Sunday, July 27, 2014

Redefining productivity

We are truly productive if there is more forest next year than today, if there is more fish and if the soil is more fertile by the years instead of exhausted and eroded. 

It is a bit puzzling why most agronomists and institutions to such large extent focus on yield of crops per hectare as the main measure of agriculture productivity, when in reality that is not a driving force for farmers who look more into productivity per labor unit, or if they are modern agri-business operations, productivity of capital invested. If we compare farms globally the farms with the highest yield per hectare are rarely the most competitive. European farmers have mostly much higher yields per hectare of wheat than their Argentinean, American or Australian colleagues, still they can’t compete and are dependent on support programs of the European Union, because their general cost level is higher. Similarly in the dairy sector, the world market is dominated by a country with low milk yield per cow. The dairy industry in New Zealand is still primarily built on grazing cows and the production per cow is low in an international perspective. The average production per cow in Israel was 12,500 kg in 2007, while it was less than 4,000 kg in New Zealand , but New Zealanders produce milk a lot cheaper than Israelis.

If we compare efficiency in various systems, e.g. in farming or food processing, it will in most cases show that the bigger and more technological advanced system is more competitive. But are they more efficient and productive? Often, small farms have higher yield per hectare than large farms, still large farms gradually squeeze smaller farms out of the market because of market access, possibilities for rational specialization, economies of scale, better access to credits or simply governmental policy distortions . Larger crop farms perform better financially, on average, than smaller farms. The larger farms don’t have higher revenue or yields per area unit, but they have lower costs. As expressed by the report Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming from USDA: “larger farms appear to be able to realize more production per unit of labor and capital. These financial advantages have persisted over time, which suggests that shifts of production to larger crop farms will likely continue in the future.” Their yield per hectare is mostly the same as on smaller farms but the research shows that farms with more than 2,000 acres spend 2.7 hours of work per acre of corn and have cost for equipment of $432, while a farmer with 100-249 acres will spend more than four times as much labor and double the amount for equipment per acre. In that limited sense the larger farms are more “efficient” or “productive”.

There are many different ways to look at farm productivity and, depending on what we measure and how we measure, we may draw different conclusions. In principle, it is the factor of which there is a shortage that will, and should, determine which factor is the most important. Farms in high-income countries are shaped by high input of energy and low input of human labor (energy). In high-income countries, there is no shortage of labor but it has been costly and therefore productivity per work-hour has been the strongest driver of change. Close to cities, or in very densely populated areas, land is scarce and farms are shaped differently by high land prices. At a certain land price, grain farming is no longer possible and farming will orient itself to higher value crops, or will become playground for the rich, golf courses or paddocks for race horses.

Economists today talk about “total factor productivity” a rather opaque measure which has a scientific air. It does sound like a good idea to combine all the factors of production in one measure. But as this is measured in monetary terms it will just value things by their market value. So if labor is 200 times more expensive in one country than in another you have to produce 200 times more per hour for the same productivity. And if water is for free, the water productivity will not be reflected at all. In this way, productivity comes to mean more or less the same as profitability and is like a circular reasoning and of little value in a big picture discussion, even if it reflects quite well what guides a modern commercial farmer.

We need to redefine productivity. But it is not enough the redefine productivity in our minds, we also need to redesign the economic system which has created this distorted view of what is productive and what is not.  Today, productivity is measured by how many trees one person can cut down with her chainsaw or how much fish a fisherman can scoop up from the sea. But as nature resources dwindle, the real productivity is how these resources re-generate. We are productive if there is more forest next year than today, if there is more fish and if the soil is more fertile by the years instead of exhausted and eroded. 

(extract from Global Eating Disorder, forthcoming)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Listening to the genius of Sunnansjö Gård

A semi personal update from Gunnar.


Tomorrow I will move to Sunnansjö Gård, 30 km west of Uppsala. I bought the farm together with Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen and she will follow suit, together with her son. 

It is a nice farmstead at a small lake with a lot of wetlands, and I fear quite a vibrant community of mosquitoes. It has some 40 hectares of forest, most of it more than 100 years old, 10 hectares of farmland, most of it poorly drained, 10 hectares of wetland/swamps and peatbogs and part of the lake. The pictures are from the farm.

We will find out what to do on the farm after  "consulting the genius of the place" as Wendell Berry says. But I am sure there will be some fruit trees planted, and certainly vegetables for ourselves and family. I will continue with my writing and some consultancy.

As I am also in the process of finalizing the book Global Eating Disorder, I will not be very active on this blog for a while.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Screwed economics: how reducing emmissions becomes a cost

The two most disturbing ideological concept of our current time are the notion of "progress", the belief that humanity moves in a linear direction towards an ever "better" world, and the view that the economy (or the market) in some way is an independent system. Taken together those two views are expressed in the faith that economic and technological growth are the main avenues for future human progress, and that this must be based on the imperatives of the competitive market economy - competition and profit-making. This view makes society and nature to subsystems of the economy instead of the other way round. This can be noticed in the current political discourse where the role of public policy mainly is about strengthening the competitiveness of a country in the international markets. 

As an example of the distorted perspective, the current political discussion about climate change is about how we can afford to mitigate it, while the real question should be how we can afford driving those cars that cause the emissions in the first place. To reduce emissions is no more a cost than it is a cost to eat less.  

