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A new report from Oxfam is warning that food prices are on their way to doubling in the next two decades. The report, “Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource Constrained World” states that we may see a 120-180% by 2030 and that the world’s agricultural system is fundamentally “broken”. The report talks about climate change, the plight of small farmers and poor consumers. An average Indian consumer spends twice the fraction of their income on food of an average first-world citizen, and a consumer spends four times – about 80%.

None of this should come as a surprise to people familiar with food issues, but the fact that it’s coming from a major charity like Oxfam should at least get some attention. With gains in agricultural yields falling since 1990, the “Green Revolution” is now being recognized for what it was: a big but ultimately short-lived boost in productivity bought at the price of enormous amounts of land, water and chemicals. As pesticides and fertilizers continue to “lose ground” (literally..) in the war against soil depletion, the world is fast learning that petrochemicals can’t solve biological problems.

With a global market for food, everyone is connected. When food becomes scarce enough anywhere, prices rise everywhere. Add to this the effects of first-world farm subsidies which flood developing nations with cheap imports, and the effect of the new global biofuels market, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. This isn’t some apocalyptic theory – there are already millions of people dying from hunger. What’s at stake is that many more will join them.

Now that the good weather’s here, it’s time to get to work solving our area’s food security problems. We can all hope that the snow which is now quickly melting is the last we see for quite a while, and that means its time to start looking to plant some food.

If you’re lucky enough to have space or a plot in a community garden, now would be a good time to be starting things indoors. But if you don’t, don’t despair. Our city is a big place, and filled with big patches of dirt which could use a little life. There’s lots of ways to use this space, from learning to pick out edible “weeds” (a very large chunk of what grows here is actually quite nutritious) to planting a community garden. But the easiest by far is to throw seed bombs.

Seed bombs (or balls) are small balls of seeds, clay and compost. They’re simply thrown onto any area with soil, where they lie in wait for rain to soak through the tough clay shell. This shell protects the seeds from birds and others who’d eat them, as well as the trauma of being thrown. It also provides mineral nutrients for the new plants, especially if it’s red clay from a riverbed. Seed bombs can be made by hand, or in big tumblers for larger operations (the easiest way is a spinning oil drum).

Wikipedia: Seed Balls
Guerillagardening.org: Seed bomb guide and Forum
Instructables: How to Make a Seed Bomb
On Seedballs – a fantastic resource for history and methods.
“Seedpills” – an innovative new idea using gel-capsules to hold seeds and fertilizer which melt when rained on.

This process has many ancient roots, but its modern history goes back to Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese natural farming guru. His radical growing styles didn’t plant things in rows or monocultures, and refused to weed, fertilize or till them. Like Permaculture, it emulated nature by allowing plants to group themselves into synergistic relationships. And for this process, seed bombs were perfect for broadcasting a nice random spread of carefully selected seeds.

In a “city of waterfalls”, there are certainly options around for lots of juicy red riverbed clay, and you’ll spot more sites than you could bomb in a week. If you don’t have seeds, there are many cheap wildflower mixes you can buy, or simply go scrounging in the woods for dried seed pods that survived the winter. Be creative and experiment, and share your stories and results.

Far too much about this year is reminding me of 2008. Rising oil prices aren’t the only commodity which is climbing again, and certainly not the only frightening one. Food riots, once again, are rearing their ugly head as the rising price of food is again rising out of reach of the global poor.

Gwynne Dyer’s recent article, The Future of Food Riots, lays this out in a very frightening way. Heat waves have devestated the Russian and Ukranian crops, and floods have crippled nations like Pakistan and Australia. With large-scale water shortages looming in areas like China and America, the global food markets are getting stressed to the limit. As always, the first casualties are of course, the poor,

And just like oil, it’s clear that surging food prices are the result of large-scale speculation. But again, that kind of speculation tends to show up wherever rapidly rising prices become predictable and obvious. It doesn’t address why they’re exploding in the first place. Extreme weather events – caused by global warming or random bad luck – also don’t tell the whole story.

“Conventional farming” simply is not sustainable. Under conventional farming techniques – particularly those championed by the “Green Revolution” (mechanization, chemicals etc), land can only be farmed for a certain amount of time before suffering serious, long-term damage and forcing production to move to “greener pastures”. Chemical, mechanical and genetic farming technologies are enormously expensive, wasteful and often toxic. They kill off the soil’s web of life (fungi, bacteria, bugs etc), drain it of it’s carbon (hummus) content, break up layers (plowing) and encourage pests (with monocultures). This is not farming so much as mining the soil, and it’s driving farmers to bankruptcy in record numbers worldwide. Don’t worry about the unbelievably rich multinational corporations that manufacture those chemicals, though, as it sounds like Cargill is doing just fine.

