6/1/15

Which Cup is the Poison In?

“We scientists are clever – too clever – are you not satisfied?  Is four square miles in one bomb not enough?  Men are still thinking, ‘Just tell us how big you want it.’”
– Richard Feynman

“As a guide to engineering ethics, I should like to commend to you a liberal adaptation of the injunction contained in the oath of Hippocrates that the professional man do nothing that will harm his client.  Since engineering is a profession which affects the material basis of everyone’s life, there is almost always an unconsulted third party involved in any contact between the engineer and those who employ him – and that is the country, the people as a whole.  These, too, are the engineer’s clients, albeit involuntarily.  Engineering ethics ought therefore to safeguard their interests most carefully.  Knowing more about the public effects his work will have, the engineer ought to consider himself an ‘officer of the court’ and keep the general interest in mind.”
– U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover


The line between science and engineering has been blurred for a long time now, probably irrevocably.  What passes for “science” in many university laboratories these days is little more than one form or another of engineering – how to create vaccines that fight particular viruses, what materials make the best semiconductors, or the best solar panels, or the lightest plastics, or the strongest panes of glass.  These are manufacturing studies, not science studies.
The worst offender for this abandonment of the respective responsibilities of the scientist (who ought be concerned with little more than the secrets of the universe) and the engineer (who takes the knowledge scientists offer and turns it into useful products) is the realm of what often gets called “agricultural science” – an offensive term if ever there were one.
Too clever by half...

The study of plants is called “botany”.  The study of animals is “zoology”.  If you want to be a generalist who studies both, you are a “biologist”.

The study of how to create drought resistant crops through genetically altering existing plants, or new chemical combinations that more effectively deter pests or weeds… that should more properly be called “agricultural engineering” and it has a whole different set of ethical considerations from science, as Admiral Rickover so ably pointed out.  He was only wrong in one respect in his evaluation – the “3rd party” he describes is not merely the entirety of the human population, it is the sum total of all life on Earth.

Farming is a roughly 10,000 year old invention.  It has altered the planet more radically than any previous human invention, and arguably any field of endeavor since.  Being responsible for the consolidation of human beings into larger and larger communities, one could easily make the argument of causality between early man defending stands of einkorn grain in prehistoric times, thereby ending their days as hunter-gatherers, to the fouling of our land, air and water caused by all of the pollution attendant upon the Industrial Revolution, not to mention truly horrifying things like war, crime, and reality television.

We did not stop at merely establishing local borders around our favorite wildly available crops, of course.   We began cultivating them, and even if some contemporary religious fanatics have a hard time accepting the reality of the Theory of Evolution… early man knew full well how natural selection works – and took full advantage, teasing crops along through selective breeding generation after generation.

Numerous plants we take for granted in our gardens only exist because of anthropogenic botanical evolution, in fact.  One of the most common crops in American culture – both for large-scale monoculture industrial farming, and for home gardens – is corn (maize, to most of the world).   10,000 years ago, it did not exist.  But numerous farmers in Central America and Southern Mexico noticed that certain tall grasses had useful succulent seed-kernels, and after selecting those with the most numerous and tightly bunched, generation after generation, came up with grasses that featured “cobs” (stumpy at first, but once they’d gotten to this point, the next phase of their agricultural engineering was obvious – bigger cobs, with sweeter kernels).

Early agricultural engineering has itself evolved, to the point where we are no longer satisfied with selectively breeding plants with desirable genetic traits – no, we are going straight to the source, and altering the DNA directly.  In addition, we are refining our treatment of not just the plants, but the soil, water and air surrounding our crops, in attempts to limit the natural effects of nutrient depletion, drought (or flood), competing plant-life, and herbivorous animals (both vertebrate and invertebrate).

Michael Crighton’s best-selling “Jurassic Park” featured an experiment in genetic engineering which lay towards the ridiculous end of the “suspension of disbelief” continuum, and yet… there are lessons in his fictionalized account of biological engineering run amok.  Ian Malcom, Crighton’s cantankerous fictional skeptic, coins a term for genetic engineers (and others who share their optimistic outlook for their form of technology):  “Thintelligence” – loosely defined, it is the ability to figure out how to do something, especially something very clever while lacking the ability toknow whether or not it ought to be done.

