Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Excitable Headlines

Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists

Yea, that's an actual headline from The Guardian.The opening para is not too much different:
Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world's population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.
Let's review, shall we? The US is experiencing a drought that affects more than half its farmland. Food prices are expected to rise 5%. Animal protein will probably become more expensive because we feed so many animals on corn. While higher prices for meat may well lead to open warfare in American cities, its doubtful that this will happen anywhere else. Food prices will rise because of a slow inflation from corn being used to make ethanol, but the primary reason is speculative money's effect. The Guardian also points out, in a separate article from that quoted above:
Biofuels – which last year swallowed almost 40% of the US maize harvest – have also been highlighted as part of the problem. In the US, pressure is growing to abandon targets for biofuels in car fuel. Livestock farmers are warning they won't be able to afford to feed their animals.
But missing from the lineup have been financial speculators, who have piled back into the market. Want to know what a brewing food crisis looks like to them? Last week, US hedge fund manager Peter Sorrentino commented: "It's like a big money tap has been turned on."
By June, markets in food derivatives were awash with $89bn in speculative cash. That figure is courtesy of Barclays, the UK's top food speculator, which this year highlighted speculation as a "key driver" of rising prices.
But the fear-mongering continues. You'd think the US right would be the least crazy--after all, the market is supposed to sort this sort of thing out with no problem. The market is the great equalizer, after all, shifting resources from one place to the other, almost magically bringing supply and demand into balance. Yet, here's a video from YouTube.

Craziness comes from people without enough information and a deep and unshakable conviction that they have no control over their lives. Or, as Obama has said; "[I]t’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Its hard to see Novella Carpenter panicking. She's already experimenting with dry-farmed tomatoes in Oakland.

Novella Carpenter, who runs Ghost Town Farm in urban Oakland
All it really takes to not panic is a couple of bucks in seeds and a little bit of dirt and space. Maybe a tech of thinking ahead, too. I noticed earlier today that local carrots are selling at the market for $2/5 lbs. At that price, I can buy several bags and get them in the freezer for the winter--thus providing myself with a sense of control over my own life and a measure of food security. You could do worse than to do the same....

Friday, August 24, 2012

More Than Enough

So we're facing another global food crisis--this time because of the American drought. Food prices are expected to jump up to 10% by this time next year, millions will starve,and the speculative money men moving in and out of the food system will make out like the bandits they are. One in  six people on the planet are currently food insecure, and we can expect that number to expand appreciably by next year. NECSI is warning about social disruptions, an even wider spread "Arab Spring," and generally its the end of the world.
And yet. And yet. It really is so unnecessary a reaction. Even with the US drought there's more than enough food in the world to feed everyone.  Dana Gunders, over at the National Resources Defense Council, has just released an issue paper on food waste (pdf) in the United States. From her blog:
Food is simply too good to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food is never eaten. Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.
Nutrition is also lost in the mix -- food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables. Given all the resources demanded for food production, it is critical to make sure that the least amount possible is needlessly squandered on its journey to our plates.
From the NRDC website

The same is true worldwide. Canada is wasting about the same amount of food as the US, according to The Star. And the European Union released a report in 2010 that points up their problems in this area.
And its not something that's easy to do anything about. It may not do farmers or consumers any good, and it certainly does nothing for those of us who are food insecure, but the level of waste is a big profit centre for the food industry.
It is also an untapped resource. Much of what is disposed of in landfills (where it contributes methane to the global climate change problem), is compostable. From farm to garbage, we're tossing away expensive and highly recyclable material. And worse, we pay taxes to get rid of it.
The solutions are pretty straightforward. Composting, of course. But using waste bits to make stock would help. Heck, sending elementary school students out to play for twenty minutes before lunch leads to less waste when they eat their lunch. Schools are well placed to eliminate food waste from the general waste stream. And lowered demand for food will keep prices down. It might impact food industry profits--particularly if we were to make it much more expensive to dispose of food waste. But that's a price I'm willing to pay.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

But Really, No Lasting Effects

Remember how there wasn't supposed to be any long-term effects from the BP Deep Water Horizon blow-out in the Gulf? Rememer not believing it? Me too....

