Monday, May 18, 2009

Because National Geographic said so!

There have been numerous posts on this blog about the necessity for people to get back into small scale gardening and household Victory Gardening and form local cooperatives, community gardens, and farmer's markets in neighborhood public spaces. These articles have mostly come from lesser known groups and publications - groups with specific interests in organic gardening or pessimists whose near-doomsday philosophy tends to be ignored by the larger public. The occasional article in the NY Times or San Francisco Chronicle on the subject of urban gardening is also dismissed by most people as some sort of fringe fad of the yuppies on the coasts.

But now we have National Geographic weighing in on the subject of the benefits of small scale sustainable farming and the relocalization of food resources.

National Geographic Online
Special Report June 2009
The Global Food Crisis
The End of Plenty
By Joel K. Bourne Jr.

It is the simplest, most natural of acts, akin to breathing and walking upright. We sit down at the dinner table, pick up a fork, and take a juicy bite, obliv­ious to the double helping of global ramifications on our plate. Our beef comes from Iowa, fed by Nebraska corn. Our grapes come from Chile, our bananas from Honduras, our olive oil from Sicily, our apple juice—not from Washington State but all the way from China. Modern society has relieved us of the burden of growing, harvesting, even preparing our daily bread, in exchange for the burden of simply paying for it. Only when prices rise do we take notice. And the consequences of our inattention are profound...

"Agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year," warned Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., at the height of the crisis. "This is too low to meet population growth and increased demand."

Factory farming methods have reached the limit of their productivity. They have passed beyond the point of maximum return - now adding more pesticides, herbicides and petrochemicals to the soil makes things worse, not better. And just about all the arable land that hasn't been paved over is in agricultural use. We must now look beyond factory farming in order to secure our future food supply needs.

The article goes on to discuss earth's population, but the reality is that population growth has been negative in western nations for some decades now - masked only by immigration from third world nations whose populations have not yet reached decline. But bringing them up to a Western standard of living will be basically impossible. The US has only 5% of the world's population but uses 40% of the world's natural resources. Our own standard of living is going to have to be cut way back for the other nations to get even a fraction of their fair share.

And that necessarily includes returning to small scale, sustainable and organic based farming of foodstuffs and stopping the factory farm practice of feeding livestock "people" food. Instead of allowing cows, for example, to graze minimal grasslands as they would in nature, they are instead fed corn and soy and other crops, competing with human needs. Obviously, these are unsustainable methods of farming. It was only productive and profitable for a short while, and that "while" is over in India and elsewhere, even here in the US.

...The green revolution Borlaug started had nothing to do with the eco-friendly green label in vogue today. With its use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to nurture vast fields of the same crop, a practice known as monoculture, this new method of industrial farming was the antithesis of today's organic trend. Rather, William S. Gaud, then administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, coined the phrase in 1968 to describe an alternative to Russia's red revolution, in which workers, soldiers, and hungry peasants had rebelled violently against the tsarist government. The more pacifying green revolution was such a staggering success that Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution is over in Punjab: Yield growth has essentially flattened since the mid-1990s. Overirrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray fields of Punjab. Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves.

...If that weren't worrisome enough, the high cost of fertilizers and pesticides has plunged many Punjabi farmers into debt. One study found more than 1,400 cases of farmer suicides in 93 villages between 1988 and 2006. Some groups put the total for the state as high as 40,000 to 60,000 suicides over that period. Many drank pesticides or hung themselves in their fields.

"The green revolution has brought us only downfall," says Jarnail Singh, a retired schoolteacher in Jajjal village. "It ruined our soil, our environment, our water table. Used to be we had fairs in villages where people would come together and have fun. Now we gather in medical centers. The government has sacrificed the people of Punjab for grain."

This credit crisis will start revealing the similar predicaments of US farmers as well - sooner, not later. The soils here are no less exhausted, the costs of the giant agribusiness firms strong-arm tactics in insisting on exclusive use of their products are no lower, and the banks are no more forgiving.

Many crop scientists and farmers believe the solution to our current food crisis lies in a second green revolution, based largely on our newfound knowledge of the gene. Plant breeders now know the sequence of nearly all of the 50,000 or so genes in corn and soybean plants and are using that knowledge in ways that were unimaginable only four or five years ago, says Robert Fraley, chief technology officer for the agricultural giant Monsanto. Fraley is convinced that genetic modification, which allows breeders to bolster crops with beneficial traits from other species, will lead to new varie­ties with higher yields, reduced fertilizer needs, and drought tolerance—the holy grail for the past decade. He believes biotech will make it possible to double yields of Monsanto's core crops of corn, cotton, and soybeans by 2030. "We're now poised to see probably the greatest period of fundamental scientific advance in the history of agriculture."

