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Archive for the ‘food’ Category

A few weeks ago we noted that high prices for industrially-produced food might be a good thing if you wanted people to buy more organics. Even the New York Times came to the same conclusion.

But not so fast, says Tom Philpott over at Grist.org.

Philpott worries that, as supermarket prices for conventional goods rise, people on low incomes will turn to fast food outlets before they turn to organics.

The reality, he says, is that fast food operators “can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap.”

So what should we do? Says Philpott:

The answer, it seems to me, is not just to hope that expensive industrial food drives people toward equally expensive sustainable food. It’s to make sustainable food more broadly accessible and affordable.

As an example of the kind of action he’d like to see, Philpott points to recent legislation in Washington state that encourages schools and food-banks to use locally produced food, even if cheaper food can be imported from elsewhere.

One response to Philpott’s article comes from an agronomist, ‘Pollencruncher.’ He argues that with organics you are buying a better product, so price parity should be less of an issue — and yet thanks to public perception price parity has always been seen as necessary for organic food to be widely adopted.

But now, “We in the Organic community have met the desired goal of Parity prices for the first time in decades,” Pollencruncher observes. Couple that with the better nutrition you get from organics and you have a rationale for not being so pessimistic about what people on lower incomes will do.

Perhaps what people also need, in concert with the kind of policy action Philpott advocates, is better education in health and diet, so they can be better-informed when they weigh the financial costs of any food choice against the likely benefits and risks to their health of eating that food.

That would require, of course, disseminating messages that run counter to the best interests of very large and very influential agribusinesses. But when there’s no voice to counter advertising relentlessly selling cheap but nutritionally-empty food, too many of our collective decisions are likely to run counter to our collective best interests.

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You’d think that as we reap the environmental, health and political consequences of industrial farming techniques that consume vast quantities of fossil fuels, degrade soils and leave us with poor diets, organic produce would become ever more popular.

But two recent New York Times stories reveal a counter-intuitive, but important, reality: that as the problems associated with industrial farming get worse, organic food can easily become an even harder sell than before.

We weren’t alone in surmising that a rise in the price of conventionally farmed foods (mostly caused by a rise in the price of oil and the ethanol boondoggle) might benefit organic farmers, since that price rise ought to make organics more competitive as an alternative.

But the price pressure on conventional foods has driven up the price of organics, too, the New York Times tells us.

Partly it’s a matter of supply out-running demand, in which case we might expect market forces to come into play and bring new organic suppliers into the market. That happened in the last decade, after all, with organic farming enjoying a worldwide boom while conventional farmers received rock-bottom prices for their crops.

But now that conventional crops are commanding record prices, farmers have lost a major incentive to go organic.

The impact on consumers is powerful, too. High prices for conventionally farmed foods may drive people to organics, but they might equally lower our collective resistance to genetically modified foods — foods that are almost always classed as non-organic — the Times reports today.

Pioneer organic consumers never bought organic because it was cheap. They saw themselves as foregoing their present financial comfort for the sake of our long term global benefit. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll be needing to call on that altruism — and call on it from a great many more people — for a good while to come.

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That seems to be the message from two stories published today, one on each side of the Atlantic.

In a news analysis, the New York Times notes that:

a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people.  Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices.

Officials from both the UN and the World Bank have recently voiced concerns about the impact of biofuels on the price of food.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Independent reports that, “the production of biofuel is devastating huge swathes of the world’s environment” and asks why the UK government wants its citizens to use more of it.

The Independent’s Cahal Milmo also mentions the impact that biofuel production is having on world food prices.  But of equal concern is the environmental damage that careless encouragement of biofuels can cause.  British campaigners, reports Milmo, this week

condemned as “disastrous” the absence of any standards requiring producers to prove their biofuel is not the product of highly damaging agricultural practices responsible for destroying rainforests, peatlands and wildlife-rich savannahs or grasslands from Indonesia to sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.

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if we want to encourage people to produce their own food, here’s a great idea:  tax breaks for gardeners!