From the story at Al Jazeera
From Al Jazeera:
New Orleans, LA - "The fishermen have never seen anything like this," Dr Jim Cowan told Al Jazeera. "And in my 20 years working on red snapper, looking at somewhere between 20 and 30,000 fish, I've never seen anything like this either." Dr Cowan, with Louisiana State University's Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences started hearing about fish with sores and lesions from fishermen in November 2010. Cowan's findings replicate those of others living along vast areas of the Gulf Coast that have been impacted by BP's oil and dispersants. Gulf of Mexico fishermen, scientists and seafood processors have told Al Jazeera they are finding disturbing numbers of mutated shrimp, crab and fish that they believe are deformed by chemicals released during BP's 2010 oil disaster. Along with collapsing fisheries, signs of malignant impact on the regional ecosystem are ominous: horribly mutated shrimp, fish with oozing sores, underdeveloped blue crabs lacking claws, eyeless crabs and shrimp - and interviewees' fingers point towards BP's oil pollution disaster as being the cause.
"The dispersants used in BP's draconian experiment contain solvents, such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol. Solvents dissolve oil, grease, and rubber," Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist and Exxon Valdez survivor told Al Jazeera. "It should be no surprise that solvents are also notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long known".
The dispersants are known to be mutagenic, a disturbing fact that could be evidenced in the seafood deformities. Shrimp, for example, have a life-cycle short enough that two to three generations have existed since BP's disaster began, giving the chemicals time to enter the genome.
Pathways of exposure to the dispersants are inhalation, ingestion, skin, and eye contact. Health impacts can include headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chest pains, respiratory system damage, skin sensitisation, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiovascular damage. They are also teratogenic - able to disturb the growth and development of an embryo or fetus - and carcinogenic.
Cowan believes chemicals named polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), released from BP's submerged oil, are likely to blame for what he is finding, due to the fact that the fish with lesions he is finding are from "a wide spatial distribution that is spatially coordinated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon, both surface oil and subsurface oil. A lot of the oil that impacted Louisiana was also in subsurface plumes, and we think there is a lot of it remaining on the seafloor".

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Discussion We're Not Having

Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Cordoba, Argentina, talks about a current trial over the spraying of "agro-chemicals" on soybeans.

What interests me is the guy saying that the courts aren't the place for this discussion, the National Assembly is the proper venue. While its true that the legislature needs to be having this discussion, it is also true that the courts are the correct venue for this. After all, the citizens are claiming damage from the soybean growers. Litigation remains an important tool for citizens of any allegedly free society.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Big Trouble In Little China

Okay, I was thinking about the melamine-in-milk problem that cropped up in food from China a couple of years back, and the fake-honey problem we're currently unable to deal with, when I titled this post. But of course, China really learned everything from Big Food anyway.....
But, in an article dated 18 August 2012, Stephanie Strom is reporting in the New York Times that:
More than a dozen lawyers who took on the tobacco companies have filed 25 cases against industry players like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani that stock pantry shelves and refrigerators across America.
The suits, filed over the last four months, assert that food makers are misleading consumers and violating federal regulations by wrongly labeling products and ingredients. While there has been a barrage of litigation against the industry in recent years, the tobacco lawyers are moving particularly aggressively. They are asking a federal court in California to halt ConAgra’s sales of Pam cooking spray, Swiss Miss cocoa products and some Hunt’s canned tomatoes.
(As an aside, the article is in the business section, and so takes the view that this litigation is driven by a search for profits, not because Big Food has been fudging label requirements for decades. Morris Berman might agree, but seriously, when our governments, tasked with doing the right thing fail us, thankfully we still have the courts.)
The article continues:
In recent weeks, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has sued General Mills and McNeil Nutritionals over their claims on Nature Valley and Splenda Essentials products, and warned Welch’s it would sue unless the company changed the wording on its juice and fruit snacks. The Federal Trade Commission won settlements from companies like Dannon and Pom Wonderful for claims about their products’ health benefits. And PepsiCo and Coca-Cola face lawsuits over claims that their orange juice products are “100% natural.”
After reading Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice, Alissa Hamilton's exploration of the forgotten history of juicing oranges, it was only a matter of time until the labelling lawsuits started. There's almost nothing "natural" (at least how the average consumer would understand it) about orange juice.
And, personally, I don't think that just because an element or compound occurs somewhere in the natural world that we can put it in food and call it "natural." Particularly when, like corn, the original is simply treated as a chemical feedstock.
And, as Ms. Strom writes:
The new batch of litigation argues that food companies are violating specific rules about ingredients and labels. Mr. Barrett’s group, for example, has brought a case against Chobani, the Greek yogurt maker, for listing “evaporated cane juice,” as an ingredient in its pomegranate-flavored yogurt. The Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly warned companies not to use the term because it is “false and misleading,” according to the suit.
Manufacturers are already flipping out about the move in California to force GMO ingredients to be labelled separately from non-GMO ingredients. We can only hope that these lawsuits don't take as long to change labelling requirements as it has for cigarettes to disappear.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Logical Extension

