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Food for thought

Food for thought

Leander Jones looks at the role of community supported agriculture as a 21st-century antidote to the destructive and increasingly fragile corporate agricultural model

Members of the Basta community supported agriculture collective working the farm. Image courtesy of Hof Basta.

In the past few decades fundamental flaws in the global food system have been increasingly thrust into the public eye. The rise of industrial agriculture – combining increased use of fertilisers and pesticides with aesthetics-focused crop modification and long-distance transportation – has led to devastation of the environment and turbocharged an extractive model that thrives on exploitation of the world’s producers. The relentless quest to maximise production – and profits – per acre is destroying the very land on which this production depends. It is akin to setting your house on fire to save on energy bills.

The fragility of food systems is being exposed by the Covid-19 crisis as global production and transportation have been rocked. The UN Food and Agriculture programme has warned of ‘biblical’ famine threatening hundreds of millions of people.

Making space

Alternative models of non-industrial food production have historical roots stretching back decades and are numerous in their iterations. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one example. As a practice it seeks to connect consumers directly with producers, with the aim of fostering community, creating fair exchange and sharing risks. The idea’s growth and popularity correlates with the rise of environmentalism.

Basta (‘Enough’ in Italian) is a CSA collective that has been running since 2013 near Berlin. The founders, Anna and Olli, bought a plot of land with the help of the Kulturland Genossenschaft (Cultivated Land Cooperative), in which small producers pool their resources to buy land and take it off the market. Individual farmers pay a yearly tariff back to Kulturland, while the land is owned in common.

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

How our food choices cut into forests and put us closer to viruses

How our food choices cut into forests and put us closer to viruses

As the global population has doubled to 7.8 billion in about 50 years, industrial agriculture has increased the output from fields and farms to feed humanity. One of the negative outcomes of this transformation has been the extreme simplification of ecological systems, with complex multi-functional landscapes converted to vast swaths of monocultures.

From cattle farming to oil palm plantations, industrial agriculture remains the greatest driver of deforestation, particularly in the tropics. And as agricultural activities expand and intensify, ecosystems lose plants, wildlife and other biodiversity.

The permanent transformation of forested landscapes for commodity crops currently drives more than a quarter of all global deforestation. This includes soy, palm oil, beef cattle, coffee, cocoa, sugar and other key ingredients of our increasingly simplified and highly processed diets.

The erosion of the forest frontier has also increased our exposure to infectious diseases, such as Ebolamalaria and other zoonotic diseases. Spillover incidents would be far less prevalent without human encroachment into the forest.

We need to examine our global food system: Is it doing its job, or is it contributing to forest destruction and biodiversity loss — and putting human life at risk?

What are we eating?

The food most associated with biodiversity loss also tends to also be connected to unhealthy diets across the globe. Fifty years after the Green Revolution — the transition to intensive, high yielding food production reliant on a limited number of crop and livestock species — nearly 800 million people still go to bed hungry; one in three is malnourished; and up to two billion people suffer some sort of micronutrient deficiency and associated health impacts, such as stunting or wasting.

Forest cut down for an agricultural field
A large soy field cuts into the forest in Brazil. (Shutterstock)

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

Weeds: Real Nutrition, For Free

Weeds: Real Nutrition, For Free

If you’re walking over chickweed and dandelion in your lawn or ignoring a nettle patch by the garden wall as you hop in the car and drive to the grocery store and pharmacy, you’re passing up opportunities for a quality of nutrition that no supermarket or pharmacy can ever provide.

When our grandparents were told, “eat your veggies,” that was good advice. But nowadays there are veggies, and then there are other veggies. In terms of nutrition, they’re not all created equal.
Imagine a graph that measures nutrition. At the bottom there is very little nutrition, and at the top there’s lots.

Nutrition
Image by author, Kate Martignier

On this graph, I’d place supermarket vegetables at the bottom, heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs from home gardens, community gardens, and small, diverse farms in the middle, and wild/undomesticated plants (many of them known as “weeds) at the top.

Supermarket Veggies – Seriously Lacking In Variety And Nutrition

The food plants we see in the supermarket represent a tiny sliver of all the food plants available to us.

There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food.

Plants for a Future

Besides being a very narrow representation of the plant foods available to us, supermarket vegetables are the least nutritious veggies you could be eating. They almost (through no fault of their own) shouldn’t be called by the same name.

