined’ by some crops making it available to others. Nutrients can also come from irrigation water (especially sediments in flood waters), animal manure, human waste, plants, grass and other residues, a plethora of natural organic fertil­izers. Farmers have used oil-cakes, feathers, leathers, bone, sea weed and fish as fertilizers. There are even reports that human remains from battlefields and ossuaries have been used as fertilizers. Yet all these methods have some limitations, and in most cases they require a lot of work or other efforts.

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Scientists: The Globe’s Food Supply System Is Broken

Scientists: The Globe’s Food Supply System Is Broken

The world’s science academics are saying that the global food supply system is completely broken. They say that in order to avoid a “climate catastrophe” the global population should overhaul the farming system and eat less meat.

Billions of people worldwide are either underfed or overweight. The current food system fails to properly nourish all of these people. And that is currently driving the planet towards a climate catastrophe, according to 130 national academies of science and medicine across the world. More than 820 million people went hungry last year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, while a third of all people did not get enough vitamins. At the same time, 600 million people were classed as obese and 2 billion overweight, with serious consequences for their health. On top of this, more than 1 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year, a third of the total produced.

“The global food system is broken,” said Tim Benton, professor of population ecology, at the University of Leeds, who is a member of one of the expert editorial groups which produced the report. He said the cost of the damage to human health and the environment was much greater than the profits made by the farming industry. “Whether you look at it from a human health, environmental or climate perspective, our food system is currently unsustainable and given the challenges that will come from a rising global population that is a really [serious] thing to say,” Benton said.

And while these are all horrible problems, without vast reductions in individual freedom and liberty (such as the liberty to decide what to eat and how much) the problem won’t resolve.  Solutions are, of course, more totalitarian intervention to save people from themselves.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Principles For Designing a Holistic Food System


Most people have an unconscious feeling that we can´t continue down the path we´re currently on. The supposed abundance witnessed on the shelves of our local grocery store might seem promising, but deep down we know that we can´t continue to outsource our need for food to a system that is so deeply indebted to the quickly depleting reserves of oil and other fossil fuels. We know that something needs to fundamentally change, and most of us understand that this change will most likely require us to get our own hands into the soil to begin to supply at least some of our own nutrition needs.

Before we get into the basics of how to grow your own food, it´s important to reflect on the importance of design. Growing your food in a sustainable way is much more than simply taking some seed, putting it in the ground and hoping something will grow. How we set up our gardens and fields and the principles behind our actions will largely determine if we´re successful growing an autonomous food supply.


The following principles of design are important when it comes to maintaining the fertility of the soil that grows your food:

– Whatever you take from the soil, you must put back.
– Implement cover crops, mulch, and green manure.
– Rotate your crops on a yearly basis.
– Grow a diversity of plants, not all for food.

Let´s look at each of these design ideas individually:

Whatever you take from the soil, you must put back.

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Our food system – a health hazard

Our food system – a health hazard

People get sick because they work under unhealthy conditions.
People get sick because of contaminants in the water, soil, or air.
People get sick because specific foods they eat are unsafe for consumption.

People get sick because they have unhealthy diets.
People get sick because they can’t access adequate, acceptable food at all times.

A recent report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems identifies these five mechanisms whereby the current food system makes people sick.

The report calls for a reform of the food and farming systems to be made on the grounds of protecting human health.  Many of the most severe health are caused by core industrial food and farming practices, such as chemical-intensive agriculture; intensive livestock production and the mass production and mass marketing of ultra-processed foods. They are in turn stimulated by the deregulated global trade.

Because of all interconnections in the complex food system it is not possible to always ascertain exactly the causes of a particular problem, but we know enough to act, according to the report. Even if the industrial food and farming model is not the only cause of the problems, it has clearly failed to provide solutions to them. The health effects are strongly linked to environmental effects and social issues.

It is all too convenient for the industrial food system to place the responsibility of dietary choices with the consumers, when in reality they are the choice architects and they constantly influence consumers to consume highly processed foods made from a limited range of industrial raw materials. In addition they influence both research and policy for their own benefits.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Vermont Has Developed America’s Most Comprehensive Food System Plan: How Did They Do It?

The Green Mountain State has long been a national leader in sustainable agriculture and local food.

The following excerpt is from Community Resilience Reader edited by Daniel Lerch. Copyright © 2017 Post Carbon Institute. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Everything Is at Stake, Including Steak

The burning of fossil fuels to power society—together with the clearing of carbon sinks such as forests for housing, agriculture, and other purposes—has created dangerous conditions for the resilience of food systems. Two reports from the US Department of Agriculture describe the anticipated detrimental effects of climate change on most crops, livestock, ecosystems, and human workers (these effects will vary somewhat by region):

  • Rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns will affect agricultural productivity. Crop sector impacts from weather in the United States are likely to be greatest in the Midwest, and these impacts will likely expand due to damage from crop pests. Moreover, because the impacts of climate change are global, the availability of food products that we have been accustomed to enjoying—and that US companies use as key ingredients—will diminish. For example, cocoa production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast is expected to decline, as is coffee production.

