Thursday, April 30, 2009

Food, Inc. is a new documentary by Robert Kenner that examines the state of food, and particularly "Big Food" in America. Doesn't look like it has been released widely yet, but should be certainly worth watching. Check out the trailers below:

Along with the illusion of abundance, supermarkets create an illusion of choice (40 types of breakfast cereals! 60 varieties of juices!). However, if you look at the ingredients, this illusion breaks down rapidly.

The illusion of the package:

Each year, more than 15,000 new food products come to market in the U.S. ... However, these introductions rarely represent an increase in food choices for the consumers. The packages attempt to hide the fact that we are essentially increasing the same set of ingredients over and over, even though they go by different names. ... a full 95% of the calories we eat come from only 30 varieties of plants.
The loss of diversity:
By growing all our crops in monoculture, industrial agriculture not only limits what we can eat today, but also reduces the choices of future generations. ... a study of the seed stock readily available in 1903 vursus the inventory of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory... found an astounding loss of diversity: we lost nearly 93% of lettuce, over 96% of field corn, about 91% of field corn, more than 95% of tomato, and almost 98% of asparagus varieties.
"Big Food" dictates what we eat:

A handful of companies own most of the food brands in the market. For example, Kraft Foods, (the second largest food company in the world, after Nestlé) owns around 150 brands worldwide. Large food manufacturers have also been acquiring and introducing organic brands.

Why does this matter?
The goverment, bending under pressure from agribusiness, has never required labels that inform consumers about pesticides and other chemicals used on crops, or the residues still left on those foods at the time of purchase. ... "nuked" processed foods are not labled*. ... under pressure from the biotechnology industry, [the U.S. FDA] has decided not to require genetically engineered foods to be independently safety tested or labled. ... Agribusiness not only uses its political muscle to prevent food labling, it also has pushed through laws to stop critics from getting importnat information about food to consumers ... [by pressuring] 13 states to pass "food disparagement" legislation.
What's the alternative?
By choosing ... local, small-scale organic farming ... we could not only give ourselved the choice of safe and healthy food and a cleaner environment, but we could also incorporate literally thousands of ddifferent varieties and tastes into our diets.
- pg 58-59, Fatal Harvest.

*For the latest on food irradiation labling, see here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Proponents of mega-farming often insist that highly mechanized, chemical intensive industrial agriculture produces food more effciently than small scale farming. I have already written about The Myth Of Large Farm Productivity, as well as the Energy Cost Of Food to show that this is false economically as well as energetically. Below are the facts against the proposed "efficiency" of mega-farming from the book Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy Of Industrial Agriculture:

Is bigger better?
Numerous reports have found that smaller farms are actually more efficient than larger "industrial" farms. ... when farms get larger, the costs of production per unit often increase, because larger acreage requires more expensive machinery and more chemicals to protect crops. ... small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms. This is now widely recognized by agricultural economists across the political spectrum, as the 'inverse relationship between farm size and output.' ... even the World Bank now advocates redistributing land to small farmers in the third world as a step toward increasing overall agricultural productivity.
Output versus Yield:
... how does the "bigger is better" myth survive? ... because of a deeply flawed method of measuring farm "productivity" ... as the production per unit area of a single crop. ... If we are to compare accurately the productivity of small and large farms, we should use total agricultural output, balanced against total farm inputs and "externalities," rather than single crop yield as our measurement principle. 
Though the yield per unit area of one crop may be lower, the total output per unit area of small farms, often composed of more than a dozen crops and numerous animal products, is virtually always higher than that of larger farms. 
There is virtual consensus that large farms do not make as good use of even [farm labor and modern technology] because of management and labor problems inherent in large operations. Mid sized and many smaller farms come far closer to peak efficiency when these factors are calculated.
- pg 56-57, Fatal Harvest.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Union of Concerned Scientists website has an interesting Food and Agriculture section. From their article "Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture":