Most likely you already know all the reasons why, but just in case, two of the main reasons supermarket vegetables are unable to do a good job of nourishing us are:

  • they’re bred for appearance and keeping ability over nutrition, vigor, or anything else remotely useful, and

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

 

 

 

Dead Zones: Industrial Agriculture versus Ocean Life

Dead Zones: Industrial Agriculture versus Ocean Life

Worldwide, there are now over a thousand coastal areas where fish can’t breathe. The nitrogen that makes crops grow is also destroying offshore ecosystems.

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.” —Frederick Engels 

Talk about bad timing. This year’s Shelfwide Hypoxia Cruise, the annual scientific expedition that measures oxygen-depleted waters off the Louisiana coast, started on July 25, just after Hurricane Hanna raged through the area. High winds and waves continued through the cruise, thoroughly mixing the water column: high-oxygen surface waters were forced deep, and low-oxygen bottom waters were pushed off the continental shelf.

As a result, the official area of year’s dead zone is 5,048 square kilometers, the third-smallest since surveys began in 1985. Future charts and graphs will require a footnote, explaining that weather conditions produced a misleading result.

Northern Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone after Hurricane Hanna, July 2020.[1]

If the survey had been done a week earlier, or a couple of weeks later, the low-oxygen area would likely have been three or four times as large, because the conditions that deplete oxygen on the continental shelf haven’t changed.

#  #  #

In the summer of 1972, an environmental assessment study for a proposed oil facility off the coast of Louisiana found something unexpected — an area below the surface, where the water contained little or no oxygen. In waters that had long supported a large and profitable fishing industry, there were areas where fish couldn’t breathe.

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

Slaughter of the Innocents: COVID-19 & the Future of Agriculture

Slaughter of the Innocents: COVID-19 & the Future of Agriculture

Above: Massive cattle operation in Imperial County, California [Photo by the author]

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It’s early days yet, but the COVID-19 pandemic has already proven to be revelatory, exposing much that is ugly about the “normal” functioning of the US: the sorry state of health care, the unresponsiveness of corporate-owned government, the hyper individuality of the populace, the high levels of ignorance among the same, and the racism of the entire system.

Regarding that lattermost point: This nation was founded by white Europeans who stole the land from the Indigenous and then built wealth with African slaves, and guess who’s doing the worst in this pandemic? The Native Americans and the Blacks. And look who’s protesting the loudest to get things “back to normal”: Whites, many of them with Confederate flags. Let that sink in.

Agriculture was at the heart of the settler colonialism: The land was seized for farming and the people were kidnapped to work the fields. From brutal beginnings, the situation has only worsened, especially in the last few decades. Small-scale, family-farming à la Old MacDonald is the stuff of myth at this point, with precious few exceptions. Pesticide use is up, ground-water levels are down, top soil is blowing away, wildlife biodiversity is shrinking, and human workers are abused.

Corporate ownership of the means of food production has led to concentrated ownership, de-localization, and supply chains that are brittle in response to stress. A handful of corporate giants (in fact, only four) have gobbled up most of the US meat industry.

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

Why Gardening Starts With Growing Good Soil

Why Gardening Starts With Growing Good Soil

For two months now, we’ve been advising readers to “grow a garden” in response to the covid-19 pandemic.

We’re recommending that for a number of reasons.

Food security is the primary one. Domestically, several of the small number of concentrated players in our Big Ag food supply chain have been forced to shutter production facilities due to infected employees. Internationally, we’re seeing emerging evidence that countries are preparing for “national food hoarding”, as Chris wrote about last week.

Gardening is good for your physical health, offering exercise and getting you out into the sun and fresh air — all of which are correlated with lower risk of contracting the coronavirus. It’s also beneficial for your mental health, engaging you in a productive pursuit while offering time for reflection and for communion with nature.

Great, many of those inexperienced with gardening may be thinking, But how do I get started?

We’ve got some great resources here on the site. You can start by reading our DIY instructions for creating a raised bed garden, or by reading our Agriculture & Permaculture forum thread and asking questions of the many knowledgeable gardeners there.

But whether you’re new to gardening or not, your success is rooted (pardon the pun) in appreciating that to grow healthy plants you first need to grow healthy soil.

Perhaps the top soil experts in the world are Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, owners and operators of Singing Frogs Farm — world famous for their nature-based yet innovative approach to farming, in which no tilling of any kind is done to the soil. No pesticide/herbicide/fungicide sprays (organic or otherwise) are used. And the only fertilizer used is natural compost.