For the time being, we will ignore the question of genetically modified crops – there is certainly plenty of material for discussion there, including but not limited to potential health hazards, declining nutritional value of the food items in question, and the ridiculous notion of patented DNA sequences carried over into patent violations caused by fertilization of other people’s crops (basically, neighboring farmers can be sued because pollen from a field with GMO crops blew in, without the 2nd farmer’s approval… causing his crops to have “unauthorized” DNA sequences).

Instead, we wish to highlight the folly – and, in fact, the lack of engineering ethics – in the objectives of the vast majority of forms of engineered agricultural solutions.

The most thoroughly documented (because it was the first to come to the attention of environmental scientists, who were much more interested in studying the effects of these inventions than were the engineers who made them) are the chemical herbicides and pesticides which have been de rigueur in the agricultural industry (and all too often in home gardens) for over a century now.

Some, of course, have long been illegal – the herbicide known as Agent Orange was manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical for the express purpose of being used as an herbicidal defoliant with military applications, and its widespread use in the Vietnam War led directly to numerous chemical burns and long-term health problems including almost epidemic cases of cancer among veterans of that war.  Additionally, of course, it proved ineffectual both as a tactic (Viet Cong food supplies were only slightly diminished, owing to the dispersant character of rice farming, where affected waters were simply replaced with newly irrigated fields) and also as a practical engineering solution – the concept of clearing away massive swaths of jungle to make guerilla warfare difficult ignored the reality that not every plant defoliates precisely the same way – they managed to change the level of biodiversity in the jungle, but they did not kill it.

Likewise, the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a 19th century chemical invention the use of which as an anti-mosquito pesticide was developed by Swiss chemist  Paul Hermann Müller in 1939, had numerous unhealthful side-effects; it was largely responsible for the near extinction in the 20th century of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon, in addition to causing numerous health complaints in humans.  In 1962, Rachel Carson penned Silent Spring,  the seminal environmental work which eventually lead to a ban on DDT in the United States, and was the forerunner to the eventual 2004 Stockholm Convention, which outlawed several persistent organic pollutants. The Convention has been ratified by more than 170 countries and is endorsed by most environmental groups.
The countries in green have agreed to ban persistent poisons in farming;
the ones not in green have not.  Notice the biggest one?

Sadly, the United States, Israel, Malaysia, Italy and Iraq (all significant agricultural producers) are not signatories – while DDT is banned in the United States, and our overall use of agricultural pesticides has dropped slightly in the last decade, the U.S. still used (as of 2007, the latest figures we could find) 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides, comprising 22% of the world’s total.  There are over 20,000 pesticide products marketed in the United States.

And yet… the health effects of a disturbingly large percentage of these products are largely unstudied, especially in longitudinal studies which are, after all, the only way to gather data about the accumulation of these chemicals in our bodies, and the possible long-term conditions caused thereby.  Engineering methods (designed to get “useful” products to market as quickly as possible) disguise themselves as scientific investigations, where a short-term study finds no problems, and Monsanto and Dow get to fire up the production lines.  Engineering ethics, as described by Admiral Rickover, are not a concern – after all, it’s science, right?

Additionally, the effectiveness of these products is debatable.  Both healthfulness and effectiveness are serious questions – most users of pesticides lightly brush aside questions of runoff, yet it is not only inevitable, it is as obvious as the idea that the sun is more visible on a clear day than a cloudy one.  Chemicals on a plant wash off in the rain, or via most forms of irrigation.  They go either into the soil, and then seep into our groundwater, or they drain into creeks and rivers, lakes and oceans.  There is no “away” to which these substances can go – and the fact that those who apply them have to wear protective masks should be our first clue that maybe we should not want them to be used at all.

The World Health Organization and the UN Environment Programme estimate the number of agricultural workers who suffer health effects from pesticide poisoning each year at 3 million.  18,000 agricultural workers die each year from the “marvel” of agriculturally engineered pesticides.

The worst part?  In the long term, these chemical concoctions do not work as well as approaches designed to work withnatural forces instead of against them.  The use of organic pest control solutions is a wide-ranging field, including application of capsaicin-laced concoctions designed to deter rodents and other mammalian foragers, application of symbiotic nematodes and bacteria which work with the plants to deter insects and diseases, companion planting to deter both competing plants (usually erroneously described as “weeds”) and foraging insects, the use of beneficial insects such as ladybugs, the inclusion of bat-houses in agricultural architecture… the list of natural solutions is lengthy… and more importantly, is both healthy and effective.
One of the chief aims of biological pest control, in fact, is the maintenance – and active encouragement – of biodiversity.  Obviously, this approach will not work for large-scale monocropping, which is one of the most important reasons for large-scale monocropping to disappear from the planet.

