Food & agriculture – Nov 19

November 19, 2012

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Peak Oil? What About Peak Food? A Conversation With Lester Brown

Anca Novacovici, Huffington Post

In India, 24 percent of families have foodless days. That means that each week they plan what days they will not eat. In Nigeria, it is 27 percent of families. According to Lester Brown, "food is the new oil." Lester’s new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, makes a very convincing case that the greatest threat we as a human species face is food scarcity — and at 123 pages, the book is packed full of data and analysis to support this.

I had the privilege of meeting Lester Brown at a Wharton Club of D.C. event, then of spending a little more time with him and discussing this important topic. If you are not familiar with Lester Brown, he is one of the most influential thinkers on environmental topics, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and author of over 50 books, including Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

According to Lester Brown, increasing food prices, climate change, population growth and water shortages will lead to an increasing number of failed states and will be at the forefront of conflict between nations. Armed aggression as we define it today does not even make his top five major threats for the 21st century.

We are transitioning from an era of food surplus to an era of food scarcity. There is a growing need for food — each year, an additional 80 million people are born. Last year, we reached the 7 billion mark and will reach 9 billion before 2050 according to the United Nations. In addition, as incomes rise, meat consumption increases. Eighty percent of the grain Americans consume is in the form of meat, milk and eggs. "Water used in making that food amounts to about 2,000 liters per person per day, compared to the four liters that we drink each day", says Lester Brown.

Full Planet, Empty Plates points out ethanol production for automobiles is competing for a share of grain output. Aquifers are being depleted faster than they can replenish (assuming they can replenish, which in some instances is not the case). In several agriculturally advanced countries, rice and wheat yields are beginning to plateau. Topsoil continues to erode faster than new soil can form. Temperatures are rising, leading to droughts and to unpredictable weather for farming. According to the book, studies show that for each one degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing seasons, there is a 10 percent decline in grain yields (some estimates put it as high as 17 percent). A recent PwC study shows temperatures will rise by up to six degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This will lead to increased food prices, and increasing unrest in the developing world where a small rise in the price of grains can mean the difference between survival and starvation…

(13 November 2012)

Revolution in Mexico City, one lettuce at a time

Laurent Thonet, Yahoo News

A green revolution is sweeping across the car and concrete jungle of Mexico City, an infamously smoggy capital that was once dubbed "Makesicko City" by novelist Carlos Fuentes.

Residents are growing vegetables on rooftops, planting trees where buildings once stood, hopping on bicycles and riding in electric taxis, defying the urban landscape in this metropolis of 20 million people and four million cars.

"This is our vote for the environment," said Elias Cattan, a 33-year-old bespectacled architect pointing to the lettuce, onions and chilies growing in a planting table and inside used tires on the balcony of his rooftop office.

"It’s a window to the future and it is very important that we reconnect with the earth," he said as light rain fell on the sprouts atop the five-story building in the trendy Condesa neighborhood.

Like a growing number of chilangos — as Mexico City residents are called — Cattan bikes to work in a maze of roads renowned for their giant traffic jams.

Twenty years ago, the United Nations declared the Mexican capital the world’s most polluted city. Fuentes envisioned black acid rain in his novel "Christopher Unborn," but in real life the air was so nasty that birds dropped dead in this megalopolis 2,240 meters (7,350 feet) above sea level.

While Mexico City still has high levels of pollutants, it has dropped off the top 10 blacklist, thanks to traffic restrictions and the closure of factories but also because other cities have become grimier.

…Growing plants, fruits and vegetables here requires creativity and lessons. The city and private groups offer advice to those who want to learn how to plant in a building.

"It’s easy, fun and cheap," said Liliana Balcazar, deputy director of the city’s environmental education centers that show people urban gardening tricks. "You can do it anywhere that gets at least five to six hours of sun per day."

"It’s like being in the countryside inside the city," Balcazar said, noting that it is also a great source of healthy, home-grown produce for a population facing an obesity problem.

Cattan has received help from Gabriela Vargas, a 43-year-old former photographer whose passion was born 12 years ago, when she planted vegetables in her balcony to make tastier, healthier food for her daughter…

(15 November 2012)

Chicago’s urban farm district could be the biggest in the nation

Lori Rotenberk, Grist

Chicago’s Black Belt area, on the historic South Side, was once a hub for jazz, blues, and literature, but today is riddled with vacant lots, poverty, and blight. Now, a new plan envisions the area as a thriving urban farm district.