But this is, of course, just another pipe dream of the myth of progress deeply ingrained in western culture. Contaminating the DNA of our food crops with sequences from other species, even animals (and obviously including unclean animals) will only cause more problems than it will solve. Being able to map the genes is a far cry from being able to explain how they all work and interact - and nobody even pretends to claim to know every possible permutation and side effect of tampering with our food's DNA. All you hear about in the press are the "success" stories - you don't hear about the abject failures, the foods so biochemically screwed up that the test animals all died, or got cancer, or had deformed offspring. Those get swept quietly under the rug. And no one has any idea what will happen when these DNA sequences are released into the wild to intermix and cross-breed with anything and everything outside the laboratory. Carefully controlled experiments are useless in real life - without knowing every possible reaction to every other chemical and enzyme and pro-biotic out there, it's a blind crapshoot with our health and well-being. They get the money, you get to be a guinea pig.

...But is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world's food crisis? Last year a massive study called the "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development" concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world's poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world's 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.

...The green revolution's legacy of tainted soil and depleted aquifers is one reason to look for new strategies. So is what author and University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Pollan calls the Achilles heel of current green revolution methods: a dependence on fossil fuels. Natural gas, for example, is a raw material for nitrogen fertilizers. "The only way you can have one farmer feed 140 Americans is with monocultures. And monocultures need lots of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and lots of fossil-fuel-based pesticides," Pollan says. "That only works in an era of cheap fossil fuels, and that era is coming to an end. Moving anyone to a dependence on fossil fuels seems the height of irresponsibility."

No, it doesn't SEEM like the height of irresponsibility, it IS the height of irresponsibility. Neither giant monoculture environments nor petrochemical additives are sustainable in the long run (not to mention the damage they do to the air, water, and your health in the short run).

...And so a shift has already begun to small, underfunded projects scattered across Africa and Asia. Some call it agroecology, others sustainable agriculture, but the underlying idea is revolutionary: that we must stop focusing on simply maximizing grain yields at any cost and consider the environmental and social impacts of food production. Vandana Shiva is a nuclear physicist turned agroecologist who is India's harshest critic of the green revolution. "I call it monocultures of the mind," she says. "They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution." Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. "If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need," adds Shiva.

The article describes a few test studies, but you already know the outcome - smaller scale fields that used compost and companion planting with crop rotation techniques outproduced the monoculture fields by a huge margin.

...At the small village of Encongolweni, a group of two dozen SFHC farmers greet us with a song about the dishes they make from soybeans and pigeon peas. We sit in their meetinghouse as if at an old-time tent revival, as they testify about how planting legumes has changed their lives. Ackim Mhone's story is typical. By incorporating legumes into his rotation, he's doubled his corn yield on his small plot of land while cutting his fertilizer use in half. "That was enough to change the life of my family," Mhone says, and to enable him to improve his house and buy livestock. Later, Alice Sumphi, a 67-year-old farmer with a mischievous smile, dances in her plot of young knee-high tomatoes, proudly pointing out that they bested those of the younger men. Canadian researchers found that after eight years, the children of more than 7,000 families involved in the project showed significant weight increases, making a pretty good case that soil health and community health are connected in Malawi.

This is one area that people in the US have been slow to grasp - giant monoculture fields run by factory farming methods have put more quantity on the store shelves, but the quality of the food is vastly deteriorated. Food today has less nutrition than our grandparents day, and people's health is affected in all sorts of cascading ways - yet Americans can't figure out that their problem is a bizarre form of malnutrition, a stripping of probiotics, natural enzymes and micronutrients from their diets. Instead of recognizing and solving the problem, they just go to a doctor and pop more petrochemical based pills to try and treat their obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. The ignorance is killing us - but the giant agribusiness firms are laughing all the way to the bank.

...Which is why the project's research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr, is alarmed that big-money foundations are pushing for a new green revolution in Africa. "I find it deeply disturbing," she says. "It's getting farmers to rely on expensive inputs produced from afar that are making money for big companies rather than on agroecological methods for using local resources and skills. I don't think that's the solution."

So how do these facts affect our communities? Obviously, we need to return to a culture that values honest labour and respects people who work with their hands on the farm, not just on acres of land but even in the smallest backyards and rooftop gardens and mini-greenhouses. We need to stop the paranoid fear of microscopic "bugs" on strawberries and other home-grown produce and actively encourage urban gardening in our communities. And we need to develop a thriving neighborhood market in jams, jellies, preserves, canned fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and herbs, and fresh garden produce seasonally all year long - without interference from power-mongering Rabbis who want a bribe and cut of the profits from every household in the form of a heksher for every little thing.

And those heksherim need to be withdrawn from products that are harmful to people's health, such as bleached white flour, bleached white rice, bleached white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, etc. and the numerous chemical additives and preservatives that manufacturers put in food to try and make up for all the actual nutrition and benefits that were stripped from the foods during processing. We need to eat more like our grandparents and ancestors ate - fresh fruits and vegetables, local dairy products, and less reliance on factory farmed and processed meats.

This will not only improve our local economies and give us increased local food production, but will also improve our health. So start this summer - plant a victory garden, even if it's just a few potted plants.

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