Washington Monthly - How Washington D.C. is failing farmers

The Washington Monthly has an important article about recent efforts to help independent farmers who are increasingly victims of unscrupulous practices by large meat processors. The gist of the article is that the meat industry has become so consolidated with just a few large corporations that local farmers have no options in the marketplace. The article explains:

The practical result of all this consolidation is that while there are still many independent farmers, there are fewer and fewer processing companies to which farmers can sell. If a farmer doesn’t like the terms or price given by one company, he increasingly has nowhere else to go—and the companies know it. With the balance of power upended, the companies are now free to dictate increasingly outrageous terms to the farmers.

To make things worse, Washington D.C. has lacked the political will to make changes that would help the situation. 

It's a long article but worth the time if you're interested in really understanding the dilemma of our current food system. It also highlights the urgent need for the growth of alternative markets like Co-ops, farmers' markets, and CSA's. 

Decline of the Carnivore: American consumers are losing their appetite for meat

MeatconsumptionAlmost everyone that's not selling meat agrees that it would be a good thing for Americans to eat less meat. Nutritionists tell us it would be good for our health. Environmentalists tell us it would be good for the environment and one of the most helpful ways to combat global warming. Animal welfare advocates tell us that reducing meat consumption is one of the most helpful ways we can address the horrors of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). As we're learning in our Tables of Plenty journey, most religious traditions teach that constraining the consumption of meat through fasting is helpful on the journey of spiritual formation. 

Apparently the message is starting to sink in because, as Mark Bittman reported earlier in the week, American consumers are putting less meat in their shopping carts and that trend is likely to continue into the future. (See chart taken from this Daily Livestock Report)

The rising price of meat is probably the single biggest contributor to these trends but Bittman attributes part of the decline to a shift in consumer conscience:

Some are choosing to eat less meat for all the right reasons. The Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications just named the rise of “flexitarianism” — an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without “going vegetarian” — as one of its top five consumer health trends for 2012. In an Allrecipes.com survey of 1,400 members, more than one-third of home cooks said they ate less meat in 2011 than in 2010. Back in June, a survey found that 50 percent of American adults said they were aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, with 27 percent of those aware reporting that they were actively reducing their meat consumption.

The livestock industry in their report on the trend attributes the change to growing exports which reduced the amount of available meat in the market, higher costs due to the growth of the ethanol industry that diverts corn to the production of fuel and increases the costs of those inputs for animal feed, and finally they attribute the decline to "the fruition of 30-40 years of government policy." 

Bittman, along with many others, have expressed shock at the dubious nature of this last statement. One feature of the American food scene over the last 40 years are the generous farm subisidies that have fueled the industrialization of meat production. Instead of dealing with the reality that consumers are choosing to eat less meat, they are stuck on the idea of a government conspiracy against them. 

I guess I'm not surprised that the livestock industry doesn't mention changing consumer values but, as I've written in the past, the industry ignores this reality at their peril.

Top food trends to look for in 2012

The James Beard Foundation has up a list of trends for the coming year from a chef's perspective. They include:

New Nordic Pantry
Chefs are hopping on the Noma-inspired New-Nordic-Cuisine train and are reaching for these ingredients: sea buckthorn (a tart orange berry), wood sorrel (a plant with heart-shaped leaves), bark flour (made from real trees), and evergreens (such as Douglas fir). To wit: a recent Douglas fir eau-de-vie sighting on the menu at GT Fish & Oyster in Chicago.

Locavorism, Redefined
Taking his lead from the Cook it Raw crew, Charleston’s Sean Brock is striving to revive the cooking of the South’s antebellum period, teaming up with foragers and historians to rescue heirlooms from obscurity or extinction. We’re hopeful that his efforts will spark a similar curiosity in chefs working in other regions of this country.

Cooking with Douglas fir? Foraging? I like it.

Here are the 2012 food trends from Phil Lempert at Food and Nutrition Science that include higher costs, more male shoppers, and the ethnic food revolution. My favorite:

Trend #4: Increased emphasis on the “Farm to Fork” journey

Shoppers have become increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from, which is why 2012 will bring an added emphasis to a different kind of food celebrity – the farmer. Last year we saw sales flourish among grocery retailers who jumped on the movement among consumers to “buy local.” In this age of transparency, interest in the farm to fork journey has grown considerably, inspired in part by food safety scares and more importantly a desire to know how the food we are serving our families is being produced.

This year, we’re seeing more farmers get in on the action. A growing number of farmers are leading the conversation by using blogs and social media sites to bring the story of the American farmer to consumers. According to the American Farm Bureau’s 2010 Young Farmers and Ranchers Survey, nearly 99% of farmers and ranchers aged 18 to 35 have access to and use the Internet, and nearly three-quarters of those surveyed have a Facebook page. Additionally, 10% use Twitter and 12% post YouTube videos. In fact, 77% of those surveyed view this type of communication as an important part of their jobs as farmers and ranchers. In September of this year, the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) launched an annual $11 million program designed to open the dialogue with consumers. Expect to see more advertising and television programs starring these real food experts (versus actors pretending to know their food).