External view of the 11.7 square meter Agri-Cube E garden factory From gizmag.com
So, this was pointed out to me over at gizmag.com. Daiwa House is producing the Agri-Cube, a technological marvel that takes the industrial food system to its logical conclusion. The Agri-Cube is a self-contained box that grows large amounts of hydroponic vegetables. Now, as nifty as the design work is, let me just point out one thing: it has optional solar panels that allow the Agri-Cube to store electricity to run its flourescent lamps. Check out the video....

This is the total abstraction of food from the environment.There is no dirt, no sunlight. The only thing that still has to come from nature is the seed. Sunlight, which has grown plants quite successfully forever, now is turned into electricity which is then converted into artificial sunlight.
That even I think this is cool is a perfect example of how insane our culture has become. Here, food growing has been de-linked completely from the natural world. This isn't like tunneling to extend the growing season. This is season-free. Everything is as controlled as a space station. And yet we've seen the decline in nutrient levels in vegetables from current techniques of industrial agriculture. What kind of vegetables will this spaceship grow? And Gaia help me, I really do think its cool.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

James Hansen

...has been trying to get people to pay attention to the climate change crisis for quite a while now. He's been pretty gosh-darned prescient about it as well. Now, even moneynews.com is running a Thomson/Reuters article about the threat to global food security. And they're hitting the proper notes: big trouble is here. More people on the way. Distribution, not production, is a major problem.
There's even a mention of stockpiling more grain. Now, for 14,000 years, civilizations have known that keeping about five years supply on hand was about right. Famine would come--and it always came, although often for different reasons each time--and five years of grain was about right to cover shortage and ensure seed supplies. When civilizations could not or would not keep stores on hand, when they became reliant on imports to cover shortages, they failed. And usually very quickly. As usual, I point to Empires of Food as essential reading.
But notice, despite NECSI's work trying to bring attention to the role of speculative money in driving food bubbles and crisis, still almost no mention of it in the business press.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cuba, Sí

It's amazing how good I feel today. Seriously. Because one of the big clouds has been lifted.
What happens if it all goes wrong? What if estimates of Middle East oil reserves turn out to have been fabricated out of whole cloth for the last thirty years? (A real possibility, much like the way the same Soviet ICBMs became more and more accurate with each budget appropriation cycle in the US during the late 70s and early 80s.) What happens if global climate change doesn't follow the nice timetable laid out by the IPCC, but instead beats us like Buddy Rich doing a solo? If food miles turns out to actually be a real problem? If industrial food collapses like a house of cards? What if the nightmare scenarios actually come to pass?
Well, after reading an article in The Journal of Peasant Studies, I feel a bit more relaxed when I think about the nightmare scenarios. Because Cuba has already been there, done that, and can see light on the other side.
Cuba, post-revolution, invested in extensive agrarian reform, but a combination of circumstances (the US blockade, and joining the international socialist division of labour for two), led Cuba to strengthen their sugar-producing sector; a sector that dominated 30% of the available farmland and generated 75% of export revenues by 1989. At the same time, Cuba was importing some 57% of its food.
Cuba embraced the Green Revolution wholeheartedly, with the most tractors per person and per unit of area, importing 48% of its fertilizers (which doesn't tell the whole story: of the fertilizer produced domestically, there was a 94% import coefficient), and importing 82% of its pesticides. Cuba was a poster child for Green revolution industrial agriculture. With the second-highest average grain yields of Latin America, Cuba achieved a high level of food security for its population. But what they discovered they did not have was food sovereignty. The 1980s brought increasing pest problems and the yields of some key crops began to decline due to soil degradation and pests (this is actually typical of Green Revolution lead areas around the world; long-term yield levelling or decline seem to be part of the model). 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Delta Still In Play

Delta farmland photo from The Delta Optimist
Two opposing viewpoints, which couldn't be any more different, appear to be on a collision course over the future of Delta's farmland, considered to be some of the best in the country.
On one side, there's resistance to any development or change, with many citing concerns over environmental impacts and the need for food security.
On the other, there's the possibility many hectares will be converted into container storage yards, trucking depots and warehouses, due to a shortage of industrial land in proximity to the port at Roberts Bank. That land is reportedly needed to service the Asia Pacific Gateway initiative to facilitate growth of the economy both regionally and nationally.

