Organic Entanglements: Costly Case with a Big Chill

January 17, 2013

*entanglementsAt a court hearing in Lincoln, Nebraska this week, a judge granted a continuance, again pushing back the date for resolving a controversial legal matter that is having an ongoing chilling impact upon US organic inspectors. The first case of its kind, it involves an organic farm inspector and a farm claiming to be organic.

The plaintiff claims the organic inspector conspired with the US government and the inspection company to prevent his business from having a valued organic certification.

Plaintiff farmer Paul A. Rosberg is suing organic inspector Evrett Lunquist (and International Certification Services, Inc.) for $7.6 million. Judge Paul D. Merritt of Lancaster County Court set March 20, 2013 as the date for a hearing on summary judgment of this entangled matter. A summary judgment could end the case without a full trial.

Judge Merritt had no choice but to grant the continuance and postpone. The plaintiff will be on trial in a criminal case scheduled to start January 28, and would likely be unable to appear in Merritt’s court on January 29 for the hearing that had been scheduled for that date. Rosberg’s criminal case involves federal grand jury indictments on six counts stemming from his alleged sale of non-inspected meat to the Omaha Public Schools.

Defendant Lunquist and attorney have filed motions requesting summary judgment dating back to May, 2012 and again in October.  But a steady flow of motions filed by Rosberg has kept the matter unsettled, and the meter running on Lunquist’s attorney. As the case drags on into its second year – and the severe drought gripping The Great Plains intensifies — Lunquist’s legal bills continue to mount. The latest entanglements in the case have driven the defense costs over $30,000.

My original story on this case, with background details, can be found here.

At the hearing in Lancaster County Court on January 15, the judge read off a numbingly long list of motions in the case, including Rosberg’s latest motions asking for sanctions on the defendant’s attorney, and for further delay in resolving his case against the inspector.

Rosberg, who represents himself pro se, has been involved in dozens of lawsuits over the past 28 years.  He said his impending federal case in Omaha will involve 70 witnesses. If the federal judge allows that many witnesses, that criminal case could drag on for weeks and thus Rosberg would be unavailable to press his latest lawsuits.

This $7.6 million lawsuit in Nebraska is sending a piercing legal chill through the nation’s network of organic inspectors. The case calls into question the willingness of the USDA and its National Organic Program (NOP) to stand behind inspectors.  After inspector Lunquist acted independently and notified NOP of his concerns, the NOP investigated and found that Rosberg’s operation indeed failed to qualify for organic certification. Lunquist’s complaint should have been kept confidential under NOP policy. But they inadvertently released his identity, leading directly to this lawsuit.

Although the NOP has provided a Declaration corroborating the accuracy of Lunquist’s original complaint, they have declined to help with Lunquist’s ballooning legal costs or to issue a public apology.

Judge Merritt granted plaintiff Rosberg a continuance until March 20, but said this was the last delay. In the interim, he allowed Rosberg to compel inspector Lunquist to provide further documentation, an action that will inevitably drive the defense legal bill even higher.

Lunquist, himself a Biodynamic CSA farmer with his wife and family at Common Good Farm, has established a website to keep people informed and to try and raise money to cover the cost of his legal defense

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AUTHOR’S DISCLOSURE: I serve on the board of Open Harvest Co-op in Lincoln, Nebraska. Common Good Farm is among 110+ local vendors that do business with our co-op. The coop has been helping to raise funds to cover the cost of Lunquist’s defense.


Cracks in the Land

August 23, 2012

“Our farmers and ranchers have never faced as many problems as they do today with drought, range fires, high gas prices…”
- Michael McCau

My cracked lawn.

The land is dry and cracking across the heart of America. Drought is the natural cracker, shriveling everything up till there are gaps that demand radical shifts for underground pipes and construction footings, doubtless as well for all forms of subterranean life.  Then there are mournful, moanful cracks in the land from the massively arrogant and suicidal impulse of industrial-scale fracking in a time of profound earth changes. Foundational cracks abound on planes both inner and outer.

