Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flood in southwestern Ontario? Start your garden

Greetings all,

When the floods started to hit Pakistan, I admit that I tried not to read the news. Not because I don't care about the people and their losses and developing illnesses of body and spirit, but because I kept having visions of dead animals floating through village streets, underwater masses of food crops tangling and writhing above waterlogged soil, and the microscopic agents of life in the soil being drowned or burst and - altogether - dead zones. I thought about seeds not being produced from this year's crops, in an area that depends on its own seeds. I worried about how imported seeds wouldn't be suited to the locale. I wondered about the local seed banks (individual farmers and rural cooperatives). The reality is probably worse than anything my imagination can visualize; I should perhaps be grateful for lack of imagination.

An article in yesterday's Globe & Mail (below) is about Pakistan, but read through and substitute thoughts of Southwestern Ontario ... think about what a true flood could mean to our region, our agriculture, our ability to feed ourselves. The area hit in Pakistan is a larger area than Southwestern Ontario. SWOntario calls itself an agricultural region although only about 2% of people farm. We have become dependent on food imported from just about everywhere. We are not 'food self sufficient', as was Pakistan. We might have better (closer) systems that could come save us if the whole region flooded, but we would still have to have a total rebuild.

Before you remind me that the main problem with our Great Lakes seems to be dropping water tables, let me leap to irregular rainfalls, increased severity of storms, the too great rainfall that's going to cause perhaps a 30% reduction in the Saskatchewan wheat crop, and the just passed heat wave in Russia. Despite the best science and predictive modelling, we don't know much that we need to know about global warming and climate change' effects. I notice that addenda to the IPCC reports have to do with more severe problems than initially predicted.

My solution? Get your garden started. Right now. Plant something. Plant some perennial flowers for colour and beauty. Plant a tree for shade 20 years from now. Plant some vegetables. Yes, now. Mini pak choi will germinate now and be ready for stir fry for Hallowe'en. Beet seeds put in now will give you beet tops. Spinach or swiss chard seed will give you a small harvest this fall and will probably winter over and give you a spring crop. Ask everyone you know if they have seeds or plants to share. Share some of your own. Have I mentioned 'redemption garlic'? Even the imported stuff can be planted late October and give you food next year. Get yourself to the library or bookstore and start reading about gardens. Garden, garden, garden.

Best wishes to all,

Why's Woman

Flood hit Pakistan struggles to rebuild its food system from scratch
Jessica Leeder, Global Food Reporter —Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Sep. 07,

What happens when, over the course of a few short weeks, a country utterly loses the ability to feed itself? The monsoons that began flooding Pakistan’s bread basket in late July – a geography roughly comparable to the spread from Paris to southern Italy – have caused the most colossal wipeout of a national food system in recent history. As the staggering tally of lost land, food stuffs, seeds stocks, livestock and poultry continues, experts remain flummoxed over how to rebuild such a wholly destroyed system – there is no pre-existing road map for where to begin.
“They have to start from scratch or even below scratch,” said Luigi Damiani, senior emergency and rehabilitation co-ordinator for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Pakistan.

“What is scary, what is really impossible to imagine, is the dimension. The secretary general of the UN [Ban Ki-moon], when he visited, said he’s never seen something like this,” he said.

With such an unprecedented scale of damage, what experts fear most is that, whatever path they choose, the effort will be ineffective. Before the floods sank one million hectares of agricultural land, drowned the nation’s poultry sector (six million birds were lost) and destabilized more than 14 million livestock, Pakistan was “food secure,” meaning it managed to feed itself, Mr. Damiani said.

Then, Pakistan was a net producer of wheat; farmers were in the habit of saving seeds for a handful of years. Although there wasn’t much money circulating in rural communities, many got by on subsistence agriculture. It was customary to borrow and trade with neighbours to meet extra needs. “Savings” were held in the form of large animals, usually goats, cows or milk-producing buffalos. But when the flooding began, affecting more than 17 million people, entire herds – and several lifetimes’ worth of savings – were washed away.

“My five goats and one cow swept away before our eyes,” said Bhooral, a farmer and father of four who, like many in rural Pakistan, goes only by one name. The 40-year-old managed to coax one goat, a cow and a buffalo to follow the Datsun he hired to ferry his family to dry land in Hyderabad. To pay the fare, he sold the buffalo. Now, living alongside other flood victims at the austere Sabzi Mandi camp, a former vegetable market in the southern Pakistani city of Hyderabad, the family has taken to stretching their meals into portions of eight. The extra food – made with donated rice, high-energy biscuits and enriched wheat – is doled out to the family’s starving cow and goat.

“If [farmers] were able to keep their animals, they are now starving. They don’t know what to feed with,” Mr. Damiani said.

Figuring out how to feed and vaccinate the animals that families such as the Bhoorals have managed to keep alive has become a top priority for the FAO, which is responsible for co-ordinating all the non-government agriculture-related organizations on the ground. (Officials are also beginning to worry about the spread of disease among animals that have been crammed, along with their owners, into urban camps for the internally displaced.)

The other immediate priority, Mr. Damiani said, is to try to salvage what’s left of the winter planting season. Although rains have abated, water levels have been slow to recede, spiking worries over whether farmers – if they’re able to find their way back to their land – will be able to plant wheat seeds or another substitution crop in time to grow anything.

“If we don’t plant now, it means the next harvest for wheat will be April or May, 2012,” Mr. Damiani said. That would mean two guaranteed years of food instability for both people and their animals at time when the focus should be on rebuilding the country’s animal stocks.

“You cannot just produce six million new chicks,” Mr. Damiani said. “To re-establish the system, it will take time.”

Rebuilding the country’s capacity to feed itself is also critical for Pakistan’s long-term stability. Officials fear that if agriculture is no longer a viable means of subsistence, the country’s rural regions will be permanently abandoned and a mass population shift will take place into Pakistan’s already-crowded urban centres.
“Can you imagine the social cost of something like this? Mr. Damiani said.

“Agriculture prevents all this and generates a little wealth in small communities.”

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