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World Made By Hand

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Harmony Community, Putnam Co., GA, May 28-June 1, 1941

This letter was published today at

I recently finished trenching and running a few hundred feet of irrigation pipe on land that has been in my wife’s family for a few generations. We are the proud recipients of this small farm in the Southeast US. My Mother-In-Law was helping, and getting various tools and such out of the 100 year old barn (still standing and strong). We found an old hoe that was worn so that over half of the tine was missing. She said that her father and grandfather had used this hoe to manually weed and till every bit of the 50 acres! This was a farm that didn’t have indoor plumbing until the early 1970s.

Here I was, exhausted from digging a trench (with a machine of course), and laying pipe (plastic with glue), and had been working “very hard” for a few hours. Slowly realizing, listening to my mother-in-law that her family worked this land without the aid of gas powered equipment until her father died in the late 1980s. For over 125 years this farm had produced an income and raised families. I was tired after working, but now had an understanding that in no way can I count myself in the same league as the men that had worked sun up to sun down by hand, these were true men. I whine when the lawn mower won’t easily start, or when the padded handle on the shovel gets too hard for comfort!

In the interest of preparedness, each of us should examine ourselves to see if we have it in us both physically and mentally to work at providing for our loved ones. After this experience, I am doing more to get myself physically in shape for what may come. No matter, I will be happier, healthier, and more humble than before! God Bless, – RJ in the Southeast US

This letter serves to remind us how much we’ve lost, how much we’ve forgotten, and how much we take for granted in our modern world.

For an imaginative view of life in a possible future world without abundant, cheap energy, I thoroughly recommend James Howard Kunstler’s novel ‘World Made By Hand’.


Written by Pete Smith

May 19, 2008 at 10:14 am

Peak Food

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'Peak Everything' Richard HeinbergRichard Heinberg is an American writer who is probably best known for his work on Peak Oil, the proposition that global oil production has reached, or is about to reach, a maximum from which the only way is down. The cocktail of declining output and rapidly growing demand has dire consequences for all aspects of our economies that rely on plentiful supplies of cheap energy. If you seriously think there’s any component of our way of life that’s immune to Peak Oil, you might consider a change of medication.

In his 2007 book ‘Peak Everything: Waking Up To The Century Of Decline In Earth’s Resources‘, Heinberg widens his scope to embrace not just energy, but other crucial areas such as agriculture, water, population and climate stability. In a chapter entitled ’50 Million Farmers’, he postulates that the era of abundant, cheap food is ending, and discusses four key factors that will reacquaint the well-fed West with the old spectre of famine. Although written from an American perspective, this analysis is relevant to all developed economies.

Looming fuel shortages

Agriculture accounts for about 17% of the US annual energy budget; it is the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries.
“About 1500 litres of oil equivalents are required to feed each American each year.
“Every calorie of food produced requires, on average, ten calories of fossil fuel inputs.”

A shortage of farmers

“The average age of American farmers is over 55 and approaching 60.
“The proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9% in 1982 to 5.8% in 2002.”

An increasing scarcity of fresh water

“Over 80% of water consumed [in the US] goes toward agriculture.”

Global Climate Change

” ‘Global warming’ …. implies only that the world’s average temperature will be increasing by a couple of degrees or more over the next few decades. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms … unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a clmate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year’s production.”

Heinberg rejects 21st Century techno-fixes such as GM crops, on the grounds that they are still heavily dependent on a fuel-fed industrial system. He believes that we must de-industrialise agriculture, reducing fossil fuel inputs, increasing labour inputs and reducing transport, with the emphasis on production for local consumption. Citing examples such as Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, WW2 Victory Gardens (the equivalent of British allotments) and the Permaculture movement, he argues it is possible in principle for industrial economies to move to smaller-scale food production systems that don’t depend on fossil fuel inputs.

But we need more farmers. This implies people who aren’t afraid of hard physical work and who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. I just wonder if, collectively, we’re up to the task.

Written by Pete Smith

April 29, 2008 at 10:06 am

We Regret To Inform You…

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This post contains in its entirety an article by Sharon Astyk at The Silver Bear Cafe. I don’t usually do this, but I can’t improve on the original, and just posting a link wouldn’t do it justice either.

We Regret to Inform You…
Sharon Astyk

When climate change and peak oil thinkers run out of other things to worry about, there’s always the endless, inevitable debates about whether we are facing a “fast crash” or a “slow grind.” And I admit, I’m worried about my fellow environmentalists – because I think they are about to lose their favorite distraction. When no one was looking, we got an answer. Fast crash wins. And we’re in it now.

Wait a minute, you argue – that’s not right. If we were in a fast crash we’d be well on our way to living in a Kunstler novel. But we’ve still got cars, we’ve got food, things are slowing down, but at worst this looks like a slow grind – but the crazy lady at the blog is saying fast crash?!?!?

