Published Jul 1 2009 by Energy Bulletin
Archived Jul 1 2009

Food & agriculture - July 1

by Staff

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

Not “like” a Revolution, it IS a REVOLUTION!

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
Reader Randy sent me this today, and it just makes me happy to see the boom in urban agriculture:

Both Allen and Myers agree that the boom in urban farming for African-Americans is born out of necessity and not just echoing traditions.

“Minority people are affected by poor food, more than any other groups,” and many inner cities lack access to quality fruits and vegetables, Allen says. “Our food system is broken.”

“When you’re poor, when you don’t have access to resources, you have to create your own,” says Myers. “So this is a way for people of African descent to use their creativity to grow their own food.”

Many poorer communities don’t have full-scale grocery stores. Allen charges that companies have red-lined those areas and won’t build stores there.

So community activists like Myers have taken up the fight.

“[Starting] community gardens in local communities, specifically in urban areas, is important, so you create your own food security network,” says Myers. “You’re not relying on large grocery stores to provide food for everyone because if those grocery stores have problems, your access to food is done.”

The most important places to grow food have always been the places where people already are, and where good food is already needed. Urban food deserts and rural ones both need to build their agricultural infrastructure - and quickly, because conventional safety nets are already showing signs of fraying. The good news is that nobody has to tell ordinary poor people they are screwed if they don’t take care of themselves - they’ve been doing that a long, long time.

African American farmers have suffered disproportionately under industrial agriculture - in the last 30 years, 35% of white American farmers have lost their land, while 80% of black American farmers have.

... We need more black farmers, and better food in black communities. Since the average age of African-American farmers is even older than the average age of American white farmers (63 vs 59), and because their parents and grandparents so overwhelmingly lost their land, the next generation of young farmers is going to come out of the cities and the city gardens. Not only is it desperately important that all urban neighborhoods produce as much food as possible, it is even more urgent that we begin using those neighborhoods to train up farmers in the way that they should go - using smaller plots of land, intensive methods and low cost, low input organic techniques.

The good news is that this is happening - that the shift in food systems isn’t an elite revolution, as sometimes is suggested.
(30 June 2009)

The Oil Intensity of Food

Lester R. Brown, The Oil Drum
This is a guest post by Lester R. Brown, founder and President of the Earth Policy Institute. His principal research areas include food, population, water, climate change, and renewable energy; see his list of publications by clicking here.

Today we are an oil-based civilization, one that is totally dependent on a resource whose production will soon be falling. Since 1981, the quantity of oil extracted has exceeded new discoveries by an ever-widening margin. In 2008, the world pumped 31 billion barrels of oil but discovered fewer than 9 billion barrels of new oil. World reserves of conventional oil are in a free fall, dropping every year.

... The most energy-intensive segment of the food chain is the kitchen. Much more energy is used to refrigerate and prepare food in the home than is used to produce it in the first place. The big energy user in the food system is the kitchen refrigerator, not the farm tractor. While oil dominates the production end of the food system, electricity dominates the consumption end.

In short, with higher energy prices and a limited supply of fossil fuels, the modern food system that evolved when oil was cheap will not survive as it is now structured.
(29 June 2009)

Hell in earth
(garden allotments)
Paul Reynolds, BBC
The current grow-your-own trend has sparked a new wave of interest in allotment owning. But before you get swept in the trend, the BBC's Paul Reynolds, has some words of warning.
... I know about allotments because I had one in the 1970s. It can best be described as hell in earth.

At the time, there was a grow-your-own trend, as now. It was the age of The Good Life, the BBC TV series in which Tom and Barbara Good turn their suburban garden into a vegetable and pig patch.

I got my allotment in 1974. The Good Life series began in 1975. It ran until 1978. My allotment did not.

Kingston council had plenty of spare allotments down by the by-pass - they had not come back into fashion quite yet - and was only too pleased, if a little surprised, at being asked for one.

It turned out to be a serious piece of land. The old chap who had the one next to mine (full of good green things and even roses) was cheery but he looked a bit puzzled. He was right to be puzzled.

This is what you have to know about allotments:


You become locked in combat with a tenacious and devious opponent. My allotment was covered in what I thought was grass. It turned out to be the dreaded couch grass. The more you cut up the roots in your efforts to dig it out, the more it grows.

I decided that industrial methods were required. I hired a rotovator

... Nobody told me that everything came in at once. Suddenly, there was an abundance of French beans (my most successful effort). But what to do with them?

... In the end, after the second summer, I think, it all became too much. I had found out that I was not really up to this hand-to-hand combat. It was too much effort, too costly and you could get stuff from the shops or market much more easily. I told myself this was also helping the people growing and selling it...
(27 June 2009)
There's a lot of truth in what Paul Reynolds describes. It takes time to get the hang of gardening, and it really helps to learn from other people. For example, using a rotovator on couch grass is probably the worst thing that Reynolds could have done - it spreads the rhizomes. -BA

Agriculture and Food in Crisis

Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar, Monthly Review
“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?,” asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.

In 2008 people woke up to a tsunami of hunger sweeping the world. Although the prospect of rising hunger has loomed on the horizon for years, the present crisis seemed to come out of the blue without warning. Food riots spread through many countries in the global South as people tried to obtain a portion of what appeared to be a rapidly shrinking supply of food, and many governments were destabilized.

