Category Archives: Sustainable Agiculture vs Agribiz

Can the World Feed 10 Billion People? – By Raj Patel

Can the World Feed 10 Billion People? – By Raj Patel | Foreign Policy.

The world’s demographers this week increased their estimates of the world’s population through the coming century. We are now on track to hit 10 billion people by 2100. Today, humanity produces enough food to feed everyone but, because of the way we distribute it, there are still a billion hungry. One doesn’t need to be a frothing Malthusian to worry about how we’ll all get to eat tomorrow. Current predictions place most of the world’s people in Asia, the highest levels of consumption in Europe and North America, and the highest population growth rates in Africa — where the population could triple over the next 90 years.

There are, however, plans afoot to feed the world. One of the countries to which the world’s development experts have turned as a test bed is Malawi. Landlocked and a little smaller than Pennsylvania, Malawi is consistently among the world’s poorest places. The latest figures have 90 percent of its 15 million people living on the equivalent of less than two dollars a day. By century’s end, the population is expected to be nearly 132 million. Today, some 40 percent of Malawians live below the country’s poverty line, and part of the reason for widespread chronic poverty is that more than 70 percent of Malawians live in rural areas. There, they depend on agriculture — and nearly every farmer grows maize. “Chimanga ndi moyo” — “maize is life,” the local saying goes — but growing maize pays so poorly that few people can afford to eat anything else.

If you arrive in Malawi in March, just after the rainy season, growing food seems like a fool’s game. It’s hard to find a patch of red soil that isn’t a tall riot of green. From the roadside you can see maize about to ripen, with squash and beans planted at the base of the thick stalks. Even the tobacco fields are doing well this year. But there’s a rumble in this jungle. Malawi’s swaying fields are a battleground in which three different visions for the future of global agriculture are ranged against one other.

The first and most venerable development idea for Malawi sees these farmers as survivors of a doomed way of life who need to be helped into the hereafter. Oxford economist Paul Collier is the poster child for this “modernist” view, one that he presented in a scathing November 2008 Foreign Affairs article in which he cudgeled the “romantics” who yearned for peasant agriculture. Observing both that wages in cities are higher than in the countryside, and that every large developed country is able to feed itself without peasant farmers, Collier argued the virtues of big agriculture. He also called on the European Union to support genetically modified crops and for the United States to kill domestic subsidies for biofuel. He was one-third right: biofuel subsidies are absurd, not least because they drive up food prices, siphoning grains from the bowls of the poorest into the gas-tanks of the richest — with limited environmental gains, at best.

Collier’s contempt for peasants seems, however, to rest on something other than the facts. Although international agribusiness has generated great profits ever since the East India Company, it hasn’t brought riches to farmers and farmworkers, who are invariably society’s poorest people. Indeed, big agriculture earns its moniker — it tends to work most lucratively with large-scale plantations and operations to which small farmers are little more than an impediment.

It turns out that if you’re keen to make the world’s poorest people better off, it’s smarter to invest in their farms and workplaces than to send them packing to the cities. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, indeed, investment in peasants was among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of poverty and hunger. It was an awkward admission, as the Bank had long been trumpeting Collier’s brand of agricultural development. Farmers organizations from Malawi to India to Brazil had been pointing out that access to land, water, sustainable technology, education, markets, state investment in processing, and — above all, access to level playing field on domestic and international markets — would help them. But it took three decades of lousy policy for the development establishment to realize this, and they’re not quite there yet.

Because of its colonial legacy, Malawi had long been following conventional economic wisdom: exporting things in which the country had a comparative advantage (in Malawi’s case, tobacco) and using the funds to buy goods on the international market in which it didn’t have an advantage. But when tobacco prices fall, as they have of late, there’s less foreign exchange with which to venture into international markets. And being landlocked, Malawi also faces higher prices for grain than its four neighbors — Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania — simply because it costs more to transport into the country. According to one estimate, the marginal cost of importing a ton of food-aid maize is $400, versus $200 a ton to import it commercially, and only $50 to source it domestically using fertilizers. Particularly at a time when food and fertilizer prices are predicted to rise, Malawi is wise to consider how vulnerable to the caprices of international markets it wants to be.

