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Food & agriculture - Sept 20

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Roving Herds of Grazing Climate Helpers

Judith D. Schwartz, Miller-McCune
A smarter way of raising herd animals, known as holistic management, may be a catalyst to helping the soil reclaim its role as a global carbon sponge.
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... according to some who study how agricultural practices affect the environment, the catalyst for reducing atmospheric CO2 and restoring soil fertility is by bringing back the roving, grazing animals that used to wander the world’s grasslands. Not to diminish saving the rain forest or setting emissions caps, but what takes place in the digestive system and under the hooves of ruminants might be the crucible of climate change. In other words, a climate-friendly future might look less like a geo-engineered landscape with faux parasols than like, well, “Home On the Range.”

While the automobile and the fruits of industry are often the focus in bemoaning our CO2 predicament, a greater culprit has been agriculture: Since about 1850, significantly more atmospheric CO2 has come from poor farming practices as from the burning of fossil fuels. It’s not, says Christine Jones, a soil ecologist in Australia, because of exhaust-spewing tractors but rather from the depletion soil quality. Jones estimates that between 50 to 80 percent of organic carbon in the topsoil has vanished into the air in the last 150 years due to mismanagement, with about 7 tons of topsoil lost for every ton of grain produced.

According to the agricultural model known as “holistic management,” developed by biologist and environmental advocate Allan Savory, global soil depletion and excess atmospheric CO2 are flip sides of the same problem, and both can be resolved by the same solution: livestock — not cattle crammed into feedlots, but rather “planned grazing,” with herds of well-managed grazing animals nibbling on native grasses and roaming from place to place to elude predators and seek fresh pasture.
(14 September 2010)



The backlash begins against the world landgrab

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, UK Telegraph
The neo-colonial rush for global farmland has gone exponential since the food scare of 2007-2008.
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Last week's long-delayed report by the World Bank suggests that purchases in developing countries rose to 45m hectares in 2009, a ten-fold jump from levels of the last decade. Two thirds have been in Africa, where institutions offer weak defence.

As is by now well-known, sovereign wealth funds from the Mid-East, as well as state-entities from China, the Pacific Rim, and even India are trying to lock up chunks of the world's future food supply. Western agribusiness is trying to beat them to it.

... Needless to say, this has set off a fierce backlash. Brazil has passed a decree limiting acreage held by foreign-owned companies, the latest evidence that our half-century era of globalisation may be drawing to a close.

Authorities are probing whether firms are using local fronts to disguise investment in Mato Grosso and Amazonia.
(12 September 2010)



Ezra Klein on Industrial Ag: Asking the Wrong Questions

Paula Crossfield, Civil Eats
On Monday, domestic policy wonk Ezra Klein published a short piece over at his Washington Post blog entitled “Industrial Farms are the Future,” in which he challenged the idea that the local food movement is doing anything but informing the big players in their marketing strategy. Further, he wondered aloud whether there was ever a major industry that “went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production–and then back again.”

Tom Philpott over at Grist took down the evidence Klein quotes in the piece, and which inspired its title. Klein bit back, addressing the issue again and pointing to the growth of industrial agriculture in China, India, and particularly Brazil as a case in point about the inevitability of growth in agriculture. I thought I would attempt to challenge Klein’s assumptions once again.

Klein’s question about whether any industry has decentralized historically is, at least in the case of farming, a bit silly. Due to increasing climate uncertainty, and waning water and energy resources, the question is not whether industrial agriculture will decentralize, but when and how.

Any farmer will tell you that the weather is her biggest concern, and increasing uncertainty will push farmers by force to diversify instead of putting all their eggs in one basket–that is, unless the government keeps giving incentives in the form of crop insurance for farming monocultures. (As the Farm Bill debate heats up, cutting or changing crop insurance is on the table. But more likely direct payments–what farmers get whether they work the land or not–and conservation programs will be considered for cuts.) Instead, it might be rising oil prices and the changing availability of water, which scientists agree is on the horizon, that could overstep the ability for government intervention, and deliver a death blow to the industrial promise to feed the world.

Furthermore, farming is a unique “industry,” in that what it produces is perishable–and therefore time is of the essence, favoring a local system.
(16 September 2010)



Greenhorns: the network that's breathing new life into US farming

David Hawkins, The Ecologist
It's helping attract youthful talent into sustainable agriculture across the US, but can the Greenhorns movement survive in the land of Big Ag, or cross the Atlantic to the UK?

The Greenhorns is an exciting new movement tearing up the turf (gently) in the USA. This fresh network of young farmers is mapping the future of food production with ambitious targets, incisive communication and savvy marketing - all fertilised with plenty of organic passion.

Severine von Tshcarner Fleming started the Greenhorns because she was fed up with the negativity she kept encountering while studying agroecology, and the low levels of funding available for sustainable agriculture. She wanted to reflect 'the incredibly positive uprising of people engaged in the day-to-day rebuilding of our food system' found everywhere she worked on the land. Hence these 'young farmers' are united more in attitude than age.
(14 September 2010)



How Peru's wells are being sucked dry by British love of asparagus

Felicity Lawrence, Guardian
Asparagus grown in Peru and sold in the UK is commonly held up as a symbol of unacceptable food miles, but a report has raised an even more urgent problem: its water footprint.

The study, by the development charity Progressio, has found that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. Water to the main city in the valley is also under threat, it says. It warns that the export of the luxury vegetable, much of it to British supermarkets, is unsustainable in its current form.

The Ica Valley is a desert area in the Andes and one of the driest places on earth. The asparagus beds developed in the last decade require constant irrigation, with the result that the local water table has plummeted since 2002 when extraction overtook replenishment. In some places it has fallen by eight metres each year, one of the fastest rates of aquifer depletion in the world.

The UK is the world's sixth largest importer of "virtual water", that is water needed to produce the goods it buys from other countries, according to WWF.
(14 September 2010)



Peru water wars threaten agricultural export boom

Emily Schmall, Reuters
The World Bank, which has lent millions of dollars to turn Peru's fragile desert coast into verdant farmland, has stumbled into a film noir scene straight out of Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown' about the violent water wars of 1930s Los Angeles.

When a World Bank employee went in April to investigate complaints that loans made by its private sector arm had hastened the drying up of the Ica aquifer, he was shot at by gunmen after he spotted land pockmarked by clandestine wells.
(9 September 2010)



Forget Oil, Worry About Phosphorus

C. Robert Taylor, Daily Yonder
The world's agriculture depends on a mineral that is declining in production and is controlled by a cartel of companies. Troubling, ain't it?
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Modern farming methods depend increasingly on fossil fuels and major plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

We know that peak oil is fast approaching, if it has not already arrived. This isn’t the only shortage that should concern us. We are seeing the same coming shortages in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Peak phosphorus is occurring along with peak oil. The earth’s supply of these critical resources is dwindling rapidly.

A New York Times writer recently said that phosphorus availability is “the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of.” The fact is, corporate and political control of essential plant nutrients may be the gravest long run competition issue you’ve never heard of.

And control of these resources may also be the greatest strategic issue facing the United States that you never heard of.
(13 September 2010)

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