Food and Agriculture

West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered (WYSE) choose plants for their parks project. © 2008 Mandela MarketPlace

Climate Change: Catalyst or Catastrophe? | Vol. 16, No. 2 | Fall 2009 | Credits

Reinventing Food Systems

The entire history of agriculture—humanity’s grandest enterprise—occurred during the last 10,000 years; a mere blink of an eye in geological terms. As hunter-gatherers, we were dependent upon each other in a system that demanded social equity for survival. But by producing surplus food, agriculture opened the door to division of labor and the possibility of socially stratified societies in which farmers lost control of what they produced. As farming shifted from subsistence to commodity production in large parts of the world, gargantuan agribusiness corporations came to dominate a global system in which those who produce the food and work the hardest profit the least.

Humans developed farming in an exceptionally wet, warm, and stable period in Earth’s climate history. All of our current knowledge of seed saving, plant selection, sowing, planting, growing, and harvesting has relied on predictable seasons and weather patterns. How do we cope in an age of climate change? By the end of this century, climate scientists warn, average temperatures could rise by 4° Celsius (9° Farenheit)––a forecast that likely underestimates the impacts of dangerous feedback loops that are not included in most climate models. Weather patterns are predicted to become increasingly volatile with droughts, floods, and temperature extremes within seasons.

Although scientists are unable to predict the effect on any particular region, the warming is already altering growing zones, raising the prospect that the production of corn and soy, now centered in the Midwest, may shift northward into Canada. Rainfall patterns are changing as well. Farmers in the Northeast are experiencing wetter conditions and more intense rains, while California and the Southwest face long-term drought. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has warned of an ominous future: “Where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

The Consequences for Global Food Security
Soaring temperatures pose yet another threat to world food supply. The most important grains—corn, wheat, and rice—are extremely sensitive to higher temperatures and are already being grown near the highest tolerable temperatures in the tropics and subtropics. A recent study examining 23 global climate models indicates that by 2100, growing temperatures in the tropics and subtropics will exceed the most extreme seasonal temperatures in recent history.[1] In other regions, valuable crops with narrow growth parameters, such as wine grapes, will be especially susceptible. Farmers will also struggle with a loss of pollinating insects and greater numbers of invasive weeds and insect pests that adapt more quickly than domesticated plants. As sea levels rise, salt water intrusion into wells will compromise irrigation systems on coastal farms.

In the near future, agricultural productivity is expected to rise as plants respond to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, but continuing climate instability will eventually decrease yields by 30 to 46 percent, by some estimates. In the later decades of this century, climate change will increase the number of people at risk of hunger, taking its greatest toll on the poor and most vulnerable.[2]

The current form of industrial agriculture, though highly productive, is very problematic because the large amounts of fossil fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides it requires produce CO2 and the more potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, which represent 20 percent of the heat-trapping emissions driving climate change. Furthermore, the profits of large agribusiness corporations come at the expense of underpaid farm laborers around the world. There is ample evidence that farm workers already suffer disproportionately from pesticide poisoning (about three to four million severe cases each year), heat-related death (they are twice as likely to die at work), and food insecurity, compared to other labor sectors.[3]

“Agriculture is a way of life for farm workers. If climate change is affecting agriculture, then it also affects farm workers and their survival,” says Yissel Barajas, manager of strategic labor initiatives for Reiter Affiliated Companies, one of the largest berry producers with farms in California, Oregon, and Florida. When strawberry production in Ventura County suffered after a prolonged winter and an excessively hot summer, farm workers, usually paid ‘by the piece,’ saw their wages decrease.

In Fresno County, located in the semi-arid south of California’s Central Valley, climate change-induced drought is already taking its toll. According to Edie Jessup, a food policy advocate who was born in a farm labor camp and grew up in the area, “Climate change and over-use of resources is impacting low-income people and their ability to feed themselves. It is tearing communities apart.” The arid Central Valley should never have been developed for high water-use crops, she feels. “But once big investments have been made and associated systems created around it, it wants to be self-perpetuating… that means government subsidies. We made choices as a community that are no longer sustainable, and now we are suffering the consequences,” Jessup explains. “We need to re-regionalize our food and work systems [even if it means] a huge amount of social upheaval in the interim.”

