What is agroecology?


As we consider a world of 7 billion and counting, the same two questions are coming up over and over again – how will we ever have enough water? And how on earth can we feed that many people?

The issue of food is a controversial one – everyone has an opinion. They’re widely divergent opinions too – from those who believe that Big Ag and genetic modification is the solution to billions of hungry mouths, to those who promote an aggressively local and small-scale farming system as the only way to stave off global hunger.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not in that group of folk who think that GM and monoculture cropping are going to save the world. In fact, a future like that seems very bleak and dystopian to me – the idea of a handful of companies essentially owning our food and thus our bodies is abhorrent to me. Local and small-scale is wonderful, but not always realistic on its own – every city would have its challenges in producing clean and healthy food, other regions lack the fertility of soil and availability of good weather conditions to be able to fully sustain their populations. It’s a good start though, especially when it incorporates the principles of agroecology.

Image from agroecology.org

But what is agroecology? The word hasn’t yet acquired that buzz-word status, like ‘local’ or ‘organic’ (and, thankfully, hasn’t been diluted into a fuzzy meaninglessness like those words). And while agroecology can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Essentially, agroecology is a movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006). UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems describes it as the development of ‘sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.’

From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Click through to embiggen.

Agroecology is therefore the antithesis of Big Ag. That sounds pretty appealing, for sure. But does it work?

Yes. Plus, it kind of has to. The 2013 Trade and Environment Review from the UN Commission on Trade and Development concluded that major changes in agriculture are necessary, recommending a ‘rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.’ Our current systems are not resilient (monoculture cropping is by its nature more vulnerable than polycultures), nor are they sustainable – the extensive requirements for chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides contributes to degradation of soil, of water supplies and climate change. Business as usual will end up business-as-it-used-to-be.

Agroecology has the potential to stop this damage to our agricultural systems and ensure a lesser environmental impact in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

We need to make a change and agroecology has a small but positive track record – at the very least, running more trials, replicating these on a large scale and thus collecting more evidence of its efficacy is worth a shot, as it may well provide us with a solution to an eventual crisis.

Why do our politicians keep listening to idiots, not scientists?


I’ve reached the point now where I try to avoid Australian political news as much as possible. From the distance I’m at, it’s difficult – I feel angry at so much that is happening, but also utterly impotent. There is nothing I can do to change things from Texas.

Of course, avoiding news is hard these days – especially with a government whose gaffes are so spectacular that they tend to go viral on Facebook. Then my curiosity gets the better of me…and then I end up reading articles like this oneHoly crap on a cracker. 

It concerns me that our Prime Minister is a man who has previously described climate change science as ‘absolute crap’, but I’ll give him the begrudging benefit of the doubt because he has at least distanced himself from that kind of language a little (even if it’s blindingly obvious that it’s what he still believes). The fact that one of our ministers is suggesting we should be living in fear of another Ice Age though is in another realm altogether. Again though, I did my due diligence – Mr Newman obviously hadn’t pulled the theory from thin air and I wanted to know more about David Archibald who had authored Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century will be Nasty, Brutish, and Short  – the book which inspired Newman’s opinion piece.

As it turns out, Archibald is a legit scientist. He has a BSc in Geology. Geology is a bit of a tenuous thread to claiming to be a climate scientist…but ok. What’s he worked in? Coal, oil and shale exploration…CEO of a mining company…operating 8.6 million acres of oil exploration permits in Australia…Right. So, there’s certainly some bias going on there. Still, that doesn’t preclude his having conducted some solid research with good evidence.

Well, no. He may have done some research, but he has no evidence for his theory. A better explanation than I could ever provide of just how scientifically lacking his theory is can be found on the Skeptical Science blog here, but if you don’t have time to read through all that, here’s a very short example:

From Skeptical Science

Yeeeeahhhhh.

