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Avant Gardeners Awake!

Wayne Roberts, Literary Review of Canada

Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution
Prometheus Books
372 pages, softcover
ISBN 9781616144586

The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities
New Society Publishers
304 pages, softcover
ISBN 9781550924886

Food pairs well with writing. Writerly minds are attracted to the food and agriculture scene, and the food and ag scene comes across well on the printed page.

It may be because food, agriculture and writing occupations all rely on compulsive-obsessive passion as the substitute for a financial motive for staying in the—pardon the pun—field. It may be because all the people who work in food, agriculture and writing live in hope of doing better next year. Possibly, there is an allure of romance in the job of preparing food and text. Or perhaps there is a common appreciation of culture, because agriculture is certainly as much an expression of human culture as writing.

Today’s food movement has certainly been well served by excellent writers. Indeed, the food movement has done much better in the hands of writers than shoppers. My estimate is that less than 5 percent of food sales in North America express some quality—be it certifiably local, sustainable, organic, fair or ethical—advocated by the food movement. But, judging by news reports or books, food and agriculture’s share of mind is certainly higher than the modest share of market would indicate.

Whatever accounts for the pleasant pairing of food and writing does not correspond well with the grubby reality of what people actually eat. Perhaps this huge chasm between what is written and digested by the mind and what is paid for and digested in the tummy has a bearing on frequent statements by writers about the revolutionary nature of how the food times they are a-changin’.

I enjoyed a relaxing but stimulating weekend reading both the excellent books under review here, but the thing that stuck in my mind’s craw was the high-profile reference to revolution in the titles of both Jennifer Cockrall-King’s Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution and Peter Ladner’s The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities.

After acknowledging that I know both authors personally and am well treated in both books, I want to say that I learned a huge amount from both books. I read them cover to cover and destroyed them cover to cover with my dog-eared pages and scribbles everywhere. The authors, both professional journalists, are fine researchers and know how to tell a good story with fluid prose. Their distinctive approach and focus—Ladner examines urban agriculture as one part of a local food system, while Cockrall-King sticks pretty close to city farming; Ladner’s chapters treat themes, while Cockrall-King’s deal with places—are different enough to reward readers who go through both.

Both authors also show sound judgement, except in one regard—the revolutionary icing they try to impose on the cake. Because there is so little to quibble about with the insides of the books, I have no choice but to judge the books by their covers, and challenge their effort at a revolutionary framing of their topic.

Revolution is used far too often to describe what happens with food and agriculture. We have the Neolithic Revolution that “gave birth” to agriculture some 10,000 years ago, actually over the course of evolutionary changes lasting many millennia. We have the agricultural revolution that preceded the industrial revolution in the United Kingdom, and the Green Revolution of the 1950s, and quite a few others. There is a lot of revolutionary hype in this field….

…First, the most important reality to understand about the agriculture and food scene is not radical challenge, which in reality engages a relatively small number of mainly middle-income North Americans, but ongoing mass complacency toward glaring problems of the food system—staggering levels of waste, pollution, obesity, gorging, animal cruelty, food adulteration, malnutrition, low wages, farm bankruptcies and hunger, to state the most gallingly obvious. The authors do a fine job of presenting information documenting these realities, but because of their revolution frame, they do not notice that what most requires explanation and commentary is not the small proportion of people involved in any kind of meaningful protest. The biggest suppressed story, as well as the most important political accomplishment, of the dominant food system is its continuing ability to keep the silent majority from talking with their mouths full. There is more passivity in the face of revolting realities than there is mobilization for radical possibilities. Such analysis is missing from both books.

A second misframing arises from an overly conventional framing of the food side of food revolution. Both books are very much about food as a physical thing. Well duh!, my daughter would say. What do you think food books would be about?

Well, counter-intuitive though it seems, the most interesting and radicalizing thing about food is its ability to connect to a raft of issues seemingly unrelated to food. Global warming is a food issue, for example, as soon as the energy expenditure is counted that goes into growing, processing, transporting, storing, stocking, selling food and then hauling a third of it to landfill. Inequality is to a large extent a food issue, clear for all to see when observing the gender and age of poorly paid food service staff or the country of origin of farm labourers deprived of basic rights. Because we all have to eat so much and so often, it is almost inevitable that food is less than six degrees of separation from most issues of the day…
(6 August 2012)

India’s Drought Highlights Challenges of Climate Change Adaptation

Robert S. Eschelman, Scientific American
India is in the midst of its second drought in four years, with rainfall roughly 20 percent below average nationwide. In the nation’s agricultural areas of the west and north — the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana and Maharashtra, for example — the situation is far worse. In Punjab — India’s “food basket” — rainfall is 70 percent below average.

