Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Published on Tuesday, October 5, 2010 by The Guardian/UK
Urban Farming: Detroit Grows its Own Good News Story
A community's attempt to regenerate its neighbourhood by urban farming has really borne fruit – with some help from a DJ crew

by Paul Harris

It is all too rare that a piece of journalism makes a difference. But the exceptions – when they come – make everything worthwhile.

The wonderful piece of film features the good folks of Georgia Street turning a spot of typical Detroit wasteland into a garden, transforming their neighbourhood piece by piece into a better place to live.
That is certainly the case with my experience of reporting on the amazing work of Mark Covington and the Georgia Street Community Collective as they seek to change the decaying face of Detroit through urban farming.

Covington's story is simple. Finding himself unemployed and living back in the blighted neighbourhood that he had grown up in, he decided to improve things by turning vacant lots into vegetables plots. Not only did the work improve the look of Georgia Street it also started to change local people's lives: reasserting community pride and helping people have healthier diets in a city where fresh food is unforgivably scarce.

My story wondered why – at a time of massive bank bailouts – Covington was having great trouble raising enough grant money to buy a dilapidated building and turn it into a community centre. Then, after my article came out, an anonymous donor came through with the cash. The community centre was purchased.

But that was just the first story. I returned earlier this year for a second, wider story on urban farming in Detroit and, again, looked at the work of the Georgia Street Community. Now, after having read my second piece, another group of people have stepped up to the plate to lend a hand to Covington as he strives to turn Detroit into a positive place.

One of the UK's top DJ outfits, Above and Beyond, have shot a video for their next single, On A Good Day (Metropolis). The wonderful piece of film features the good folks of Georgia Street turning a spot of typical Detroit wasteland into a garden, transforming their neighbourhood piece by piece into a better place to live. It was directed by Steve Glashier, who has also made videos for famous names like Fatboy Slim and Juliette Lewis. It's superb, not least for featuring ordinary Detroiters and showing the city in a positive light.

There is also a short film showing the making of the video that contains a highly informative history of Detroit and its problems, and explains how urban farming is helping change its image of from one synonymous with urban decay to one that promises a renewal into a very different type of place. But best news of all is that, as part of their 2011 US tour, Above and Beyond will now also be playing a Detroit charity gig to raise money for Georgia Street's future projects, which now include building a computer lab and a neighbourhood library.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited
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Published on Tuesday, October 5, 2010 by YES! Magazine
In Kenya, Farmers Grow Their Own Way
Thousands of grassroots, African-led efforts are building locally rooted alternatives to the chemical agriculture promoted by the Gates Foundation and Monsanto.

by Heather Day, Travis English

We had just been visiting farmers cultivating land in the lush, steep hills north of the town of Thika in central Kenya. Samuel Nderitu, our guide and host, had one more project he wanted us to see: the Tumaini Women’s Group. They were meeting to found their community's first seed bank.

[Saving seeds gives the women's group local control of their food supply. (Photo by Heather Day) ]Saving seeds gives the women's group local control of their food supply. (Photo by Heather Day)
We were now in an area that has suffered from six years of drought and has a high concentration of people living with HIV/AIDS, both compounding the area’s struggles with hunger.

Samuel left the highway and drove down a flat, dusty road. In the distance we could see a cluster of trees. As we got closer we could hear music, and then more than twenty elderly, colorfully dressed women emerged from the shade, singing and dancing to a song they had composed just for our visit. They led us to a tree where they asked us to sit while they told us their story.

Like most of the farmers in this area, the Tumaini women explained, they had followed the advice of outsiders (mostly large-scale foreign NGOs) who told them that yields would increase if they purchased special seeds rather than saving their own and applied chemicals to their crops. But the women soon learned the long-term consequences of these methods. When the rains stopped, crops didn't produce well and debts mounted. Stripped from years of chemical use, the soil couldn’t retain what little moisture was left, nor was there enough water to dissolve the chemicals. Yields declined and farmers could no longer afford the inputs—chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds, pesticides—that they believed were necessary to cultivate their land. Farmers became poorer and hungrier.