This partly explains why, in the late 1990s, almost a decade before it became fashionable, Malawi bucked the advice of its international donors and decided to spend the majority its agriculture budget on fertilizer, the first and perhaps most necessary ingredient in prepping the soil for producing viable crops. The government gave farmers a “starter pack,” with enough beans, improved seeds, and fertilizer to cover about a fifth of an acre. International donors weren’t pleased. A USAID official decried the program as consigning farmers to a “poverty treadmill” in which farmers would be stuck growing just enough maize to survive, but never enough to get rich. Although the program had modest success, it took off when Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika expanded the program over the 2005-2006 growing season, quadrupling the amount of fertilizer available. Although driven by domestic political promises, his international timing was perfect — he was embarking on a policy whose time had come. And this is why what happens in Malawi’s fields today matter so much beyond its borders.

To understand why, we need a quick history of agricultural policy in developing countries. Many developing countries were, especially before World War II, pantries to be raided by their colonizers. Post-independence, rural areas were often net contributors to government revenues, but there were some assurances of stability, with government schemes to buy crops at guaranteed prices. Internationally — especially in Asia — the post-war era saw governments pressured to feed a restive population that was increasingly wondering whether their lot wouldn’t be improved through socialism and a change in land ownership. In order to fight the Cold War in foreign fields, the U.S. government and key foundations invested heavily in agricultural technologies such as improved seed and fertilizer. These technologies were designed to keep land in the hands of its feudal owners, food plentiful, and communists at bay. In 1968, William Gaud, the USAID administrator, dubbed it a Green Revolution, because it was designed to prevent a red one.

For a range of mainly geopolitical reasons, the Green Revolution was implemented with less fervor and success in Africa than in Asia. The International Fertilizer Development Center observed in 2006 that $4 billion worth of soil nutrients were being mined from the African soil by farmers who, struggling to make ends meet, weren’t replenishing the nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous in the ground beneath their feet.

The prescription for declining soil quality lay, however, not in addressing the policy causes of farmer’s environmental panic — a systematic neglect since the 1980s to which the World Bank itself admitted in an internal evaluation — but to fix the soil with technology. So in 2006, the Rockefeller Foundation (the original sponsors of the Green Revolution in Asia) joined the Gates Foundation to launch The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA. This is the second brave new development policy that hopes to feed Africa.

AGRA claims to have learned the lessons of history, rejecting Collier’s view and focusing on policies that “unlike the Green Revolution in Latin America, which mostly benefited large-scale farmers because they had access to irrigation and were therefore in a position to use the improved varieties … [are] specifically geared to overcome the challenges facing smallholder farmers.”

So did it work in Malawi? It depends on the goal. If the aim was to increase output, then yes. Although economist and Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs recently over-egged the data by suggesting that production had doubled because of the fertilizer subsidy (it only increased by 300,000 – 400,000 tons or up to 15 percent, the rest being mainly due to the return of the rains), the amount of maize in Malawi has undoubtedly gone up.

As the 50 million people food insecure in the United States know all too well, though, having enough food in the country doesn’t necessarily mean that all people get to eat, and Malawi still has more than its fair share of glassy-eyed and underweight children. Chronically hungry kids have low height for their age and the number of children malnourished in this way — “stunted” is the term in the statistics — has remained stubbornly high since the subsidies began.

Measuring increased yields of maize from fertilizer and starter kits doesn’t necessarily translate into a society that is well-fed and economically viable in terms of agriculture. Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario who also works in Malawi as a project coordinator for the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project, isn’t surprised. “Any nutritionist would scoff at the notion that increased yield automatically leads to increased nutrition,” she says.

Bezner Kerr told me that having more crops in the fields and bigger yields can actually be a bad thing, taking “women out of the home and away from domestic work. Particularly if they are doing early childcare feeding, this can lead to poorer nutritional outcomes.” What happens within the household is crucial in translating increased output into better nutrition.

Indeed, gender matters when it comes to food and farming. Sixty percent of the world’s malnourished people are women or girls. Yet the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently pointed out that by increasing access to the same resources as men, women could boost their farm’s output by up to 30 percent, leading to a 4 percent increase in total agricultural output in developing countries. In Malawi, 90 percent of women work part time, and women are paid some 30 percent less than men for similar jobs. Women are also burdened with care work, especially in a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Even if they own land and have access to the same resources as men, women find themselves torn between the demands of child and elder care, cooking, carrying water, finding firewood, planting, weeding, and harvesting.