And according the big New York J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency this will be the year of food-waste consciousness. From their 2012 things to watch for slide show here is one of their meta trends:

Food as the new Eco-issue: The environmental impact of our food choices will become a bigger concern, driving greater brand and consumer awareness and action around Curbing Food Waste.

I predict that in 2012 we'll see a growing interest in food and food traditions from people of faith.

World Trade Organization Tells U.S. Consumers They Aren't Allowed to Know Food's Country of Origin

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2sgaO44_1c]

A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:

Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.

The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."

This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.

I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See "Most honey you buy at the store isn't honey"). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities

Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing. 

Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":

...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.

Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.

Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans. 

Time to Sign Up for a Winter CSA with Rocky Ridge Ranch

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Gary and So Angell from Rocky Ridge Ranch are offering a 20-week winter CSA starting the first week of November and going up to Christmas. After a break it starts back up the first week of March and goes through the end of May. You can sign up for a produce & eggs program ($35/week) or a variety meats program ($65/week). Email Gary at info (at) rockyridgeranchspokane (dot) com for more info or call 509-953-0905. They will deliver weekly at Millwood on Wednesdays and at South Perry on Thursdays. Gary wrote a blog report about how the winter CSA growing season works. 

I feature Gary and So in the book and highly recommend their program. You may have come across products from Rocky Ridge Ranch at Sante' restaurant and the Rocket Market. 

Picture: So Angell tending to lettuce in the middle of winter last year.

Portable raised bed farm made from milk crates takes root in New York

image from images.fastcompany.com
An enterprising restaurant in New York has developed a farm to table garden on the dormant construction lot next to their location. According to a Fast Company article, "The farm now contains 7,400 milk crates and over 100 types of plants. Riverpark currently gets about 25% of its produce from the farm, but expects to get more soon."

It's a ingenious design created out of the necessity of not being able to dump large amounts of garden soil on the temporary site they had secured.

Ortuzar and Zurofsky presented their quandary to ORE Design and Technology Group, which proposed the milk crate idea: Staple a piece of landscaper fabric (a material that allows air and water to pass through) to each milk crate, and fill it with soil.

There is now truly no excuse for not growing some of your own food. All you need is a milk crate, a piece of landscape fabric, and a litle dirt. I love it. Now all we need is a design for a milk crate chicken coop.

For some, lentils are "like Kryptonite" - National Lentil Festival in Pullman Aug. 19-20

image from dwp.bigplanet.com Last week at the farmers' market someone responded to the prospect of buying a package of dried lentils by saying, "I couldn't do that. Lentils are like my Kryptonite." A few years ago I might have agreed with him but during our year of local consumption I learnd to LOVE lentils. We started our local eating binge in January without any of summer's harvest stored up for the winter so we were forced to turn to local offerings, which included an abundance of lentils. We put them in soups and burritos and salads and I came to really appreciate them.

I learned that they come in beautiful colors like gold/orange, green, red, and black. (In an ironic twist, it turns out Kryptonite also comes in gold, green, red, and black) I also learned that the Inland Northwest is most prolific lentil-producing region in the US. So it should be no surprise that Pullman will be hosting the National Lentil Festival this weekend.

According to the USDA:

Lentils were probably one of the primary domesticates (as were wheat and barley) on which Neolithic agriculture was founded in the Near East about 8,500 years ago. By the Bronze Age, they had been disseminated throughout the Mediterranean region, Asia, and Europe. Lentils were introduced into the United States in 1916, near Farmington, Washington. The commercial production of U.S. lentils today can probably be traced to that introduction of a single landrace.

Lentils are grown in our region as a cash crop, most of which is exported to regions of the world where people don't see the little legumes as a mortal danger. According to the USDA:

Lentils contribute significantly to farm economics in the Palouse and the United States as a whole. The lentil crop, during the last decade, averaged over 54,400 metric tons with an approximate value of $31.7 million annually. About 80 percent of U.S. lentils are exported. Principal markets for Palouse-grown lentils are Spain, Peru, Ethiopia, and Venezuela.

But lentils are also used by farmers as a vital ingredient in successful production of wheat and barley which are the staples of area farmland. The lentils, like all legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil, thus requiring less application of chemical fertilizers on the cereal crop that follows it. They also help reduce the pesticides needed in subsequent crops and reduce erosion. 

One secret of living in Spokane is that the local pea & lentil processors like Spokane Seed have small retail operations where you can buy peas and lentils directly from the warehouse. If you've experienced Kryptonite-like effects from green lentils, I recommend trying the smaller darker colored varieties.

Joseph's Grainery, a local Colfax farmer and retailer, has an excellent website with information on how to cook with lentils. They've even got Youtube videos.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvgkilH5sjc&w=480&h=303]

They also make a lentil flour which we've been selling at the farmers' market this summer. It's a gluten free alternative to wheat flours.

And if your children's superpowers are suffering from the thought of eating lentils, the US Dry Pea & Lentil Council has a recipe for lentil chocolate cake and even some cartoon characters.

image from www.pea-lentil.com
And did I mention that lentils are cheap and they last forever? What's not to like?