Other work that he’s done focuses largely on a theory developed in a dendroclimatology study from 1979, which he claims was confirmed by a group of Finnish foresters in 2007. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, because while dendroclimatology has been useful for getting some idea of what temperatures were like before we started recording them about 150 years ago, it’s no longer accurately reflecting the actual temperatures that we are recording right now. So sure, the trees are telling us that the weather is cooling – but unfortunately, our much more accurate thermometers are telling us otherwise (a simple explanation for why this might be, and a good assessment of Climategate is here).

And yet, our politicians are listening to a man who is frankly failing seventh grade science, rather than to the 97 percent of actual climate scientists who are saying that climate change and warming are real and caused by humans (not the sun).

I honestly don’t understand.

On the upside though:

“The more carbon dioxide you put into the atmosphere, the more you are helping all living things on the planet and of course that makes you a better person.”David Archibald

Well, that’s a relief.

Updates


It’s been a long absence once again. Sometimes there’s not much to say, and sometimes there’s not enough time to say much. In the gap between writing, things have moved on and life has shifted as always. I started working with the Austin EcoNetwork, a great local organisation that connects and updates the local environmental community. I stopped working with Sustainable Food Center after more than six months of volunteering 10 or so hours a week – the work had stopped challenging me and I wanted that time to move back into more study and writing. I applied to go back to university for yet more study next year – a  Master of Research in Environmental Health, which would let me bridge to a PhD in future. I planted a garden that thrived briefly before becoming seemingly irrevocably miserable and fruitless. I went back to climbing again and enjoyed every second of the aching muscles that told me I was getting strong again.

Outside of my own little bubble, the environmental news continued to be generally grim, especially out of Australia. The Carbon Tax was repealed  and replaced with…well, nothing as far as I can tell. Apparently people’s being pissy about their electricity costing a few dollars more was more important than the future of the planet. Canada is apparently not doing too much better on climate change at the moment, which meant that Prime Ministers Abbott and Harper got to get all chummy and united as the only two developed countries that apparently don’t give a damn. The Adani Group’s coal mine had the last major regulatory hurdle removed from its establishing itself in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. With the mine will come dredging, mining runoff, the potential for coal transport ships to run aground on the reef and of course, a new contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Here in the US, the drought in California continued to worsen. Rush Limbaugh claimed success for climate change deniers. The early cost of climate change to US taxpayers was established as fact. Congress continued to put their fingers in their ears while humming loudly. And Cheetos remained a legitimate ‘food’ on the school lunch menu.

On the other hand, French supermarket Intermarche swamped my Facebook news feed with its incredible ‘Eat Ugly’ campaign to use up those wonky fruits and veggies that would otherwise go to waste. It was awesome. John Oliver did the greatest demonstration of the scientific consensus on climate change that the world has ever seen. It was also pretty awesome. So it’s not all bad.

Plus, bad things lead to creativity, right?

From The Guardian

A week of infographics: Day 1


Given that everything is winding down before Christmas on Wednesday, I thought that I’d keep this week fairly simple by sharing an infographic a day. I have an irrational love of infographics myself, so this is a little bit of Christmas fun for me too.

Today is one from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Click to enbiggen!

While this is obviously a simplified representation of the state of America’s agriculture at the moment, I would argue that overall, it definitely holds true. Not enough of the fresh fruits and vegetables that we should be eating are grown locally (or even within the country), and too much supermarket space is given to calorie-dense, nutritionally devoid products from the corn and soy products that are destroying the fertile Mid West and putting small farmers out of business.

In which case: how short-sighted is the US Government? Yes, it may cost (a comparatively paltry) USD90 million to help to re-localise and diversify agriculture. But what price human health? How much is the government spending each year on (often) preventable diseases, particularly obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease? How many working days are lost to poor health? How many people need disability benefits because the food that the government supports has left them too ill to work?

Increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables grown locally, and reconnecting people with the farm is not going to be the whole solution to these problems, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.

