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Havana Homegrown: Inside Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Revolution

Roger Doiron, Kitchen Gardeners
I recently had the good fortune to travel to Cuba as part of trip organized by the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance and the IATP Food and Society Fellows program. The organic and urgan agriculture revolution that is under way there is nothing short of amazing, but what a lot of people don’t know is the amount of hardship Cubans have been through to get to where they are. Unlike with most people in the US and other wealthy countries, growing their own and doing it organically were not really choices for Cubans: they did it to survive. Or to put it more flippantly, when life gave the Cubans limes (mint and rum), they decided to make mojitos.

(16 April 2010)
Also at Common Dreams.

Flight ban could leave UK short of fruit and veg

Richard Wray and Graeme Wearden, Guardian
Air freight problems arising from ash cloud over Europe could leave supermarkets short of perishable products within days

Britain’s supermarkets could soon run short of perishable goods including exotic fruits and Kenyan roses as the ongoing ban on UK air travel brought Britain’s largest perishable air freight handling centre to a standstill today.

Norbert Dentressangle, the logistics company that operates this facility at Heathrow Airport, has warned that this weekend will effectively be a write-off. This will mean a three-day shortfall in the supply of certain products, including asparagus, grapes, green onions, lettuce and pre-packed fruit salads. The fear is that, while there are still supplies of these products in the supply chain, they are likely to be exhausted next week.

… All the major supermarkets insisted today that their shelves were still well-stocked but gaps could start appearing on shelves if normal service is not resumed soon at UK airports. Some of the pre-packaged fruit that appears on the shelves is prepared, cut and packaged overseas and then flown into the UK, predominantly into Heathrow.

… The UK imports about 90% of its fruit and 60% of its vegetables. While the vast majority come by sea – Fair Trade bananas from the West Indies, for instance, are regularly delivered to Southampton and Portsmouth – some of the more exotic inhabitants of the UK’s shops come by air.
(16 April 2010)

Beating Obesity

Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic
By 2015, four out of 10 Americans may be obese. Until last year, the author was one of them. The way he lost one-third of his weight isn’t for everyone. But unless America stops cheering The Biggest Loser and starts getting serious about preventing obesity, the country risks being overwhelmed by chronic disease and ballooning health costs. Will first lady Michelle Obama’s new plan to fight childhood obesity work, or is it just another false start in the country’s long and so far unsuccessful war against fat?
(May 2010)
Long, high quality article. -BA

The trouble with Brazil’s much-celebrated ethanol ‘miracle’

Tom Philpott, Grist
… the corn-ethanol behemoth lurches tediously along, forever demanding, and too often commanding, ever-spiralling amounts of government support and arable land. Sigh.

Too bad we’re not more like Brazil, where they’re displacing petroleum with highly efficient sugarcane-based ethanol … right? Well, no. In 2006, I co-wrote an article about what Brazil’s much-heralded cane ethanol revolution has to teach the United States. The conclusion: not much.

Now comes this blistering report from Foreign Policy magazine exposing the myth that sugarcane ethanol is some sort of environmental panacea.

Before I get to the details, I want to make the point that the biofuel-as-panacea impulse is only possible in society’s whose citizens fundamentally don’t understand agriculture. Biofuels are hailed as “renewable,” because crops can be grown on the same land year after year. But monocrops destroy soil–properly thought of as a non-renewable resource–and require lots of agrichemical poisons. Therefore, industrial-scale biofuels aren’t renewable. (Whether biofuels can work sustainably in regional niches, as part of a diverse cropping system, is a different question).
(13 April 2010)

‘Biggest problem you’ve never heard of’: Peak phosphorus

Next week, a US university will unveil a new initiative aimed at addressing the “biggest problem you’ve never heard of”: peak phosphorus.

James Elser, an Arizona State University (ASU) ecologist who’s one of the researchers helping to launch the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative on Earth Day (April 22), warns that our current consumption of phosphorus (P) is “not sustainable.” Produced by mining, phosphorus is a key component of fertilisers, making it as critical to agriculture as water is.

The problem is, most of the world’s phosphorus reserves — almost 90 per cent — are found in only five countries: Morocco/Western Sahara, China, South Africa, Jordan and the US. US resources, however, are limited to just 12 mines, and those are expected to be picked clean over the next 20 to 30 years.
(16 April 2010)

Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply

David A. Vaccari, Scientific America
This underappreciated resource–a key component of fertilizers–is still decades from running out. But we must act now to conserve it, or future agriculture could collapse

Key Concepts

* Mining phosphorus for fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. The U.S. may runout of its accessible domestic sources in a few decades, and few other countries have substantial reserves, which could also be depleted in about a century.
* Excess phosphorus in waterways helps to feed algal blooms, which starve fish of oxygen, creating “dead zones.”
* Reducing soil erosion and recycling phosphorus from farm and human waste could help make food production sustainable and prevent algal blooms.

As complex as the chemistry of life may be, the conditions for the vigorous growth of plants often boil down to three numbers, say, 19-12-5. Those are the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, prominently displayed on every package of fertilizer. In the 20th century the three nutrients enabled agriculture to increase its productivity and the world’s population to grow more than sixfold. But what is their source? We obtain nitrogen from the air, but we must mine phosphorus and potassium. The world has enough potassium to last several centuries. But phosphorus is a different story. Readily available global supplies may start running out by the end of this century. By then our population may have reached a peak that some say is beyond what the planet can sustainably feed.

Moreover, trouble may surface much sooner. As last year’s oil price swings have shown, markets can tighten long before a given resource is anywhere near its end. And reserves of phosphorus are even less evenly distributed than oil’s, raising additional supply concerns. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer of phosphorus (after China), at 19 percent of the total, but 65 percent of that amount comes from a single source: pit mines near Tampa, Fla., which may not last more than a few decades. Meanwhile nearly 40 percent of global reserves are controlled by a single country, Morocco, sometimes referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of phosphorus.” Although Morocco is a stable, friendly nation, the imbalance makes phosphorus a geostrategic ticking time bomb.
(June 2009)
Only the preview for this article is publicly available online. -BA