Shepherd's Grain Wheat Co-op Still Stirring National Food Conversations

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I write about Fred Fleming and the Shepherd's Grain wheat co-op in Year of Plenty. I wish I could claim to have made them famous but the truth is that national media outlets have been doing stories on them for years. When they are interested sustainable wheat farming, Shepherd's Grain and their no-till farming methods have been a go-to source of information. They have even been featured on CNN

The latest story comes from Helene York and the Atlantic Monthly. She is intrigued by SG's partnership with ADM, a company usually touted as the arch-enemy in conversations about sustainable food. York sounds a little conflicted as she writes:

I came away from my weekend with some complicated questions. Can locally baked bread be called "artisanal" if the wheat is from cooperatively farmed wheat fields that end up processed by ADM? What if the opposite were true: if the wheat were milled in an employee-run facility but came from the commodity markets? 

Perhaps the lesson is that there's no one path that can suit every region, especially now, with consolidation having left producers with only a few scalable choices. ADM may have bought up most large-scale mills over the last century, giving groups like Shepherd's Grain nowhere else to turn. But if a plant manager takes a political and operational risk, and makes it possible for a co-op that grows wheat responsibly to survive, is that bad? 

Re-regionalizing our food system will surely mean creating new alliances, some with small entities wishing to grow bigger, some with large entities whose ways we often (rightly) criticize. Perhaps the most sustainable solutions will be those forged by individuals who need each other's support and resources, at interim steps along the way, regardless of the size of the entities they represent. 

I wrote in a previous post about the nature of this unusual partnership between an "artisanal" co-op and a mega-corporation. My post was sparked by a conversation with Fred Fleming and his words, "Hello, my name is Fred and I'm a recovering conventional farmer." I wrote:

I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder’s basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint - Shepherd’s Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn’t understand in his critique is that it’s not ADM that has Shepherd’s Grain in its tractor beam, it’s Shepherd’s Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.

According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd’s Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM’s management and as a result Spokane’s mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It’s actually quite remarkable and it’s all happening right here in Spokane.

In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it’s going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, “Hello, I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” But it’s also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.

Picture: Palouse wheat fields as seen from Steptoe Butte.

"Peak Herbicide" - What Happens When Weeds Acquire Weed-killer Resistant GM Traits?

New Scientist is reporting that oil-seed rape (aka canola) has escaped cultivated land and become a tenacious weed. The battle against weeds is an age-old story, but this new problem comes with a twist. These "feral" canola plants have acquired a resistance to two of the most common herbicides - glysophosphate (Roundup) and glufosinate (Liberty Link). 

Several scenarios could explain how this happened, says Schafer, who conducted the project with her superviser, Cynthia Sagers. "It could have happened if one farmer planted glyphosate-resistant canola, and his neighbour planted glufosinate-resistant canola, for example." Canola plants escaped as weeds from one field could have been fertilised by pollen from the other, leading to a doubly resistant weed.

In case you're not familiar with how modern GM crops work let me explain. Modern crops have been genetically designed to resist the effects of certain herbicides so farmers can blanket their crops with herbicides that kill the weeds but not the crop. Seeds and herbicides are sold in tandem which is more expensive for the farmer, but the ability to kill off all the weeds leads to higher yields.

The scientists say this is not cause to freak out yet, but:

...there's a risk that genes for weedkiller resistance will spread to wild relatives. In 2002, two separate teams showed in controlled studies that wild sunflower and sugar beet could swap genes with genetically modified relatives and become fitter in the process. The latest findings in canola confirm that this is happening. 

The emerging resistance of weeds to herbicides is a ticking time bomb in American agriculture as reported earlier in July by St. Louis Today:

The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is getting worse: Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to Monsanto's Roundup, sold generically as glyphosate, forcing farmers to use other herbicides or "multiple modes of action." But during this season especially farmers are finding that these other modes of action aren't working either — and there appears to be little relief on the horizon. In Missouri, herbicide dealers have sold out of Cobra, one of the herbicides most widely used in tandem with glyphosate.

"Are they running out of options?" asked Aaron Hager, a weed scientist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The simple answer is yes."

One way to describe the cycle is that we've reached "peak herbicide." If we soak our land in these chemicals over an extended period of time, weeds will eventually find a way around our toxic firewall and there will be diminishing returns. The answer right now is to add more chemicals, and to resurrect older more toxic varieties to use in combination with their modern replacements. This also means that farmer costs are going through the roof and food and other commodities are going to continue to get more expensive. 

Some voices are decrying the "fear mongers" who are questioning GM crops developments. A recent article reflects this:

"Fear mongering is easy to do," said Dr. Frank Shotkoski, Director of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII) based in Cornell University, describing a sustained campaign against crops that have been genetically altered to bring resistance to insects and environmental stress.

"We are reaching a phase when the campaign against agricultural biotechnology is at a high peak," he said.

The key line in the article for me is this one:

"Not a single food safety issue has been verified, there is no evidence of a safety issue in the 15 years and so many million hectares of Bt crops planted," said Dr. Randy A. Hautea, Global Coordinator for ISAAA.

If a consequence of GM crops is a huge spike in the use of more toxic chemicals, isn't that a safety issue? It's take us 15 years to get to that point, but isn't it likely that this will endanger ag workers and degrade land? And isn't it possible that we won't be able to "verify" these consequences until it's too late? Before we hand over the fate of our entire food system GM crops and their chemical antecedents, I'd like to see a lot more research into the consequences to the health of people, land, and economies. I'm not anti-science but for now count me among the fear mongers.

