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Food & agriculture - July 1

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Toward a garden truce, fertile and long-lasting

Brigid Bergin, City Limits
Scattered across New York's concrete and steel landscape are close to 600 community gardens, most of which are owned by city agencies or public land trusts. For the people who transformed what were often garbage-strewn lots into urban oases, the passion for protecting these plots runs as deep as the roots below.

Local gardeners from all five boroughs gathered in the auditorium at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Saturday morning at an event organized by the New York City Community Gardens Coalition, an independent network of local gardeners. In spite of a settlement to protect gardens reached in 2002 and the current trend towards going green, local gardeners worry about their future and used the day to share concerns with a half dozen invited state and city officials.

Threats to community gardens are not new. In 1999, then-state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued the Giuliani administration to halt the auctioning of community gardens - which the city was calling vacant lots - to developers. In Sept. 2002 under the Bloomberg administration, the city reached a settlement that preserved 198 gardens, while also designating 153 sites for affordable housing development.

But this settlement expires in 2010. And the tension over how best to use the city's finite land resources - whether for housing or open space - is as strong as ever.
(18 Jun 2007)


Organic food under threat

Amelia Hill, The Observer
British producers struggle to keep up with consumers' soaring demand
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...'I'm not normally apocalyptic,' said Patrick Holden, owner of the farm and director of the Soil Association. 'But the organic food industry is facing big problems that need to be sorted out as a matter of urgency.'

Figures to be released this week will reveal that the organic industry is in grave danger of becoming a victim of its own success. The public hunger to shop ethically, locally and sustainably - a phenomenon that reached its acme with the high-profile opening last month of the American Whole Foods Market in London's Kensington High Street - is eating up British crops faster than farmers can produce them. The organic sector's success is creating problems that could end up irrevocably damaging consumer confidence in organic food.

Despite breaking through the £1bn a year barrier, the growth in sales of organic food in the past year has dramatically slowed. Experts have no hesitation in identifying the problem as an increasing shortage in local supply.

...The lack of British-grown produce recently forced Asda to place an advertisement in Farmers Weekly, begging organic fruit and vegetable producers to get in touch. But such solutions are not a genuine answer to the gap in local supply, which can only be bridged by importing foreign produce.

'Our growth has been constrained by the lack of raw materials,' says Helen Browning, supplier of an organic sausage range and food and farming director at the Soil Association.

'There's a real shortage of supply, so we've had to import some of our pork from Sweden. I've no doubt that this year's results will show that a higher volume of imported product came into the UK.'

...But importing is not a satisfactory solution in either the short or the long term. 'Research has shown that one of the things consumers look for is a "Made in Britain" label,' says Richard Cullen, research and insight manager at the Meat and Livestock Commission.

...Although the growth of organic imports worries some UK consumers, campaigners say it is helping farmers in the developing world, who rely on British customers. More than one million people in Africa depend on the trade supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to this country.

...But the organic sector faces another problem, said Holden from his farm near Lampeter. Last week, after more than 30 years in organic farming, he was sacked by Sainsbury's as a supplier for not reaching the supermarket's 'quality standard'. Holden had the comfort of being in the rarefied company of Prince Charles, whose contract with Sainsbury's was terminated for a similar reason.

Holden says his experience exposes an industry in grave danger of becoming a victim twice over - it is a casualty of its own success and suffers from demands placed on it by the larger retailers intent on guaranteeing quality.
(1 July 2007)
Often what supermarkets mean when they speak of "quality" is cosmetic appearance, which has nothing to do with nutrition or safety. -BA


Two necessities, fuel and food, create spiral of rising prices

Victor Davis Hanson, San Jose Mercury News
While we worry about gas prices, the costs of milk, meat and fresh produce silently soar. So like the end of cheap energy, is the era of cheap food also finally over?

Since the farm depression of the early 1980s - remember the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 - farmers have gone broke in droves from cheap commodity prices. The public shrugged, happy enough to get inexpensive food. Globalization saw increased world acreage planted and farmed under Western methods of efficient production. And that brought into the United States even more plentiful imported food.