It is time to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise, one based on systems that can be employed for centuries -- not decades -- without undermining the resources on which agricultural productivity depends. The question is how to do it. The choices are to stick with the current system and adjust around the edges or to fundamentally rethink it. UCS is aiming for the transformation of U.S. agriculture to a system that is both productive and practical over the long-term. Apparent advantages of the current, industrial approach – from high yields per acre, to chemical industry profits, to profitable CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), to foreign sales by corporate giants like Sara Lee, ConAgra, and Cargill – look very different when considered in the light of the health and other problems the approach creates, as well as the many ways in which consumers actually subsidize the destructive system with their tax dollars.
Also of interest from the UCS website: 
Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops
As the world grapples with concerns about food availability, this groundbreaking UCS report debunks widespread myths about the superiority of GE crop yields.

People in the developed world spend the least fractions of their household expenditure on food. ("We should all thank our productive and efficient farmers and ranchers for making that bargain possible." - Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture) Does this reflect the true costs of industrial agriculture?

Environmental costs:

Intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers seriously pollute our water, soil, and air. ... animal factories produce 1.3 billion tons of manure each year. Laden with chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, the manure leaches into rivers and water tables, polluting drinking supplies and causing fish kills. ... Currently, consumers pay billions of dollars annually in environmental costs directly attributed to industrial food production, not including the loss of biodiversity and topsoil...
Health costs:
Conventional analyses also ignore the human health costs of consuming industrial foods, including the contribution of pesticides, hormones and other chemical inputs to our current cancer epidemic... Taken together, these medical health costs [of cancer, food borne illnesses, obesity, diabetes etc.] are clearly in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
Tax subsidies:
Price supports, price "fixing", tax credits, and product promotion are all forms of welfare for agribusiness. ... Taken together, these subsidies add almost $3 billion to the hidden cost of food to consumers.
In conclusion:
When we calculate the real price, it is clear that far from being cheap, our current food production system is imposing staggering monetary burdens on us and future generations [in the form of environmental, health and social costs]. By contrast, non-industrial food production significantly reduces, and can even eliminate most of these costs.
- pg 54-55, Fatal Harvest.

This is the third in the series of excerpts from the book Fatal Harvest. While these facts are now much better known, at least in the "organic lifestyle" community in the first world, industrial farming practices are increasingly being promoted by corporations and governments in the developing world. Hence, I am posting these excerpts so that they are available to everyone who is interested in this issue.

Friday, April 24, 2009

There are numerous laws and regulations about food safety in the United States, but is the food really safe? What are the effects of the industrialized the food production system?

Increases diseases from pesticides:

... at least 53 pesticides classified as carcinogens [and 165 potential carcinogens] are presently applied in massive amounts to our food crops. ... A National Cancer Institute study found that farmers who used industrial herbicides where six times more likely than non-farmers to develop non-Hodgkin's lymphoma... exposure to compounds like PCBs and organophosphate insecticides during critical periods of development [in young people] can cause permanent, long-term damage to the nervous and reproductive systems.
Increased infections:
... reported cases of disease from salmonella and E. coli pathogens are ten times greater than they were two decades ago... The CDC saw none of these pathogens in meat until the late 1970s when "animal factories" became toe dominant means of meat production. ... fruits and vegetables get contaminated by these pathogens through exposure to tainted fertilizers and sewage sludge.
... nearly 50 percent of U.S. antibiotics are given to animals... Infections resistant to antibiotics are now the 11th leading cause of death in the United States.
Increased diseases from diet:
... people are consuming more calories, preservatives, and sugar than ever in history, while reducing their intake of fresh whole fruits and vegetables. ... these changes have lead to overwhelming increases in obesity, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease among Americans. ... The Surgeon General has determined that two out of every three premature deaths is related to diet.
What is the solution?
Increased dependence on chemical, nuclear, or genetically engineered inputs will only intensify the problem. The real solution is to return to sound organic agricultural practices. ... food production that is safe for the environment, human to animals, and based in community and independence is also a food supply that is safe and nutritious for humans.
- pg 52-53, Fatal Harvest.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

We hear over and over again that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the growing global population and end world hunger. What's the truth?