Reinventing Agriculture, the Old-Fashioned Way
Clearly, we must reinvent the way we farm to make it not only less vulnerable to climate change, but also economically, environmentally, and socially viable. The new system must be regionally semi-independent, flexible, resilient, and able to adapt relatively quickly to changing conditions. It must minimize dependence on external pesticide and fertilizer inputs, especially fossil fuels, and employ farming methods that integrate intercropping and rotational practices and water, soil, and nutrient conservation. It’s likely that regionalized food and agricultural systems would have to be comprised of smaller individual farms growing a greater variety of genetically robust and diverse crops. Such a system will, of necessity, be more labor intensive, requiring an experienced, knowledgeable, and higher-paid permanent labor force, thus inculcating a more socially equitable system.[4] Also, regional agriculture must be situated in areas that possess the richest soils and have the best long-term access to reliable water sources.

Regionalized agriculture will require land reform, access to markets, and international, national, state, and local policies that level the playing field among large and small producers and retailers.[5] The current massive subsidies to agribusiness monocultures will have to be reprogrammed to finance research and development of drought, flood, temperature, and pest resistant crop varieties in small and medium-sized farms.

Maricela Morales, associate executive director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, a nonprofit with a mission to build grassroots power to realize social, economic, and environmental justice in California’s Central Coast region, says that concern for climate change has finally led to concrete investments of money and policies to create a “green economy.” However, “initial investments and policies have focused on energy (science, technology, efficiencies, manufacturing) and physical infrastructure (green buildings, retrofits, rehabilitation),” she says. “Federal, state, county, and city green economy investments and policies are needed to sustain agriculture and also develop ‘green’ agriculture that restores and protects the environment,” she emphasizes, “and provides safe working conditions and living wage jobs with career pathways for all food producers, particularly farm workers.”

Such a scenario is not impossible. Cuba went through a similar transition when its oil, fertilizer, and pesticide supply were cut off by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, Cuba is largely food self-sufficient and has developed one of the world’s most extensive knowledge bases for organic and sustainable farming methods.

Towards a “Foodshed” Moment in Agriculture
In the United States and other countries, a new food movement that advocates for change is gaining strength. The proliferation of farmers markets, which decrease the links in the food chain as well as the “food miles” from producer to consumer, attest to this. So also does the growing interest in home, urban, and community gardens, farm-to-table programs, and locally-grown produce and artisanal food products. There is even a new term—“foodshed”—to describe a semi-autonomous, geographically designated food and agricultural area.

The transition from the current unsustainable agribusiness-dominated system to a regionalized food and agricultural system that is environmentally conscious, socially just, economically viable, and climate resilient, will not occur without painful consequences. It may already be too late to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate changes already underway, and the poorest and most vulnerable will undoubtedly suffer the most. Food shortages may cause mass migrations of people, as well as social and political upheaval. The relocation of growing areas may bring about a redistribution of resources, commerce, and population centers. But if we do not focus on mitigative and adaptive strategies, the severity of the outcomes may be even more extreme.

1.    Battisti, David S. and Naylor, Rosamond. “Historical warnings of future food insecurity with unprecedented seasonal heat.” Science. 323: 240-244. 2009.
2.    Ibid. Also, Schmidhuber, Josef and Tubiello, Francesco N. “Global food security under climate change.” PNAS. 104(50): 19703-8. 2007.
3.    United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2008; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2008.
4.     Heinberg, Richard. “50 Million Farmers” (Lecture Text). Energy Bulletin 22584. 2006. Howden, Mark, et al. “Adapting agriculture to climate change.” Proceedings of National Academy of Science. 104(50:19691-19696). 2007.
5.    Scherr, Sara J. and Sthapit, Sajal. “Mitigating climate change through food and land use.” WorldWatch Report 179. Washington, D.C. 2009.

Marty Fujita is a freelance writer and evolutionary ecologist who has developed international environmental programs in the United States. 

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Central Valley Water Woes By Amy Vanderwarker

Jessica Sanchez first learned that her tap water was toxic from a flier sent to her home in East Orosi, Tulare County by the local water provider. The tap water, she learned, violates the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health standards for nitrates, which cause cancer and blue baby syndrome.

Surrounded by orange, peach, nectarine, and grape fields, East Orosi (population 500) has an irrigation canal that runs down its main street. Synthetic fertilizers applied to neighboring farms have seeped into its drinking water.

“[The water board] said they would control it, but they put a chemical in the water [that] made it worse. And we still have nitrates,” says Sanchez, and adds: “A lot of us are low-income [but] we buy bottled water... When we run out, we have to be asking our neighbors for rides. Sometimes people even take their gallons and walk a mile to the next town.”