As we see the same patterns emerging as we did in 2008, we have to be prepared for the fact that the market meltdown we saw might only have been one of the first of many. As the global economy struggles to get back on its feet, we’re seeing all the same enormous market distortions which brought it down last time. Another crash is coming, and it has a lot of potential to get uglier than the last one. Where will the bailout come from this time?

Just picture it now – you’ve got a secret room in your basement full of hydroponics, timers and lights. Suddenly the swat team busts down the door and carts you away. The crime? Growing vegetables.

We’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer. A gardener Dekalb County, Ga. is now facing charges for growing “too many” vegetables in his garden, which wasn’t zoned for market gardening.

This story is getting a lot of press, but it’s not in any way unusual. Here are a number of stories from people I know in Hamilton:

-One woman, a single mother living in subsidized co-op housing on the mountain was told off for attempting to grow vegetables in the garden area in front of her house. Apparently only ornamental plants are allowed.

– Another friend of mine was cultivating a big patch of local edible wild plants in his backyard. A neighbour complained, and City bylaw enforcement started writing tickets, even after being repeatedly confronted with the fact that none of the “weeds” in question were on the city’s “lists”. In some cases, I’ve been told, a weed is “anything over 4 inches”.

– The City of Hamilton threatened for a year or two to close the “Paradise Garden”, a community garden at Wellington and Burlington, because it wished to use it to store museum goods which weren’t on display. They then went on to create new gardens in much better off parts of downtown like Victoria Park.

-The City, in an attempt to be “greener”, offered homeowners freely planted trees of their choice. The problem? They didn’t offer any fruit trees.

These are just examples I’ve heard about personally. Who knows how many happen on a regular basis between here and Dekalb. They aren’t isolate incidents – they just don’t get a lot of press.

A new study by Washington State University has confirmed what many of us in the Organic Food movement have long been saying. Studying strawberry-growing in California, they confirmed that both food and soil from organic techniques are healthier. This study is one of the most comprehensive done so far and should go a long way toward convincing many people of the scientific benefits of organics.

There were three main findings in the study:

1) Organic foods are healthier than conventional foods. They found higher levels of vitamin C and antioxidants in organic strawberries than their conventional cousins. This isn’t surprising, we already know that since the oldest records we have (from the 1950s), the amount of many vitamins and nutrients in our fresh produce have dropping for decades.

2) Organic foods have healthier crops. Despite the copious use of methyl bromide, an extremely toxic fungicide on their conventional cousins, organic strawberry plants actually had less fungal rots. This is because organic growing techniques rely on a wide variety of methods to control pests, not just chemicals. By fostering a healthy and diverse environment around the crops, not only are they healthier and more able to fight off diseases and pests, but also fosters a web of predators to eat them. Convention farming, on the other hand, tends to get caught in a constant spiral of adding more and more chemicals – driving costs and damages through the roof without actually providing many benefits. The increases in yeilds from the “Green Revolution” have now began fading as the costs of chemical inputs continues to rise faster than the yields they produce.

3)Organic foods grow in heealthier soils.This point is especially crucial. Without healthy soils, we cannot grow healthy foods. And while conventional foods use soils soaked in added chemical nutrients (fertilizers), they still have less than organics? How is this possible? Because soil nutrition is as much about biology as it is about chemistry. The bugs, microbes and fungi which live in natural soils (eg: forests) fertilize and till the soil themselves. Adding pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers kills most or all of these off, and that undermines the soil far more than it could ever make up for.

Most claims against organic foods state that they cannot produce the same yields as modern conventional growing techniques (read the comments of the first article…). This argument claims that because organics produce less, more forests need to be cut down for fields. While this is an issue, the math needs a closer look. What kind of organic farms are being compared? If it’s two identical fields, it can’t be done right away, because it often takes years for organic methods to re-grow a living soil web. And then there’s the issue of whether yields are being examined per field or overall. By maintaining fertile soils, organic operations can fallow less land and avoid burning out entire fields. Conventional farming methods destroy millions of acres through tilling, irrigating and chemicals. And then there’s the biggest issue of all – cost. If a farm must grow many times more than it would otherwise to repay the costs of machinery, chemicals and loans, then any land saved will be eaten up anyway. And one way or the other, it’s adding many costs to the final price which don’t need to be there – we need to pay farmers for growing food, not Monsanto. And in any case, this argument makes no mention of the millions of acres of land which would be used one way or another – and would be far more toxic under conventional methods.

The organic methods examined here only scratch the surface of what is possible without chemical inputs. We can do so much more with techniques like intercropping or Effective Microorganisms. We simply need to start doing it, and stop expecting petrochemicals to do it for us.

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