Continued leaps in agricultural technology ensured more production per acre. The result was likewise predictable: the same old food surpluses and low prices. My late parents, who owned the farm I now live on in central California, used to sigh that the planet was reaching 6 billion mouths and so things someday "would have to turn around for farmers."

Now they apparently have. Food prices are climbing at rates approaching 10 percent per year. But why the sudden change?

... Now comes the biofuels movement. For a variety of reasons, ranging from an attempt to become less dependent on foreign oil to a desire for cleaner fuels, millions of acres of farmland are being redirected to corn-based ethanol.

...There is more corn acreage - about 90 million acres are predicted this year - than at any time in the nation's last half-century. But today's total farm acreage is either static or shrinking; land for biofuels is usually taken from wheat, soybeans or cotton, ensuring those supplies grow tight as well.

In the past, the genius of our farmers and the mind-boggling innovation of American agribusiness meant that farm production periodically doubled. Indeed, today we are producing far more food on far fewer acres than ever before.

But we are nearing the limits of further efficiency - especially when such past amazing leaps in production relied on once-cheap petrochemicals, fuels and fertilizers.
(28 June 2007)
Pretty good analysis from arch-conservative Victor Davis Hanson, a political essayist and former classics professor; fan of industrial agriculture and the war in Iraq. His take on biofuels, however, puts in him in the company of Fidel Castro, as well as of The Economist magazine and some libertarians. How political lines do shift!
Hanson's website -BA


Call for a moratorium on EU agrofuel incentives

Transnational Institute
More than 30 civil society groups from around the world are calling for a moratorium to stop the EU rush for agrofuels, which are liquid fuels produced from biomass grown in large scale monocultures. The call is for the EU to stop incentivising these fuels through its proposed targets on their production, rather than promoting genuinely renewable energy sources.

The undersigned call for an immediate moratorium on EU incentives for agrofuels and agroenergy from large-scale monocultures including tree plantations and a moratorium on EU imports of such agrofuels. This includes the immediate suspension of all targets, incentives such as tax breaks and subsidies which benefit agrofuels from large-scale monocultures, including financing through carbon trading mechanisms, international development aid or loans from international finance organisations such as the World Bank. This call also responds to the growing number of calls from the global south against agrofuel monocultures[1], which EU targets are helping to promote.

Background:

Agrofuels are liquid fuels from biomass, which consists of crops and trees grown specifically for that purpose on a large scale. Agrofuels are currently produced from crops such as maize, oil palm, soya, sugar cane, sugar beet, oilseed rape, canola, jatropha, rice and wheat. Agrofuels are designed to replace petroleum, mainly in road vehicles and trains. Biodiesel and ethanol are the main types of fuel produced. Agrofuels do not include biofuels derived from waste, such as biogas from manure or landfill, or waste vegetable oil, or from algae.

Agrofuels are being promoted by governments and international institutions as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and improving 'energy security', i.e. of helping to ensure regular supplies, stabilise the price of oil and mitigate the impacts of volatile oil prices and possible peak oil. Public support for agrofuels is further justified on the basis of their claimed positive impacts on rural development and jobs in producer countries, promises of 'second generation' agrofuels whose production will not compete with the production of food, and assumptions about the availability of large amounts of 'degraded' or unused land.

Agrofuels are also being strongly promoted by industry. New corporate partnerships are being formed between agrobusinesses, biotech companies, oil companies and car manufacturers. Billions of dollars are being invested in the agrofuel sector in a development often likened to a 'green goldrush', in which countries are turning land over to agrofuel crops and developing infrastructure for processing and transporting them.

Impacts of agrofuels from large-scale monocultures:

Agrofuels are generally grown as monocultures (including plantations), often covering thousands of hectares. In order to compete in the market, they require government support such as subsidies and tax breaks. Support for agrofuels has to date failed to acknowledge the negative social, environmental and macro-economic impacts associated with this kind of farming.
(1 July 2007)
The list of signatories appears at the original.

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