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible - Paying Attention to the Land

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I'm reading Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis. In the book she argues that agrarian perspectives offer a helpful lens through which to understand the Bible, especially the Old Testament. She writes; "agrarianism is the way of thinking predominant among the biblical writers, who very often do not represent the interests of the powerful." (page 1)

I plan on writing several posts on the book but I wanted to highlight the theme that struck me from the first couple of chapters. In the foreword Wendell Berry lifts up the importance of local engagement in agrarian thought. He writes:

...this is one of the indispensable gifts of her book - she sees the similarity between this modern corporate colonialism and that of the ancient empires. She sees as well, and even more indispensably, the necessity and possibility of local resistance by means of local religion, local knowledge, and local language.

An agrarian reading of the Bible thus forces the de-specialization of one's thoughts about agriculture. With equal force it de-specializes one's thoughts about religion. It does this simply by seeing that the Bible is not a book only about "spirituality" or getting to Heaven, but is also a practical book about the good use of land and creatures as a religious practice, and about the abuse of land and creatures as a kind of blasphemy. (page x)

Davis picks up on this theme of local engagement and de-specialization in the opening chapter and argues that it's important for a Biblical scholar like herself venture beyond her specialty to explore agrarian perspectives that, it turns out, are helpful in understanding the Bible. It's a move away from de-contextualized specialization to locally-informed, locally adapted practices and thought.

The more I read Berry and understand agrarian perspectives, the more I see how a primary impulse of the movement is to re-integrate human thought and action that has been partitioned by the modern industrial project. For those of us who have been specialized away from land and agriculture we are invited to re-engage, to venture out as amateurs. Davis writes:

For me as a biblical scholar, engaging questions of contemporary social analysis means consciously working as an amateur, going outside my area of professional expertise for the sake of love. Augustine's famous interpretive principle of caritas may provide a theological warrant for such a move: reading the biblical text in a way that conduces to knowledge and love of God and neighbor is the touchstone for accurate interpretation.'

In our present intellectual environment, Wendell Berry advocates amateurism as a corrective to the tendency toward overspecialization and abstraction that afflicts all disciplines. He suggests widening the context of all intellectual work and of teaching - perhaps to the width of the local landscape....

To bring local landscapes within what Wes Jackson calls "the boundary of consideration," professional people of all sorts will have to feel the emotions and take the risks of amateurism. They will have to get out of their "fields," so to speak, and into the watershed, the ecosystem, and the community; and they will have to be actuated by affection. (pp. 3-4).

For Berry and other agrarians the starting place for this kind of integrative work is simply paying attention to one's "local landscape," and while I'm no farmer or soil scientist, I CAN open my eyes and pay attention to the land and agriculture that surrounds me. I can go to Steptoe Butte, like I did last night (see picture), and take some photos. And I can dwell on the abundance of our region and also wonder with concern about how this land came to be understood as "industrial." And I can reflect on the ways this land shapes my faith and practice, and how my faith compels me to advocate for its care.

Africa Staring Down Worst Drought in 60 Years

image from www.freakyweather.com I was startled when I read that statement in a yestereday's NY Times because I'm remembering some pretty horrible incidents of drought and famine in Africa over the last 60 years. 

Last week U.N. agencies monitoring a severe drought in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti increased the volume on existing warnings over food shortages in the region, a consequence, they say, of an unprecedented dry spell, instability and higher global food prices.

The potential human cost of this combination of drought, conflict, and poverty are hard to fathom:

UNICEF estimates that about 25 percent of people in Kenya's far north are now suffering from acute malnutrition, including more than 37 percent of those living in the Lake Turkana area. Throughout the Horn of Africa the aid group warns that "millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action."

I predict that in the next 6 months the issue of worldwide drought, crop failure, and famine will likely dominate the news cycle and will potentially change the landscape of the food movement conversation. Go here for a previous post on these emerging dynamics. It could go two directions. It might lead to further insistence on genetically modified crops and entrenchment of global commodities as the "only" way to respond to world food needs. The industrial food complex will double down on the refrain, "How are we going to feed the world without this technology?" 

I hope the crisis sparks the conversation in a different direction though. The other option is for the world's policy makers to recognize that locally-developed sustainable agriculture is a viable, and maybe the best option for addressing food insecurity among the world's poor. It's more complicated than the big bucks and bushels approach of food aid but is necessary to address long-term solutions. 

In the book "Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty", Wall Street Journalist writers Thurow and Kilman highlight the nature of the problem:

For decades, the world has grown enough food to nourish everyone adequately....In the modern world, like never before, famine is by and large preventable. When it occurs, it represents civilizations collective failure.

They go on to identify a major policy shift in world food-aid circles that has led to some of the problems we are seeing today. Instead of helping developing countries nurture their own local food systems to make them self-sufficient there was a move in the 1980's to make countries dependent on imports from wealthy nations.