Biodiversity is important because it drastically reduces predation without opening new ecological niches for either resistant varieties of the existing pest (that is, natural selection causing only those varmints, bugs, pests, etc. who are immune or less-affected by the poison to be the only ones capable of breeding the next generation, who will then be even less likely to be affected, eventually rendering the poison ineffective), or opening up the opportunity for invasive species who more than likely are not targeted by nor affected by the existing poison treatment.

Basically, life finds a way – if your plan is to keep anything from eating your crops at all, well, newsflash, you keep one thing from eating them, something else will take its place.

In a biodiverse agricultural system, however, the goal is not elimination of predation, the goal is to place predation in a more natural, and therefore tolerable, context.  Sure, it requires more work (planting trap crops, for example, like rows of sunflowers or amaranth around your rows of corn, and planting fields of clover between your melons and cucumbers), and harvesting is done more by hand than by machine, but the yields per acre over the long term are much higher.  Why?  Because specific acreage is orders of magnitude less likely to “play out”.

Monocropping systems have certainly increased yield per acre for a specific growing season or year, but over the course of five, ten, twenty, or fifty years, the acres in question become wastelands of infertile ground.  An organic permaculture farm where crop plants are treated with respect as a significant part of a wider ecosystem will continue producing indefinitely.

Which is the difference between intelligence and thintelligence.  The end game is what matters, and if we ever want to get there, we need to stop pretending that new inventions are “discoveries” – they aren’t science, they are engineering.  Impressive, maybe, but only useful if they first do no harm.

Here’s hoping more agriculturalists hop on board the biodiversity train and abandon the chemical-engineering road to perdition.

Happy farming!



5/20/15

A Walk in the Woods

“One day when the sun had come back over the Forest, bringing with it the scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellow's fault, but it didn't matter very much.”
Christopher Robin in A. A. Milne's Winnie-The-Pooh

One of the things we most enjoy about permaculture gardening is the feeling we get when we sit comfortably on our back porch under a giant arbor of wild grapes.  It is many things – peaceful, quiet, private, cool… a perfect harbor safe from the tossing storms of everyday life.  We try as much as possible to make the rest of our garden exhibit many of these same qualities, and to a certain degree, we pride ourselves on being fairly successful.

Nothing, however, comes as close to being in nature as you can get from actually being in nature.  And it turns out, the health benefits of doing so are not merely limited to the peace-of-mind one can find from thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and ecological oneness-with-it-all.  Being in nature is quantifiably healthier than being in an office cubicle.

News stories since the 1970s have made note of a variety of health complaints related to being inside an office building – Sick Building Syndrome made its way into the vernacular after a 1984 World Health Organization reported that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide were subject to complaints related to poor indoor air quality, volatile organic compounds (VOC), mold, exhaust from office machinery, chemical exposure, design flaws (including some systemically unavoidable contamination issues) with HVAC systems, psychological problems related to changes in brainwave signatures due to fluorescent lighting, and who knows what all else.

Numerous solutions to these problems have been propounded over the years, and we welcome many of them as obvious and proper (non-VOC paint, for example, has become the norm rather than the exception), but one of the most telling is the suggestion to include toxin-absorbing plants in office spaces.  Some of the more common are sansevieria (also known as “Devil’s Tongue”) and various palms, canes and bamboo species, all of which are routinely provided by interiorscaping companies, which since the 1980s have raked in money hand-over-fist by making office spaces greener not just in terms of pollutants, but quite literally greener.

Improving the buildings in which we live and work, though, is only scratching the surface of improvements we can make in our everyday lives which will help us stem the tide of self-inflicted maladies.

We should listen to the evidence screaming so loudly at us from the giant planters tucked into every corner of every lobby in every building in the industrialized world – plants make things better.  Not just because they are prettier than concrete, but because theymake things physically better.

There is a concept in Japan and Korea which, when Americans hear about it (if they ever hear about it at all), our desensitized Western ears translate as “just so much mystical hokum” – maybe relaxing in the same way as a hot bath or massage, but not really important.  And, as is so often the case, our jaded Western sensibilities are pretty much completely wrong.

