Monday, February 28, 2011

The history of food took an ominous turn in 1991...!

The title of this post I took from an article written by Ellen Brown for where she says:

"The history of food took an ominous turn in 1991, at a time when no one was paying much attention. That was the year Goldman Sachs decided our daily bread might make an excellent investment. . . .Robber barons, gold bugs, and financiers of every stripe had long dreamed of controlling all of something everybody needed or desired, then holding back the supply as demand drove up prices."  Read more here.

I found this image of the supermarket trolley below on a blog that was posting on food security in Barbados... and the writer was deeply disturbed at the lack of FS in his country. Its struck me that this image was a potent symbol of the common misconception of where food comes from. Backyard food growing efforts, as empowering, important and useful as they are, dont automatically lead people to think deeply about this topic. I would argue that our food security is a complex thing ... and you may want to see the film I recommend below to understand more on why increasing speculation on food commodities puts us globally so at risk. We are not separate and contained by our quarter acre blocks ( for those of who even have that or more!) Its no longer a case of "I'm OK Jack...  so long as Im fine!"

Higher rents and house prices already make life unbearable for many in this country and elsewhere. Hands up who's been affected. If you haven't you're lucky! The film I refer to shows that speculation and risk ventures on housing led directly to the problem we have now around the world in the housing sector ( and employment sector).
What I learnt from this film is that despite the fall out in 2008's GFC little has changed ... and in fact commodities now more than ever before are being gambled on in the way that housing was. 

symbol of food security for many!

"Shrink in the Kitchen" is a fascinating and engaging website/blog by Scott Haas based in Cambridge, Massachusetts : 

Scott Haas is the author of “Hearing Voices” (Dutton) and “Are We There Yet?” (Plume) and a co-author of “The Da Silvano Cookbook” (Bloomsbury).   He won a James Beard award in 2004 for his radio work.  His work appears in a variety of publications, including Wine Enthusiast, The Boston Globe, and Gastronomica.  He has a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an active consultative practice emphasizing diagnostic work.  

Before I share the article from the Shrink in the kitchen with you I want to explain something... I am one of millions who has little real comprehension of what derivatives and financial markets jargon is about. Mind you ... I could see the GFC looming... that whole thing that happened with Sub-prime housing had to give. '

In London in 1988 I had a job making and delivering sandwiches to several Japanese and other banking firms in The City monday to friday - 7 am till 11 am - before I went off to my next job. Working with a bunch of South Africans (who could not bear the closing years of apartheid and escaped to London) we would catch lifts with the lunch trolley and suited men talking strategies to the floors where guys on the phones to global stock-markets awaited their BLTs and Turkey with cranberry sangers.

the BLT
 My boss had scrambled to put together this little business after leaving a privileged lifestyle with her Iranian arms-dealing boyfriend - empty handed and desperate to get away. The crunch had come when his business interests became clear. When working for her we drove a toyota hi-ace... but she'd started with a lent Rolls... a friend who'd offered support. This was London 1988 ... a world away from my previous job in a remote Australian coastal village teaching Art. 
The word 'strategy' peppered every sentence spoken in those buildings. Something about that word sat with me uneasily.'

Last night I went to see the film  INSIDE JOB.  Curiously the peculiar sensation I'd had around that massively over-used word "strategy" in 1988, London was laid out for us all to examine in Charles Ferguson's  film narrated by Mat Damon. Made on location in the US, England, France, Singapore, China  and opening in Iceland the film had me perched on alert, eyes and ears open for the entire time it rolled. Not only was it dense and demanding but it actually succeeded brilliantly in keeping one's level of interest high throughout. Dinner conversation later was very animated ... each of us unanimous in our agreement that the filmmaker had seriously delivered a remarkable documentary.

The website for this film is resourceful... click jargon to read more like this:

a derivative is an agreement between two parties that is contingent on a future outcome. In finance, a derivative is a financial contract with a value linked to the expected future price movements of the asset it is linked to - such as a share, currency, commodity or even the weather. Derivatives allow risk about the price of the underlying asset to be transferred from one party to another. Options futures and swaps, including credit default swaps are types of derivatives.

NOTE: a common misconception is to refer to derivatives as assets. This is erroneous, since a derivative is incapable of having value of its own as its value is derived from another asset.

