Food is basic.
Lester Brown — founder of both the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, author of over 50 books on environmental issues, recipient of 26 honorary degrees and a MacArthur Fellowship, and (according to the Washington Post) “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” — has just published a cogent article on the rapidly emerging global food crisis in Foreign Policy magazine. He clearly outlines the problem and where attention and resources must be put to ameliorate it.
I knew such a crisis was emerging. I hadn’t realized it was emerging so rapidly.
I offer Brown’s article here with no further commentary beyond this: His essay — like most other insightful, data-filled articles of its type — omits the key fact that the political and economic systems that generate such situations are not built to respond to them in a truly life-affirming way. “Issues” and “crises” are symptoms of those dysfunctional systems. If social critics and activists spent half the attention and resources on actually transforming those systems that we expend on “issues” and “crises”, we would soon see those “issues” and “crises” being replaced by “solutions” and “creative initiatives”. This is a supreme example of the kind of thing that a wiser democracy — if we had one — would start to address immediately, if it hadn’t already done so decades ago.
While many of us work to transform our political and economic systems, we need also to consider what to do in the meantime as these issues and crises continue to grow. So I also offer below two delightful articles on something that we can all do to ameliorate the impact of the food crisis on our own lives and communities. The articles describe not only the functionality of urban gardening but also its enjoyment — and its spread in the face of rising food prices. Significantly, such gardening is a key element in one of the more co-intelligent initiatives I’ve seen in recent years, the Transition Towns movement http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transition_Towns.
Food for thought… and action… and bellies.
The Great Food Crisis Of 2011
By Lester Brown
As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.
But whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and — due to climate change — crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.
There’s at least a glimmer of good news on the demand side: World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth’s land and water resources.
Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.
The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That’s enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.
The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.
While the annual demand growth for grain was doubling, new constraints were emerging on the supply side, even as longstanding ones such as soil erosion intensified. An estimated one third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes — and thus is losing its inherent productivity. Two huge dust bowls are forming, one across northwest China, western Mongolia, and central Asia; the other in central Africa. Each of these dwarfs the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s.
Satellite images show a steady flow of dust storms leaving these regions, each one typically carrying millions of tons of precious topsoil. In North China, some 24,000 rural villages have been abandoned or partly depopulated as grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing and as croplands have been inundated by migrating sand dunes.
In countries with severe soil erosion, such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests are shrinking as erosion lowers yields and eventually leads to cropland abandonment. The result is spreading hunger and growing dependence on imports. Haiti and North Korea, two countries with severely eroded soils, are chronically dependent on food aid from abroad.
Meanwhile aquifer depletion is fast shrinking the amount of irrigated area in many parts of the world; this relatively recent phenomenon is driven by the large-scale use of mechanical pumps to exploit underground water. Today, half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as overpumping depletes aquifers. Once an aquifer is depleted, pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge unless it is a fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, in which case pumping ends altogether. But sooner or later, falling water tables translate into rising food prices.
Irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now-depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production is in a freefall. From 2007 to 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two thirds. By 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely, leaving the country totally dependent on imported grain.
The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. But the really big water deficits are in India, where the World Bank numbers indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping provides food for some 130 million people. In the United States, the world’s other leading grain producer, irrigated area is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas.
The last decade has witnessed the emergence of yet another constraint on growth in global agricultural productivity: the shrinking backlog of untapped technologies. In some agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are using all available technologies to raise yields. In Japan, the first country to see a sustained rise in grain yield per acre, rice yields have been flat now for 14 years. Rice yields in South Korea and China are now approaching those in Japan. Assuming that farmers in these two countries will face the same constraints as those in Japan, more than a third of the world rice harvest will soon be produced in countries with little potential for further raising rice yields.
A similar situation is emerging with wheat yields in Europe. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, wheat yields are no longer rising at all. These three countries together account for roughly one-eighth of the world wheat harvest. Another trend slowing the growth in the world grain harvest is the conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses. Suburban sprawl, industrial construction, and the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots are claiming cropland in the Central Valley of California, the Nile River basin in Egypt, and in densely populated countries that are rapidly industrializing, such as China and India. In 2011, new car sales in China are projected to reach 20 million — a record for any country. The U.S. rule of thumb is that for every 5 million cars added to a country’s fleet, roughly 1 million acres must be paved to accommodate them. And cropland is often the loser.