Before you argue with me (and you are both welcome and encouraged to), I’d like to post something a bit out of my usual style – it is simply a description of what has happened with food and energy in the last year – that’s all it is. Then tell me what you think – because it wasn’t until I began to write this introduction to the present food situation that I suddenly was struck by the fact that even a fast crash doesn’t always look fast when you live it – new normals arise and it turns out we assimilate faster than we panic.

So here we are – the “We regret to inform you that what you have imagined to be “civilization” is now falling apart” post. See if it strikes you the way it struck me.

I would also note two things. The first is that the general political consensus is that neither the food nor energy crisis will do anything but grow more acute anytime soon – we’re really in the early stages. And that this only covers the first 4 months of 2008.

In early 2008, the world’s food and energy train came off the rails. What was startling was that it didn’t happen either gradually or in a linear way – instead, things simply fell apart at an astounding rate, faster than anyone could have predicted without being accused of lunacy.

It started with biofuels and growing meat consumption rates. They drove the price of staple grains up at astounding rates. In 2007, overall inflation for food was at 18%, which created a new class of hungry, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2008, the month to month inflation was higher than 2007’s annual inflation. At that rate, the price of food overall was set to double every other year. Rice, the staple of almost half the world’s population rose 147%, while wheat grew 25% in just one day. Price rises were inequitable (as was everything else) so while rice prices rose 30% in rich world nations like the US, Haitian rice prices rose 300%.

Haiti was an early canary in the hunger coal mine. Desperately poor, by early 2008, tens of thousands of impoverished Haitians were priced entirely out of the market for rice and other staples, and were reduced to eating “cookies” made of nutrient rich mud, vegetable shortening and salt to quiet their hunger pangs. Women stood on the street, offering their children to any reasonably well fed passerby, saying “Please, pick, take one and feed them.” Thousands of Haitians marched on Port Au Prince, yelling, “We’re hungry.” And indeed, the Haitian government was complicit, allowing food relief to rot on the wharves. But Haiti was just the start.

After riots over long bread lines threatened to destabilize Egypt, the Egyptian government set the army to baking bread for the hungry. Forty nations either stopped exporting grains or raised tariffs to make costs prohibitive. Food prices rose precipitiously as importing nations began to struggle to meet rising hunger. The UN warned that 33 nations were in danger of destabilizing, and the list included major powers including Pakistan, Mexico, North Korea India, Egypt and South Africa. Many of these hold nuclear weapons.

The crisis didn’t stop among the already-poor, however. An article in The Economist reported that the crisis extended well into the middle class – Joanna Sheeran, director of the World Food Project explained, “For the middle classes,…it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.”

Up to 100 million people who had managed to raise their incomes above $2 a day found themselves inexorably drawn back to the world poverty level, while millions of those who called themselves “middle class” began, slowly, to realize that they were no such thing. Reports noted that many of the supposed middle class in rich world nations were actually the working poor who had overextended their credit to keep up appearances. And the appearances – and credit access – were fraying

In 2007, a major American newspaper reported the growing problem of seasonal malnutrition affecting poor children in the Northern US – the rising price of heating oil meant that lower class families were struggling to put on the table. Hungry, low weight children were unable to maintain their body temperature in chilly houses, and a vicious circle of illness, hunger and desperation ensued. Malnutrition bellies began to be regularly seen by pediatricians treating the urban poor in cold climates.

Shortages were a chronic problem in the poor world, but by early spring of 2008, they began to arrive in the rich world – despite Japan’s deep pockets, a shortage of butter and wheat reminded the rich world of its dependence on food import. Many of the supply problems were due to climate change and energy issues, as Australian dairy farmers struggled with high grain prices and the extended drought that destroyed their pastures.

Following up on anecdotal reports of limits at bulk warehouse stores, in late April of 2008 rationing went official. Many Costco stores were limiting purchases of flour, rice, cooking oil and other staples to avoid shortages – and the stores tracked purchases electronically to prevent customers from visiting other Costco stores. This was the first example of food rationing, but probably not the last – at least one financial analyst was predicting corn shortages in the fall of 2008.

The energy train and the food train were inextricably linked, and indeed directly (as the costs of diesel rose rapidly) and indirectly (rising energy costs created the biofuels boom) drove the food crisis. They were linked in other, complex ways as well – the housing collapse that threatened to plunge Europe and the US into a major depression was in part due to the high costs of commuting from suburban infrastructure. Exurban housing collapsed hardest, while housing closer to cities remained desirable – for a while.