Each day as I open my back door and step out into the world I see this inescapably. I’m confronted with a crazy quilt pattern of cracked land where once had been a lawn. It’s a troubling sight. Here at home all 93 of Nebraska’s vast, sprawling counties have been declared disaster areas because of the drought. Late August now, and the forecasters say we may not get substantial rain until Halloween.

Our U.S. Midwestern drought — impacting over 62% of the entire nation — is having and will have  global consequences: “People in wealthy industrialized countries spend between 10 to 20 per cent of their income on food. Those in the developing world pay between 50 to 80 per cent of their income. According to Oxfam, a one per cent jump in the price of food results in 16 million more people crashing into poverty — accelerating what global agriculture ministers call The Spiral of Hunger.

Meanwhile, with at least one more long month of melting to go for the Arctic Sea Ice, the pace of heat-driven destruction to our North is staggering in proportion. Behold this brief composite animation. It’s a must see. Just about every record has been shattered, with a month more of melting to come.

Watching the world’s larger patterns unfold like this is profoundly unsettling, and can be unbalancing as well without some active, creative initiative to respond to the urgent call of the land.

Proactive response is a key element of 21st Century Agrarianism, and thousands upon thousands of people and communities are responding dynamically, helping to establish healthy new footings and foundations on the land as ballast and complement to the surging waves of digital culture. What is needed now — in this extreme state — is positive creative response from millions upon millions of people.

If you are among those who will no longer ignore the call of the land, then here is one place to initiate a response: to become informed, to find ways to cultivate the land to restore its health and beauty, as well to grow clean food for yourself, your family, and your community. Check out the possibilities.


“Profiles in Wisdom” – bestseller now an ebook

July 21, 2012

This wise and provocative collection is highly recommended.” – Library Journal

I’m pleased to report that Harlem Writer’s Guild has this week announced that one of my early books, the best-selling Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth, has been converted to an eBook file format.  The new eBook version, EPUB, is becoming the standard for the eBook industry.

With the epic fires, drought and storms that have marked this summer, the publication of this work as an ebook seems all the more relevant. Many of the venerable native elders I interviewed for the book spoke of Earth Changes, as understood from their traditional teachings. And they offer much guidance on how we can respond.

In writing the book, I took my lead from John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage. Focusing on the quality and relevance of sagacity, the book Profiles in Wisdom presents the stories and thinking of 17 Native American spiritual elders. As our existing culture shifts, what do the ancient ones who have been trained in the sacred traditions of Turtle Island (North America) have to say to us? The elders offer penetrating and poetic insight on a host of crucial matters.

Profiles in Wisdom gives the elders an opportunity to relate their diverse teachings about the human relationship with the Earth. Each of the elders has a personal story, character trait, or insight that can help us get in touch with our own innate wisdom. Their teachings are in response to a series of critical questions asked of each of them: What is your personal story? What do you see happening in the world now? What do you see ahead? What specific advice do you offer to those who will listen? What have you come to know about living in balance on the Earth? How could other people apply these lessons?

Profiles in Wisdom is available for immediate download as an ebook on many web sites.

New York Times Book Review:Profiles in Wisdom does a fine job not only of presenting the dignity, complexity, and wit of important Indian philosophers and religious leaders, but also of issuing cautions agains easy uplift and wisdom injections…There are some stirring and unexpected powers unleashed in this book.”

The Washington Times, John Elvin: “Our leaders should sit and listen to the counsel Steven McFadden has gathered in this book.”


Left Behind: Unraptured by the Transgenic Tsunami

January 24, 2012

When Stewart Brand spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in mid-January, he broadcast a vision of a Genetically Modified (GM) future toward which he felt we should all be charging with bright-eyed enthusiasm. “Get out there where it’s getting weird,” he exhorted, “and get weird with it.”