Forest bathing, called Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) in Japanese and Sanlimyok (산림욕) in Korean, is a brief stroll through the woods.  The original motivation behind the formalizing of this ritual was simple relaxation and stress relief – in fact, in 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan proposed making forest bathing trips a part of everyday Japanese life.  Since that time, Japan has accredited 44 Shinrin-Yoku forests, and numerous studies have been done showing that subjects who regularly walk these paths have clinically significant reductions in stress, anger, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

There is more to the story, though, than the simple fact that those who walk through the forest are enjoying themselves.  Exposure to the natural world does have some psychosomatic benefits, as changes to the nervous system are known to result from numerous other relaxation techniques.  However, in addition to the healthful meditative qualities of Shinrin-yoku, there are measurable biochemical changes, as well. 

When adiponectin levels are low, humans are susceptible to obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorder…. Precisely those conditions, in fact, which have been afflicting Americans in alarming numbers since the 1970s… and as it turns out, the reason for improved adiponectin levels in forest bathers is that the woods themselves are helping out.  Practicing breathing in the presence of a multitude of trees means breathing in everything that the trees are emitting.  We tend to think of trees as static entities, not really doing much… but they are actually quite active.  And one of the things they are doing is emitting volatile substances known as phytoncides (wood essential oils) which are antimicrobial compounds the trees use to protect themselves from bacteria and mold.

Some of these compounds are particularly beneficial to humans, such as the aforementioned adiponectin, or the oh-so-useful α-Pinene, which at low exposure levels such as might be found in a forest, is a bronchodilator, with high bioavailability when taken through the lungs.  It is also anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and is even an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, meaning it aids in memory.  And as much as you might like the pothos ivy on the corner of your desk… it is not as good at putting out beneficial chemicals as, say, a stand of oak or pine trees.


Russian biochemist Dr. Boris Tokin coined the word “phytoncide” in 1928 while studying the compounds emitted by plants as a defense against rotting or being eaten by various insects or other animals.  Trees are the most powerful emitters, as might be expected given that they are the largest category of phytoncidal plants, but spices, onions, and garlic all use many of the same compounds as defense mechanisms.

The kings of emissions, though, are the tea tree, oaks, cedar, locust, and pine.  Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese and Japanese medicine utilize these naturally occurring pharmaceutical factories aka tree oils, but the Japanese and Koreans have gone one better, and suggested that people go out into nature and take advantage at the source.  The fact that it makes for a very nice exercise in mindful meditation is just one more benefit.

So, the next time someone calls you a tree-hugger, remember.  Hugging trees is not just a metaphor for having a proper respect for nature and our place in it, it is also a prescription for happiness.

Happy farming!

4/28/15

Is Enough Enough, or Is It Too Much?

“Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are highly cultivated in their minds and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.”
--Aristotle, in “Politics”

There is a grand irony in using a quote from Aristotle to begin this particular diatribe, since there is an almost limitless supply of other ancient Greeks from whom to pluck the fruits of philosophy regarding happiness and the (relative) unimportance of material wealth.  Aristotle, you see, was the ultimate pragmatist.  In contrast to Diogenes, perhaps the perfect exemplar of self-satisfaction, Aristotle was (in large measure) all about “how can we Greeks get more (at the expense of everyone else)” – and yet, he managed, in this one sentence in his “Politics” which was a precursor to Machiavelli’s “Prince” as a foundation stone for Gordon Gecko’s “greed” speech, to contradict all the cynical materialism found in the rest of his works.

There is a long standing tradition among humans to think that progress can be measured by the acquisition of more stuff.  This dates to the Olduvai Gorge in modern Tanzania, when (millions of years ago) our ancestors were concerned mostly with defending those territorial sweet-spots where there were sufficient supplies of food and materials for crude weapons with which to defend oneself and one’s tribe from incursions by saber-toothed tigers, other hominids, and the occasional pissed-off rhinoceros.

That instinct, in that particular iteration of our species, was perfectly understandable.  However, we now have only one natural predator – ourselves.  And “more stuff” isn’t a deterrent to other humans, it is an invitation.  You want to steal our DVD player?  Well, we don’t want you to do so, but we’re not particularly interested in defending it with our lives, either.  We can always entertain ourselves with shadow puppets, but we cannot replace even one second of happiness by risking our lives and increasing our fear, paranoia, and vigilance, all in defense of “stuff”.

As it turns out, while we at Big Myrtle’s place are often at odds with our fellow Americans over the issue of “exactly how much stuff is enough,” we are somewhat more in tune with the standards most of the rest of the world are attempting to follow.  Numerous international organizations make rankings of “happiest” or “most livable” or “most satisfied” cities/countries/etc. and, while the U.S. is not absent from the top half of most of these lists… it is hardly ever in the top quartile.