John Block, Reagan's agricultural secretary as the U.S. farm economy struggled under the weight of price-depressing gluts, put it bluntly: '[The] idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era.... They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agriculturals products, which are available, in most cases, at lower costs.'

...In the view of the World Bank and other development organizations, food self-reliance became more important than food self-sufficiency: It made more sense for the poorest countries to develop businesses to earn the money needed to import food rather than grow their own. 

Instead of helping poor farmers develop local and sustainable agricultural systems, they were encouraged to get out of agriculture, go to the city and move into the manufacturing sector where their low-wages could be put to "good use" in the world economy. 

This arrangement worked OK as long as their was a glut of grain commodities and low food prices. We are now finding out how that all works when stores of grain are low (because of recent crop failures and biofuel competition), and food prices are high. It's not a pretty picture. 

They also describe a shift in the crops that farmers do grow in developing countries. They have been encouraged to move into cash crops that can be put into the commodities markets and sold, instead of aiming toward crops that lend their communities to self-sufficiency. This has put these farmers at the mercy of world commodities markets whose prices rise and fall without a care to issues of hunger and self-sufficiency.

Le'ts hope in the coming months as this impending human disaster unfolds in Africa and other places around the world we'll be hearing the words "agricultural self-sufficiency" as the center-piece of addressing the crisis.

Fortunately there are some indications massive food corporations like Nestle and Unilever recognize there is a problem as reported in this Fast Company article:

Your local grocery store may be stocked with foods from around the world, but make no mistake: Our food system is starting to fail. Resource constraints, unpredictable weather, increases in food-borne illnesses, and malnutrition (925 million people are malnourished while one billion are chronically obese) are all making the major food corporations rethink the way they do business.

 

Community Gardens Sprouting on Rooftops in Hong Kong

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CNN has the story of a growing, but still small urban farming movement in Hong Kong. 

For just $15 per month, Lam rents out toolbox-sized planter boxes to businessmen, elderly couples and families alike, and even runs horticulture classes. He uses imported soil from Germany to fill his planters and lets the humid, subtropical climate do the rest.

Fifteen dollars a month seems pretty steep but Hong Kong does have some of the highest property values in the world.

I thought this comment regarding resistance to gardening was interesting:

Outside of convincing politicians, Chau said Hong Kongers themselves have historically been resistant to the idea of farming as a suitable pastime.

"It is the lowest of our traditional caste system. In traditional Chinese culture, if you're good at nothing else, you work on the farm," Chau said. "Also, Hong Kong is a very money-minded place... land is also very expensive in Hong Kong, so people don't spend time worrying about growing their own food."

America has its own version of this caste system story. The consensus opinion on the growth of the US economy is that advances in farming freed people up from working on the farm so they could apply themselves to other more GDP-enhancing activities. This chart tells the story of the movement out of farm work in the U.S.:

image from media.spokesman.com
China has its own version of this chart but relative to the American move away from the farm they are in 1850. This chart compares farm employment stats around the world and puts China at 47% in 1999.

Screen shot 2011-06-29 at 9.55.57 AMIn countries that have moved dramatically away from the farm there are efforts in place to reconnect with land and food. My sense is that this, in large part, is what drives the local food movement, the interest in farmers' markets, CSAs, and rooftop gardens - even in Hong Kong. It's a kind of farming-deficit disorder. It may be awhile before perceptions in China change around farming but they are already shifting dramatically in North America.

Debates Around Portland Oregon's Public Market Helpful to Spokane's Public Market Effort

image from www.ams.usda.gov Neighborhood farmers' markets are popping up across America. According to the USDA, there has been a 250% growth in the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. (1,755 in 1994 to a total of 6,132 in 2010). The growing popularity of farmers' markets is leading many cities to try and reestablish permanent public markets like the Pike Place Market in Seattle. After a ten year effort, locavore-passionate Portland is close to opening one of the most high profile market initiatives in the country. Their proposed James Beard Public Market is stirring up a debate that is helpful for other cities like Spokane as we look to the opening of our own public market on June 2. 

The Oregonian reported this week that while most growers and advocates for local food support the market, there are some reservations and questions.

So what do local farmers and their backers at these markets have to say about a permanent public market? Is it a competitor, business booster, or something in between? That depends on whom you ask, but most seem to support the idea — with caveats.

The two main caveats mentioned in the Oregonian article have to do with the feasability of the business model and the what I'll call the "Pike-Place-Market-Envy Problem."

First, the business model:

Farmers market manager Eamon Molloy wonders whether a permanent market that’s costly to build will ultimately serve local farmers and food artisans’ needs. “I’m concerned that we’re going to build a shrine to food rather than a place where customers can go to buy it,” says Molloy, who runs the Hillsdale and Lloyd farmers markets. “People don’t make a ton of money at this. Food is by nature a low-margin business.

Second the Pike-Place problem:

Trevor Baird of Baird Family Orchards agrees, saying the regulars who buy his Dayton-grown peaches week in and week out will always be there. A public market along the lines of Pike Place Market in Seattle offers something altogether different. “I love Pike Place (Market) for the spectacle of it,” says Baird. “I’m not going to get strawberries there. The vendors there are wholesalers — they’ve got some nice produce, but they’re not farmers and they don’t pretend to be.” 

