Tag Archives: status quo

Pollinator Perplex: Update on the Honeybees

Birds, bees, and bats continue to perish in great numbers around the world. These massive die offs affect not only their specific communities of life, but also our natural world and our food supply.

Our winged relatives weave essential threads through the whole of life as they carry pollen from plant to plant and cause the land to bloom. Their loss to earth is inestimable. The ongoing decline of pollinators is one form of global change that will alter the shape and structure of the land and our capacity to live upon it.

This recent report on the evolving status of the bees comes from writer Jodi Peterson at High Country News:

HBEE“It’s been more than two years since High Country News reported on the West’s  disappearing honeybees. Since then, parasitic  mites and a mysterious syndrome called colony collapse disorder have  killed off thousands more hives.

“Honeybees pollinate 80 percent of the  fruits and vegetables we eat, and many wild species essential to  ecosystems. In China, hive collapse has forced farmers to start  pollinating fruit trees by hand with brushes.

“Now, researchers at  Washington State University think they’ve figured out the major causes of  colony collapse disorder…”

A Billion Hungry People on Earth, More Coming Fast

bThe United Nations World Food Program reported this week that there are over a billion hungry people among the approximately 6.8 billion human beings now alive. That means that over one in seven of us is hungry or starving, and the number is rapidly climbing upward

“This year we are clocking in on average four million new hungry people a week, people who are urgently hungry,” according to Josette Sheeran, head of the UN Program.

At the G8 food summit in Rome last week, she told Reuters news service that high food prices have pushed another 105 million people into hunger in the first half of 2009.

The global financial crisis has made things worse. In terms of staple food, people in poorer countries today can only afford about a third of what they could afford three years ago.

Meanwhile, in an independent but equally ominous echo, the esteemed National Geongraphic has just published a special report on food and hunger – the end of plenty. “Last year the skyrocketing cost of food was a wake-up call for the planet,” Joel K. Bourne Jr. reported in the magazine.

“High prices are the ultimate signal that demand is outstripping supply, that there is simply not enough food to go around.”

Yet with world population spiraling toward nine billion by mid-century, these experts now say we need a repeat performance, doubling current food production by 2030.

In other words, we need another green revolution. And we need it in half the time. We also need it to be a clean, sustainable revolution, for the synthetic chemicals of the first ‘green revolution’ have proven themselves to be toxic and at variance with a healthy planet; the hybrid crops have shown themselves to be fragile; and ongoing overdoses of chemical fertilizer and pesticides have ruined vast stretches of agricultural terrain, and are suspected carcinogens.

Last year a massive study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices.

Though many people still do not hear it yet, hunger is one of the loudest voices calling from our land. This blog, and in particular the links page, offer direction and models that can be emulated by awakened citizens who recognize the wisdom of taking action now for food security.

Food and Farms Emerge as Key Movement of Our Era

foodpolitics1If all politics is personal, as is widely held, then ultimately not much is more political than our food, and the farms which produce it. Everyone must eat, thus everyone has a vested interest in food.

Just now, early in the 21st Century, foods and farms are emerging as a leading-edge political movement. Thousands of college students are awake to the crucial importance of food and farms, and more are awakening.

With food poisoning scares, the ongoing onslaught of genetically modified food products being surreptitiously introduced to our diets, and the mounting evidence of the health and environmental consequences of large-scale, chemically dependent industrial agriculture, the list of reasons is growing for people to become active and take a direct part in ensuring food quality and food supply.

According to a May 23 story in The New York Times, a new wave of students is heading to farms this summer, in search of both work as interns, and social change. The interest in summer farm work among college students has never been as high, concurs the growing organization Organic Volunteers.

According to the Times, the students come armed with little more than soft hands and dog-eared copies of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. They are acutely aware of the gross environmental problems caused by mass-scale industrial agriculture; they want to help bring about change, and to know they are doing something to better the world.

Meanwhile, the dietary forces impelling people to recognize foods and farms as a key political issue are mounting in strength and credibility. According to stories in both Time Magazine and Mother Earth News, we now have solid, scientific evidence that industrial farming is giving us less healthy  food. Produce in the  U.S. not only tastes worse than it did in our grandparents’ days, the evidence shows it also contains fewer nutrients.

Both articles cite a February, 2009 study entitled “Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition,” by Dr. Donald R. Davis published in the journal HortScience, 2009.

Davis reports that the average vegetable found in today’s supermarket is anywhere from 5% to 40% lower in minerals than those harvested just 50 years ago.