It’s the idea of Maine gardener and sustainability advocate Roger Doiron.  He says:

There are different breaks that local, state and federal governments could offer home gardeners. Sales taxes on seeds, seedlings, fruit bushes and trees could be removed. Better still, an income tax break could be administered as is done with home offices where people measure and deduct the square footage of their houses used for business purposes. The bigger your garden, the better the tax break. Those with no yard could deduct the rental fee for a community garden plot.

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Here’s more on the trend that we’re calling ‘super-micro farming.’

Firstly, Fritz Haeg has now published his “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn.” You can find an except from it here.

But why stop at your lawn? Ruben Anderson, over at The Tyee, suggests that we plant the parking spaces in front of our houses. If everyone with a driveway actually used it, he argues, that would free up a ton of new public space. He imagines his own street:

“let’s make it a one-way street, one lane wide, with a couple of pullouts. This maintains access for emergency vehicles, taxis and mini-buses for wheelchairs. We could also throw four spots for visitors into each block. At one end we can put a half-court for basketball, street hockey, skateboarding or rollerblading so once again shouts of “Car!” will mean the players get a short break. For the rest of the block, I propose gardens.

If you can’t imagine your neighbors (or your city) going for the concept, you might be glad to know that elsewhere ‘asphalt gardening’ is already a reality.

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It’s a slightly perverse argument but we’re not the only ones to be making the connection between the recent rise in US corn prices and the good that might do us all.

As followers of Michael Pollan know well, major subsidies to US corn producers have made processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup much cheaper to buy than fresh fruits and vegetables.  And that has led a great many people on limited incomes to make choices that, while economically smart in the short term, have terrible health consequences over time.

But with corn prices soaring (thanks in part to growing demand for ethanol, the cost of petroleum-derived fertilizers and gasoline for transportation), it’s harder for manufacturers of highly-processed foods to low-ball their not-so-nutritious creations and easier for people looking to sell locally-produced, organically raised produce and meats to compete on price.

The same thought has apparently struck the New York Time’s Kim Severson, who wrote yesterday:

“if American staples like soda, fast-food hamburgers and frozen dinners don’t seem like such a bargain anymore, the American eating public might turn its attention to ingredients like local fruits and vegetables, and milk and meat from animals that eat grass. It turns out that those foods, already favorites of the critics of industrial food, have also dodged recent price increases.”

Kudos to Severson for calling up Pollan himself for a quote: “higher food prices,” he suggests, “level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”

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Sure, we have reservations about turning vacant urban lots into vegetable gardens designed purely for the benefit of humans. But, as with all things, the real story lies in the nuance.

That’s why we admire people who take it upon themselves to replace human-designed but blighted urban landscapes (think: ivy-covered front yards and scuffed, litter-strewn sod) with spaces that offer both humans and native animals food — not to mention homes for said animals and a fair smattering of native plants.

Take orchards. The right selection of varietals set in an unmown native grass meadow can offer delicious food to people, birds, bees and other creatures and living space for plenty of native birds and insects, too. Plus it will look nice. If you are watering anyway, why not go that route?

That logic has Oakland social worker Diane Williams filling her front yard with fruit trees. Faced with the bare yards of her neighbors’ public housing development across the street, she went and offered to do the same for them. She now gardens 10 plots in her neighborhood and provides free fruit for anyone who cares to pick it.

While the San Francisco Chronicle calls her a guerrilla gardener, we’re not sure William’s qualifies — she does after all, ask permission.  She more like a fairy-godmother gardener.

Another article in the same edition of the Chronicle features more typical guerrilla gardeners — the kind that go plant in unused lots without permission. Interestingly, it sounds like landlords only get really upset when it’s food that’s planted on their lots.

While there’s something thrillingly paradoxical about the very notion of guerrilla gardening — which perhaps helps explain why it’s suddenly so hip — Williams’ model looks like the one to emulate for those of us looking to help cities achieve the urban landscaping triple whammy of increased food independence, wildlife protection and aesthetic improvement.

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That’s apparently the idea behind British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s new project.

Oliver’s idea, explains today’s Guardian,takes “inspiration from the Ministry of Food’s campaign to encourage families to Dig For Victory, grow their own food and make the most of their wartime rations.”

