One Harvest From Chaos

SUBHEAD: If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimaginable levels.  

By Lester R. Brown on 15 February 2011 in Earth Policy Institute -  

Image above: A bad harvest in Malawi, Africa, 2005. From (

In early January, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, on February 3rd, the FAO announced that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent. Will this rise in food prices continue in the months ahead? In all likelihood we will see further rises that will take the world into uncharted territory in the relationship between food prices and political stability. Everything now depends on this year’s harvest.

Lowering food prices to a more comfortable level will require a bumper grain harvest, one much larger than the record harvest of 2008 that combined with the economic recession to end the 2007-08 grain price climb. If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimaginable levels. Food riots will multiply, political unrest will spread and governments will fall.

The world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets. Over the longer term, expanding food production rapidly is becoming more difficult as food bubbles based on the overpumping of underground water burst, shrinking grain harvests in many countries. Meanwhile, increasing climate volatility, including more frequent, more extreme weather events, will make the expansion of production more erratic. Some 18 countries have inflated their food production in recent decades by overpumping aquifers to irrigate their crops.

Among these are China, India, and the United States, the big three grain producers. When water-based food bubbles burst in some countries, they will dramatically reduce production. In others, they may only slow production growth. In Saudi Arabia, which was wheat self-sufficient for more than 20 years, the wheat harvest is collapsing and will likely disappear entirely within a year or so as the country’s fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, is depleted.

 In Syria and Iraq, grain harvests are slowly shrinking as irrigation wells dry up. Yemen is a hydrological basket case, where water tables are falling throughout the country and wells are going dry. These bursting food bubbles make the Arab Middle East the first geographic region where aquifer depletion is shrinking the grain harvest. While these Middle East declines are dramatic, the largest water-based food bubbles are in India and China.

A World Bank study indicates that 175 million people in India are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is feeding 130 million people. Spreading water shortages in both of these population giants are making it more difficult to expand their food supplies. Beyond irrigation wells going dry, farmers must contend with climate change. Crop ecologists have a rule of thumb that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, grain yields drop 10 percent. Thus it was no surprise that searing temperatures in western Russia last summer shrank the grain harvest by 40 percent.

On the demand side of the food equation, there are now three sources of growth. First is population growth. There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night, many of them with empty plates. Second is rising affluence. Some three billion people are now trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive meat, milk, and eggs. And third, massive amounts of grain are being converted into oil, i.e. ethanol, to fuel cars. Roughly 120 million tons of the 400-million-ton 2010 U.S. grain harvest are going to ethanol distilleries.

Encouragingly, President Sarkozy of France vowed to use his term as president of the G-20 in 2011 to stabilize world food prices. Thus far the talk has been about such measures as regulating export restrictions and speculation, but if the G-20 ends up treating the symptoms and not the causes of rising food prices, the effort will be of little avail. What is needed now is a worldwide effort to raise water productivity, similar to the one launched by the international community a half century ago to raise cropland productivity.

This earlier effort tripled the world grain yield per acre between 1950 and 2010. On the climate front, the goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050—the widely accepted goal by governments—is not sufficient. The challenge now is to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 with a World War II-type mobilization to raise energy efficiency and to shift from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

 On the demand side, we need to accelerate the shift to smaller families. There are 215 million women in the world who want to plan their families, but who lack access to family planning services. They and their families represent over a billion of the world’s poorest people. While filling the family planning gap, we need to simultaneously launch an all-out effort to eradicate poverty. Once under way, these two trends reinforce each other.

And in an increasingly hungry world, converting grain into fuel for cars is not the way to go. It is time to remove subsidies for converting grain and other crops into automotive fuel. If President Sarkozy can get the G-20 to focus on the causes of rising food prices, and not just the symptoms, then food prices can be stabilized at a more comfortable level.  

Maintaining Food Security in Hawaii
SUBHEAD: Easy to grow alternatives to some of our more conventional foods.
By Scott Middlekauf on 14 July 2009 in Evening Rain Farm

Just the other day, while I was eating my supper in one of my “doom and gloom” modes, it occurred to me that I have no idea what sort of a safety net exists globally in terms of food supply. How much food is stored up? My answer could have been three months, or three years. I had no clue. So, I went on a few government web sites to look at the official statistics. As it turns out, since 1999, global grain production has consistently fallen short of demand. Last year was the largest worldwide grain harvest ever, but it failed to break even. So right now we are left with a 59 day buffer. Two months, then we are running on empty (empty bellies, that is).

