Dr. Vandana Shiva; Photo courtesy of The Center for the Study of Science and Religion

Last week I got to hear one of my heroes speak:  Dr. Vandana Shiva.  As she took the stage, Reverend Arnold Thomas of Riverside Church introduced her as the “world-renowned environmentalist.”  To many she is best known for her interviews in movies such as The Corporation.  To the growing community of food activists, she is the pioneer who delivers the precision cut message.  The international effort to fix our food is an emerging movement; new ideas come fast and fervent.  Dr. Shiva is the steadfast voice, now decades in progress, that deeply resonates.

In her words, she started her organization, Navdanya, in 1987 once “I realized seeds were being patented.”  The main corporation to patent seeds is, of course, Monsanto.  They do a good job of telling the world that they are up to good deeds — potentially ending famine, for example, by creating drought-resistant crops.  Dr. Shiva, however, explained the danger at hand in an analogy to the BP oil spill.  Consider her words:

In the Gulf of Mexico…I keep thinking, ‘This is supposed to be a high tech industry in a high tech society.  And they can’t figure out how to stop that leak’….Just as BP doesn’t know how to shut down the oil spill, Monsanto doesn’t really know how to control pests…Every season, you have new pests….The consequences are a 30-40 times increase in pesticides.  And this technology was supposed to replace pesticides.  In your country, the herbicide-resistant crops have created superweeds to such a large extent that 5.4 million acres have been overtaken by superweeds.

For the past four months, the world has watched unending amounts of oil being unleashed into the Gulf.  At the risk of sounding alarmist, imagine if such a disaster hit our food supply.  We know now that BP was not ready for its worst-case scenario.  Is Monsanto?  Do we really want to wait and see?

At another point in her talk, Dr. Shiva told the story of a 1983 Indian court case that halted destructive limestone mining in that country.  The judge in the case ruled, “If commerce starts to destroy life support systems, commerce must stop because life must carry on.”

Yes, this landmark case in India occurred prior to our current era of intense globalization.  Yet it’s basic premise has not changed.  It’s not tree hugging; it’s common sense.  “We are first and foremost still citizens,” said Dr. Shiva, “And our highest duty is to maintain the living systems of the Earth that support our life.”

Rabbi Lawrence Troster of GreenFaith and Dr. Vandana Shiva

Well Attended at Riverside Church South Hall

Advertisements

For the latest update on helping the honey bee, please see: This post from February 1st, 2010.

As we sat down to lunch at a Manhattan diner last week, my friend said simply, “I’m worried about the honey bees.”  I knew exactly what he meant: our honey bees are dying out and people are not sure why.  The scientists call it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  In some instances, commercial beekeepers say a full third of their hives have died in the past few seasons.  It can seem like a small matter, but in earning their reputation as diligent workers, bees build the world we know.  But what can we do?

Luckily, in the words of the poet June Jordan, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”  We have a world to fix and it’s time for the Do-It-Yourself approach.  In the case of beekeeping, people like Sam Comfort will show us the way.  I heard his talk last month at the Germantown Community Farm Skillshare, an all-day event that put the rubber to the road for sustainable farm practices.  This month he’s in a Discovery Magazine article entitled, “Who Killed the Honeybees? We Did.”  The “we” here are large-scale beekeeping businesses that routinely send out hundreds of hives to pollinate a single orchard or crop.  By lumping all the bees together and not giving them diverse species for pollination, the bees get sickly and die.

Comfort refutes this system and instead sees the solution in creating “an infrastructure of small-scale beekeepers.”  His company, Anarchy Apiaries,  is about letting “the bees do their thing.”  Take them out of the monoculture environment and open up their food sources again.  To learn more — and be inspired — see the Discovery Magazine article linked above.  Then perhaps we’ll see each other in Sam’s circle next spring.

Sam Comfort addresses a crowd at the Skillshare; one woman inspects a honeycomb

Sam Comfort at the Germantown Community Farm Skillshare

Handmade Hives of Anarchy in the Grass

Handmade Hives of Anarchy by Sam

Lately, whenever we’re surprised by new uses for common surfaces, it’s usually in the name of advertising.  For example, these days the simple act of opening an airplane tray table brings us face-to-face with an ad.

Now the reinvention of everyday surfaces is becoming the vanguard of sustainable food.  From suburban yards to warehouse rooftops to ocean waters, many overlooked places are the new “ground” for growth.

Last week at Agriculture 2.0, Bruce Kahn, Ph.D., of Deutsche Bank, stated that the world does not have enough productive land to feed the coming population boom.  According to Kahn, even if we improve the global land output to 90% productivity, the shortage will still exist.

A New Field?

A New Field

David Tze, of Aquacopia, an investment firm for seafood farming, later responded that Mr. Kahn’s statistics didn’t account for food production in the world’s oceans.  Imagine if the sea were as prolific as the land in providing people with protein sources.  Another presenter, Norbert Sporns of HQ Sustainable Maritime Industires, Inc., underlined the immediacy of this point.  His company, a member of the American Stock Exchange, has a full line of packaged meals based on the fish tilapia, farmed using “zero toxins.”  According to the company website, “Total U.S. consumption of tilapia products has risen from less than $20 million in 1992 to nearly $560 million in 2007.”  Consumer demand – based on want, not yet need – is in full swing.

The Sky Vegetable System

The Sky Vegetable System

Back on land — where my heart resides — Sky Vegetables plans to grow city food on large scale rooftops.  The clean system runs on solar and wind power to energize its year-around hydroponic greenhouse.  Rain water collection barrels gather water for the crops.

This company corrects several big problems in our current food system:  It brings fresh produce to under-served, but eager, urban communities.  It does so by shortening the miles and gallons of gasoline needed to deliver good food.  As a closed-loop system, using clean and recycled water, it does not put pesticides or toxic run-off into the area.  Add in the benefits of a green roof for the host building and its energy savings from excess solar and wind production, and we have a growing system that I believe our children will know well.

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

SPIN Farming: Front Yard, Front Farm

Lastly, SPIN-Farming is radical in its simplicity.  Take the land you have and grow on it.  SPIN-Farming operates as a franchise, largely by providing learning materials for the SPIN system.  The good news is the cost of entry is very small: $100 bucks will get you started.  In the words of one of the company’s founders, Roxanne Christensen, SPIN “removes the two big barriers to entry for new farmers – land and capital.”  Now the future looks better for the annual block potluck party, too.

Note:  All companies mentioned here were participants in the conference, Agriculture 2.0 in New York City.