These problems are better addressed through social change — abetted by programs like the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project — than chemistry. Yet these are precisely the kinds of programs that are crowded out by fertilizer subsidies. The fertilizer program has been a jealous child, sucking resources away from other programs. The opportunity cost of fertilizer for farmers is money that might have been spent on something else — a serious concern when global fertilizer prices are going through the roof. Research by the World Bank in Latin America and Southeast Asia has suggested that it’s smarter for government to subsidize public goods like agricultural research and extension services and irrigation, rather than directing money at private inputs like fertilizer.

Again, this matters beyond Malawi’s borders, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The world’s population growth is scheduled to be driven by “high fertility countries” — most of which are in Africa. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, recently argued that the world might be better fed not by pumping the soil with chemicals, but by using cutting-edge “agroecological” techniques to build soil fertility, and using policy to achieve environmental and social sustainability. In a review of 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 developing countries covering 91 million acres, a team led by British environmental scientist Jules Pretty found production increases of 79 percent — again, far higher than the fertilizer subsidy in Malawi, and with a far broader range of ecological and social benefits than increased food production.

These programs succeed, in part, because they don’t see hunger as the consequence of a surfeit of peasants or a deficit in soil, but as the result of complex environmental, social, and political causes. You don’t just need chemists to solve hunger — you need sociologists, soil biologists, agronomists, ethnographers, and even economists. Paying for their skills is the opportunity cost of spending precious dollars on imported fertilizer. Of course, agroecology is an entirely different paradigm than one in which technology is dropped into laps from foreign laboratories accompanied by a sheet of instructions. The programs require much more participatory education work, and much more investment in public goods, than the Malawian government and donors currently seem inclined to provide.

Agroecology is the third development vision battling for the future. In Malawi, it works. By growing cowpeas and groundnuts with maize — expanding the range of crops — Bezner Kerr’s program has beat the fertilizer program’s yield by 10 percent and increased nutrition outcomes too. Yet even agroecology has its limits. Fifteen percent of Malawians remain ultra poor, living on less than a dollar a day and unable to buy enough to eat. They tend to be people who are landless, or who have poor quality land and have to sell their labor at harvest time, just when they need it the most. They remain untouched by the Malawian miracle.

The future doesn’t look terribly promising for agroecology. Concerned about the financial sustainability of its fertilizer subsidy program, the Malawian government is about to embark on a Green Belt project, in which thousands of acres will be irrigated to induce foreign investors to begin large-scale farming of sugar cane and other export crops. The foreign exchange brought in by this program, it is hoped, will bankroll the fertilizer spending. The result will help balance the country’s current account, but as a consequence, thousands of smallholders are scheduled to be displaced to clear lands that will attract the kind of large-scale agriculture of which Collier would approve.

Particularly in the light of the new population projections for the 21st century, it seems foolish to stick to 20th century agricultural policy. Recall that the agroecological interventions in Malawi turned on women’s empowerment. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has famously argued that there are few policies better placed to improve individual, family, and community lives (and lower fertility rates) than education — particularly the education of women and girls. The prophesies presented to us by demographers vary widely — change the assumptions, and you end up with a world of between 8 billion and 15 billion people. No matter what the future holds, though, it’s clear that a world in which everyone gets to eat depends on women’s empowerment — and rather than treating that fact as something irrelevant to feeding the world, agroecology puts it right in the middle.

A great deal of past agriculture policy has been designed either economically to bomb villages in order to save them, or to administer a technological quick fix in order to postpone politics. Collier wants to get rid of peasants. New fads want to keep them, but keep them knee-deep in chemicals. Yet if we are serious about feeding the hungry, in Malawi or anywhere else, we need to recognize that the majority of the hungry are women, and that we need more public, not private, spending on those least able to command rural resources. Because when it comes to growing food, those who tend the land are anything but fools.

Can Tech Make the Desert Bloom Again? | Epicenter |

Can Tech Make the Desert Bloom Again? | Epicenter |

SDE BOGER, Israel – The archeological remains of Avdat seem like a strange place to study farming.

The site — a camel caravan stop built by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago in the Negev Desert — sits in the middle of a vast, dry desert. Hard brown loess lightly sprinkled with stunted shrubs and bleak weeds stretches for miles.

