Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Land Grab or Investment Opportunity?

screencap from African perspectives

The always-interesting Aljazeera takes on the question of massive foreign purchases of land on the African continent:
Escalating energy and food prices have triggered a global scramble for Africa's land and water resources. Eager to feed their growing populations, countries are buying up prime farmland in Africa at rock bottom prices. Land eight times the size of the UK has already been bought up by hungry investors.

via Aljazeera

Eight times the size of the UK. That's a lot of land. On South2North, Redi Tlhabi talks to former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, Nigerian politician and Oxfam trustee Nkoyo Toyo and Philippe Heilberg, a land investor from the US.
The problem is, this land is being industrially farmed for food for non-African countries--the food being grown is primarily for export. That doesn't do a lot for the affected countries. Investment in peasant agriculture following agro-ecological principles would do a lot more towards both feeding the population and growing the local economies. It's like Walmart coming into a country. It doesn't do the local economy any good--they bring some minimum wage jobs, but the destruction of small businesses and the asset stripping of the local area causes far more damage than any benefit from the local employment.
One of the interesting things about the discussion is how Philippe Heilberg acknowledges that he's a disaster capitalist, and he invest because he can get exponential growth and returns on his investment--without regard for local conditions.
Heilberg argues that the statistics from the UN are highly distorted because they are not closed or official deals. He says that his own figures have been doubled in some accounts.
"Land is cheap in Africa, but there are many reasons why it's cheap. In many parts of the continent there is little to no infrastructure whatsoever .... The frontier markets offer incredible risk-reward opportunities. Because when the growth happens it's exponential."
Toyo disagrees that these deals have always been above-board and that they benefit local communities.
"That's not what we are seeing on the ground. We are seeing incidences of violence. We are seeing incidences of forced evictions. We are seeing incidences of homelessness, farm lands being taken away ... The fact is that most of the grabs that are going on, the owners don't even know about them, so there isn't even a basis for that conversation to happen. The negotiations are happening sometimes with powerful people in secret negotiations. These non-transparent processes are depriving people down the line."

Monday, September 23, 2013

“The rose speaks of love silently, in a language known only to the heart.”

I get depressed, sometimes. Reading about the industrial diet, the more I understand the fragility and corruption of the international food system digging into the structural problems of food production, all of these things can become overwhelming. I write with the desire to change things, but sometimes it feels like all my posts look the same:
The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.The system's broken. We're all gonna die.
I know that urban farms are springing up across North America, that Joel Salatin's leading the charge to more sustainable farming out east, Milkwood Permaculture is doing the same sort of thing down south, and hundreds of people are making moves towards a better tomorrow. There is hope. Really.
So a couple of days back I was thinking about what it says at the top of the page: Discussion of farm policy, food security, and food. With recipes. And as I walked the dog out in the park near where I'm currently living, I noticed that the feral rose bushes were covered in hips. My head was ping-ponging between the Depression of  the 1930s and the current state of affairs, and I had been considering differences in how people ate, then and now. So I came back a couple of hours later with both the dog and a jug and picked the rose hips at the top of the page.
They were in great shape:

As you can see, the hips had ripened and maximized their flesh (that little 0.3 mm thick layer between the skin and the seed package). I pulled the flower ends off each hip, tossed the hips in a pot, added a bit of water, and boiled them until they popped. After the hips had cooked down to mush, I strained the seeds and skins out of the pot, and began to boil the remainder down.
Once everything had begun to evaporate, I added a couple of cups of sugar, on my way to jam. the, wondering if I had any pectin in the house, I looked out the kitchen window, and spotted these:

There's the remains of a quince tree slowly being killed by a holly in the front yard. There was a fairly big (well, relatively big, for this tree, under these conditions) fruit visible from the window. When I went out, I found a small handful of the fruit.
Quince has an extensive history of use, but the one I was interested in comes from the fruit's high pectin content. I took the largest fruit, diced it up small, and tossed it into the jelly.
As the quince cooked in, I continued to intensify the jam. I had a few of those little tiny jam jars you get in hotels, so I cleaned them out, made sure the lids fit. And used them, and a larger two cup container, to hold the jam. I used the small ones because I know that I'm going to be asked for a sample of the rose hip jam, and these make perfect testers.
The jam is strongly scented, hasn't properly set (which is pretty normal, as far as I can tell. I've never seen/tasted rose hip jam that had fully set), and tastes somewhere between really great and inedible. It also has a slightly mealy texture.
I've made this before--the last time was more than twenty years back. This time, of the three ingredients, two were grown within 100 metres of here. If I had a beehive, this could have been the most local jam I've ever made. Probably still is.
This sort of thing helps. I love cooking, and making something like this jam reminds me that the earth would actually rather have us here. We serve an ecological purpose. We just have to remember that, and try to fit ourselves into the world, rather than demanding the world adapt to what we want. Now I just need to make some sourdough bread with local wheat flour.