As I sat and listened to Brand talk of the future, I was carried in reverie not forward but backward to 1964. That’s the year my mom took my sister, my brothers and me to the New York City World’s Fair where we made a pilgrimage through the most celebrated exhibit of all, Futurama. Sponsored by another GM (General Motors), the exhibit offered a glimpse into what life would be like in the future — as GM engineers wanted to conceive of it. Of course, the future materialized its own way, not in accordance with immaculately engineered visions.

Likewise, Stewart Brand’s exhilarating vision of a corporately-owned, genetically-modified World of Tomorrow — a world subsisting on a diet of what he calls ‘Green Ag BioTech’ — seems to me unlikely and ill advised.

Stewart Brand

Founder of the famously countercultural Whole Earth Catalog back in 1968, Brand now styles himself as an “ecopragmatist.” He said that three global dynamics – climate change, urbanization and biotechnology – are causing people like himself to reverse long-held opinions and to embrace nuclear power and genetically modified food.

Brand is vivid and likeable on the stage, and his talk was expansive and entertaining. Because he is such a prominent convert to biotech, his philosophical reincarnation as an ecopragmatist advocate for nuclear power and GMO food might well have a measure of influence. But not with me.

His talk left me unconvinced and unraptured by the whole vast global laboratory experiment on nature and our food that is currently being executed with slam-bam systemic speed. I just don’t hear the call of the land as a plea for more industrially created, corporately owned genes and the petrochemicals necessary to sustain them. What I hear instead is a full-throated call for natural respect. Same as it ever was.

Special Pleading

Brand told the story of how on his way to Nebraska to speak he had flown over the Sierras. While in the air he saw that there was no snow pack at all on the mountains this year. This kind of ominous drought, he said, has not occurred since the 1880s. Climate change is catastrophically real, he then affirmed, saying it was a central motivating force for the work he does in the world.

In the context of our unfolding climate calamity, Brand asked rhetorically, “What is moral and ethical?” He answered his own question in the same breath, saying that nuclear power, genetically modified plants and animals, and geo-engineering are all essential ways to the future, and that we — corporations, universities, governments and amateurs — ought to go full steam ahead into a more fully nuclear-powered, genetically modified world.

Brand said that at this point in history environmentalists have only hand wringing to contribute to the future. He derided “enviros,” saying they are people caught up in a web of suspicions and superstitions. They are just “sad reactionaries,” he lamented.

A man of signal accomplishments, Brand at one point shifted and began declaiming. Aflame with the scripture of material technology, he allowed his rap to devolve and issued a disheartening damnation of unbelievers. In the years to come, Brand warned from his pulpit on stage, the leading edge of biotech will not be here in America but rather far afield in China, Africa and the Third World. Those places lack opposition, and have minimal regulation. In places like America where there is opposition to these thrusts, he warned, people such as organic and sustainable farmers and their supporters will be “left behind.” Organic farming will be more expensive and will yield food with less nutritional value than patented transgenic crops. Organics will become irrelevant.

Brand tossed off several ad hominem slams to imply that opposition to a GM future arises not from authentic, evidence- and ethics-based concerns, but rather from irrational fear. In that sense his presentation was a special pleading: a form of argumentation where a person excludes facts or details that would upend the case they are attempting to make. Enraptured with his subject, Brand stuck to sweeping generalizations, and neither acknowledged nor refuted the substantial body of legitimate concerns about GM corporate industrial farms and food. This struck me as a disservice to the debate.

Likewise, Brand said nothing about the ramifications of corporate ownership and monopoly over various life forms. He said nothing about informed choice or human free will, absolutely massive aspects of the GM miasma. He said nothing about the mounting studies and literature reviews documenting concern about the impact of GMOs on human health and the natural world over time. He said nothing of the Precautionary Principle. And he said not a word about the suicides in India of hundreds of thousands of farmers — the largest wave of suicides in human history — in consequence of the debt and suffering incurred by becoming involved with corporate biotech.

