Archive for April, 2008

Please Read this and Pass It On

Sharon April 18th, 2008


I think Greenpa may actually have come up with a viable way to make political change on the food crisis.  This is important. 


The Lowly Potato and the Power of Vegeculture

Sharon April 18th, 2008

Passover begins tomorrow evening, and training it down to NYC for a family seder.  Expect the blog to be quiet for a bit.  But I didn’t want to leave you all on the methane note ;-) - we all need a happy thought now and again.

 My happy thought is…potatoes.  Does that sound strange?  If so, take a look at this article about the growing hope that potatoes represent in the world food crisis.  We have relied so heavily on seed crops that we’ve missed many of the possibilities of roots.

 I’ve written about this more extensively in an article about Vegeculture - that is, the use of root crops as staple foods.  I believe that more and more of us, who do not feel we can produce our own wheat, will transition our diets towards small scale production of root crops - potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, cassava, manioc, taro, beets….  In a world where food grains are increasingly scarce, our ability to rely on our own local, staple vegetable crops may be essential. 

It is also worth noting that a transition to root crops represents a deeper shift - because potatoes are higher yielding than grains, we are making our first shift to an agriculture that emphasizes productivity of land, rather than productivity of people - that is, the realization is coming that we have no choice but to make the best possible use of the land we have.  It is a slow process, but I see new awareness of root agriculture as an early step.

 At Passover, we are prohibited from owning or profiting from grains - certainly wheat, and many Jews also forego rice, corn and other crops.  That leaves matzah (made from wheat in a particular way), but also potatoes.  Many of the traditional foods of the Passover Table derive from potatoes, or potato starch.  For 8 days, potatoes mostly substitute for an American diet that otherwise relies far more heavily on wheat, corn and rice. 

Which raises the question of how we regard this shift.  Historically, while Passover has its pleasures, everyone is waiting anxiously for bread at the end.  It is traditional to complain a bit about the foods of Passover.  I wonder what it would be like if, instead of dreaming of bread, we could delight in the season of potatoes and other roots.  That is our goal this year - to enjoy this time of vegeculture.

A few years ago, I dumped about half an inch of compost on a chunk of my gravel driveway, laid potato pieces down, and covered them with old hay that had been rained on.  I produced a fairly solid yield of healthy, beautiful potatoes - on my driveway.  Potatoes are indeed a happy thought.


Major Global Warming Tipping Point Vastly Closer than Anticipated

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Wow, I thought I’d posted my quotient of hideous news for the day.  And then I spotted this over at The Automatic Earth

“It’s always been a disturbing what-if scenario for climate researchers: Gas hydrates stored in the Arctic ocean floor — hard clumps of ice and methane, conserved by freezing temperatures and high pressure — could grow unstable and release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, more worrisome than carbon dioxide, the result would be a drastic acceleration of global warming. Until now this idea was mostly academic; scientists had warned that such a thing could happen. Now it seems more likely that it will.”

And for good measure:

“The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.”

An older report on the potential problem reports:

“But calculations by Dr Sitch and his colleagues show that even if methane seeped from the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would add around 700m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, roughly the same amount that is released annually from the world’s wetlands and agriculture.

It would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10% to 25% increase in global warming, he said.”

There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that the release couldn’t take place quite rapidly - over years or decades.  BTW, the last time the methane was released, half the life on earth died.

Of course, the odds can’t be more than 50-50 that’ll happen this time, so why worry?


The Mirror, Not Malthus: The Hunger Crisis and the Illusion of Scarcity

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Perhaps you saw the recent UNESCO report on the future of agriculture .  It calls for a major paradigm shift in agriculture, away from fossil fuels, towards organic agriculture and greater equity of distribution.  Wow, I wonder why I didn’t think of that ;-)? 

Seriously, this is the largest single report ever to tell us what we already knew - that ”the status quo is not an option.”  That is, we cannot go into the future as we are.  We all know this on some level. 

