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Food & agriculture - March 6

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.


In New Food Culture, a Young Generation of Farmers Emerges

Isolde Raftery, New York Times
CORVALLIS, Ore. — For years, Tyler Jones, a livestock farmer here, avoided telling his grandfather how disillusioned he had become with industrial farming.

After all, his grandfather had worked closely with Earl L. Butz, the former federal secretary of agriculture who was known for saying, “Get big or get out.”

But several weeks before his grandfather died, Mr. Jones broached the subject. His grandfather surprised him. “You have to fix what Earl and I messed up,” Mr. Jones said his grandfather told him.

Now, Mr. Jones, 30, and his wife, Alicia, 27, are among an emerging group of people in their 20s and 30s who have chosen farming as a career. Many shun industrial, mechanized farming and list punk rock, Karl Marx and the food journalist Michael Pollan as their influences. The Joneses say they and their peers are succeeding because of Oregon’s farmer-foodie culture, which demands grass-fed and pasture-raised meats.
(5 March 2011)



Peak Phosphorus: Is there enough for biofuels at scale?

Jim Lane, Biofuels Digest
... Environmentalists and the scientific community have been warning for the past two years that global phosphorus stocks are being depleted dangerously fast.

Philip H. Abelson wrote a few years back in Science: “The current major use of phosphate is in fertilizers. Growing crops remove it and other nutrients from the soil… Most of the world’s farms do not have or do not receive adequate amounts of phosphate. Feeding the world’s increasing population will accelerate the rate of depletion of phosphate reserves.”

Why care about phosphorus at all?

Why should you care? Well, if it doesn’t matter to you that you have six feet of sugar-phosphate coil inside each cell of your own DNA, and all living things depend on it – think of it another way. The depletion of mined sources of phosphorus places a hard stop on biofuels, and on agriculture. You can’t grow anything without it. Like biofuels…or food…or even a fingernail. It’s the P in the farmers armor of NPK, or nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium that represents the key elements of soil fertilization.

But it goes well beyond the problems of terrestrial crops. It is a hard-stop, limiting factor even in wonder crops – or especially in wonder crops, such as algae.

“I suppose you have to blame Green Fuels for all this great hype about algae,” mused Live Fuels CEO Lissa Morgethaler-Jones, who went through the dismal phosphorus outlook with me the other day. “They put this myth out there that all you need is ‘sunlight, water and CO2?. But you need 60 nutrients. The ugly truth of algae is the Redfield Ratio, developed by the oceanographer Alfred Redfield back in the 1930s, who concluded that algae seem to need carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in a 106:16:1 ratio, and any of those is a limiting factor if you run out.”

Well, that’s dire. But then, it got worse.

“The US has about 30 years of phosphorus left, at present rates of use,” Jones added. “After that, you can’t grow food. If we ramp up biofuels according to the existing plans, you might have 20. The great thing about algae is that it grows in incredible concentrations of biomass, compared to terrestrial plant, but if you get five times the yield, you need five times the phosphorus.”
(4 March 2011)
Suggested by EB contributor JG. -BA



The Future is Organic (but it’s more than organic)

E. Ann Clark, Organic Agriculture - University of Guelph
E. Ann Clark, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON ([email protected])
Presented to the Annual Guelph Organic Seminar Series. 14 January 2010, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON

Introduction

Organic will be the conventional agriculture of the future, not because of wishful thinking or because it is the right thing to do, or because of some universal truth revealed from on high. You don’t need to be a utopian to see the agricultural landscape of the future dominated by organic practitioners - whether in the city or in the country - if you stop to ask yourself ...

  • Why are we not organic now?

  • How did we get to where we are now, and not just in farming but in the entire agri-food system?
  • How did we evolve an agri-food system so centered on specialization, consolidation, and globalization?
  • What drove us to an agri-food system that reportedly consumes 19% of the national energy budget - but only 7 of the 19% are used on the farm, with the remaining 12% incurred by post-farmgate transport, processing, packaging, distribution, and meal preparation (Pimentel, 2006)?
  • Is this all the result of Adam Smith’s invisible hand - an inevitable and inescapable result of the unfettered free market or other universal principle in action - or is there more to it?