Jessica and her family are not alone. Tens of thousands of San Joaquin Valley residents lack clean, affordable drinking water, and climate change threatens to exacerbate the crisis.

Water in the San Joaquin Valley

The San Joaquin Valley—comprised of San Joaquin, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Stanislaus, Merced, and Tulare counties—is one of the most agriculturally productive areas of the United States. The entire Central Valley of California, from Mount Shasta in the north to the Tehachapi Mountains in the south, generates 13 percent of all farm sales in the country, of which over two-thirds comes from the San Joaquin Valley.[1]

The Valley’s hot summers are ideal for growing, if you can secure a water source. The farms import irrigation water from over 400 miles away through a series of canals and aqueducts fed by the Sacramento Delta—an expansive estuary where waters from Northern California rivers, the San Francisco Bay, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet. It is estimated that agriculture consumes 80 percent of all water used in California.

The federal government spent billions of tax dollars to build the dams, canals, and pumps required to transport the water (most of which goes to large, corporate farming enterprises 2) that farmers receive at reduced rates. According to the Environmental Working Group, growers in the San Joaquin Valley receive an estimated $416 million per year in subsidies. The state has also borrowed millions of public dollars to provide drinking water for urban areas in semi-arid climates.
California’s vast water infrastructure has caused extensive, ongoing environmental damage: the diversion of rivers, such as the Trinity and the San Joaquin, has harmed wildlife dependent on the rivers; and the large quantities of water pumped out of the Delta have caused its ecosystem to crash. Recent federal court decisions seek to limit water flow out of the Delta to protect smelt and other endangered species.

Water for Farms, not for People
Over 90 percent of communities in the San Joaquin Valley rely on groundwater—vast, underground lakes—for their daily needs, but this water has been contaminated by agriculture and dairy operations throughout the valley. The U.S. Geological Survey found nitrates—attributable to “human activity”[3]—in virtually all the groundwater wells in the San Joaquin Valley, and about a quarter of them exceeded health standards.

In fact, over half of all drinking water health violations in California occur in the Central Valley, exposing around 400,000 people to a variety of illnesses. Common contaminants include arsenic, a naturally occurring carcinogen, and the banned pesticide DBCP, which forced the City of Fresno to shut down several municipal wells.

It is nearly impossible to identify a single source of the pollution. The majority comes from pesticide- and fertilizer-laced water run-off from farm fields and dairies. These fertilizers are virtually unregulated, and only a handful of pesticides have health standards. Yet, California is the only state in the country, besides Texas, lacking in comprehensive groundwater protections.

As Susana De Anda, codirector and cofounder of the Community Water Center of Tulare County, which works to ensure equitable access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water for all communities, points out: “Even if you can treat the water, if you rely on groundwater as a source of drinking water and the polluting entities around you are not regulated, you are pretty much waiting to get contaminated again.”

The largely Latino and immigrant Valley residents—over a fifth of whom live in poverty with a per capita income that is 26 percent lower than in the rest of the state[4]—are forced to buy water filters and bottled water to safeguard their health.

Bearing an Even Larger Burden
By the end of this century, temperatures in California are expected to increase three to 10 degrees. This does not bode well for the residents of towns like East Orosi in the Central Valley who may expect the number of extreme heat days to increase from less than 20 per year to at least 40, with a resultant doubling or tripling of heat-related deaths. Health surveys indicate that over 20 percent of farm workers lack drinking water in the fields[5] and the United Farm Workers have already documented a rise in heat-related deaths because of a recent drought.

The rise in temperatures is also expected to shrink up to 70 percent of the “reservoir” of the Sierra Nevada snow pack, which feeds the Northern California rivers, causing agriculture to lose 20 percent of its irrigation water.[6] This could make growers more reliant on pumping groundwater, further reducing water access for communities while increasing contamination—especially if growers increase pesticide and fertilizer use to address changes in crops and seasons. The expected cutbacks in farming operations would also result in job losses among farm workers.