As cutting emissions will reduce competitiveness and profits (and it will do that) that is not seen as an option. Instead it is by new technologies we will reduce emissions, which indeed will incur costs. But those costs will rapidly be turned into new ways to make money by the private sector. Which is why it is preferred.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The invisible hand at work - gives and takes

At the onset of World War I, Britain imported 60% of its food and roughly 80% of its grain for bread (basically wheat), as a result of its laissez-faire trade policies and the enclosures. Initially, the government thought the market could ensure food supplies, but quite soon it had to step in, even more so when Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare commenced in January 1917. The government increasingly regulated both price and supply of bread, “whatever else was in short supply, the supply of breadstuffs had to be maintained”. It took over importation and in April 1917 it took also control over the mills from the private sector. In 1918 all staple foods were regulated in price and many were rationed. People were encouraged to produce their own food; herds of cattle and sheep were reduced.

The policies worked so well that it is estimated that during the war the average provision of food was 3,500 calories, compared to 3,400 calories the years preceding the war (the quality of food didn’t necessarily improve, for instance fruit and vegetable consumption plummeted).

Even more interesting is that the difference between the diets of rich and poor decreased in war time. This was a result of that the government intervened in the food distribution and access as the market is simply not geared towards equitable distribution. It is inherent, almost a definition, in an unregulated market that the distribution is inequitable as it is based on economic purchasing power and not needs. So this observation is not saying that the market doesn’t work. It does work as a market should, but that doesn’t equal that it produces a result society wants. The invisible hand doesn’t always do the right thing.

(extract from Global Eating Disorder-the cost of cheap food)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Garden Earth in Thai

My book Garden Earth is now translated to Thai and will be  launched at the World Environment Day 2014, sponsored by the Ministry of Natural Resources, during the FAO International Year of Family Farming. The event will be held at Royal Paragon Hall, Siam Discovery Department Store, Bangkok on the 4th of June.

I find it amusing that the book launch will be held in one of Bangkok's many shopping malls. It is like holding an atheist speech in the church. Shopping malls are the churches of the new religion of shopping, consumption and eternal progress (and Bangkok is certainly one of the centers of the cult). My book comes with a very different message.

The publishers present the book in these words: 
Gunnar Rundgren’s analysis of the present ‘state of the Earth’ goes back to the agricultural revolution following the era that you and I lived as hunters and gatherers: the dawn of humanity. Such broad and deep perspective is needed to start drafting the ideas needed for shaping our sustainable future. This is a last minute’s effort but there is no other way than what Gunnar Rundgren tells us quietly: analyzing our own lives.
I am very impressed by the fact that the Ministry of Natural Resources of Thailand has pre-ordered 2000 copies of the book.

The book is published by Suan Nguen Mee Ma Publishers.
For more information about the launch, please visit,

The book is also about the be published in Japan by Doyosha

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The acronyms that bring us our daily bread

"Give us this day our daily bread"  says the (Christian) the Lord's prayer. But these days we seem to be more at the mercy of the RDCs to get our daily bread.

There is an impressive number of acronyms each representing small itemized tasks in the flow of goods from producers to consumers in the food chain. Almost all supplies to British supermarkets go through the RDCs (Regional Distribution Centers). 3PL (Third-party logistic) specialists deal with the shipping and there are just a few companies dominating this market. Each time you buy something an automatic order goes to the RDC to replace the purchased item. In many cases the RDC are further linked to the suppliers so that also they know that I have bought my liter of organic milk. This is ensured by CPFR (Collaborative Planning, Forecasting and Replenishment).

In January 2005, Wal-Mart required its top 100 suppliers to apply RFID (Radio-frequency identification) labels with unique EPCs (Electronic Product Codes) to all shipments. In the future, RFID chips embedded in the packaging will allow supermarket to trace food all the way to your home, when finally we will get those intelligent refrigerators they have been talking about – those that will make your shopping list, or why not even make the order to the shop which can let 3PL specialists deliver it to your doorstep. And the QR (Quick Response) codes – those are the funny squares which look like labyrinths—will give the consumer information to read in the smartphone or in the fridge display.

Perhaps the RFID, your fridge and the QR code can cooperate in activating streaming of cows moo-ing when you open the yoghurt package. You might even hear the farmer producing the milk telling you something about the life on the farm, which is how the food system tries to respond to the increasing disconnect between consumers and producers and increasing distrust in the system.

Alternatively you might want to grow food yourself, together with others or perhaps become a member of a Community Supported Agriculture initiative. If you are tired of acronyms.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The beef grown on soy and maize

“Fifty-five square feet of rainforest is destroyed for every quarter pound hamburger that comes from a cleared rainforest cattle farm.” This and similar statements express the hamburger connection, that meat eaters in Europe and United States contributes to deforestation, encouraged by agribusiness. The origin of the notion that the hamburger threatens the rainforest was a rapid expansion of cattle grazing, mainly for exports in several Central American countries, often established on earlier forested land. In Honduras forests shrank with 33,000 hectares while crop land also decreased as a result of more cattle grazing[i]. Overall, the production of food for the local market shrank as a result of this. And those who earned money from the cattle were not the ones that got less food. This process was repeated, but on a much larger scale, in Mato Grosso and adjacent states in Brazil, so there is a certain truth in the hamburger story. But by and large the expansion of livestock in the last decades is more driven by the expansion of soybeans and maize than by cattle grazing. The rearing of cattle meat is rapidly transforming itself from natural grazing to industrial feeding.