Because of widely used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, modern crops are harvested faster than ever before. But quick and early harvests mean the produce has less time to absorb nutrients either from synthesis or the soil. Meanwhile, monoculture – another hallmark of the Big Ag industry – has also led to soil-mineral depletion, which, in turn, affects the nutrient content of crops.

What can we do? Follow the examples of the new agrarians of the 21st Century. They continue to respond intelligently, creatively, and innovatively in backyards, neighborhoods, and with community gardens and farms across the land.

Changing economic conditions represent yet a third force making it likely many more people will be looking for the practical and political pathways being trailblazed by the new agrarians.  For example, a May 24 story in The Hartford Courant told of how – in the face of drastically changing economics – local growers have begun offering CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares as a survival strategy to keep their farms alive..

CSA describes an emerging agrarian form that has swept the country since the first two CSA farms were established in 1978. The number of CSA farms is barely keeping up with demand. As reported elsewhere on this blog, CSA farms have increased dramatically in recent years, with more than 13,000 now operating in the USA according to a census taken by the US Department of Agriculture.

We can expect to see more in the times ahead as, of necessity, food and farms come to the forefront of public awareness.

The Open Veins of Our Land – Eduardo Galeano

At a meeting of the nations of our hemisphere last week, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela presented U.S. President Barack Obama a book, “Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina,” or “The Open Veins of Latin America.”

The work, originally published in 1970, is the best known by Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan writer. It explores the history of European colonization of Latin America. Galeano’s book immediately began rising to the top of the best-seller lists.  I also became interested in his work, wanting in particular to learn what this influential author had to say about the land. What follows is an excerpt from a recent interview he did with Niels Boel of UNESCO:

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano

“Five centuries ago, people in Latin America were taught to separate nature from Man—or so-called Man—which in fact meant men and women. Nature was placed on one side, human beings on the other. The same divorce took place the world over.

“Many of the indigenous people burned alive for worshipping idols were simply the environmentalists of their time who were practicing the only kind of ecology that seems worthwhile to me—an ecology of communion with nature. Harmony with nature and a communal approach to life ensured the survival of ancient indigenous values despite five centuries of persecution and contempt.

“For centuries, nature was seen as a beast that had to be tamed—as a foreign enemy and a traitor. Now that we’re all ‘greens,’ thanks to deceitful advertising based on words rather than deeds, nature has become something to be protected. But whether nature is to be protected or mastered and exploited for profit, it’s still seen as separate from us.

“We have to recover this sense of communion with nature. Nature is not a landscape, it’s something inside us, something we live with. I’m not just talking about forests, but about everything to do with the reverence for the natural that the indigenous people of the Americas have and always have had. They see nature as sacred in the sense that every harm we cause turns against us one day or another. So every crime becomes a suicide…I truly wish that we could manage to summon up enough energy to heal ourselves.”

The full UNESCO interview with Eduardo Galeano is available here.

As Land & Climate Degrade, Urban Farms Take Root

The journal Soil Use and Management has just published a study that measures the scope and severity of land degradation across the globe. The study concludes that 24% of our earthly land area – land that had been productive — is now degraded.

Degradation means a marked decline in soil, water and vegetation – the capacity to support life. The study concludes that the decline is driven downward primarily by defective land management and the onslaught of natural catastrophe.

This blunt, ugly fact – one-quarter of our land degraded in the last 30 years — directly impacts our ability to produce food and to enjoy the security and upliftment of a healthy planet.

Wilkins ice shelf collapse

Wilkins ice shelf collapse

Meanwhile, hundreds of square kilometers of the Wilkins ice shelf in Antarctica disintegrated on Saturday, April 4. Scientists are stunned. Nine other shelves have receded or collapsed around the Antarctic Peninsula in the past 50 years, the arctic ice is thinner than ever, and worldwide glaciers are melting more speedily than scientists anticipated.

U.S. Secretary Ken Salazar put it plainly in a statement from the Department of the Interior: “The rapid retreat of glaciers demonstrates once again the profound effects our planet is already experiencing — more rapidly than previously known — as a consequence of climate change.”

Our land massively degraded, our poles wobbling and disintegrating from climate change, and our national and global economies in the midst of immense metamorphosis. These are catastrophic cries from the land.

In measured response to the context of our environment and our economy, thousands of urban and suburban community gardens and farms have taken root in North America over the last 15-20 years.

An urban farm

An urban farm

Community farms and gardens – located in cities, suburbs and countryside – have established pathways that can lead to a healthy, sustainable foundation for our transition and our future. These farms and gardens are keystone models that – if widely emulated – can help us address step by steady step our crises of land and climate degradation, as well as a host of economic and dietary imperatives.