Fast-growing cities are also competing with farmers for irrigation water. In areas where all water is being spoken for, such as most countries in the Middle East, northern China, the southwestern United States, and most of India, diverting water to cities means less irrigation water available for food production. California has lost perhaps a million acres of irrigated land in recent years as farmers have sold huge amounts of water to the thirsty millions in Los Angeles and San Diego.
The rising temperature is also making it more difficult to expand the world grain harvest fast enough to keep up with the record pace of demand. Crop ecologists have their own rule of thumb: For each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This temperature effect on yields was all too visible in western Russia during the summer of 2010 as the harvest was decimated when temperatures soared far above the norm.
Another emerging trend that threatens food security is the melting of mountain glaciers. This is of particular concern in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau, where the ice melt from glaciers helps sustain not only the major rivers of Asia during the dry season, such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, but also the irrigation systems dependent on these rivers. Without this ice melt, the grain harvest would drop precipitously and prices would rise accordingly.
And finally, over the longer term, melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, threaten to raise the sea level by up to six feet during this century. Even a three-foot rise would inundate half of the riceland in Bangladesh. It would also put under water much of the Mekong Delta that produces half the rice in Vietnam, the world’s number two rice exporter. Altogether there are some 19 other rice-growing river deltas in Asia where harvests would be substantially reduced by a rising sea level.
The current surge in world grain and soybean prices, and in food prices more broadly, is not a temporary phenomenon. We can no longer expect that things will soon return to normal, because in a world with a rapidly changing climate system there is no norm to return to.
The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices — and the political turmoil this would lead to — that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.
January 3, 2011
Fresh vegetables, herbs, honey and new eggs every day; Jules and his family
are living the farm life. It’s also a most unconventional lifestyle given
that their home is in the middle of Pasadena, California. The family
struggles to be as self-sustainable as they possibly can — their car drives
on biogas (biodiesel), solar panels power their television, and each day
they have fresh food from their own meticulously well-maintained crops.
Jules first began his farming life before moving to Pasadena, when he lived
for several years in New Zealand. Jules embarked on his current lifestyle
after becoming concerned about how the food industry controlled what he and
his family ate. Jules wanted to be more in control and minimize his family’s
impact on the environment.
Living this lifestyle doesn’t mean that you have to be old fashioned. After
a day working on his urban-farm lot, Jules and the rest of the family sit
down to watch movies on Netflix or work on one of their many websites. The
Dervaes family websites center around the idea of living a greener life, and
are some of the biggest websites/communities about urban farming. It’s a
growing movement; and a green revolution!
CITY FARMING IS NOT AN OXYMORON
By Lisa Rau
December 23, 2010
It’s using your yard for more than just grass. That useless, stubborn weed.
One family in Pasadena, Calif., took this idea and ran with it. Nearly every
nook and cranny of their yard sprouts something edible. Last year, they grew
more than 4,000 pounds of food, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggs,
milk, honey and more. And they live within a stone’s throw of Pasadena’s
bustling shopping district.
Check out the video to catch a glimpse of their rural city life, which
they’ve dubbed: Urban Homesteading. Sit back and meet Anais, Justin,
Jordanne and their father, Jules, who pioneered this movement decades ago.
My 3-minute vid only scratches the surface of the plethora of skills and
talents this family puts to work. They’ve had tons of press, but of course,
there’s a lot more to them than can be told on camera or in an article.
For the record, Justin makes biodiesel for the family car from used
restaurant kitchen grease; Anais cooks up all sorts of food-based products
like soap and is an expert at canning; Jordanne is developing a special line
of poultry feed to prevent common diseases; and Jules passed down his
aesthetic eye to the whole family, who produces stunning, high-quality
photography on a regular basis.
Plus, their website is a beautiful hand-coded work of art, filled with a
plethora of well-written content, snazzy photos and personal anecdotes.
Props to Jordanne for the self-taught design and development skills.
