In Search Of A More Sustainable Food System


We have grown accustomed to cheap, plentiful food when, and where we want it. Getting access to produce grown in other continents is a wonder of the modern era. This is all made possible by oil – and well, a little ingenuity by us humans. Let’s take a closer look at how our food system of today came into being and how we can make it more sustainable.

The Haber Process

The German chemist, Fritz Haber, is credited with inventing what is known as The Haber Process, (also called the Haber–Bosch Process) which essentially produces ammonia from readily abundant atmospheric nitrogen, giving us the ability to mass produce nitrate fertilizer.

It has been estimated that if humans were still hunter-gatherers, reliant on what resources they came across in a nomadic existence, the carrying capacity of the planet would be around 100 million people.

Fritz Haber, 1918

Fritz Haber - inventor of the Haber Process

This one invention is responsible for increasing the carrying capacity of the human race more than any other in history (It has been estimated that if humans were still hunter-gatherers, reliant on what resources they came across in a nomadic existence, the carrying capacity of the planet would be around 100 million people. Today, with modern agriculture, estimates range from 2 to 40 billion. – Keith Skene. Contemporary Review, Mar 22, 2010)

The Haber process is important because prior to this discovery, ammonia was difficult to produce on a large scale. Today, ammonia fertilizer generated using the Haber process is responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth’s population (Wikipedia). Also important is the fact that the majority of the ammonia for this process is derived from petroleum products. Not only is oil responsible for how food is transported to your table, it’s actually in the food we eat, molecularity speaking of course.

Green Revolution

The only agronomist ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize was a man named Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug. He is referred to as the father of the “Green Revolution“, because of his work to create new food production processes that helped “provide bread for a hungry world.” He revolutionized a new era of high-intensity farming  in the 20th century by introducing high-yielding crop varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. Mexico went from importing most of their wheat, to becoming a net exporter by 1963. Dr. Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

Borlaug speaking at the Ministerial Methodist Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in June 2003

As he accepted the prize in Oslo, he issued a stern warning. “We may be at high tide now,” he said, “but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts.”

Our Current Food System Was Born to Break

Our modern day system of food production and distribution is primarily centralized and controlled by a handful of multinational conglomerates (Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Monsanto, just to name a few). The complexity of today’s distribution system requires millions of lines of software code to manage and run the trains, ships, trucks and storage facilities, that are spread all across the globe. The whole system is only made possible by the existence of cheap and plentiful oil. Once oil prices rise past $200 per barrel and higher, the system is doomed to failure. This is a system that was born to break.

There are a number of factors that are currently taxing our modern system of food production. The following factors are all contributing to a “perfect storm” scenario that puts us on the brink of collapse.

Factors Straining Food System:

  1. Rising affluence of low-income people
  2. Climate change
  3. Lowered food reserves, particularly in the U.S.
  4. Nitrogen Fertilizer Causes Topsoil Depletion, Acid Rain and Lower Crop Yields

1. Rising Affluence of Low-Income People

India, Brasil and China all have growing middle class populations. As these countries reap the benefits of their stronger economies, they also go through the same growth patterns that the U.S. did back in the post-cold war years. A growing middle class, in terms of food consumption means a higher demand for meat, poultry, eggs and dairy.

This change in consumption patterns creates exponentially higher demand for grain. Livestock requires more grain than if the grain itself was eaten directly. In order to produce one pound of beef, a beef steer needs to eat 9 – 16 lbs, of grain and drink approximately 150 gallons of water. In other words, it takes 54 calories of fossil fuel to make 1 calorie of protein for beef.

2. Climate Change

We know that the increase of CO2 in our Earth’s atmosphere to record levels is causing, and will continue to cause, dramatic impacts to the planet’s natural cycles. These impacts include shifting shorelines, declining agricultural productivity, crisis of food supply, availability of water, the health of populations and extreme weather events.

Millions of agricultural peoples are located in the areas due to receive the most severe devastation from the rising ocean levels. Fleeing these arable lands will be a last resort for many in these communities. The impact of reduced crop production will be only one of many.

What is little known however are the impacts of environment related diseases, which could spread rapidly in epidemic proportions with changes in water availability and quality.

3. Lowered U.S. Food Reserves

The United States has historically responded to food shortages by shipping surpluses half way around the world. Under current U.S. food aid policy, the majority of food given to developing countries in crisis must be purchased from U.S. farmers and then shipped overseas on U.S. carriers in order to be distributed or sold at its final destination.

In years past, the U.S. has always had sufficient food reserves to accommodate most food shortages. But, recently starting with the food crisis of 2005 in Niger, this system has been weakened considerably.

Then, world food prices increased dramatically in 2007 and the 1st and 2nd quarter of 2008, creating a global crisis and causing political and economical instability and social unrest in both poor and developed nations. Massive food riots erupted in countries such as Cameroon and Egypt, with Haiti getting hardest hit. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the global price of food hit a new record high in December, 2010. See: Deglobalization – The Price of Food in the New World Economy.