There is a reason for that.  In most American versions of “best place to live” economic opportunity and chances for advancement/wealth rank high in our lists of desirable characteristics of a community in which to live.  Most other countries and cultures, however, do not place nearly so much emphasis on wealth creation. 

For example, since 2006 the lifestyle magazine Monacle has published an annual list called “The Most Livable Cities Index” featuring 25 top locations for quality of life, using criteria such as safety/crime, international quality of architecture, public transportation, ethnic/religious/cultural tolerance, environmental health and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, proactive policy development, and medical care.  Portland, Oregon is the only U.S. city to consistently make this list, cropping up around number 23 on an annual basis.
Portland, Oregon... the one U.S. city that doesn't make
the rest of the world queasy. 

For the sake of fairness, the Mercer “Quality of Living Survey” is produced by an American (with global contracts) human resources and financial services consulting firm, which compares 221 cities based on 39 criteria.  The baseline “100” score is New York City (because, hey, they are an American firm, and there is no more American city).  All other cities are assigned scores as they compare to New York.  The Top 10 in the Mercer Index for 2014?

  1. Vienna, Austria
  2. Zürich, Switzerland
  3. Auckland, New Zealand
  4. Munich, Germany
  5. Vancouver, Canada
  6. Düsseldorf, Germany
  7. Frankfort, Germany
  8. Geneva, Switzerland
  9. Copenhagen, Denmark
  10. Bern, Switzerland


There are a number of things that these “most livable” cities have that are missing from practically every American city.  Universal health care is one obvious example – opponents of “Obamacare” all screamed about how awful socialized medicine is, but… the fact is, hardly anyone in the world envies the American health care system.  In the developing world, maybe, but… in the industrialized West?  Nothing but crickets.  Hardly anyone in Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, etc. ad nauseum, would prefer American health care to what they have now.  As far as they are concerned, Obamacare is a pathetic attempt on the part of the Americans to move towards a “real” (i.e. single-payer) health care system.

Among the myriad other differences, though (and stepping aside from the politically charged issue of health care which Americans are seemingly incapable of discussing as a purely mathematical and economic issue, resorting instead to the paranoid fundamentalism of American-style-“let’s all get screwed by the rich”-capitalism), is the concept of “satisfaction” as an economic principle.

Essentially, there is very little in the American ethos which tells us as part of our foundational mythology when “enough is enough” – in fact, the very phrase is a cry to revolution, instead of a simple statement that we need to step back from the feeding trough.  For an American, “enough is enough” means the tyrants have finally gone too far, and by God we’re going to holy war over the installation of that stop sign/the issuance of a school bond/the ability of our lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered-nonidentifying neighbors to love one another/the lack of an alien-defense-system-alarm…  “Enough is enough” is usually expressed in American English as an epithet.

In contrast, the Swedish “lagom” is essentially a statement that “that’ll do” – It’s not merely “good enough” it’s “any more would be too much; yes, I see why you want that 3rd piece of cake/next drink/extra million dollars, but isn’t that bad for your health?”

And they are right.  It IS bad for your health.  American obesity rates are climbing through the roof compared to every country on Earth; longevity comparisons, long buoyed by comparative wealth and access to technology, are actually shrinking for Americans, even as health and longevity in other countries (especially in Europe) continues to increase apace.  Clearly, there is no connection between “wealth” and “happiness” – though, as we shall see, there is a connection between enough and happiness.

The top 25 countries on the 2013 World Happiness Report published by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network are as follows:

Country
Happiness Rank
Denmark
1
Norway
2
Switzerland
3
Netherlands
4
Sweden
5
Canada
6
Finland
7
Austria
8
Iceland
9
Australia
10
Israel
11
Costa Rica
12
New Zealand
13
United Arab Emirates
14
Panama
15
Mexico
16
United States
17
Ireland
18
Luxembourg
19
Venezuela
20
Belgium
21
United Kingdom
22
Oman
23
Brazil
24
France
25


There is an “Economic Freedom” index put out by several institutions from the Austrian school of economics which more or less parallels the American Conservative movement as funded by the Koch brothers and exemplified by Senator Rand Paul – Not all of the countries in the Top 25 for happiness are listed in their top 50 rankings (Costa Rica, the UAE, Venezuela, Belgium and Oman apparently not being worthy of notice), but a comparison of the lists is interesting.  For the top 10 happiest countries, the average ranking by libertarian economists is 20.1; not a one-to-one relationship… but not inconsequential, either.

