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Food & agriculture - Jan 22

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Urban gardens: The future of food?

Walter Doig, Salon
It's easy to make fun of, but as more and more farming moves downtown, eating local is taking on a new flavor

With penny-farthings, handlebar mustaches and four-pocket vests back in fashion, the rise of urban farming should just about complete our fetish for the late 1800s. Today, you can find chicken coops on rooftops in Brooklyn, N.Y., goats in San Francisco backyards, and rows of crops sprouting across empty lots in Cleveland.

That it fits so snugly into the hipster-steampunk throwback trend is what makes urban farming ripe for ridicule. (“Portlandia” has taken a crack or two at it.) But could city-based agriculture ever make the leap from precious pastime to serious player in our cities’ food systems — not just for novelty seekers and committed locavores, but for the Safeway-shopping masses?

... Right now, urban-grown produce represents a minuscule slice of the food system. But there are several plausible scenarios that could make such food more commonplace in the city kitchen of the future.

Several of these scenarios are growing more likely by the day. If energy prices spike, your average grapefruit’s 1,500-mile journey to your fridge could make local food seem cheaper by comparison. Droughts are becoming more common, and soil-free hydroponic agriculture uses a fraction of the water of conventional farming and can easily be set up in urban environments. And there’s always the unforeseen Black Swan event: World War II “victory gardens” made urban farming a temporary reality for millions in the early 1940s.

But even if these scenarios came to pass, wouldn’t it still make more sense to grow on cheaper land just outside city limits, rather than right in the bustle of the city? Depends which city you’re talking about.
(21 January 2012)

Solutions Series Guides: chickens, greywater, rainwater harvesting ...

Bay Localize (San Francisco Bay Area, California)
With the growing interest in urban agriculture, greywater, rainwater catchment and permaculture solutions, we have a tremendous opportunity to help meet the needs of our communities and boost our local economy. Explore the following Solutions Series Guides to help you get started on making a real difference in your household and neighborhood!

Chicken Coops
Greywater Systems
Rainwater Harvesting
Rooftop Gardens
Urban Farming and Gardening
(January 2012)

European banks fuelling food price volatility and hunger

Phil Lee, Friends of the Earth International
European banks, pension funds and insurance companies are increasing global hunger and poverty by speculating on food prices and financing land grabs in poorer countries, according to a report by Friends of the Earth Europe.

food sovereignty agenda The report analyses the activities of 29 European banks, pension funds and insurance companies, including Deutsche Bank, Barclays, RBS, Allianz, BNP Paribas, AXA, HSBC, Generali, Allianz, Unicredit and Credit Agricole. It reveals the significant involvement of these financial institutions in food speculation, and the direct or indirect financing of land grabbing. Environmental and development organisations are calling for strict regulation to rein in these destructive activities.

Daniel Pentzlin, sustainable finance campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe said: “Food speculation and the financing of land grabbing leads to a catastrophic instability in global food prices – forcing millions of people into poverty and hunger. European banks, insurers and funds that speculate with food and land are gambling with peoples’ lives whilst reaping huge profits. This industry needs strict regulation to protect the poorest in society.”

Friends of the Earth Europe is calling on financial institutions to investigate, publish and reduce their involvement in food speculation and investments in land. Banks, pension funds and insurers should phase-out and refrain from speculating in financial products based on staple foods, which threatens the human right to food. European regulators should introduce caps on the size of bets speculators can make to curb excessive speculation.

Read the report
(12 January 2012)

The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture

Miguel A. Altieri and Fernando R. Funes-Monzote, Monthly Review
When Cuba faced the shock of lost trade relations with the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s, food production initially collapsed due to the loss of imported fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, parts, and petroleum. The situation was so bad that Cuba posted the worst growth in per capita food production in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. But the island rapidly re-oriented its agriculture to depend less on imported synthetic chemical inputs, and became a world-class case of ecological agriculture.1 This was such a successful turnaround that Cuba rebounded to show the best food production performance in Latin America and the Caribbean over the following period, a remarkable annual growth rate of 4.2 percent per capita from 1996 through 2005, a period in which the regional average was 0 percent.2

Much of the production rebound was due to the adoption since the early 1990s of a range of agrarian decentralization policies that encouraged forms of production, both individual as well as cooperative—Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC) and Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS). Moreover, recently the Ministry of Agriculture announced the dismantling of all “inefficient State companies” as well as support for creating 2,600 new small urban and suburban farms, and the distribution of the use rights (in usufruct) to the majority of estimated 3 million hectares of unused State lands. Under these regulations, decisions on resource use and strategies for food production and commercialization will be made at the municipal level, while the central government and state companies will support farmers by distributing necessary inputs and services.3 Through the mid-1990s some 78,000 farms were given in usufruct to individuals and legal entities. More than 100,000 farms have now been distributed, covering more than 1 million hectares in total. These new farmers are associated with the CCS following the campesino production model. The government is busy figuring out how to accelerate the processing of an unprecedented number of land requests.4

The land redistribution program has been supported by solid research- extension systems that have played key roles in the expansion of organic and urban agriculture and the massive artisanal production and deployment of biological inputs for soil and pest management. The opening of local agricultural markets and the existence of strong grassroots organisations supporting farmers—for example, the National Association of Small Scale Farmers (ANAP, Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños), the Cuban Association of Animal Production (ACPA, Asociación Cubana de Producción Animal), and the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF, Asociación Cubana de Técnicos Agrícolas y Forestales)—also contributed to this achievement.

