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Food & agriculture - Aug 8

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Food prices would soar in biofuels switch, says Unilever

Carl Mortished, UK Times
BRITAIN faces soaring food prices, a shortage of staple foods and declining public health if the Government pushes ahead with plans to promote the use of biofuels, the UK’s biggest food producer has given warning.

Unilever fears that Europe-wide plans for a huge increase in use of vegetable oils, such as rapeseed and palm oil, in the manufacture of road fuels will have dramatic consequences, driving up the cost of foods such as margarine and leading consumers to switch to less healthy animal fats.

Huge efforts are being made to promote biodiesel amid concern over the rising cost of oil and reliance on the Middle East for supplies. The European Commission wants to increase the proportion of biofuel used in road transport from current levels of 0.8 per cent to 5.75 per cent by 2010.

However, Alan Jope, Unilever vice-president, fears that the rush to convert food crops into transport fuel will have unintended consequences. He said: “The scale is dramatic. To meet current EU quotas would require between 50 and 80 per cent of rapeseed production. Ultimately, there could be supply shortages.”
(7 Aug 2006)

Chez Kaiser's food revolution
Hospital experiment putting locally grown produce on patients' plates

Carol Ness, SF Chronicle
...About 10 farmers, with a focus on ethnic minorities, will send about a half-dozen crops straight to Kaiser's central kitchen over the next six months. Their names won't appear on Kaiser patients' menu cards, a la Chez Panisse -- at least not yet -- but that's in the works if the plan takes off.

The results of Kaiser's experiment will answer a question vital to the future of sustainable agriculture, and to the livelihood of small farmers in California and across America:

Can an institution the size of Kaiser Permanente adopt the Chez Panisse model of buying locally and from many smaller sustainable farms -- without busting the budget or bogging down its production of 5,000 to 6,000 inpatient meals every day for 19 Northern California hospitals?

If the pilot program works, Kaiser plans to expand it systemwide and also put it into place in its staff and visitor cafeterias.

Other large institutions eager to catch the sustainable wave are watching closely, including Stanford University, UCSF Medical Center and UC Berkeley, as well as food service outfits like Bon Appetit, which feeds Google and other companies.

"It's a baby step, but it feels to me like a big step," said Dr. Preston Maring, a Kaiser-Oakland gynecologist and administrator who started what he says was the first hospital-based farmers' market in 2003 (Kaiser now has 30) and is responsible for initiating the small-farm pilot program.

"We're big enough, and we order enough food" that Kaiser can make a difference, Maring said.

To understand what makes Vang's cherry tomatoes a big deal to Kaiser requires a plunge into the global produce economy and the modern wholesaling system that delivers most tomatoes, broccoli and carrots to consumers.
(5 Aug 2006)
Small farms aim for "right niche" (Seattle Times)
An organic foods dilemma: They're mass-produced by agribiz but better than eating poisons (SF Chronicle)

Micropropagation and Sustainability

Brandon Keim, WorldChanging
Paramutation research is a good example of a sensibly worldchanging approach to understanding plant genetics. Subtle comprehension, however, isn't always sexy. Sometimes folks want that sci-fi lab of the future. They want action. Intervention and tweaking and hacking. Others want a complete abandonment of the technology. And while splicing genes between species isn't a good approach to GE, neither do agricultural biotechs need to be totally hands-off to be responsible.

One approach that retains some of GE's glamour is micropropagation. A few cells are taken from a plant -- one that is, say, particularly disease-resistant, or thrives in a certain climate -- and grown in a dish. Samples can be taken from the new plant, grown in their own dishes, and so on, eventually producing a population identical to the original and ready to be moved from lab to field.

Micropropagation is widely used in much of the developing world, especially Asia: it's produced low-disease, high-yield potatoes in Vietnam and India and Kenya. It's also being used to conserve rare plant species.

Micropropagation is not problem-free. It's important to have a deep, detailed undertanding of each original plant. Otherwise, the result is an identically flawed population. Identical plants are vulnerable to the same things, making monocultures prone to catastrophically widespread failures -- so it's essential to cultivate a variety of plants. But farmers actually do the micropropagation work themselves, breeding their own favorite strains. This increases genetic diversity, promotes the development of locale-specific crops, and doesn't make farmers rely on agbiotech giants. Both economically and scientifically, micropropagation beats GE.
(7 Aug 2006)

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