The only substantial greenery is clustered at a farm irrigated by desalinated water piped miles away from the coast and a roadside McDonald’s. It looks like Arizona on a bad day.

But Hendrik Bruins, a professor of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research and the Swiss Institute for Dryland Environmental Research, implores observers to take a closer look. Some of those scraggly shrubs grow in straight lines. Notice the random, low wall peeking out of the crust.

Nearly half of the world’s population lives in dry lands, and deserts are expanding. What can be done to reverse the tide?

Soon, it becomes apparent. This isn’t pristine desert. The bush geometry in the region is a remnant of an extensive terraced agricultural system. Growing grapes or wheat in the region requires a minimum of 300 millimeters of water and Avdat only gets 85 millimeters of rain a year. The terraced walls stood 300 millimeters tall, just enough to support the local ancient wineries.

Could the system, or some element of it, be revived?

“This started as experimental archeology, but it has become practical,” Bruins said.

Continued reading …

Learning how to live in a parched environment could become the next export for Israel. Approximately 45 percent of the people in the world live in dry lands, defined as regions that get 600 millimeters or less of rain a year, according to Alon Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, which oversees the Blaustein Institutes.

Deserts, moreover, are on the march. About 15 percent of the world’s lands have been degraded in recent decades though salinity, overexploitation, rapid population growth and soil loss.

“Desertification has been left behind because it is perceived as an African issue, but there is not a challenge that is easier to overcome than desertification,” Tal said. “You aren’t going to plant the same crop in a hyper-arid zone as an arid zone. You can’t plant the same kind of trees [in regions that get] 270 millimeters of rain.”

Climate change further exacerbates the problem. For example, Sde Boqer, a small Negev town where the three Blaustein Institutes are based, usually gets around 40 to 90 millimeters of rain a year. In 2010, only 30 millimeters fell and nearly everyone can tell you the dates (January 15 and December 24) off the top of their heads.

The research spans the gamut of dry: hydroponics, plant breeding, demographics, solar technology. Evyatar Erell, for instance, has a number of projects underway on desert architecture and urban planning. (The urban heat island, he informs me, was actually first identified in England in the early 1800s.)

David Faiman, meanwhile, oversees the National Solar Energy Center, another part of the umbrella. Some of the intellectual property behind concentrator companies like ZenithSolar has come out of here. The Center also lets private companies like HelioFocus test prototypes.

Is desert research an economic opportunity or a tool for diplomacy? Both, actually. Researcher Yair Kaufman at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research (one of the organizations inside Blaustein) is developing a desalination membrane powered by aquaporins, a protein in human and animal cells that purifies water.

Ideally, aquaporin desalination could cut the amount of energy required for desalination by 50 percent and the ultimate cost by one-third. A Danish company, appropriately called Aquaporin, is racing toward the same goal.

Meanwhile, Professor Zeev Weisman and a team of researchers want to optimize olive strains for food production and fuel. Approximately 5 percent to 7 percent of the total olive mass, however, can be converted to biodiesel. The olive stone can also serve as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. In other words, two fuels (and food)  from one plant. He’s also working to optimize pomegranates for medicinal use. Either crop could become a money spinner for farmers.

Another idea that could go commercial: a solar thermal hot water heater that helps ensure that warm water will be available early in the morning by manipulating liquid flows and pressure in a novel manner. Professor Dan Blumberg likens it to virtualization for solar hot water.

At the same time, projects and initiatives seem calculated to win friends, too. A few grad students hail from Jordan and Ghana. A prototype system for inland desalination — which relies on brackish swamps rather than seawater — will go live this year in Jordan.

“As [water] stressed as Israel is, Jordan is even more stressed. In Amman, not everyone has water,” said Jack Gilron, the CTO at Rotec, the company commercializing tapered flow, and a professor at the Zuckerberg Institute.

Jordan may also become the locale of a large-scale desal plant that will dump its brine into the Dead Sea via a link billed as the Peace Conduit. Others are examining how to preserve gerbils and other native animal species. Others, meanwhile, are making an argument for water conservation: reliance on desalination could lead to a need for nuclear power in a region already known for fractured politics.

