Published May 20 2009 by Energy Bulletin
Archived May 20 2009

Food & agriculture - May 20

by Staff

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For Urban Gardeners, Lead Is a Concern

Kate Murphy, New York Times
FRANK MEUSCHKE’S garden, which surrounds the house he rents in Brooklyn, is a bountiful source of tomatoes, snap peas, green beans, peppers, lettuce and multiple varieties of flowers. It is also, as he recently discovered to his dismay, a rich repository of lead. He had his soil tested last month, and the analysis showed more than 90 times the amount of lead expected to occur naturally.

... Harmful even at very low doses, lead is surprisingly prevalent and persistent in urban and suburban soil. Dust from lead-tainted soil is toxic to inhale, and food grown in it is hazardous to eat.

Health officials, soil scientists and environmental engineers worry that the increasing popularity of gardening, particularly the urban kind, will put more people at risk for lead poisoning if they don’t protect themselves.

... The presence of lead in soil doesn’t mean gardening is out of the question, but it may require a change in plot design and choice of crops, and soil amendments.

... Excessive lead in soil is the legacy not only of lead paint but also of leaded gasoline, lead plumbing and lead arsenate pesticides. Although these products were outlawed decades ago, their remnants linger in the environment. Lead batteries and automotive parts, particularly wheel balancing weights, are still widely used and are sources of soil contamination.
(13 May 2009)

The sewage plant carries the sweet smell of valuable phosphorus

Mark Hume, Globe & Mail
When the delegates at an international conference on wastewater gathered in Vancouver last week they found themselves pretty much ignored by the media.

... But Ken Ashley, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and one of the conference organizers, thinks the world missed out on a big story - about how to take sewage and turn it into highly valuable fertilizer.

"It may be the biggest uncovered news story on the planet," he said in a post-conference interview.

What brought the 200 delegates to Vancouver was a looming global shortage of phosphorus and a groundbreaking nutrient recovery system developed at UBC.

Phosphorus is one of the essential elements of fertilizer. Without it crops whither.

The phosphorous in fertilizer comes from rock phosphate, which is mined primarily in Morocco, China and the United States.

Like oil, rock phosphate is running out.

The United States, historically the world's biggest producer, is expected to exhaust its reserves in 25 years. China recently slapped a 135 per cent export tariff on phosphate, choking off exports. That leaves Morocco sitting on one-third of the world's remaining supply - and reserves there are declining in quality and quantity.

"Phosphate production is going to peak around 2035 and then tail off," Dr. Ashley said. "If we don't do something we are looking at mass starvation."

Almost nobody is talking about the problem, however, because it doesn't seem real.
(18 May 2009)
One of the first sightings of peak phosophorous in the Northe American mainstream media. -BA

Back to the “Old Normal” of Domesticity

Olga Bonfiglio, The Spirit of the City
This year I decided to learn how to garden.

My resolve wasn't just a notion for a new pastime or a move toward hip liberalism. Rather, it was my response to global warming and in particular, the depletion of fossil fuels, which has a direct effect on our food system.

The crops we grow and the way we grow them is determined by oil and oil by-products. Artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides are made from oil just as farm equipment and irrigation systems are powered by it. Trucks transport our food an average 1,500 miles while fruit and other perishables travel in airplanes. Refrigeration provides storage for dairy, meat and produce that require electricity made from fossil fuels. Processed foods, which account for three-quarters of global food sales by price, are manufactured with oil.

... household gardens can be a good start toward a new way of life that can not only provide a bounty of free food but encourage the desire to cook and eat it.

This year I planted three tomato plants, one pepper, one eggplant and four different herbs in a couple big pots on my patio. To learn how to grow and harvest vegetables, I’m volunteering at a local, subsistence farm once a week. Our neighborhood is planting an herb garden and later this summer we’ll hold a couple canning parties.

These are small steps but what I’m discovering at the outset of my gardening venture is my changing relationship to food. It truly takes a different kind of effort and conviction to get down in the dirt on my hands and knees to plant and weed, especially when it involves new aches and pains in my aging body. I also feel a new sense of accomplishment and joy in seeing newly-planted rows upon rows of raspberry bushes and mulched potato plants—with more vegetables to come! Caring for my seedlings before they are transplanted is bringing out my nurturing side.

In less than a month, gardening is also connecting me to Nature in a more intense way compared to enjoying walks in the woods in L.L. Bean wear. My thinking is being transformed at the visceral level about where food comes from, how it’s produced and what it means to me.

