Thursday, February 10, 2011

Financial finagling in food and sustainability

Week three of the Comparative Farming and Sustainable Food Systems class proceeded on in fascinating detail. We've been talking about sustainability and the design of food and farm systems. Sustainability can be thought of as the interactions of cultural, economic, social, institutional, and energy components in a system that have positive effects on the present, without compromising the future. The design of such a system has an end of healthy ecosystems and healthy communities, creating wellbeing for people and their environment in both the short and long term. Cultural are distinguished from social components in that the former have to do with identity (traditions, value systems, language), while the latter have to do institutions and systems of organization (political structure, systems of control and distribution).

One of the topics that came up during the course of discussion was the food price spikes we're seeing lately and the resultant riots around the world. The professor handed out an article on this from the January 15 New Zealand Herald:
The food riots began in Algeria more than a week ago, and they are going to spread. During the last global food shortage, in 2008, there was serious rioting in Mexico, Indonesia and Egypt. We may expect to see that again, only more widespread.
The article talks about poverty, climate change, world population, global consumption patterns, floods, drought, imports, local crop failures. Interestingly, it does not talk about commodity speculation in grains and other foodstuffs. I recalled a story written for Harper's Magazine by Frederick Kaufman about the food riots of 2008 and what led up to them: he specifically focused on the role of companies like Goldman Sachs and the issue of commodities futures in wheat and corn in the food crisis. The title says it succinctly: "The Food Bubble: How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it." (PDF)
Investors were delighted to see the value of their venture increase, but the rising price of breakfast, lunch, and dinner did not align with the interests of those of us who eat.
I did a little searching on the web and found the letter from Steve Strongin on behalf of Goldman Sachs in response to the article, Kaufman's reply to that, and an interview with Kaufman by Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now!

The economics of sustainability has to do with full costing: what's known as the triple bottom line or the related integrated bottom line. We talked about economy of scale (Mike Emers of Rosie Creek Farm is helping to teach the class, and he spoke about this): maximizing your inputs (money, equipment, time, labor, etc.) for the most efficient and best levels of use for what you have—a balancing of costs and benefits. Each size of operation has an economy of scale that best suits it. Craig Gerlach brought up "neighboring," a term I hadn't heard before. This is a practice where neighbor farmers will work in common to help each other. For example, community harvesting: farmers in a particular local showing up at one farm to help harvest that farmer's fields, then moving on to the next farm in a given area, and so on, until all of their fields are harvested. Bringing in the harvest is an old tradition, as is barn-raising. Farmers may also share equipment.

in a food system, how do the local, regional, and global food systems link and interact? How do the scales of agriculture affect diversity in ecology, society, culture? We talked about the size of a farm affecting its ecological diversity: monoculture tends to be the rule on the extremely large farm. Gerlach hastened to point out that the modern industrial standard of monoculture and resource exploitation could be replaced with a restorative system, using organic and rotational methods, on the very large as well as the small farm, and that diversification of crops can be done over time as well as land area.

"Nature is the model."

This led us to talking about the plains vs. the prairie, and the idea of place-based development of breeds and farming methods. Gerlach mentioned the work of Wes Jackson, who became concerned about erosion of topsoil in the US (famously in the Dust Bowl of the thirties, but still continuing), and ended up founding an organization called The Land Institute. Most grains we use are annuals; we till the land, sow the seed, harvest the crop, and then plow under the stubble. The institute describes the situation and their mission this way:
No method for perpetuating agricultural productivity exists. Our goal is to improve the security of our food and fiber source by reducing soil erosion, decreasing dependency upon petroleum and natural gas, and relieving the agriculture-related chemical contamination of our land and water. Our specific research is an innovation for agriculture, using "nature as the measure" to develop mixed perennial grain crops as food for humans where farmers use nature as a standard or measure in making their agronomic decisions. Over 75 percent of human calories worldwide come from grains such as wheat and corn, but the production of these grains erodes ecological capital. Our research is directed toward the goal of having conservation as a consequence of agricultural production.
The classic documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains, brought the problem of tilling and erosion to public attention in 1936. The sound is pretty bad on this, but it's an interesting piece.

"A healthy, well-integrated community needs to be integrated with its food," said Gerlach, and I agree. That means the consequences of agricultural economics has to be connected to the consequences of agriculture. Food, economics, human happiness: you can't rip off one sector without hurting the others.

Previous posts in this series:

Food systems, policy, and foodsheds
Food systems and shizen
Sustainable food systems class

Cross posted at SNRAS Science & News.

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