Bruins, who also serves as a consultant to the United Nations and other organizations as a food security specialist, adds that this work — or failure to continue this work — will have global consequences. Droughts and desertification lead to humanitarian crises, which can turn into border conflicts and refugee migrations.

The margin for error, moreover, has become thin.  Back in the ’70s, banks convinced agribusiness conglomerates to cut costs by eliminating silos and storage facilities. Biofuels consume a small portion of harvested crops, but have a disproportionate impact on pricing due to razor-thin supplies.

“Because of that, for the first time ever, there are no food stocks. In a good year, there is barely enough,” he said. If China were to experience a major crop failure, all of the food exports in the world couldn’t make up the difference.

“Soil is very precious,” he said. “You should stop thinking about it as dirt.”

Top 10 Alternative Housing Ideas

HowStuffWorks “Top 10 Alternative Housing Ideas”.

As housing prices rise and people become more concerned about their environmental footprints, green construction has been gaining popularity. Green construction can include mainstream features, like a green roof, or more unique material, such as wood pallets. In general, though, what makes a building eco-friendly are the materials that go into the structure and the attention paid to energy usage in its design.

Green builders use recycled or low-impact components to create energy-efficient homes, and you can construct green homes in any number of ways, using materials like reclaimed shipping containers or even clay and straw. In this article, we’ll look at some unique, eco-friendly alternative housing ideas.

Home Design Image Gallery 

Straw-bale house
Photo courtesy of
Looking for a unique method of construction for your home? A straw-bale house is an eco-friendly option. See more home design pictures.

10: Cob House

Nope, these aren’t corn cobs. In green construction, cob refers to a mixture of earth and straw similar to the adobe homes you might see in the American southwest. Cob is an inexpensive, versatile material that allows builders to shape walls any way they want. While adobe is usually formed into bricks or blocks, cob is unique in that it’s applied in large handfuls to form the structure.

Typical cob homes have unique, rounded features and almost look like they’re made out of clay — that’s probably because they basically are! And cob is sturdier than you might think: Some cob homes built in England in the 19th century are still around today.

9: Straw-bale Construction


Straw-bale walls in home
Photo courtesy of
Steel rods or bamboo reinforcements help strengthen straw-bale houses.

Bales of straw are also natural and inexpensive, and they provide excellent insulation. This makes straw-bale construction an economical green-building method. Since straw is a byproduct of grain farming, it often goes to waste, so using it in construction is a great way to reuse it.

Straw-bale construction is versatile, too. Since you’re using the straw bales either to construct the frame or as insulation in conjunction with a wooden frame, the house itself can look however you want. And no big bad wolf is going to blow down this house of straw — in most straw-bale construction, recycled steel beams or bamboo rods support the bales.

8: Shipping-crate Home

Shipping-container homes are gaining popularity. They can be cheaper to build than conventional homes and use fewer raw materials, and the finished structure has a modern, industrial look. Green builders can use one shipping crate to build a relatively small, single-family dwelling or combine crates for a larger house or even bigger structures, such as apartment buildings and schools. For example, Container City in London, built in 2001, turned 20 shipping containers into 15 eco-friendly live-and-work spaces [source: Trinity Buoy Wharf].

Their efficient size makes these mini-homes inherently green, and some enthusiasts even make them even more eco-friendly with green insulation, radiant heating, solar panels and rainwater-harvesting systems.

7: Wood-pallet House


Wood-pallet home construction
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Volunteers work on the kitchen of a wood-pallet home in a Miami, Fla., shanty town.

Architectural firm I-Beam Design came up with the idea of creating homes out of wood pallets as an affordable and eco-friendly solution for disaster relief housing. They first designed the pallet homes as an entry in a contest to solve housing problems for refugees in post-war Kosovo, but you can also use pallet wood to create something more permanent.

Used wood pallets are readily available and cheap. A small 10-by-20-foot (3-by-6-meter) shelter would cost around $500 and require about 80 pallets [source: Embrey]. It’s easy to imagine combining several of these small shelters and reconfiguring them to form a unique, energy-efficient home. And if you do decide to remove the building at any time, the materials are easy to recycle.

6: Green Roof

A green roof is more than a cool architectural feature. It can help manage storm water runoff by providing a permeable surface, and it can help offset the urban heat-island effect. Rather than absorbing and storing heat like a regular roof, a green roof reflects heat and can help lower a building’s cooling costs. They are also great insulators and can reduce both air and noise pollution.