That's from the Delta Optimist. Delta's farmland is still in play, under considerable pressure from the port. The port is a federal jurisdiction, and apparently a big chunk of land has already been assembled, just waiting for the Harper government to give the go-ahead for expansion of the port.
The port will more than likely gt that approval, too. Harper has branded many of BC's citizens  as "terrorists" and the like, simply for being vocal about their environmental concerns. The Frasier River Delta is one of the most productive farming areas in the world, on par with places like the Nile delta, so naturally it is now overbuilt and asphalted over. The funny thing is, with the agricultural land reserve in place, the Greater Vancouver area could, should the population care to, produce enough food to feed itself within the current cities limits.

Monday, August 13, 2012

In A Nutshell

Mother Jones has recently run a lovely article (reprinted on Alternet) about a suite of seven reports run in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).
And who knew there was something called the Gatorade Sports Science Institute? According to the BMJ investigation, "one of GSSI's greatest successes was to undermine the idea that the body has a perfectly good homeostatic mechanism for detecting and responding to dehydration—thirst." The article quotes the institute's director as having declared, based on little reliable evidence, that "the human thirst mechanism is an inaccurate short-term indicator of fluid needs."

Another study in the BMJ package finds that the European Food Safety Authority, which is authorized to assess health claims in food labels and ads, has relied on a seriously flawed review process in approving statements related to sports drinks. A third study reports that hundreds of performance claims made on websites about sports products, including nutritional supplements and training equipment as well as drinks, are largely based on questionable data, and sometimes no apparent data at all. One overall theme emerging from the various papers is that much of the research cited was conducted with elite and endurance athletes, who have specific nutritional and training needs; any such findings, however, should not be presumed to hold for the vast majority of those who engage in physical activity.
[...]"Humans do not regulate fluid balance on a moment to moment basis," Noakes writes. "Because of our evolutionary history, we are delayed drinkers and correct the fluid deficits generated by exercise at, for example, the next meal, when the electrolyte (principally sodium but also potassium) deficits are also corrected…People optimize their hydration status by drinking according to the dictates of thirst. Over the past 40 years humans have been misled—mainly by the marketing departments of companies selling sports drinks—to believe that they need to drink to stay 'ahead of thirst' to be optimally hydrated."
So why do I care? Because this, in a nutshell, is what the entire nutritional and industrial food complex has spent the last half-century doing—lying to the consuming public.
How do we know? Well, for one thing, we've only done one proper experiment on nutrition, and that would be the famous vitamin C/scurvy study done by the British navy. That was the last time it was considered possible or moral to do human experimentation. Everything since then is best guess and supposition blown up by marketing departments.
What's worse, we can't even trust basic food like tomatoes and potatoes. Recent research has cast significant doubt on the nutritional content of foods. Most have seen distinct drop off in nutritional composition over the last fifty years—and yet the old data is what we're relying on to make "informed" dietary decisions.
Grow your own damn food. If you can't or don't want to, pay someone a reasonable amount to grow heritage varieties for you. It really is about that straightforward.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Dangerous Way To Test A Theory

Don't think for a minute that I think the folks over at NECSI (The New England Complex Systems Institute, about whom I've written before) are tenting their fingers and cackling in a Mr. Burns-like way while they manipulate the world's food markets in order to test their theory of food price spikes and social unrest. Rather, it is the rest of us who have embarked on the testing program. The researchers at NECSI have been modelling food prices, ethanol production and the effect of speculative money on the international food system. In their model, once the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) food price index hits about 215 (or 190 adjusted for inflation), all hell breaks loose. Food prices have been advanced as the most reasonable explanation why, for instance, unrest in the Middle East went so quickly from regional to widespread, birthing what we now know as the Arab Spring. And the Arab Spring followed one of these price spikes. And it makes sense. Bread riots are a recurring theme throughout history. Hunger is a strong motivating force.