Pampas, the vast grasslands of Argentina, has since long been cattle country, and beef exports made Argentina to one of the ten richest countries of the world in the end of the 19th century. But today, the image of cows grazing idly is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Grain-fed, feedlot cattle are becoming an industry norm. Around a third of all Argentine beef now comes from cattle, which have been reared in grain-fed feedlots. In 2005, Argentina’s ranchers and farmers produced more than 3.1 million tonnes of beef, exporting some 745,000 tonnes to the world market. Argentina was the third-largest beef-exporting country (behind Brazil and Australia) in the world, still allowing its own population to eat the second most beef in the world. In March 2006, Argentina’s government – in an effort to lower the rising price of beef to its people – banned beef exports for 180 days. This was followed by a 15% export tax on fresh beef. The government assumed ranchers and farmers would continue to raise cheap beef. But instead, they cut their herds and converted their pastures to soybean production. To get two crops of soybeans per year instead of raising cattle for three years to be sold on a domestic market with artificially depressed prices, is a no-brainer for Argentinean landowners, who now mostly rent out their land to huge agribusiness operations. As a consequence, soybean acres increased in Argentina from 37.6 million acres in 2005 to more than 48 million acres in 2012. “Land that has been converted to soybean production is not going to go back to pasture,” says Carlos Becco, head of Soybean LAS for Syngenta in Argentina. “That land is worth too much now to be put back into permanent pasture”[ii] [iii].

Jack Erisman with grassfed cattle in Pana, Illinois
“It is like being a comedian, it is all about timing”. Jack Erisman explains how he manages the weeds in his organic fields in Pana, Illinois. He is swimming against the tide in the sea of maize. The Corn Belt has as the name suggests been conquered by corn, or maize as it more properly should be called. A century ago, even fifty years ago, farms in the Corn Belt were a lot more diverse. They all had their own cows and hogs, chicken and horses; there was pasture; and there were many people employed on the land. The land was good for maize and farms produced maize for a very low price. When chemical fertilizer became readily available and cheap after WWII they expanded their maize production. The maize could be bought by large specialized livestock operations; which in the end produced cheaper than the diverse farms leading to that one after one of those farms quit livestock production altogether. This led to a shift into monoculture maize, sometimes in rotation with soybean.

Meanwhile, livestock cattle breeding were divided in two stages. In the rolling hills of Montana you see cattle grazing everywhere. But if you look closer you will see that the only adult animals are the mother cows and the odd bull. Geneticists have still not succeeded in totally alienating cows and calves from the environment which is their natural habitat. This may be on their hit list for the future, but for now it doesn’t work well to lock up cows in pens and feed the calves from birth in feedlots, factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as they are called in the United States.. But when old enough, calves are sold as “feeder cattle” to these concentration camps where they are ending their lives in confinements, fed on maize for energy and soybean cake for protein. In this way the American beef is produced in three different sites, the Corn Belt, permanent pastures such as in Montana and finally in feed lots. Some feedlots in the United States now have more than 100,000 cattle[iv]. And this model is now successfully exported to Brazil and Argentina. The system is similar in Europe, but population density, zoning, environmental and animal welfare regulations puts limits on the size of factory farms.

In the fields of Jack there is also maize for sure. There are many varieties, blue, red, yellow, white and popcorn maize, all organically grown. He also grows soybeans, ray, wheat, clover, vetch and many more things in a seven year crop rotation. But his two hundred heads of Murray gray cattle, mixed with Angus are “grass-fed” and rarely eats any maize or soy. That he sells the grass-fed cattle meat for a premium price to a special market says a lot about how modern farming has developed, what is—what should be—normal has become an exclusive niche. Grass is still the best feed for cattle. Not only is it better for them, but it is also better for the eater if the beef or the cheese is “made of grass”. Grass-fed milk, meat or eggs contain better fats, such as higher levels of omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). And lately, some consumers show their appreciation of this by paying Jack a better price for grass fed beef, while other market forces coerce Argentinean farmers into plowing the Pampas and confining their cattle into feedlots.

[i] Diet and Delocalization: Dietary Changes since 1750, Gretel H. Pelto and Pertti J. Pelto, Journal of interdisciplinary History, vol 14 No 2, 1983 pp. 507-528
[ii] Argentina Independent 2013, Argentina’s Beef Industry: A Fall From Grace, Sabrina Hummel, 30 May 2013. accessed 31 December
[iii] Beef 2013, Argentina Provides A Lesson In How to Ruin a Beef Industry, Sep. 26, 2013, Paul Queck,
[iv] Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, Meat Atlas.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

with a little help from my friends

Dear reader,
I am in the finishing stages of my book Global Eating Disorder - the costs of cheap food. In two weeks I will have a new version ready of the manuscript ready for some critical eyes. Hopefully it will be the last version before language editing.

I would like to get your view. At least some of you. 

If you would like to help me to read it and give your general or detailed opinions of the text I would be very grateful. I would also offer you two free copies of the final book and a recognition in the printed book (this is of course assuming that I get some relevant remarks or comments). I am not looking for free editing but rather criticism of facts or my reasoning, redundancy or things which are not well explained in the text or missing links of in chain of thoughts. I will include some more instructions with the manuscript.

A warning before you say yes: It is 168 000 words (some 250 pages) of text. And you will only get four weeks.

Interested?. Drop me a mail and tell me who you are. My email address is found in the bottom of

Results of my little poll

I asked my readers what is wrong with the food system, here is the summary of the 43 responses. Thanks.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What's wrong

Time for a little poll among my readers. What are the main problems with our food system? (many answers possible)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Organic agriculture should be adapted to the location - not to EU rules

The recent proposal by the European Union scraps the possibilities to import organic products produced under rules equivalence to the EU rules. Instead, the new rules will insist on total compliance. That is a stupid approach to organic farming, which essentially should be well adapted to the location of the production, rather than to the conditions in the market where it is sold. Below I post a message from IFOAM about it. Read more: The Commission's legislative proposal & the Annexes.

The revision of the import section of the EU organic regulation proposed by the Commission imposes absolute compliance by developing countries and inhibits European consumers’ choice of organic products.