So... you might be wondering what this film has to do with the Kitchen shrink. A lot it would seem. Until I saw this film last night I could not fully piece together the facts of financial engineering in all its complexity to understand the GFC.  Much of what occured I'd read about in one form or another... this film put all that together and more.

Hence this morning when on twitter I read this link to the blog of the Kitchen Shrink I was struck by the similarity of the main agenda of this post to the film last night... that of the role of speculation on food commodities pushing prices up ...hedge funds now active in food commodities is NOT good news in light of lessons learned in the film last night.

To really understand the market and futures trading and all that jargon I cant stress strongly enough how useful that film was for putting it into an accessible context. Its in all our interests to see this film and see how markets send prices sky high...and how those same companies bolster themselves against loss ... meanwhile the humble grower is mortgaged to the very banks that sail close to the wind or had to be bailed out!

from the "Shrink in the Kitchen":

Food Prices Going Up, Up, Up: Why is That?

February 26th, 2011 · 3 Comments ·

A front page story in today’s Boston Globe on surging food prices made it all so mysterious: Rising fuel costs, low yield of crops, increased demand are the cause of the price increases.  However, these are not the principal reasons for the increases here and abroad, nor do they explain why it is happening now.  What kind of reporting is dat?
Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, has added to the debate by describing the role that speculation plays in the rising prices of food commodities.
William Pfaff, writing in TNYT also, summed it up: “The conventional explanations for the flare in prices are population growth, diversion of corn and soybeans to biofuel production, rising Asian and Middle Eastern demand for high-value foods, higher transport costs and crop failures.  Oddly little has been said about the role of speculation in the rise in commodity prices generally and specifically in food.  On the Chicago CME Group market, which deals in some 25 agricultural commodities–it is a merger of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade–the volume of contrasts has increased by 20% since the start of the year and now has reached the level of a million contracts per year.  This will soon exceed the rate of growth reached in all of 2007.  The hedge funds are now active in commodities and are playing the futures contracts, where upwards of 30 million tons of soybeans for future delivery are contracted for every day.  They are also buying the companies that stock.”
The Guardian reports the same data and applies them the the developing  world where consequences are dire:
“Olivier de Schutter, UN rapporteur on the right to food, is in no doubt that speculators are behind the surging prices. ‘Prices of wheat, maize and rice have increased very significantly but this is not linked to low stock levels or harvests, but rather to traders reacting to information and speculating on the markets,’ he says.
‘People die from hunger while the banks make a killing from betting on food,’ says Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement in London.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation remains diplomatically non-committal,saying, in June, that: ‘Apart from actual changes in supply and demand of some commodities, the upward swing might also have been amplified by speculation in organised future markets.’
The UN is backed by Ann Berg, one of the world’s most experienced futures traders. She argues that differentiating between commodities futures markets and commodity-related investments in agriculture is impossible.
‘There is no way of knowing exactly [what is happening]. We had the housing bubble and the credit default. The commodities market is another lucrative playing field [where] traders take a fee. It’s a sensitive issue. [Some] countries buy direct from the markets. As a friend of mine says: ‘What for a poor man is a crust, for a rich man is a securitised asset class.’”
I know this is heavy reading... Its Monday afternoon and the week is just beginning. Excuse the capitalisation of this last section ... it wont correct! 
The film 'Inside job' was announced winner of the best documentary award at the Oscars a couple of hours ago.   Upon accepting his Oscar Ferguson, who created Inside Job said,                   
“Three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail and that’s wrong.” 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rethinking the greenhouse... Joost comes to Sydney

I just posted a longer story on this fabulous project that is located temporarily on Sydney's wonderful Harbour with views of the Opera House and ferries coming in.