My favorite thing about this family (along with the fact that they’re
really, really nice) is their do-it-yourself attitude. They seem to have
skipped the gene for complaining. Or laziness. If they need something done,
they seem to just go out and do it. I think they see it as a “duh” response
So why do they live in the city? Jules says they’ve always wanted to move
out to rural California, but land isn’t cheap. They’re looking to relocate
to a bigger farm eventually, but for now, they’ll continue to be a novelty
among city dwellers who don’t think twice about using up their plot of land
Little Homestead in the City Website
Little Homestead in the City 2011 Calendar
Video: Urban Homestead
Canny Kiwis give green thumbs-up to growing their own vegetables
By Michael Dickison
Almost 60 per cent of New Zealanders say they have taken up vegetable gardening in the past 12 months.
A Herald-DigiPoll survey of 750 people found benefits in growing your own food during a tough economic year.
As the price of fruit and vegetables rose 12 per cent in the year to November in Statistics New Zealand figures, 57.6 per cent of people said they had started vegetable gardening.
Women were more likely to have taken it up, at 62.1 per cent, but the majority of men also answered that they had.
In Tauranga, a community garden with 57 plots was formally opened in November and the spaces were taken up within a month.
John Goldstone had no experience growing vegetables, but now tends his plot every day, usually after his work in engineering.
He has corn, lettuce, capsicum, spinach, onions, broccoli, silverbeet, strawberries, tomatoes, basil, rhubarb, radishes, jalapeno peppers and potatoes sprouting.
The garden charges $5 a week for enough space to feed a family of four all year round.
“I take a lot of pride in my garden,” Mr Goldstone said. “It’s great. It’s stress-free. It’s a really peaceful time.”
A $2 punnet of capsicum seedlings yielded 100 vegetables – at the supermarket it would have cost at least $200, he said.
There were solo mums at the gardens who had children with allergies. By growing their own vegetables, they knew exactly what had gone into them and could be assured they were safe.
The garden had three experienced gardeners who helped the rest with their plots, Mr Goldstone said.
It had been fresh fruit and vegetable prices that had pushed him to start gardening, but since he started, the joy of it had taken over, he said.
“I’m absolutely consumed by it,” Mr Goldstone said.
“The word’s out there. Everyone now knows. It’s amazing how many people are talking about growing your own vegetables.”
Warren Knight, one of the experienced gardeners, said growing vegetables had been saving many families $50 a week.
Extra produce was donated to food banks, and the community garden had also taken up a 16-year-old for community service who had become a great asset, Mr Knight said.
Elderly residents living nearby who had not grown vegetables for years had picked it up again.
“I’m amazed at the number of people who haven’t done any gardening before trying it out,” Mr Knight said.”But they’re lovingit.
“They’ll feed themselves over summer, and then feed themselves all year round.”
LEAN TIMES LEAD TO SURGE IN DIY
A tide of New Zealanders have taken up do-it-yourself crafts in the past year and the popularity of sewing, knitting, making cleaning products and doing repairs is surging.
A Herald-DigiPoll survey found more than 40 per cent of women had taken up sewing, knitting or another craft during the past 12 months, and more than a quarter had begun using home-made cleaning products.
Seventy per cent of people said they had started repairing or making things for themselves.
Wendyl Nissen, author of books on living more self-sufficiently, said a tough economy had spurred people into trying handcrafts – and they soon realised it was much more fulfilling than watching television.
“What’s happening is a whole return to more simple things,” Nissen said.
“People said they don’t have time – but you just watch less television, because it’s all crap anyway.
“Is your life really going to be any better watching celebrities on an island or chefs throwing pots at each other?”
Women particularly seemed to enjoy domestic crafts, despite feminist notions that females should not be limited to household work, she said.
“There’s a whole generation of us, we were born in the 60s and we didn’t do any of that stuff and it’s a novelty. None of us were really taught that,” Nissen said.
“My experience is once you start, you find you really enjoy it. It goes against everything feminists taught us.”
The trend was kick-started to save money but it had become more than that, she said.
“It’s not green or Greenpeace, it’s just old-fashioned. That’s why people are going back to it.
“People stopped being so materialistic, stopped needing the latest TV or the latest car or anything.”
For novices, Nissen said her advice was to try just one little thing – such as growing a lettuce in some potting mix.
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