In the coming weeks, the city’s planning department is expected to approve the creation of a green belt with a strong focus on urban agriculture within the neighborhood of Englewood. The plan is an element of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development’s (DHE) Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, designed to shepherd and foster redevelopment in 13 square miles of the South Side. Years of disinvestment and population decline have left the area riddled with 11,000 vacant lots totaling 800 acres.

Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the DHE, says that although the plan lays out a district “with a small d,” the city has a deep history in urban planning know-how. He, along with other city officials and community organizers, hope the farm district will help stabilize the South Side by putting vacant land to use and creating entrepreneurial and job opportunities. They also expect it to become a model for other city planners as well as a tourist destination for people interested in farming and growing food.

At the core of the blueprint is the three-mile long New ERA (Englewood Re-making America) Trail, which will serve as the “spine” of the farm district, Strazzabosco says. A former railroad line, the three-mile-long trail will become a linear park with foot and bike trails and farm stands. The area designated as the district begins directly across from the trail, as that’s where an estimated 100 acres of city-owned, vacant parcels are located. Over time, they can be converted into farms and other agricultural projects.

Not only will the farms bring healthy and affordable food to the community, the hope is that they will also create jobs and attract new housing, industry, and businesses. Two half-acre job training farms already exist in the district — Growing Home’s Wood Street and Honore Street farms — as well as the 1.7-acre for-profit Perry Street Farm. All grow seasonal vegetables such as tomatoes, kale, lettuce, and beets. A fourth half-acre educational farm run by the Center for Urban Transformation and Angelic Organics Learning Center will be planted next spring.

(14 November 2012)

Massive deforestation risks turning Somalia into desert

Boris Bachorz, Yahoo News

Hassan Hussein cuts down 40 trees every month to fuel his charcoal business, fully aware of the impact his action has on the environment.

But for the livestock keeper, the forests are the last remaining resource. And he is not alone.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalia’s traditional pastoralist herders do the same, putting their impoverished country on a path of heavy deforestation that risks turning large swathes of their country into a desert.

"I used to keep animals, but I lost my herd to famine and disease and am the eldest in the family," says Hussein, 27, adding that he has 10 mouths to feed back home — two children, seven brothers and his mother.

Four years ago, Hussein had 25 camels and 300 goats. Now, only three camels and 15 goats from his once respectable sized herd are left.

Thus every morning, with an axe slumped over his shoulder, he sets off in search of wood for charcoal.

Once he locates and cuts down a tree, it takes two days of burning, and two more days of cooling the smouldering heaps before he can sell the charcoal, at six dollars (five euros) for a 20 kilogramme sack.

The village of Jaleo, in the northern self-declared state of Somaliland, once prided itself on being at the heart of the savannah…

(18 November 2012)

These guerrilla cartographers are mapping the edible world

Tilde Herrara, Grist

Do you ever wonder how many vendors at your local farmers market are really local?

Cameron Reed did. So she mapped them for a school project. As she expected, the vast majority — more than 80 percent — did indeed come from within 100 miles, but Reed was surprised to find that a wide mix of products were grown and produced even closer to home — within 50 miles of where she lived.

An updated version of the map Reed made will appear in an upcoming collection called Food: An Atlas, which will chart the world of food in some of its most inspiring and somber dimensions — from food production, distribution, and food security to cuisine. Like many of those behind the atlas, Reed hopes to inspire people to think more closely about the origins of their food.

“It’s a book about the geography of food,” says Darin Jensen, a University of California at Berkeley professor and cartographer who is spearheading the project. Jensen issued a call for maps in June and the submissions began pouring in. Food: An Atlas is crowdsourced from roughly 100 volunteers spread across parts of the globe, including a loose band of what Jensen calls “guerrilla cartographers.” That means they created maps and contributed to the project voluntarily, not because they are under assignment.

You can also call Jensen a guerrilla publisher. He will take a non-traditional approach and self-publish Food: An Atlas, courtesy of a Kickstarter campaign that ends Tuesday. (As of last week, it had already hit its $20,000 goal, as well as additional $1,500 to create a website for the project and release it as an e-book.)

The $20,000 will be used to print the first 1,100 copies. The balance will go to print additional copies and toward sales and distribution, which will begin in early December….

(22 October 2012)


Tags: food and water, urban agriculture