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Food & agriculture - September 3

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


Victory garden
I'm finally making my little piece of the world just a little greener

Sally Kalson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For 17 years, we have grown almost nothing in our yard except what came with the house when we bought it. This summer, though, my husband and I agreed: The time had come to stick a thumb in the dirt and see if it came out green.

Up until now, our idea of gardening has been getting rid of things, not adding them. Plants have always grown on our city plot with no urging from us, so it never seemed necessary to do anything except pull a few weeds after a heavy rain or whack away at overgrown bushes we couldn't identify and didn't want to.

Occasionally, we'd make a futile attempt to rip out the maple shoots that quadrupled before our eyes, and whose roots, I swear, have journeyed to the center of the Earth with intent to colonize.

But this year, something inside went "click." All those articles about decreasing one's carbon footprint by using locally grown food finally sank in. And what could be more local than the plot of crabgrass right outside the door, which thus far has existed for the sole purpose of being mowed? Couldn't it be put to better use?

... "Perfect" was not our goal here. We just wanted a few things that tasted good, wouldn't poison us and made a tiny contribution to a greener world. If the experiment bombed, no big loss; the crabgrass would be glad to take over again.

... I couldn't believe how easy it was, mainly because someone else dug up the plot and mushed in all the good-earth stuff to enhance cultivation. I guess I could learn about soil and mulch and all those things that real gardeners seem to know, and at some point maybe I will. But this year, all I wanted to do was stick the plants in the dirt and let them do their thing.

Now I find myself coming home from work each night and marveling at how fast the stalks and leaves have shot up and proliferated with basically no effort on our part.
(20 July 2008)
Related: Growing front-yard food can rile neighbors.

Both articles were recommended by Jon S. of Peak Energy, an early peak oil blog. Jon has started posting again after a hiatus. He reports having been struck by "peak ennui":

Part of my detachment from this space is peak ennui. Things haven’t changed much in the last few years. Yes, the supposedly predictive became reality, the peak is effectively in. Yet rank and file North American are content to debate pepsi coke and “opening up” coastal areas to drilling. And the throttle has stuck on the dollar printing machine. Quick, what is that word, the one that describes a person who feels gravity does not apply to them?



George Monbiot - fructivist

George Monbiot, The Guardian
Yes, I'm a fructivist. My mission is to show you what you're missing

We have lost the sweetest of our native fruit: the only way to get it back is to grow it - even if that means guerrilla grafting
---
I feel almost shy about writing this column. It contains no revelations, no call to arms. No one gets savaged - well, only mildly. The subject is almost inconsequential. Yet it has become an obsession which, at this time of year, forbids me to concentrate for long on anything else.

Though we still subsist largely on junk, even bilious old gits like me are forced to admit that the quality and variety of most types of food sold in Britain has greatly improved. But one kind has deteriorated. You can buy mangoes, papayas, custard apples, persimmons, pomegranates, mangosteens, lychees, rambutans and god knows what else. But almost all the fruit sold here now seems to taste the same: either rock-hard and dry, or wet and bland. A mango may be ambrosia in India; it tastes like soggy toilet paper in the UK. And the variety of native fruits on sale is smaller than it has been for 200 years.

Why? Most people believe it's because the supermarkets select for appearance, not taste. This might be true for vegetables, but for fruit it's evidently wrong. Green mangoes, Conference pears, unripe Bramley, Granny Smith or Golden Delicious apples look about as appealing as a shrink-wrapped stool. Appearance has nothing to do with it. What counts to the retailer is how well the variety travels.
(2 September 2008)
Food seems to be on everybody's mind these days, even environmental crusader Monbiot's. -BA



Beyond carbon: Scientists worry about nitrogen’s effects

Richard Morgan, New York Times
... Public discussion of complicated climate change is largely reduced to carbon: carbon emissions, carbon footprints, carbon trading. But other chemicals have large roles in the planet’s health, and the one Dr. Giblin is looking for in Arctic mud, one that a growing number of other researchers are also concentrating on, is nitrogen.

In addition to having a role in climate change, nitrogen has a huge, probably more important biological impact through its presence in fertilizer. Peter Vitousek, a Stanford ecologist whose 1994 essay put nitrogen on the environmental map, co-authored a study this summer in the journal Nature that put greater attention on the nitrogen cycle and warned against ignoring it in favor of carbon benefits.

For example, Dr. Vitousek said in an interview, “There’s a great danger in doing something like, oh, overfertilizing a cornfield to boost biofuel consumption, where the carbon benefits are far outweighed by the nitrogen damage.”

... “The nitrogen dilemma,” Dr. Vitousek added, “is not just thinking that carbon is all that matters. But also thinking that global warming is the only environmental issue. The weakening of biodiversity, the pollution of rivers, these are local issues that need local attention. Smog. Acid rain. Coasts. Forests. It’s all nitrogen.”
(1 September 2008)



Human waste used by 200 million farmers, study says

Tasha Eichenseher, National Geographic
Facing water shortages and escalating fertilizer costs, farmers in developing countries are using raw sewage to irrigate and fertilize nearly 49 million acres (20 million hectares) of cropland, according to a new report—and it may not be a bad thing.

While the practice carries serious health risks for many, those dangers are eclipsed by the social and economic gains for poor urban farmers and consumers who need affordable food, the study authors say.

Nearly 200 million farmers in China, India, Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America harvest grains and vegetables from fields that use untreated human waste...
(21 August 2008)



Drought in Australian Food Bowl Worsens

Rob Taylor, Reuters
Drought in Australia's main food growing region of the Murray-Darling river system has worsened, with water inflows over the past two years at an all-time low, the government's top water official said on Tuesday.

The drought will hit irrigated crops such as rice, grapes and horticulture the hardest, but would have less impact on output of wheat, which depends largely on rainfall during specific periods and is on track to double after two years of shrunken crops.

The rainfall is sufficient to support hopes for a strong wheat harvest, but not enough to replenish ground water, which troubles those farmers who grow fruit rather than grain.

The record drought, which has gripped much of the country for close to a decade, was the worst in 117 years of record-keeping, with 80 percent of eucalyptus trees already dead or stressed in the region as large as France and Germany combined.
(2 September 2008)
Related from BBC: 'Big Dry' turns farms into deserts.

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