On 24 March 2014, the EU Commission released a proposal for a complete overhaul of the EU organic regulation. Regarding imports, the proposal foresees to replace the approach of equivalence with requirements of absolute compliance with all details of the EU regulation. ‘Equivalence’, under which organic products currently enter the EU, determines that imported products must comply with equally reliable organic standards, but accepts that the details of the standards may vary to account for different local conditions. Absolute compliance does not consider regional specificities, which invites absurd situations affecting imports into the EU: Under proposed rules requiring full farm conversion, an African organic mango farmer who feeds household waste to a pig on his/ her farm or buys a non-organic young goat for milk production may, under the new rules, no longer be able to export his/ her produce to the EU as this would not comply with the foreseen regulation.

European organic agriculture associations represented by IFOAM EU condemn this initiative. Referring to the revision of the regulation, BÖLW, the umbrella organization of producers, processors and traders of organic food in Germany, cautions: “The EU Commission wants to strengthen organic in Europe, yet it creates new hurdles.”

The concern demonstrated previously by the EU Commission in ensuring European consumers’ access to a wide range of organic products, including non-EU products like coffee or cocoa, seems to have been discarded. The Commission had made significant progress in implementing the recommendations of the International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture, lead by IFOAM, the United Nations Food (FAO) and Agriculture Organization, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The shift towards compliance is a step backwards in the efforts to include developing country producers in value chains. This change goes against the recommendations of the International Task Force and the spirit of the international Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade.

The current proposal exempts but a few highly developed countries from full compliance and is, according to Markus Arbenz, IFOAM Executive Director, “a backward approach, imposing EU rule, even where it makes no sense. And absurd situations will inevitably lead to non-compliance.”
Criticism to the new legislative proposal by the international organic sector and by some Member States went unheeded, and in a surprise move the Commission has now decided to push through the proposal in a more urgent revision to the current organic regulation.

The move from equivalence to compliance will strangle:
  • European consumers’ access to affordable and trustworthy organic products, particularly tropical products;
  • European organic processors’ access to imported organic ingredients;
  • Developing Countries’ ability to grow their organic sector to meet the demand of European consumers.
The compliance approach the Commission is proposing will harm the entire organic sector, from producers to consumers, inside and outside of the EU. Member States are urgently called upon to voice their objections and put a stop to this proposal.

More information about the organic regulation review and the positions of IFOAM EU can be found here. For press inquiries, please contact Joelle Katto-Andrighetto, IFOAM Value Chain Manager:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How capitalism made a "socialist" ideal come true

In the supermarkets we find a large supply of fully prepared meals, including ready meals of all types and take away food for consumption at home. There are also partly prepared meals consisting of several meal components, such as wet and dry sauces. In one week, 45% of Europeans and Americans prepared such meals[i]. The British seem to be world leaders in convenience food. Between 1994 and 2004 the sector grew by 70% and in 2006, the sales were almost as big as the sales in the whole of the rest of Europe[ii]. As younger customers buy more ready-made meals compared to older, the trend is likely to continue[iii]. And it is spreading rapidly to emerging economies where consumption of convenience foods is increasing due to among others an increasing urbanization rate. For example, retail sales of ready meals in India and China grew 26.9% and 11.8% respectively from 2003 to 2008[iv].

The increased industrialization of food, i.e. that we let corporations do a lot more of the job for us, can’t really be explained by that we don’t have time. The time spent in front of the television, in front of the computer, the game console or in the gym are all habits that have expanded enormously parallel to the commercialization of eating. Many people clearly have chosen not to cook. Anya von Bremzen tells us about how her grandmother – a carrier woman in the Soviet Union – says “Why should I bake, when I can be reading a book?” preferring a dinner made from frozen dumplings[v]. Interestingly, parallel to that less time is spent on cooking and real meals, people actually spend more time eating, albeit mostly as a multitask; eating while driving, eating while watching TV, talking on the phone or walking to work. A study shows that Americans spend almost eighty minutes per day on “secondary eating[vi]”.

Food preparation has undergone big changes both in palaces, restaurants and homes. The fast-food trend, eating out of home, the ready-made meals for home consumption and the industrialization of home cooking are strongly related and mutually supportive even if they also compete for our preferences. Interestingly, the difference in food from the various sources is often small. Instead of benefitting from the increased opportunities offered by eating out or buying ready made food or cooking some semi-processed components, many seem to prefer the same food in all cases, for instance a pizza or a salad. The trend is more easily understood if seen also in the context of changed living and work place conditions and not only as a result of aggressive expansion of capitalist companies. Urbanization, overcrowding in cities and many single person households also contributes to this trend of “eating out”.

Fast food and convenience food are, as expressed by sociologist Georg Ritzer in his book The McDonaldization of Society, efficient in the sense that it is the fastest way to get from being hungry to being full. The food is also highly predictable, standardized and controlled, basically built around the same logic as other industries[vii]. Food away from home and fast food and the snacks at home has enabled a much higher degree of individualism in what we eat. Before, even if there certainly were parents (mainly mothers) trying to accommodate a wider selection within the family, today food is selected individually. An increase of food allergies and intolerance, real, perceived or just a result of more choice, also makes the notion of “sharing a meal” has got a new meaning, or no meaning, as the meal itself rarely is shared. The microwave oven represents in a way one of the most groundbreaking inventions in food preparations after boiling in water. It has largely facilitated and driven the spread of ready made convenience foods, and it has made the individualization of “cooking” possible. In this way it also eliminates the essentially social aspect of eating; the bonds created by more than hundred thousand of years of time spent around the campfire. “It reverses the cooking revolution, which made eating sociable, and returns us, in this respect to a pre-social phase of evolution” in the words of historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto [viii].