Furthermore, changes in the way the snow pack melts are expected to increase the intensity of spring runoffs, leading to an increased risk of flooding, which in turn will be exacerbated by the projected seven- to 35-inch rise in the sea level.[7]
A rise in the sea level would also threaten more than 1,000 miles of aging levees in the Delta and could result in massive flooding. The levees protect dozens of islands—harboring agriculture and communities—from tidal flooding. Many islands have already sunk as a result of extensive alterations to the ecosystem, some lying as much as 15 feet below sea level.[8] Low-income residents are more likely not to have in place either the structural barriers to protect their homes or flood insurance. The result could be another disaster like Hurricane Katrina, which starkly demonstrated the disparities between government disaster assistance to the white middle class and poor people of color.[9]

Farce as Policy
A series of recent farces around California’s water politics highlight the need for a radical change in direction. Conservative politicians, ranging from San Joaquin Valley mayors to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have revived the tired old debate of environment vs. jobs, without addressing the pressing health concerns of communities like East Orosi.

During the summer of 2009, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity filmed dramatic rallies in the midst of fallow San Joaquin Valley fields. With teasers, like “California farmers left high and dry after government picks fish over people,” Hannity publicized the need for the federal government to continue supplying irrigation water for agriculture in the Central Valley, after recent efforts to cut back water deliveries and protect the Delta ecosystem. Hannity featured the California Latino Water Coalition, which purports to represent farm workers left jobless by radical environmentalists but is actually comprised of large water districts and valley politicians operating under the guidance of a public relations firm—the same one that represents Blackwater, the military contractors.

The film does not reveal that many farm workers holding signs at the rallies were paid to attend by growers—the same growers who have failed to negotiate with the United Farm Workers over providing drinking water in the fields and who pay their labor force the lowest rates in the state. While pushing for more funds to offset water shortages, these growers have yet to adopt basic water conservation and efficiency measures, which would create substantial water savings.

“Industry and many policy makers want to maintain the status quo and use the same old strategies, like dams and canals, that have got us into this mess today. Politics as usual is not even sufficient for our problems now, much less for a future with climate change,” says Debbie Davis, a legislative analyst with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW). The EJCW and other organizations have successfully fought off two multi-billion dollar bond proposals and several water bills that would have perpetuated California’s unsustainable and inequitable water policies.

AGUA Fights for Clean Water

Despite the potentially disastrous impacts of climate change, the crisis also represents an opportunity to move toward environment-friendly programs with the potential to mitigate long-standing injustices, such as green water-treatment technologies and vegetation buffers to promote the replenishment of groundwater and reduce contaminants.

Down in the Valley, Jessica Sanchez and her mother have helped start a grassroots coalition of communities fighting for safe drinking water, called Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua, or AGUA. They, along with 17 other communities, have been organizing residents around the issues of contamination and regulation and working to provide solutions for communities that don’t currently have clean drinking water. Change is in the water for California climate politics.

1.    “Assessing the Region Via Indicators: The Economy, 1994-2004.” The State of the Great Central Valley. Great Valley Center. 2005.
2.    Sharp, Renee. California Water Subsidies. Environmental Working Group. 2004. Available online at: Accessed September 20, 2009.
3.    Dubrovsky, N.M., Kratzer, C.R., Brown, L.R., Gronberg, J.M., and Burow, K.R. “Water Quality in the San Joaquin-Tulare Basins, California, 1992-95.” U.S. Geolgoical Survey Circular 1159. 1998.
4.    “Assessing the Region Via Indicators: The Economy, 1994-2004.” The State of the Great Central Valley. Great Valley Center. 2005.
5.    Fougeres, Dorian. “Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Human Rights in California’s Central Valley: A Case Study.” Center for International Law. Available online at: Accessed September 20, 2009.
6.    Luers, Amy L., Cayan, Daniel R., Franco, G., Haneman, M., and Croes, B. “Our Changing Climate: Assessing the Risks to California.” California Climate Change Center. 2009.
7.    Luers, Amy L., et al. “Our Changing Climate.” 2009.
8.    Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Overview. Department of Water Resources. 2008. Available online at: Accessed September 20, 2009.
9.    Heberger, M., Cooley, H., Herrera, P., Gleick, P., and Moore, E. “The Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the California Coast.” California Climate Change Center. 2009.

Amy Vanderwarker is a consultant who works on environmental justice and water issues. 

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The Second Green Revolution

By Clifton Ross

It may seem hard to believe that the process that brought the head of lettuce to your salad—and all the other delicious components of your organic meal, like the baked potato and the grilled free-range chicken breast—are all a major cause of climate change. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “Approximately one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by agriculture and land-use changes, with 18 percent of the overall total coming from livestock alone.”[1] While organic, free-range, or better yet, vegetarian diets are steps in the right direction, the steps are still circumscribed by a system that guarantees climate change, even in its “greenest” sectors.

