Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Intense (ive) Agriculture

Two innovative projects popped up on my radar (thanks, Jeff!) involving urban farming this week. One is a storefront farm in Hackney, London, called FARM:shop, and the other is Riverpark Farm in New York City.
Both are responses to the fallout from 2008 and the ongoing international economic crisis sparked by American corporate criminality. In Hackney, the number of disused storefronts has sparked a municipal initiative to fill them at least temporarily with art projects and the like. Something and Son took a look at the cubic footage they had available, and created a café/workspace/venue/ and an intensive food production space.

Honestly, Something and Son has the air of an art installation, talking about how their “displays” change with the seasons. They claim to be the world's first “urban farming hub” (whatever that is supposed to mean), but the ideas they've used involving food production are not all that innovative. FARM:shop's food production is directly descended from the work of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI), which, from 1971 through 1991 conducted a major research and education initiative on a farm in Massachusetts. They explored green-housing/aquaculture synergies, formulated the 90-day-compost plans used by most gardeners today, and rigorously documented their work. They even built one of their “Ark “ projects in Prince Edward Island, testing their theories in a less hospitable clime.
The New Alchemists weren't the first either, building on both academic and farm-based work that had gone before them. But, thankfully, they were a part of the 60s diaspora that documented their work,leaving behind not only a record of their work, but a group of people still pushing forward environmental design.
Many of the NAI principles have been brought forward by others than FARM:shop as well, like the Green Learning program that produces “a million pounds of food on three acres.” Using compost beds for heat, designing vertically inside greenhouses, and combining aquaculture and irrigation, this teaching farm grows tremendous amounts of food year-round.
This is not to demean the work done at FARM:shop. They have applied the principles of intensive agriculture to a small space in an urban environment and engaged the community while doing so. All things to be proud of—and more than most of us have done. But we tend to see such projects as one-offs, unique, unusual, rather than part of a movement of people trying to stay attached to the earth and have some measure of autonomy in their lives. As I wrote recently in Jammin', even in the 1960s home gardens were a regular, un-remarked-on feature of the urban landscape. Because so many of us still had significant rural connections—most Canadians were either the first generation off the farm and/or still had members of their extended family on the farm—food production was normalized. But changes in governmental thinking about agriculture (particularly with the appointment of Earl Butz under Richard Nixon, and the changes to farm price supports and the way those changes rippled through the continental economy), by the 1970s home garden were being replaced by flower gardens and BBQ pits, and the environmental movement had become an urban movement facing pushback from those still living on farms.
So these days it is seen as unusual that a restaurant like Riverpark would have their own garden, even though restaurants have a history of forming close links with their suppliers. That their garden is built in an unused development lot near the restaurant may be significant, but only in that it shows the desperation being experienced by developers during the current economic mess.
The Riverpark farm doesn't come anywhere near to supplying the restaurant with all the food it needs to operate. We tend to forget how many acres are needed to produce food—for a restaurant, a family, or an institution like a hospital. Most of our current efforts at recapturing the food supply from industrial agriculture focuses on very small scale production; home gardens, balcony gardens, operations like FARM:shop and Riverpark farm, or farms under about ten acres. And while these operations are important, they don't even begin to address the question of volume that we face in a world of seven billion people.
My brother runs Sunnyside Fruit and Vegetable in Alberta, a quarter-section of land dedicated to food production. In the farming community he just barely qualifies as a farm. Farms are measured in sections of land—that is, units of land that measure one statute mile on a side. We live in a world where a thousand acres is considered a family farm and is run by one or two people and a lot of very large expensive machinery.
Industrial farmers like Casey Houweling, who has farms in both Delta, B.C., and in California, bought 92 acres in Delta and then built a 2.5 hectare greenhouse to grow Beefsteak tomatoes. 2.5 hectares is just over six old school acres, or larger than most Island organic farms.That's one greenhouse.
I don't want to suggest that home gardens or small organic operations are unimportant or irrelevant. They are neither. But we are living in a world of (now) seven billion people, which means that we have to produce a lot of food. And, equally important, we have to be able to distribute it.

