Sunday, July 31, 2011


Oh no! Scientists brought dinosaurs back to life and they're in my house!
Sometimes, I like to indulge my paranoid side, especially as it links up with my imaginative side. I love making lists and thinking of possible contingencies. I know exactly how I should prepare to have enough food and water in my house to survive a months-long disaster of unspecified cause. I know various methods of food preservation requiring no electricity or other fuel. I know methods of gardening for dealing with drought and methods for extending the season. I know how to build a solar powered water distiller.

Unfortunately, all of this is in my mind. I'm a planner - not necessarily an executor of said plans. Other than freezing two gallons of water to take up freezer space (a full freezer is more efficient), I've done nothing to prepare for an emergency. (I don't like to think about what happens to my freezer half-full of locally pastured beef if the electricity cuts out for more than 24 hours. Since I only have the vaguest notion of how to smoke things, a block party, maybe? Hmm, that bears thinking about...)

I don't think I'm unique in not being prepared for a major disaster, or even a minor one. I'm sure more than a few of you have heard that, if supply lines are cut, grocery stores have about three days of food - perhaps less if people go crazy stockpiling in the first day. I have enough food around the house to survive for a couple of weeks without shopping, although I would probably be missing some key nutrients by the end of our reliance on rice, dried beans, and the aforementioned beef, and I'd have to find a toilet paper substitute. More than a few weeks? That's where it get sticky.

My friend Tracy told me that if a disaster happened, the first thing she would do is gather her extended family together. She's lucky enough to have them close to her. I would probably take my family, my seed supply, and head out to a relative's farm. But what about people who don't have those connections?

I read a quote the other day that in our society "the interdependency of individuals [is] not mediated through political, social, or religious institutions but via the market and contract". When that market contract fails - when the stores have no food, when the city's water treatment plant is malfunctioning, and we can't purchase what we need to live - do we have connections, institutions, that will help us and wherein we can help others?  Who's going to save you? Your church? They don't have the resources. Your family/friend network? Not if they are likewise dependent on purchasing the essentials of life.

This is not a hypothetical situation in many parts of the world, where the water supply is unreliable or too expensive, where food prices may rocket out of reach and droughts annihilate subsistence crops. However, in some of those places, people do have something we lack here, in our "independence" of one another: interdependence. And this interdependence can cushion catastrophe.

Monday, July 25, 2011

July Salad

Butter lettuce, mizuna, peas, snap peas, walnuts, pansies, centaurea. Best served with friends.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Saving Someone's Bacon

Piglets are among the cutest of baby animals. No, really. Go find some and coo over them.
I can guess what prompted this campaign: increased public attention on the treatment of pigs in confined systems, with pictures like these readily available on the internet, and stories about the Manitoba barn fire that killed 7500 pigs hitting close to home.

According to the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, the swine industry in Saskatchewan produces about  two million market hogs a year and employs about 8,000 people. "To put pig production into perspective on a local level," the article's writer says, "a typical 1,200 sow barn farrow-to-finish uses 8,600 acres of feed grains annually, provides employment for ten full-time and five indirect personnel, has annual sales revenues of $5 million, and provides nutrients in the form of manure to 3,600 acres over a three-year nutrient management program."

I'm more familiar with other aspects of the hog industry in Saskatchewan.
Like the fact that in 1976 there were 12,246 farms raising pigs in Saskatchewan and by 2006 there were only 930. In 1976, 85% of the pigs were raised on farms with 2,600 or fewer animals. By 2006 over 90% were raised on farms with over 2,600 pigs.

Like the fact that Big Sky Farms, Saskatchewan's largest hog producer, applied for creditor protection in 2009, 90 million dollars in debt, and ended up repaying farmers whom it owed more than $4,000 (for purchases such as feed) 10 cents on the dollar. Oh, and if you were ruined by their bankruptcy? Maybe you can get a job - they're hiring. And don't worry - the more dangerous, low-paying jobs in the sector will probably go to immigrants.

Like the fact that intensive hog operations contribute disproportionately to water pollution, as Manitoba has found: this year's rapid algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg resulting in the Manitoba government tightening hog-industry regulation. Increased phosphorous levels are entering the lake from livestock farming, pollution from cities and through wetland loss. "Phosphorous levels in the lake are now worse than they were in Lake Erie when people were describing that lake as dead," said Dr. Peter Leavitt at the conclusion of his five-year study of the problem.

I think the hog industry has a ways to go to counter these perceptions. Perhaps by changing the facts. I'd like to see them go that distance!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Whose Side is Science On?