The individualization and commodification has also been a bonanza for, and perhaps the result of, the food industry. Commercial actors can now earn money from activities that earlier were out of reach of the market (as they were done within the household), including cooking, preparation, processing of food, feeding infants and brewing. The vision of socialist utopians such as Edward Bellamy[ix], and the Soviet Union and Israeli kibbutz was that we would not cook at home. Either we would get ready made foods from factories or eat in collective kitchens. In some Israeli kibbutz not even individual tea kettles were allowed[x]. 

This vision is now materialized as the capitalist food industry take over of food.

(extract from Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food)

[i] Consumer Trend Report —Convenience, Market Analysis Report , Government of Canada 2010.
[ii] Hungry City, Carolyn Steel, Chatto & Windus 2008
[iii] Who feeds Bristol, Joy Carey, Bristol City Council
[iv] IMAP, Food and Beverage Industry Global report 2010
[v] Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen, Crown publishers 2013
[vi] Cooked, a natural history of transformation, Michael Pollan, Allen Lane, 2013
[vii] Ritzer, George (2009). The McDonaldization of Society. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press
[viii] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001
[ix] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001
[x] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001

Friday, April 4, 2014

The making of food into commodities

"Land, water, seeds livestock, labor, cheese, wine and bread are all treated as exchangeable commodities with monetary values assigned by the omnipresent and omnipotent market. It converts land, nature, humans, animals and food to real estate, ecosystem services, labor, McBurgers and calories."

(from the upcoming book Global Eating Disorder)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Who does what?

It is an interesting paradox that many things that are not well taken care of by either governments or markets (say the provision of shelters to homeless) are solved by civil society and communities directly. But when it comes to functions which the state is interested in controlling (city planning) or where the market sees an opportunity for profit (health care), then suddenly communities are supposedly no longer able to do the job properly.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Searching for alternatives 4: Transition

“Governments tend to be reactive rather than pro-active; most change comes because people just go on with it and start to live their lives as it had already happened ”. Originating in the little town of Totnes in South West England, the Transition movement has spread to many countries. There are now some 1,300 official Transition initiatives, but that is only the tip of the iceberg says Rob Hopkins when we talk in February 2014. Transition stands for an effort to build communities that can reduce their use of fossil fuel and their carbon footprint and at the same time be able to cope with the challenges of climate change and diminishing energy supply.

Transition Town Totnes, which was initiated by Rob, was the first initiative and strives to build resilience through a process of “re-localizing, where feasible, all aspects of life”. By using much less energy and resources than currently consumed communities can be more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than today. The initiatives take a starting point in positive visioning and emphasize things that can be done here and now. Food is one of their main entry points and many actions are very hands-on, e.g. in Totnes there is a community supported brewery. In Slaithwaite the Green Valley Grocer is a community-owned co-operative and there is the community supported bakery. “Our vegetables are grown a few miles out of the city, picked in the morning and delivered by bicycle in the afternoon. What could be better?” asks the group in Norwich that started a community supported farm with delivery by bicycle.

Transition Town Totnes wants that food is sourced where “possible and appropriate” within 30 miles of Totnes and that enterprises and resources are owned by members of the community so that the elements of the localized food system create an interdependent web. It deepens the “buy local” argument by also including from whom they should buy locally. In the report Economic Blueprint for T&D: Our local food economy they conclude that it is better for the local economy to buy from independent shops than from supermarkets. They claim, based on research from the New Economic Foundation, that buying from independent shops will generate 2.5 times as much local income compared to buying from supermarkets. This is because local shops tend to buy local services, “if our aim is to strengthen our local economy, it’s just as important to look at where the money is spent, as well as how much” .

“Does this also hold for farms?”, I wonder. After all, many farms are more like assembly points, e.g. a chicken producer buys the chicks, buy all feed, buys industrial equipment, vaccines, professional consultancy etc, most of it from national or global organizations (there are three broiler chicken breeders totally dominating the market), and they do all they can to reduce need for labor, or use migrant laborers. This means that even if the farm happens to be in the vicinity, it is not particularly embedded in the local community or environment. Rob acknowledges this and says that those kinds of farms would typically not engage in the local business in any case.

Some buy local campaigns don’t take into account the financial realities of many people these days Rob notes, “if you are on a low to medium income, buying all of your food locally just financially isn’t an option”. By putting the ambition lower, say at ten percent, it doesn’t exclude people, “if this town [Totnes] could manage a shift of ten percent of the food to local that would be £2 million in the local economy every year ”. With aims at this level, it is also easy to build coalitions with other institutions, such as the local town council. “Ten percent feels achievable, totally re-localizing the entire food economy feels a bit abstract to me ” Rob concludes.

Transition is rather quiet in big political discussions; there is no critique of “the system” or “the economy” . Rob Hopkins thinks that the initiatives still have a big impact on policies. Instead of arguing against growth they argue that building community resilience is a form of economic development. He thinks the Transition movement deals with many of the pressing issues by positive action, rather than systems critics or through political action. Community ownership and cooperatives rather than private companies are the natural models for collective actions in transition initiatives. “Transition is a social technology designed to work on a local scale and in order to do this you have to try to stay below a lot of those discussions and focus on doing stuff. ” While it is important that there are also people that argue about the bigger policy issues, the role of Transition is another Rob concludes, “you need the examples, and you need the stories, and you need the stuff that is already happening and the stuff that just started without waiting for permission ”.