However… none of the top three “free” economies make the top 50 in the list of “happiest” either.  Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand are 1,2, and 3 for the free market purists of the world, and they provide less satisfaction than the vast majority of their international contemporaries.

There is a bias in many circles (including, if we are honest, Big Myrtle’s place, where we found this next data point a little surprising and not a little disappointing) to educational performance being linked to happiness – the data says it just ain’t so.  Based on UN “Student Performance Ranking” data, for the top 10 “Happy” countries, the average ranking in student performance is 14.  Closer as a ratio than “economic freedom” but still not exactly 1-to-1, and, more to the point, only Finland among the top 3 educational countries made the top 10 in happiness.  South Korea and China (numbers 1 and 3 respectively) do not make the top 50.  Smart don’t mean happy. 

It is worth noting, though, that for the top 25 Happy countries, while some are not listed on the Student Performance measures (Costa Rica, UAE, Venezuela, Belgium and Oman… what up, Belgium?  Too good for surveys?) those who are listed average 22nd for educational performance.  It is obviously a better measure than that used for freedom to control capital, even if it is not precise.  Our faith in this measure is shaken, but not discarded – it is hard for us to believe that there is any happiness greater than that found in reading a good George Eliot or Jane Austen novel, save perhaps in watching a Pedro Almodovar movie, something the typical American (… or Singaporean, or Hong Kong resident, or Koch brother, etc. etc.) does not fully appreciate. 

For the overall economic numbers, rather than taking GDP as a total, or even per-capita GDP, Myrtle chooses to use the UN’s “Financial Development Index” which is more or less a measure of the ability to accumulate financial reserves (not just ownership of stocks/real estate/intellectual property/doo-dads and doohickeys, but ability to convert them to cash if need be).  For the UN’s top 10 “most financially developed” nations, numbers 1,4 and 7 (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan) fail to rank in the top 25 “happy” countries.  Which is interesting, when you think about what it means… basically, apart from a few outlier Asian nations that have whored themselves out to currency exchange markets for the glorification of national ego, the happiest countries are those in which it is easiest to get rid of your crap.  Those places where it is easiest to sell the stuff you don’t really need?  In general, those are the places where overall satisfaction is the highest.

This explains a phenomenon we have noticed on countless weekend excursions looking for castoff furniture, children’s clothing, etc.  The ubiquitous American tradition of the “garage sale” represents hope for the future of our culture, but it also illuminates our current folly.

All too often dumbed-down at present, it is nevertheless true that garage sales are the quintessence of a recycle/reuse/repurpose economy – stuff we don’t want, we sell at pennies on the dollar to anyone and everyone who might want it.  And, if you pay attention at these affairs, you realize that there are two classes of garage sale patrons – the happy ones, who may haggle for a dollar or two, but overall, are just happy to meet folk and oh-by-the-way every once in a while run across some item they may actually want… and then the folk (usually on the seller’s side) who are offended by the idea that they are not getting every last dollar out of a given transaction.  Rich people (let’s face it) are usually just plain assholes at garage sales, especially at their own.  We would love to be more polite, but there simply isn’t any other way to express it.

If your definition of happiness and satisfaction includes money, it is our sincere hope that you would stop and ask yourself… “Yes, but can I get by without this thing for which I am lusting?”  For those who truly need more money, there is no question that the answer will be an honest “no”… but for far too many, particularly in this country, that “no” is exceptionally dishonest.  C’mon… we know you can do better.  You can do better with less.

Happy farming!

4/17/15

Feed the World... One Porch, Balcony or Rooftop at a Time

The so-called “Green Revolution” of the latter half of the 20th century, in which yield-per-acre in industrial agriculture increased by orders of magnitude due to the use of improved technology and intensive fertilization, coupled with the use of herbicides to reduce weed competition and pesticides (including genetic modifications in crops to allow them to produce their own pesticides) to reduce insect depredation, all in the name of improving crop yields in order to “feed a starving world”… it’s all based on a lie.

There is a fundamental problem with the idea that we can increase food production to match population growth,
Most of the world's extreme food security issues are in Africa....
and it is an obvious problem, one which a simple look at two graphs can tell you is at the core of a whole host of global ills – first, a chart of who experiences the most food stress, and next a chart of who imports the most food.


