‘Grow your own’ revolution receives major land boost

Jon Land, 24dash.com
Plans to bring under-used and unloved land back into use so that communities and hundreds of keen would-be fruit and vegetable growers have somewhere to get digging, have been announced by Communities Secretary John Denham and Environment Secretary Hilary Benn.

There is a huge interest in ‘growing your own’ with people wanting to get more in touch with where their food comes from, as well as staying active and spending more time outdoors.

About 300,000 gardeners in England already have allotments but demand still outstrips supply and the Government is therefore determined to support new and novel ways of meeting people’s desire to dig in.

Today, John Denham and Hilary Benn set out a package of measures to help gardeners in the community.

These include:

Working with the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens to set up a new national community land bank which will act as a broker between land-holders and community groups who want somewhere to grow food. The Federation is in discussion with a number of local councils to pilot the scheme – including Brighton and Bristol. Local private and public sector landowners which could include councils, NHS, private developers will work with the Federation to identify possible sites and link them up with community groups looking for land. The scheme will offer support and advice to landowners and tenants over the purchase, sale or leasing of land.

Supporting proposals put forward by Brighton and Hove, Waltham Forest, Birmingham and Sheffield council under the Sustainable Communities Act. These include ensuring food doesn’t go to waste by clarifying that there are no legal restrictions on gardeners selling genuine surplus produce to local markets and shops, making better use of existing powers around allotments and introducing new lease arrangements that will make it easier for people to take control of abandoned land.

Making it easier for local residents and organisations to set up growing spaces on land that is currently unused or waiting development including – stalled building sites or sites waiting for planning permission. The Government has commissioned the Development Trusts Association to prepare standardised mean-while ‘leases’ so that organisation can access land while its waiting to be used – while giving the landlord and tenants legal assurances. The idea has been inspired by meanwhile leases for empty shops which has enabled local residents and organisations to temporarily use vacant properties on the high street.

New good practice guidance to help local councils reduce the length of time a person has to wait before getting an allotment plot. The guidance – A Place To Grow – published by the Local Government Association, gives practical advice on making the most of existing statutory allotment sites including reducing plot sizes and managing waiting lists. It also includes advice on providing new allotments sites and what temporary options are available for people who are waiting for a plot to become available…
(3 March 2010)
Find out more about this initiative here.

Slow foodies are not cavemen

Andrew Leonard, Salon
The condescension pours from James E. McWilliams’ Freakonomics post, “The Persistence of the Primitive Food Movement,” with all the force and power of thousands of bushels of genetically modified corn pouring into an Iowa silo.

Americans are currently embracing a strange sort of primitivism. Bicycles are losing gears, runners are afoot in shoes designed to create a barefoot sensation (some are even running barefoot), and men are growing bushy Will Oldham-like beards. It’s all very curious and entertaining.

But nowhere has our love for the supposed simplicity of the past been more evident than in food trends.

McWilliams, a historian at Texas State University, has made challenging the mores of the organic, slow food, eat local movements his life work. The title of his last book: “Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly,” is sufficiently illuminating. This time out, his argument is straightforward: The reaction against “industrial food” is just another time-honored manifestation of an American infatuation with a simpler life.

For all their moral impact, our linear jeremiads fail to capture the circularity of history. This is especially true with our back-to-the past reaction to “industrial food.” Current calls for dietary simplicity might have a revolutionary ring to them. But what’s overlooked in all the enthusiasm is this: Americans have always idealized, or at least harkened back to, an agricultural era when production was supposedly simpler, closer to the land, and unadulterated by the complexities of modernization. What we’re seeing right now with the food movement is, for all its supposed novelty, a stock (even banal) reaction to broad historical changes.

Wow: “curious,” “entertaining” and “banal.” That’s quite the triple play. I imagine McWilliams observing the customers at a Berkeley farmer’s market with the bored half-smile of a late 18th century French aristocrat gracing his face. Ah, the native customs here, their very quaintness makes them both fascinating and so very, very dull!

I will grant that Americans have an undeniable tendency to idealize “mythical golden ages” and McWilliams does a good job of unearthing outbreaks of such longing, as they pertain to food, going all the way back to James Madison. But this emphasis on the circularity of history plows directly into a paradox: By dismissing those who are currently pushing for healthier food and more sustainable agriculture as “primitives” he is making an implicit argument against another core American belief — our faith in progress…
(10 March 2010)

What’s driving our favorite fruit into decline?