The causes for the extraordinary spike in food prices in 2008, doubling over 2007 prices, brought together long-term trends, at work for decades, with a number of more recent realities.1 The most important long-term trends leading to current situation include:

  • increased diversion of corn grain and soybeans to produce meat as the world’s per capita meat consumption doubled in about forty years. As much as 95 percent of calories are lost in the conversion of grain and soybeans to meat.
  • decreased food production associated with poor countries adopting the neoliberal paradigm of letting the “free market” govern food production and distribution;
  • widespread “depeasantization,” partially caused by neoliberal “reforms” and International Monetary Fund (IMF) mandated “structural adjustments,” as conditions forced peasant farmers off the land and into urban slums, where one-sixth of humanity now lives; and increasing concentration of corporate ownership and control over all aspects of food production, from seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, to the grain elevators, processing facilities, and grocery stores.2

One of the more recent causes for the crisis is the diversion of large amounts of corn, soy, and palm oil into producing agrofuels, the term adopted by critics worldwide for industrial-scale biofuels based on agricultural crops as feedstocks. Agrofuel production looked very appealing as the United States and the European Union sought to break the influence of oil producing countries and promote “greener” fuels (which are actually not particularly “green”).3 In 2008 some 30 percent of the entire corn crop in the United States was used to produce ethanol to blend with gasoline to fuel cars. Estimates of how much ethanol production contributed to the rise in food prices varied from less than 5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to upwards of 80 percent, as estimated by the World Bank.

...What are the prospects for the future? Are they really as dire as Lester Brown suggests? As we write this, a severe recession has set in around the world — deep and, perhaps, long lasting. It has already resulted in much more hunger and food insecurity in the United States and many other countries. How much worse can things get? Probably quite a bit, is the unfortunate answer.

Hungry for Profit

Many of the trends discussed ten years ago in the summer issue of Monthly Review, Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (later issued in book form5) continue to this day:

  • the disruption of nutrient cycles with the spread of capitalist agriculture and the more recent move toward large-scale, factory-style animal production facilities;
  • the ecological damage caused by chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive agricultural practices;
  • the great extent of consolidation (both horizontal and vertical integration) in the input and processing sectors of the agrifood system;
  • farmers increasingly working as laborers for agribusiness, often under contract to large integrated meat-producing corporations;
  • the role of genetically modified (GM) seeds in consolidating corporate control over the input sector and farm practices overall;
  • the difficulties presented to the third world by the various provisions of the World Trade Organization;
  • the mass migration of peasants from the countryside of the third world (depeasantization), and into urban slums where there are few jobs available;
  • the extent of hunger amidst plenty in the United States, with many anti-hunger organizations focusing on the most immediate emergencies, thus leaving the deeper issue of poverty unaddressed;
  • the importance of land reform and the benefits of reducing or eliminating reliance on commercial fertilizers and pesticides;
  • and, the resulting emergence of organizations within the United States and worldwide that are not satisfied with the system and are working to develop new solutions to feed communities and protect the land.

Things have changed in the course of the last decade, of course. However, the basic trends continued and have become deeper and more ingrained in the system. For example, the many ecological disasters associated with conventional agricultural production have only gotten worse. These include pollution of groundwater and surface water with nitrates, phosphates, sediments, and pesticides; contamination of food; nutrient depletion on farms that raise crops, even while nutrient-rich wastes accumulate to dangerously polluting levels in large-scale animal production facilities; and increasing spread of antibiotic resistant microbes due to the routine use of antibiotics in factory-raised livestock. The main driving force of the agrifood system is, of course, the never ending goal of continual generation of profits. Little appears to stand in the way of a system that worships, as Rachel Carson put it, the “gods of profit and production.”

The Current Situation

This issue of Monthly Review has two parts: the first deals with the history, politics, and economics of the food and agriculture crisis — how it developed and its characteristics in selected countries. Articles in this issue by Philip McMichael, Walden Bello and Mara Baviera, Utsa Patnaik, Sophia Murphy, and Deborah Fahy Bryceson offer a mix of historical and contemporary outlooks on the underlying roots of the crisis, as seen from a variety of international perspectives.

The second part of this issue discusses the possibilities for improving systems of food and farming as well as attempts to develop more secure food supplies for all people. David Pimentel addresses questions concerning energy and agriculture while Miguel Altieri discusses better ways to grow crops, organize production, and feed people. Christina Schiavoni and William Camacaro describe how Venezuela is working to reach food sovereignty, and articles by Peter Rosset and Eric Holt-Giménez explore the struggle for food through social movements and the push for meaningful land reform.
(July/August 2009)
From the website:

From the website:
Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor at Cornell University, has published numerous articles and books on soil fertility and management and ecological approaches to agriculture. He was co-editor of Hungry for Profit (Monthly Review Press, 2000), and co-author, with John Bellamy Foster, of The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (Monthly Review Press, 2009).

Brian Tokar is a long-time activist and author, and current director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Plainfield, Vermont. He is the author of The Green Alternative (R. & E. Miles, 1992) and Earth for Sale (South End Press, 1997), editor of two books on the politics of biotechnology, Redesigning Life? (Zed Books, 2001) and Gene Traders (Toward Freedom, 2004), and lectures widely on a variety of environmental and political topics.

This article is the online taster for the July/August issue of The Monthly Review, which looks like a "must read" for those interested in the sustainable food fight. KS