On a home, the most practical type of green roof is an extensive roof, which can support a variety of small plants. Because these roofs are designed to support only a few inches of soil, they don’t require much maintenance, and you’ll have a new kind of eco-friendly garden to enjoy.

5: Green Wall


Plant wall at fair in France
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
This eco-friendly green wall was on display at the Sustainable Luxury Fair in Paris in 2010.

Living walls are as beautiful as they are functional. These vertical gardens are able to support a range of plants from succulents and mosses to edibles. On top of turning otherwise wasted space into green space, a green wall on the south side of your building helps reduce cooling costs in the summer.

Most green walls are constructed using a modular design, which not only makes them easier to build, but also allows you to create interesting patterns and designs by mixing and matching different plants. Imagine growing fruits and vegetables right on your own home — it doesn’t get much greener than that!

4: Earthship

While an Earthship may sound like some kind of local UFO, it’s actually an eco-friendly form of housing becoming more popular around the world.

Michael Reynolds, who designed the first the Earthship back in the ’70s, envisioned a home that reduced waste and energy consumption. Typically, an Earthship’s frame is constructed from reclaimed tires and an eye toward maximum energy efficiency. Reynolds’ ultimate vision was to create off-grid communities of Earthships, so these homes generally rely on renewable energy rather than conventional electricity from the power grid.

These homes’ construction also tends to include old bottles and tin cans that would otherwise end up in landfills. And many Earthship owners go even greener by creating indoor gardens for growing their own food. Today, in addition to single-family Earthships, there are also Earthship neighborhoods and even condo complexes.

3: Beer Bottles


Wall of beer bottles
Put all those empty beer and soda bottles to good use — recycle them into the walls of a new home!

Want an eco-friendly way to get rid of those empties after a party? Tito Ingenieri built his Quilmes, Argentina, home out of 6 million empty glass bottles. He sets the bottles in concrete to create a light, airy space that’s a testament to the amount of empty bottles that go to waste. Friends and neighbors have saved their bottles for Ingenieri over a period of more than 19 years, and he says that his home “doesn’t belong to me, but to many people in this town. They say this is an ecological house, as it is made of bottles from the street, and now the streets are clean” [source: Alvarado].

While you may not want to spend years gathering (or drinking from) enough bottles to build a home, you can start smaller with a bottle shed or garden wall.

2: Hemp Concrete

Traditional concrete is very energy intensive to create, so one Asheville, NC, company is looking to change that. Hemp Technologies developed an alternative concrete, called Hemcrete, out of hemp, water and lime that’s more durable than regular concrete. Because it’s currently illegal to grow hemp in the U.S., Hemcrete costs more than regular concrete, but since the material insulates better than concrete, you make that up that cost over time in energy savings.

Walls constructed with this material are also resistant to fire, mold and insects, and some researchers think that it may even last as long as 700 to 800 years [source: Lawrence].


1: Modular Homes


Plans and model house
If you like puzzles and construction, you may enjoy building a modular home from a kit.

Modular homes have come a long way from the types of prefab houses that you’re probably familiar with. Many modular home companies are creating kit houses with a modern look and an environmental twist. Some buy the smaller kits to build guest houses or outdoor offices, but for minimalists and do-it-yourselfers, modular homes make perfect primary residences.

Eco-friendly modular homes are often smaller than traditional homes, so they use less energy to heat and cool. Also, since the pieces are all manufactured to fit together perfectly, prefab homes minimize the waste that goes along with a typical construction project.

To learn more about green construction and eco-housing options, check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles


  • Alvarado, Paula. “Guy Builds Massive House with Recycled Glass Bottles, Teaches you How to Do It.” Treehugger. March 3, 2010. (Jan. 26, 2011)
  • Buczynski, Beth. “3 Surprising Ways To Build An Efficient Green House.” Crisp Green. Jan. 17, 2011. (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. “Straw Bale House Construction.” (Jan. 26, 2011)
  • Edmonds, Molly. “How Straw Bale Houses Work.” March 12, 2008. (Jan. 26, 2011)
  • Embrey, Matt. “Recycled Pallet House – Disaster Relief Housing.” July 7, 2008. (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • Green Building Elements. “Low Impact Living: Green Walls – Don’t Stop Greening On The Roof!” Sept. 18, 2008. (Jan. 26, 2011)
  • “Cob.” (Jan. 26, 2011)
  • Lawrence, Robyn Griggs. “Hemp Concrete: Promising New Green Building Material.” Mother Earth News. Jan. 11, 2010. (Jan. 26, 2011)
  • Meyers, Glenn. “Modular Homes Gain in Popularity.” Green Building Elements. Jan. 3, 2011. (Jan. 25, 2011)
  • Tanasijevic, Jovan. “Paving, Paving Everywhere. Not a Drop Will Sink.” Architecture Boston. Aug. 5, 2010. (Jan. 26, 2011)
  • Trinity Buoy Wharf. “Container City.” (Feb. 4, 2011)
  • Welch, Bryan. “The Earthship.” Mother Earth News. Nov. 2, 2009. (Jan. 26, 2011)

Our Big Pig Problem w/ antibiotics

Our Big Pig Problem: Scientific American.

For more than 50 years microbiologists have warned against using antibiotics to fatten up farm animals. The practice, they argue, threatens human health by turning farms into breeding grounds of drug-resistant bacteria. Farmers responded that restricting antibiotics in livestock would devastate the industry and significantly raise costs to consumers. We now have empirical data that should resolve this debate. Since 1995 Denmark has enforced progressively tighter rules on the use of antibiotics in the raising of pigs, poultry and other livestock. In the process, it has shown that it is possible to protect human health without hurting farmers.

Farmers in many countries use antibiotics in two key ways: (1) at full strength to treat animals that are sick and (2) in low doses to fatten meat-producing livestock or to prevent veterinary illnesses. (It is illegal in the U.S. to sell milk for human consumption from dairy cattle treated with antibiotics.) Although even the proper use of antibiotics can inadvertently lead to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, the habit of using a low or subtherapeutic dose is a formula for disaster: the treatment provides just enough antibiotic to kill some but not all bacteria. The germs that survive are typically those that happen to bear genetic mutations for resisting the antibiotic. They then reproduce and exchange genes with other microbial resisters. Because bacteria are found literally everywhere, resistant strains produced in animals eventually find their way into people as well. You could not design a better system for guaranteeing the spread of antibiotic resistance.

The data from multiple studies over the years support the conclusion that low doses of antibiotics in animals increase the number of drug-resistant microbes in both animals and people. As Joshua M. Sharfstein, a principal deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, told a U.S. congressional subcommittee last summer, “You actually can trace the specific bacteria around and … find that the resistant strains in humans match the resistant strains in the animals.” And this science is what led Denmark to stop subtherapeutic dosing of chickens, pigs and other farm animals.

Although the transition unfolded smoothly in the poultry industry, the average weight of pigs fell in the first year. But after Danish farmers started leaving sows and piglets together a few weeks longer to bolster the littermates’ immune systems naturally, the animals’ weights jumped back up, and the number of pigs per litter increased as well. The lesson is that improving animal husbandry—making sure that pens, stalls and cages are properly cleaned and giving animals more room or time to mature—offsets the initial negative impact of limiting antibiotic use. Today Danish industry reports that productivity is higher than before. Meanwhile reports of antibiotic resistance in Danish people are mixed, which shows—as if we needed reminding—that there are no quick fixes.

Lest anyone argue that Denmark is too small to offer a reasonable parallel to the U.S., consider that it is the world’s largest exporter of pork. Like U.S. farmers, Danes raise pigs on an intensive, industrial scale. If they can figure out how to limit antibiotic use while actually increasing agricultural productivity, then so can Americans.

The American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association, a previous FDA commissioner and many others have advised the U.S. to follow suit. Last year the FDA published new guidelines calling for “judicious use” of antibiotics. Yet it ultimately left the decision on exactly when and where to use antibiotics up to individual farmers. That laissez-faire standard is not good enough, particularly when the health of the rest of the population is at stake.