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

Small farms don’t produce most the of the worlds food – but they could produce all

Small farms don’t produce most the of the worlds food – but they could produce all

Recently, I wrote an article about how difficult it is to survive as a commercial smallholder and floated some ideas of why that is and what can be done about it. I want to follow up with two articles. This one is about the production capacity of small farms and the next one will be on labor productivity and its implications for the space of consumption for small holder farmers and its capacity to generate surplus labor for other societal purposes. 
I often see the claim that peasants/small farms/small holders/family farms produce seventy percent of all the food in the world. The 70 figure originates from a report by the ETC Groups in 2009, Who Will Feed Us? Questions for the Food and Climate Crises. The original has been revised and the current version from 2017 states that the ”ETC Group estimates about 70% of the population – 4.5–5.5 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people – depend on the Peasant Food Web for most or all of their food”. 

While I am a small farmer myself and very sympathetic to the future of small farms in a similar way as the ETC group, I think it is important to have the facts straight. To begin with, the poorest 70% consume a lot less than 70% of the food in the world, as people in the richer countries, who mainly depend on the industrial food chain consume a lot more food per capita.  Notably, the ETC report says that 70% of the population depend on the peasant food web for most or all of their food. This is not at all the same as  that peasants produce 70% of the food as ”to depend on” doesn’t mean that all their foods come from this food web.

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

Climate crisis needs radical food changes

Climate crisis needs radical food changes

The entire food system needs to change, researchers say. 

From farm to fork, agriculture fuels global heating. Can the world eat well, but stay a little cooler? That will need radical food changes.

LONDON, 3 July, 2019 – To feed 9 billion people by 2050, and keep planet Earth from overheating, will mean massive and radical food changes – and not just in the way food is grown.

To contain global temperatures to no more than 2°C above the average for most of human history will require humanity to change its diet, contain its appetite and reform the entire system of food production and distribution.

This is the verdict of the latest study of the challenge set in Paris in 2015, when 195 nations promised to limit global warming – driven by profligate use of fossil fuels and by the conversion of forest, grassland and wetlands into commercial use – to “well below” 2°C by 2100.

Researchers report in the journal Sustainability that they looked at 160 studies and analyses of global agriculture and food systems and most closely at the world’s smallholders and markets that sustain as many as 2.5 billion people, mostly in the developing world.

Farming’s massive impact

Small farmers account for about a third of global agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, but these include also many of the people most vulnerable to the coming climate crisis, which is likely to put harvests at hazard on a global scale.

Agriculture, together with forestry and changes in land use, accounts for a quarter of all the carbon dioxide, methane and oxides of nitrogen that fuel global warming.

Just on its own, the action of growing grain, fruit and vegetables or feeding grazing animals accounts for no more than 12% of global warming, but a third of all the food that leaves the farm gate is wasted before it arrives on the supper table.

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

‘Finally!’: Court Orders EPA to Stop Stalling Potential Ban on Pesticide Tied to Brain Damage in Kids

‘Finally!’: Court Orders EPA to Stop Stalling Potential Ban on Pesticide Tied to Brain Damage in Kids

“We hope Trump’s EPA finally decides to protect the future of countless children and the health of millions of farmworkers.”

child eats strawberry

American farmers use chlorpyrifos, a pesticide tied to brain and nervous system issues, on crops such as apples, broccoli, corn, and strawberries. (Photo: Stephanie Chapman/Flickr/cc)

In a ruling welcomed by public health advocates, a federal court on Friday ordered the Trump administration to stop stalling a potential ban on a pesticide linked to brain damage in children, giving regulators until mid-July to make a final decision.

“While we are moving forward, the tragedy is that children are being exposed to chlorpyrifos, a pesticide science has long shown is unsafe.”
—Patti Goldman, Earthjustice

Citing unacceptable health risks for children, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endedhousehold use of chlorpyrifos in 2000. However, farmers can still use the pesticide—which is also tied to nervous system problems in people and animals—on crops such as apples, broccoli, corn, and strawberries.

The unanimous ruling (pdf) Friday from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit is the latest development in a drawn out court battle between the EPA—which blocked a planned agricultural ban on chlorpyrifos in 2017—and the anti-pesticide, environmental, and farmworkers organizations who disagreed with that decision.

Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman, who represents the groups fighting to ban the pesticide from foods, commended the court for its ruling in a statement Friday.