It seems to me that there are many links along the chain of food production and distribution that could fail to support the weight of our population. A multitude of surprises could await us: war-inspired blockades, oil shortages leading to fertilizer shortages, weather extremes may fail to nurture our fields, social or economic unrest leading to disorder, local storms interfering with ships. We live in interesting times.There are many things that we can neither change nor predict. Fortunately, here in Hawaii food security comes easy.

As tropical farmers, we have several easy-to-grow alternatives to grains. Some options are: sweet potato, taro, cassava, plantain, breadfruit, malabar chestnut, breadnut, and peach palm. However, some tree crops in particular make carbohydrates available with very low labor input, high disease resistance, and a reliable harvest. A few notable ones are Breadfruit, Breadnut, Malabar Chestnut, and Peach Palm.

Many of the plants of the genus Artocarpus grow rapidly and produce heavily on the rainy side of the Big Island. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is no exception. Breadfruit will begin fruiting in about 3-5 years, and continue fruiting for 50 years or more. Depending on your conditions, a mature tree fruits more or less continuously for 8-10 months. Some fruits may be present on the tree almost all year long, with ripeness coming in several flushes during the year. As the tree matures, these flushes will overlap more and more, becoming an almost continuous season. There are at least 160 named varieties of breadfruit.

I have tasted 7 varieties, and consider them about as similar as the various potatoes. The most interesting factor in having more than one variety of breadfruit is they may ripen at different times of the year. There is very little information available on this island about which varieties fruit at which time(s) of the year.

Also,the season varies from year to year, and also according to rainfall, and elevation. I have 6 varieties in the ground, and am gradually learning about these trees. Based on my observations of my fairly young trees, I am guessing that with a few select varieties, a 12 month harvest will be possible. I’ll let you know in ten years. For now, the Hawaiian and Samoan (Ma’a’ fala) are the most readily available, and they make good eating. You can’t go wrong with either of these.

Cooked Breadfruit is less than 2% protein and about 3-6% fat. To prepare a breadfruit for eating, just do anything that you would do to a potato. It can be steamed, boiled, baked, roasted, and/or fried. The skin and core are edible and agreeable, though some prefer to remove them. Once cooked, it can be mashed, sliced, fried, and combined with any recipe in place of pasta, grain, or potatoes. Homefries, lasagna, poi, and pancakes are among the final products. I personally like to steam it in the pressure cooker for 15 minutes, then make mashed breadfruit, because it is so easy. If you can get the timing right, a whole Breadfruit stuffed under the embers at an outdoor fire comes out really delicious.

Breadnut is in the same genus as Breadfruit, but is considered a different species. This tree has very similar appearance and growing habits. It’s fruit looks very much like a Breadfruit , but is filled with seeds instead of starchy pulp. The seeds are somewhat like jackfruit seeds. Breadnut has significant amounts of protein (13-16%) and fat (6-29%). Breadnut seeds are very similar to, and a bit better than, Jackfruit seeds. I usually boil Jackfruit seeds for over an hour, when they’re slightly soft and the skin splits.

Malabar Chestnut also grows rapidly and begins fruiting in a few years. It’s fruits are generally similar to Breadnut, in that within each fruit are a number of seeds which can be boiled, roasted, or steamed to yield a tasty carbohydrate. Malabar seeds are about 16% protein and 40% fat. I like to boil the seeds for 15 minutes, then scoop out the flesh and eat it with a tiny spoon. It has a nutty sweet flavor. A worthy snack all on its own.

Peach Palm (Bactris gasipaes) is known on this island for it’s heart of palm. It grows very rapidly, and is clumping. These two features make it a very prolific producer of palm heart. Of more interest to subsistence farmers is it’s high protein (16%), oily, and starchy fruit. In central and south america, there are dozens of varieties of Peach Palm specifically grown for their fruit. Unfortunately, as far as I know, the varieties that are grown here on this island are selected for their heart. Since these fruits have oxalic acid (like taro) they need to be cooked thoroughly. I boil them for at least an hour (or two) and remove the peel before eating.

I encourage you to plant at least one starch producing tree on your property. It’s a small investment of time and energy, and it may one day meet your most basic needs. Most people in this country, even farmers, have become used to food always being available at the store. For those of us who haven’t experienced hunger, it’s difficult to fathom the emotional effect of not having basic food to put on the table. Psychically, food has been relegated to the position of entertainment. It has not always been so, and it may not always be so in our future. Your Breadfruit tree could one day stand as the most precious thing in your life.