There is no shortage of food:

...enough food is grown worldwide to provide 4.3 pounds of food per person per day, which would include two and a half pounds of grain, beans, and nuts, a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk, and eggs.
Why do 800 million people go hungry every day?
Industrial system has ... [forced] subsistence peasants off the land, so that it can be used for growing high priced export crops. ... the new 'landless' then flock to the newly industrialized cities where they quickly become a class of urban poor ... Their access to food is solely by purchase. Very often, they simply do not have enough money to buy food, so they starve.
Global corporations favor luxury, high-profit items:
As export crops and livestock use up available land, small farmers are forced to use marginal, less fertile lands. Staple food production for local use plummets, and hunger increases. ... during industrial agriculture's prime years (1970-90) the number of hungry people in every country except China actually increased by more than 11 percent.
What's the solution?
We need a major shift in efforts to feed the world, where the focus is on supporting local agriculture, where people live close to (or on) land, grow food to feed their own communities, and use ecologically sustainable techniques. In other words, hunger can only be solved by an agricultural system that promotes food independence.
- pg 50-51, Fatal Harvest.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I have been reading quite a few books in the past month or so, mostly on academic research towards increasing agricultural sustainability. While most of these are probably not of interest to non-academicians, the general message is that making small scale changes, using appropriate technologies, and incorporating biodiversity to utilize and enrich local natural resources is the way forward.

One of the books that everyone should read is Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy Of Industrial Agriculture.

Written by world renowned scientists, activist, and thinkers, Fatal Harvest is a comprehensive and eye opening exploration of the biological, ecological, and social aspects of managing land for long term sustainability and productivity. Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, and Miguel Altieri are some of the contributing authors.

The individual essays are grouped in seven sections -

  1. Farming as if Nature Mattered: Breaking the Industrial Paradigm
  2. Corporate Lies: Busting the Myths of Industrial Agriculture
  3. Diversity, Scale, and Beauty: Contrasting Agrarian and Industrial Agriculture
  4. Industrial Agriculture: The Toxic Trail from Seed to Table
  5. Biodiversity and Wildlife: The Overappropriation of Wildlife Habitat by Agriculture
  6. A Crisis of Culture: Social and Economic Impacts of Industrial Agriculture
  7. Organic and Beyond: Revisioning Agriculture for the 21st Century
Sections two and seven are probably the most important ones from the point of view of raising awareness. 'Corporate Lies' methodically disproves the common propaganda about the benefits and inevitability of industrial agriculture, while 'Organic and Beyond' reviews the current and future efforts required for feeding the growing global population in a sustainable manner. (In the next few posts, I'll summarize the 'Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture'.)

Along with the highly readable, informative, and thought-provoking text, the many beautiful photographs (often contrasting industrial and sustainable approaches) in Fatal Harvest get the point across. All these articles and photos do make the book quite large (15 x 12 inches!) and heavy though.

If you want a more mobile version, try the The Fatal Harvest Reader, which is a condensed version of the book, (and sans many of the photographs), as well as the Fatal Harvest website.

Monday, April 20, 2009

This is a bit late, but in case you haven't read it, the September 2008 issue of National Geographic has a very interesting feature story about soils around the world, the rapid degradation we're causing, and the efforts around the world to improve farming that did and didn't work out:

In the first—and still the most comprehensive—study of global soil misuse, scientists at the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC) in the Netherlands estimated in 1991 that humankind has degraded more than 7.5 million square miles of land. Our species, in other words, is rapidly trashing an area the size of the United States and Canada combined.
Journalists sometimes describe unsexy subjects as MEGO: My eyes glaze over. Alas, soil degradation is the essence of MEGO. Nonetheless, the stakes—and the opportunities—could hardly be higher, says Rattan Lal, a prominent soil scientist at Ohio State University. Researchers and ordinary farmers around the world are finding that even devastated soils can be restored. The payoff, Lal says, is the chance not only to fight hunger but also to attack problems like water scarcity and even global warming. Indeed, some researchers believe that global warming can be slowed significantly by using vast stores of carbon to reengineer the world's bad soils. "Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root," Lal says. "In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil."
There are, of course, beautiful and poignant photographs accompanying the article.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