“While we are moving forward, the tragedy is that children are being exposed to chlorpyrifos, a pesticide science has long shown is unsafe,” she said. “We hope Trump’s EPA finally decides to protect the future of countless children and the health of millions of farmworkers.”

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

The Failures of Farming and the Necessity of Wildtending

The Failures of Farming and the Necessity of Wildtending

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume came through Saint Paul late last year and I will never forget his eye contact. It was steady and intimate. He was unafraid of what judgements lay on the other side. I tried my best to keep it, but rather sheepishly, turned away more times than I would have liked. It is dismaying when you find out how much distance you have created in your modern world, when even the child’s act of looking upon another while in conversation presents itself as a trying practice. Kollibri had the ease of someone close to himself—he was never retreating into his iPhone screen, but instead letting his thoughts flow from the inside-out. If all of this sounds elementary, I am happy for the reader, for they have found some connection that is uninterrupted.

I bring this up largely to tie it the larger theme of Kollibri’s book The Failures of Farming and the Necessity of Wildtending, both in its message and its tone. One glides through the cheerful prose with the ease of someone who has smoked the right amount of weed, even as Kollibri confronts the weed industry itself and its environmental impacts. The question the book begins with is a large one—and one much debated before. Are we happier, and better off now, then we ever have been? If we are, that is a little bit horrifying, and it should be no cause to celebrate our own dismal times, but to despair over the rest of time spent. 

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

Why did local go global?

Why did local go global? 

When discussing the food system, I find that few seem to understand why the system is like it is. Some discuss the system in a way where it sounds like Big, Bad and Ugly corporations made the system into what it is today, and all we have to do is to decide that we want a local food system instead. But that view is underestimating the drivers of the economy. My own experiences in food processing and farming has made me understand that the workings of competition (“the market”) is the main factor influencing how and where production takes place. 

Some thirtyfive years ago, the farm where I lived, Torfolk, wanted to pursue the value addition of local resources and we started making jam out of local berries. First we picked lingonberries – a North European berry similar to cranberries – ourselves in the forest. But quite soon we reverted to buying from pickers. But the buckets were full of bad berries, leaves, twigs and droppings from roe deer so we had to spend a lot of time cleaning them. We converted an old grain cleaning machine, but when the berries were really ripe and soft, they were mashed inside the machine, and it was impossible to get them clean. In addition, one of us got an involuntary exotic haircut, when leaning too close to the fan of the cleaner. Next solution was to buy from a local berry trader who had a purposely built lingonberry cleaner. But also with this one we had quality problems and ended up having to pick many leaves by ourselves. In addition, as most berry pickers know, the berries don’t grow equally well every year, there is frost in the florescence, it is too dry, too rainy or there is a pest, so we could not rely on the local berries alone. And neither could the local berry cleaning operation, so it closed down. 

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

Ecological Civilization: Could China Become a Model for Saving the Earth?

Ecological Civilization: Could China Become a Model for Saving the Earth?

Peasant and industrialized agriculture facing each other — in China. Painting gifted to me by Ye Jingzhong, China Agricultural University, Beijing, China. Photo: E.G. Vallianatos.

Industrialized agriculture is threatening humanity with catastrophe. It feeds global warming and dissolves societies. In addition, its pesticides contaminate and poison drinking water and food.

Undoing rural America

I reached this conclusion from working for the US Environmental Protection Agency for twenty-five years. I summarized my experience in my 2014 book, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA. This essay reflects my knowledge from that experience.

The industrialization of agriculture did massive damage to rural America, turning most of that beautiful land into medieval plantations. Instead of millions of small family farmers, we now have a few thousand large corporate farmers in charge of rural America and the growing of most food. Democracy and human and environmental health suffered a severe blow. Money and power triumphed.

Catching up

Like many countries, China is trying to catch up with the agricultural superpower illusion of America. Yes, America produces huge amounts of food, but at unsustainable and catastrophic costs and consequences.

There are non-toxic alternatives to coaxing more from an acre of land.

In the United States, the alternative to chemical farming has the name of “organic” agriculture. In the European Union, the alternative is “biological” agriculture. These alternatives are sophisticated modifications of traditional agriculture. They produce and sell food without using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering, sludge, and radiation. But like industrialized farming, the organic-biological alternatives ignore the size of farms, the plight of farm workers, the kind and size of farm machinery, the use of petroleum and petroleum products like plastics.