But perhaps the most important changes that led to the recovery of food sovereignty in Cuba occurred in the peasant sector which in 2006, controlling only 25 percent of the agricultural land, produced over 65 percent of the country’s food.5 Most peasants belong to the ANAP and almost all of them belong to cooperatives. The production of vegetables typically produced by peasants fell drastically between 1988 to 1994, but by 2007 had rebounded to well over 1988 levels (see Table 1). This production increase came despite using 72 percent fewer agricultural chemicals in 2007 than in 1988.

Miguel A. Altieri (agroeco3 [at] is Profesor of Agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley and President of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA). He is the author of more than 250 journal articles and twelve books. Fernando R. Funes-Monzote (mgahonam [at] is currently a researcher at the Experimental Station Indio Hatuey, University of Matanzas, Cuba. He is one of the founding members of the Cuban Association of Organic Agriculture.
(January 2012 issue)

Food as a Commodity

Fred Magdoff, Monthly Review
Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.

For many millennia following the origin of our species, humans were hunters and gatherers—an existence that one might think of as tenuous. However, judging from archeological evidence as well as recent examples, hunters and gatherers generally ate a diverse diet that supplied adequate nutrition. For example, studies in the 1960s and ‘70s of the !Kung of southern Africa, foragers for literally thousands of years, indicate that although they ate meat that they hunted, about two-thirds of their food was plant-based—nuts (supplying more than one-third of caloric intake), fruits, roots, and berries—and their diet provided approximately 2,400 calories a day. The groups of hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, with everyone participating in the provisioning of food.

Agriculture, which developed some seven to ten thousand years ago, provided surplus food that allowed the development of cities and the hierarchies and civilizations that went along with them—farmers, artisans, priests, kings, warriors, scribes, and other functionaries. But just because there was a surplus did not mean that people were better nourished than hunter-gatherers. In fact, the narrowing of available foods used from the wide variety in the hunter-gatherers’ diets, along with the reliance primarily on grains to provide calories, is thought to have caused a decrease in the health of early agriculturalists—as indicated by their decreased height compared that of hunter-gatherers. In these agricultural societies surplus food production was mainly appropriated for the use of the non-food producing classes. Most pre-capitalist agricultural societies had many producers relative to non-productive classes.

In some ancient empires imperial tribute took the form of food shipped long distances from the place of production. North Africa, for example, was the granary for Rome. Much of Chinese history involved constructing infrastructure to store and provide food far from its place of production. Nevertheless, in much of the world (including feudal Europe) food was produced either by peasant farmers and consumed by their families or else appropriated by landed aristocracies on a fairly local basis. What markets existed were often on a barter basis and trade in food was in kind, without becoming a commodity.

This changed with capitalism or generalized commodity production. The endless accumulation of profits, the motive force of the capitalist system, occurs through the production of commodities or services to sell at a price in excess of the production costs. Production for the purpose of sale and profit, instead of production for use, is a defining characteristic of capitalism and essentially all commodity exchanges take place in markets. During the early stages of capitalism, when most people still lived and worked on the land, a large portion of food was produced to be consumed locally in the rural areas and did not exist as a commodity. However, farmers near growing cities and/or near water transport shipped food to the industrializing urban centers.

The commodity nature of food became much more pronounced as capitalism grew and conquered most of the world’s societies. Imperial powers brought the peasants of their colonies into the money economy by extracting monetary rather than in-kind taxes. The need to obtain money to pay taxes began a process that converted a portion of the food produced into commodities.

The industrial phase of capitalism caused rural populations to decline in Europe, North America, and Japan. People were forced off the land and looked for work in the cities, moving to the growing industrial centers. (Many also migrated from Europe to North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere.) The development of canals, railroads, and road systems allowed for long-distance transport of food within large landmasses. Advances in shipping by sea also greatly decreased the cost of global trade in food.

Almost all of the crops and animals raised using the scale and approach of industrial farming are sold as undifferentiated commodities. Farmers sell their crops to buyers who resell the raw commodities to be processed—or themselves process the raw commodity—with the semi-processed commodities then sold to final processors/packagers who sell to wholesalers who then sell to retailers who finally sell food to the public. Thus, the farmers producing the bulk of food in the wealthy countries have become greatly separated from the public that finally purchases their products—not just physically, but also by the long chain of intermediaries between farms and people’s tables. Farm mechanization has increased labor productivity, leading to fewer farmers and larger farms. As industrial methods were applied to raising crops and animals, the agriculture-input sector grew dramatically and became highly concentrated—with relatively few companies now producing and selling farm machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. Industrialized food systems also saw concentration and centralization of production and growing monopoly power. For example, large integrated “protein” (meat) firms now contract with farmers to produce poultry and hogs in large facilities under crowded and inhumane conditions. Because corporations mandate that their contractors be located near where they decide to build slaughtering facilities, this frequently means long distance transport of feed. Beef cows are increasingly raised in large feedlots.

Indeed farming, the actual raising of crops and animals, is only one part of the whole food system. ...

Fred Magdoff (fmagdoff [at] is professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont. His is coauthor with John Bellamy Foster of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2011).
(January 2012 issue)

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