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.