The existing and emerging agrarian models are oases of environmental health and stability. They bear potential to radiate out widely across the land as they are emulated, improved upon, and refined into networks.

Stories about these keystone agrarian models continue to appear in US and Canadian media, as well as internationally. These are not just good ideas and projects, they are essential.

Here are some notes and links on urban agrarian endeavors recently in the news. More models and resources are available on the Links page of this blog.

One encouraging possibility for urban food production is being established in Detroit, Michigan, where Hantz Farms has set a goal of becoming the world’s largest organic, urban farm. Last week John Hantz unveiled an urban-development concept that would convert hundreds, even thousands, of vacant parcels of the city into urban agriculture.

In collaboration with Michigan State University and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Hantz proposal envisions what would be the first large-scale, sustainable farming operation in a major American metropolis. Hantz advocates that the farm can increase the tax base, create jobs, and improve the quality of life in an area that has experienced a severe decline in population.

Detroit is already home to hundreds of smaller community gardens. One significant non-profit group, Urban Farming, has been cultivating land in Detroit since 2005. Their mission is to create an abundance of food for people in need by planting gardens on unused land. They started out in 2005 with three gardens, but now have established about 600. Those gardens provide fresh, clean produce for about 50,000 people.

Phoenix, Arizona — the fifth largest city in America, a place of shimmering heat and parched land –- seems an unlikely domain to attempt living off the land. But with organic gardening and permaculture, Greg Peterson has transformed his patch of Phoenix into a productive Urban Farm – a source of clean, healthy land and food.

Just ¾ of an acre, Peterson’s Urban Farm is both a laboratory and classroom—what works there can be replicated by other desert gardeners, His goal is to make edible yards a standard for urban and suburban Phoenicians, and attendance at his courses is exploding.

Urban gardening and farming is building momentum because, in a time of stunning environmental and economic tremors, agrarian logic is undeniable.

Peak Oil is Here: Ag Alarms are Sounding

oil-derrickAccording to a widely respected energy blog, The Oil Drum, the long-prophesied phenomenon termed Peak Oil has already happened. It happened about a year ago, in mid-2008 at 81.73 million barrels of oil per day,

If The Oil Drum is correct, and there are lots of reasons to assume it is, then that means oil production declines from here on out, supply tightens and cost goes up

No doubt there will continue to be disagreements about the exact date of Peak Oil, but the posters at The Oil Drum are learned nerds and have earned a wide measure of respect in both business and academic realms. If they are off in their reckoning, they are likely not off by much.

combineThe reality of declining oil supplies has – and will have – profound consequences for the small percentage of people who grow food, as well as for 100 percent of the people who eat food. The industrial agriculture system which now supplies the vast majority of our food depends absolutely on gas and oil not only to power the heavy equipment in the fields and the trucks used to ship it, but also for the production of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides.

Changes in the cost of the raw material – oil – mean changes in the capacity of industrial farms to purchase and employ these fundamentally polluting materials. And that will mean changes for food cost, already a crisis according to Time Magazine, and for food supply in the years ahead.

Many householders, neighborhoods, urban and suburban communities already sense this change along with the reality of a recession in full swing and a fundamental shift in base of national and global economics. According to a recent story from the Associated Press, they are responding in droves.

AP reported that industry surveys show double-digit growth in the number of home gardeners this year and mail-order companies report such a tremendous demand that some have already run out of seeds for basic vegetables such as onions, tomatoes and peppers.

“People’s home grocery budget got absolutely shredded and now we’ve seen just this dramatic increase in the demand for our vegetable seeds. We’re selling out,” according to George Ball of Burpee Seeds, the largest mail-order seed company in the U.S. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A new report by the National Gardening Association predicts a 19 percent increase in home gardening in 2009, based on spring seed sales data and a telephone survey. Community gardens nationwide are also seeing a surge of interest.

The Links page of this blog offers resources that can be employed now to develop gardens, community farms, and a host of other sustainable, earth-healing responses to Peak Oil, to the call of the wallet, and in general to the call of the land.

Vandana Shiva Speaks on Global Food Crisis

As reported on Uprising Radio, President Obama met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon earlier this week to discuss the global food crisis and the “potential threat” to food supplies if the economic crisis worsens.

Last year there was much discussion about escalating food prices that left millions more people hungry. Now, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, warned of the perverse effect of falling prices of wheat, corn, and rice resulting in lower rates of investment in agriculture, which also leaves millions more hungry.

The fact the food prices are dominated by the volatility of financial markets is a problem that many critics have pointed to. One such critic is internationally renowned physicist, environmental activist and author Vandana Shiva, who recently gave a talk to an audience of students and professors at the University of Southern California.  To listen to the talk online, follow this link.