Not all the vendors at Pike Place are "high stallers" as farmers' market purists call them, but in order to fill the shelves of a year-round market with the tourist cache' of Pike Place, many of the fruits and vegetables on offer at the Seattle market are imports from far-off places. Florida oranges and bananas from South America mingle with Washington grown items. 

This is a very different approach from a neighborhood farmers' market. According to the rules of the Washington State Farmers' Market Association, markets like the one in Millwood that I help run cannot sell bananas and California strawberries. Everything must be from the region and while there are allowances for some wholesale selling, there are strict limits, and farmers impose a lot of pressure on market managers to keep wholesale product from competing with their direct-from-the-farm product. 

A permanent public market with high overhead costs will have a difficult time in Spokane if they limit the produce and fruit to only what the regional climate has to offer. Its offerings will likely mirror what Full-Circle farm is doing with their fruit and veggie boxes. A mix of unique local offerings and wholesale goods that are similar to what is available in a grocery store. While Pike Place Market can maintain its aura even as they sell wholesale stuff, it remains to be seen whether something like the Spokane Public Market or the Portland market, for that matter, can pull that off. Others have tried and are trying with mixed results.

The folks in Portland are hoping for a hybrid model.

According to the James Beard Public Market website, the goal is a market with the “vitality” ofPike Place or Granville Island Market, but with “the primary focus on connecting local growers and food producers to local customers.” 

Pike Place Market is a cultural and economic icon that is the envy of cities across America. Probably every city that looks to start a public market uses Pike Place as a reference point, but I cringe when I hear someone say that the new public market on Second and Browne will "one day rival the Pike Place Market." Spokane's psyche is scarred from years of finding itself on the short end of comparisons to Seattle, so in my opinion we are really setting ourselves up for problems when we build that into the vision for the new Market. 

This story reported by GOOD about the other Portland's foray into Pike Place Market envy should serve as a cautionary tale:

After a visit to the bustling Pike Place Market in Seattle, a financial adviser for philanthropist Betty Noyce (the late, ex-wife of the Intel microchip founder) suggested that she fund a new public market in Portland, Maine, in order to revitalize the downtown. Noyce went on to finance the $9.4 million Portland Public Market, which opened in 1999 with 23 food vendors. Over the next seven years, farmers lodged complaints about poor access, the market struggled with a high vendor turnover rate, and two high-end restaurants there failed. In 2006, the market closed, after Noyce's foundation reported annual losses of about $1 million.

Several vendors launched a subsequent campaign to "Save the Market" and a year later, a new, slightly renamed, Portland Public Market House-a smaller, unsubsidized building filled with four permanent vendors (three of whom own the building) and a community kitchen-opened on a square adjacent to the city's once-a-week outdoor farmers' market.

I am hoping for the success of the new market. It would be a great addition to the local food scene, and best of all it would be a boon to the local farmers I know and support. It won't be a Pike Place Market, but hopefully it will be a unique and wonderful expression of the Inland Northwest's farms and food. The site currently shows the market opening this Thursday, June 2. 

 

Food Scarcity Spells Trouble for World's Poor

I wrote a post a few months ago about the role of bread prices in the Egyptian uprising. Foreign Policy has a new article on how rising food prices and increasing food scarcity around the world could mean there is more severe political unrest on the horizon. There are indications that the world's food economies are entering unprecedented territory. Lester Brown at Foreign Policy sums up these new dynamics:

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.

Food crises and famine are familiar patterns in modern history but the drivers of the current crunch are more complex.

Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather -- a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today's price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry.

To make matters worse the U.S., whose stockpiles of grains have traditionally been a cushion for supply shocks, has depleted its storehouses and is less able to absorb world demand. 

As the article reports, this new world food landscape has countries that rely heavily on grain imports scurrying to secure supplies. Countries like South Korea are moving to create direct relationships with US farmers. Don't be surprised if you start to see large silos adorned with Korean lettering pop up around the grain-rich Palouse region. This has alread happened with hay supplies in central Washington. It's hard to miss the huge hay barns alongside I-90 near Ellensberg that are marked with Japanese lettering.

The author of the Foreign Policy article warns of an impending food armageddon marked by food nationalism and driven by climate change. It is a forboding message and one worth paying attention to, but the most important observation he makes is that the world's poor are on the hook for the worst of this impending crisis.

I saw this first hand at our last food distribution with Second Harvest here in the west valley of Spokane. It was a smaller-than-usual delivery of food, mostly because the stockpiles in the Second Harvest warehouse are depleted right now. I asked them about the current dynamics of food donations and they explained that with food prices and demand so high right now the large food companies are selling off more of their supplies, leaving less excess in the supply chain for food banks. This dynamic is a microcosm of what happens around the world. There is less excess in the system for impoverished peoples in regions with depleted land. 

These are challenging days ahead and it's easy to get overwhelmed but there are actions that can be taken to help those who are going to be hurt the most. It's a good time to get involved with and make a donation to organizations like Bread for the World where they advocate for the poor and hungry in important food-related legislation. Local food banks are going to need all the help they can get in the coming months as transportation costs increase. One of my favorite international aid organizations is Plant With Purpose, where they empower people in poverty to practice sustainable agriculture in their communities to help them become more self-reliant and less vulnerable to world food shocks.