While the food crisis in the poor world made headlines, the energy crisis there went almost unnoticed. More and more poorer nations simply could not afford to import oil and other fossil fuels, and began slowly but steadily to lose the benefits of fossil fuels. Nations suffered shortages of gas, electricity and coal. Tajikistan, experiencing a record cold winter found itself with inadequate supplies of heating oil and a humanitarian crisis. South African coal supplies were so short that electricity generation dropped back to intermittency.

Industrial agriculture, described as “the process of turning oil into food” began to struggle to keep yields up to match growing demand. Yield increases fell back steadily, with more and more investment of energy (and higher costs for poor farmers trying to keep yields up). Yield increases, which had been at 6% annually from the 1960s through the 1990s fell to 1-2%, against rapidly rising demand. Climate change threatened to further reduce yields in already stressed poor nations – Bangladesh struggled with repeated climate change linked flooding, the Sahelian African countries with growing drought, China with desertification.

All future indications were that both food and energy supplies would fail to keep up with demand. Unchecked (the only kind we’ve got) climate change is expected to reduce rice yields by up to 30%, and food production in the already starving Sahel is expected to be reduced by half. GMOs, touted as a solution, have yet to produce even slightly higher yields. Arable land is disappearing under growth, while aquifers are heavily depleted – 30% of the world’s grain production comes from irrigated land that is expected to lose its water supply in the next decades.

Meanwhile the costs of fossil fueled agriculture skyrocketed, with potash rising by 300% in less than a year. What should have been a boom for farmers was actually the beginning of an increasingly precarious spiral of high prices, high indebtedness and market volatility. Agricultural indebtedness rose dramatically.

Meanwhile, the ability of nations to transport food supplies began to be called into question. Early trucker protests were intermittent and largely ineffective, but real predictions of diesel shortages and a shortage of refining capacity made it a real possibility that food might not reach store shelves.

And so how does the story end? If you were reading this in a history book, what ending would you expect to see? Because just because the crash doesn’t quite read like a post apocalyptic novel doesn’t mean that we aren’t the new Po-Apoc (like Po-Mo, only darker) generation.



I wish I’d written this.

Written by Pete Smith

April 28, 2008 at 9:34 am

Vacant Lot

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Vacant Lot
A solution to inner city living?

How might you meet the demand for ‘grow-your-own’ within dense urban areas where available land is scarce? What-if: projects together with local residents of an inner city housing estate in Shoreditch have come up with a novel solution: grow your greens in a bag.

A formerly inaccessible and run-down plot of housing estate land has been transformed into a beautiful oasis of green. Seventy 1/2 tonne bags of soil have been arranged to form an allotment space. Within their individual plots, local residents are carefully tending a spectacular array of vegetables, salads, fruit and flowers. A new sense of community has emerged.

May 1st – June 21st 2008
VACANT LOT will be part of the Love London Festival
Love London is London’s greenest annual festival, celebrating projects and organisations that are making a real contribution to creating a more sustainable capital.

20th June – 20th July 2008
VACANT LOT will be part of the London Festival of Architecture, focusing on the theme of “FRESH”.

Coming Soon
VACANT LOT on BBC Gardeners World


Written by Pete Smith

April 22, 2008 at 10:00 am

Local Food: Future Farms

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The residents of the village of Martin, Hampshire, have formed a co-operative to grow their own food and wean themselves off supermarkets. 101 of Martin’s 164 households have signed up as members of Future Farms for an annual £2 fee. The “community allotment” raises 45 types of vegetable, as well as pigs and chickens, on 8 acres of rented land. The enterprise has an annual turnover of £27,000, with all profits being ploughed back into the business. Produce is priced on a ‘production cost plus 20%’ basis, and is sold to all villagers, not just members, at a weekly market at the village hall. Future Farms is careful to avoid the use of the word ‘organic’, but says they “work the enterprise on an extensive system using the minimum of chemical inputs”.

I remember reading a colour supplement article about Future Farms a couple of years ago. To my shame, I thought it was a great idea that wouldn’t last. I’m delighted to admit I was wrong. The enterprise has not just survived but expanded to incorporate locally-produced lamb and honey, with plans for soft fruit and dairy products. This is how villages used to be, a real community, and I wish I lived there.

‘The real Good Life’

Future Farms

Written by Pete Smith

April 20, 2008 at 10:14 am

Local Food

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Food Up FrontAfter recent discussion of garden paving atrocities (‘Front Gardens‘), it’s time to even things up by talking about all the good things that can be done in your front garden. Riding a growing trend for city-dwellers to grow their own fresh fruit and vegetables wherever they can find space, ‘Food Up Front‘ is an expanding network of urban farmers with the following mission:

To partner with the people of Greater London to promote and initiate the use of front gardens and balconies to grow and share healthy, natural food. This will reduce food miles and dependency on supermarkets, whilst increasing self-reliance and community empowerment.