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva

The Call of the Biosphere: Dangerous Diminishment


Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona

After working outdoors in a t-shirt under the hot Sun all through an ominously sultry winter day, I headed in to Santa Fe on the evening of February 27 to listen to my neighbor, John Allen, speak at the Garcia Street Bookstore. Allen is founder of the celebrated Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, and the author of a new book, Me and the Biospheres.

Biosphere 2 has been hailed as one of the most important experiments of the 20th Century. It drew mass public attention to the reality that we human beings live in a fragile, closed environment that is impacted for better or worse by everything we do. Biosphere 1, our Planet Earth, is the global sum of all ecosystems, all living beings, all our relationships. The Biosphere 2 experiment that Allen and his colleagues brought into being in the late 1980s is a miniature Earth under glass domes — a 3.15-acre closed laboratory that emulated the ecosystems of our Planetary Biosphere.

A team of researchers moved into Biosphere 2, sealed the door, and began a complex web of interactions, experiments, and measurements of systems and relationships. In this manner they could begin to comprehend more about Biosphere 1 – our Earth – and our human influences within it. As the years have passed, John Allen and his colleagues have moved on, and Biosphere 2 has morphed to other related research purposes. But the lessons learned, and being learned, remain relevant.

After listening to Allen speak at the bookstore on that unnaturally warm Winter evening, I called him at Synergia Ranch, his home in Santa Fe County. I asked him about the status quo of Biosphere 1, our Earth. What does he hear today when he listens to the call of the land?

allen-john-jpg“There are two ways of looking at it,” Allen said. “From the standpoint of nature, the biosphere is adjusting its mass composition and energy; that goes on no matter what happens. But as for the biosphere in relation to humans, that’s something we need to be concerned about. It is getting very dangerous for us human beings.

“The current state of affairs is dangerous for the Biosphere in general, but on the other hand the Biosphere is generating responses, defenses, as far as humans concerned, such as new diseases. When an aspect of the biosphere is devastated, such as with desertification, the biosphere responds and puts in a desert ecology. But that’s not very useful to us human beings.

“If we cut down a tropical forest, then the biosphere responds by replacing it with a form of tropical forest, but a diminished form, with about 20 percent less of the tree species. The biomass may be approximately similar, but the vitality and diversity is way down. This affects humanity in many ways. It’s an impoverishment.”

In his new book, excerpted in a recent edition The Santa Fe Reporter, John Allen shares a grand radius of ecological, social, and cultural insights — all keyed to helping people and their systems respond swiftly and wisely to the urgent call of Biosphere 1.

Biosphere 1 (Jet Propulsion Lab)

Biosphere 1 (Jet Propulsion Lab)

Hearing the land’s call now: a painful gasp

heinbergbook2As I did research for writing The Call of the Land, I interviewed Richard Heinberg, the author of several books describing our environmental and economic status quo. His works include  Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, and The Party’s Over.

Heinberg recognizes that agriculture is a primary root of our current environmental and economic crises. He shared some observations.

“I am sorry to say that the call of the land right now is a painful gasp. We have been systematically destroying topsoil, ecosystems, species, waterways, dead zones in ocean, you name it. Every biologist I know believes we are in an extinction period right now that rivals and possibly exceeds any in history.

“The land still in many places offers healing and respite from the dreary urban experience with birds, trees, and so on – but it’s hard to escape the realization that for most species the ecosystems are being stressed to the breaking point.

“There is a surreal quality to watching all these things unfold. It’s one thing to study the trends and to theorize that industrial agriculture is unsustainable, then it’s quite another thing to see fertilizer prices skyrocketing, food riots breaking out, the airline industry convulsing, and the auto industry contracting. The reality is that it’s alarming and frightening to see it happening, and to see the speed with which it is unfolding.”

In his books and on his website, Richard Heinberg, now senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, lays out the facts, and explores healthy and sustainable ways to be upon the land.

We already have the tools necessary for the transition

Author Steven McFaddenThe transition to a food system free of fossil fuels is in no way a far-fetched utopian proposal. It is, rather, an immediate, unavoidable, and immense challenge that calls for unprecedented levels of creativity at all levels of society.

The encouraging news is that the movement toward clean, local farms and food is already underway and gaining strength. It receives scant media coverage, but consumers in practically every city, town and neighborhood across America are reconnecting with local farmers and artisans to create the seeds of a new agrarianism.

All this and more is possible. Human innovation has the potential to turn things around.  As The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2008 report put it, “We have the tools today to steer the global economy onto a sustainable path…The task now is to bring them together and scale them up so that they become the norm across today’s economies.”