  • Livestock production systems are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and are also vulnerable to temperature stresses. Temperature stresses can be mitigated for animals raised indoors, but hotter summer temperatures may require new thermal environment control systems, and the cost and availability of animal feed will likely be a problem.

  • Climate change will exacerbate current stresses from weeds, diseases, and insect pests on plants and animals; it will also alter pollinator life cycles, which will impact all types of crop and livestock production.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Six steps back to the land

I am a great fan of Colin Tudge, not least because he is an original thinker, as amply demonstrated in his latest book, Six Steps Back to the Land. I also have direct experience in relation to his theme, since I literally got ‘back to the land’ in the 1970s. So when the editor of Resurgence & Ecologist asked me to review the book, I decided to compare my experience with Colin’s recommendations.

Before giving some hard advice for would-be sustainable food producers, Colin sets the stage for an agrarian renaissance, setting out the case and the need for fundamental changes to our food and farming systems. I am certain that he is right about the urgent need for a complete transformation of our approach to producing food. I am also of the opinion that the external conditions are better aligned for this change than at any point in my 30 years of engagement with matters of food and farming, largely because of the growth of interest amongst so-called millennials.

Colin then takes us on a journey of the issues facing our food system – why we need change, and how we can achieve it. Beginning with The road to enlightened agriculture, he looks at the challenges, including the need for “an economy fit for farming”, ideally a circular economy. He explains the principles of agro-ecology, with an emphasis on small-scale mixed farms. Finally, he explores the ways in which people can get back to the land, all illustrated with excellent case studies.

Our current neoliberal capitalist economic system is far from perfect for sustainable food production, with the economic climate favouring intensive methods and making the back-to-the-land journey unprofitable. Colin is an advocate of reform to put things right, and so am I.

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It’s the Food Economy, Stupid!

It’s the Food Economy, Stupid!

I believe Rod MacRae (shown here) is one of a handful of experts to develop a critique of today’s food system based on its bad business case and its failure to do proper scenario planning.
If you don’t like reading arithmetic, you will find his writings tough going, but as soon as you subtract that problem, it pays to keep on reading. This is powerful stuff that more food system critics need to understand.
Just to be straight about my relationship with Rod, he’s the one who taught me food math back in the mid-1990s, when I called on him to help with the economic case that Jack Layton, Gary Gallon and I were trying to make for our newfound Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery. We enjoyed our conversations so much that we decided to work on a book together, and the result was our 1999 book, Real Food for a Change, which was also co-authored by my wife, Lori Stahlbrand. If I may say so, this book was one of the first to make the case for local and sustainable food that fostered “health, joy, justice and nature.”
Subsequently, I replaced Rod as manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, and he became a consultant and popular professor of environmental studies at York University.
Apart from knowing how to add, Rod is steeped in agriculture and ag policy. We’re different on both scores. I don’t check the math on my restaurant receipts, let alone charts in articles. And I am into the city side of food.
So, apart from presenting what Rod has to offer everyone, I will throw in my own two cents worth about how a city perspective could add new dimensions to Rod’s work.
…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Monsanto’s Roundup Kills and Damages More than Weeds

Monsanto’s Roundup Kills and Damages More than Weeds

shutterstock_109675235 (1)

Protests against Monsanto’s Roundup, with its poisonous, weed-killing glyphosate, have spread around the globe. An arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a probable cause of cancer in 2015. California’s Environmental Protection Agency (CA EPA) recently decided to label it as such.

Environmental groups and activists in Northern California, a region known for its wines, advocate a moratorium on this herbicide as health concerns mount. Roundup is the world’s most widely used pesticide.

Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, was the focus of a January 28 informational event. It was initiated by the Watertrough Childrens Alliance as a fundraiser for a lawsuit against winemaker Paul Hobbs for converting an apple orchard into a vineyard adjacent to schools, thus putting the health of around 500 children at risk by spraying Roundup. The Sierra Club, Sonoma Group, co-sponsored the evening.

Sebastopol Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney welcomed a panel of three experts and around 60 people from Sonoma and Napa counties attended and moderated an active discussion. Attorney Jonathan Evans of the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, organizer Ella Teevan of the Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch (FWW), and former Petaluma Vice-Mayor and City Council member Tiffany Renee spoke.

Monsanto also makes Roundup Ready, which are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). “93% of soy beans and 80% of corn in the U.S. are grown with Monsanto GMO seeds,” reported Teevan. “Food and Water Watch wants a moratorium on more GMOs and their labeling.”

“Our food system and how we interact with our environment is broken. Instead of serving people, profit is served. We need to fix our food system,” Teevan added.

