Several months ago, there was an obscure posting in the Brewers Forum from Charlie Papazian. He was passing on a request he’d received for a brewer to speak about sustainable brewing issue at a conference taking place in San Francisco. Since I’ve written about organic beer and green breweries several times now, it piqued my interest. The conference was EcoCity World Summit, and it took place April 21-26 at various location in the Bay Area. I wrote to them to get press credentials on the off chance that a brewer did participate, and also because I was curious to see what else might come up related to the recent agricultural shortages with barley and hops. It turned out that Greg Koch, from Stone Brewing, had agreed to be on one of the panels, on Saturday April 26. His panel was titled “The Future of Food For Cities.”
After a gala opening at the Herbst Theatre and two days of academic seminars at Berkeley’s Extension Center at Third and Mission, the remaining three days of the conference all took place at the Nob Hill Masonic Center on California Street. A number of the panel discussions focused on the future of various infrastructures, and had titles that all began “The Future of …,” with future glimpses of transportation in cities, energy to power cities, consumption, population, equity, architecture and urban design.
Below this interesting mural were a couple dozen tables with local organizations, media and other related ecological agendas with fliers, magazines and books. There was quite a lot of interesting stuff to see and read.
The first speaker on “The Future of Food For Cities” was particularly interesting. Eric Holt-Giménez, Director of Food First, which is also known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy, gave a lot of information about the myths surrounding the current food shortage. The most important of these is that he doesn’t believe it’s a shortage at all. He pointed out that the many food riots taking place around the world are not even riots, but rebellions. They aren’t being staged by starving populations, but by the poor angry about how quickly food prices have risen, about a growing entitlement gap and lack of democracy. Worldwide, average food prices have gone up a staggering 83% over the last three years, and 45% in just the last nine months. We all know about barley and hops, but wheat is up 130% and rice 66%.
At the same time, the big food companies are reporting record profits: ADM 25%, Monsanto 45%, General Foods 61% and Cargill 86%. But Holt-Giménez claims there is no shortage whatsoever, that reserve stocks are fine. To account for the higher prices he goes to say that across the board the rising prices are and will continue to blamed on the following:
- Climate change: droughts, floods, etc.
- Consumption: greater demand
- Yields: 2005-06 were down, but not 2007
- Energy: higher oil prices
- Agrofuels: half of corn being used toward, demand rising
I’m not quite sure what to make of that. As he was ticking them off, I noticed they were pretty much the exact reasons that we’ve been told barley prices are rising and are some of the reasons for hops, too. With hops, having fewer acres planted — especially of aroma hops — is undoubtedly the primary cause and yields are still down as a result. But it’s hard not to wonder if some of the rising costs are due to some chicanery on the part of what Holt-Giménez refers to as the Industrial Agri-foods Complex.
He gave a lengthy explanation of the root causes, but the ones that seemed the most problematic to me were these. The so-called Green Revolution of the 1960-80s concentrated ownership of the world’s land into just a few very large corporations. As a consequence, we’ve lost 75% of food diversity to the point where cotton, maize, wheat, rice and soy account for 91% of all crops grown. That makes for a vulnerable food system where a problem with just one crop could have a ripple effect across the entire economy. Some of the other things he cited included the removal of transit barriers, dismantling marketing boards, free-trade agreements and food subsidies to the tune of $1 billion per day.
What Holt-Giménez sees happening is a collapse of the food and fuel systems into one, except that the biofuel solution is no solution at all. He calls it the “Grand Mythology,” that we “can’t consume our way out of over-consumption.” There a couple of essays at Food First that go into a bit more detail about this, if you’re interested. I’d suggest The New Green Revolution and World Food Prices, The Great Agrofuel Swindle, and Pouring Fuel on the Food.
Greg Koch went last, telling a receptive audience a story familiar to all of us, but which was largely new to a good portion of the crowd. Koch talked about how “the U.S. is now the most exciting place for beer in the world, bar none.” He told the story of beer’s history, from the golden age to its recent renaissance.
He discussed the malt and hops shortages of late and the statistic about the average American living within 10 miles of a brewery. Koch also brought up his own brewery’s efforts to be green, then delving into a broader examination of what many others were doing as well, painting an honest picture of just how green the craft beer community is.
After each panelist spoke, the three of them, took lively questions from the audience. From left, Greg Koch, Carol Whiteside, President of the Great Valley Center in Modesto (and Modesto’s former mayor), and Eric Holt-Giménez, from Food First.
It was certainly an interesting experience and I was glad to see craft beer playing a role in thinking about the future of humanity and we should go about securing it.