Now, with the help of Samuel and his wife, Peris, the women of the Tumaini group are rejecting the methods they had been taught and learning both new and traditional ways of farming—replacing methods that depend on chemicals or expensive seeds with practices rooted in ecological management and local knowledge. In doing so, they are also rejecting the latest scheme by the Global North to cure Africa of hunger and poverty, the so-called “New Green Revolution in Africa."
The New Green Revolution: Too Much Like the Old One

In 2006 the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Their aim is to alleviate poverty and hunger in Africa by increasing food production. Much like the original green revolution, which still plagues farmers throughout India and Latin America, their mission is to increase production by increasing the amount of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and chemical dependent high-yield seed varieties farmers use. They are also aggressively pushing genetically modified seeds and the involvement of agribusiness giants such as Monsanto—currently being investigated by the Department of Justice for monopolistic practices in the United States seed market.

Many civil society groups in Kenya are outraged by AGRA’s plans and wonder why they have not been involved in deciding what is best for Africans. Josphat Ngonyo, director of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare and member of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, states, “AGRA didn’t involve the people in Africa. This was an idea pushed onto Africa that does not work. If Africans aren’t included, it’s clearly not about us.” Ngonyo, along with many other organizers and farmers, often asks a basic question that the foundation has yet to answer: Why do you want to spread the very same farming methods that have made our farmers poor and hungry?

Many farmers’ biggest worry, however, is losing control of their seeds. AGRA’s grantees are teaming up with Monsanto and other seed companies to distribute free, patented seeds to farmers and discourage farmers from saving seed. As Ngonyo explains, “Now we’re having seeds from Monsanto, the biotech seeds that are patented. You cannot replant. You cannot harvest and store them before replanting. You’re totally dependent on Monsanto.”
Another Way: Food Security through Food Sovereignty

But the new green revolution ignores groups like the Tumaini Women’s Group: the thousands of grassroots, African-led efforts that, like AGRA's programs, are designed to boost production and generate income, but which—unlike AGRA—use methods that nourish the soil, cool the planet, build community, and empower farmers. As members of the Seattle-based campaign AGRA Watch, we came to Kenya to see some of this work firsthand.

Again and again, the farmers we met discussed the importance of controlling their own food sources—what the international peasant movement La Via Campesina calls “food sovereignty."

Food sovereignty, as defined in the "Declaration of Nyéléni," a document produced by a gathering of farmers in Mali in 2007, is the “right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Food sovereignty requires the democratization of our food system, with people, not corporations, in control.

Florence is the leader of the Tumaini Women’s Group and the hostess of the seed-saving workshop we had come to witness. At 72 years of age, she has transitioned away from chemical farming and transformed her land into a demonstration farm where others come to learn. She took us on a tour and proudly showed off her robust maize crop, one of over 30 crops she was growing.

Florence explained that the Tumaini women’s group consists of 23 widows, ranging from 72 to 102 years old, who collectively care for 73 orphans. The women lost their husbands and many of their children to the AIDS epidemic and are now responsible for the younger generation of grandchildren. She explained the importance of teaching the children how to grow their own food using sustainable, locally controlled methods: “We are getting old, and as the orphans grow up, we want them to sustain themselves, so we are teaching them how they can be self-sustaining through agriculture and other business.”

It was Florence who asked Samuel Nderuti, our guide, to teach her and the other members of the Tumaini group about another approach to agriculture. Samuel and his wife, Peris, are the directors and founders of Grow BioIntensive Agricultural Centre of Kenya, or GBIACK. Both are graduates of the Manor House Agricultural Centre in Kitale, Kenya, which, unlike many agricultural schools, teaches students ecological farming methods and gives them tools to organize whole communities to become self-sufficient and food secure. A key component of this approach is its emphasis on self-reliance: Farmers are taught how to grow sufficient food for themselves and their families using locally available, affordable resources, while also generating income to send their children to school and pay for other necessities.

Refugees from Kenya's recent political violence, Peris and Samuel chose to relocate to Thika, where they felt their work could have the most impact in addressing the area's difficult living conditions. GBIACK focuses on working with the most vulnerable populations: widows, orphans, and those who are poor, HIV positive, or living with AIDS. Their beautiful training center includes a demonstration farm, community library, seed bank, and classroom. In addition to training farmers in agroecological farming methods, they teach animal husbandry, beekeeping, and water conservation. They also started a program for girls to learn tailoring, allowing them to earn the income necessary to attend school. All of this is on a shoestring budget.