Meanwhile, my relationship with neighbors and fellow locavores is taking a turn back into the “old normal” of domesticity that focuses on care of the home front—the original Greek meaning of the word, economics. Domesticity was something I had always avoided because of my ambition to pursue a professional career and urban lifestyle. However, as the era of cheap energy gradually becomes a thing of the past—regardless of the promises of the alternative energy proponents—it is obvious to me that growing food will become an imperative to survival and not just an experiment in sustainability or the opportunity to eat fresh, good-tasting, local produce.

As new endeavors go, gardening has filled me with excitement, curiosity and a new sense of optimism that I can impact my own future, assert my independence from food megacorporations and get closer to Nature.
(17 May 2009)
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her interests include religion, social justice and urban revitalization.

Going Up? Farming in High-Rises Raises Hopes

Arnie Cooper, Miller-McCune
An angry Mother Nature and increasing urbanization have led Columbia's Dickson Despommier to urge agriculturalists to consider tilling high-rises. A interview.
... One solution [to the food crises] may lie in Dickson Despommier's vertical farm — a 30-story crop powerhouse the size of a Manhattan block that, in theory, could produce enough food for 50,000 people.

The concept took root in 1999 while Despommier, a parasitologist, was teaching medical ecology at Columbia University's School of Public Health. Halfway through the semester, his students, tired of exploring the health risks associated with environmental damage, asked him if they could do something more "uplifting."

"OK, it's your money, and it's your time," Despommier told them. "Pick a subject and I'll be glad to support you."

After choosing rooftop gardening, Despommier challenged the class to see how many Manhattanites they could feed on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. With only 13 acres of usable rooftops, the students could only cover 2 percent of those 50,000 people. "Not good enough," Despommier responded.

Sensing their frustration, Despommier flippantly suggested growing stuff indoors — vertically. By accident, the 69-year-old had found a new calling, and by 2001 the project had evolved into a vertical farm. Using grow lights and conveyor belts powered by renewable energy sources, Despommier and his students came up with an outline ( ) in which approximately 100 kinds of fruits and vegetables would grow on upper floors with lower floors housing chickens and fish subsisting on the plant waste.

This may all sound like pie in the sky, but Despommier says his skyscraper farm has aroused the interest of scientists and investors around the world. And though the project is still in the blueprint phase, if it pans out, not only will large numbers of individuals be able to source their food locally, but ecosystems destroyed by years of exposure to toxic pesticides will also be restored. You believe that we need to systematically abandon farmland. Why?

Dickson Despommier: Right now the agricultural footprint of the Earth's population is the size of South America. That's an enormous amount of land that we set aside for farming. We're at 7 billion people. In another 40 years, we'll be at 10 billion. To continue farming as we do now, we'll have to set aside new land the size of Brazil. That would lead to the collapse of numerous ecosystems on this planet, and we would go with it.

People say, "Food in buildings? How unnatural? The natural thing is to use the land." Well, I hate to break this to you, but that's equally unnatural. That farm used to be an intact ecosystem until we transformed it. Vertical farms will restore the natural capital of the land and provide our food at the same time.
(19 May 2009)

Transitioning our food from fossil fuel based to sun based

Eric Stewart, Code Green Community
... Creating Edible landscapes we could feed not only ourselves, but our neighbors bringing together a community, if we only choose to.

Over the next several years we will have to make do with less oil. The high prices of oil last year are thought to be the peak production of oil. Raymond James a investment firm has put out a report which was wrote about in the Wall Street Journal last week, “Peak oil represents a paradigm shift of historic proportions. Unfortunately, mankind better get ready to live in a peak oil world because we believe the ‘peak’ is now behind us.” When the investment firm that bears the name of the Bucaneer's Stadium says we are in for a paradigm shift, it gives credit to all those people who have been thinking about peak oil for over a year now since oil prices hit their maximum. If we are looking at a future with more expensive oil rather than cheap oil where do we begin?

We have to take into consideration that our food system is the second leading user of oil in our nation. A nation that resorts to having to import food to survive will not be sustainable for very long. Lets discuss ideas on how to create a food system based upon the sunlight we receive as well as potential alternative energy sources. Lets dream design a suburban agriculture system together. We have a clear and present danger that we can overcome if we put our creative forces together. How we rebuild ourselves out of this recession will impact us for years to come, lets rebuild in a sustainable minded way thinking only of the next generations that must inhabit this world. Let us no longer put the future in debt to live in the present. The money to pay for that oil must come from an economy, lets get this economy rolling and off of oil so we can save our money for more important things such as investments into our future as well as rehealing the planet from the damage we have caused collectively. We could put millions of people to work, end hunger, provide people with lives worth living all with just a simple choice to go in that direction instead of having it be forced upon us.
(19 May 2009)