Part of the problem is the amount of energy (inputs) required by standard agriculture to produce the world’s food: in the United States 7.3 calories of energy go into delivering one calorie of food.[2] From the tractors that break the ground for planting, then return to do the planting and harvesting, to the transport and processing, to the further transport to the supermarket, and all the way to your drive to make the purchase (unless you bicycle and cut a calorie or two off the process), energy is used and carbon produced.

The United States government’s agricultural policies reward large, capital-intensive corporations and leave small, labor-intensive farmers in the dust. In 2007, as a result of heightened public interest in food production and policy, the Federal Farm Bill became an issue for popular debate. But despite grassroots activist efforts, the bill passed without serious policy changes. It was agribusiness as usual. While factory farms continue to receive huge subsidies, alternatives—such as organic production—receive only limited support, mostly in the form of research grants.

Organically produced food represents only 3.5 percent of the United States food market, nonetheless it’s a growing segment.[3] This is certainly a step forward, at least in theory. But while very small organic farms might qualify as “agroecological” by producing their own fertilizers, diversifying and rotating crops, using cover crops, and practicing ecological pest management, very few of the larger farms meet this ideal. Julie Guthman, author of Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California warns that, “In practice, few farms meet the ideal of on-farm composting” and “large-scale mixed growers are particularly inclined to rely on input substitution. Few plant cover crops because of the expense; instead, they use the controversial sodium (or Chilean) nitrate and other purchased fertility inputs.”[4]

As the demand for organic food grows, so does the likelihood that big corporations of agribusiness will step in to fill the void once they’ve put the small producers out of business. As Eric Holt-Gimenez of the Institute for Food and Development Policy puts it, “Given the system we have today, and given the corporate dominance… it’s perfectly imaginable that the largest organic producer would become Monsanto and that the largest distributor would become Walmart.” And it’s also perfectly imaginable that the new “organic” foods would leave the same carbon footprint and require the same 7.3 calories of energy for one calorie of organic food.

Latin American Experiments in Change
This discussion isn’t taking place only in the United States. In fact, the entire world—most notably many nations of Latin America—is facing the crisis that agribusiness drags behind it like a plow cutting through the earth. Activists of the social movements of the region are convinced that the transformation of agriculture to address the problems of global warming will require a new economic system. So far, most of the “left” governments elected across South and Central America continue to follow an extractive model of development, but pressure from below, the rising cost of food on international markets, and the financial collapse of the past year are increasing pressure for radical change.
In Venezuela, agroecology is a key component of anti-imperialist, socialist strategy. President Hugo Chavez, whose nation of Venezuela imports two thirds of its food—one half of that from the United States—has hoped to dramatically reduce imports through the development of ecological agriculture and agricultural cooperatives. Coops, like Mistajá in the state of Mérida, have made it possible for many campesinos to work the land without the “patron” (boss) for the first time in their lives. But Mistajá produces only two crops: roses and potatoes, both conventionally grown with the usual chemical inputs. Moreover, like most other cooperatives, they lack the managerial training and the skills for collective processes needed for success. With upwards of 150,000 cooperatives founded since Chavez came to power, the Bolivarian State has a mixed record on support in that area. Worse still, it’s universally acknowledged in Venezuela that a large number of these collective enterprises are “ghost collectives” formed by enlisting family for the sole purpose of obtaining “loans” from the government, which will never be paid back.

Although the programs the Venezuelan government has designed and implemented have been riddled with incompetence and corruption, the objective remains crucial, since it’s obvious that people who can’t govern themselves on a day-to-day basis, or a nation that can’t feed itself, can’t be free and sovereign.

Miguel Angel Nuñez, founder of the Institute for Production and Research in Tropical Agriculture, works as an adviser on agriculture and agroecology for the Chavez government. He says the Venezuelan debate has gone from food security to food sovereignty. “Food security is about having access to food, a concept which doesn’t necessarily question where food comes from, who produces it, or how it is produced. In contrast, food sovereignty implies a commitment to fostering self-sufficiency through land reform, community participation, ecologically-sound methods, and socially accountable research and policy agendas.”[5] [Story continues below, after sidebar.]