Yes, the amount of food being produced is now greater than it ever has been before, that much is true.  But even before you begin to calculate the nearly incalculable damage that these methods have done (and are continuing to do) to our environment, we really ought to face the fundamental fact that all that extra food is going directly to wealthy people and making them fat.  Virtually none of that extra production is feeding the people who are actually dealing with food security issues.
Virtually none of the world's chief food importers overlap
with food security issues


Between 1961 and 1999, food exports globally increased by over 400%; much of that increase has come in the form of diets becoming westernized in most of Asia – the fastest growing businesses in the Pacific Rim are franchised fast food restaurants like Domino’s and McDonald’s, which to their credit do a fairly good job of localizing their menus in their new locations, but… an island nation like Indonesia is not exactly a great place to grow wheat.  As a consequence, all that flour for all those hamburger buns and pizza crusts comes from somewhere else.

The same dynamic is playing out in pretty much every country on earth where trends toward modernization and urbanization are drawing people out of the countryside and into cities that are increasingly homogenous in form and function.

There is a temptation to say, well, it’s working in Asia, and if you look at the map of underfed persons, Africa seems to be the only real problem child, so let’s just export Big Macs to Ethiopia and presto!  Problem solved!

Apart from the fact that Ethiopian Big Macs would need to be halāl (Arabic “حلال‎ “ or English “permissible”), and producing that much halāl meat is not really possible using modern factory-farming methods (animal cruelty is harām – “forbidden” – in Islam, so if the cow came from a slaughterhouse, a Muslim cannot eat it), there is also the very real problem that cattle production on the kind of scale necessary to let everyone in the world eat beef with the same wanton, hedonistic abandon as Americans do would require the use of more freshwater than the world has available.  Raising more cattle in Ethiopia than is done at present would leave no fresh water for other purposes.  It simply isn’t an option.

Even as an export… the only places in the world with sufficient freshwater for an increase in cattle production are not amenable to the industry – Lake Baikal in Siberia has 20% of the world’s freshwater.  It is also so remote and cold that unless you are either Siberian or Mongolian (or a geography geek), you’ve undoubtedly never heard of it.

The current model of feeding the world, in short, is haphazard and doesn’t work.  Numerous organizations recognize this problem and are leading efforts to reconceptualize how we approach issues of food security.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has over the years evolved a framework for discussing food security, and their work has been adapted by many other organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and numerous others.

In 2009, the World Summit on Food Security stated that the “four pillars of food security are availability, access, utilization, and stability.”  Which brings us back to our initial premise – the “Green Revolution” methodology of throwing technology at the problem of food security is actually counterproductive, and tends over time to limit the availability, access, utilization and stability of food, particularly in the most food-stressed parts of the world.  To take each pillar in turn:

Availability – Numerous complications make food unavailable under the current paradigm, most notably that technological advances tend not to make production cheaper, but rather only to make production more profitable.  That is, advances in production techniques (better tractors, more powerful fertilizers, etc.) do, in fact, lead to higher yields, but they also require greater capital outlays, and (more to the point) incentivize producing food crops which will lead to a greater return on investment (ROI), not necessarily the same thing as producing crops which will be available for low cost to those who do not have enough to eat.  Poor farmers can’t produce without technology, and rich farmers don’t produce for poor consumers.

Access – Much as with availability, the economics of increasing production also limit access.  A prime example of this problem relates to rice production – the Asian economy has exploded over the past fifty years, with most of the world’s fastest growing local economies over that time period being in the region.  And rice is still, today, the most important foodstuff in every Asian city.  But because the economy has boomed for most, the price of rice has gone up for all.  And so, this simple food most Americans take for granted – and think of as cheap – has become increasingly difficult for poor families to put on their tables at dinnertime.  They have been priced out of the market – even when rice production is good (and that is not always a given thanks to pollution and global warming, both of which have wreaked havoc on rice crops in recent years), increasingly large percentages of the population simply have no access to this food staple.

Utilization –.Farmers down through history have almost never been concerned with whether or not the food they are producing is actually good for a human being to eat, and as a consequence, the marketplace is flooded with alleged food, things no one ought to ever put in their mouths, and including these poisonous calories right alongside nutritious items, and we pretend that this calculus is somehow healthy.  
Any urban space can replace a farm...
if enough of them are used


Increasingly all that improved agricultural production and all those food exports come in the form of high fructose corn syrup – that ridiculously sweet bottle of Coca-Cola started its life as somebody’s corn field.  Maize may have been one of the “three sisters” that allowed the aboriginal Amerindians to thrive, but it has turned into an addictive toxin.  It requires massive chemical intervention (in the form of fertilizer and pesticide) to grow, which poisons our waterways to the point of choking all the oxygen out of large parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and does nothing to feed malnourished children in the Sudan.  It sure has made a lot of folk exceptionally fat everywhere from Miami Beach to Seattle, Washington, though.