It's also a good time to grow your own food.

Opening Day for Millwood Farmers' Market - Wednesday, May 18

Farmers market w Lily Arch copy 2
This Wednesday, May 18 the Millwood Farmers' Market will open for the season from 3 to 7 pm in the parking lot of Millwood Presbyterian Church. Here is the line-up of vendors signed up so far:

Rocky Ridge Ranch
Arabesque Bakery
SuzieDavid Beef
Pacific Produce
Greenacres Grown (Organic Asparagus)
The Corner Door
Tate's Honey
Wild Boar Farm
C&S Hydrohuts
Pam's Jams
Mo Bereiter (Wildcrafter)
Tonnemaker Hill Organic Farm
Tall Grass Farm
Pure Heart Soaps
The Rustic Mindmill Candles
Woodland Springs
Livity Botanicals (incl. Gluten Free Breads)
Simple Sara
Miles Away Farm
Aichele Farm (Berries)
Sheila Mulkin Sewing
The Berry Farm
Christ Kitchen
Joseph's Grainery
Roast House Coffee
Green Wave Gardens
Garden of Eden Nursery
Laurie's Lair Plants
City School Plants
Washhouse Candies
Paul Kuhlman Metal Art 

FYI - I placed about 50 $1 off $5-purchase-or-more coupons at the Rocket Bakery in Millwood good for opening day only.

Good Friday/Earth Day: How the Food Movement is Making the Church Green

image from consumingspokane.typepad.com
In a fluke of this year's calendar, Earth Day and Good Friday both converge today. I wrote an article for CNN Belief Blog arguing that these two events aren't such a bad pairing. The wider context of the article is that the Christian church and the environmental movement in North America have often struggled to cooperate and find common ground. Maybe the experience of sharing this day will be a trial run at a new future of collaboration. Go here for one of my many posts on this disconnect. 

It may not always be self-evident here on the blog, but I am a full-time Presbyterian pastor, and one of the motivations for this blog is to flesh out connections between faith and earth. Go here to see the "faith" thread on this blog. Year of Plenty is an extended exploration of the intersections of the environment and faith, especially the food movement. My experience with locavores, backyard farmers, and community gardeners makes me more hopeful than ever that despite past disconnects, the church may end up being the best friend of advocates for earth care.

Perhaps the greatest reason for a potential new future in this relaitonship is what some are calling the death of environmentalism and the rise of the food movement. 

Bryan Walsh wrote a provocative article in February describing significant shifts in the Go-Green movement. He says:

These are dark days for the environmental movement. A year after being on the cusp of passing landmark legislation to cap greenhouse gases, greens are coming to accept the fact that the chance of national and international action on climate change has become more remote than ever. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack by newly empowered Republicans in Congress who argue that the very idea of environmental protection is unaffordable for our debt-ridden country. Accustomed to remaining optimistic in the face of long odds, the environmental movement all at once faces a challenge just to stay relevant in a hostile political climate....

He even evokes the "death of environmentalism" mantra coined in a controversial essay from a few years ago. This decline of the traditionally framed debates about the environment may provide a helpful opening for the church. One of the reasons environmentalists and church leaders have often been at odds is that the issues fall so easily into the well-worn ruts of our cultural and political divides. I don't like that the Christian faith in America is politicized and held captive by powerful interests, but that is the current reality. As long as the environmental movement is robustly allied with one side or the other of American politics, I fear that it will remain a niche issue in liberal mainline churches, and fail to make real headway in more conservative evangelical circles.

Walsh says this so-called death of environmentalism may turn out to be a re-birth in the form of a thriving food movement.

Even as traditional environmentalism struggles, another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat and the way they farm — away from industrialized, cheap calories and toward more organic, small-scale production, with plenty of fruits and vegetables — but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn't just about reform — it's about revolution.

This shift away from a politically entrenched environmental movement toward a vibrant food movement opens up a new opporunity for the church to enter the conversation and even take the lead in some cases.

Food is not so easily politicized. Not that the usual characters don't do their best to turn food into a political football, but the food movement is too complex and the interested parties too diverse to easily pigeon hole. 

Here's how I put it in a previous post on politics, church, and food,

Concerns about food short-circuit political divides in some wonderfully mischevious ways. Farmers' Markets may be the most politically diverse gathering in the community, with Glenn Beck conspiracy theorists rubbing shoulders with neo-hippie peace activists. The recent Whole Foods CEO curfluffle highlights some of this diversity and forces the question, "Is it OK for conservatives and liberals, who disagree on so much, to agree on food and work together in that agreement?"

I sure hope so. In today's intense, hyped up political landscape, a good potluck with arugala and country style pork ribs (and of course grandma's jello salad) could do us a lot of good. There's something about gathering around food that makes us more human.

Not only does food allow for more diverse entry points, it plays to the church's strengths - theology, history, and practice. Here's how I put it in Year of Plenty:

The pattern in the Bible of forming community is surprisingly down to earth…The first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat.” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat.”