 The First Green Revolution
The origins of today’s international monocropping industrial agricultural system began when food shortages swept Mexico in the 1930s. Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who had been working for DuPont, was recruited to help develop a high-yield, disease-resistant dwarf wheat, which proved so successful that by 1963 Mexico became a net exporter of wheat. The development of high-yield, disease-resistant monocultures cultivated with chemical fertilizer and pesticides allowed India and Pakistan to nearly double their wheat yields between 1965 and 1970.

In 1968, William Gaud, then USAID director, said that “These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.”[1]

It was this directly political dimension of the Green Revolution, which caused a later generation of critics to see it as a central element in the United States strategy to maintain control of the developing world by subverting attempts at agrarian reform through increased crop yields. Kenny Ausubel described it this way:

“Fearing global upheaval, the developed nations initiated a deliberate strategy to supply cheap, abundant food to prevent political unrest. The Green Revolution seeds were, however, part of a larger package, conditioned to grow only within the narrow tolerances of costly petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. The program also required expensive heavy equipment and massive high-tech irrigation. While initially the “miracle high-yielding” seeds did produce bigger crops, this gain proved to be at the expense of the environment and small farmers.”[2]

Formerly hungry campesinos were given a piece of bread rather than a piece of the field. They were eventually driven by necessity into the city to work in low-wage jobs in order to buy the bread they could no longer hope to produce from their own fields.
The environmental problems with the Green Revolution proved to be enormous. Pollution from pesticides and the runoff from the chemical fertilizers caused, and continue to cause, a cancer epidemic throughout the world. The enormous “dead zones” growing in our oceans are the result, in large part, of this same run-off. The fish and frogs that once thrived in the rice fields of Asia and Latin America have also fallen victim to the chemicals used in the “miracle” of massive crop production.

The small farmers who survived the centralization of production became dependent on the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which had to be imported from the United States and Japan—an enormous financial burden on their marginal resources. Furthermore, as food production was transformed from the work of people whose cultural and spiritual roots were in the land to a commodity for export and import, untold consequences of alienation emerged.

Vandana Shiva has detailed the connections between the Green Revolution and the destruction of social life in India in her book, The Violence of the Green Revolution. The inter-communal violence in the Punjab and elsewhere, Shiva maintains, is the direct responsibility of the changes brought by the Green Revolution. “Instead of abundance, Punjab has been left with diseased soils, pest-infested crops, water-logged deserts and indebted and discontented farmers,” she writes.[3]

As the Green Revolution progressed, entire countries, particularly in Central America, were made into enormous monocultural plantations. At first, resistance to the new methods of agriculture was virtually nil. But as the former indigenous farmers were reduced to serfs and as plantations were gradually mechanized, thrown out of work, conflict grew. As the land from which industrial crops like bananas, corn, cotton, sugar cane, and soy began to die and blow away, the hunger, poverty, and rage grew, feeding revolutionary insurgencies that were suppressed by brutal dictatorships.

Nationalist movements attempted land reform in numerous countries around the world. But even the successful ones like Cuba implemented farming practices based on a centralized, industrialized monoculture. Well into the 1970s, the Green Revolution was upheld as the best model for agriculture not only by the United States and its Western allies, but also by those nationalist movements which challenged the United States’ hegemony. —CR

2.    Ausubel, Kenny. Restoring the Earth. H.J.Kramer Inc. 1997.
3.    Shiva, V. Green Revolution. Zed Books. 1993 p. 12.



The switch to organic food production to reduce total energy consumption and global warming needs to be part of a larger shift in food production. Peter Rosset, who has been researching alternative agricultural approaches for the past 20 years, links redistributive land reform, locally oriented production, and organic growing practices in an analysis that shows that these interlinked practices are ecologically and economically sustainable.[6]

He says that while the government of President Chávez has made clear its commitment to agrarian reform, a number of factors have so far conspired to restrain progress. “These include the resistance of landlords and bureaucrats and the relative lack of organization of the peasantry into an actor, or at least an active subject, to push land reform.”[7] On the other hand, Cuba continues to be in the lead in Latin America and the world in its agricultural transformation.

Following the dramatic reduction of petroleum imports after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba made profound changes in its agricultural model. They moved from a centralized socialist state system that mirrored international agribusiness to community-based agriculture. In the countryside, peasant-run cooperatives took over the massive state farms. And in cities, empty lots became gardens. The fields were plowed and fertilized by oxen. The 2006 film, “The Power of Community,” reveals how this change in policy drew the country back from the brink of starvation and made the island nearly self-sufficient in food production.[8]

Rosset writes that “as Cuba re-oriented its agricultural sector, becoming a world-class case of ecological agriculture along the way, it rebounded to show the best performance in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, a remarkable rate of 4.2 percent annual growth in per capita food production from 1996 through 2005 (the most recent year for which statistics are available),[9,10] a period in which the regional average growth rate was zero percent.”