The KeepCup love continues


You may recall that about a year or so ago, I posted about how madly in love with my KeepCup I was (I still am, but it was one of many things that didn’t fit into my overstuffed luggage moving overseas so I’m hoping to get a second here!). I also posted some data about reusable cups vs. regular, disposable cups. So when I heard that KeepCup were working with strategic design studio, THICK, to make sure more people were aware of this information, I was really happy to get involved and share what they’ve done.

Basically, KeepCup and THICK came together when KeepCup realised that many of the people using their products couldn’t really articulate why. They knew it was good for the environment, they knew that they were drastically reducing their waste footprint, but there was a lack of knowledge as to what that really meant. There was also a sense of uncertainty for some about whether a reusable plastic cup was really the best option.  Which is totally understandable – there is a mental dichotomy for most people these days which runs along the lines of paper=good, plastic=bad. What if KeepCup was in fact more environmentally damaging than disposable cups? When you read the statistic of 1 million disposable coffee cups going to landfill per minute though, it’s much easier to see the benefit of a reusable cup. So that’s why the mini-site, Vs. KeepCup came about – to make that kind of information more accessible.

Vs. KeepCup gives some fantastic direct comparisons disposable cups. For example, KeepCups are recyclable, as opposed to disposable coffee cups which may spend up to 50 years in landfill. The break even point of using a KeepCup instead of disposable cups (in terms of the Life Cycle Assessment) is just 15 coffees. In this context, using a reusable cup is a super simple decision. If you’re interested, a list of KeepCup stockists is here and you can build your own here. There’s also a bunch of other great reusable cups around, if they take your fancy more.

Oh, and for those of you wondering about how I’ll track down a KeepCup in Austin, TX? I’ll be ducking down to Juan Pelota Cafe, which is next to Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop on Nueces St. Saves shipping just one cup to the US!

Note: While I was contacted by Studio Thick, I received no reimbursement for this post and all opinions are my own. I was genuinely happy to write about something which I think is a great product and also a great site that’s trying to change how we look at consumption and waste. I also received no compensation for my mention of Juan Pelota Cafe – it’s just that it’s the only place in Austin that sells KeepCups (and, in my opinion, the only place that does decent coffee around here)!

Notes on Corn: Part 1


IMG_1407

While travelling in Mexico recently, I saw this sign in the zocalo in Puebla (sorry the photo is so dreadful – I only had my phone with me that day and it was a bright afternoon).  It reminded me of research that I’d done recently on globalised agriculture and food sovereignty, mainly in relation to corn (with Mexico as the obvious case study).  Over a few posts, I’d like to share with you some of that research, so that you can see why, while on an overseas holiday, I got excited about a sign about corn.

Introduction to Notes on Corn

Over the last hundred years, maize has been reimagined as a commodity rather than a foodstuff, changing the way in which it is grown, processed and traded.  In 1999, Brewster Kneen described global trade agreements as ‘the deliberate restructuring of life in accordance with a narrow ideology and plan for extrinsic (corporate) purposes’ .  A small number of organisations now control the global maize market including production, processing, transport and retailing.  So, for example, Mexico’s National Union of Autonomous Regional Farmers’ Organizations (UNORCA), which represents food producers organizations in 27 Mexico states, contends that just 12 US, Mexican and transnational agro-food firms are NAFTA’s primary beneficiaries.

Arguably, beneficiaries have also been farmers and consumers in developed nations, where the potential uses for corn have expended wildly, creating the illusion of cheapness and choice.  This prosperity, however, has come at the price of threats to maize biodiversity; erosion and pollution as a result of monoculture cropping; ‘dumping’ of excess produce on developing nations; depeasantisation; decreased food security and loss of social and cultural identity.