FAO Price Index at current prices (black curve) and corrected for inflation (blue curve) between January 2004 and May 2011. Red dashed lines signify the beginning dates of food riots and unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. Black and blue horizontal lines represent the current-price and inflation-adjusted food price thresholds for riots. Bar-Yam et al/arXiv
And the researchers at NECSI, following their noses, noted last year that world food prices were going up (driven by corn-to-fuel programs in the US, but even more so by speculative money), and the food price index looked like it would peak above the magic 215 again in 2012. And then climate change kicked in and drought spread across North America. Big money has already bid prices up, driving another speculative bubble in food. To quote from the NECSI press release:
The worst drought in the American Midwest and the highest temperatures in a half-century are poised to trigger an imminent global food crisis, scientists at the New England Complex Systems Institute said Monday. NECSI has warned for months that misguided food-to-ethanol conversion programs and rampant commodity speculation have created a food price bubble, leading to an inevitable spike in prices by 2013. Now it appears the "crop shock" will arrive even sooner due to drought, unless measures to curb ethanol production and rein in speculators are adopted immediately.
FPI over time From the NECSI website

 Canada and the US are probably going to be relatively insulated from the worst effects. We'll see a rise in food prices of, well, 4% or so is being bandied about. But if the markets actually do get crazy, this will probably rise significantly. Spending more on food is not the worst thing that could happen to us—North America has some of the lowest food prices ever in the history of civilization. But taking money out of discretionary spending and putting it toward food will push us closer to a full-on depression and the potential for major social unrest. It is interesting to me that in all the coverage that the current NA drought is getting, the risk to, and effect on, food prices from speculation has been pretty much ignored. Yet, as NECSI research has shown, “while the behavior [of the food price index] could not be explained by supply and demand economics, it could be parsimoniously and accurately described by a model which included both the conversion of corn into ethanol and speculator trend following.” Like the idea of serious banking reform after the appalling criminality of the past decade among the international banks (as I write this Standard Chartered is taking a hammering after the New York state regulator accused the U.K. bank of being involved in laundering money for Iran), reining in speculation in the international food market has been deemed “off the table” apparently. We are facing a bleak future in which billions of us will starve to death, not because there isn't enough to eat, but rather because of the imperative to maximize profit. We've seen this before: in Ireland during the Great Famine, there was always food in the markets, there just wasn't any money for the poor to buy it. And in many famines since the 1950s, food aid has been used as a way to dump excess production and often to destroy local food production and distribution networks to allow foreign companies into the market (this would be one of the major reasons behind the homogenization of world food culture). So once again we will see why forgoing food sovereignty for reliance in imported foodstuffs is historically a very bad idea. And the message will be delivered on the baked bread scent on the breath of the starving.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Upgrading the Peasant Class

Mexico embarked on a program to depopulate the rural environment some years ago--to drive 10 million peasants off the land. The NAFTA agreement and its follow-ups flooded the country with cheap industrial food, industrial food amassed enormous tracts of land and began their version of "farming." and the slums in Mexico, like so much of the rest of the world, expanded. Funny, but it turns out that was a pretty stupid set of moves.
Now there's a worldwide movement called campasino a campasino, the agro-ecological movement that supports traditional farmers in becoming better at what they do, but expects them to drive their own change. In Mexico, one of the projects involves adding irrigation to traditional farming practice. Al Jazeera reports:

Al Jazeera's Shihab Rattansi reports from Oaxaca in Mexico. A new irrigation system, provided by a group called CEDICAM, is providing seeds and equipment to farmers with the belief that successful harvests depend on more than just being able to use what little rainfall there is. CEDICAM, or the Center for the Integral Development of the Campesinos of the Mixteca Alta, organises workshops in remote villages to teach local farmers how the combination of pre-colonial farming practices, such as terracing and ditch building, with a modern, scientific understanding of the environment can lead to huge increases in productivity. As a result, the land is fertile. There is no need for villages to disappear, and for the soil to be left unattended, as their populations seek work elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