Rosset has observed that to effectively sustain agricultural growth without returning to fertilizer and pesticides, agricultural workers must be re-linked to their own land.[11] The ideological, socio-political, and economic implications of this transition are still being absorbed on the island, but Medardo Naranjo Valdés of the Alamar Vivero nursery in Havana sees the move as a return to ancestral traditions that have broadened and deepened his perspective on socialism. “We have to figure out how to work within the agroecological system because we’re convinced that all creatures in this biological chain of being on our planet have a right to live.”

1.    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. New York, NY. Cambridge University Press. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
2.    “The Food and Farming Transition: Toward a Post-Carbon Food System.” 2009. Post Carbon Institute.
4.    Guthman, Julie. Agrarian Dreams. University of California Press, 2004, 49-50.
5.    Kerssen, Tanya. Report on Nuñez remarks at Center for Latin American Studies, University of California Berkeley. October 2007.
6.    Rosset, Peter. “Fixing our Global Food System: Food Sovereignty and Redistributive Land Reform.” Monthly Review, July-August 2009.
7.     Wilpert, Gregory. “Land for People Not for Profit in Venezuela,” In Promised Land, Rosset, P., Patel, R., and Courville,M., eds., 249-264.
9.    “Moving Forward,” in Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, and Michael Courville, eds., Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform (Oakland: Food First Books, 2006), 301-21
10.    Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The State of Food and Agriculture 2006 (Rome: FAO, 2006).
11.    Rosset, Peter. Cuba: A Successful Case Study of Sustainable Agriculture. Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Clifton Ross is the author of Translations from Silence (2009, Freedom Voices Publications) and director of “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out” (2008, PM Press). Portions of this article first appeared in Left Curve, #33, 2009.

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Urban Food Co-op Tackles Economic Empowerment

The green jobs conversation most often centers on industrialized sectors that require millions of dollars in capital—from high-tech clean energy to biodiesel. However, the world’s basic natural resources—land, water, and farming—are the essential building blocks for combating climate change and can provide immediate avenues to build an equitable green economy. Sustainable agriculture, urban food production, and environmentally sound distribution systems provide opportunity for economic revitalization through true local ownership. Urban planning and policy in the United States should embrace locally-owned sustainable food enterprises as essential to all economic development efforts.

Mandela MarketPlace is a leader in development, application, and assessment of food systems. The organization evolved over the last eight years, first as a project of the Environmental Justice Institute and Tides Center, and then as a nonprofit in 2006 with a mission to strengthen community health, integrity, and identity by providing economic opportunity and empowerment for inner-city Oakland residents and businesses, and local family farms. “We support our community by providing healthy, locally grown produce and educating them about organic and pesticide free food,” says Yuro Chavez, West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered (WYSE) team member and Mandela Food Cooperative worker-owner.

West Oakland is a dynamic community that experiences disproportionate burdens of environmental pollution, social and racial discrimination, economic disenfranchisement, and health disparity gaps. Residents rally, work, organize, and protest in order to improve equity and quality of life for themselves, families, and neighbors. When the Cypress Freeway fell in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, residents organized to re-route the freeway around the residential areas and lobbied for job training and local hiring on the re-construction efforts. When Red Star Yeast was spewing acetaldehyde into the community, residents spent over 15 years working to clean it up or shut it down. They were finally successful in removing the third largest air polluter in California from their community. Even with such a vital and vocal residential base, West Oakland continues to battle ever-increasing disparities especially, when it comes to their health and wealth.

Mandela MarketPlace, which works directly with low-income Oakland community residents, local, state and federal agencies, nonprofits, small business owners, and minority farmers to meet food needs and create economic opportunities is part of a growing movement that considers the environmental and socio-physical impacts of farming.
“Sustainable agriculture and organic and diverse urban food production hold the key to local economic revitalization and job creation, while drastically reducing our society’s energy consumption that sends food thousands of miles from farmer to plate. Using grassroots organizing principles and permaculture design, it’s possible to train and pay people to produce food safely and sustainably where they live, with minimal capital and infrastructure.”[1]

The Cooperative Approach   
From an idea born of community health assessments, Mandela Foods Cooperative (MFC) is the result of a unique community collaboration responding to food security concerns. A recurring theme throughout the process of community meetings and surveys was the need for individual economic empowerment, and the cooperative opened in June of 2009 in response.