“We didn’t want to stop selling locally but the market dwindled. We used to sell vegetables to local grocers but they all slowly closed. The small shops have been slowly shutting down and they used to be our main market. There used to be 4 shops in Dartmouth alone that we supplied and now there’s only one left.” says one farmer in Devon, England. A report by Holly Tiffens for Transition Totnes concludes that there has been grown a wide range of fruit, vegetables and cereals in the Totnes area in the past, but that the interviewed producers identified labor issues and low economic margins as key disincentives to production today. Other impediment were supermarket competition, limited consumer demand, inadequate processing infrastructure and inefficient distribution methods. The report recommends: “co-operative working as a potential solution to address crop production issues and identified the need for improvements in supply chain infrastructure, enhanced distribution efficiency, and investment in consumer education to strengthen local markets and enhance demand for locally grown products.“

A transition of the food system will not be easy. I do agree with Rob and the Transition Movement that it is important to change things here and now. But it is equally important to try to change to macroeconomic structures which nudge both producers and consumers into the logic of the competitive market. It is not a question of either or, but both. They also have to be combined with a change in values and paradigm and aim at an economy where man's wealth does not result in nature's poverty and the poverty of other people. As Peter Volz, the researcher from an organization called Agronauten that follows me around to the various business which are part of the RWAG says “the moment of social transformation is when people look each other in the eyes”. When people act based on their place in an abstract system instead of being humans, we get problem.

The post is part of the process of writing my upcoming book Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food. I am looking at different models to change our food system, in terms of production and consumption, but in particular in creating new relationships in the food system, preferably relationships that transcends the consumer-producer dichotomy.  

Listen to a conversation (in two parts) between me, Claudia French and Irina Almgren about the challenges and opportunities of today, the Transition Movement, my book Garden Earth etc.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Searching for alternatives part 3 - Regional Values in Freiburg

 At the entry of the scenic Black Forest (Schwarzwald) in the upper Rhine valley, is Freiburg, the sunniest and warmest city of Germany. It was established in the early twelfth century and the city is known for its medieval university and progressive environmental practices. It is situated in the heart of a region that has a diverse agricultural production and small-scale farming. Lately, the growth of large-scale, monoculture farms has led to the decline of family and small-scale agriculture, particularly through farm consolidation. Half of the farms in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Freiburg is located have closed down in the last 20 years. For those who want to buy a farm it is very hard to secure working capital and land. This is also reflected in the food situation. Despite its good climate and diverse traditions, it is estimated that today only 5% of the food in Freiburg is sourced in the region.

Christian Hiss grew up on one of Germany’s first organic farms, started by his parents in 1953 in Eichstetten, not far from Freiburg. His father had been a prisoner of war in England and came in contact with organic agriculture during captivity. He brought these ideas home to Germany. Christian started a vegetable farm as an own enterprise, at the age of 21, in the village in partnership with his wife and in the 1990s he started seed breeding. Christian felt that it was ”increasingly difficult to include organic values in the enterprise”. For all the needed inputs, seeds, land, operating capital and knowledge the market logic applied and even in the organic sector his colleagues were increasingly discussing things from the perspective of if it was profitable or not. Furthermore, Christian encountered all the problems of agriculture nowadays like lack of access to capital, unclear farm succession, poor valuation of socio-ecologic services etc. When he asked for a loan from the bank to build a new cowshed and the bank turned him down it was time to act. “If it was so difficult for me to raise capital even though I had inherited the farm, how difficult will it not be for a new farmer?”

There was a need to find a new form to do business, and he formed the Regionalwert[1] AG (RWAG) in 2006. It is a model for what Christian calls Community Connected Agriculture, as people support farms and food business not only in their role as consumers. Farmers should not see society as consumers and society should not see farmers only as producers. It is a question of relationship and dialogue, and “dialogue is about embeddedness” says Christian. The main point of intervention of RWAG is to supply organic farms and other actors in the whole food chain with capital. However, access to capital is not the only intervention; the RWAG also helps the organizations they support with market integration and they have established a regional brand.

Happy cow at Breitenweger Hof
”It is easier to sell the eggs through the other RWAG network partners, for example the Frischekiste, the box scheme” says Philipp Goetjes at the Breitenweger Hof in Eichstetten, where he has an organic dairy and egg production together with his wife Katarina. The cooperation extend beyond market; Jannis Zentler and a colleague at Querbeet Garden (the farm originally started by Christian), another RWAG partner, grow vegetables on 13 hectares, but they also have 7 hectares of clover grass, which is fed to Philipp and Katarina’s cows in exchange for manure. Jannis tells me about the bio-dynamic association which has been working together with the farm ever since it was established long time ago, “they know the place better than we do, and they want to have old varieties and seasonal food”. Those consumers are very different from those that just want to buy organic foods.

Today 500 persons in Freiburg have invested in the RWAG. All sorts of people are shareholders, the biggest investor has 7% of the capital and the total capital available was more than 2.3 million Euro in 2013. If their business plans are viable, the RWAG offers the entrepreneurs various forms of investments in business expansion. Often RWAG provides capital for a fixed rate of interest of between 3-8% on repayment (for land, machines etc). Another approach is to buy land and farms and lease it to farmers at a reasonable rent. RWAG can also be a partner or a shareholders, e.g. in the shop Regionalwert Biomarkt Waage in Emmendingen where it has 40% of the shares. They support sixteen operations, including a winery, 2 vegetable farms, a box scheme, a catering company and a wholesaler, a cheese farm, 2 shops, a mixed farm, a dried fruit operation and an accountant (also part of the food chain!).