While it’s a gimmick, the notion also makes some sense.  Second World War rationing famously limited Brits to tiny portions of meat, butter, milk and eggs, but it also resulted in a population that was remarkably healthy.  Plus it got people growing their own food right in their own backyard ‘Victory Garden.’  It many ways you couldn’t find a diet and lifestyle more likely to warm Michael Pollan‘s heart.

But can we persuade people to voluntarily impose war-like conditions on themselves — even if they stand to benefit?

For Americans one answer is that, of course, the country is at war right now.  So why can’t the nation ask such a sacrifice of its citizens today?

Another, more global approach might argue that the lifestyles of even the richest of us aren’t (on the whole) doing us a lot of favors when it comes to our collective health and happiness — let alone that of the planet.  So surely we could be doing better.

It sounds like Jamie Oliver recognizes that people are busy and don’t necessarily yearn to feel tied to their kitchens or gardens.  As he told the Guardian:

“This isn’t about me wagging my finger at people, here or anywhere else, it’s about finding out what problems people are facing with time, budget and cooking know-how,” said Oliver. “Then we can see what help and support they need. Yes, people should take responsibility for their own health, but they need help and the tools to fix it.”

We’ll look forward to seeing what tools the energetic and talented Mr. Oliver will come up with.

If it starts receiving serious educational and even heavy-hitting policy support worldwide, perhaps there’s real potential for a return to the ‘victory garden’ model — beyond Mr. Oliver’s pitch for his next TV show.

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Yesterday we wrote about ‘super-micro farming’ as a trend emerging in response to possible threats to our food supplies.

There’s further evidence of the trend in the San Fransisco Chronicle’s most recent ‘Home and Garden’ section. In a multi-page cover feature, the paper does a nice job of surveying current efforts in the city to turn vacant urban spaces into ‘organic-food producing’ gardens. And it makes the point that this is one way for a ‘metropolis that can feed itself.’ Of over 1,000 vacant lots in the city, at least 600 are farmable, landscaper Kevin Bayuk tells the Chronicle.

It also ties in nicely to invocations by the likes of Michael Pollan, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon to eat (mostly) locally-sourced plants, (mostly) in season.

While it’s perhaps unrealistic to think urban gardens could ever feed an entire city’s population (the main complaint made by people commenting on the articles), they can reduce the need for food to be shipped in from elsewhere. And they can provide city dwellers with a direct (and, for many, uplifting) connection with the food that sustains them.

But in times when much of the rural landscape is turned over to monocultures enforced by the heavy use of pesticides and fertilzers, let’s spare a thought for some of the weeds, bugs and larger plants and animals that would otherwise occupy these vacant lots. Sure, rats and mosquitoes don’t have many fans, but many formerly common native birds, reptiles, pollinating insects and small mammals are losing space to development and intensive agriculture.

If we’re to reclaim abandoned lots for ourselves, perhaps we could be sure to put a good number of them aside as sanctuaries for the plants and animals we’ve managed to threaten so harshly elsewhere.

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Climate change threatens to destabilize our lives, for both ill and (perhaps, even) good.

One mark of that instability will likely be a disruption in the way we produce and distribute food.

Could this be why the UK Independent finds the world suddenly ‘going crazy for allotments‘ — those small plots of land that cities lease their citizens at a peppercorn rent to grow spare fruit and vegetables for their homes? The paper discovers allotments thriving in the UK, France, Kenya, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong and the USA. In the UK alone, it says, “there are an estimated 300,000 allotments, yielding about 215,000 tons of fresh produce every year.”

It’s not just home owners who are seeing the attractions of micro-farming. As food security becomes a concern to societies accustomed to having fresh produce flown in from all over the world, the New York Times tells us, “the purposeful reclamation of urban and suburban lands is serious fodder for artists, architects and academics alike.”

Allison Arieff’s article is a good round-up of current hipster urban farming and land-reclamation projects in the US — many of them on the super-micro level, but worthy none the less.

Let’s hope, certainly,that we see more initiatives like the Edible Estates project — which “proposes the replacement of the domestic front lawn with a highly productive edible landscape.” Their motto — Attack on the Front Lawn! As Arieff reminds us, that front lawn typically uses “up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre . . . than farmers use on crops.”

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