In the wilderness it was the manna, gathered daily in the dew of morning that forged the faith of Israel. Once the people were settled in the land, the warning loomed large from Joshua to serve the Lord alone and remember that God “gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). Joshua was telling them to nurture a deep connection between the harvest of the vineyard and the God who made them a people and gave them the land.

To a people disoriented by exile in Babylon, Jeremiah said, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jer. 29:5). In other words, they were to attend to necessary things and do necessary things for one another. In doing so, they would find their way to God.

This pattern continued with Jesus as he sent the disciples out among the people to proclaim the kingdom of God. He told them to enter the homes of the cities to which they were sent. “Stay there,” he said, “eating and drinking whatever they give you, for workers deserve their wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you” (Luke 10:7-8). The disciples had this grand vision of the kingdom of God to proclaim and live into, but the proclamation was always in the context of shared meals, working side by side with others, doing necessary things.

I think if you look closely, the shift in the American church is already evident. Churches are taking the lead in their communities starting community gardens, promoting Plant-A-Row for the Hungry, hosting farmers' markets, and teaching classes on food and health. Churches and Christians of all political stripes are becoming environmentalists, but be careful - some of them may not like the label. They'd prefer faithful foodie or sustainable backyard farmer or guerilla gardener, but those are just different ways of describing environmentalists. And this earthy move in church circles bodes well for the big debates about land, CO2, and going green.

As Walsh points out in his Time article, this emphasis on food leads us into the heart of issues dear to the traditional environmental movement.

As the food movement matures and grows, it could end up being the best vehicle available for achieving environmental goals. The industrialized way we farm today damages our land, our water and our climate. Reforming agriculture and promoting sustainability won't just help us get better and healthier food; it will also fight greenhouse-gas emissions and water pollution....

Environmentalists once thought that the only way to create lasting change in the U.S. and the rest of the world was by controlling our carbon emissions. Not quite. As Brian Halweil, a leading thinker on sustainable food, put it in Saturday's TED conference, "If the environmental movement is dead, then I say, 'Long live the food movement.'" Environmental and social changes are coming — and they will be served up on our dinner plates.

Not only will they be served up on dinner plates, but the church will say a prayer before the meal.

New Report: 1 in 4 Packages of Meat at the Grocery Contain Multi-Drug Resistant Staph

A few weeks ago I wrote a post highlighting the book, Superbug by Maryn Mckenna. The book tracks the emergence of antibiotic-resistant MRSA and claims that the heavy use of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture has contributed to the rise of these resistant strains of bacteria.

Mckenna has an article at Wired.com today that reports on a new scientific study on the presence of drug-resistant bacteria in meat for sale in stores. She reports:

A team of researchers from Arizona bought meat and poultry in five cities across the United States, tested them for bacteria, and found this: 47 percent of the samples contained the very common pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, and 96 percent of those isolates were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Of more concern: 52 percent of those staph isolates were resistant to at least three antibiotics that are commonly used in both veterinary and human medicine.

That is: Roughly one in four packages of meat and poultry from across the US contained multi-drug resistant staph.

Here's the breakdown of how different types of meat compared:

Among the types of meat tested, turkey carried the most resistance, with 77 percent of the meat samples showing at least some; that was followed by pork (42 percent), chicken (41 percent) and beef (37 percent). Interestingly, it wasn’t all the same staph. Though there was a great diversity of staph types, each animal species seemed to carry mostly one sequence type or strain of staph: ST1 in pigs, ST5 in chickens and ST398 in turkey.

Perhaps the most important finding in the study is that the source of the bacteria was not human contamination, rather the bacteria came from the animals themselves. Mckenna quotes study team member Lance Price:

“There’s an important second point: We found that each of the meat and poultry types had their own distinctive staph on them. That provides strong evidence that food animals were the primary source of the resistant staph. The source wasn’t human contamination of the meat at slaughter, or when it was packaged for retail sale.”

This is an important data point in the debate about the impact of antibiotic use in raising farm animals. The Ag. community has argued for years that no one has been able to prove a link between such use and the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that is harmful to humans. The evidence is mounting that concentrated animal operations are not only bad for animals, but they are bad for humans as well.

Go here for a previous post on safety issues with America's meat supply.

Rocky Ridge Ranch Accepting New CSA Members from the Spokane Area for Summer 2011

image from www.rockyridgeranchspokane.com Here's the scoop from Gary and So at Rocky Ridge Ranch about the upcoming season of CSA offerings. They are my favorites. Go here for more background on CSA programs. 

Just a reminder to let you know we are taking new applications for the CSA Programs for this Summer starting  the first week of June. If you're interested please visit our web site and check out these programs.We still have 15 openings for the Produce/Eggs program "Cooler of TheBest" and about 5 openings for the Variety Meats program. Also we welcome our many prior customers for Beef, Pork and Poultry to contact us and place your Pre-Order for this year. It's agood idea to place your order now as demand has been high and we areoften sold out later in the year. We are looking forward to hearing from you again this year.

Gary and So are featured farmers in my book Year of Plenty. The Millwood Farmers' Market, that opens on May 18, is one of the pick-up spots for their CSA boxes. The Millwood Farmers' Market opens for the summer season on May 18 and is currently open on Wed. from 2-6pm for the winter season at the Crossing Youth Center.