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

Managing without Growth. Slower by Design, not Disaster

Managing without Growth. Slower by Design, not Disaster

Book cover

It took homo sapiens some 200,000 years to reach the first billion by about 1800. In just the 10 years separating the first and second edition of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster, the human population increased by the same amount putting increased pressure on an already crowded planet. In the past decade the global use of resources spiked upwards, greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase, income and wealth inequality rose to the highest levels in half a century, the global financial system almost crashed, and mammal, bird and insect populations declined markedly because of increased deforestation and industrialized agriculture. So, while material living standards of the poorest rose, mostly in China, which is something to celebrate, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned about what lies ahead. Humanity’s grossly unequal ecological footprints greatly exceed the Earth’s regenerative biocapacity and it is doubtful whether the planet can support the continued economic growth to which virtually all of the world’s governments are committed.  Can we do better?

The opening chapters of this updated, revised, and expanded second edition Managing without Growth tell how the recent idea of economic growth emerged from the idea of progress, itself only a few hundred years old. There are many reasons for questioning growth as a key economic policy objective supported in the book based on extensive data as well as on conceptual and methodological considerations.  Critical attention is given to the commodification of nature through monetization. ‘Natural’ capital captures the spirit of the times, but it can hardly be said to capture the spirit of nature.

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

Land Grabbers: the Threat of Giant Agriculture

Land Grabbers: the Threat of Giant Agriculture

In the 1980s, I met a retired general at a Borders bookstore in northern Virginia. He used to buy tons of military history books. I used to buy environmental and classics books. We started talking about books. But, slowly, in our discussion of Latin America, I criticized American policies, especially the immoral support of  landlords against landless peasants.

“If I knew you a few years ago, I would take you outside the town and shoot you,” he said to me.

I dismissed this vicious threat as a sign the old man was crazy. But the threat, nevertheless, mirrors the invisible war around farming, food, and the environment. I felt the tension of that ceaseless war for decades.

Agrarian reform

In January 28 – February 1, 1992, I was attending an international climate and development conference in Brazil. I was one of the speakers addressing agrarian reform.

I argued that it was necessary for governments and international institutions to protect peasant farmers from the violence of large industrialized farmers. Moreover, Brazil and many other countries, including the United States, should give land to peasants and very small family farmers because the farming they practice has had negligible impact on climate change. In contrast, agribusiness and, especially animal farms, are having significant effects on global warming.

Taking this position in 1992, apparently, was controversial. Once at the conference in the gorgeous city of Fortaleza, Ceara, Northeast Brazil, I learned I would not be delivering my paper. Instead, I joined a few professors in a small room wasting our time: debating agrarian reform and drawing recommendations destined to oblivion.

Fear in the countryside

This is just one example of what happens to unwelcomed ideas. Governments ignore or suppress them. Powerful media refuse to publish them. Advocates of those ideas often abandon them. Sometimes, they risk death.

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

Unlike a Globalized Food System, Local Food Won’t Destroy the Environment

Unlike a Globalized Food System, Local Food Won’t Destroy the Environment

If you’re seeking some good news during these troubled times, look at the ecologically sound ways of producing food that have percolated up from the grassroots in recent years. Small farmers, environmentalists, academic researchers and food and farming activists have given us agroecology, holistic resource management, permaculture, regenerative agricultureand other methods that can alleviate or perhaps even eliminate the global food system’s worst impacts: biodiversity loss, energy depletion, toxic pollution, food insecurity and massive carbon emissions.

These inspiring testaments to human ingenuity and goodwill have two things in common: They involve smaller-scale farms adapted to local conditions, and they depend more on human attention and care than on energy and technology. In other words, they are the opposite of industrial monocultures — huge farms that grow just one crop.

But to significantly reduce the many negative impacts of the food system, these small-scale initiatives need to spread all over the world. Unfortunately, this has not happened, because the transformation of farming requires shifting not just how food is produced, but also how it is marketed and distributed. The food system is inextricably linked to an economic system that, for decades, has been fundamentally biased against the kinds of changes we need.

Put simply, economic policies almost everywhere have systematically promoted ever-larger scale and monocultural production. Those policies include:

  • Massive subsidies for globally traded commodities. Most farm subsidies in the US, for example, go to just five commodities — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice — that are the centerpieces of global food trade. At the same time, government programs — like the US Market Access Program — provide hundreds of millions of dollars to expand international markets for agriculture products.

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

 

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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