Sunday, May 18, 2008


The first image here is tonight's dinner for us. The second is one of the sketches of Jacques, the land manager, for food growing areas of the village we're building.
Dear Friends,

Food is on my mind a great deal as item after item crosses my screen on rising food prices and shortages. More people are hungry, more kids are malnourished. I want to share some thoughts on this, but first...

Personal update:

The month has been a fairly hard one for Jack, taking over the general manager's tasks while Jurgen (co-director and general manager) visits his parents in Germany, and coping with expectable bumps in the road of this innovative project. He has stayed sane and fit by running on the beach, swimming and taking a pick to cut a bike path across the land so we can cycle up the steep hill. He spends a fair bit of time in meetings. Mondays Jack cycles into Motueka for a general management meeting with the now 7 employed people and with various consultants.

We spend a fair bit of leisure time with other people, particularly those involved with the village. The four young guys lacked a kitchen until a few days ago, so we had them up for dinner several times. We sit around with others discussing the fascinating aspects of building a village like what mudbrick-making machine to buy, should we get a grain-mill, how to make houses affordable, how to get heritage apple seeds, how to make arbours and where the walking paths will go.

Since coming to live at Te Mara (the house lower on the ridge), five-year-old home-schooled Lucien has decided I'm part of his daily routine, so makes the long hard climb up the ridge to see me. We spin stories, draw, make music (broadly defined), and act a little crazy.

Jack and I are using our bicycles more, and I'm very impressed that the battery can get us up the very steep climb of the ridge. We can get to town in 35 minutes and home in 40, so we do this for day-time journeys.

I continue to be impressed at the cultural life available. I've been recently to a string quartet performance and one of baroque harp, and I've joined a group singing for pleasure. The skilled director, one of the treasures of the old community of Riverside (she may have been born there), has us singing in 3 and 4 part harmony with ease.

Once I found that my sewing machine worked with the transformer dealing with the voltage difference between North America and NZ, I rediscovered the pleasure to be derived from making garments this way. I made Jack a black polar fleece, hooded dressing gown. He looks like a character from Star Wars in it.

Atamai Village:

While Jack sits at a desk and works at a marketing plan and what covenants will apply to purchases of lots, Gil, the engineer has been operating a digger and has dug five ponds for irrigation. Jacques has tilled graceful curves of garden over the hillside of Te Mara to be ready for Spring planting. The young guys Nick and Nigel have constructed a big shade house for new plants, a new guy, Johnnie is taking care of the orchards, and another new guy, Bomun has created a woodwork shop in the garage of Te Mara and will begin constructing cold frames, etc.. The ponds are filling already, and astonishingly, Gil has seen eels in them.
We are resuming our monthly potluck seminars, with the next being on food preserving and storage.
Motueka and region:

A group is forming around the idea of Transition Towns (Google it), a concept that began in the UK and has now been picked up in a few dozen towns in NZ. It concerns how a built urban settlement can respond to peak oil and climate change in areas such as transport, land use, domestic heating, insulation, water provision, local food provision, and so on. We have made brief presentations at the Council meeting, at the Community Board (the Council includes several small towns, the Community Board is the Motueka representation), and on radio.
Besides the food issue, another one that has aroused me in the last month has been further attempts to silence criticism of human rights infringements by Israel against the Palestinians by labelling such criticism anti-Semitism. This is a sneaky ad hominem argument, and when made recently by Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister, had to be strenuously resisted. I wrote to Harper and to the Ottawa Citizen on this.

Now, Food.

It's no news to any readers of this blog that more people are hungry, that there are food riots in Africa, Asia and South America. If it's not crossing your screen with at least an article a day, you're catching it in the mainstream media, where, after a lag-time of a few years, it's beginning to appear. How is the average person to understand this, and how is the average person to respond? As a non-expert in any relevant area, here is how I understand what is happening in terms of predisposing structural vulnerabilities and precipitating events.

Predisposing vulnerabilities:

  • Land tenure: Highest productivity from agricultural land, other factors being held equal, is from small-holder or cooperative structures. Comparisons have been made in China, where there are diverse structures of land ownership. Large industrial holdings and communal holdings are less productive. Over the last several centuries the trend has been towards larger industrial agricultural holdings, with the former peasants who lost their land to this process working as labourers on the properties or migrating to city slums. The global economic institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have pushed this change strenuously. Some call it the 'depeasantization' of global agriculture.Most remarkably, recently the heads of these three institutions have made a statement saying that what is needed to deal with global hunger now is a return to small-holder farming. Oxfam has echoed this. The UN statement on food and agriculture agrees, and adds that there is a need to turn from industrial agriculture with oil-based inputs, to organic methods. The western writers who talk about response to peak oil and climate change speak of the need for 'reruralization' of the countryside, which has been extensively depopulated by industrial agriculture. It will need to be repopulated to provide a more productive and more labour-intensive agriculture.

  • Closely related to the above point about the relationship between land tenure structures and land productivity is the kind of farming done and the kind of food produced. WTO, WB and IMF pushed indebted poor countries into what is known as 'structural adjustment', which among other things, meant that regional agricultural arrangements that produced for local consumption and a degree of food self-sufficiency were shifted to industrial agriculture producing food for export, such as tea and coffee, and non-food products, such as flowers for western markets. Countries such as Haiti, which were once self-sufficient in staples like rice, quickly became net importers of these staple foods. New Zealand, which some describe as 'one big farm', exports huge amounts of food all over the world. Does it feed itself? No. Half of what NZers eat is imported. This dependency on oil-based agriculture for exports to get the cash to pay for imported food brought in with oil-based transport is catastrophic for a country like Haiti, where the rise in food prices immediately bites as worsening hunger.

