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Jeremy Harding on food insecurity in the London Review of Books:
“The new hesitation about food reflects broader doubts about the last 30 years – the trente glorieuses of the Anglo-Saxon model: our confidence in the energetic binge-and-treadmill culture that propelled us through the 1980s and 1990s has taken a knock. We doubt, above all, whether we can pay off our rising debts to the environment. Feelings about eating and not eating are more immediate than thoughts about rainforests; like the energy or water embedded in the produce we buy, many fears, including fundamental ones about life and death, destruction and incorporation, are already embedded in food. Others migrate to it, making food the bearer of unwieldy questions about the survival of a planet whose destiny we can’t foresee and the fate of people whose problems aren’t the same as ours. Do we bolt down what’s in front of us or do we curb our appetite in the name of our children’s future, or a ‘good’ we can’t guarantee? The modern table is groaning with dilemmas.”
Read the rest of Harding’s article here, and find out about nef‘s views on food security in Nine Meals for Anarchy. The concept of ‘ecological debt’ is explored in our Interdependence work stream, and in Andrew Simms’ book.
(Image by piston9 via Flickr)
Someone fairly prolific in the radical green movement – I forget who exactly – once said that the refrigerator was the sign of a truly decadent society.
At first, this strikes me as remarkably unfair to the fridge. If anything, the poor old fridge seems like the most thrifty and considerate of kitchen appliances. It stretches out the lifetime of our food, thus cutting down our wastage and preventing us from taking daily trips to the shop. Freezing food is especially useful in this regard. I recently stumbled across a handy list of fifty tips for reducing food waste, and a good proportion of them suggest freezing bits of food that you might otherwise throw away. Day-old bread can be frozen for when you need breadcrumbs. Fresh herbs can be frozen in ice-cubes and then tossed into soups. Even the tops of carrots, peppers and onions can be frozen for creating vegetable stock later on.
But last week, I started using the Ration Me Up Carbon Ration Book, produced by the Ministry of Trying to Do Something About It for nef‘s event, The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence. Running a fridge 24/7 takes up a greedy 15% of my monthly ration: 6 out of 39 coupons. That’s the same as travelling 200 miles on a train. The fridge no longer looks like such a sensible idea.
There is, apparently, a small contingent of very dedicated green activists who’ve cut out their fridge entirely. An alternative solution might be to only use the fridge in the summer, and simply store perishable food outside during the winter.
More ingenious is the “zeer pot” clay fridge, a very simple technology increasingly being used by people in India and sub-Saharan Africa to preserve food. It consists of a two clay bowls, one inside the other. The gap between the bowls is filled sand and food is put into the inner bowl. The idea is that you then pour water over the sand, the water evapourates slowly and thus cools the food. According to development organisation Practical Action, a zeer pot can extend the shelf-life of vegetables from a matter of days to as much as three or four weeks. All without any electricity. They have an excellent guide to making your own zeer pot, if any of you decide you’d rather spend your carbon rations on watching TV or travelling around.
Of course, the simplest solution is to share the damned thing. A fridge which is empty uses more power than one which is full, so it makes sense to have your fridge stocked with other people’s food. (Apparently, you can even save energy by padding out your fridge with carrier bags full of newspaper!) By sharing my fridge usage with the three other people I live with, I only need to stick one and a half coupons onto my ration book.
The same principle goes for heating, lighting, cooking and buying new stuff. If we’re prepared to share, we can live within our carbon rations without having to sacrifice too many creature comforts.
Regular readers will have no doubt wondered what has happened to the nef blog in recent weeks. Truth is I’ve been on holiday. Although perhaps ‘holiday’ is too strong a word, given that my colleagues have teased me for giving up my hard-earned annual leave to do a course in environmentally-friendly land management. Perhaps I should take it as a compliment: getting mocked for being too much of a greenie at nef of all places shows that I must be doing something right.
I mentioned a while back that the practice of permaculture might hold some answers to our present predicaments around energy, climate change and looming food scarcity. Now, having spent two weeks in the Forest of Dean actually studying the thing, I feel knowledgeable – or foolhardy – enough to attempt to explain it here.
Permaculture was first developed during the energy crisis of the mid-seventies by two Australian scientists, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. Its name stands for both permanent agriculture and permanent culture: a way of growing food and organising human life in a manner that is genuinely sustainable. Permaculture seeks to be fossil fuel free: while organic agriculture dispenses with pesticides and fertilizers, it still relies on diesel to run farm machinery and operates on a similar scale to conventional agriculture. When oil becomes expensive and scarce, even organic farms will feel the pinch. To many, it is hard to imagine how we could even grow food without the help of oil. We certainly wouldn’t be able to return to a life of hard physical labour to get our daily bread: most of the knowledge and physical strength simply isn’t with us anymore.
Permaculture’s answer is a fairly simply one: rather than struggling against nature, either by hard labour or with big energy input, aim to work with it by designing food growing systems which mimic natural ecosystems. This means creating more or less closed systems, where human input is kept to a minimum (read: less work) and all outputs are used in a productive way (read: no waste). Permaculturists always avoids monocultures. Diversity – an important aspect of natural ecosystems – is used to create beneficial relationships between different plants, people, animals and other aspects of the land and living space.
