Food & agriculture – Dec 3

December 3, 2013

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Food Sovereignty: A Breviary
Raj Patel, Raj

I was very pleased to write this piece for The Financial Times and very pressed to condense the idea of ‘food sovereignty’ down to 600 words. If you’d like to know more, here’s a slightly lengthier treatment.

While hunger is timeless, the concept of food security is less than 40 years old. Its changing definition shows it is a product of its time – but also suggests why that time may soon be up.

Half a dozen countries have adopted policies for “food sovereignty” – an idea spawned by farmers but rapidly attracting attention beyond the fields. To understand why, history helps.

Food security was first defined at the 1974 World Food Conference, when attempts by what were then called Third World countries to steer between the US and Soviet Union were foundering. Food security, it was agreed, happened when there was enough “to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”.

Then a new definition emerged at the 1996 World Food Summit. Food security became about individuals’ – not countries’ – ability “at all times, [to] have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Like the original, this definition was coloured by contemporary politics. Absent the Soviet Union and developing countries, this was food policy for Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay The End of History. Food would be made available through trade and the market. Hunger was a matter for individual, not government, management.

Many farmers’ groups disagreed with the framework of trade rules – the US and EU subsidised their farmers, dumping excess produce. Why should the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Agriculture deny poor farmers the same kind of support?

Anti-hunger campaigners concurred, pointing out that political commitments to trade exceeded the pledges to end hunger. They were proved right. The number of people considered “food-insecure” in the US increased from 31m in 1999 to 49m in 2012.

At the 1996 summit, La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way), a group representing more than 100m farmers, farmworkers and landless peasants, came up with food sovereignty. The first draft included demands for peace; the removal of agriculture from the WTO; an affirmation of the right to food; respect for traditional knowledge and insistence on agro-ecological science.

A core idea emerged. People could eat well only if their governments were free to adopt policies that supported domestic production and consumption. Food sovereignty was a demand not only to disconnect from the circuits of global food trade, but also to behave more democratically in the production and distribution of food within countries.

In 1996, this seemed hopelessly backward, a Keynesian throwback. But the food crisis of 2007 changed the minds of many food-importing governments. Policies that encouraged a domestic buffer against international instability began to look appealing.

In North America, some 200 food policy councils convene small businesses, municipal government, farmers, farmworkers and food advocates to develop harmonised ways to end urban hunger. La Via Campesina’s 40 agro-ecological schools are independent of large-scale commercial agriculture.

In practice, food sovereignty has been characterised by a commitment to equality and an insistence on autonomy. Food sovereignty might be something that cannot be given – only asserted.

National land reform, the realisation of the right to food, and gender equity policies can help end hunger. But governments ought also to imagine how they might take back their food sovereignty from a multilateral system that increasingly denies it.

(21 November 2013)

Transforming a conventional orchard into a fruit forest
Sami Grover, Treehugger

From 2000-year-old food forests to an amazing, chaotic and largely self-sustaining allotment, we’ve seen plenty of examples of permaculture projects that aim to rethink the model of how we grow food.

What’s often asked, however, is whether permaculture can really replace mainstream farming.

Stefan Sobkowiak believes it can. And he’s been working for the last 20 years to convert a 12 acre conventional commercial orchard into Miracle Farms, a largely self-sustaining permaculture food forest that uses little to no external fertilizer, and encourages a broad diversity of plants, insects and soil life to maintain its health and produce its bounty.

Now a new documentary project seeks to spread the word about his work. And, through Kickstarter, they are looking for your support to do it.

(27 November 2013)

Journal withdraws controversial French Monsanto GM study
Kate Kelland, Reuters
The publisher of a controversial and much-criticised study suggesting genetically modified corn caused tumours in rats has withdrawn the paper after a yearlong investigation found it did not meet scientific standards.

Reed Elsevier’s Food and Chemical Toxicology journal, which published the study by the French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini in September 2012, said on Thursday the retraction was because the study’s small sample size meant no definitive conclusions could be reached.

"This retraction comes after a thorough and time-consuming analysis of the published article and the data it reports, along with an investigation into the peer-review behind the article," the journal said in statement…

(28 November 2013)

Dust to Dust: a man-made Malthusian crisis

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph
American scientists have made an unsettling discovery. Crop farming across the Prairies since the late 19th Century has caused a collapse of the soil microbia that holds the ecosystem together.

They do not know exactly what role is played by the bacteria. It is a new research field. Nor do they know where the tipping point lies, or how easily this can be reversed. Nobody yet knows whether this is happening in other parts of the world.

A team at the University of Colorado under Noah Fierer used DNA gene technology to test the ‘verrucomicrobia’ in Prairie soil, contrasting tilled land with the rare pockets of ancient tallgrass found in cemeteries and reservations. The paper published in the US journal Science found that crop agriculture has "drastically altered" the biology of the land. "The soils currently found throughout the region bear little resemblance to their pre-agricultural state," it concluded…

(27 November 2013)

Fighting hunger through sustainable farming
Staff, Deutsche Welle
Until now, many have believed that intensive farming is the answer to famine and malnutrition around the world. But now experts are challenging this idea, propagating quality and variety over quantity.

