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The future of ‘famine foods,’ unconventional edibles in the garden

Barbara Damrosch, The Washington Post
They’re called poor people’s foods. Plants foraged by starving folk and scavenged when crops succumb to drought: They’re what you eat just to get by. Many are unusually rich in nutrients, have medicinal value and may even taste good. But because they’re free for the taking they get little respect.

Scientists in fields such as ethnobotany study them and the ways they are eaten. But the true experts are indigenous people all over the world who’ve inherited them as part of their culture.

To the rest of us, who rely for our food on an alarmingly few species of plants grown on an industrial scale, these wild edibles are a gardener’s curiosity that may hold the key to a more sustainable way of feeding the world in the years to come.

A treasure house of knowledge about survival plants can be found on the Famine Foods Web site , sponsored by the horticulture department of Purdue University. Browsing through its database, you might be surprised to see a number of foods that are in your yard, such as the leaves of forsythia — eaten in China with oil and salt — or a garden narcissus that the French turn into flour. Will times ever be so bad that you’ll need to nibble the edible leaves of your expensive Japanese maple? Unlikely. But it’s useful to know that a pesky species like shepherd’s purse, a common weed, is a nutritional powerhouse, and that roots from the evil, tree-smothering kudzu vine, steamed and eaten, could someday save your life…
(6 June 2012)

New report highlights absurdity of G20 stance on biofuels and food prices

Staff, ActionAid
‘Biofueling World Food Prices’ shows that prices of key agricultural commodities such as corn, wheat and vegetable oils will escalate sharply in response to EU biofuel policies, hitting the world’s poorest the hardest. By consigning biofuels to history, leaders at next week’s G20 summit could take a giant leap towards stopping the world’s poorest from going hungry.

Clare Coffey, policy advisor at ActionAid UK says:

“Biofuels will be the elephant in the room at the G20 summit as no-one there is prepared to speak out on the subject.

“The powerful biofuels lobby has persuaded world leaders to ignore the scientific facts and not to rock the boat, but all the evidence is making world leaders look increasingly irrational for refusing to address the issue”

EU biofuels use is expected to reach the equivalent of nearly 30 million tonnes of oil by the end of this decade, driven by a mandatory target for 10% of renewable energy in transport fuels by 2020. If that happens, the impact on food price rises will mean millions more people facing terrible choices – either cut back on nutritional intake or stop paying for basic social services such as education or health…
(14 June 2012)
The ActionAid report can be found here. -KS

Super farms are needed in UK, says leader of National Farmers Union

Juliette Jowit, the Guardian
The president of the National Farmers Union believes the UK needs more and bigger “super farms” to keep food prices from rising too high and to maintain high animal welfare standards.

Peter Kendall gave his views as figures reportedly showed that the lack of farmland in Britain was now as acute as the shortfall in China.

Proposals for the first livestock farms that would breed thousands of animals have been dubbed mega farms by critics who claim they will create mass herds in sterile conditions where injuries will go unnoticed, disease will spread quickly and the environment will struggle to cope with the slurry and pollution.

But, as planning experts continue to consider at least two planning applications for large-scale pig and dairy farms, Kendall said that more super farms would be created and the government should make adjustments to allow some farms to keep several thousand animals and be part of a trial aimed at helping Britain feed its population as food demand rises around the world.

The problem thought to be facing Britain is highlighted by figures from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board showing that, though Britain has about 5% of China’s 1.3 billion population, it has less than 3% of its land area.

An independent report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (Post) found that much larger farms than those in Britain could be “both good and bad” for animal welfare and the environment, arguing that they could “potentially” improve conditions for animals and the protection of the environment…
(5 June 2012)
The link to the POST report is here. -KS

Retailers display appetite for tackling food waste

James Murray, businessgreen
The UK’s retailers are making “great progress” tackling the UK’s £12bn a year mountain of food waste, according to a major new report from the government-backed Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

The report, entitled Helping Consumers Reduce Food Waste – A Retail Survey 2011, confirms that annual household food waste fell 13 per cent over the past three years to about 7.2 million tonnes in 2011.

The improvement was partly attributed to the recession, but is also the result of a raft of initiatives undertaken by retailers to help reduce the amount of food and drink being thrown away.

The survey analysed 12,000 separate products across 20 different categories where food waste has traditionally been high, bread, chicken, carrots, bagged salads, yoghurt, eggs, cheese and milk.