This paper will present the argument that the future is organic because the design drivers that have shaped and molded the current agri-food system are changing, demanding a wholly new, and largely organic, approach to agriculture. Efforts to make the current model less bad - more sustainable - are counterproductive because they dilute and deflect the creative energy and commitment that are urgently needed to craft productive, ecologically sound systems driven by current solar energy (Pollan, 2008). Although time does not permit coverage, post-oil design drivers will also necessarily demand not just organics but novel agri-food systems emphasizing

  • local/decentralized food production, and

  • seasonal consumption expectations,
  • from minimally processed foods.

Evidence will be presented to show that organic is not enough, however. Ecological soundness[1] will require a de-emphasis on annual cropping coupled with re-integration of livestock, both to mimic the principles that sustain Nature and to dramatically reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
(10 January 2011)
Recommended by EB contributor and farmer Jason Bradford. This article is based on a talk delivered in January. Related slides. -BA



(GMO) Alfalfa and Our Future

Adrian Ayres Fisher, Ecological Gardening
Everyone who cares about these things now knows that GMO alfalfa (and sugar beets and biofuel corn) has been deregulated. This caring, of course, should go far beyond the companies that have spent much time and money persuading the government that it ought to be grown, and beyond the farmers who may or may not wish to grow the stuff. Those who eat meat, eggs, and cheese, and drink milk, those who buy food for their pets, those who prefer to eat organic food, those who question the wisdom of inserting into a plant’s genetic make-up the genes of a bacterium that confers resistance to a broad-spectrum herbicide—basically all of us, one way or another—should be paying close attention.

I’ve been paying attention since 2007 when, while researching something else, I encountered an article in High Country News that said, wonder of wonders, a federal district judge had ruled in favor of controlling genetically modified, Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa pending an environmental impact statement. Three cheers for the judge, I thought, and added alfalfa to my ever-growing list of environmental concerns. When, in due course, there were rumblings that it might be deregulated after all, I signed the petitions, wrote emails, and discussed the issue with my friends. We all know how the case turned out.

My personal objections to GE traits are based on my environmental understanding coupled with my moral sense of how we ought to behave ourselves as members of the biotic community. I am not a scientist or a farmer. I am an urban knowledge worker. My life, in certain cultural respects, has more to do with the concrete, grimy public transit, computers, and multicultural milieu (minus the plot complications and extra-legal shenanigans) of some recent William Gibson novel than the farmer’s wide skies, seasonal anxieties, and betting on the markets.

Like many of the 98 percent of Americans who aren’t farmers, I didn’t know much about alfalfa other than that it is a bee-pollinated, nitrogen-fixing legume that can be used as a cover crop, that cows eat it, and it grows in far away fields. Who, when they pick up their milk, on sale, at the local convenience store, thinks about the trail back to the supplier, further back to the farm, and thence to the cows and their diet? It’s tempting to think, “oh well, this is farmers’ business, and they and the experts know more about these things, don’t worry about it.”

However, I’m a gardener and, like most gardeners, through study and observation have developed an imaginative understanding of gene flow, and a practical understanding of ecology and the interactions of plants, animals, insects, soil, and so on.
(4 March 2011)
Author Adrian Ayres Fisher is an EB contributor.

We'd been avoiding GMOs because it is a technical, complicated subject not directly connected to resource depletion. For the same reasons, we have been moving away from the details of climate change over the last two years.

On the other hand, GMOs are another centralizing technology that make us even more vulnerable to system disruptions. -BA

Adrian writes: "The control by several companies of a huge percentage of crops in the USA, and the fact that gmo seeds are completely adapted to fossil-fuel intensive industrial farming; if there were disruptions, farmers would be in a bad way."

"GMO seed distribution and sales are part of an effort by these companies to control farming in a way that actively discourages farmers from trying other forms of farming that are more resilient. And these companies' power within the US government actively prevents the government from adopting policies that would lead to more resilient farming. In addition, the creation of superweeds through selective adaptation pressures bodes ill for all farmers. Not to mention genetic contamination--though I suppose that is more related to general technology-caused environmental degradation than the specific concerns of Energy Bulletin."

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