"Go outside and everywhere you’ll see corn, corn and more corn," Hans Rudolf Herren, president of the Swiss-based Biovision Foundation and winner of the Right Livelihood Award, is getting worked up as he presents his take on the problem of famine around the world. "In Africa, in Brazil, in America you can drive for hundreds of kilometers and all you see is corn! It’s used to make ethanol and animal feed. This is wrong!"

Around one third of global grain crops is used to feed farm animals and over 50 percent goes towards industrial production and energy generation. This leaves less than half for human consumption. And while this does not create big problems for residents of wealthy countries, around 800 million people in the developing world suffer from hunger, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia…

…Thurow believes that the answer to the famine problem is not more food but better quality and greater variety of food. Although crop output has been increased in India, according to nutritionist Michael Krawinkel from the University of Giessen in Germany, the country still has more undernourished people than most other countries on Earth. Meanwhile, Europe and the US, where agriculture is subsidized and food is cheap, are fighting a battle against diet-related afflictions such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. At the same time, another argument for producing better and more varied food is the impact on climate change on agriculture and waning resources.

(28 October 2013)

Peak soil: act now or the very ground beneath us will die
Helen Brown, The Ecologist
As a farmer, my foremost responsibility is to protect and enhance the soil in my care. It can take more than 500 years to generate an inch of soil, yet our farming activity can erode or degrade it in a decade or two if we are not careful.

Even as an organic farmer, where the system is designed to protect and build soils, I’m aware that the move to bigger machinery, the need to cultivate and plough to control weeds, and our seemingly ever more volatile weather can put soils at risk.

At agricultural college, we were taught much more about the chemistry and physics of soils than we were about the biology, and given scientists have recently admitted that they know about maybe only around 20% of the soil’s microbial population, that’s probably still true today.

The need for us farmers and growers to understand and protect our soils has never been greater. We are destroying soils worldwide ten times faster than nature can restore them, and in the last 40 years, human activity has degraded 2 billion hectares of soil -over 15% of our land.

(8 November 2013)

The National Soil Project
Staff, National Public Radio
The National Soil Project at Northeastern University is collecting and analyzing organic farm soils from all 50 States for comparison with conventional samples, and they’re looking for soil submissions. The goal is to quantify the improved health of organic soils. Joining us are Professor Geoffrey Davies and principal research scientist Elham Ghabbour.

(30 October 2013)

Hungry Americans Less Productive as Budget Cuts Deepen: Economy

Victoria Stilwell, Bloomberg
Olivia Solis asks herself the same two questions every morning: “How’s rent going to be paid? What meal are we going to make with what food we do have?”

The unemployed mother of three said answers were harder to find this month when the U.S. food-stamp program was trimmed. The worries also preoccupied her mechanic husband, Gumecindo, who would send texts from work with ideas on how they could make extra cash, including cleaning houses or helping people move.

“When he messages me things like that, then I know it’s on his mind,” said Solis, 34, who lives in Richland, Washington. “I know he’s not working to his full potential because all he’s thinking is, ‘What else can we do?’”

People worried about life’s necessities are less able to focus on solving problems or being more creative. Such stress, which is being exacerbated by recent cuts in government social services, damps the current and potential output of adults and children, filtering through to everything from corporate profits and dividends to worker pay and entrepreneurship.

(25 November 2013)

Soil tasting session coming to Bristol: "Mmmm… I’m getting earthy notes and just a hint of grass"

Michael Ribbeck, The Bristol Post
ACCORDING to those in the know, it is all down to the nose when it comes to spotting the difference between a fine vintage and a cheeky newcomer. A special tasting session is being held next month – but the gathering of experts and connoisseurs will not be discussing the merits and character of various Merlot and Pinot Noir wines.

Instead, those taking part in the session will be looking at and testing various soils gathered from different regions in the UK.

The tasting with a difference has been organised by the Bristol-based Soil Association. People taking part will not be expected to taste the various pieces of earth, which have been collected from every region in the country.

(31 October 2013)

Now This Is Natural Food

Mark Bittman, New York Times

A few weeks ago at the annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kan. — a celebration, essentially, of true sustainability — I sat down with Wes Jackson to drink rich beer and eat delicious, chewy bread made from the perennial grain Kernza. The Kernza we ate was cultivated at the Land Institute, the festival’s sponsor and the organization Jackson founded here 37 years ago.

At 77, Jackson is a big man with big ideas. Clearly he was back then as well, when he became determined to change the face of agriculture from being dependent upon annual monoculture (that is, planting a new crop of a single plant each year) to one that includes perennial polyculture, with fields containing varieties of mutually complementary species, planted once, harvested seasonally but remaining in place for years.

Jackson has a biblical way of speaking: “The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” he says. “But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable.” Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it’s created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It’s a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it.

(22 October 2013)
(You can listen to the interview on the New York Times site)-KS

Tags: feeding the world, food forest, food sovereignty, GM foods, organic farming, peak soil, permaculture, soil depletion, soil quality, sustainable farming