Serving 300-400 customers daily, the 2,500 square foot co-op is retaining revenue in the local economy that exceeds its sales projections while providing eight resident worker-owners with income, long-term asset-building, and extensive training as community health educators.

At the store, eight local worker-owners are personally invested in the successful operation of a well-stocked grocery venue dedicated to improving the nutritional behaviors of their families, friends and neighbors. With support from Mandela MarketPlace, these social entrepreneurs are developing a nutrition education curriculum, establishing relevant daily in-store tastings and cooking demonstrations, and creating meaningful relationships with customers that will lead to healthy changes in their lives.

“Everyone who has gone through [Mandela Foods] walks away knowing its importance and holding respect for healthy food and community,” says community activist Monica Monterroso.

Sustainable Agriculture and Distribution
Farms are important stakeholders in the global climate picture. Locally based sustainable agriculture will reduce the green house gas emissions involved in planting, harvesting and transporting crops.

“The most efficient way to reduce air pollution from farms is to reduce the size and increase the number of farms. In other words, many small farms scattered throughout the country will have less of an impact on air quality than conventional factory farms do. Sustainable livestock farms depend less on cheap feed and fuel-guzzling machinery, because natural pasture systems rely on the animal’s own energy to harvest feed and spread manure. Because of this, sustainable farming offers a viable opportunity to reduce farm-related air pollution. As consumers, we can use our economic power to support farms that supply sustainably-produced fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy products.”[2]

“As long as we’re buying produce from other countries and other parts of the United States, we are subject to the costs of shipping, fuel-consuming boats and cars, and pesticides,” says James Berk, a MFC worker-owner. “It’s in our best interest to buy locally and support sustainable growing practices, and that is what we are doing through Mandela MarketPlace.”

Across the nation, primary root causes of urban food insecurity are poverty and inequitable distribution. In the small and sustainable farming sector, farmers face increasing pressure from agribusiness and large producers who garner 60 percent of agricultural subsidies and undercut small farmers’ ability to make a living. Large-scale farming practices not only put farmers at risk but are stressing the environment, contributing to global warming, and perpetuating food instability.

Full Spectrum Community Involvement
In addition to the Mandela Foods Cooperative, Mandela MarketPlace supports the young members of WYSE in building the foundations for a just and sustainable Oakland. These youth are on the streets learning the importance of transportation, environmental justice, public health, and economic empowerment through action. Their projects include WYSE Streets, Healthy Neighborhood Stores Alliance, and the Burbank Garden.

In partnership with Alameda County Public Health, WYSE members collected over 300 surveys for a CALTRANS Environmental Justice Transportation Planning project. They formed an alliance with Urban Habitat to advocate and pass Measure VV to maintain affordable fares for AC Transit riders through direct lobbying of local officials. WYSE has facilitated new crosswalks, stoplights, trash containers, and improvements to local parks and public spaces. They have studied the conditions of parks and the prevalent advertising messages of fast food chains on billboards, particularly within 1,000 feet of schools. Recently, the WYSE team surveyed 28 neighborhood stores and their environmental conditions. WYSE campaigns for healthier product selections in corner stores near McClymonds High School.

Moving forward with the Healthy Neighborhood Stores Alliance, WYSE is developing a national model for increasing access to healthy and affordable foods, while supporting minority and disadvantaged farmers from the local area. Their next undertaking is to open a corner store produce service business.

Using the Mandela MarketPlace model, it’s possible to shift the social and environmental conditions that gave rise to the ecological disparities and challenges faced by inner-city communities across the United States. Working from a systems view and making these connections between public health, urban and rural environmental health, and economic development creates a shift in social conditions that have allowed the disparities and challenges faced by inner-city communities—starting from the ground up.

1    Raders, Gavin and Zandi, Haleh. “Planting Justice: Create Green Jobs.” October 2009.
2    Lappé, Anna. “The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork.” Sustainable Table. October 2009.

Dana Harvey is the executive director of Mandela MarketPlace and as a part-time faculty member, designed an environmental justice curriculum for Merritt College. She holds a Master of Science degree from the University of California, Berkeley

Climate Change: Catalyst or Catastrophe? | Vol. 16, No. 2 | Fall 2009 | Credits

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