RWAG works with a set of 64 sustainability indicators covering aspects such as employment structure and wages, biodiversity and resource consumption, value creation for the region and dialogue within the value chain. These are reported annually for all the enterprises and then compiled in an annual report, for example the proportion renewable electricity, used by the companies increased from 62% in 2009 to 98% in 2012, while the proportion renewable energy for fuel is still zero. So far there are no incentives for the enterprises to actually improve apart from the honor of doing so. Christian wants to see a system where enterprises are rewarded for this and equally that those that destroy the environment have to pay for it, but that will rarely materialize in the voluntary market. Barbara, the manager of the shop I visit also notes that “some consumers are interested in the regional, but most are more interested in diversity.”

The post is part of the process of writing my upcoming book Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food. I am looking at different models to change our food system, in terms of production and consumption, but in particular in creating new relationships in the food system, preferably relationships that transcends the consumer-producer dichotomy.

[1] Regional Value Ltd

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Searching for alternatives 2: Grasslands

Grasslands cover almost one fourth of the terrestrial area, but most of it produces rather little food. Statistics are very weak, but one assessment is that agropastoral landscape and system based on extensive grazing produce 24% of the beef, 46% of the lamb and 20% of the milk in the world[i]. Considering that the area is more than double the area of arable land, it is very little food per area unit. Clearly, most of them can’t in any way produce as much as arable lands because of climatic, geological or topographic reasons. Also, we should not forget that while they don’t produce much food, many of these areas are very important for biodiversity and other ecosystem services and if we expand food production on them over a certain level, we risk to harm those very important functions. Nevertheless there are some very promising developments in relation to grazing, both for drylands with extensive ranching and intensively managed grasslands. There are pioneers like Allan Savory from Zimbabwe and Joel Salatin on Polyface farm in Virginia promoting various grazing strategies claiming to radically increase grassland productivity and food production. As a huge bonus the grasslands could bind big quantities of carbon in organic matter, which could make a big difference for our climate.

”I don’t believe in arable farming, it takes out the fertility of the soil. We only have fifty years supply of phosphorus left from Morocco”, says Ado Bloemendal, who has worked ten years as an advisor for intensive grassland management in the Netherlands. The cycles of nutrients are disrupted by plowing and tilling the land but in permanent grasslands the cycles be closed, and very little nutrients will be lost. 

Under the brand of Pure Graze, 50 farmers are now working with the intensive production of grass-fed chicken, pork and cattle as well as dairy cows. Fifteen of the farmers are also marketing under the common brand. Some of the farms are organically managed and no farmer use pesticides or chemical fertilizer. There is very little use of antibiotics and if they after all other options are exhausted have to treat an animal, the meat will not be sold under the brand. 

For cows, the grazing is very intensive, they just stay a few hours in the same place, this is mirroring the movement of herds in the wild. Through intensive grazing the quality of the grass and the productivity are very high. In addition, it regenerates the grassland. “Grassland” is perhaps not the right term. ”The invention of chemical fertilizers and the dominance of English ryegrass are linked”, says Ado. This is because English ryegrass and the other grasses are favoured by nitrogen fertilizers and therefore outcompetes other plants; the perfect lawns are terrible mono-cultures. But it is better for both the cows and nature to have a much bigger variation of plants. Pure Graze supplies a few different seed mixes, for cows they have a mix with eight clover varieties, six grasses and eight herbs including caraway, parsley, chicory, pimpernel, dandelion, yarrow. Ado calls it his salad buffet, perhaps borrowing from Joel Salatin on the other side of the Atlantic. 

The productivity of the system is very high. Dairy cows in this system produce up to 20,000 kg of milk per hectare of land. Almost all the food comes from the grasslands, mostly as direct grazing, but some of the grass is cut for silage for winter feed. Diary cows normally get 2 kg of beet fiber is added to the diet for energy and fiber. As cows get almost no supplemental feeding and they are moved around in the pasture, there is very little risk of the pasture being overmanured.  To get the right perspective of this amazing productivity: 20,000 kg of milk has 700 kg protein, 800 kg fat and 12 million calories. This equals the energy (calories) for some 14-15 people, protein for some 40 people and fat for 30 people in one year. You could still feed more people with a bumper crop of ten or eleven tons of wheat from the same area but only with massive investments in fertilizers and pesticides.  

[i] Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, Meat Atlas.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Searching for alternatives, part I

In the coming weeks I will post a few "case studies" of good initiatives in food and farming. They are things I encounter in my work of writing a new book. First to go is Community Supported Agriculture. 

A Community Supported Agriculture project is based on direct person-to-person contact and trust, with no intermediaries or hierarchy. They are usually formalized with a contract between each consumer and the producer, and characterized by a mutual commitment to supply one another with money and food. CSAs share both the risks and the benefits of an healthy production that is adapted to the natural rhythm of the seasons and is respectful of the environment, natural and cultural heritage and health.  Paying a sufficient fair price enable farmers and their families to maintain their farms and live in a dignified manner.

In Europe there are some 4,000 farms and 400,000 consumers engaged in CSAs. Notably they vary much in style or size and to which extent they are activist or mainly a way to organize the food supply. Some are farmer driven, some consumer driven and others are organized as cooperatives. The first CSA in Europe, Les Jardins de Cocagne, started near Geneva in 1978. Community supported agriculture is even older in Japan, where it is called Tekei, which means “co-partnership”. The Japan Organic Agriculture Association was founded 1971 with consumers, farmers, scholars, public servants and cooperative workers in order to promote teikei system. “Under the tekei system, relationships are face-to-face, as all products are distributed directly from producers to consumers. There is no middleman or costly inspection bodies”[iii]

The term community supported agriculture was coined by Robyn Van En in 1985, when she inspired by the Swiss, together with a group of like-minded producers and consumers initiated a project at her Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts. They started with a small apple orchard. Within four years, the farm’s original membership of 30 shares[1] expanded to 150. As word spread about the success of this new concept, Robyn quickly went from being a market gardener to the leader of the CSA movement. Across the country, she helped to establish more than 200 CSA’s[iv].