The kids and I went to the Saskatchewan Science Centre this morning. The soap bubbles were a big hit, as was the mirrored table where you could create kaleidoscopic images with coloured plastic shapes. Lest you think my kids are Luddites, I hasten to assure you that they were also enthralled by Richardson's Ag-Grow-Land, which "celebrates the science and cutting edge tools of modern day agriculture in Saskatchewan": the exhibits had buttons to push and levers to pull.

In one agricultural exhibit, you can climb inside a John Deere tractor cab and have the virtual experience of growing a crop - choosing tillage methods, when to apply chemicals and fertilizers and how much, that sort of skilled technical decision.

I have a friend who is a rural sociologist. Her father is an organic farmer. She decided to play the game and farm organically. Turns out she wasn't offered the chance to cover crop, use green or animal manure, intercrop, or any other organic or agroecological methods. She ended up with the worst score of anyone in the game.

Well, maybe that's scientifically valid. Surely the Science Centre would have vetted its sponsored exhibits for scientific veracity. Let's see, shall we?

Your farming performance, based primarily on yield, is rated against previous players at the end of the game. I have some problems with the equation of good farming with yield, but let's accept that assertion for now. How do the yields of organic agriculture compare with those of conventional agriculture?

The answer, of course, is "it varies", based on type of crop, region, how long the land has been in organic production, and specific weather events that might occur. But for many crops, organic yields are quite close to conventional yields. A twenty-one year European study found an average yield of 20% less for organic, but this ranged from 10% less for winter wheat, no difference for grassland yields, and 33% less for potato yields mainly due to a potassium deficiency. Another twenty-one year trial in Pennsylvania found similar yields for corn and soybeans in both methods. 

So if the entire world switched to organic agriculture, would that mean a reduction of 20% in food supply? Of course not. Much of the world's production, in developing countries, shows drastic yield increases with the adoption of agroecological methods. Drastic, like tripling yields of grain in Honduras just by cover cropping. Reviewing several studies, Altieri* found that "integrated farming systems in which the small-scale farmer produces grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder and animal products out-produce yield per unit of single crops such as corn (monocultures) on large-scale farms." Studies in Mexico found that it takes 1.73 ha of maize monoculture to produce as much food as 1 ha of mixed maize, squash and beans.

Another post will have to address all of the additional benefits of organic farming found in these studies and others, including 30% fewer fossil energy inputs, increase in biodiversity, more resilience to weather shocks, greater water retention and nitrogen and carbon levels in soil, and waste recycling.

The divide between conventional and organic methods isn't as clear-cut as Richardson et al might like you to think, of course. Conventional farmers increasingly use organic methods such as cover cropping, or planting a legume in rotation to increase nitrogen in the soil. What is clear is that agribusiness benefits from positing conventional, chem-dependent methods as not only normal, but examplars of scientific progress. Hey - you aren't anti-science, are you? Against progress?! 

Luckily, agroecology is cutting-edge science, both physical and social. And smart farmers, if they can find out about them, will adopt methods that work.

And, luckily, if you take your children to visit the Science Centre, you are armed with some data to help them critically think about what they're seeing.

*Altieri, Miguel A. and Victor Manuel Toledo. (2011). The agroecological revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty, and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:3.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Down to Earth on Land Grabs

This is a very important article if you would like to understand the global phenomenon of land grabbing. The researchers spent months in seven African countries, talking with representatives from every sector - international financial institutions to governments to individual investors to affected community members. A summary, and a few of the more arresting quotes:

By referring to surging influx of capital into primarily African land markets as ‘foreign direct investment’, players in the international policy arena including Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) have affirmed that responsible land investment is possible and imply that African nations are beneficiaries in these deals. Their hope is that land investments will presumably create what has been hailed a ‘win-win situation’ in which food-insecure nations increase their access to food resources and investors profit from exports, while ‘host’ nations benefit from improved agricultural infrastructure and increased employment opportunities....reports reveal that these largely unregulated land acquisitions are resulting in virtually none of the promised benefits for local populations, but instead are forcing millions of small farmers off ancestral lands and food-producing farms in order to make room for export commodities...

According to Susan Payne of Emergent Asset Management ‘in South Africa the cost of agri-land, arable good agri-land that we are buying is one-seventh of the price of similar land in Argentina, Brazil and America. That alone is an arbitrage opportunity. We could be moronic and not grow anything over the next decade and we would still be making money,’ reflects true intentions of vultures sweeping into Africa, taking over land and other resources to profiteer from it....