“Glyphosate has become a pervasive presence in the environment. 65% of water in some countries has traces of it,” said Evans. “Exposure can create a number of problems, including liver and kidney damage. It can even change ones DNA. Our goal is to protect health and keep these products out of the market.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

From drought to deluge: an ecological approach to California’s water crisis

From drought to deluge: an ecological approach to California’s water crisis

Mudflats, Erik Ohlson Nov 2015 article on drought
Dry creek bed in California. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is the greatest threat to human civilization and a major driver of droughts, floods, fires, food system collapse and economic destabilization. Basing our infrastructure on fossil fuel technology that is imposed upon rather than in harmony with the natural environment, we have created and exacerbated all of these crises. Most importantly, while we need to reduce consumption, we also need to fundamentally change the way we interact with each other and our planet. It is imperative to realign the needs of civilization with the sustainable management and regeneration of Earth’s natural processes.

Water is one of the greatest indicators of how far we’ve strayed from designing so much of what we build and shape to be regenerative of our environment.

In California we especially need to rectify our relationship to water. The state has been experiencing one of the greatest droughts in its history. The agricultural industry is at risk, and groundwater and public water supply regulations now affect millions of people throughout the state.

While the media focuses on larger-scale challenges, small-scale, implementable solutions seem absent from the discussion. Small-scale solutions are beautiful because they often address both drought and flood problems. With one of the strongest El Niños on record developing in the Pacific, California may see a massive deluge this winter. It could be damaging if we don’t prepare now. On the heels of a multi-year drought, flash floods and the inundation of dry, crusty soils will be especially damaging.

A sensible relationship with water is a key factor that has been missing from the management of our landscapes over the last 100+ years. The development industry thought of water as a negative that needed to be drained away lest it destroy our structures and cause flooding. This mindset must end.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Hudson Valley Harvest: Transparency is Key to Scaling Local Food

Hudson Valley Harvest: Transparency is Key to Scaling Local Food

Hudson Valley Harvest is bringing local food to larger markets through its network of small farmers.
The Hudson Valley of New York has a long, rich history of agriculture, and currently boasts more than 5,000 farms that generate upwards of US$500 million in annual revenue. However, despite the regional growth of direct-to-consumer models such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets, small farmers may still struggle to bring their products to larger buyers, such as restaurants, schools, and other institutions.

Hudson Valley Harvest, the leading local food company in the tristate area (New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey), has grown to fill this niche. Paul Alward, a farmer of 10 years, co-founded the company in 2011 with three friends who met at farmers markets in New York. According to Alward, now the chief executive officer of Hudson Valley Harvest, the company “grew organically from the market system.” Embracing transparency, traceability, and sustainability, Hudson Valley Harvest serves food stores such as Whole Foods Market and FreshDirect, and universities such as The New School in New York City.

When asked what a good food system looks like, Alward says, “I think it’s one filled with information. The most effective tool is information. Let the consumers decide.” To this end, the company emphasizes transparent labeling that not only identifies both product and producer, but also includes information on proximity and processing.

Hudson Valley Harvest has grown from about 10 partnerships with farmer friends to more than 50 farms harvesting more than 6,000 acres. Seasonality and year-round availability were big challenges at first, but by embracing technology for frozen foods and reinventing infrastructure, the company has scaled their business model and achieved greater operating efficiency. “We found very early on that, as a start-up, we weren’t built for mainstream stores right away,” says Alward. “[We therefore] went to small independent stores where the owners were present.”

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Agroecology Can Help Fix Our Broken Food System. Here’s How.

Agroecology Can Help Fix Our Broken Food System. Here’s How.

The various incarnations of the sustainable food movement need a science with which to approach a system as complex as food and farming.

Thumb through U.S. newspapers any day in early 2015, and you could find stories on President Obama’s “fast-track” plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, antibiotic scares and theworsening California drought. Economists reported on steadily rising income inequality, while minimum-wage food workers took to the picket lines. Americans fled their kitchens and Chipotle welcomed them with farm-friendly appeal. Scientists recorded the warmest winter in history.

These seemingly disconnected events have a common thread: They all are symptoms of a political economy out of kilter with the welfare of the planet and the people who live on it. They are also nestled deep in the way food is grown, distributed and consumed today. What we sometimes call the “agri-food system” is clearly broken — just ask farmworkers and food workers (exploited and underpaid), honeybees (collapsing), forested landscapes (fragmenting), the climate (warming), and the ever-growing number of people without access to nutritious food, or the land and resources with which to produce it.

“Sustainable food” attempts to heal this fragile system, and it’s been a buzzword for three decades. Its mushrooming incarnations — local, organic, biodynamic, fair trade and “slow,” among others — suggest a broad yearning for something better. But modern capitalism is wondrously efficient at disciplining outliers. It hasn’t taken much for the dynamics of competition and price to sweep countercultural ideas into the industrial mainstream, forcing enterprises in many – not all – sustainable food niches to expand in size, adopt monoculture techniques and replicate the basic model of industrial overproduction.


What some have described as “input-substitution organic,” for example, swaps out chemical inputs for biological ones. These farms are therefore marginally better in terms of pollution but have barely budged the needle on monoculture cropping, not to mention labor issues. In any of these alternatives, price is prohibitive: Most low- to middle-income earners — and this includes most workers in the food system — cannot afford to buy the fruits of this so-called food revolution. 

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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