Gary Nabhan, Grist
You’ve heard the hackneyed phrase “as American as apple pie.” But America is not taking care of the apples — or the orchard-keepers — that have nourished us for centuries. In 1900, 20 million apple trees were growing in the U.S.; now, not even a fourth remain in our orchards and gardens. Today, much of the apple juice consumed in the U.S. is produced overseas. Of the apples still grown in America, just one variety — Red Delicious — comprises 41 percent of the country’s entire crop, and 11 varieties account for 90 percent of all apples sold in stores.

When Joe Twine of Richmond, Ky., was growing up, “It was a must to have an orchard. [My father] had orchards…he had apples come in at all times of the year,” he recalls. “You don’t see ’em anymore.”

Of the 15,000 to 16,000 apple varieties that have been named, grown, and eaten in North American, less than 3,500 remain commercially available. Of the surviving varieties, nine out of ten are currently at risk of falling out of cultivation, and falling off our tables.

The drivers of these declines in apple production and diversity are many. There is no single man-made or natural cause. Changing land uses, tastes, and market pressures (far fewer varieties can be found in grocery and big-box stores, which value shipping resilience and item consistency, than in America’s 5,000 farmers markets) have all had their impacts, but even they do not fully explain the long-term decline in the number of orchard-keepers and apple varieties out in the landscape.

Recent studies have suggested that orchard keepers face a new challenge to supplying a variety of apples to their customers. Shifts in weather patterns may be reducing the number of winter chill hours that apple and other trees require in order to bear abundant fruit. If trends continue as predicted, most California orchards are expected to receive less than 500 chill hours per winter by the end of the 21st century. Most apple varieties require 1,000 chill hours per winter to yield harvests large enough to keep orchards economically viable, although some require as little as 800 hours and a few can get by on just 500 chill hours.

The Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance, an organization I cofounded, is promoting 2010 as the Year of the Heirloom Apple. For further information about how to help preserve America’s fast-disappearing varieties, download RAFT’s newly released Forgotten Fruits Manifesto and Manual (PDF).

Slideshow: For a look at some soon-to-be-forgotten fruit, check out this slideshow of heirloom apple varieties being grown on picturesque Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vt. The photos and text are adapted with permission from a post by horticulturalist and garden designer Michaela of The Gardener’s Eden


(9 March 2010)

A Backlash After San Francisco Labels Sewage Sludge “Organic”

Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones
Activists wearing face masks and haz-mat suits dumped a pile of sewage sludge on the steps of San Francisco’s city hall today to protest the city’s practice of marketing the material to home gardeners as “organic compost.” The US Department of Agriculture’s organic standards explicity prohibit organic produce from being grown on sludge-treated land. “The City of San Francisco owes an apology to all of the food consumers in California who have been eating non-organic food grown on sewage sludge,” said Ronnie Cummins, president of the Organic Consumers Association. He was wearing a haz-mat suit on which he’d written a message to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom: “Organic gardens aren’t toxic waste dumps.”

Using sludge as fertilizer is a common practice; more than half of the sewage produced in America ends up being treated and applied to gardens and farmland. The EPA considers sludge to be safe, but many food activists and some of the EPA’s own scientists disagree, pointing out that it can contain trace amounts of almost anything that gets poured down the drain, from heavy metals to endocrine disruptors–and that only a portion of these contaminants are screened for in sludge…
(4 March 2010)

How Locavores Could Save the World

Felix Salmon, Foreign Policy
Locavorism, the latest trend in yuppie food politics, is clearly a boon for the environment. Eating vegetables from local farmers and small farms cuts down on emissions from transporting foods; reduces chemicals in the soil because small farms are more likely to be organic; and invariably tastes better, too. But locavorism may be about more than smug new-wave chefs blissing out over Vermont ramps and heirloom garlic: “Locavorism” might be the key to food security and better nutrition for all.

You may say, of course, that locavorism is far too expensive to feed anyone who lives outside the privileged confines of Berkeley or Brookline: Who can afford $3 tomatoes and $12 loaves of bread? But in fact, the costs of the modern agriculture industry are far greater, and more insidious, than the costs of returning to a more localized model of farming would be.

For the last several decades, farmers in places such as the United States, Europe, Brazil, and India have concentrated on growing just a handful of staple crops — wheat, soy, rice, corn. International agribusiness conglomerates now produce these grains in quantities that individual farmers could have once barely comprehended. From there, these staple crops — corn especially — are transformed into all manner of secondary foodstuffs, from chicken and beef to Coca-Cola, at ever-decreasing prices. Yet though this certainly does help make more food, it can also serve to increase the risks associated with such industry, most of which come down to one thing: monoculture, or growing just one crop at a time.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease.