Fast Food (Part 1)
By Craig Elevitch and Kim Wilkinson in Overstory 

Aloha and Happy New Year! If your New Year’s Resolution was to create more food abundance for your family, your enthusiasm may already be flagging when you look at the work involved in creating a garden of annual plants. Well, take heart! This issue of The Overstory is the first in a two-part series on creating food abundance quickly with perennial plants in the tropics. Unlike annuals, you can plant perennial plants just once, and they will continue producing for you year after year, some for 10-20 years!

By using perennials to provide a large portion of your food supply, you can save yourself the work of having to seed and establish large garden beds every few months. Once you have your perennials in place and producing, then you will have the time for annual crops to supplement your food. Past editions of The Overstory showed how pioneering species (#22) can be used to quickly revegetate and how perennial leaf vegetables (#12) can be the foundation for food abundance in a low-input, high production system.

Here we look at those concepts and additional species for abundant and enduring food production. In this issue, vining species which make use of horizontal space (ground covers) and vertical space (trellises) around dwellings or in orchards are the focus. The next issue will cover abundant food-producing shrubs, bushes, and trees for hedges and living fences. The purpose of gardening with perennials is to get the highest return from the least amount of effort. When choosing species to serve this purpose, use plants that:
• Have multiple edible parts such as leaves, fruits, flowers and/or tubers
• Contribute substantial nutrients to diet • Provide multiple functions in the landscape such as ground cover, hedge, animal fodder.
• Are highly productive even in poor conditions
• Are competitive with weeds
• Are pest and disease resistant
• Require minimal care • Enhance other parts of your landscape
• Can make use of wasted, low-fertility, or unproductive spaces • Can begin producing for you within 2-12 months
• Will continue producing for more than a year (perennial)
• Are easy to propagate and are widely adapted to a range of climates and soils.
There are a number of food-producing vines that fit the above description. Vines have the ability to root in one fertile place and spread horizontally or vertically to other, less favorable areas. This makes vines particularly useful for waste space in the garden and landscape, like rocky embankments or areas that are difficult to access regularly.

Vines can also increase productivity in limited spaces because they can make use of vertical space, climbing up walls or trellis. Some vines can also take over large areas or climb over other plants--so be careful which species you use, and where you put them! The example species below are appropriate for a range of tropical and subtropical conditions.

As with any new plantings, consult with others who have experience in your area to help you select the best species and varieties for your area. There are thousands of edible and useful plants--these are just a selection to inspire you to seek out the best for your situation and tastes. Some Perennial Vines for Fast Food Vines for use of horizontal space (ground cover): Tropical pumpkin (Curcurbita moschata) will form a cover over a very large area if you let it, and is an excellent choice for pioneering a newly cleared area. It produces large quantities of fruits and has little trouble with fruit flies or other pests.

The stem tips and flowers are also edible. Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) can be managed as a ground cover in which case it will be used for its delicious young leaves and stem tips, rather than for the tuber. While most varieties can be grown for edible leaves, certain varieties may have been selected for leaf production. A patch of sweet potato managed for leaf production will also serve as a perennial source of propagative material for future tuber or leaf plantings.

Chayote (Sechium edule) is a vigorous vine that produces large quantities of fruits and stem tips, edible cooked or raw. It thrives especially well on embankments that are difficult to cultivate intensively. Vines for use of vertical space (trellis): Lablab bean (Dolicos lablab) Red lablab is a very vigorous nitrogen fixing vine which produces abundant edible pods that can be eaten young as a vegetable.

Mature seeds can also be dried and stored for later use as a grain legume. Perennial lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus) produces large quantities of lima beans that are eaten cooked at immature or mature stages. Winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) has almost all edible parts: pod, beans, tubers, young leaves, flowers and stem tips. Requires heat and good moisture to produce well. Once established, winged bean is extremely productive. Passionfruit (Passiflora spp.) is a vigorous twining plant that can produce large amounts of fruit after a year. Many species of passionfruit can tolerate a large amount of neglect, while producing 2-3 crops per year. A beautiful addition to the landscape! Malabar (Ceylon) spinach (Basella rubra) is grown for its leaves and stem tips, which are valued for their mucilaginous texture when cooked. Although this vine tends to die back annually, the plant persists well through self-seeding.

Fast Food (Part 2)
By Craig Elevitch and Kim Wilkinson in Overstory

This issue of the Overstory is the second in a special two-part series on creating food abundance quickly using perennial plants. Unlike an annual garden, perennials can be integrated in agroforestry systems to provide a relatively stable supply of nutritious food--usually with less work than establishing and maintaining a large garden of annuals.

“Fast Food” perennials can have a place in any agroforestry planting, but are especially valuable in the following situations:

  • after a disaster (mud slide, hurricane, etc.) when conventional food supplies are diminished for months or years 
  • for people who have recently moved or relocated 
  • for people who do not have time or resources to maintain annual gardens, but want to grow a dependable supply of fresh, nutritious vegetables and fruits. In the last edition (Overstory #25), we looked at perennial vine crops that can be used to make use of horizontal space (ground cover) and vertical space (trellis). This edition covers quick and abundant perennial shrubs and trees which can be used in hedges, living fences and shelter belts, or as part of a stacked system. As a reminder from Overstory #25, in order to get the highest return from the least amount of effort, use plants that can:
  • produce abundantly even in poor site conditions 
  • can compete with weeds 
  • resist pests and diseases 
  • thrive with minimal care 
  • provide multiple edible parts such as leaves, fruits, flowers and tubers
  • contribute important nutrients to diet 
  • provide multiple functions in the landscape such as ground cover, hedge, animal fodder, etc. 
  • enhance other parts of your landscape 
  • make use of wasted spaces 
  • begin producing for you within a 3-12 months 
  • continue producing for more than a year, some for 10-20 years 
  • be propagated easily and are widely adapted to a range of climates and soils. 

The example species below are appropriate for a range of tropical and subtropical conditions. As with any new plantings, consult with others who have experience in your area to help you select the best species and varieties. There are thousands of edible and useful plants--these are just a selection to inspire you to seek out the best for your situation and tastes.

Some Perennial Trees and Shrubs for Fast Food
Moringa (Moringa oleifera or M. stenopetala) is a tree which can be kept bushy by continual tipping of the new branches. The new leaves and tips are used in stir fries and soups. The African variety (M. stenopetala) has a wonderful nutty flavor. Both species are drought tolerant, and have many other uses, such as medicine, water purification, etc. Chaya (Cnidoscolus chayamansa) is a very prolific plant that has highly nutritious leaves. Two or three of these plants will supply greens for a family 2-3 times a week.

Tolerates drought very well, although requires regular watering for good leaf production. Spineless and high nutrient selections have been made.

(Note: leaves must be cooked to deactivate toxins!)

Katuk (Sauropus androgynus) produces leaves with a wonderful nutty flavor. The branch tips are often steamed and eaten in stir fries or like asparagus. This plant is very prolific in hot and humid conditions.

Cassava, manioc, tapioca (Manihot esculenta) is very easy to grow from stem cuttings, and is a prolific source of carbohydrates from its edible tubers. The cooked leaves can be eaten as a nutritious green vegetable.

All parts of this plant must be carefully cooked to remove toxins. This plant is very hardy and grows in a wide variety of conditions with little care. Pacific spinach (Hibiscus manihot or Hibiscus manihot) is an okra relative, grown for its large tender leaves which are eaten throughout the tropics. This plant is very adaptable, but thrives in hot and humid conditions. Pigeon pea, gandul, dhal (Cajanus cajan) is a remarkably useful and productive shrub or small tree. The young pods are used as a vegetable, and the mature seeds as a grain legume. Produces well even in dry conditions.

Long-lived agroforestry selections have an upright form and high vegetative growth, and can be used for fodder and green manure banks, as well as hedges and quick windbreaks. Sissoo spinach (Alternanthera sissoo) has edible leaves and stem tips and is a very productive creeping shrub which also does well as a ground cover. It holds its own well against weeds, and tolerates drought. Papaya (Carica papaya) develops fruit rapidly, usually within a year if well mulched and watered. Fruits can be eaten green or ripe. Young leaves can also be used as a vegetable, and the plant has medicinal properties.

Banana (Musa spp.) is remarkably productive and useful, providing fruit, fodder and mulch material. Many varieties perform well in partial shade, and can be integrated into a stacked system. Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is an easily grown source of sweetener. Heritage cultivars are especially easy to process or eat out-of-hand. The plants also make a good component in a living fence or wind break.

No comments :

Post a Comment