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Food & agriculture - November 29


Dickson Despommier on the Rise of the Vertical Farm (Podcast)

Jacob Gordon, Treehugger Radio
Picture a shining skyscraper. But instead of apartments or office cubicles, its floors are home to rows of broccoli plants. Their roots dangle not in soil, but in nutrient-rich mist; their leaves are fed not by sun, but by specially calibrated LEDs. Organic food grows, water is purified, waste recycled, people are fed, and our farmlands are left to grow wild and free. This is the dream of vertical farming. Despite some notable detractors, Dickson Despommier is profoundly optimistic that this is how we will feed our exploding population, and early ventures from Korea to the Netherlands show signs he may be right.

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(10 November 2011)



We're all paying for Europe's gift to our aristocrats and utility companies

George Monbiot, The Guardian
What would you do with £245? Would you: a) use it to buy food for the next five weeks; b) put it towards a family holiday; c) use it to double your annual savings; or d) give it to the Duke of Westminster?

Let me make the case for option D. This year the duke was plunged into relative poverty. Relative, that is, to the three parvenus who have displaced him from the top of the UK rich list. (Admittedly he's not so badly off in absolute terms: the value of his properties rose last year, to £7bn.) He's the highest ranked of the British-born people on the list, and we surely have a patriotic duty to keep him there. And he's a splendid example of British enterprise, being enterprising enough to have inherited his land and income from his father.

Well there must be a reason, mustn't there? Why else would households be paying this money – equivalent to five weeks' average spending on food and almost their average annual savings (£296) – to some of the richest men and women in the UK? Why else would this 21st-century tithe, this back-to-front Robin Hood tax, be levied?

I'm talking about the payments we make to Big Farmer through the common agricultural policy. They swallow €55bn (£47bn) a year, or 43% of the European budget. Despite the spending crisis raging through Europe, the policy remains intact. Worse, governments intend to sustain this level of spending throughout the next budget period, from 2014-2020.

Of all perverse public spending in the rich nations, farm subsidies must be among the most regressive. In the EU you are paid according to the size of your lands: the greater the area, the more you get. Except in Spain, nowhere is the subsidy system more unjust than in the UK. According to Kevin Cahill, author of Who Owns Britain, 69% of the land here is owned by 0.6% of the population. It is this group that takes the major payouts. The entire budget, according to the government's database, is shared between just 16,000 people or businesses. Let me give you some examples, beginning with a few old friends.

As chairman of Northern Rock, Matt Ridley oversaw the first run on a British bank since 1878, and helped precipitate the economic crisis that has impoverished so many. This champion of free market economics and his family received £205,000 from the taxpayer last year for owning their appropriately named Blagdon estate. That falls a little shy of the public beneficence extended to Prince Bandar, the Saudi Arabian fixer at the centre of the Al-Yamamah corruption scandal. In 2007 the Guardian discovered that he had received a payment of up to £1bn from the weapons manufacturer BAE. He used his hard-earned wealth to buy the Glympton estate in Oxfordshire. For this public service we pay him £270,000 a year. Much obliged to you guv'nor, I'm sure.

But it's the true captains of British enterprise – the aristocrats and the utility companies, equally deserving of their good fortune – who really clean up. The Duke of Devonshire gets £390,000, the Duke of Buccleuch £405,000, the Earl of Plymouth £560,000, the Earl of Moray £770,000, the Duke of Westminster £820,000. The Vestey family takes £1.2m. You'll be pleased to hear that the previous owner of their Thurlow estate – Edmund Vestey, who died in 2008 – managed his tax affairs so efficiently that in one year his businesses paid just £10. Asked to comment on his contribution to the public good, he explained: "We're all tax dodgers, aren't we?"

British households, who try so hard to keep the water companies in the style to which they're accustomed, have been blessed with another means of supporting this deserving cause. Yorkshire Water takes £290,000 in farm subsidies, Welsh Water £330,000, Severn Trent £650,000, United Utilities £1.3m. Serco, one of the largest recipients of another form of corporate welfare – the private finance initiative – gets a further £2m for owning farmland...
(28 November 2011)
Also published at George's blog with references.



Reinventing the Farm with Cheryl Rogowski, (podcast)

Majora Carter, The Promised Land
Where does our food come from? Since we pay close attention to so many aspects of food in the holiday season, host Majora Carter visits the northern reaches of the New York metropolitan area, where Cheryl Rogowski, a fourth-generation farmer, grows 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables. In 2004, Cheryl became the first farmer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She was honored for her innovative approach to agricultural programs and for reimagining and reinvigorating the American family farm. Farming in the 21st century encompasses agricultural work but also addresses community, social, civic and education needs. "It's not enough to just ride a tractor today," says Cheryl. She gives Majora a tour of the farm, and we'll hear from people she works with in the many programs she has created — from mentoring migrant farmers to creating low-cost CSAs for senior citizens, from supplying food for soup kitchens to helping with innovative sustainable farming programs in local communities.

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(7 November 2011)



Scarcity and degradation of land and water: growing threat to food security (FAO report)

Staff, FAO website
Widespread degradation and deepening scarcity of land and water resources have placed a number of key food production systems around the globe at risk, posing a profound challenge to the task of feeding a world population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, according to a new FAO report published today.

The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW) notes that while the last 50 years witnessed a notable increase in food production, “in too many places, achievements have been associated with management practices that have degraded the land and water systems upon which food production depends.”

Today a number of those systems “face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agriculture use and practices,” the report says.

No region is immune: systems at risk can be found around the globe, from the highlands of the Andes to the steppes of Central Asia, from Australia’s Murray-Darling river basin to the central United States.

At the same time, as natural resource bottlenecks are increasingly felt, competition for land and water will become “pervasive,” the report suggests. This includes competition between urban and industrial users as well as within the agricultural sector – between livestock, staple crops, non-food crop, and biofuel production.

And climate change is expected to alter the patterns of temperature, precipitation and river flows upon which the world’s food production systems depend.

As a result, the challenge of providing sufficient food for an ever-more hungry planet has never been greater, SOLAW says — especially in developing countries, where quality land, soil nutrients and water are least abundant.

“The SOLAW report highlights that the collective impact of these pressures and resulting agricultural transformations have put some production systems at risk of breakdown of their environmental integrity and productive capacity. These systems at risk may simply not be able to contribute as expected in meeting human demands by 2050. The consequences in terms of hunger and poverty are unacceptable. Remedial action needs to be taken now,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
(28 November 2011)
You can access the summary report here. You can pre-order copies of the full report at the earthscan website.

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