…The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents.

…Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage…
(26 Feb 2010)

Increasing Yields and Decreasing Fertilizer Waste on Subsistence Farms

John Collins Rudolph, New York Times
A new agricultural technology that cuts nitrogen fertilizer waste in half while increasing rice yields is spreading quickly in Bangladesh and is being investigated by 15 other nations, including more than a dozen in sub-Saharan Africa.

Chemical fertilizers are critical to raising crop yields, but their cost has been prohibitive for many subsistence farmers, particularly those in Africa.

The inefficiency of fertilizer application is also a major problem. By some estimates, as much as 70 percent of nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops in developing nations is lost to runoff or released into the atmosphere, contributing to coastal “dead zones,” global warming, ozone layer depletion and other problems.

The new technology is fairly simple. Rather than applying urea, a nitrogen fertilizer, to the soil surface in tiny granules, the urea is compacted into briquettes and placed several inches below ground.

These briquettes release nitrogen slowly, dramatically reducing the amount of fertilizer washed away by rain or absorbed by the air. The technique has raised rice yields while limiting the amount of the nitrogen available to weeds, curbing herbicide use.

“The farmers are using nearly 40 percent less urea, and yet they are producing nearly 20 percent more rice,” said Amit Roy, the president of the International Fertilizer Development Center, a nonprofit research group that helped develop the technology, known as “urea deep placement.”..
(10 March 2010)

How food and water are driving a 21st-century African land grab

John Vidal, The Guardian
We turned off the main road to Awassa, talked our way past security guards and drove a mile across empty land before we found what will soon be Ethiopia’s largest greenhouse. Nestling below an escarpment of the Rift Valley, the development is far from finished, but the plastic and steel structure already stretches over 20 hectares – the size of 20 football pitches.

The farm manager shows us millions of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables being grown in 500m rows in computer controlled conditions. Spanish engineers are building the steel structure, Dutch technology minimises water use from two bore-holes and 1,000 women pick and pack 50 tonnes of food a day. Within 24 hours, it has been driven 200 miles to Addis Ababa and flown 1,000 miles to the shops and restaurants of Dubai, Jeddah and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Ethiopia is one of the hungriest countries in the world with more than 13 million people needing food aid, but paradoxically the government is offering at least 3m hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of the world’s most wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations.

The 1,000 hectares of land which contain the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people.

But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era.

An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies. The data used was collected by Grain, the International Institute for Environment and Development, the International Land Coalition, ActionAid and other non-governmental groups.

…It is not known if the acquisitions will improve or worsen food security in Africa, or if they will stimulate separatist conflicts, but a major World Bank report due to be published this month is expected to warn of both the potential benefits and the immense dangers they represent to people and nature.

Leading the rush are international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds as well as UK pension funds, foundations and individuals attracted by some of the world’s cheapest land.

Together they are scouring Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, Congo, Zambia, Uganda, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana and elsewhere. Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007. Any land there, which investors have not been able to buy, is being leased for approximately $1 per year per hectare.

…Oromia is one of the centres of the African land rush. Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia studies’ association, said last week in a letter of protest to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that India had acquired 1m hectares, Djibouti 10,000 hectares, Saudi Arabia 100,000 hectares, and that Egyptian, South Korean, Chinese, Nigerian and other Arab investors were all active in the state.

“This is the new, 21st-century colonisation. The Saudis are enjoying the rice harvest, while the Oromos are dying from man-made famine as we speak,” he said…
(10 March 2010)

Greenhouse project promotes self-sufficiency

Rich Hewitt, Bangor Daily News
A grass-roots project seeks to promote self-reliance and self-sufficiency by making low-cost greenhouses available to interested individuals and institutions.

The Greenhouse Project, sponsored by the United Methodist Church of South Brooksville through The Reversing Falls Sanctuary, already has built several small greenhouses in the area — including one at the Brooksville Elementary School, which has been growing vegetables throughout the winter months.

The hope of founders Tom Adamo of Penobscot and Tony Ferrara of Brooksville is to encourage more people to grow their own food.

“The goal is to produce a greater percentage of our food locally,” Ferrara told a group of people during an informational meeting Saturday. “Active greenhouses help us to become more food-secure.”

The idea, Ferrara said, is related to the Transition Movement, which holds that, in the face of a time of peak oil, climate change and economic crisis, it is up to local communities to become more self-reliant. That means communities should develop ways to meet local needs including food, energy, transportation, neighbor care and health…
(27 Feb 2010)
thanks to Kalpa for the article above