So, what’s the answer?  Advocates of the Green Revolution (notably Texas A&M’s own Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug) tend to discount advocates of organic farming:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things"
The problem is, in advocating intensive monoculture factory farming, Borlaug and others threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Sustainable agriculture on the scale previously practiced could not, it is true, keep pace with population growth and urbanization.  But, long term, neither can a chemically oriented system of factory farming dependent upon ever increasing yields.  Eventually, soil which requires continual fertilizing, and tilling, and irrigation becomes played out.  Depending on increasing yields will eventually cause the whole system to break down catastrophically.

What is needed is a shift not just in production methods, but in production philosophy.

Which brings us to the fourth pillar…

Stability – Change is the only constant.  One of the strengths of a global economy, of course, is the idea that when there is a shortage in one region, it may be supplemented by imports from another region.  In practice, however, this kind of balancing of temporary shortages is not what the global food economy tends to implement.  Instead, food exports are planned in advance and tend to take advantage of the most profitable redistributions of agricultural goods, not the most needed redistributions.  That is, wheat or corn farmers will export their grain to the country that pays the most, not the one that is the hungriest.  As such, the increasing weather variability brought on by anthropogenic climate change will hit the poorest people in the world harder than it will hit anyone else – slight changes to crop conditions will lead to increasing starvation wherever people are depending on vulnerable supply chains.

The answer, then, is to decrease the vulnerability of supply chains.  And there are two ways to strengthen a chain:  1) increase the strength of the material being used to make the links – this is the “Green Revolution” approach, increasing yield-per-acre on the lands being used for agriculture; or 2) shorten the chain – this is the approach we recommend.
Potato sacks on an apartment balcony


“Not everyone can grow their own food,” goes the argument from the Green Revolutionists.  Poppycock, we say.  It is true that not everyone can put together a backyard microfarm, owing in great measure to the fact that not everyone has a backyard.  However, we have written before about the apartment porch hanging-potato-sack gardens of Nairobi, and spoken at great length about the guerilla gardeners throughout the world who will grow a stand of amaranth or a row of squash in any vacant lot, alleyway, or unused public right-of-way.

The shortest farm-to-table food supply chain is the one that requires nothing more than opening your back door and picking your salad.

Rather than trying to expand industrial farming techniques to all corners of the Earth in an attempt to turn every developing country into Kansas (which, by the way, is going to increasingly be unfarmable in coming decades, thanks to the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, so Kansas will itself be “food poor” under the current model before too terribly long), we ought to be figuring out the best possible way to turn every porch, kitchen window, alleyway, rooftop and vacant lot in the world into a community garden.  

As for the argument that we ought to focus on crop yields… well, fine.  It is easier, though, to fertilize a container garden than it is to fertilize a 100 acre farm.  And there’s no runoff to worry about. 
Potato sacks on a patio wall
 

Ultimately, food security is only one small part of an overall feeling of security which impoverished persons will never find satisfactorily addressed by anything other than economic self-sufficiency.  Relying on an international economy which not only does not put their faces or names to the issues at hand, but does not care one way or the other, is not an approach we ought to ask the people of Botswana, or Turkmenistan, or East Saint Louis, to just trust us on.

There is a strong impulse to call access to food, shelter, clothing, employment and health care and the like a “right” – we don’t quite go that far, but neither do we dismiss such arguments out of hand.  Regardless of how such fundamental human needs are categorized, the simple truth is that no one can be considered “free” who is, through no fault of their own, unable to meet those needs.  And the fastest route, the surest means, of personal security is having the means of meeting those needs for oneself and one’s family in one’s own control.

Subsistence agriculture has, for as long as the field of economics has existed, been an epithet, the marker of uncivilized humans.  It is time for that to change.  Not only should we be teaching people suffering from extreme food security crises how to be the best subsistence farmers they can be… we in the developed world ought to be doing the same thing.  The less we rely on that incredibly long (and incredibly vulnerable) international food chain, the more truly free we shall become.

Something to think about?  We hope so.

Happy farming!