National Public Radio recently did a two part story on the state of India's 'Green Revolution':

Part 1: India's Farming 'Revolution' Heading For Collapse

The state's agriculture "has become unsustainable and nonprofitable," according to a recent report by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology. Some experts say the decline could happen rapidly, over the next decade or so.
One of the best-known names in India's farming industry puts it in even starker terms. If farmers in Punjab don't dramatically change the way they grow India's food, says G.S. Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, they could trigger a modern Dust Bowl.
Part 2: 'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt
When India's government launched the Green Revolution more than 40 years ago, it pressured farmers to grow only high-yield wheat, rice and cotton instead of their traditional mix of crops.
The system worked well for years, but government studies show that farmers have pumped so much groundwater to irrigate their crops that the water table is dropping dramatically, as much as 3 feet every year.
Kalkat says only one thing can save Punjab: India has to launch a brand new Green Revolution. But he says this one has to be sustainable.
The problem is, nobody has yet perfected a farming system that produces high yields, makes a good living for farm families, protects and enhances the environment — and still produces good, affordable food.

Nanak Kheti, a farm of natural farming, is being adopted by farmers in Punjab as a response to ill effects of chemical farming practices:
...during the last four to five years, the soil in several parts of Punjab has been regenerated and rejuvenated, these natural farmers are convinced, so much so that your feet feel happy and healthy on coming in contact with the soil. You can see earthworm castings, which had completely disappeared in the fields, says a visibly happy and proud Hartej Singh of Mehta village in Bhatinda district. "Our farmers will offer you a handful of soil which you will find soft and with all the natural aromas that are associated with the infinite life of our earth. That is the kind of work we are doing," he adds.

Thanks once again to Rachel Nisselson for the tip-off about the NPR story.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The course is almost over, it was an amazing learning experience; especially meeting and interacting with all the motivated, talented, and passionate permaculturists, and learning from their knowledge and experiences.

Meanwhile, here's a slide show of some photos we took around the island:

You can view and download the individual photos on Flickr, or email me to get the original high resolution photos.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Moloka'i Panorama

The panoramic view from a hill on Moloka'i:

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Learning a lot of things and connecting with some very good like minded people at the PDC. Here's something I found out a few days ago:

The Environmental Food Crisis: The Environment's Role in Averting Future Food Crises was released by the United Nations Environment Programme in February 2009. A short summary is in this press release, the whole report is available for download here (15 MB pdf).

Some highlights:

The natural environment comprises the entire basis for food production through water, nutrients, soils, climate, weather and insects for pollination and controlling infestations. Land degradation, urban expansion and conversion of crops and cropland for non-food production, such as biofuels, may reduce the required cropland by 8–20% by 2050, if not compensated for in other ways.
Food prices may increase 30 to 50 per cent within decades, forcing those living in extreme poverty to spend 90 per cent of their income on food.
Over 80% of all endangered birds and mammals are threatened by unsustainable land use and agricultural expansion.
The report recommends seven strategies to tackle this crisis:
  1. Regulate food prices and provide safety nets for the impoverished;
  2. Promote environmentally sustainable higher-generation biofuels that does not compete for cropland and water resources;
  3. Reallocate cereals used in animal feed to human consumption by developing alternative feeds based on new technology, waste and discards;
  4. Support small-scale farmers by a global fund for micro-finance in developing diversified and resilient ecoagriculture and intercropping systems;
  5. Increase trade and market access by improving infrastructure, reducing trade barriers, enhancing government subsidies and safety nets, as well as reducing armed conflict and corruption;
  6. Limit global warming; and,
  7. Raise awareness of the pressures of increasing population growth and consumption patterns on ecosystems.


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