Published Jul 22 2009 by Energy Bulletin
Archived Jul 22 2009

Food & agriculture - July 22

by Staff

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We Gotta Eat 'em to Save 'em

Emily Badger, Miller-McCune
Americans once grew and ate 15,000 varieties of apple, each different in name, taste and texture. What's left today are about 10 percent of those varieties, the rest consigned to a fate people seldom associate with food.

"The idea of endangered species is pretty well established; people understand that a particular salamander might be endangered," said Jenny Trotter, who heads the biodiversity programs at Slow Food USA. But endangered apples — that's an idea few eaters recognize even as biologists sound a growing alarm about the rapid loss of genetic biodiversity in the global food supply.

Seventy-five percent of the world's food now comes from seven crops: wheat, rice, corn, potato, barley, cassava and sorghum. And it increasingly comes from narrow strains of those crops selected for efficiency in producing the most food on the smallest patch of land in the least amount of time.

Fine diners have come to recognize an alternative in "heirloom" tomatoes, a term denoting generations of conservation by farmers who can trace the origin of a unique seed's selected breeding by as much as centuries.

The same concept, though rarely appearing on farms — and even more rarely marketed on menus — applies to grains and lettuces and pears. Even cows. But today, 99 percent of turkeys eaten in America come from a single breed, the Broad-Breasted White. More than 80 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins and 75 percent of pigs come from just three breeds.
In the winnowing of efficiency, "heirloom" and "heritage" landraces are disappearing, taking with them their diverse genes and, scientists argue, man's best chances for survival. Please recall, they all suggest, the Irish potato famine. More recent epidemics have threatened entire regional industries as well as grocery-store produce: the billion-dollar 1970 corn blight, the 1984 Florida citrus canker, and the wheat stem rust, which may yet do its worst damage.

...Endangered heritage breeds have one saving grace: They're generally tasty. Because of this, an odd collection of interest groups — U.N. bureaucrats, conservation scientists, small farmers and foodies — have coalesced around the eat-'em-to-save-'em strategy.

Slow Food USA works alongside the ALBC, the Seed Savers Exchange and the nonprofit Chefs Collaborative, all of which also fall under the "Restoring America's Food Traditions" alliance founded by Arizona professor Gary Nabhan.

RAFT, with the lead of Chefs Collaborative, this spring launched a pilot program in New England connecting small farms with local restaurants for the purpose of growing, serving and promoting 16 regionally specific heritage breeds of vegetable in danger of disappearing. Among the varieties: Boothby's blond cucumber, early blood-rooted turnip beet, Jimmy Nardello's sweet Italian frying pepper and the Siberian sweet watermelon.

...The pilot program addresses one of the main challenges around reviving near-extinct strands of edible biodiversity: Farmers need demand to raise these breeds, but the supply can't be marketed until the breed gets off the cusp of extinction. The Grow-Out controls for both supply and demand, with farmers agreeing to grow the vegetables for chefs who have ahead of time promised to buy them. The only trick was choosing near-endangered seeds, and not the last supply of an extinct breed.

...When it reaches the supermarket, the trend probably won't be labeled as "biodiverse," but with "heritage" and "heirloom" stamps — or, better yet, by the names of individual breeds. Kendall wants you to walk into the grocery store and request not just a pork chop, but a Red Wattle pork chop. The idea is not so far-fetched in Europe (or even in American cheese isles), where consumers identify regionally specific brands like Roquefort cheese or Bordeaux wine, or in Italy, where the Slow Food movement began.

...Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests that major policy shifts on subsidies and research funding are as important as shifting consumer consciousness. Growing food is unlike making cars or telephones because of the evolving element of biology. But, Gurian-Sherman said, America treats the industries the same, focusing on the limited goal of maximizing production at the expense of other factors like biodiversity.
(15 July 2009)

On tiny plots, a new generation of farmers emerges

Elisabeth Weise, USA Today

Joseph Gabiou walks the fields of Wobbly Cart Farm with a practiced eye. He kicks dirt into place to keep the wind from blowing the protective covering off a row of organic broccoli. The seedlings are vulnerable to the flea beetles that came in the spring, just as longtime farmers in this valley told him they would.
To a new farmer, that's crucial information. The farm, started five years ago, is young. But so is the 33-year-old Gabiou at a time when the average age of the American farmer is 57, according to the Department of Agriculture. The 2007 agriculture census found that more than one-quarter of all farmers are 65 or older.

Wobbly Cart is also tiny, just 6 acres. Nationwide, the average farm is 449 acres.

But Gabiou and business partner Asha McElfresh, 32, differ from typical farmers in another way. Wobbly Cart, say agriculture specialists, is part of a movement in which young people — most of whom come from cities and suburbs — are taking up what may be the world's oldest profession: organic farming

"I'm seeing an enthusiastic group of young people all across the country who want to get into farming," says Fred Kirschenmann, a longtime farmer and fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames.
(14 July 2009)
Another excellent suggestion from EB contributor and blogger Kalpa, who says on her blog of last Friday:

Friday's are "Focus on Agricultural Economics" here at Financial News Express. For non-agricultural economic issues, please scroll down.


The Austrian school of economics has as a basic tenet, that in a fiscally responsible economy, projects which governments and private enterprise elect to do, need to be chosen with discretion. There has been little discretion in this past decade of the bubble economy, including in agriculture and policies such as corn ethanol. Many natural resources have been wasted. The other main point is that it all comes down to agriculture when we look at what's worthwhile economically and resource-wise. That's why I devote this one day a week to the state of the agricultural world. In the future, expect a larger percent of our shrinking economy to be devoted towards Ag production, as in the developing nations.

In agriculture, it is my conclusion going forward that the emphasis needs to be on local food production through small organic farms and the urban agriculture movement near the cities and towns, but, that industrial agriculture is most efficient in large scale grain production. Our remaining fossil fuels will need to be prioritized towards doing this in the most sustainable way possible. Luckily, the local food movement has taken on a life of its own with a vengeance.

Today's biofuels articles, when read together, help to paint the current picture of where we're at right now with biofuels, both in science, and in politics.

Last night I heard Chris Martenson (former scientist, now studied in our economic system's collapse with emphasis on peak oil) speak here in Boulder to a large crowd sponsored by the Transition Boulder group. I will report on that Monday.


Vandana Shiva and the Earth Democracy
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National
As governments and corporations discuss, debate and implement solutions to the environmental challenges of climate change, peak oil and food insecurity, Vandana Shiva advocates a return to local economies and small-scale food production as the only solution to save the planet and humanity. She calls it the Earth Democracy.
(21 July 2009)
Suggested by EB contributor Michael Lardelli, who says:

A must listen program on peak oil, soil and food - Philip Adams interviews Vandana Shiva