But until now, the larger narrative has been that we will rely on some magical technology - genetic engineering or a new green revolution - to create food in such abundance that we do not have constrain our appetites.  Although the UNESCO report dances around some of the central issues, it is also true that they admit that the solution is both simpler and more complicated - work on food justice.  Get the fossil fuels warming the world out of agriculture.  In the meantime, get the rich nations to pay for the food desperately needed in the poor world.

It seems so obvious - but the fact that a major institution like the IAASTD is actually calling for fewer fossil fuels and more equity represents the beginning of a sea change - and change that couldn’t possibly happen fast enough.

Even ignoring the fact that various institutions supported by UNESCO have helped create the mess we’re in, promoting fossil fueled agriculture and globalized markets, and ignoring the fact that despite widespread public perception the reality that organic agriculture can match yields has been widely known for some years, this is still a move forward.  But again, not fast enough.

Consider this report from a group of nurses just returned from a humanitarian mission in Haiti:

“The nurses saw firsthand desperate lives made worse by the world food crisis.

“It is incredibly astounding … having a family sit in front of you and have the mother offer you the baby in arms - and the baby is 8, 9 pounds - and be told that child is 2 ½ years old,” Tinker said.

“Everyone is malnourished.”

The food crisis only worsens the desperate circumstances of this poorest-of-the-poor nation.

Children with stick-like limbs arrive at the clinic listless and with distended stomachs. Common worms “take what little nutrients these starving people can give themselves,” Tinker said.”

I have a two and a half year old.  Asher weighs 27 lbs.  I don’t think there’s a better way of understanding the food crisis than to look at your own child, or your grandchild, a nephew or a niece or a neighbor’s child, and ask “how would I feel if this were my child?”  In fact, most of the world’s faiths would argue that their children *are* our children - that there can be no difference. 

I hope the answer to how you feel  is not just sad - I think this is an excellent reason to weep, but I don’t want anyone to stop with weeping - anger and outrage are the appropriate reactions, and we need more anger of the sort that moves us forward.  In fact, the poor are furious - riots are breaking out all over the world.  The victims of our affluence are not fools. They know they are being “massacred” as one UN report put it. 

And we should be equally angry - both because what can be done to poor Haitians can also be done to our “own” (I never have been clear on why American children are supposed to be mine, when the rest of the world’s aren’t, but we’ll use the conventions) children under the current system (they already are, as I reported this winter), and because THERE IS NO SHORTAGE!!!  It would be terrible if this were happening in times of absolute shortage, if there really wasn’t enough food to go around.  But that’s not true - there is plenty of food for the whole world- the world is overflowing in food.  The problem is entirely one of distribution, and of the indifference of the affluent. 

 The term “Malthusian” gets tossed around a lot lately - my doctoral dissertation was on population and literature, and part of it was specifically about Old Thomas Malthus and his idea.  So let me offer that point to say that “Malthusian” is precisely the wrong word to use here - Malthus was speaking of the problem of food supplies meeting rising population’s demand, but he was talking about absolute scarcity, something we are not experiencing.  The essay cited above uses it:

This Malthusian crunch has been building for a long time. We are adding 73m mouths a year. The global population will grow from 6.5bn to 9.5bn before peaking near mid-century.

Asia’s bourgeoisie is switching to an animal-based diet. If they follow the Japanese, protein-intake will rise by nine times. It takes 8.3 grams of corn feed to produce a 1g of beef, or 3.1g for pork.

China’s meat demand has risen to 50kg per capita from 20kg in 1980, but this has been gradual. The FAO insists that this dietary shift is “not the cause of the sudden food price spike that began in 2005″.

Hedge funds played their part in the violent rise in spot prices early this year. To that extent they can be held responsible for the death of African and Asian children. Tougher margin rules on the commodity exchanges might have stopped the racket. Capitalism must police itself, or be policed.

Even so, the funds closed their killer “long” trades in early March, causing a brief 20pc mini-crash in grains. The speculators are now neutral on the COMEX casino in New York.”

Hedge fund speculation and meat consumption were simply not what Malthus was worried about.  Malthus was aware of the problem of inequity, but he argued that it was dwarfed by the problem of population pressure - in this case, that’s the exact reverse of our present situation.  That is, population pressure is causing difficulties - but population growth rates are quite stable, and cannot account for the doubling of grain prices every 18 months. 