These matters – scientific concerns about GMOs, the free will of human beings, and a saddening, stupefying wave of suicides — must be addressed in any discussion of corporate industrial agriculture and GM seeds and food. To ignore them, or to gloss them over, creates a dangerous distortion of reality.

Sans Spectrum

At one point Brand showed a PowerPoint slide with a double-headed arrow to illustrate the spectrum of opinion on climate change: from total denial to full acceptance. But he made no allowance for a justifiable spectrum of opinion on GM food. In his view, at least as I heard him express it, there are only two stances: sanguine acceptance of corporate genetic manipulation of the food chain, or pitiful irrational fear of the future.

There are millions of people who, for sound ethical and scientific reasons, oppose GM farms and food. And there is a mounting library of research that should give any thoughtful person pause.

The health consequences of eating genetically modified organisms are still largely unknown. GMOs just have not been proven to be safe over the long term. Increasingly, studies are suggesting that grave health problems — for plants, animals and humans — may well be caused by GMOs. We’re all still guinea pigs. Make no mistake: the jury is still out.

Consider. Nearly 50 countries — including Brazil, China, South Korea and the European Union—already ban many genetically engineered foods altogether. They also generally require labeling of GMO products so their people will know what they are eating.

As expressed by UC Berkeley professor of microbial ecology, Ignacio Chapela, “…the fundamental truth stands that over the decades no real benefit has offset the proven harm caused by GMOs.”

Most Americans, however, are every day ingesting plate loads of lab-created DNA while having absolutely no idea about what they are doing, and no choice in the matter. There are no labels. Our free will has been rendered inconsequential, even though surveys show overwhelmingly (93%) that Americans do want labels. More than half a million people have already signed a petition to the FDA asking for the basic information and protection of labels.

For these and other reasons I have written about, I am altogether at peace with the idea of being left behind by the corporate GM onslaught. I remain unraptured. I’ll take my stand for the future on clean, organic land and food. Same as it ever was.

A Titanic Transgenic Courtroom Clash

The debate about GM food will amp up considerably this year, starting on January 31. That’s the day that the courts will hold a preliminary hearing on the lawsuit the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), and others have brought against Monsanto. The hearing will determine whether this landmark case goes forward.

Along with 83 family farmers and organic ag groups — a group totaling over 300,000 members — OSGTA is challenging Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seed.  The plaintiffs are carrying a banner in a crucial courtroom stance for everyone concerned about GM transgenic food.

The 300,000 member plaintiff group will set their case out in opening remarks at the hearing: “Society stands on the precipice of forever being bound to transgenic agriculture and transgenic food. Coexistence between transgenic seed and organic seed is impossible because transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seed.”

The Plaintiffs say they are seeking relief from the court because organic, biodynamic, and other farmers need legal protection against contamination by Monsanto’s transgenic crops. They will present evidence to show transgenic food does not serve the public interest, nutritionally, environmentally, agronomically, or genetically.

This case is of resounding significance not just for farmers but also for consumers. There are far-reaching potential health consequences of transgenic food, particularly for future generations of plants, animals, and people. All this and more will arise for courtroom debate.

Futurama – GM at the 1964 World’s Fair


The Dangerously Deranged Ethics of Biotech Ag

September 3, 2011

My unease about genetically engineered crops and animals dates back to the beginning. I had immediate concerns in the late 1980s and early 90s as I began to learn about the technology and associated marketplace machinations. Over the following decades as more and more facts emerged my concerns deepened.

Then just a couple of weeks ago my misgivings were rudely provoked to the forefront when I read an op-ed column by Nina Federoff, published in The New York Times. Her column amounted to a fact-deficient apologia for the GMO industry, and an exhortation to charge heedlessly forward with genetically engineered food. For me, and for millions of other people, this is a massively deranged and dangerous proposition.