And moving food is one area in which Industrial Food excels. Whether its watermelons out of a famine-stricken Ethiopia in the '80s into Europe (ensuring that Ethiopia could continue paying its international debt even while being unable to feed its people), to the shipment of mega-tonnage of wheat into the developing world, where it can be used to destroy local markets and foster a dependence on export-driven industrial food production, systems have been developed to transport tremendous quantities of fresh, frozen, and processed food around the globe.
We are going to need this backbone over the coming decades if we are to feed nine billion people. Particularly in a changing global climate. We can expect significant famines in different parts of the world—including places that have been largely spared during the last century, like North America. Because we are so not ready for the future.
We have enough food in the world to feed everyone—mostly. But we don't have enough money in the right places to feed everyone.
One of the problems is that we see food or agricultural production as different from water or air. As Fraser and Rimas point out in Empires of Food1, the move from pastoralism to agriculture was the movement from sufficiency to surplus, and that creation of food surplus opened the door to the foundation of empire. Food is not a natural right, like air. Food is not a collectively managed right like water. Food is a tool, a product, a weapon. Food is, in fact, viewed as almost anything other than a necessity and a right.
It is because food has historically been produced by 95%+ of the population that it could be viewed as something other than a necessity and a right. When most people produce enough food to see them through a season and a small surplus, the provision of food to the public hasn't been a problem except in famine years (which is why, historically, governments have maintained a five year grain supply against such periods), so the national surplus could be used for trade, to support armies, to, in short, develop empire. But since the fifties, this proportion of producers and consumers has been reversed. In the US, less than three percent of the population produce food, and yet produce enough (using Green Revolution practises) to continue to produce the surpluses needed to further corporate and governmental policy objectives.
But the current distribution backbone is hydrocarbon based, and that presents a collection of problems from greenhouse gas emissions to rising prices. Clearly we need to encourage more resiliency in the food system, and one of the ways to do that is with more local production.
While Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSAs), co-operatives, small farms, micro farms, family farms, and balcony gardens hold out the best hope for a resilient, sustainable, local food system, this is not a change that can happen overnight. The fragile, unsustainable, and increasingly costly Industrial Food system has to be maintained for at least the immediate future. This is not to say that Industrial Food is doing the job we want. Rather, it is doing the job that some of us want. That the job it is doing seems increasingly crazy should only act as an encouragement to us to change and change quickly.
This was the thinking when Hugo Osvald wrote The Earth Can Feed Us2. “There are a lot of people. We need a lot of food. How can we get there?” Hugo laid out the basis of the Green Revolution and the industrial agriculture system. He also laid out how the food system might be made more sustainable. But then, as now, only the simplest parts of the plan, and those with the highest rate of return on investment were instituted. Sustainability was dismissed as a nice idea, but too impractical. Dismissed, in fact, with the same arguments used today by proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs); that these other ideas are nice, sure, but a profit needs to be made and sustainability doesn't make a profit.
There are a few truisms in the food world. Smaller farms are more calorie productive per unit area than large farms (large farms are more productive per unit labour). Drip irrigation has a bigger impact than GMOs. The more global the food system (and the more driven it is by export-led profit), the more it favours large farms over small. And large farms have a greater political weight than small farms.

Here in Canada, the Harper government is entering into talks to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international free-trade deal called “this broad multicountry deal that could eclipse NAFTA in importance” by Steven Chase.3 The price of admission to the talks may be the removal of protections for Canada's dairy and poultry sectors. With the promise that “the Wheat board will be gone by Christmas,” this would complete the decimation of farmer protections in Canada by the Harper government. Coupled with the current land-buying sprees4, Canadian food security has never been at greater risk.
1Evan Fraser, Empires of food : feast, famine, and the rise and fall of civilizations, 1st ed. (New York: Free Press, 2010).
2Hugo Osvald, The Earth Can Feed Us, 1st ed. (George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1966).
3Farm protections on the table. Globe and Mail. Steven Chase. 15 November 2011 p. A1
4Amy Miller, “Farmland Frontier: New wave of agricultural land-grabs reaches Canada,” newspaper, The Dominion: news from the grassroots, September 27, 2010,

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