Of course, the way veterinary antibiotics are used is not the only cause of human drug-resistant infections. Careless use of the drugs in people also contributes to the problem. But agricultural use is still a major contributing factor. Every day that passes brings new evidence that we are in danger of losing effective antibiotic protection against many of the most dangerous bacteria that cause human illness [see “The Enemy Within,” by Maryn McKenna=]. The technical issues are solvable. Denmark’s example proves that it is possible to cut antibiotic use on farms without triggering financial disaster. In fact, it might provide a competitive advantage. Stronger measures to deprive drug-resistant bacteria of their agricultural breeding grounds simply make scientific, economic and common sense.

Are we having another food crisis?

Are we having another food crisis? – environment – 28 October 2010 – New Scientist.

The world food price index is at its highest since 2008, when food prices rocketed and millions of people suffered. This year the crisis seems to be happening again. Prices for the staple grains that underpin the world’s food supply soared after forecasts for the US and Chinese maize harvests fell in October, Pakistan lost its wheat to floods, and crop losses to drought and wildfire led Russia to ban grain exports until 2011. Food prices have soared in India, Egypt and elsewhere and are being blamed for riots in Mozambique.

Are we having another food crisis? New Scientist investigates.

Is this another crisis like the one we had in 2008?

Not quite. Maximo Torero of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC notes that oil, the real driver of food prices and of the 2008 crisis, is relatively cheap, at around $75 a barrel, not over $100 as it was in 2008.

In 2008, both immediate grain prices, and the prices offered for future grain purchases in commodities markets, climbed steadily for months, whereas now they are spiking and dipping more unpredictably, which economists call volatility.

“The market fundamentals – supply and demand – do not warrant the price increases we have seen,” says Torero. Not all harvests have been bad, and after 2008 countries rebuilt grain stocks. “There are enough stocks in the US alone to cover the expected losses in Russia.”

The food riots in Mozambique were not due to world grain prices, he says, but because Mozambique devalued its currency, making imported food more expensive.

So what has been happening this year?

Markets are responding nervously to incomplete information. First there was a series of shocks: Russia’s export ban, lower maize forecasts, then, days later, a US ruling to allow more bioethanol in fuel which seemed likely to further reduce the maize – the main source of bioethanol – available for food. Meanwhile there was no reliable information about grain stocks, which is strategic information that most countries keep secret.

The result was nervous bidding and sporadically surging prices in commodity markets. And that attracted the real problem: investors wielding gargantuan sums of speculative capital and hoping to make a killing. When speculation exacerbated the price crisis of 2008, Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn, Germany, then head of IFPRI, predicted that it would continue causing problems. “We saw that one coming and it came,” he says. “Food markets have new design flaws, with their inter-linkages to financial markets.”

Volatility also makes it harder to solve the long-term, underlying problem – inadequate food production – by making farmers and banks reluctant to invest in improved agricultural technology as they are unsure of what returns they will get. “Investment in more production alone will not solve the problem,” says von Braun. As long as extreme speculation causes constant price bubbles and crashes, either farmers will not get good enough returns to continue investing in production, or consumers will not be able to afford the food.

“Without action to curb excessive speculation, we will see further increases in these volatilities,” he says.

What can we do?

This is where technology comes in. All the major producers already use remote sensing technology to watch each other’s fields. If countries would reveal just once what stocks they hold, says Torero, the satellite images can be used to calculate whether those stocks have risen or fallen, as growing conditions change. “All we need to know is the baseline,” he says. Reliable information about stocks could offset unwarranted jitters about crop failures, such as the ones that are contributing to the current market volatility.

Von Braun goes farther: he says there should be a global technical organisation that keeps track of world grain stocks and production, and which decides, using complex computerised models of world food markets, what range of grain prices are actually warranted by real supply and demand. Then if speculation starts to drive prices up out of this band, countries could intervene on markets, buying and selling just enough to counter speculative pressure. “This doesn’t stop speculation, just extreme speculation,” he says.

He thinks it would take a fund of $20-$30 billion to do the trick. In September the World Bank extended a $2 billion fund to respond to food price crises, but that is aimed at helping the poorest survive price spikes rather than intervening to stop them happening.

Even if we stop the volatility, don’t we still need to grow more food?

Yes. As well as stable markets we also need more research into increasing yields that will produce enough grain to sell, plus investment in getting research products into farmers’ hands, and the roads, markets and communications technology the farmers need to get it to market.

The more farmers are selling into the world market, says von Braun, the more stable it will be, as when one country falls short, another will have extra.

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