33. Soil!

I just read a new book, The Ground Beneath Us by Paul Bogard (NY: Little Brown, 2017), which examines how humans treat soil/ ground/ earth — and gives us pretty low marks for the way we have paved it, doused it with chemicals, and let it erode.

Two of the issues Bogard addresses are directly relevant to feeding the world.  One is the prevalence in the US of chemically-maintained lawn-grass.  Turf is, as he points out, the largest US crop by acreage, gulping 200 gallons of potable water per US citizen (that’s 700 million gallons per year in an increasingly thirsty world);  lawn grass is also a primary recipient of the chemicals that kill bees, butterflies, birds, earthworms, and the microorganisms that make soil alive (and able to sequester carbon).  Because our lawns are so extensive — and such a biotic desert — I have already pointed out in these posts that switching sunny lawn areas around homes and in urban parks to food gardens could have a major impact on alleviating hunger.  (Posts 11, 12, 14, 15, 16)

The other issue Bogard discusses that involves the problem of feeding the world is how we treat agricultural soil.  For one thing, as American Farmland Trust has been pointing out for decades, cities tend to have been founded near good farmland — so our suburbs have for the last 70 years been paving our most fertile soil, diminishing the acreage available for growing food.  Second, where we are still farming, political and economic forces during the same period have pushed towards maximum production of chemically-managed commodity crops.  But this has resulted in dead soil, habitat loss for wildlife, poisoned surface- and groundwater, factory farms for livestock, and most dangerous erosion of the topsoil, that precious few inches just beneath our feet in which life thrives and food can be produced.  This erosion is not negligible.  Bogard cites scientific estimates that at current rates of erosion, there will be topsoil to grow food in for only another 30 to 90 years of harvest (p. 114-116).

If that were to happen, this loss of topsoil would be a show-stopper for much of Earth’s life — starting with us.  And note that while we can lose an inch of topsoil in just 4 or 5 years at current rates, it takes between 500 and several thousand years for nature to create a new inch thereof.

There are in fact corrective measures that could be taken, both to build new soil and revive what’s still there but mistreated.  They all involve regenerative methods of food production.

I have personal experience with soil revitalization.  In 1990, when I was living in Milwaukee, I married a man who had grown up on a farm in the next county (which was fast becoming a suburb).  We bought a house whose sunny back patio was paved with concrete.  We wanted a kitchen garden, so in Spring we had half the concrete busted up and removed, and we trucked in soil for raised beds from my in-laws’ farm — with their permission, even though they were retired and renting the land to a soybean farmer.  I should have been warned by noticing that the whole load of dirt contained only two dying earthworms, but I planted a variety of food crops anyway.  They all germinated, and all but the green beans promptly died — clearly the chemicals that had been applied were  deadly to all but beans.  I was therefore afraid to eat what did grow:  I planted some more beans as a cover crop and just dug them all under in the Fall.  The next year I added a bunch of composted manure and live compost and planted again, and this time everything lived (though not very vigorously) and I dared to eat it.  The third year I again added organic amendments, and by then I was seeing a healthy population of earthworms that had arrived from the adjacent lawn, and my crops thrived.  Within a few years I dug out dandelions whose roots were long enough to be reaching below the level where the pavement had been.  It is generally considered that it takes three years to transition a plot of ground from chemical to organic growing, and this garden was an example of how this works.  By simply withholding chemicals and adding organic amendments full of soil life, dead soil can be revived.

Similar tactics, if industriously pursued, can also build useful topsoil in a very few years. Work compost into sand or subsoil while withholding chemical fertilizers, and you’ll be able to grow certain forbs and grasses that thrive in very low-nutrient conditions.  Dig them under, add additional organic amendments, and repeat for three or four years — at the end of which time you’ll have soil you can grow anything in.  This should not be news, by the way.  In 1899, Peter Kropotkin wrote about Paris-area market gardeners who work in effectively making their soil was so well recognized that “it is now a usual stipulation of the renting contracts of the Paris maraichers that the gardener may carry away his soil, down to a certain depth, when he quits his tenancy.  He himself makes it, and when he moves to another plot he carts his soil away, together with his frames, his water-pipes, and his other belongings.” (Fields, Factories, and Workshops Tomorrow, Freedom Press, 1985 edition, p. 65)  The Parisians of that time had copious amounts of horse manure to draw on for their soil-building purposes;  we do not.  But even if avoidable food waste is ended, there would still be plenty of compost ingredients for us to use instead.

Considering how badly we’ve mistreated our soil, it is a very good thing that soil can be revived and rebuilt.  But this does not happen by itself.  As human activity has caused the harm, so it will take focussed human effort to reverse the damage.  The sooner we start switching to growing in regenerative and sustainable ways, the less damage we’ll have to work to undo, and the sooner we’ll be feeding all of us decently.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


32. We Need to Talk About Birth Control

My last post discussed how world hunger could be significantly decreased if women were to acquire equal rights and opportunities with men, if girls had education equal to  that of boys, and if all women who want to control their family size had ready access to effective and affordable contraception.  And while all three of these face uphill battles in various places, the subject of contraception is surely the most fraught.

There are voices suggesting that birth control is contrary to religious precepts.  I have read of claims that advocating birth control in poor countries or among minority populations is some sort of conspiracy to keep certain groups’ numbers down and thus keep them powerless.  Efforts to promote family planning often run counter to cultural traditions that promote large family sizes mainly because they arose in times when mortality (both infant and general) was so high that parents needed to have all the children they could just to give them hope that any would survive;  in addition, children traditionally helped work farms and were looked on as the only source of support in old age.

In the modern world, however, in which even basic public health measures provide much higher child survival rates than in previous centuries and in which more than half of us live in cities, cultural imperatives that date from the time when most humans were peasant small farmers are no longer so relevant.  The Judeo-Christian precept to “be fruitful and multiply” was issued when the human population was thin and death rates high — and really needs to be reconsidered as now being opposed to the equal precept to “dress and keep the garden,” i.e., to exercise stewardship, care, and preservation of our planet.  And calls to minority populations to boost their numbers make no sense to this writer, for as a Jew and a big history buff I am keenly aware that the rather significant Jewish contribution to world history never involved there being very many us.

I am also a woman, and as such I have had a typical female experience of deep concern to navigate dating and  the start of marriage so as to avoid becoming pregnant before the time was right for me, and then equal concern to achieve pregnancy and parenthood when the right time came.  I am glad to be a mother and stepmother and grandmother — not least because the number of children my two husbands and I raised were well within our means to do so.  In both preventing pregnancy in the early years of my first marriage, and being able to stop using contraception at will, good family planning was crucial to being able to have a family I could do right by and also a satisfying life.  From my own experience, therefore, I know how important fertility control is to every woman, and I believe that it is profoundly disrespectful to women to suggest for one second that they are not able to appropriately determine when and how often to bear children. Each woman knows her own situation better than anyone else, and being able to control her fertility as she chooses needs to be recognized as a most basic human right.  It’s also one of the keys to feeding the world.

For it needs to be recognized that fully enabling all women to exercise this right is critical to limiting human numbers to what this finite planet can support.  We can do much to decrease waste of food, to better use farmland for feeding people, to increase agricultural production in cities and suburbs.  But if we don’t stop the exponential growth of human numbers, none of that will be enough.  The human right to control one’s fertility, and the need for humans to limit their numbers to what Earth can sustainably support, go hand in hand.

On a completely different note, here is a recipe I learned just this month, which I really like.  This recipe will make four servings; you can divide or multiply it to suit your needs.

Black Beans With Rice

Ingredients:  2 onions;  olive oil;  2 15-oz. cans of black beans;  chopped cilantro;  2 limes; salt and black pepper to taste.  1/2 cup brown rice and 1 1/2 cups  water.

Directions:  1. Combine rice and water in a small saucepan, cover, and begin cooking it.  2. Chop the cilantro and set aside.  3. Chop and caramelize the onions in a second saucepan.  4. Add beans, and squash them a bit with a potato masher. 5.  Add juice from the limes, and salt and pepper to taste, and warm through.  6. When the rice is done, combine rice and bean mixture and serve with cilantro on the side (or mixed in — whichever you and your fellow diners prefer).  Add a salad or vegetable dish to complete the meal.

31. Food Supply and Women’s Issues

Providing families with food has been associated with women throughout human history.  It started with our being mammals, whose babies’ survival depended on breastmilk, which only the female of the species could supply.  And it’s hard to be a hunter if you’re carrying a baby and have to stop to nurse it whenever it’s hungry (if you don’t, its cries will scare the prey away).  So men tended to be the hunters, while women and girls were the foragers for plant foods that made up most of the diets for most groups of early humans, as is also the case for hunter-gatherers today.  Women were also the ones who generally cooked whatever meat the men brought in.  So from the start, the men got more of the food-supplying glory while the women did more of the work.

Fast-forward to today, and a new book, Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, which looks at how we can fight climate change.  And this book includes a short but pithy segment on “Women and Girls” which notes (on p. 76) a few vital facts about the global food supply.  One is that “On average, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 60 to 80 percent of crops in poorer parts of the world.”  However, Drawdown also points out that these women are often unpaid or underpaid small farmers who live in situations such that “compared with their male counterparts, women [tend to] have less access to a range of resources, from land and credit to education and technology.”  For this reason, the book cites a UN Food and Agriculture Organization determination that “if all women smallholders receive equal access to productive resources, their farm yields will rise by 20 to 30 percent, total agricultural output in low-income countries will increase by 2.5 to 4 percent, and the number of undernourished people in the world will drop by 12 to 17 percent.  One hundred million to 150 million people will no longer be hungry.”

That’s huge.  And I would add that these same low-income countries are exactly the places where this amelioration of hunger is needed most.

The same pages detail proven measures to accomplish this improvement in women’s abilities to farm:  recognize women as farmers in their own right rather than farm helpers;  improve women’s ability to own land directly rather than through men;  improve women’s access to training and microcredit;  focus research and development on crops women grow and systems that women use;  and favor approaches such as group farming that are especially useful to women farmers.

An equally important part of the feeding-the-world equation which Drawdown discusses, and which is especially  a women’s issue, is birth control, and it is significant for two reasons.  One is the obvious point that the more of us there are, the harder it is to feed us all, so enabling women to bear only as many children as they actually want will ease the demand on agricultural output.  The second is that the more children a woman farmer has, the less time and energy she has left to work her land, so that lack of access to desired contraception is another factor that diminishes women’s agricultural production.  Right now, hundreds of millions of women — and not a few men — would like to limit their family size but lack access to the contraception the want and need.  So providing the 5.3 billion dollars that the Drawdown article identifies as the sum needed to create access to desired contraception for all who want but don’t have it would be doubly useful in helping to end hunger.

One additional point that Drawdown makes is that when girls have the chance to go to school, they tend to marry later, have fewer children, use more contraception, earn more money and thus contribute better to their families’ finances, and better protect their families’ health.  So enabling all girls to become educated through high school becomes a big factor in ending hunger.  Who’d have thought it?

Drawdown is focussed on decreasing carbon emissions, and the fewer people there are the lower humanity’s overall carbon footprint.  But in the interest of enabling everyone to voluntarily control their birth rate the book makes some crucial points about some of the measures that need to be taken to solve world hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

30. The Consequences of Universal Plant-Food Diets… Would Be Good

On June 21, Mother Jones online reprinted a May 1 Slate article by L. V. Anderson which looked at the effects on climate and the economy if by some fantastic stroke the whole world went suddenly vegan or vegetarian.

Relying on research published in 2009 by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Anderson reports that universal veganism would immediately reduce agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions substantially:  carbon emissions would drop by 17%, methane by 24%, and nitrous oxide by 21%.  Even universal vegetarianism (using some eggs and dairy) would drop emissions much of that way.  Either would be enough to significantly moderate climate change — and the researchers found that it would do so at a much lower financial cost than making the same decreases solely through switching to renewable power sources.

Anderson points out, though, that an instant global switch to meatless diets would also cause significant economic disruptions in the agriculture industry.  The mostly-low-income workers who work in livestock-raising and in meat-processing plants would all be suddenly out of a job, as would the farmers who grow feed crops.  According to Anderson, hundreds of thousands of people would lose their livelihoods if we all went vegan (though the impact would be less if people still used dairy, eggs, and wool).  The feed-crop farmers could switch to growing food for people (and indeed, this is one of the things I have advocated for in past posts).  But most of the poor involved in livestock and meat-packing jobs would be in trouble, while  at the same time so much land would be suddenly idled that its price would drop precipitously.   The combination would be enough  to seriously mess up the whole global economy and cause, as Anderson puts it “widespread suffering and social unrest.”

On the other hand, Anderson points out that the amount of land which would become available if there were no livestock would be some 10.4 million square miles of grazing land plus some 386,000 square miles of land currently growing feed.  Not all of that grazing land could be otherwise farmed.  But if, say, one million square miles became newly available for growing food for direct human consumption, that could feed an awful lot of people.   And thereby put a nice dent in human hunger.

Another point Anderson makes is that getting rid of the factory farms — with their routine use of continual antibiotics — would immediately go very far towards preventing any further development of antibiotic-resistant germs and thus preserve antibiotics’ effectiveness in treating infections.

And Anderson points out that “if the result of a worldwide shift to a plant-based diet sounds like a right-winger’s worst nightmare, it’s worth pointing out that continuing to eat as much meat as we currently do promises to result in a left-winger’s worst nightmare:  In a world of untrammeled global warming, where disastrous weather events are routine, global conflicts will increase, only the wealthy will thrive, and the poor will suffer.”  So the article ends its consideration of the subject by suggesting that while an instant worldwide shift to plant-based diets would be direly disruptive (as well as wholly unlikely), we do all need to stop eating large amounts of meat.  “Let’s try a middle path,” Anderson recommends:  We can stop eating the products of factory farms, and can eat less red meat (produced by methane-belching cattle, sheep, and goats).  A “gradual” but steady reduction of meat-eating would give the market time to adjust while still steadily reducing greenhouse gas emissions and freeing up a lot of land for feeding people.

So yet another voice advocates mostly-plant diets for all.  I do too, as part of making it possible to feed the world as well as for the improvement of human health, the mitigation of climate change, the decrease of water pollution, and the easing of animal suffering.

Here is another recipe for meatless eating, to help you consider it:


Ingredients:  taco or tortilla shells/wraps of your choice, enough for your party of diners;  1 box prepared not-meat crumbles and/or 2 cans pinto beans with 1 tsp. thyme, 1 tsp. cumin, and chopped fresh cilantro;  shredded cheese OR fake-cheese shreds;  salsa of your choice, chopped tomatoes; shredded lettuce; chopped onion.

Directions:  1. Prepare the pinto beans (if using) with the seasonings and heat them in the microwave.  2. Heat the meatless chopmeat-substitute (if using) in the microwave.  3. Arrange the tomatoes, lettuce, onion, salsa, and cheese or “cheeze” shreds, as well as the crumbles and/or beans in dishes on the table.  4. Warm the taco or tortilla shells.  5.  Assemble everyone you’re feeding and invite them to make their tacos/tortillas to their taste.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

29. Agriculture and Climate Change — and the Farm Bill

The bad news is, in a sense, nothing new.  Farmers have always worried about droughts, floods, hail, unseasonable frosts, harvest-decreasing heat waves, and the insect and disease outbreaks that might be associated with unusual weather.  It merely does not help that global climate change can make all of these likelier, more severe, and less predictable.

The good news is very new, however:  the quite recent discovery that certain agricultural practices can take huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil for the long term.  We’re talking tons of carbon per acre that can be removed from being greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and turned into increased soil fertility with each growing season.  Which could both mitigate climate change and its rougher weather, and make the same amount of land more productive.  Sounds like a massive win-win.

The only problem is that just some agricultural practices do the trick, while the practices commonest in the developed world are a big part of what created the problem.  The erosion caused by overgrazing, and also industrial-agriculture tilling done by huge gas-guzzling machinery for growing commodity crops on farms of thousands of acres, both release a lot of carbon into the air.  The practices that sequester carbon, in contrast, are the ones that work with nature.  They may be called agroecology or regenerative or sustainable agriculture.  They minimize the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, using green manures, cover crops, and compost to increase soil fertility, and using companion planting and crop rotation to minimize loss to pests. When they graze animals, they limit their numbers and keep moving them around to maintain a healthy greensward.  These practices are all easier to do as part of a smaller operation.  And yes, these techniques do produce enough food for all — if their produce is not wasted on animal feed and biofuels.

So we actually know what our global civilization’s  agriculture needs to do to stop and reverse climate change, and we have good ideas of how to do it.

The problem is that national policies, much influenced by corporate profit motives and expressed, for example, in the U.S. Farm Bill, are all still pushing the wrong way.  And as long as government subsidies set up a situation in which mechanized industrial-scale farming is what farmers have to do to stay in business, that’s what they’re going to do.

I’m making a good guess, though, that for most farmers the real bottom line is that they just want to make a living growing food for people to eat.  Change the rules so that they could make a good living using agroecology practices and producing vegetables — instead of erosive practices growing, say, commodity corn — and most farmers would be fine with making a switch.

To feed the world, we need both a livable world and a situation in which farmers can grow food for its citizens.  Identifying the areas in which agricultural policy needs to change is a necessary first stop towards getting there.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

28. “Wasted Food”

(I’m finally back in harness, in case anyone was wondering.  First there were the Passover/ Spring Break holidays which included both our own travel and then hosting the welcome invasion of out-of-town family;  and since then I’ve been Getting My Garden In.  That’s almost done, so now I can resume blogging.)

Actually, there are some bits of good news to report on the topic of not wasting food.  Jordan Figueiredo, an activist on this issue, reports progress on the salvaging of cosmetically imperfect/ “ugly” produce.  One brand called Misfits is now marketing ugly produce in 300 US stores involving three supermarket chains.  Also, Walmart and Whole foods have both begun pilot programs to sell odd-looking fruits and vegetables at certain of their stores.  And chefs are becoming aware that they can use “ugly” items too.

This is all still very small-scale and tentative — but any journey starts with the first step.  It is very welcome to see these first steps taken;  scaling them up is the next thing that needs to happen.

On the other hand, Kate Cox and H. Claire Brown of the New Food Economy wrote a review (on May 15) of a new study on the content of food that Americans throw away.  The study was done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future and is available online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  It aimed to investigate not the amount of food that US citizens collectively waste but the nutritional content of that wasted food.  What they found was sobering.

It turns out that it is not just the 1,217 calories per US person per day that gets tossed, but that these are not comprised primarily of junk food calories but of valuable nutrients.  Each 1,217 calorie unit of loss includes:  33 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber (19%) of daily needs), 1.7 micrograms of Vitamin D, 286 milligrams of calcium (29% of daily needs), 880 milligrams of potassium, 48% of iron RDA, 43% of vitamin C RDA… and so on.  In other words, the researchers discovered that what’s thrown away is indeed nutritious stuff, which could, if salvaged and eaten, contribute to greatly improved nutrition for the US population.  And we could use it, both because too many millions of us are food insecure and also because even the food-secure among us chronically fall short in our intake of many vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The study’s authors point out that preventing even a portion of this food from being wasted could boost the nutrition of all Americans from where we are to completely adequate.  They point to several tactics — revised and standardized sell-by dates, educating consumers, and giving tax breaks to grocery stores that donate leftovers to food banks instead of landfills — as low-cost ways of significantly decreasing the loss of good food that we actually need.  And the researchers also suggest that part of the education we need might be started by shifting away from talking about “food waste” (which we unconsciously take to mean talk about “waste”) and beginning instead to talk about “wasted food” — which would emphasize in our minds that this is food we’re discussing.

I think they have a point.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

27. Hunger, Poverty, and Food Justice: First Thoughts

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his work showing that famine deaths in India had been primarily due not to lack of available food but to hungry people not having enough money to afford to buy what food was available.

He could have cited as another example the Irish Potato Famine, when over a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated while English absentee landlords who owned Irish farmland were exporting Irish-grown wheat that the Irish poor could not afford to buy.

On a different note, American Farmland Trust reports on the growing number of aging farmers who have no one to pass their farms on to, while a growing number of young would-be farmers cannot afford to buy farmland — at the same time that weekly newspaper Wisconsin State Farmer reports on a trend in which non-farming millionaires buy farmland as an investment (WSF, 1/6/17, p. 9B).  They hire people to work it, but these are employees who are required to produce a profit over stewarding the land or growing what feeds people (and will not become independent farmers themselves).

Similarly, nations like China and Saudi Arabia that cannot feed their people on their own land are increasingly buying up agricultural land in places like Africa.  African governments are happy to accept payment for this — but local Africans whose ancestors have farmed these lands from time immemorial (often without formal title because their tenancy stretches back prior to such notions) lose their lands and thus their ability to feed themselves and their families, and inequity increases while hunger is merely shifted, not solved.

Meanwhile, food pantries in the U.S. are needed because minimum wage jobs plus SNAP/ “food stamps” together do not enable people to buy enough food for their families.  The need for free and reduced-cost school lunches is part of the same picture.

Even the factory-farming of chickens and pigs for “cheap” meat and eggs is deeply  abusive.  For the typical set-up is that a big corporation owns the animals and contracts with a farmer to raise them.  But the farmers do not get paid unless they do exactly as the corporation specifies, no matter how inhumane or unsanitary that may be, yet they are paid so little even when they comply that they can barely scrape by and have no extra money left over to, for example, control manure safely, while if anything goes wrong it is the farmers and not the corporations that take the financial hit.

In short, there’s an abundance of evidence that hunger and misuse of agricultural assets is very often not at all a matter of inadequate food supply or agricultural capacity, but rather a direct result of poverty and oppression.  So any discussion of solving the hunger problem needs to include consideration of economic equity.   A well-fed world would be one in which the farmers who work the land and raise the animals are the people who own those assets, and in which they are able to make a living because everyone is able to pay enough for food to make farming economically viable.  But this is decidedly not the system we have now.

For this ideal to come about, a lot of changes would have to happen.

One area to look for changes would be the US Farm Bill, which is passed by Congress twice a decade (the next one is in 2018) and which shapes government food policy for the subsequent five years.  For some time now, it has mostly benefited industrial agriculture, with subsidies that support mega-farms at the expense of small family-size ones, chemical use as opposed to IPM and organic practices, commodity crops including high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol as opposed to vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds (which are all amazingly called “specialty crops”) that people would eat directly.

A different area for action would be increasing the wage scale for low-level workers so that anyone willing and able to work could afford to buy adequate food — even at prices that would pay farmers enough to support their families decently through farming.

Land reform also has to be part of the picture, for while it may be profitable for governments and corporations and millionaires to buy large tracts of land to grow crops for trade, this dispossesses people who had been feeding their families on those lands’ production, thus increasing hunger and injustice simultaneously.

Changing all these things will require enormous political effort, and is unlikely to come either easily or quickly.  But if hunger is to be ended, such changes in the status quo will have to be implemented.  The sooner we get started, the better.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley