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)