Read my longer post here:

from the website:

Born into a dynasty of Dutch flower growers, Joost is a discipline-crossing creative who constantly draws on his ‘horti-culture’ to make artful commentary on the world’s wasteful ways. Working exclusively with the discard of human activity he has fashioned such extraordinary forms that the word ‘rubbish’ has risen from the scrap heap.Joost has been commissioned to design furniture, vertical gardens and event spaces in his trademark style juxtaposing nature and industry.  In March 2006, Joost set about the construction of a new home for his family, employing a unique building system; a contemporary take on a great sustainable construction method utilising straw bales set into a 100% recyclable steel framework. In 2008, the same building principles were used to construct the firstGreenhouse by Joost’, an exhibition and event space at Melbourne’s Federation Square which was open from November 2008 to January 2009 and attracted 1,000 visitors per day, global media attention from major publications and over 2.5 million viewers on YouTube. A permanent Greenhouse by Joost is currently located on St George’s Terrace in Perth, Western Australia and in 2010 received the Restaurant of the Year in Perth and attracts 800 to 1,000 visitors per day.

strawberry pots

OK.... THis you have to read... from here
I have designed the restaurant in reverse. I’ve started at the end and worked back. My dream has always been to build a restaurant that creates no waste and now I believe I can achieve it!” – Joost
Suppliers will only be able to supply fresh produce in returnable Chep crates. Like in Perth, fresh milk will be delivered from the farm straight to us in returnable stainless steel buckets with which we will make our own butter, yoghurt and mozzarella cheese. In Perth we stone grind almost 1 tonne of wheat every week and I anticipate we will use more here in Sydney.
A local wheat grower will provide us with wheat direct from the farm every week, we cut the thread on the bags in such a way that they can be returned and re-used. We will use our Flour Mill to grind the wheat into fresh flour to make bread, pastries, pasta and wood fired pizza. Oats will also be rolled fresh.
All our waste from the kitchen will be organic. This organic waste will be composted on site using a JoraForm in-vessel composter. This will grind and produce 10 litres of compost for every 100 litres of waste. Our  compost will be required to maintain the roof top garden. In Perth this year we have added almost 6000 litres of compost to our roof top garden (that’s 60,000 litres of waste we have composted!) Our cutlery is made from plantation timber and will be composted in the JoraForm, even the baking paper we source from Finland is unbleached and can be processed through the composter.
The rooftop garden is planted in Chep liquid bins that are traditionally used for transporting olive oil. The rooftop bar serves wine from returnable kegs or barrels. The beer will only be available on tap. I have also been working with Mitch from Hepburn Springs Mineral Water. Greenhouse Sydney will be the first to use carbonated water derived straight from the aquifer into kegs. This pure Australian carbonated water will be used to make our own Tonic, Soda and Cola. The house pours of Gin, Rum, Vodka and Whiskey are also Australian made and owned. Mark Douglass (glass artist) will transform the empty bottles into beer glasses as he does now for Greenhouse Perth.
The staff t-shirts designed in collaboration with Space-craft and Joost, re-printed using natural dyes, are overruns of political and business t-shirts salvaged by the Salvation Army.
The Greenhouse Sydney interior walls will be completely clad in MgO board (magnesium oxide board).  Joost has developed MgO board impregnated with Bio-Char so that The Greenhouse can store carbon within its walls! The Greenhouse steel framed walls are filled with straw and its doors and windows recyclable steel framed.
The toilets are Australian made Caroma Dorf, with the sink above the cistern using water from the hand wash to fill the next flush!  Waterless urinals are used and the kitchen and bathroom floors are lined with natural linoleum.
Joost has designed & made chairs out of old aluminium irrigation pipes.  They are incredibly light & have been named Squirt Chair! The leather used for the seats are off-cuts from a saddle makers in Ballarat (Victoria’s last tannery).  Lights have been made from willow trees and rolls of old fencing wire.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Seeds and Scientific Research Part II

Also from Cosmos - read previous post for the background to this story on 'Seeds and Scientific Research'!

Lost treasures of Australian bush tucker

Locked away in the genes of native foodtsuffs used for millennia by Australian Aborigines - known as 'bush tucker' - may be the key to growing crops on a hotter, drier, saltier planet. But 30 years of bush tucker science is now teetering on the edge.

AUSTRALIA’S RED CENTRE is a forbidding place. It claimed the lives of 18th century explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt, and regularly continues to claim the unprepared tourist.
But to the Wapiti people* whose lands lie near Yuendumu, 290 km north west of Alice Springs, this place is home. And part of the secret to their survival is their totem: Wapiti, also known as Vigna lanceolata. Like the resourceful Wapiti people, this hardy bush tucker plant can thrive in conditions that would make a domesticated species keel-over.
How does the plant to do it? Bob Lawn reckons he needs three lifetimes to discover the secrets of V. lanceolata. But at the age of 65, the Foundation Professor of Tropical Crop Science at James Cook University in Townsville, is running out of time.
His fervent hope is that his seed collection of V. lanceolata and other bush tuckers of the Vigna family will provide the means for others to continue the work.
IT MAY NOT HAPPEN. Lawn’s collection is in danger of dying as the Biloela seed bank in Queensland, which holds the collection, has run out of funding to maintain it. The collection contains seeds gathered by Lawn, his family, students and volunteers over 30 years of rambling across Australia’s Top End from the Queensland coast through the Tanami desert to the Kimberley.
Some of the varieties may have since been lost to grazing, urbanisation and climate change. When Lawn tried to find a species collected by Ludwig Leichhardt in Ipswich, Queensland, he found the native vegetation replaced by a park.
Somehow the institutions that fund agricultural research don’t share Lawn’s passion for Australia’s wild legumes. But they should.
Lawn believes these extraordinary plants have much to teach agricultural scientists about how to breed crops for harsh conditions. Crucially, Australia’s wild Vignas are kissing cousins to Asian staples such as mungbean, black gram, adzuki bean and rice bean (used to make dhal or noodles) and to Africa’s staple legume – the cowpea – also known as “poor man’s meat.”
The strategies used by the wild crops or the genes themselves could be used to improve the domestic varieties. As a good global citizen and under the terms of an international treaty, Australia is obliged to collect and characterise its wild crop seeds and to make them available to other countries.
The wild Vignas also hold compelling lessons for Australian agriculture as farmers face the prospect of cultivating legumes in saltier soils in a hotter, drier climate.
* The Wapiti people are part of the Warlpiri nation to which all the groups around Yuendemu belong.
To Continue Reading click here

Seeds and Scientific Research

Today ...  I came across an excellent article titled 'Seeds of Salvation' in Cosmos Magazine - an Australian science magazine.
current magazine
SEEDS OF SALVATION  The world is facing starvation as climate change disrupts food production and the population booms. Fiona MacDonald travels to Syria where science's last hope may be locked inside forgotten wild plants.
Visiting the website tonight I found that the only way to read this story at the moment is to buy the magazine as I did. I will post again on that story but for now introduce this story below on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault above the Arctic Circle Norway.

I often hear of this project ... many confuse it with the Millennium Seed bank Project which I was connected with during last year's residency. On the right sidebar you can find the link to Kew Garden's MSB project! The Norwegian one I have yet to thoroughly explore. Another magazine I picked up today - the December edition of ICON - an international design, architecture and culture mag actually featured a long article on this Seed Vault that is often referred to as the Doomsday Vault.
online magazine - iconeye 

I'm frequently noticing considerable information circulating on seeds, seed banks and such research ... and given my background is not science ... it begs a fair degree of persistance to decipher the value of individual articles - the politics and hidden implications adding greatly to the confusion.
The recently published book by Peter Thompson: 'Seeds, Sex and Civilisation' - Thames and Hudson, manages to confound me in the last chapter for the fact I am not sure of the position the writer is taking on contemporary aspects of seed research. Its a complex realm ... but the fact that a lot of research and development is tied up with the names of Corporations we've come to see as highly suspect means that doubt surrounds so much of what is occurring. The last chapter was actually written by Stephen Harris and the last line of that chapter;
"It is hoped that we will make our choices rationally and equitably for the benefit of the whole of humankind, rather than for the political, social or economic benefit of the few."
I found this final sentence  disappointing - too understated a reflection on the matter given this book comes after Thopmson's lifetime's experience in Plant physiology... not working for a private company but at Kew Gardens ... Id have welcomed a stronger critique on the situation hinted at in that final statement.

How the Hidden Life of Plants Has Shaped Our World
Peter Thompson and Stephen Harris
Seeds, Sex and Civilization

The history of civilization told through the story of man’s relation to and use of seed
Seeds have influenced evolution, and for millennia they have influenced and sometimes determined where and how we live. This is an epic tale, given added enchantment by the fact that to most of us seeds mean little more than tiny objects in paper packets: who thinks first of rice, wheat, coffee, nuts, peas, beans, or olives? Here, Peter Thompson unfolds the absorbing history of how, after centuries of investigation, we finally discovered what seeds do and how they work.
This is a scientific detective story with heroes and heroines following clues and finding answers. Thompson brings to life the eccentrics, explorers, amateurs, and highly dedicated professionals who have accumulated our knowledge. Some are well known, such as Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel; others, like the Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, are less so. The seeds also have a story and appear to have personalities, ambitions, and “stratagems” of their own.
Seeds, Sex and CivilizationThe book concludes with a chapter by Stephen Harris on current debates about genetically modified crops, seed conservation, and plant ownership in the contemporary world.
Peter Thompson, for many years the Head of Plant Physiology at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a pioneer in the conservation of threatened plant species, laid the foundations for the Millennium Seed Bank. Stephen Harris is Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria and a Fellow of Green Templeton College.


Floods send Aussie seeds to doomsday vault

Friday, 11 February 2011
Cosmos Online
Nicknamed the ‘doomsday vault’, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is part of Australia's first insurance policy for its seeds.
Credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust
SYDNEY: After battling weeks of natural disasters, Australia has sent its first seeds to the frozen ‘doomsday’ vault on the Norwegian Island of Svalbard, as an insurance policy against further threats to our food security.
This is the first time that Australia has created a protected back up collection of seeds that can be accessed immediately if the country’s crops are damaged - an important step for a country that has no native food sources.
“Some would say that having seeds in Svalbard is the key to our future food security. We’re ensuring the genetic diversity of our crops is protected for the foreseeable future - and for crops to adapt to change they need as much genetic diversity as possible,” said Tony Gregson, the Australian farmer and Crawford Fund board member who will deliver the seeds to the vault.
Duplicate seeds in case of failure
Currently, when crops face a new stress, for example climate change or a new pest species, scientists look to local and international seed banks to find a relative of the crop that has genetic resistance to the problem.
But these seed banks are vulnerable to natural disasters, war and - particularly in Australia - lack of funding, and can’t be depended on in the worst-case scenario, said Gregson.
“Svalbard is built into solid rock, it’s 60 m above sea level and it’s in permanent permafrost. It’s probably the most secure place in the world for seeds. If one of our genebanks fails, at least we’ll have our duplicate seeds stored in a safe place where we can access them when we require.”
Queensland floods revealed vulnerability
The sealed Australian seed samples will arrive on Svalbard on 16 February 2011 and will able to survive at least 50-100 years in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – often nicknamed the ‘doomsday vault’ – which is 1,300 km from the North Pole and was initially funded by a collection of countries, including Australia.
Sending seeds to Svalbard is particularly significant at this time, said Gregson, as three of the countries six seed banks have gone into crisis due to lack of funding over the past two years, and natural disasters such as the recent Queensland floods have demonstrated how vulnerable the country can be.
“We hope we will never need the seeds from the Svalbard vault, but the way the world is going, we probably will at some stage in the next 50-100 years,” he added.
A global resource
Australia is sending 343 seed samples from the Horsham seed bank in Victoria to the vault, including field peas collected in China and chickpeas from Lebanon. The majority of the seed samples don’t exist anywhere else in the world and so if lost, all of their useful genes will be gone forever.
By contributing these seeds, Australia is not only protecting its own food security, but for the first time it’s undertaking its obligations of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, said Gregson.
“Australia is now playing a global part in food security - other countries cannot take the seeds out of the vault, but part of the deal is that other countries can have access to the remnants of the seeds that are left in Horsham,” he added.
We are not immune
Richard Richards, chief research scientists at the CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra, believes this is an important step in showing Australia’s support for the global effort to protect food security.
“The fact that Australia is contributing reminds us that we are not immune to something happening to our own collections, which certainly still need to be coordinated much better than what they are at the moment. But I think having this global collection does draw attention to the fact that genetic resources are for the whole world; they’re not just for Australia. We're all in this together,” said Richards.
“There's no question we're going to have to dip into this important resource if we're going to protect our crops against pests and diseases. So it's a very important move,” he added.

More information


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