It is not that population is not a growing issue - at some point in the future we will almost certainly encounter this question of absolute limits - but this is not the root cause of our present disaster, and every time we pretend that the issue is primarily population (which is growing most among the poor),  we are lying to ourselves - moreover we are telling ourselves that the problem is someone else’s fault.  We’re going to have to ask ourselves harder questions - do I want that burger enough to justify a 9lb 2 1/2 year old? Do I really need to go to soccer practice that badly?

Look at the names on the table.  Niger.  Liberia.  Eritrea.  Botswana. Haiti. Bangladesh - they are small nations that rely on imports to feed themselves.  100 million people are quickly sliding towards death in those nations - and they will, rightly, decline to slide quietly. They sound like far away places.  They have always had their troubles - and yet millions of people who survived global warming, war, poverty are now meeting the one thing they cannot survive - our appetites.

 Waiting in the wings, with its poor on the fast track to starvation are more nations - India, the Phillippines, North Korea, Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan.  Note how many of those nations have strategic importance for us or hold nuclear weapons.  It is a fantasy to believe that we can allow this to happen and not pay a price.

And if this were a Malthusian world of real scarcity, we might be able to say that we cannot do anything about this.  But as Greenpa points out, that’s errant nonsense.  We could very easily prevent this tragedy.  There is plenty of wealth in the rich world to feed the hungry. We could stop hedge fund speculation about food.  We could stop eating so much meat.  We could stop making biofuels.  We could stop.

But that would require that we care in a deep way - not in the way we’ve become accustomed to, of thinking “Oh, how terrible” and then “oh, someone should do something about that.”  It is time for all of us to let our moral rubber hit the road, and recognize that more is being asked of us than simply to think something is very sad.  This is a crime of our creating - and we have the power to stop it.

 How?  As Greenpa suggests, call your representatives and talk to them about biofuels and food speculators.  Cut the meat back in your diet, and focus on meat that is raised without the use of human food - that is fed on grass.  The rest of the time, go vegetarian.  And most of all, get to work raising awareness in your community, raising funds for hunger relief, and making it clear to people that this isn’t happening because of something we cannot control, the spectre of Malthus rising - that’s a longer term problem, and one we have to deal with.  But this crisis is one Malthus never foresaw, and the root causes look back from the mirror.

Curiouser and Curiouser…Updates from my Crazy Life

Sharon April 15th, 2008

I was interviewed the other night, and I found myself explaining to the woman interviewing me that I couldn’t wait to get my life back after the books were done - and then listing off all the new projects I have already agreed to/am considering taking on.  There was a definite note of skepticism in the interviewer’s voice when she asked me about how, exactly, all this stuff will work toward a lower-key life.  And I admit, I have no freakin’ idea.  Ah well - as usual, my plan is something along the lines of “it’ll work out.”

 Meanwhile, since people keep asking me about the books, I thought I’d let y’all know where things stand.  _Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front_ is rapidly becoming a reality - you can go to Amazon and see a pre-order form for it (no picture of the really spiffy cover yet, though).  But do me a favor, and wait if you are planning to order it - you’ll be able to pre-order through me shortly - or you can ask your local independent bookstore to carry it. 

The official date that the books come off press is August 2, but I gather it will be sometime in September before the books are in most stores.  Independent booksellers get their first, which is great -  I admit, I prefer to think of small booksellers profiting from my book whenever that’s possible.  Did I mention the cover is really spiffy, yet ;-)?  I admit, my head is a little turned by seeing my name on a really, truly book I wrote! 

Also, if you want to hear me go on a bit, the interview I gave to Jason Bradford on Global Public Media is now available online.  In fact, since it is no skin off my nose, if you really want to listen to me ranting, I’ve linked to my first interview with Jason, on the 100 million farmers idea. 

Also Tom Philpott, farmer/writer extraordinaire (and author of several of the best essays on the food price issue I’ve ever read) also did me the incredible kindness of inviting me to blog over at Grist as well as here.  This is a new audience for me, and I’m going to be reprinting some posts from here, as well as producing some new material as I go along.  The first post you may recognize, but I think it is increasingly timely.  Check it out - and I’m told I should mention that you should click on one of those funny buttons that say “digg” or “stumble” - I have no idea whatsoever what they do, but I’m supposed to say so.  I hope they don’t launch rockets ;-). 