Imagine you have a house at the top of a slope. You dig a pond beside it, because this will reflect light into the house, meaning you need to use less energy. And because the pond is at the top of the slope, you can use its water to irrigate vegetable gardens and orchards at the bottom of the slope. The pond will provide a habitat for ducks, who you will periodically invite into your vegetable garden so that they can go on slug patrol. You can also dig a trench coming out of the pond and fill it with reeds. This can be used to filter gray water (waste water from sinks, showers and baths), cleaning it for later use. In the pond you might also have some carp, who feed on tiny animals in the water, turning unusable protein into a human food (fish). On one side of the pond you grow willow, which can be used for fencing, decoration, craft materials and firewood, while on the other you dig out “chinampas” – fingers of land that jut into the pond. Here you can grow yet more vegetables, particularly those which need lots of water. Note how inputs such as water for the garden and food for the ducks and fish have been removed or minimised, and otherwise unused outputs such as light from the pond, waste water from the house and slugs in the garden become useful parts of the system.
By clever design and a keen understanding of the kinds of ecological relationships which animals and plants need to survive, permaculturists have been able to do some remarkable things. According to a documentary we watched on the course, the self-dubbed ‘rebel farmer’ Sepp Holzer has managed to grow figs, cherries and even kiwi fruits at an altitude of over 4,000 feet in the Austrian mountains, all by using permaculture principles.
Permaculture is satisfying because its solutions are so elegant, so simple and yet also so ingeniously thought out. We tend to have the notion that “technology” must mean something complex, and yet we forget that some of the best technologies, the ones we use everyday without even noticing, are perfected in simplicity and need no further work. Witness the button, the stairs, the pencil. You reach the end of a permaculture course armed less with a host of facts than a way of thinking which informs a huge range of decisions you might take in your life.
And contrary to my colleagues’ jibes, the course did manage to hold its own as a holiday. Staying on an organic farm, with beautiful scenery, fantastic food, good company and regular camp fires, it hardly felt like I was doing any work at all. And that is a crucial permaculture principle. As permaculturist Andy Langford put it: “Ask yourself, as a permaculture designer, how many siestas can I easily take this week? If its less than three or four, be worried.”
- Patrick Whitefield – a pioneer of British permaculture, and the brilliant teacher of my course
- The Permaculture Association of Britain
- Permaculture Magazine
- The Agroforestry Research Trust – if its hard facts and practical research you want, you’d do no better than see the work of Martin Crawford.
- “High time agriculture got back to its healthy roots” – veteran environmental journalist John Gibbons, who recently completed a permaculture design course, writing in the Irish Times.
As if you weren’t worried enough about climate change, economic calamity and now swine flu, there is now a growing number of agricultural scientists who think we are heading for a food crisis. Dr Lester R Brown has a big piece in Scientific American this month, while over this side of the Atlantic Professor Douglas Kell has warned that rising temperatures and diminuishing energy supplies will lead to food riots unless the Government acts.
So far, so familiar to most environmentalists and oil peakists. But Kell has also called for £100 million of public money to made available for research into how crop yields might be maximised, so that the crisis might be averted. Now where do you think that money would go? From a cursory internet search I can’t find exactly what Kell, a professor of biotechnology, thinks about genetically modified food, but I would bet good money that this Government, with its affection for large, centralised, corporate solutions (think mega-banks, nuclear power, car manufacturers) would, in the face of a looming food crisis, cave in to the lobbyists and hastily push through a GM agenda.
I should add that I’m not a purist about these things. I have no fixed opinions about genetic modification, and my objections to it are more about corporate control, terminator seeds and copyrighted genomes than they are about the safety or ‘naturalness’ of the resulting crop.
What worries me is that the Government will hear people like Kell asking for research into increased crop yields and automatically think ‘GM’ rather than making the effort to explore the alternatives. A community gardening, “digging for victory” initiative would not only help tackle food scarcity at a minimum cost, it would also promote the kind of solaridarity and community spirit to see us through a major crisis. If we promoted food sharing to eliminate waste, we might not even need that much space. There is plenty of research which shows that a nation of small farmers tends to be more productive than a nation of a few large farms, centrally controlled.
What’s more, there are ways in which small farmers and gardeners can maximise their plots for higher yields simply by attentive design. The permaculture movement, founded by the Australian biologist and conservationist Bill Mollison, has created a low-energy, low-maintenence and yet high-yield method of food growing, by copying the patterns of growth seen in thriving natural ecosystems, such as woodlands. They have been doing this without corporate investment or government grants. According to Dr Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust, a forest garden designed for maximum yield could feed around ten people an acre. That’s about twice as much as conventional agricultural farming, and with a fraction of the work and none of the fossil fuel energy.
While the supporters of GM have been shouting from the rooftops and rallying an army of lobbyists to promote themselves as the saviours of a starving world, the permaculturists have been, in the words of Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins, ‘far too long hidden up misty lanes in the middle of nowhere’, quietly experimenting. They now need to get out of those lanes, and show Governments, communities and individuals the potential of their revolutionary system. Whether or not GM can feed the future becomes a moot point. If permaculture can feed us for less money and energy, and by liberating people to feed themselves as opposed to locking them into corporate dependence, then surely it’s infinitely preferable.
Earlier this year, the BBC made a fantastic documentary on permaculture solutions to the food and energy crises, called Farm for the Future. It’s just been made available again to watch on BBC iPlayer until 12 May. In my ideal world, Professor Kell, and the Government, would go and visit the pioneering food growers in this film first, and the GM corporations second.