We now are barely able to keep enough food reserves on hand making us, and the nations who depend upon us, much more vulnerable to shortages in the future.

4. Nitrogen Fertilizer Causes Topsoil Depletion, Acid Rain and Lower Crop Yields

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have an unintended adverse affect upon our environment.

Consistent use of petroleum based fertilizers deplete the soil of their organic matter, leave residues and buildups that inhibit microorganisms, and cause salinization. They also strip the topsoil of it’s ability to prevent erosion and runoff in times of heavy rain.

Fossil fuels have been cleverly hidden away under the Earth’s crust for millions of years. When synthetic fertilizers are used, they release this nitrogen on a massive scale. Decades of conventional farming has overloaded the carrying capacity of the Nitrogen Cycle. This overabundance of nitrogen, which is now at twice the level it was before the industrial revolution, has to go somewhere. The excess nitrogen shows up in the form of acid rain, nitrates in the water or nitrous oxide emissions in the atmosphere.

The reduction in healthy topsoil is directly attributable to high-intensity, conventional farming practices that use chemical fertilizers. Less topsoil on farmlands have resulted in lower crop yields and a greater dependence upon synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuel. This catch-22 puts farmers in a cycle of soil-depletion behavior that is difficult for many to escape.

Multiple Factors Pushing Food Prices Up

Hollygrove Market and Farm allows members to make their own CSA boxes.

A complex combination of poor harvests, competition with bio-fuels, higher energy prices, surging demand in China and India, and a blockage in global trade is driving food prices up worldwide. As prices rise, the need for people to become “food-independent” increases. Fortunately, breaking free of the centralized food system of today requires only modest changes in one’s lifestyle.

Interestingly, Americans on average spend less than 15 percent of their expendable income on food, while globally the average settles around 40 percent or 50 percent of the household income, according to the Associated Press.

Centralized Versus Decentralized Food Systems

Until very recently, the worlds food systems were run by small farmers (less than 10 acres). Most large commercial farms are in the tens of thousands of acres. With this combination of resources; land, equipment, facilities, infrastructure, come inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Crop failures due to flooding, insect infestations, molds and disease are only the beginning of the risks facing mega farms.

The more decentralized the food system, the more capable it is to withstand these devastating events.

A New Distributed Food System On The Horizon

Local honey sold at the Hollygrove Market and Farm in New Orleans, La.

As evidenced by the rise in popularity of urban farms, today’s food production system is undergoing subtle but, transformative change. People that have never grown vegetables before are tearing up their front lawns to provide their family with fresh, hyper-local produce.

Large, corporate run farming operations will still be needed in this new world of food production. The changes here will be less dramatic at first. One factor that will force change for the big farmers will be the rising price of oil. Energy costs alone will push innovation in the production methods and through the entire supply line from farm to market.

Smaller, local and community supported market and farm operations will enjoy a distinct advantage in the years ahead. For example, Hollygrove Market & Farm in New Orleans caters to the needs of their community the way that no agribusiness farm could. They sell freshly harvested, local produce along with locally farmed, organic eggs, honey and other products.

Small, community-based market and farms provide a level of food security that is needed to offset the price shocks and instability of our current food system.

The sooner we come together in communities to begin feeding ourselves, as our ancestors once did, the less suffering we will endure, as the current systems begin to fail. By working together, sharing ideas, seeds, tools, labor and meals together, we will rediscover many forgotten pleasures and become “food-secure” in an age of instability and transformative change.

References:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html?_r=2
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%932008_world_food_price_crisis
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/06/05/science/earth/harvest.html?ref=earth

Indigenous Cultures Rediscover Sustainable Farming Practices


In writing “Hope’s Edge“, Frances Moore Lappé and Anne Lappé traveled to India, Bangladesh, Brasil, Poland, England, France, and the California Bay Area to look at the different ways food is grown and distributed. What they discovered about the systems of food production in places like Belo Horizonte, Brasil and Andhra Pradesh, India are inspiring and surprising.

“Hunger is caused by a scarcity of democracy, not a scarcity of food.”

– Diet For A Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé

What is Belo Horizonte doing that every city in the world should do? They took the challenge of poverty and hunger that was afflicting their city head on.

Belo Horizonte, Brasil - Population 5.4 million

In so doing, they realized that access to nutritious, healthy food was a basic right and, as a group of elected officials, they had a responsibility to the people of Belo Horizonte to make sure the market worked for them, in providing access to healthy, local and organic food. Out of this realization, a strong social movement to transform their food system took hold.

Seven years after this shift in consciousness, dozens of innovative projects emerged.  They looked at where government money was being spent and where new initiatives could better serve the people.

One of the projects that came out of this initiative was a fresh look at how the school food program was being run.