East Coast vs West Coast

I've recently finished a couple of urban farming memoirs: Novella Carpenter's Farm City: the education of an urban farmer and My Empire of Dirt : how one man turned his big city backyard into a farm : a cautionary tale by Manny Howard. Both were interesting to read, but both were really American in their assumptions. Novella Carpenter wrote her book from Oakland, CA, while Manny Howard was writing his from Brooklyn, and the bi-coastal divide is really apparent in their approaches, their style, and their outcomes. Manny, like Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame, takes on a project that becomes obsessive and relationship-destroying. We meet him suffering a moment in his life that I remember well, the moment when you look around at the reality of being married and having young children. You suddenly realize that it's not all about you, and you are a grown-up now, even if you don't feel like it, want it, or believe it. Its disorienting at best, and in our modern consumer-oriented, atomized culture, distressing. We've created a culture that is best served when we remain self-obsessed adolescents for our entire lives, where “growing up” is seen as the end of the best times rather than a transition into a richer time. In Manny Howard's case, there is a serendipitous phone call from an editor: “How about you turn your yard into an urban farm and live off it for a month?” I can only assume that there was large amounts of alcohol available at that story meeting..... Manny is trapped in that space between adolescent invulnerability and adult sense, and so agrees. His expenses will be covered and there's a nice chunk of change at the end of it all. It is, for anyone who's ever thought about turning their yard into a farm, a perfect situation. You do the work, and someone else pays the bills. Manny bulls ahead, clearing out his backyard, installing a French drain system, and trucking in a load of good topsoil. His aspirations quickly spiral out of control, as he plans a garden, ducks, chickens, and rabbits. His approach is best described when he notes that “this cage, like the rest, was built on the driveway with no plans.” He's never gardened, let alone farmed, and there's no time to do the research up front, so go, go, go! His wife, a long-suffering, highly paid executive at a New York publishing firm (yes, a chauffeured town car picks her up and drops her off daily), watches her husband descend into a madness of obsession and manure, where his definition of the perfect world is radically different from her own. And he appears committed to taking the two children with him into this nightmare. Ultimately, Manny doesn't do a good job of living for a month from the work of his hands. Its not all his fault—there is, after all, a tornado that touches down on his street. And his forays into home meat production are ill-considered at best. All of which stand in stark contrast to the joyous madness happening in Oakland. Novella and her partner Bill move into GhostTown, a neighbourhood in Oakland that is barely functional, where there are shootings blocks away, where the best you can say is that it has become a Temporary Autonomous Zone. Bill, Novella's partner, refits vehicles to burn bio-diesel made from recycled vegetable oil. She works miscellaneous temp or part-time jobs, and comes from a pair of 70s back-to-the-landers. Suffice it to say, Novella is not without clue. Not that she makes it easy on herself. GhostTown is a tough place to live—almost unimaginable for a Canadian working class kid like myself. But when she spies the seemingly abandoned lot next door, Novella hatches a plan. Like the Diggers of England, and the Diggers of San Francisco, she sees that ownership and use must go together. So she begins to clear an abandoned city lot in order to build a garden. And right from the get-go, people start showing up to help. This would be Reader's Digest stuff, except for the strong whiff of counter-culture and the lack of respect for property rights. So, more Utne Reader then.... Novella's book is filled with people who are not her. The people she talks with about how to kill a pig, the drunks and druggies, her neighbours. In each case she tries to give the reader an impression of who this person is, to help make the same connection to them that she felt. The farm is central, but the real story in Farm City is the web of relationships that develop in the temporary Autonomous Zone. Novella gains self-definition when she meets Willow, the woman who drives the area's food security program by farming vacant space and refers to herself as an “urban farmer.” It is a label that Novella quickly adopts (and with good reason). Novella builds gardens,and then decides to indulge in the gateway drug of the urban agriculture movement: chickens. Or, in this case, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Chickens really are a gateway drug. They add something alive to the landscape—whether urban or rural—and by the time they are ready to lay eggs, you're already addicted to watching alien-yet-understandable activities. And the first time you steal eggs from a nest, you know you're never going back again. I've a farming background, even though I was brought up in the city, so I have always known about the linkage between raising an animal and having to kill one. But killing an animal, any animal, is one of the rituals of humanity from which we have become abstracted. Death is something we shelter ourselves from, hide away, and by doing so, make more powerful. Death is the act that separates the gardener from the farmer. Death is the hurdle that has to be cleared. Both Manny Howard and Novella Carpenter manage it, but Novella manages it with grace and understanding. The two books reflect their authors, but also the places they are written about. Manny Howard's is intense and neurotic—much like the Greater New York area seems to be. Novella Carpenter's book is sprawling and inviting, a masterful combination of memoir and research. Perhaps my being more of a West Coaster than an East Coaster affects my response to the two books. Or maybe being a hippie at heart and a back-to-the-lander myself defines my response. But I'd rather read about Novella's successes rather than Manny's meltdown.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Pushback 1