Another CSA pioneer and advocate[2] is Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework in New York State. The CSA started as a combination of a desire to create new relationships with consumers and the direct need to sell products, it was simply too far to any market or outlets. Already at this time, 25 years ago, she could see the writing on the wall, how agro-business would twist the emerging organic market into its own interest. Stores who sold organic and claimed to support local foods bought from California if the lettuce was one cent cheaper. “It seemed to be really important to have a group of people who were loyal to our farm and interested in keeping it going, and once we started it turned out to be a lot more than that”. 

Every member contributes their share of labor at the farm and is never asked to do anything beyond their abilities. Peacework Farm grows 100 different vegetables and cover crops on approximately 20 acres and subleases the hayland to a local producer of beef and grass-fed bison. Over 95% of Peacework's produce is sold to CSA members. If and when there is extra, it is usually sold to a few local shops. The farm later became a limited liability company for the purpose of leasing the land from a land trust. This structure makes it possible for new people to join the farm partnership and old partners to leave or retire without interrupting the lease agreement. “The relationship to the land is that of stewardship, not ownership: this land will never be sold to finance the farmers' retirement, which has been the demise of so many family farms in the United States. Members run the organization so farmers can farm”[v]

Elizabeth, who now has retired and left the farm to younger partners Greg Palmer and Ammie Chickering, explains that the CSA is a separate legal entity from the farm so that the farm is not burdened with labor or other regulations for the members of the CSA. When members come to work at the farm, they are not employees of the farm; they pick the produce the CSA has contracted for with the farm. “Around 100 families have been with us for more than 10 years, and for them it is part of their way of life”, Elizabeth says. Then there is an equally big number of members that stay for a while, move on or shift to another CSA. While the CSA concept is still viable and has been successful it also comes with its own challenges. There are so many CSAs that they compete for members. The expectations from farmers and consumers have in many cases diminished and there are many other ways people can get local organic foods from farmers’ markets and other sources. In addition there are commercial middlemen, “aggregators”, which are not CSAs, but operate under that flag. But as Elizabeth points out, “if there is anything that distinguishes a CSA is that it is direct, there is no middle man”. Taken together this discourages farmers from “asking too much” from the members. 

“CSA is not going to feed everybody, but it is the only form of market relationship where consumers share risk with the farmers.” And farmers live under precarious conditions. She, like most farmers, “lived on poverty wages my whole life”. When the members of the CSA realized that she couldn’t afford health insurance, they voluntarily decided to increase their payments to the farm by $1 per week per share. CSA is as much about social justice as about organic farming and local marketing in Elizabeth’s view. As important as it is that the farmer has decent conditions it is also important that the CSAs are inclusive. There are CSAs that have special rates for low-income members and that accept food stamps, Peacework, for example, charges on a sliding scale and provides subsidies to low-income members. 

She notes a new interest in CSA the last six, seven years, and with the Occupy movement there is flush of new young people. “Every new young farmer wants to do a CSA”. When I ask Elizabeth about how CSAs, or the experiences of CSAs can be scaled up and reach also low-income people she tells about Corbin Hill Farm which is a network of farms in Schoharie County and urban communities in New York City. It has an educational farm that produces a small amount of fruits and vegetables and serves as a distribution centre to which the participating farmers bring their produce for further transport to sites in Harlem and the South Bronx. Shareholders (their term for members) pay in advance to receive their freshly harvested produce. Many of the members are from disadvantaged communities. While the level of direct engagement is not very big, members do make trips to the farm and when several farms were flooded, the members contributed financially to the farms, despite that many of the members are rather poor.

Over and above the direct purpose of CSA and the interaction between the farmers and their consumers (I note that Elisabeth still refers to them as consumers), there is a great value in the educational part of the CSA. ”There is a lot of money in the food system but consumer dollars are not shared out fairly among the people who do the hard work of growing, packing, delivering and processing food. US cheap food policies  create externalities – chemical residues in food that cause chronic illnesses, the pollution of soil, air and water, the erosion of soil -  that industrial agriculture avoids paying and leaves to the tax payer.  Many  CSA members understand this and can be a core group also to influence the mainstream food system”.
(Extract from my book The Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food, forthcoming)

[1] CSAs often use the terms members, shareholders or subscribers to describe the participating consumers, or non farmers.

[2] Elisabeth has published a CSA cookbook as well as the book Sharing the harvest.

[iii] Teikei System in Japan, Shinji Hashimoto,, accessed 1 december 2013.

[iv] Robyn Van En Biography.

[v] peacework web site, accessed 2 December 2013

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Beer-math: converting food to food

Let's do some beer-math

In this case beer made of barley, which is the preferred raw material.  An average beer has 43 calories per hundred gram according to USDA’s database. Of 1 kg of barley you can produce approximately 730 gram malt. This malt in turn is converted to 4.7 liter of beer (this according to FAO's Technical Conversion Factors). We estimate, based on FAOSTAT categories of use that 20% of the barley is used for brewing, 132,886,519 tonnes * 20% * 4.7 gives 124,913,328,000 liter of beer, which equals 53,712,730,970,000 calories. This would be 21 calories per capita and day (assuming that also infants drink beer!), 1% of our energy intake.

If we compare that with the direct use of barley as food, 20% of 132,886,519 tonnes of barley has 94,000,000,000,000 calories which means we lose almost half of the energy by making beer out of barley.But then we also have “dregs” the rest product that is mainly used as animal feed, so some of this  enters our food in another way. 
(busy working with my new book)