So many factors are coming to a head now. Widespread famine, a global land grab, soaring food prices, a horde of profit-mad speculators, drought on the scale of the Dust Bowl, a host of other wildly wobbling environmental events, and a huge, well-organized, well-funded propaganda push by corporate industrial agriculture to claim that the only sensible way forward is with genetic engineering and its allied cauldron of petrochemical-based herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. But it’s not the only way forward. It is, instead, a profoundly perilous pathway encouraged by what I regard as dangerously deranged ethics.

After the Times published Federoff’s column, well-reasoned rebuttals came swiftly from Anna Lappe writing for Civil Eats, from Tom Philpott in Grist, and from Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Senior Scientist, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). Individually and collectively, their articles constitute a convincing, fact-backed refutation of Federoff’s claims for GMO safety and suitability. They effectively assert the case for a global 21st century agrarian vision of human-scale organic sustainable farms and food.

Their responses to the Times column deepened my understanding of why it’s fundamentally important to advance clean natural organic practices and products. They also impelled me to consider again my anxiety about the deranged ethics evidenced in the GMO industry: utter disregard of the baseline Precautionary Principle, repeated roughshod override of human free will, and a radically impudent abnegation of the Seventh Generation teaching.

Seventh Generation Teaching

Tipi for the Prayer Vigil for the Earth at the Washington Monument. All people of all traditions are welcome. This year the Vigil is set for September 30 - October 2, 2011 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of The Circle.

In the market-driven rush to bring GMO crops into the fields and thence into the people, I see forces and institutions fundamentally averse to the common sense teaching of the Seventh Generation. That precept — native to North America — holds that leaders are responsible for considering the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation yet to come.

Most memorably, I heard the seven generations teaching expounded by Leon Shenandoah, the late elder and chief in service to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations).  I shook hands and spoke with Leon in 1995 in a ring of tipis set up for the annual, ecumenical Prayer Vigil for the Earth at the base of the Washington Monument in our U.S. capital city.

“Look behind you,” Grandfather Leon said. “See your sons and your daughters. They are your future. Look farther and see your sons’ and your daughters’ children and their children’s children even unto the Seventh Generation. That’s the way we were taught. Think about it: you yourself are a Seventh Generation.”

Another Six Nations elder, Oren Lyons, has commented, “As a general injunction to live responsibly and respectfully, and as a practical guide to specific moral decision-making, the seventh generation principle may be without equal.”

I agree. I look around and I see that just one generation has passed since the widespread introduction of GMO crops. Already potentially catastrophic problems have begun to arise by the bushel. These are amply documented in the rebuttals to Federoff’s column.

Free Will

A second troubling realm of GMO industry ethics and practices involves the ongoing violation of human free will. From the outset, the industry has insisted and aggressively lobbied to make sure there are never any identifying labels on GMO products.

The American public does not, and never has had, any way to actively choose, or actively avoid GMO food. The real nature of the food is hidden, and consumers have no opportunity whatsoever for informed consent about the nature of the food they feed themselves and their children.

Out of respect for the sacrosanct nature of human free will, we should be able to know the truth of the food that is set before us. But we do not know this in 2011, nor can we. There are no identifying labels to let people know they are eating genetically engineered food. Our free will, thus, is continually disregarded and disrespected.

In response to this abuse, many citizens and organizations are actively advocating the labeling of all genetically engineered foods: to restore for consumers a free-will choice in the marketplace. You can begin to learn about the burgeoning movement for labeling GMO foods at the Non-GMO Project, and at the Truth in Labeling project.

Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is a simple and sensible ethical guideline. It holds that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those promoting the product or action. In other words, you must establish that your action or product will not cause harm before you promulgate it and actually cause irreversible harm to human beings or to the natural world essential to life.

This common-sense principle is a statutory requirement in the law of the European Union, but not in the USA. The USA has, in fact, lobbied actively and secretly — without citizen knowledge or approval — to pressure European governments to ease or overlook legitimate objections to genetically engineered food.

Mounting Evidence

The evidence continues to mount that GMO technologies and practices are causing profound harm. Respected agricultural researchers are repeatedly raising serious concerns.