Established in April 2007, ‘Food Up Front’ was inspired by co-founder Sebastian Mayfield’s failure to get his hands on a local allotment plot. “After four years, I was still only 22nd on the waiting list, so I began looking for an alternative closer to home. And then it dawned on me while lying in the bath one day, why don’t we make better use of the space we already have?”

Starting off as a small group of Mayfield’s neighbours in Balham, South London, ‘Food Up Front’ now has a network of over thirty street coordinators, with growing interest from other London boroughs. A not-for-profit enterprise, the scheme charges an annual membership fee of £20 to cover running costs and fund expansion. New members receive the following:

  • A ‘Starter Kit’, comprising a container, locally produced, peat-free compost, and some organic salad and herb seeds
  • Basic planting and harvesting guide
  • Advice and support from a Food Up Front Street Rep, a local volunteer
  • Details of Food Up Front gatherings and workshops, offering the chance to meet other members and share food growing knowledge
  • The opportunity to share and grow food with neighbours and people in the surrounding area

‘Food Up Front’ was winner of the ‘Green Group or Project’ category at the 2007 Green Guardian Awards.

Green doorstep challenge“: Timesonline

Written by Pete Smith

April 18, 2008 at 4:26 pm

Thanet Earth Update

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Thanet Earth
This month sees the start of construction at Thanet Earth, the Fresca Group’s hydroponic glasshouse enterprise. The number of hits Change Alley has been receiving recently indicates a growing level of interest, so it may be worth bringing together a few facts about the project.

The site lies between the A28 and A299 southwest of Birchington in East Kent map The land previously belonged to Monkton Road Farm, a cauliflower-growing operation trading as Robert Montgomery Limited, in whose name the orginal planning application was submitted in 2005. All documents relating to the planning application are available online by clicking here and entering F/TH/05/0237 in the application number search box. There’s a wealth of information there, including site plans and drawings. The 2005 business plan is particularly interesting, in that it contains figures for energy and water usage for the proposed site.

  • Expected water consumption is 493,968 m³ per year. Rainfall collected from the roof surfaces comes to 290,700 m³ per year. Allowing for 20% evaporation and other losses, this leaves a shortfall of 261,408 m³. 61,000 m³ will be obtained from underground sources, the remainder by abstraction from nearby marshes.
  • The Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems will require a gas supply of 9,186 m³ per hour.
  • A connection to the National Grid capable of handling 32 MW is required.
  • Project Thanet Earth involves a grid connection at 132 kV, and a private network consisting of an 11 kV substation and cable distribution to 7 individual greenhouses with firm grid capacity of 35 MVA. London Power Associates

Thanet Earth, or Project Alice as it was originally known internally within Fresca, will be run as a joint venture with the participating growers, with Fresca operating the marketing company and the site itself. The 90 hectare site will accomodate 7 glasshouses totalling 51 hectares under glass, producing a projected 15% of UK home-grown salad output. Fresca have signed partnership contracts with three independent specialist Dutch growers:

  • Rainbow Growers are the largest Dutch pepper growing group and the most advanced pepper growers in Europe.
  • Red Star Growers are a speciality tomato producer, already active in both Holland and Spain, pioneers of year-round production under artificial lights.
  • A&A are focused purely on cucumbers.

Peppers Today

A Kent TV interview with Steve McVickers, Thanet Earth managing director, can be seen here, with a full transcript here. It has some insights into the project’s history. The choice of site was obviously influenced by geographical location and proximity to transport links, but according to Mr McVickers other major factors were that “Thanet is the only area in south-east England that has a status for urgent regeneration” and “we need a national grid connection and we have the only electricity line that’s going into the Thanet area coming across the site”.

Thanet Earth is a full hydroponic operation, which explains its high water consumption. Within the greenhouses, the plants don’t grow in the soil or even on it. Their root systems sit in water, raised up off the floor to make plant care and harvesting easier. To all extents and purposes, this is not an agricultural project but an industrial one whose output happens to be food. It could just as easily have been set up on an old industrial site, rather than burying 90 hectares of productive agricultural land under glass, concrete and cosmetic landscaping.

thanet-2.jpgClick this picture to see how Thanet Earth is being built right in the middle of a rural area. The reasons for putting it here are overwhelmingly economic: heavy subsidies, job promises, access to utilities and transport links. Environmentally, it has the smell of a disaster; truckloads of refrigerated salad grunting up the M2 towards London. The ‘green’ smokescreen of CHP may work in a spreadsheet, but how will things look when the price of gas doubles? Presumably the price of electricity will have doubled too, so the juice they export to the Grid will pay for it. It’ll probably pay for a new water supply when the water table drops and Minster Marshes dry up. It may even buy a new nature reserve to replace the one at Monkton, just over the A229 from Thanet Earth, which will probably not have much of a long term future.

God save us from accountants.

Written by Pete Smith

March 6, 2008 at 3:05 pm