It found that the majority of retailers had increased the availability of smaller packs of products such as potatoes, milk, cooking sauces and bread, while 47 per cent of packs sold are now re-closable, increasing the usable life of many food stuffs…
(14 June 2012)
The report can be downloaded here. -KS

How to Start an Urban Farm in a Post-Industrial City

Sarah Laskow, Good
Youngstown, Ohio, has a lot of vacant land. In its manufacturing heyday, its population topped 170,000. Now less than half that number live in the city. The 73,000 or so inhabitants live among 22,000 vacant lots and buildings.

But rather than sit around and watch the grass grow in vacant lots, the citizens and leaders of Youngstown have decided to take control of what grows there. By 2010, the city had put together a plan that envisioned a future as a smaller city, but also a greener one. That foresight is paying off. The city’s website lists its recent accolades—fourth best city for raising a family, one of 20 cities recovering most strongly from the Great Recession, most affordable major housing market. And instead of growing grass in vacant lots, a bevy of community groups are growing vegetables and fruits, alongside chicken coops and fish ponds, as Global Green documents in a new report.

Part of the city’s plan has been to support urban agriculture by leasing or selling land parcels for as little as a dollar and by handing out wrenches to allow farmers access to water from fire hydrants when their rainwater collection systems run dry…
(6 June)

Graying farmers force Japan to rethink food system

Sam Eaton, Center for Investigative Reporting

As its farmers get too old to till the soil, Japan grapples with a question that many industrialized nations now face: Who will grow our food in the future?

Introduction: We turn now to Japan, where a rapidly aging population is forcing the country to reconsider the way it feeds itself. Our story is part of “Food for 9 Billion,” a multimedia project that looks at the challenge of feeding the world in a time of social and environmental change. It’s a NewsHour partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions and American Public Media’s Marketplace. Tonight’s correspondent is Sam Eaton.

Reporter Sam Eaton: In modern Japan, farming is still very much a holdover from simpler times. Much of the work is done by hand, on small plots of land that have been cultivated by the same families, sometimes for centuries.

But today, Japanese agriculture is at a crossroads.

Japan’s farmers, like 71-year-old Yukinori M.ori and his wife, Fukiko, are getting old. And their children and grandchildren are leaving the farms for higher-paying jobs in the cities.

Yukinori Mori: My eldest son is self-employed and my younger one is working in America, so they don’t really need to take over the family farm. But the bottom line is that if they don’t continue on, this household and the farm will be over…
(12 June, 2012)

To Truly Fix Food System, the Farm Bill Should Restore Fair Markets

Wenonah Hauter, food&water watch
The Farm Bill debate is currently in full-swing in the U.S. Senate this week. The sprawling legislation covers food stamps, subsidies, international food aid, research grants — it literally dictates what and how we eat. And right now, the Farm Bill gives all the power to the biggest food companies, which they wield with impunity over farmers and consumers. But an amendment to the bill – the Packer Ban, introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) – could begin to address this unfair advantage that giant food companies have over farmers.

A tiny number of corporations sit between fewer than a million full-time farmers and 300 million eaters. Only a handful of companies sell seeds and fertilizer to farmers, buy their crops and livestock, process the fruits of farmers’ labor into manufactured food, and sell it at a declining number of gigantic supermarket chains. Those that sell supplies and equipment charge farmers high prices. Meanwhile, the processors and meatpackers that buy from farmers pay low, and consumers see a smaller number of choices at often-higher prices at the grocery store.

The lack of competition is especially severe in livestock markets where, between 2000 and 2010, the United States lost 89,000 beef cattle operations (more than 10 percent) and 19,000 hog operations (about 20 percent). Just four companies dominate meat processing in the Unites States, controlling 80 percent of the marketplace. With few buyers, farmers rarely get a competitive price for their livestock. At the local level, there are often only one or two meatpackers buying livestock and often times both companies are represented by the same person, making it impossible for a farmer to negotiate a fair price.

Meatpackers increasingly own their own cattle in order to manipulate the market. The companies buy livestock on the open market when prices are low but slaughter their own livestock when bidding prices rise. This puts long-term, downward pressure on the price of livestock and allows meatpackers to manipulate what farmers and ranchers earn. These persistently low livestock prices effectively work to push small and medium-sized farmers out of business, while still leading to increased consumer food prices because large meatpackers don’t face enough competition to force them to pass on savings to consumers…
(11 June, 2012)