Monday, September 16, 2013 c'est la même chose

I'm reading Jan Poppendeik's book, Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat and, early on in the book, she looks at the early days of the US' Great Depression. In 1930-31, the breadlines had formed in almost every city, town, and village in America. 1931 saw the first great drought—though not yet the extended “Dustbowl” drought—of the depression. As Amartya Sen has written, when a famine occurs, there are three alternatives for people: First, get a new, or additional, job. As this was the Great Depression, this wasn't possible. Second, rely on extended family. By 1931, this option was pretty much exhausted. And third, rely on charity.
This was the position of most of the jobless in the US. When the drought hit, it was also the position of a great many farmers. Charity was being administered by local governments (primarily at the municipal level) and the Red Cross. There were a patchwork collection of programmes and initiatives across the country; some, like the relief gardens which were planted (and the surplus canned by civic, fraternal, and religious organizations), encouraged by members of the federal government. But most programmes were only local and, under Hoover, the US federal government wanted nothing to do with relief programmes.
Except, of course, when they did. By 1931, there was two billion dollars (that's two billion depression-era dollars) budgeted for business and financial sector relief. And a couple of years earlier, farm price supports had been instituted, with the US government buying up wheat and slowly releasing it into the international market, to slow price fluctuations, and try to ensure that the American farmers got a livable price for the grain they were growing. Which makes sense; if your crop all comes in at once, prices tend to tumble around harvest. Farmers able to store large volumes of grain can take advantage of the price differential between fall and spring, but most people needed money by the end of the growing season. Mostly because that's when the operating loans are due.
The problem in the US was that the government had accumulated a very large storehouse of wheat; by 1931, a hundred and sixty million bushels. Which cost money to store—about $0.18/bu/year.  The US also had a significant population reliant on charity—in particular, reliant on charity for food. To various politicians and reformers, it seemed like a no-brainer to release a portion of the wheat stores held by the federal government for relief.
The Hoover administration was never too open about it's opposition to releasing the wheat. But they certainly encouraged opposition. The big roadblocks were two: concern about the release of "free" wheat on the US market, and the belief, at least among the more conservative members of Congress and the Senate, that reports of hunger in the US were overblown.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Hey! It's Pizza Day!

The Local Community Food Centre has posted a video to Vimeo that's just great!It's all about their summer programme with a bunch of local kids doing a make and bake pizza day.

this is so much fun--kids raiding the garden to make their own pizza for dinner. As you watch, listen to how many different foods the kids are putting on their pizza--everything from olives to carrots. My favourite moment is when the young boy listens to the slightly older (and a little bit bossy) girl tell him that what he's eating is just tomatoes. Quietly but firmly he says "No they're not. They're groundcherries."  meanwhile, he just can't seem to get enough of them.
Such an excellent programme for teaching kids about food and the value of local and self-grown. And what a way to get something good into them. I'm reminded of watching Jamie Oliver's School Dinners programme and seeing kids who wouldn't eat a fresh strawberry picked from the garden--seemingly because it didn't come from a store. And now here's a programme where the kids can't get enough fresh food.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

That Persistent Animal Question

photo via National Cancer Institute

Over at David, the question of eating animal protein once again raises its confusing head. 
Jenna Stoner, the Summer Masters Student and writer, comes up with four bullet points about eating animal protein:

1. Trying to compare the environmental impacts of different dietary proteins is not easy

2. Trying to compare the environmental impacts of different dietary proteins is not easy... but researchers around the world are doing it

3. What the research is saying about environmental impacts of different dietary proteins

4. Beef, chicken, fish, pork, tofu, beans... Which should you choose?

 Thankfully, Ms. Stoner doesn't try to give a definitive answer. My readings on the topic suggest that trying to come up with one answer to the question "should we be eating animal protein" is a mugs game. Ms. Stoner writes: "A 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fewer burger every week for a year was the equivalent of taking your car off the road for more than 500 kilometres, and if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week for a year it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road." Clearly, industrial meat production has a hell of an environmental impact on the planet.
But raising meat as it's done in North America isn't the only way to raise meat. Once you begin comparing Guinea pigs being raised in a Peruvian backyard to Spanish black-hoofed hogs being fattened up in oak orchards, well, the math is going to get pretty tricky.
There are a few points to remember when thinking about whether or not to eat animal protein.
  • Different animals have different feed conversion rates. Chickens are much more efficient than beef animals, for example.
  • Animals--particularly those outside the NA big three of hogs, chickens, and cattle--serve to bring otherwise unused land into the food chain. 
  • Organic agriculture really needs animals--they are a good way to create organic fertilizer. And grazing animals often improve the land they evolved to graze.
  • Animals--particularly hogs--can and should be used to recycle food waste. And food waste in the developed world runs at about 40%+  between the farm and the point at which you push your plate away. 
  • Animal protein is nutritionally efficient. You can eat a balanced vegetarian diet (and my family lived a vegetarian life for eight years), but it is more difficult. And you have a lot of food waste to recycle (don't forget all that peeling and preparation). Chickens and pigs help with that.
That all being said, yes we can certainly stand to reduce our meat consumption. Particularly industrial feedlot meat. that stuff is nasty, environmentally horrendous, and not doing us a lick of good.
But before you go rushing off to buy the soy-based substitutes, read up on how that is produced. It's looking no better for us than the industrial beef....