During the height of the drought, the GBIACK farm was one of very few in the area still able to produce food, proof to many that their methods are more resilient than those that rely on chemicals and “improved” seeds. Samuel explains, “To assist my poor brothers and sisters who are languishing in poverty due to lack of knowledge, I teach them how to fish, so that they may continue fishing the rest of their lives. I believe that if I share the knowledge that I have, many people will be able to feed themselves using the biointensive techniques.”

GBIACK’s primary aim is to provide training in the communities surrounding Thika. Most often, farmers reach out to them after seeing the results of their trainings in neighbors’ fields. To broaden the impact of trainings, Peris and Samuel choose to work with farmers—like Florence—who take leadership within their communities and teach others how to farm without chemicals. In this way, they have been able to train thousands of farmers in just a couple of years of operation.

"We didn’t know that farming can be done without spending so much money," one farmer from the Lifwa Women's Group in Bikeke, Kenya wrote in a letter to Kilili Self-Help, a U.S. group that helps raise funds for GBIACK. "We have always thought that without money we cannot do farming. We have found out that we can make our own fertilizers and also grow our own seeds."
Self-reliance Starts With Seeds

The largest non-governmental seed bank in the U.S. collects and stores thousands of heirloom seeds for the benefit of future generations.

Both groups believe that saving seed is a key part of self-sufficiency. “Community seed banks are important as a source of healthy and vigorous seed to replace degenerated or lost seed, to serve as a collection point of different types of seeds from the community and beyond, and to supply farmers with quality seed of new varieties,” Peris told us.

In contrast, Samuel laments, “The technologies that are promoted by the Gates Foundation in Africa are not farmer-friendly or environmentally friendly. Some of them have not been tested fully to determine their effects on the environment and consumers. More research is required before they are released to the farmers or for commercial production.”

Farmers all over the world, the majority of whom are women, are insisting on their right to food sovereignty, and placing seed at the center of that fight. As Do’a Zaied, Palestinian agronomist and food sovereignty activist affiliated with La Via Campesina, stated, “To have your independent voice and your independent thinking, you have to have food sovereignty, and that starts with control over your own seeds.”

Florence also emphasized the importance of diversifying, growing a variety of crops appropriate to the region and their culture. “Because of foreign crops that have come, farmers have neglected the indigenous crops. GBIACK has taught us the importance of the indigenous crops—millet, cassava, and sorghum—which is good food and it helps to maintain food security,” she said. GBIACK also helps farmers living with HIV/AIDS learn to grow crops that boost their immune systems, such as amaranth.

The day we sat under the trees with the Tumaini women, many of their seeds had just finished drying, and they were testing the viability of each saved crop. The women placed samples of each of their seeds onto a damp paper towel inside a petri dish. The following week they would return to see what percentage of each seed variety germinated, which would tell them whether they could use that seed for planting. Each woman in the group had saved seed from a different crop, supplying the seed bank with a wide variety. Their collective effort resulted in a diverse, resilient collection of seeds, to which each woman had free access, taking them one step closer to food sovereignty.

Heather Day and Travis English wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Heather is co-founder and director of Community Alliance for Global Justice. Travis English is a student in the Masters of Urban Planning program at the University of Washington and is co-chair of AGRA Watch.

Want to learn more? Visit Kilili Self Help to learn more about training programs, biointensive farming methods, or make a donation (specify that your donation is for GBIACK).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Monday, October 4, 2010



by Tom Philpott 1 Oct 2010 4:04 PM

The long-simmering debate about Obama's ag policy -- whether it represents a new paradigm, agribusiness as usual, or some enigmatic combination -- has a new data point to consider.

Earlier this month, Congress approved Obama's nomination of Catherine Woteki, the USDA's undersecretary for research, education, and economics. The appointment drew little attention in the press, including the sustainable-food blogosphere. That's surprising, because Woteki comes to her new position after a five-year stint as global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc., the multinational junk-food giant.

In her new role, Woteki will direct the U.S. government's entire agricultural research budget. That means she will supervise Roger Beachy, head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, who oversees the USDA's billion-dollar-a-year competitive grants program. Beachy is a genetic scientist with strong ties to GM seed giant Monsanto; he is openly hostile to organic agriculture. At a time when U.S. farms desperately need to move toward more sustainable methods, federally supported agriculture research has fallen into the hands of a Monsanto man answering to a junk-food exec.

Somewhere in the East Wing, Michelle Obama must be fuming. The first lady has labored hard to fight the rising tide of diet-related maladies among children -- and her husband has now handed the nation's agricultural research agenda to someone who recently owed her living to robust sales of stuff like Milky Way, M&M's, Twix, Skittles, Wrigley's gum, and Snickers bars, all heavily marketed to kids.

With its $30 billion in annual revenue, Mars is the sixth-largest privately held company in the United States. In addition to heavily sweetened candy, Mars churns out convenience fare like Uncle Ben's rice and pet food like Whiskas brand.

Woteki has a PhD in nutrition. It would be interesting to hear her blunt thoughts on the nutritional value of Skittles, which contain the following ingredients:

Sugar, Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Apple Juice from Concentrate, Less than 2 percent Citric Acid, Dextrin, Modified Corn Starch, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Coloring (includes Yellow 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake, Blue 2 Lake, Yellow 5, Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1 Lake, Blue 1), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)

Woteki's new post represents a return to, not her debut at, the USDA (bio here). She held a variety of high-level positions in the agency under Bill Clinton, including a stint in the same position she now holds. The Clinton administration was generally quite friendly to the interests of Big Food. Woteki epitomized the administration's gung-ho attitude toward genetically modified (GM) seed industry in a 1996 paper she co-wrote on "The Administration's Responsibility to the Consumer" in regards to GM seeds. The paper never mentions potential ecological or public-health issues around GM seeds; it concludes, in essence, that the government's only responsibility to the public concerning the technology is to support it vigorously.

Before taking the Mars job in 2005, she served as dean of agriculture and professor of human nutrition at Iowa State University, a prominent ag-research university with multiple ties to agribusiness. To get a sense of Woteki's tenure at ISU, I called a former colleague of hers there: Fred Kirschenmann, former president and current distinguished fellow at ISU's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and president of New York-based Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Kirschenman's time as president of the Leopold Center coincided with Woteki's deanship of the ag department, which oversees the center. Kirschenman was forced out of the presidency of Leopold in 2005, at the behest of Woteki's successor, interim dean Wendy Wintersteen. Kirschenmann's ouster as president of Leopold drew widespread outrage in the sustainable-ag world; it was widely read, by Kirschenmann himself and others, as a purge executed by industrial-ag interests.

In a phone interview this week, Kirschenmann told me that Woteki's time as ISU ag dean started promisingly and ended with a thud. "When she first came on board, she asked me to cowrite a white paper about the possibility of starting a new 'Center for Agricultural Ecology,'" Kirschenmann told me. The idea was to create a counterweight to the ag department's heavy involvement in GM research.

"We cowrote the paper, and Woteki expressed support for the idea," he said. But then, suddenly, she withdrew her support. "She even told us she preferred not to use the word 'ecology,' because it made people uncomfortable." I asked Kirschenmann why Woteki had raised the idea of an agro-ecology center and then abruptly crushed it. He said he could only guess, "but you have to understand that four forces have a lot of power in Iowa ag: the National Corn Growers Association, the National Soybean Growers, the Farm Bureau, and the Pork Producers Association."

Kirschenmann added that after the promising start, Woteki did "nothing bold or innovative" in her ISU tenure. He was not encouraged by the prospects of Woteki heading up USDA research. "She won't stand up to the Monsantos of the world," he said. "She won't even try."

At a time of rapid climate change and resource depletion, "we desperately need bold research from the USDA," he said. "I don't think we'll get it from Woteki."

A Recap of the FDA’s ‘Frankenfish’ Hearings: "A NEW ANIMAL DRUG!!!"


by Jill Richardson
4 Oct 2010 3:03 PM
The government recently held three days of meetings about whether to approve the "AquAdvantage" salmon -- genetically engineered (GE) to grow faster thanks to genes from the Chinook salmon and from the eel-like ocean pout -- for human consumption. As I reported here, the FDA special committee charged with evaluating the safety of the fish seemed likely to rubber-stamp the super-size salmon.

Tipping the scales: The transgenic faster-growing AquAdvantage salmon from AquaBounty.

Well, did they? And what's next?

The New York Times first said the "Panel Leans in Favor of Engineered Salmon" but later walked that back to "Panel Advises More Aggressive FDA Analysis." The meeting on the third day, which debated whether to label the fish as genetically engineered, ended with "No Agreement Imminent On Salmon Labeling," concluded the Los Angeles Times. A "rough consensus" was reached by the committee that "if the fish is approved for market, consumers should have a way to avoid it."

Somewhat surprisingly given its veterinary and pro-industry members, the committee did act more cautiously than anticipated. Here's what really happened.

I want a new (animal) drug

Because the FDA is regulating the GE salmon as a "New Animal Drug," in agency terminology, it convened a special Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) to evaluate it. During the first two days of meetings, the FDA's Animal Biotechnology Interdisciplinary Group presented its analysis of the science behind the AquAdvantage to the committee. (You can see the agenda here.)

The committee wasn't being asked whether or not the FDA should approve the GE salmon. Rather, it was asked four specific questions, basically: Do the data and information demonstrate that the genes put into the salmon are safe for the salmon? Is there a reasonable certainty of no harm to humans from consumption of foods derived from AquAdvantage salmon? Do the AquAdvantage Salmon demonstrably grow faster than their conventional counterparts? Are any potential environmental impacts from AquAdvantage Salmon production adequately mitigated by AquaBounty Technologies' proposed conditions of use?

The second question, of course, is of the most importance to consumers, as is the discussion on the third day of meetings about whether the fish should be labeled as GE if approved.

The committee members had received a 180-page briefing packet about the GE salmon, but the members of the ABIG only saw data presented during the course of the meeting. One scientist who was there told me that in several cases, the FDA selectively chose which data it presented in a way that made the AquAdvantage look better.

For example, the briefing packet shows a comparison of omega-3 fatty acids -- the "good" kind of fatty acids, believed to promote healthier hearts and prevent cancer -- to the less-desirable omega-6 fatty acids in five groups of salmon. Data for three of the groups were submitted by AquaBounty Technologies, the company that makes the GE salmon: salmon on commercial salmon farms ("Farm raised"), non-GE salmon raised at AquaBounty's facility ("Sponsor control"), and the genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon. The omega-3 to omega-6 ratios for these groups are:

* Farm-raised -- 3:9
* Sponsor control -- 3:2
* GE salmon - 3:6

Based on this data, the GE salmon looks pretty good, with the best ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s.

But the table in the briefing packet shows numbers that were obtained independently from scientific literature for both wild-caught and farmed salmon. That data shows farmed salmon with an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 4:1, and wild salmon with a staggering 10:4. (The differences in the farmed salmon could be due to whether they are being fed their natural carnivorous diet or one heavy in grains.)

Suddenly the GE salmon doesn't look as good -- especially considering that many people eat salmon specifically for the omega-3s in them, and try to avoid foods high in omega-6s. But in the PowerPoint presented in the meeting, the data for the wild salmon was left off entirely.

Despite the ABIG's obvious interest in approving the GE salmon, the members of the special committee had enough scientific knowledge and integrity to ask questions and look at the facts. According to Consumers Union Senior Scientist Michael Hansen, who was called to testify, the science submitted in the FDA's briefing packet was "sloppy," "misleading," and "woefully inadequate," and it appears that the committee members independently figured that out. They could not conclude definitively, they said, that "the data and information demonstrate that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of foods derived from AquAdvantage salmon."

Raw material deal

During the third day, the public was invited to comment on issues related to labeling the GE salmon if it is approved. In a background document on labeling, the FDA explained that in the absence of a "material difference" between a GE and a non-GE food, it does not have the legal authority to require labeling based on consumer desire alone. The document adds that genetic engineering does not constitute a "material difference" in the eyes of the FDA, defined as a feature that can be detected by one of the five senses or some physical difference such as a change in a functional characteristic or some physical quality.

Hansen challenged the FDA's interpretation of the law, saying that the FDA has misinterpreted what the courts have said on this issue. "The law states that all ‘material' information must be on a label, otherwise it is considered false and misleading. ‘Material' does not depend on any physical difference; it only depends on what information is considered to be of importance to consumers," said Hansen. In a 2008 Consumers Union poll, 95 percent of respondents wanted food from genetically engineered animals to be labeled. (Consumers Union's public comments on GE salmon labeling are here.)

The three days of meetings provided plenty of criticism of the science used by the FDA to determine that the GE salmon is safe, as well as of the legal arguments that would dispense with labeling the GE salmon if approved. But what do the leaders at FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and even the White House, want? The approval of the GE salmon, as of now, could go either way.