Also, you may have noticed the button for Crunchy Chicken’s glorious charity ”Goods for Girls” - if you haven’t seen her latest update, including video of girls opening up their packages and an essay about the problems the pads help solve, you really should.  It turns out that some girls, in order to continue their educations were trading sex for disposable menstrual pads.  Can I just say in a world of sad things, that strikes me as one of the saddest - and I’m so grateful that Crunchy has created this wonderful project for young women in Lwala!  I’m feeling guilty because I swore I was going to sew some pads - and I haven’t gotten it.  I’m assuaging my guilt, however, by sending some Gladrags, and will save the sewing for all the free time I’m sure to have once A Nation of Farmers goes to press. 

Meanwhile, the success of the Food Storage class continues to linger - a friend is turning my food storage material into a searchable CD-rom that will be available, and there’s talk of making a book out of it in my copious free time.  I’m still getting requests to run it again - so I’m going to.  I’ll run it during the month of August, with an emphasis on preserving the harvest, since that’s booming harvest time anyway.  Don’t email me to sign up yet - I’ll let you know when I have more details and a schedule.  That of course means I’ll be running lots of posts about food preservation and storage again in August here on the blog - hopefully right when you are trying to get yours done. 

Meanwhile, I’ve got the amazing talents of Deanna, Shasha, Aaron, Matt, Edson, Steve and Chris working with me on a terrific new project - but I can’t tell you what it is.  All I can say is that it involves Poultry, English Pub signs, Victory Gardens, Boobs and Beer - and that’s just what we’ve come up with so far.  My feeling is that with a combo like that, how can we fail to save the world?

 Ok, I lied, I can tell you.  You may not remember this, but back during the 197os there were some kick-ass magazines out there that focused on serious home food production, small scale farming, appropriate technology and cooking - Organic Gardening and Farming and John Shuttlesworth’s old The Mother Earth News were the bibles of people who were serious about feeding themselves.  But both magazines have, over time, changed their focus, and become more oriented towards casual homesteading and product reviews for middle class folks.  They aren’t bad, but for the city dweller trying to bring food security to their neighborhood, to the person looking for ammunition to change their town’s poultry laws or the small home farmer who wants to produce staple crops, they don’t have as much to offer.  And while reading the back issues is great, times have changed a little.

So we’ve decided we should fill that niche - we’re creating a new online magazine about growing, living and eating really local.  More details to come, but I think this is going to be a really cool thing.  We’re on the cusp of a real sea-change in the way people relate to food - and I think this could be powerful.

Oh, and one of the very neatest things we’re doing is we’re going to do in-depth reports, first from our own gardens, which range across the nation, but we also want reports from around the world.  We’re looking for garden correspondents who want to send in regular reports (probably starting in mid-summer - we’re still getting things together).  We’re particularly interested in reports from non-US residents around the world (I know it is lame, we’re all Americans - forgive us ;-)), and from regions of the US we don’t cover (we’ve got 1 person in the SE, two in the PNW, three in various parts of the midwest and 2 in the NE) such as the Southwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Southern Florida. 

We’re also looking for participants dealing with major difficulties - contaminated urban soil, hostile homeowners associations, low rainfall, no experience; and those practicing exciting forms of agriculture - rooftop city dwellers, community gardeners, permaculturists, orchardists, people raising small livestock.  We want to know what it is like where you are, what it is like to garden there, what other people wanting to grow food around you need to know, how you deal with very cold or very hot or very wet or very dry conditions.  So if you are interested in becoming one our correspondants and sending in reports from your field, let me know - email at [email protected], and let me know where you do your writing now, if you have a blog (not required, but we’re curious if you do).  We’re going to collect names and build up a list of people!

Other than the kids, the homeschool, the farm and the garden, the coming goats, poultry sheep and the possible visiting cow, that’s about it.  I just can’t even begin to think what I’m going to do with all that free time…



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