In mid-August Robert Kremer, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, told a Kansas City audience that repeated use of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide, adversely impacts plant roots.

He said also that fifteen years of research indicates that the chemical is causing harmful changes in soil, and potentially reducing yields of the genetically modified crops that dominate vast acreage in North America and elsewhere around the world.

Research shows that genetically engineered crops do not, in fact, yield more than conventional crops, he said. Nutrient deficiencies tied to the root disease problems are likely a limiting factor for crop yield, as is the burgeoning plague of poison-resistant Superweeds unleashed by the overuse of chemical herbicides used on GMO crops. Further and alarmingly, news reports revealed this week that researchers are now finding significant levels of the poison widely infesting both the water and the air of farm states.

Meanwhile, Michael McNeill, an agronomist who owns Ag Advisory Ltd. in Algona, Iowa, has pointed out that scientists are seeing new, alarming patterns in plants and animals due to increased use of glyphosate on GMO crops. “When you spray glyphosate on a plant, ” McNeill has said, “it’s like giving it AIDS.”

McNeill reports that he and his colleagues are seeing a higher incidence of infertility and early-term abortion in cattle and hogs that are fed on GM crops. He adds that poultry fed on the suspect crops have been exhibiting reduced fertility rates.

Ominously, the warnings of these scientists echo what Purdue University professor emeritus Don Huber has been saying: “I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen (nurtured in the context of GMO crops and glyphosate) is unique and of a high-risk status…it should be treated as an emergency.”

Huber said he sees the GMO-glyphosate industrial ag complex as having led to an increase in cancers of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, and skin melanomas, as well as sharp increases in allergic reactions in general,  and an increase on an epidemic-scale in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Ethos and Mythos

Corporations, universities, and governments are racing blithely forward as if the benefits and safety of GMO technology are above question. But for anyone paying attention now, that is clearly not so. A comprehensive 2011 literature review documents the reality that nothing is settled. The GMO debate is still wide open.

The authors of the literature review reported that most studies claiming that GM foods are as nutritional and as safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates. They conclude: “the controversial debate on GMOs…remains completely open at all levels.”  That conclusion should raise ethical red flags for everyone.

The words ethos and ethics derive from the Greek root ethikos, meaning moral, and it’s the root of our modern term for moral competence. While ethics may be individual, ethos is communal and arises out of common experience and insight. It denotes a characteristic spirit—the guiding beliefs and values of a team, a company, a tribe, or a nation.

As we confront radically changing circumstances in our economy, energy supply, and food chain, we have an opportunity to change and reconstitute our ethos and the way we live with the land.  The corporate, university, and government institutions that comprise industrial biotech agriculture have embraced an ethos of speed, efficiency, and profit and as a consequence created an environmental behemoth of threatening mien. Yet we have potential to make a deliberate shift to embrace a conservative but enlightened ethos not just out of necessity, but also out of wisdom. Perhaps mythos will be a factor in bringing about this urgently necessary shift.

Forty years ago a small group of citizens — seeing profound harm being inflicted upon the natural world that supports human life, and impelled by their shared ethos — formed the nucleus of Greenpeace.

While the actions of that seed group were mandated by immediate realities, much of their inspiration came from the realm of mythos — specifically, the legend of the rainbow warriors. The myth tells of how in a time of great peril, people of all colors and faiths — in response to ominous degradation and disturbance of the natural world that supports us all — band together peacefully and give birth to a clean world based on principles of respect. That modern myth is so powerful and offers so much hope that as a journalist I’ve been drawn to write about it repeatedly in several nonfiction books: Legend of the Rainbow Warriors, Odyssey of the 8th Fire, and most recently in Tales of the Whirling Rainbow.

Greenpeace long ago embraced a life-preserving ethos including the Precautionary Principle, respect for human free will, and the teaching of the Seventh Generation. The orrganization has called for a ban on all genetically engineered crop field trials in Australia and elsewhere.

