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Food & agriculture - March 31

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Edible City: Part 1

Regine Debatty, WorldChanging
While in Belgium last week (or was it the week before?), I made a quick trip to Maastricht in The Netherlands to visit the fascinating and hugely inspiring Edible City, an exhibition currently running at the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

In this first part, I'll introduce the exhibition and have a conversation with Debra Solomon, author of Culiblog and one of the curators of Edible City. Our discussion will mainly revolve around utopian projects. In the second part of the story, I'll ask her to give us more details on some of the most interesting ongoing projects that contribute to creating a new connectedness between food and the built environment.

What is Edible City about? It's about the fact that very few city dwellers or suburbanites would be able to locate the factory where the milk from the cow ends up in a carton. And who knows the whereabouts of the abattoir where the cow ends its days? Where are our vegetables auctioned, washed, sliced and packaged?

Practically everything to do with the production and processing of food takes place out of our sight.
(30 March 2007)


Food, Climate Change and the Coming Energy Crises

Graham Stouts, Zone5
Some years ago a friend in Mayo told me she had been visited by a neighbour of hers, a farmer, who was curious to see what she was doing planting potatoes in her garden. Apparently the neighbour farmer could not understand why on earth she was going to the trouble and hard manual labour of digging beds and setting seed potatoes when they were so cheap to buy. In recent years farming has become defined more and more by the availability of grants and subsidies, and by the dictates of international trading agreements. One of the consequences of this is that individual farms are producing an ever diminishing range of products for an increasingly global market.

Greens in a garden Simultaneous to this, the home garden has become a fashion extension of manicured lawns and clipped shrubs.Growing food has become a special interest hobby or is viewed as some kind of regressive primitivism which swims against the tide of lawnmower culture now becoming prevalent in the suburbs. Across the water, the easy complacency which surrounds the supplyof food was severely tested in September of 2000 when after just a few days of a nation-wide truckers’ strike, many parts of the UK found themselves facing what has become unthinkable in modern times: a shortage of food. Once the deliveries stopped arriving, it was only a matter of days before the shelves were emptied. Since little food was produced locally, it quickly became apparent that there really was no other source of food available. Modern farming and globalised systems of trade have created a situation in which we are perilously vulnerable to political and environmental factors quite beyond our control. Unless we start taking this issue seriously and make dramatic changes to the way we think about and produce food, we are facing the increasing likelihood of food shortages and yes, famines, even in the most developed and ‘modern’ parts of the world.
(29 March 2007)
First published in Sustainability March 07.


Punishment for gluttons?

Clark Williams-Derry
..If corn prices stay high, meat, poultry, and dairy products will all get more expensive, since the animals are fed lots of corn. But more directly, stuff that's made from corn -- such as the corn flour, corn sweeteners, and corn oils that are used in all sorts of processed foods -- will get pricier too. (Sorry, donut fiends.)

So wait, does this mean that there's an upside to the rapid rise in corn prices? If junk food gets more expensive, will we eat more healthfully? Not likely. ..

My guess is that, if corn prices stay high, most folks will barely notice a change in the cost of junk food. Of course, food companies might cut back on portion sizes a bit, to help recoup profits -- and that might mean we'll wind up eating a little less junk. But still, the effect on overall consumption is likely to be so small as to be statistically unnoticeable.

On the other hand, for low-income folks -- who don't have a lot of money to spend on food -- the runup in corn prices could actually be enough to influence purchasing decisions. But here's the rub: increases in corn prices could create incentives for low-income folks to buy even more calorie dense, corn-based foods, not less. Yikes!

Yeah, that's counterintuitive. When the price of something goes up, people are supposed to buy less of it, right? Not necessarily. Economists have identified a class of goods (called Giffen goods) that do just the opposite -- as their price rises, so does consumption. ..
(28 Mar 2007)


The limits of a Green Revolution?

Mark Doyle, BBC
In the second of his series, BBC World Affairs Correspondent Mark Doyle analyses the state of food production across the globe.
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...Food output across the world increased considerably in the last four decades of the 20th Century, largely as a result of the intensive farming techniques introduced by the Green Revolution.

The new techniques involved distributing hybrid grain seeds - mainly wheat, rice and corn. The hybrids grow with a shorter stalk. This maximises the process of photosynthesis, which nourishes the grain because less energy goes into the stem.

The hybrid seeds were combined with the intensive use of fertilisers and irrigation.

After successfully being introduced in India, the Green Revolution was rolled out in other parts of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. It was so successful in terms of production increases that it defied the gloomy Malthusian predictions of the 1960s, which said hundreds of millions would starve as population outstripped farm output.

The Revolution was a technological success.

"Before the 1960s, the population of India was multiplying like rats in a barn," said Jagjit Singh Hara, "but we didn't have the grain to feed them. After the Green Revolution, we doubled our yield and now we have proved that India can feed the world".

But the process has limits and they may have been reached. Population, on the other hand, has continued to rise in poor parts of the world.

The graph, compiled for the BBC by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, shows that while yield per hectare has increased, the amount of land used for the major staple grains has remained fairly constant; this is because the amount of good farmland is finite.

...Given the shortage of land suitable for growing more food, the obvious answer would be a new Green Revolution, or another hike in yields. But this may not be possible.

"The difficulty is that we are now pressing against the photosynthetic limits of plants," says the influential environmentalist Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in the United States.

...There are other limits to the Green Revolution.

Some of the poorer villagers I spoke to in rural Punjab said they had fallen into debt as they were unable to keep up with the rising cost of the inputs - fertilisers, irrigation pumps and regular fresh supplies of seed - which intensive agriculture requires.
(29 March 2007)

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