“We know that the rainfall in August will not be able to fill the gap, and the problem is getting really serious,” said Harjeet Singh, international climate justice coordinator at ActionAid. “The impacts on the ground in terms of food security are yet to be seen. Unless the government prepares, it could be really tragic.”

Three-quarters of India’s annual rainfall comes from the summer monsoons that occur between June and September. Once the rains begin, India’s farmers sow their summer crops, mainly rice but also oilseed and sugar cane.

The agricultural sector lies at the core of Indian society. Sixty percent of the population works in agriculture, and it accounts for roughly a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.

Poor crop yields could affect domestic food supplies and risk triggering a government ban on farm exports, further rattling international commodity markets, which already have been anticipating lower yields due to the drought across the U.S. Corn Belt.

Early this week, electricity blackouts left more than half of India’s 1.2 billion people without power, the largest such outage in world history. The country’s electric generation capacity and grid infrastructure are notoriously lacking. But many experts say the drought served as a complicating factor. Less rain meant less hydroelectric power, and farmers turned to electric pumps to tap groundwater supplies and irrigate their rain-deprived pastures.

As damaging as the drought has been, though, scientists and environmental experts warn that it also brings into sharp focus India’s long-term vulnerabilities to climate change…
(6 August 2012)

Worst Drought Since 1956 Getting Worse; One-Fifth of U.S. Has Extreme Conditions

Staff, Reutersvia Inside Climate News
The worst U.S. drought in 56 years intensified over the past week as above-normal temperatures and scant rainfall parched corn and soybean crops across the Midwestand central Plains, a report from climate experts said on Thursday.

The drought became more severe in the southern United States as well, just a year removed from a record-breaking dry spell that ruined crops and wilted grazing pastures across Texas and Oklahoma enough to force an unprecedented northward migration of cattle.

Nearly two-thirds of the contiguous United States was under some level of drought as of July 31, more than a fifth of it classified as extreme drought or worse, according to the Drought Monitor, a weekly report compiled by U.S. climate experts.

The drought intensified in most major farm states, including Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, the top U.S. corn and soybean producer, as temperatures were five to 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal and rains were largely scattered and light.

Crop condition ratings for corn and soybeans have fallen to the lowest since the major drought of 1988, propelling prices of both crops to all-time highs last month.

Extreme drought covered about 32 percent of the nine-state Midwest and about 5 percent of the region was under exceptional drought, the most dire classification which results in widespread crop and pasture losses and shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells…

(6 August 2012)

Food Machine
Yul Kwon, PBS
Over the past century, an American industrial revolution has given rise to the biggest, most productive food machine the world has ever known.

In this episode, host Yul Kwon explores how this machine feeds nearly 300 million Americans every day. He discovers engineering marvels we’ve created by putting nature to work and takes a look at the costs of our insatiable appetite on our health and environment.

For the first time in human history, less than 2% of the population can feed the other 98%. Yul embarks on a trip that begins with a pizza delivery route in New York City then goes across country to California’s Central Valley, where nearly 50% of America’s fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown and skydives into the heartland for an aerial look of our farmlands.

He meets the men and women who keep us fed 365 days a year—everyone from industrial to urban farmers, crop dusting pilots to long distance bee truckers, modern day cowboys to the pizza deliveryman…
(6 August 2012)

From EB reader Jim Barton, who says:

What looks like a good idea– explicating our infrastructure– turns out to be a half-explication, celebrating how high tech and GMOs can boost food production; effusing about how the Oglala Acquifer makes this possible, without mentioning depletion of the slow-to-recharge underground lake.

I haven’t seen the segments on electricity, transportation or manaufacturing, but that is what the food segment is like. It’s sponsored by Dow Chemical. And written by Ben Bernanke’s cousin.

I wanted to give you a headsup– it is now out in videostores.

Sarah Henry’s critical review looks good.…

GGGSIM less so

More disturbing is the transformation of PBS into a critical corporate mouthpiece. I am surprised that google brings up so few critical reviews from local/organic food bloggers.