Belo Horizonte’s School Lunch Program Goes Sustainable

The City realized that they were spending significant amounts of money to purchase government processed food that was not very nutritious and needed to be trucked in from long distances. They said why don’t we support our local farms and in doing so, provide local, organic produce that is nutritious and supports local, organic farmers. The goals were to;

  • Supply healthier food to children
  • Support local organic farmers
  • Support regional economy
  • Become more self-reliant

Fast food companies were advertising in schools in an effort to influence the buying habits of young children. So, they launched a public education program to inform and educate children on what foods are healthy and nutritious.

The Results Speak For Themselves

After 7 years and spending 1% of the city’s budget (equivalent to 1 penny per person per day), they have dramatically improved basic childhood health indicators. The result has been decreased hunger overall and has lowered child mortality rates by 60% in the span of only 10 years.

Deccan Plateau, in Andhra Pradesh, India

Even in New York, food deserts do exist. New York City has just launched ‘Green Carts‘ to mitigate this urban phenomena. Small carts are filled with fresh produce and delivered into areas where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is non-existent.

The Thinking Around ‘Food Scarcity’ Needs To Change

People often cite that those most in need cannot concern themselves with eating local organic foods when they are faced with just putting food on the table. The claim has been that the organic food movement has been elitist and ruled by the ‘global north’.

Ms. Lappé counters by saying that what is elitist, is the current food production model because it excludes the many to favor the few. The global north is not where the only shifts are taking place in the effort to regain our agricultural heritage. Some of the poorest regions in the world are showing that a return to indigenous farming practices are yielding impressive results.

Leaders in Global Sustainable Farming Movement

The women living in villages of the Deccan Plateau, in Andhra Pradesh, India are becoming leaders in the “global movement” toward sustainable agricultural practices. They have rejected the disaster resulting from local farmers growing GM (genetically modified) seeds supplied to them from Monsanto. GM seeds need to be purchased from Monsanto after each harvest often causing the farmers to go in debt. Using non-regenerative seeds them has only brought devastating crop failures, resulting in farmers that are committing suicide at an alarming rate.

The local farmers are now going back to the indigenous practices of their ancestors, by teaching each other the ritual of seed sharing, diverse cropping methods and creating their own safety nets for their village in times of drought. They are even filming this whole process and sharing it with the world.

Balwadi grain contribution

One village seed-keeper showed samples of the 25-30 varieties of seeds (no wheat or rice) that she cares for and grows on about one hectare of land. The basic staple crops are a diversity of millets and sorghums. Millet seeds are tiny, but they do well in the dry Deccan plateau.  All had their value for both food and cattle fodder and together provided a balanced diet. As a seed-keeper, she does not own the seeds, and others in the village ‘borrow’ seeds from her, returning 1.5 to 2 times the quantity of seeds borrowed after harvest. Thus, the village stock of seeds grows and diversifies.

People in this region are some of the poorest in the world and they are in leadership roles within the sustainable food movement. The key is rebuilding food production systems that are not reliant upon synthetic fertilizers, which use huge amounts of fossil fuels and natural gas to produce. Changing to a more sustainable system of growing crops will reduce the impact to the poorest regions of the world, that are most affected by climate change.

Farming in Ethiopia Undergoes Ground Breaking Shift

Women of the Deccan Plateau, India filming indigenous seed-saving practices

Small-scale farmers in Ethiopia are also turning back to the native crops that are indigenous to the region. Historically, these indigenous plants have survived countless droughts while providing subsistence farmers a reliable livelihood.

The sustainable practices in the most drought prone regions in Ethiopia are having dramatic increases on crop yields using techniques that are affordable and safe. These farmers can’t afford to buy seeds that will put them in debt. Organic and sustainable farming practices mean the farmers are not reliant on chemical fertilizers, which are costly and deplete the soil of their organic matter over time.

Plant Resilience Means Human Resilience

When people begin to have the capacity to feed themselves from the land, to not be in debt to the corporations and to do it in a sustainable way, they build confidence in themselves.  Then, with this new-found self-reliance, they begin to experiment with crops, well-suited to their particular soil and weather pattern. They begin to break away from the dogma of conventional agriculture sold to them by the Monsantos and DuPonts of the world.

To survive in the 21st century, these farming communities need to adapt to a constantly changing climate pattern due to global warming. They can do this without GMOs and interference from agribusiness. Farmers that grow drought resilient crops native to their land, are themselves, becoming more resilient to an ever changing and unpredictable climate future.

Novella Carpenter Speaks on Berkeley Campus


Just recently saw Novella Carpenter speak in Berkeley, California. Her slideshow of pictures were humorous and so inspiring.

The one of her standing next to her tow big pigs with just flip flops on proved to me that she is committed to urban farming, if not a bit nutz.

I’ve just started reading her latest book entitled, Farm City. Her life reads more like a woman on the farm; one that you would expect from a person living in the rural area of the U.S. like Nebraska, Oklahoma or Kansas.

If you want to buy her book, here’s the link to Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/Farm-City-Education-Urban-Farmer/dp/1594202214/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1271100130&sr=8-2-fkmr0

%d bloggers like this: