Tag Archives: Agriculture

A Biblical Proposal for accomplishing Russell Brand’s revolution

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, and this blog is the first thing you’re reading since you crawled out from under it, welcome back! Now watch this interview that you, and only you, missed whilst you were under that rock:

Jeremy Paxson hints in the interview that he thinks Russell Brand’s critiques are valid (and has since said he thinks Brand is “absolutely right”), but still seems to dismiss Brand’s call for revolution on the basis that Brand can only say what an alternative political system shouldn’t do, without specifying how it would work.

This is the classic hic Rhodus, hic saltus taunt that any critics of the status quo (whether political, economic, cultural, etc) face.

Brand’s three criteria for a poltical alternative (which he repeats several times in the interview) are:

1. Shouldn’t destory the planet

2. Shouldn’t create economic disparities

3. Shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people

I want to posit here that a system which satisfies these three criteria can be found in one of the books of the Old Testament that even most Christians would quietly brush off as one of the more backward: Leviticus 25.

I won’t quote the whole chapter here because it is lengthy, but there are two major components that are of note:

1. Every seven years, there was to be a “Sabbath rest” for the land, during which fields were to lie fallow (i.e. crops would not be sown)

2. Every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven, and all land acquired during those fifty years was to be returned to its original owners.

Although many of us struggle with the violence, misogyny and occasional homophobia in the Old Testament, it’s undeniable that there are some good ecological and socio-economic principles here.

Allowing the land to rest for a year was a way of halting the degradation of the land that occurred through intensive cultivation. We now know that over-irrigation of rivers in the Ancient Near East was causing salinisation as early as six thousand years ago, and this was causing yields to fall, and land to be abandoned (it’s also why some parts of the region which were once called the Fertile Crescent are now barren desert). Allowing the soil to rest helped to halt this process and to restore the land.

What saline soil looks like

Requiring debts to be forgiven every 50 years was a way of preventing the concentration of wealth and breaking the cycle of poverty that was common in peasant societies.

Prohibitions against the concentration of  wealth are a recurring theme throughout the the Old Testament. The prophets are particularly scornful of those who accumulate wealth, with Isaiah 5:8 one of the most demonstrative examples:

“Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.”

The semicentennial forgiveness of debts was to be a way of rebalancing society and allowing those who’d fallen on hard times several decades prior — and were still struggling under the burden of debt — to have a chance of starting anew.

Returning land to everyone who’d been forced to sell it in the years between each Jubilee year broke the cycle of poverty wherein families that took on debt had to sell their land to repay it; having lost access to the means of production , they’d have nothing else to sell but their labour, which made them bond-slaves; once you were a bond-slave you had no way of earning enough to buy back your land (it was as much a dead-end job as working at McDonald’s in 21st-century America); the Jubilee broke this cycle of poverty.

Faith communities, Russell Brand fans and anyone else similarly dissatisfied with the current politcal and economic system could advocate for the Sabbath/Jubilee alternative:

Banks and credit card companies could be required to write off households’ debts after a certain number of years (and, in line with the provisions laid out in Leviticus, prevented from charging higher interest rates in the years leading up to the Jubilee year)

Farmers could be given subsidies for allowing their land to lie fallow in a given year, rather than saturating it with petrochemical fertilisers and crop monocultures (This isn’t that far-fetched; the US government already gave about $24 million last year to “farmers” who didn’t grown anything)

These policy proposals are radical. Wall Street (in the US) and the City (in the UK) would fight against them tooth and nail, as, presumably, would Monsanto, Cargill and other agribusiness suppliers who would stand to lose a lot if farmers used time-honoured methods of replenishing the soil rather than cutting-edge, ever-changing technologies developed in the laboratory.

But there is a precedent for this: Around the turn of the century, activists around the world called on rich countries to forgive the debts of poor countries, who were straining under the burden of massive debts that in many cases had been incurred by despots seeking the patronage of the West or the Soivet Union during the Cold War. The activists appealed to the biblical concept of Jubilee. The World Bank and rich country governments told them they were full of it, and that Jubilee just couldn’t work in the modern financial system.

In 2005, the activists won. If impoverished countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America –the international Davids — can win Jubilee from the global Goliaths, there’s no reason the citizens of the rich countries can’t demand their own Sabbath and Jubilee.

Gardens in the Sky!

While January 13 may seem rather late for my first post of 2012, the subject of this post will seem rather early in the year for the majority of my readers who are in the northern hemisphere. I’m leaving plenty of time to plan and scheme to make this happen…

A few years ago, I saw a church in North Minneapolis that had expanded its community garden to cover part of its parking lot. No, they didn’t tear up the parking lot and replace it with the garden, they just created a garden on top of the asphalt.

I don’t know why this was so surprising to me at the time — if relatively tall and healthy plants can grow in pots which have less than a foot of dirt on top of plastic, why not on at least a foot of dirt mounded in rows on top of asphalt? In any case, the fact that people were growing food on top of a parking lot demonstrates the popularity of community gardens, but also the dwindling amount of space for such gardens in densely populated areas. Community gardening is more than just a fun weekend activity. As the world becomes more populated and more urbanised, urban agriculture is being recognised as a important component of food security.

So far, the amount of available land seems to be the main constraint on the growth of urban agriculture. But the garden-on-asphalt suggests there may be a way around that.

Green Roofs are already growing in popularity for new construction projects. Community gardens are already popular on the ground. But as far as I know, these two concepts have not been merged on the scale I now propose:

The Idea: Gardens in the Sky!

Rather than suggest that we start installing rooftop gardens on new buildings, I believe there are already plenty of existing garden-ready surfaces in places where people already live. I would suggest that there are three criteria a surface must meet to be viable for rooftop gardening:

1. It must be flat. Sorry, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Door County is not a suitable model

2. It must have a large, continuous surface area. If it is to be viable as anything more than a hobby garden for a few individuals, the surface needs to be large, and if it is to be functional, the area needs to be mostly continuous

3. It must be in a densely populated area. This isn’t necessary for the rooftop garden per se, but if it’s not in such an area, then it wouldn’t have much advantage over the conventional ground-level garden.

There are a few places that meet these criteria for sky gardens. The first that came to mind was the area in Loring Park near downtown Minneapolis where I lived several years ago. Here’s are screenshots from Google Street View and Bing’s Bird’s eye view of the street on which we used to live:  

As you can see, these apartment buildings are the same height, probably because they were built around the same era in the early 1900s. They are all relatively close together, making it possible to join them with walkways to make an even larger continuous area. There are plenty of areas with this same characteristic (concentrated apartment buildings of almost uniform height) in older neighbourhoods in most American cities. For example, these rowhouses in Washington, DC would make a good candidate:

Another category of rooftop suitable for sky gardens is the mass-produced concrete apartment blocks that sprung up in every country the Soviets touched. What these buildings lack in style or charm, they more than make up for in sky garden-suitability!  Once again, uniform height and close proximity would make it possible to link several buildings’ roofs together to make one continuously accesible surface.

One of these pictures is from Mongolia, and one from Latvia. Can you tell them apart?

Sky gardens in those parts of the former Soviet Union with heavy groundwater and soil contamination would have an extra advantage over ground-level agriculture.

So far I’ve been focusing on groups of buildings of uniform height that could be amalgamated into one large growing area. But, there’s one more category of building that rivals the Soviet apartment blocks in both architectural elegance and sky garden-readiness. These individual buildings are suitably massive by themselves, without any need to be  adjoined to adjacent buildings. I’m talking, of course, about the big box stores.

Here are a few stats to consider: the average Super Target covers 174,000 square feet or 4 acres. The largest Wal-Mart (in Albany, NY) covers 260,000 square feet, or almost 6 acres! That’s plenty of room to grow anything. Heck, even I might be convinced to darken the doors of a Wal-Mart if I could buy the most local produce possible — grown directly above the place where it’s sold.

There might be some other surfaces that meet the criteria for sky gardening: public housing projects in the US? Certain airport terminals? I don’t know, maybe you can help me think of more.

I’m also aware that there might be some technical challenges to sky gardening that wouldn’t bedevil conventional green roofs. Maybe you can help me identify those and find a way around.


Co-ops for Crops

There is a common perception in the West that developing countries just don’t know how to farm and that WE either need to help them grow more food or send them some of the excess food that our system produces.  Although there certainly is potential for increased agricultural productivity in developing countries, farmers in many of those countries actually produce quite a lot of food.  Some of the thorniest problems arise post-harvest, and this post will look at a way of dealing with one of the biggest of those problems.

The Problem

There’s quite a lot we could say about the problem of inadequate crop storage in the developing world.  Calculating post-harvest loss due to spoilage, varmints or other causes is inherently difficult, but the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says it could be anywhere between 15 and 50%.  That’s a very wide range, so let’s just assume that it’s in the middle — say 33%.  That is staggering to think that ONE THIRD of the food that is grown in the developing world might never make it to the table.  There are of course factors other than lack of storage that contribute to this (lack of markets for crops,

That basket-looking thing is their silo

insufficient infrastructure to transport crops to markets, etc.). Having seen, however, the standard grain storage mechanisms for farmers in Uganda (at right), and knowing that even less secure methods are used it’s easy to see how rats, insects, and microorganisms (to say nothing of excess heat or moisture) can ruin a bountiful harvestBetter storage facilities are needed.

Moreover, the inability to store crops for any significant length of time drives down the price that farmers can get.  Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman in the book Enough (2009, PublicAffairs) document how the tragic Ethiopian famine of 2003 came just one year after farmers in Ethiopia had one one of their best harvests ever.  But because all these farmers brought their crops to market at the same time, there was a glut which drove down prices and meant they weren’t able to recoup their costs.  The lower income meant that they had less to spend on inputs for the next season’s harvest and decided to plant less, contributing to the next year’s famine.  Being able to store crops in reserve allows farmers to respond to price signals and choose to bring their products to market when they can get a good price, rather than having to bring everything shortly after harvest.

The Idea

Scale is important.  And modern storage facilities capable of keeping out pests and the elements could be expensive, especially for smallholder farmers.  But I think the communal nature of many societies in the developing world makes it possible to envisage solutions that wouldn’t work in more individualistic societies.  So, the big idea here is to have cooperatively owned and operated crop storage centres.  It would take some financing for the initial building of the storage units (maybe through microloans, but probably a bigger credit facility), but hopefully the increased income for the farmers using the storage centres would help pay off the initial investment rather quickly.  The most sustainable model would be for each member of the co-op to contribute dues in order to be able to store their crops.  The fees would be used for maintenance and could also be used to expand and add storage capacity if the farmers start producing more.

Of course this is a micro-level solution and there are still macro issues that must be addressed to insure farmers in the developing world can access markets.  Creative business models aren’t a substitute for policy reforms, but they can complement, and perhaps even spur those necessary structural changes.


Crowdsourced Compost

Entropy, as someone once said, can be a beautiful thing. Or at the very least, if no one said it, I have now typed it.  Indeed, one of the most beautiful bargains of the earth is that the dirt births edible plants for humans, and whatever part of those plants humans don’t eat can, under natural circumstances, turn back to dirt (this of course also applies to the humans themselves).  I am of course referring to the wonderful process of biodegradation and the associated practice of composting.

In this first installment of a series which seeks to truly capture the essence of this blog’s lofty subtitle, I want to propose a way for harnessing this natural process to do some good and maybe even make some money.  All comments welcome!

The Problem(s)

Erosion of topsoil in Africa.  In case you were unaware, it’s pretty serious.

Trash.  Just mounds of trash, everywhere. Because Africa is urbanizing so quickly, and waste management systems tend to be chaotic,  underfunded or non-existent, the trash piles up in public places where children play. Interestingly though, in the garbage heaps of the developing world, vegetable matter is the largest constitutive category.

The Idea

Set up centres where people can sell their organic waste (vegetable stalks, fruit peels, eggshells, etc.).  Because good composting requires a proper mix of “browns” and “greens,” the price that would be offered might fluctuate from week to week based on the needs of the particular composting facility.  It would also be helpful to find a native species of worm (or some other creepy crawler) that can help to speed up the transmission of waste back to soil.  Here’s one particularly striking creature.

The resulting compost could then be sold to farmers in the region to work into their fields.  BUT, because farmers would most likely be not only buyers of the finished product, but suppliers of inputs (the inedible parts of plants like stalks, leaves, etc.), they could choose either to receive a monetary payment when they bring in their waste, or credit that entitles them to a certain amount of compost.

I think the ideal place to start with these composting centres would be provincial capitals and regional trading towns.  There would still be a local population high enough to generate lots of waste, but the facility might be accessible to more farmers.