A new report from Greenpeace and GM Freeze analyzes almost 200 independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies. Those studies show that the culture of genetically engineered food and its chemical supplements has serious problems, and is linked with upsurges in rates of cancer, birth defects and neurological illnesses including Parkinson’s. This study also echoes resoundingly the sharp warnings of Don M. Huber.

As The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article about Greenpeace, an emerging consensus among eco-activists is that environmentalism is now a matter of life and death. It is in this alarming context that new executive director Kumi Naidoo and all of Greenpeace are preparing this month to mark their 40anniversary with the launch of Rainbow Warrior III, a successor to the group’s famous flagship sunk by the French government in 1985.

Perhaps the new ship –  a visible manifestation of the mythos and a powerful action-oriented expression of a wisdom-based ethos — will help spark and encourage a necessary moral evolution in citizens, governments, universities and corporations.

The new Rainbow Warrior III will be launched this month to mark the 40th anniversary of Greenpeace, fusing mythos and ethos.


Extraordinary Circumstances Raise the Specter of Higher Food Prices & Famine

September 6, 2010

I called my 89-year-old mother on Sunday. As we talked she voiced a complaint. A can of green beans she had purchased for 89 cents over a year ago, cost her $1.59 when she bought the same brand and size of vegetables over Labor Day weekend. She lives on a meager, fixed income from Social Security, so the price jump in food hit home for her as a hardship. Elsewhere around the world, for millions of people, the rising cost of food is becoming more than a hardship; it is a threat to their survival.

Perceiving that there are critical months ahead for the cost of food in general and the prospect of famine in particular, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has summoned the world’s grain experts to an ‘extraordinary’ session in Rome to address questions of global food supply and our environmentally stressed biosphere. The emergency meeting is set for September 24.

The Famine - sculpture by artist Rowan Gillespie in Dublin, Ireland.

With the recent history of widespread food riots set off by spiking prices just two years ago, agricultural experts see the potential for further trouble on the near horizon. Grain harvests in the USA are expected to be good, but there are epic difficulties including drought  in Russia, Germany, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Pakistan, Niger, Mozambique, and elsewhere.

Uncertainty about future food supplies has drawn financial speculators into commodity markets in the expectation that they will profit. This speculation drives food prices further upward. As the prices rise, the potential for severe global consequences is mounting.

“The era of cheap, abundant food is over,” declares Australian journalist Julian Cribb in his new book, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It.

Cribb — and many others — say we have passed the peak not just for oil production, but also for water, fertilizer and land. We will all soon be brought face to face with the reality that we have passed the peak for food as well, Cribb argues with an onslaught of hard data. Wealthy nations will experience shortages and even more acutely rising prices, while poorer nations starve.

Some of Cribb’s proposed responses: subsidizing small farms for their stewardship of the earth, and paying them fairer prices for production; taxing food to reflect its true costs to the environment; regulating practices that counter sustainability while rewarding those that promote it. He suggests that students should be given an entire year of primary schooling devoted to the importance of growing and eating food.

Individuals can make helpful changes more quickly. Dietary change on a wide scale is important, and can be as simple as eating a salad instead of a cheeseburger and an apple instead of a bag of chips. Waste less food. Compost. Garden.. Choose sustainable food,

The prospect of upheaval in global food markets is also articulated in another new book, Empires of Food, by academic Evan Fraser and journalist Andrew Rimas. They write that we are not the first advanced civilization to have misplaced confidence that we’ll always have plenty.

Fraser and Rimas propose no easy solutions, advocating instead that we learn to store surplus food, live locally, farm organically and diversify our crops.

If these journalists, scientists, and economists are correct, and there is mounting evidence to support their view, then it is time to take action. In their books they suggest some sustainable pathways. And in The Call of the Land I have been able to set out dozens of other models and pathways. Since the book was published a year ago, even more models have blossomed — but those models need to be emulated widely and swiftly in every city, suburb and village. For all these reasons and more, I have begun an active search for financial support to write a greatly expanded second edition of the book, and to disseminate it widely.


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