Notes on Corn: Diversity

The threat from trade liberalisation to in situ maize diversity has been described as ‘the most pressing issue facing Mexico in the post-NAFTA context’ (Keleman 2010).  These threats include:

1)  Agribusiness demands for high yields of a smaller variety of maize species, which has encouraged monoculture planting.  Because the maize industry is so concentrated, production is now heavily influenced by demand for particular types of corn that are regularly used by food processors, for whom quantity, consistency and uniformity of grain is paramount.  Farmers choices in the crops that they plant may be limited by these standards (see Keleman 2010).  In addition to the threat that this poses directly to maize variety, in areas of intensive,  large-scale agriculture, land is often deserted after only 40-50 years as it is no longer productive .

2) The growth of, and contamination from genetically modified crops.  Insufficient regulation of imports (including seeds) is likely to have been one of the main causes of the contamination of Mexican maize by transgenic grain varieties in 2002, as the wholesale planting of genetically modified maize is still under a moratorium.  Furthermore, the manner in which corn reproduces makes it very susceptible to the adoption of traits of new crop varieties which may then spread.

3) An influx of cheap maize from developed nations.  Since the implementation of NAFTA, Mexico has become a net importer of corn from the United States, not because they are incapable of producing adequate amounts to be almost self-sufficient, but because of the ‘dumping’ of heavily subsidised, and therefore considerably cheaper, corn from north of the border.   Between 1996-2004, imports of maize from the US to Mexico increased by 320 percent.  The impact of this has been two pronged. Mexican maize landraces have been contaminated in some instances by genetically modified crops, and many farmers, no longer able to compete with low priced imports, have been driven from the land, usually to cities, or, ironically, across the northern border into the United States.

4) Social factors such as the displacement of rural populations and associated loss of knowledge.  While the migration of farmers is an outcome in and of itself, it has also left in situ conservation of maize diversity in jeopardy. The maize diversity that exists in Mexico is substantially the result of the knowledge and practices of farmers who have bred the wide variety of species over hundreds of years.  Concerningly, the poorest populations which are most likely to migrate internationally, have previously been the most likely to plant the most genetically diverse crops.  Without their knowledge and input, and with the reduction of the number of farmers required in an industrial system, much of this diversity may be lost.

High-yield, genetically modified and identical varieties of corn have allowed food companies to produce consumer goods that are standardised and inexpensive at the supermarket.  However, their overall cost is the threat to the biodiversity of maize species as a whole – and you know how I feel about the preservation of genetic resources.

(Part 2 will be on the impact of corn commodification on peasants identity and culture.  Part 3 will talk about food sovereignty movements that have arisen as a result.  I’ll also include a full reference list, for anyone else who wants to geek-out over this sort of thing.  I’ve taken the embedded references out of this and tried to remove a bit of academic dryness as well, but if you’re curious about anything, please let me know!)

Another Announcement: eek.ology is moving!


I’m very excited to let you all know that in about 3 months time, I will no longer be writing from Sydney, Australia.  David has been offered a transfer and promotion by his current employer and in June, we will be setting off to live in Austin, TX!  This is a huge thing, and in terms of blogging, very exciting.  To be able to explore food and environmental issues from a different place and a different perspective is a huge opportunity that for me.

Can I use the word excited  one more time?  Because I really, really am.

Covered in Bees


I’m just stopping by today to recommend that you sign the petition for the European Union to ban the use of some of the most toxic pesticides.

The evidence of the dangers of such pesticides to bee populations was most conclusively proven in a study published in Nature last year, which suggested that around two thirds of bumblebees exposed to a combination of two or more pesticides will die.  Honeybees may suffer 85 percent losses to their queen populations.

The loss of bee populations is concerning enough in and of itself, but is also of particular significance because of their importance to the pollination and growth of human food crops.  You can read more here, here and here (with an excellent video).

Also, on a lighter note, while we’re on the subject of bees, here is one of my favourite Eddie Izzard clips – enjoy!

 

Absence


Hi all,

Just a quick note to let you know that eek.ology should be back on board as of the 7th June.  With uni the way it is at the moment, I just can’t dedicate the time I’d like to to blogging.  I’m sorry!’

Talk to you then,

L