I was in Zambia in February where the government is launching a farm block scheme that is being touted as a scheme to end poverty and bring economic development. In a meeting with a very high official in the ministry of agriculture, I asked what the purpose of the scheme was and he said, ‘Economic upliftment and poverty alleviation.’ And I asked, ‘How do you plan to do that? Are you asking investors for a lot of money for the land?’ And he said, ‘No, you have to put in $5,000 for putting in your tender; the land is really cheap.’ So I asked him, ‘Are you asking to put in infrastructure?’ ‘Oh, no, the government is putting in the necessary infrastructure.’ ‘OK, are you asking for a specific number of jobs that need to be created by these investors so we know that livelihood expansion happens?’ And he said, ‘No you can put in some general language around employment creation. We don’t ask for hard numbers’. So I asked him, ‘Will you help me understand how you will meet this objective of poverty alleviation and economic upliftment of the country when you are not asking investors for anything.’ And he comes close to me, smiles and says, ‘You and I both know that there is no such thing as a good foreign investor.’

And lest you despair and fall into apathy, there is encouraging news at the end of the article...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reductionism and local food: No easy way out.

“Local Food: Is it Good or Bad?” -headline this winter from the Globe and Mail

The local food outside my front door.

I wrote a few articles for the university paper during my undergrad, and remember being told that newspapers were written at about a grade eight reading level – back then, anyway. Apparently, they are now written at a grade four complexity level. I wish I could tell you that local food is good. Or bad. Or anything that wouldn't require a long, involved blog post. But I can't. 

What I can tell you is that either the G&M is weakly trying to arouse readers' interest by being polemic, or that most people are seeking a yes or no answer on complex issues. We live in a complex world; I understand that it is personally impossible to investigate the details of every issue that should be of interest. That's why we rely on good journalism to help us do so.

If the articles aren't nuanced, it's no surprise that the comments on it are even less so. One commenter argued against the local food movement, juxtaposing the image of “1 farmer transporting 30 pounds of produce to market 80 miles into town” with “a global supply chain involving perhaps 100 people, transporting 100s of tonnes of produce using high efficiency transport systems like container ships, rail and finally an 18 wheeler over 1500 miles”, claiming the latter is cheaper because it more efficiently uses energy and transport inputs.

This pretend example (unless it was 30 pounds of truffles, the farmer would hardly earn more than the gas money to transport it) ignores all of the other factors that can (but do not always) make mass-produced and mass-transported food cheaper: tax breaks and subsidies to intermediaries and overwhelmingly to large farmers, exploitative labour conditions for farmworkers and food industry workers in developing countries (and developed ones), the externalities such as water pollution that the large production units often are not accountable for.

So, unfortunately, the local food issue does require some critical thinking. Take the concept of food miles. An oft-cited 2006 study showed that, counterintuitively, importing lamb from New Zealand into the UK results in less of a carbon footprint than lamb grown in the UK*. Opponents seize on this as evidence that local foods are no better than – or worse than – industrial ones. Even a more nuanced view ends up suggesting that lettuce from Spanish fields in winter is better than British greenhouse lettuce, when eating seasonally is a way to make the issue moot - illustrating the oversimplification at work when a movement - local food - is reduced to an argument about food miles.

The reasons to eat locally go beyond food miles. Eating locally can keep money in the community, supporting small farmers. It can help build a more secure food system not reliant on fragile, far-flung supply chains and industrially produced products more susceptible to safety recalls. Perhaps most importantly, it gives you more ability to choose what you are supporting. Do you want to support organic farmers? Farmers who pay decent wages to their farmworkers? Farmers who treat their animals humanely? Farmers who have similar tastes in music? You can find out what local farmers' practices are, and you can choose. 

Am I, too, reducing the arguments too much? Well, I'm not a trained journalist. But the comments section is open for discussion! You could also suggest your favourite food journalist.

*Saunders, C., A. Barber, and G. Taylor. 2006. Food miles: Comparative energy/emissions performance of New Zealand’s agriculture industry. Research Report 285. Lincoln, New Zealand: Agribusiness & Economics Research Unit, Lincoln University. For a critique, see Shuman, M. 2007. On the lamb.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Farm Technology in 100 Years: A Photo Essay

These pictures are from the parade at my hometown's centennial this weekend.

Neighbour's team with covered wagon.

My great-uncle on a 6 HP Farmall tractor

His grandson on their 535 HP New Holland tractor.

His granddaughter on their John Deer 9870 STS combine.
  • Increase in HP over 100 years: 267 times
  • Decrease in town's population over 100 years: 96%
  • $1 in 1911 = $23.82 today
  • Price of one bushel of wheat in 1911: $1
  • Price of one bushel of wheat today: $7.73