That's a lovely house, don't you think? And a nice yard in front of it.But Drummondville, Qe. (about 100 km NE of Montreal) doesn't seem to think so. After apparently getting a verbal approval from the town's Environmental Inspector, CBC reports that the couple who planted this lovely garden were served with a notice that they had to tear it out within 7 days or face fines of between $100 and $300 a day.
A follow-up report notes that the tear-out date has been extended to 01 September. It also notes that "Drummondville plans to make it illegal to grow vegetables on front lawns anywhere in the city." Apparently the city "held public consultations on the new rule and it said no one objected."
This is the beginning of push back; expect to see more and more of this. I expect it will be framed as a "property values" argument, and be claimed as being non-discriminatory because the new bylaws will affect everyone the same way (ask the residents of Africville how that worked out for them...).  Drummondville is saying that a 30% grass rule already exists--from the look of the above photo, sodding the paths would come close to taking care of that requirement).
In the US, things are the same. According to an article in Grist, push back is occuring there too:
[In] Tulsa [they] bulldozed the entire thing.
If you start looking for stories like these, you’ll turn them up in droves. In 2010, Clarkston, Ga., fined a gardener named Steve Miller for planting too many vegetables. In 2011, Oak Park, Mich., told Julie Bass she couldn’t grow any vegetables in her front yard because vegetables weren’t “suitable” yard plants. (“You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard,” a city official told the local TV station.) And in Chatham, N.J., Mike Bucuk, a young would-be organic farmer, had to fight with the entire town just to grow some vegetables his family’s property.
Gardens are productive. They serve a purpose, and part of that purpose leads to reduced sales for some businesses (fresh produce markets, or farmer's markets, often face stiff opposition from major supermarket players. Here in BC, Save-On Foods is supposed to be one of the big anti-farmer's-market forces). 
But home gardens breed neither fear nor consumption, the two major drivers of modern society. They encourage independence and self-reliance, neither of which sells industrial food. In fact, farmer's markets and home gardens produce exactly what the industrial food system cannot supply: good quality, good tasting produce.
And don't kid yourself. Industrial food will fight back against the home producers, the small and alternative producers. They have to--their business model is based on compliance, on being unable to see any alternatives. Local food has scared them (there are various talking heads that have produced "studies" showing that best-case New Zealand lamb has a smaller carbon footprint than worst-case local lamb, for instance). Industrial food already sends a private police force into the Canadian prairies to see what you're growing and if they can put a stop to it (check out the Percy Schmeiser story, as one example). Industrial food will continue to follow the Big Tobacco playbook to slow the challenge to its business. Like Big Tobacco, there are billions of dollars a year at stake as long as they can keep us solitary, afraid, and dependent. The solution is straightforward: be fearless (read Farm city : the education of an urban farmer by Novella Carpenter, or her blog). Form community. Grow, raise, or produce anything of your own. Its not your job to keep Industrial Agriculture on the top of the food chain. Its your job to do what's best for you, your family and community, and the planet.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

500,000 Scoville Units--That's Not Too Many, Is It?

I'm making lunch today (a big lunch that will take the place of dinner), and I thought it was a good time to try a few new things. You know, now that my significant other is out of the house and can't try and change my mind. Like poaching tongue the other day. That was a decision she suggested might have been in error....
That's really unfair. Paula is very supportive when I cook, but there are some things she just has no interest in (like tongue, or offal of any sort). And also, our spice palette differs. I like to pull out the spice weasel occasionally and "kick it up a notch." And that notch is sometimes over her limit. So the time to try a ground chili powder that comes in a test tube and is rated at 500,00 scoville units is probably when she is out of the house.
I picked about five pounds of veg yesterday from the community garden plot we have, and thought I should do something with it. So, lunch. And what am I having? Well, baked potato (allegedly from BC, but how do you really know?). A pork chop--again, supposed to have been grown on the Island and certified cruelty-free. This one I trust a bit more because the store is small and local, the meat comes in once a week and is cut on premise, and I know the owner. So I pay a bit more, more secure in trusting that I'm getting what I pay for.
And I went out in the backyard yesterday and picked small purple plums. Sun-warmed, beautifully ripe, I ate most of what I picked. Even though I was disturbing one of the residents--a hummingbird flew up, tick tick tick-ed angrily at me about being in front of his favourite flower, and then perched a little more than arm's length away to watch what the crazy ape was doing.