  • Population increase. Up until recently, most of the literature dealing with feeding the world insisted that there was no problem producing enough food to feed all the people in the world. The problem was one of distribution - the poor didn't have the money to buy the food available. There was much evidence to show that famines in various parts of the world were caused or exacerbated by political decisions, and would have been averted under democratic functioning.

Now we must consisder that the population that can be supported sustainably depends on the kind of technology being used and the throughput of materials and energy. I don't see anyone asserting now that we can grow enough food for a world of 9 billion people insisting on the lavish use of energy, some of which will be biofuel.

Precipitating factors:

  • Climate change has affected food availablity in several ways. Drought causes crop failure; most outstandingly the years of Australian drought had a major effect on global wheat production. Some query use of the word 'drought' as meaning a time limited condition, being convinced that the change is permanent. Climate change also causes increased number and severity of cyclones and floods which destroy crops.

  • Oil scarcity. My reading of this is that we are on the plateau of global production while global demand is swinging sharply up. This leads to high prices of fuel and other agricultural commodities (especially fertilizer, which has more than tripled), which leads to higher food prices. It actually leads to some land going out of production when farmers cannot afford the fertilizer on which they are dependent in the system of modernized agriculture.

  • Oil scarcity leads to biofuel production, causing agricultural products to be diverted from food to fuel production, and increasing food prices.

  • The increased global demand for meat leads to diversion of grain to feed animals and away from feeding hungry people. Of 2.3 billion tons of grain produced in 2007, less than half went to feed people. The rest went to feed animals and biofuel production.
  • The enormous global speculative market. Speculators buy up what is scarce. Food is scarce, so speculators are buying it, increasing prices for hungry people. This has been called a criminal activity. In recent months I've read, mainly from US newspapers, several informative analyses of the food problem, ending with advice on how to make money out of it.
  • Of all of these factors, my reading of the situation suggests that high oil prices, biofuel production and speculation on food commodities top the list for pushing hunger to present levels. As I write, the radio tells me that 6 million Ethiopian children are malnourished, 60,000 of them so ill they require specialist feeding, because of drought and high food prices. Aid money to alleviate the problem is scarce because people are giving to Burma and China.

    What's to be done?

    Global measures:

    • A global moratorium on biofuel production would help. A possible form for this would be a change in the requirement many governments have made for inclusion of a percentage of biofuels with fossil fuel petroleum. This would increase global availability of grain and lower prices. It might allow restoration of the depleted global grain reserves. It would contribute to lowering carbon emissions and require rich country populations to face the necessity of adapting to lower energy use patterns. The claim that there are no problems in using non-food plants for biofuel requires careful examination. Whatever plant material is used, organic material is extracted from soil or water, depleting the ecosystem from which it comes, and leaving it less able to keep producing.

    • Support food sovereignty for nations. Economic globalization of food provision needs to be reversed to national or regional food self-sufficiency. The transition in agriculture is likely to need state support, and to require economic instruments to protect it. Trade in non-essential food items is desirable, but the capacity of regions to feed themselves needs to be restored, after having been systematically and deliberately destroyed. This will increase food production and the problematic level of nutrition in many areas. It will increase employment.

    • Support land reform. This is a notoriously difficult area politically. However there are few measures with such a dramatic effect on food production and population health.

    • Support organic agriculture. Techniques of organic agriculture have benefitted from global knowledge growth. Permaculture principles are recognized widely as maximizing productivity, diversity and resilience of food production. Not only is more food produced, less fossil fuel is used and more carbon is sequestered with these methods of agriculture.

    • Take food commodities out of the speculation market.
    • Support the discussion of population policies, which have largely been an unmentionable topic in discourses like this one.

    What can we do ourselves?

    Right now, as usual, the adversities of hunger are affecting mainly developing countries and not most readers of this blog. This may not continue. The factors listed above that will not change in the near future are oil scarcity, climate instability, population growth. They will all get worse, of course. We don't know how they'll affect us in the lucky countries. It will be increasingly difficult to import food and to keep growing it with oil-dependent methods.

    • Grow your own food to the extent possible.

    • Join or create a community garden if you haven't land to plant.

    • Get your food from a Community-supported Agriculture farm (CSA) This is likely to be organically produced, and is, of course, local.

    • Move towards vegetarianism.

    • Consider joining a sustainable village, which will enable you to move further in the direction of low-energy self-sufficiency and provide a greater range of food and other products locally grown.

    • Help your town or neighourhood make these transitions by organizing under the Transition town, Natural Step or Post-Carbon Cities frameworks. The first began in the UK, the second in Sweden, and the third in North America. All are now global, and aim to enable a broad range of adaptations to peak oil and climate change, beyond food self-sufficiency. (See , , )

    • As part of such moves, the need to adapt to lower energy use is central, shifting away from the maladaptive move to replace oil with biofuels.

    • Make sure none of your invested money is going to food speculation.

    Some of the readers of this blog may have insights that will deepen my understanding of this complex issue. Please consider posting comments that may help us all.

    Warmest wishes to all,