Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, recently posted a very thoughtful piece at Ensia that questions the dominant narrative on population growth and food supply. As he describes,
You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today. And that means we’ll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It’s a race to feed the world, and we had better get started.
To be fair, there are grains of truth in each of these statements, but they are far from complete. And they give a distorted vision of the global food system, potentially leading to poor policy and investment choices.
To make better decisions, we need to examine where the narrative goes off the rails.
Foley goes on to carefully consider each of the assumptions of the dominant narrative. After debunking myths and pointing out blind spots, he proposes a very different summary of where we are and how we might face the future:
While the prevailing narrative about the global food supply is persuasive and sounds very logical, it is actually based on several wrong assumptions. It needs to be replaced by a more accurate narrative that can better guide future investments and decisions.
The new narrative might sound something like this: The world faces tremendous challenges to feeding a growing, richer world population — especially to doing so sustainably, without degrading our planet’s resources and the environment. To address these challenges, we will need to deliver more food to the world through a balanced mix of growing more food (while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices) and using the food we already have more effectively. Key strategies include reducing food waste, rethinking our diets and biofuel choices, curbing population growth, and growing more food at the base of the agricultural pyramid with low-tech agronomic innovations. Only through a balanced approach of supply-side and demand-side solutions can we address this difficult challenge.
These are big challenges, and there are no simple solutions. As a first step, though, we at least need to be sure that we get the story about the food system straight. After all, if we’re not even starting at the right place, we certainly will not end up at the right destination.
The full piece is really worth a read. Check it out here, and then share it with others.
Thanks to AlterNet, I came across this recent post from John Vidal of The Guardian, which raises concerns about the practices of some member companies of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). As he describes,
The growing global demand for palm oil has fuelled a massive expansion of plantations across the forests of southeast Asia and Africa but concerns have been growing for over a decade about the resulting environmental and social impacts. The RSPO, set up in 2004 by the industry and civil society groups including WWF, sets criteria for greener palm oil production and tries to encourage industry expansion in ways that do not cause social conflict.
About 15% of the world’s palm oil is now certified as “sustainable” by the RSPO, whose members range from some of the largest growers and traders, to relatively small companies.
“Since its founding the RSPO has adopted good standards, but too many member companies are not delivering on these paper promises,” said Norman Jiwan, director of human rights group Transformasi Untuk Keadilan Indonesia….
According to some, the RSPO’s voluntary “best practice” rules and guidelines are not working and the organisation is in danger of becoming a figleaf for agribusiness to take advantage of weak land laws.
“Underlying this failure of ‘voluntary best practice’ are national laws and policies which deny or ignore indigenous peoples’ and communities’ land rights,” said Marcus Colchester, an adviser at Forest Peoples Programme.
“In their rush to encourage investment and exports, governments are trampling their own citizens’ rights. Global investors, retailers, manufacturers and traders must insist on dealing in conflict-free palm oil, and national governments must up their game and respect communities’ rights.”
Wondering what to stream online, check out from the library, or rent at your local video store?
Thanks to HuffPost, I discovered a list of “26 Films Every Food Activist Must Watch,” compiled by Danielle Nierenberg and Katie Work.
As they describe,
Food Tank has selected 26 films — both long and short — to share with you. From the importance of land rights for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to the insidious dominance of fast food in an urban community in California, each of these films can inform and inspire eaters all over the world.
For the full list with links and brief descriptions of each film, head to Food Tank’s website. Happy viewing!
A couple interesting articles about sustainability efforts in the brewing industry were recently posted on the news website of the UW-Madison’s Department of Engineering Professional Development. The first by Meg Turville-Heitz focuses primarily on the big multinationals. For example,
“Sustainability is a concept of rapidly increasing importance in the brewing industry,” says Ryan Griffin, a sustainability advisor with See the Forest, LLC, and a former asset management engineer at MillerCoors, which remains a client. As a student in the Master of Engineering in Sustainable Systems Engineering (SSE) program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison he has worked to spread ideas learned from a systems perspective to the organization. “One such idea is using the concept of industrial ecology to analyze resource use throughout our supply chain,” says Griffin. “We are now beginning to build long-term partnerships with our material suppliers to design sustainability into how we operate. This could mean helping barley farmers grow their grain with less water, or our packaging suppliers use less energy to produce their materials.”
He notes that water and energy efficiency per barrel of beer brewed “are two metrics the company has actively worked to improve for the last five years. Two MillerCoors breweries are already at world class levels of water consumption per barrel” or less than a ratio of 3:1 water use to beer, and “others are close behind,” he says. Additionally, six of the company’s eight breweries have achieved goals of zero waste to landfills.
New Glarus Brewing Company in southwest Wisconsin has been experiencing double digit growth, averaging 18% every year since it opened in its initial Riverside Brewery in 1993, says founder and president Deb Carey. “We’ve just completed $9 million in expansion and another $11 million on the way,” she says, adding “We doubled the capacity of our Hilltop brewery from 150,000 to 250,000 barrels per year.”
Those expansions have been a model in sustainability. “It’s been about reclaiming steam, heat exchangers, reclaiming chemicals, our own sewage treatment plant, wind and solar,” says Carey. For example, the chemicals used to rinse the three miles of pipe in the facility are re-used in washing down floors, and treated wastewater drawn from their own treatment plant – reducing the brewery’s impact on the community sewage treatment system – has been used in irrigation on the grounds.
For more of the local angle, including a look at some of the sustainability efforts undertaken at Ale Asylum, head here.
The current issue of the Willy Street Co-op Reader includes a thoughtful article by Kirsten Moore titled, “Palm Oil: Making Sense of the Controversy.” As she describes,
Our relationship with palm oil began in the mid-1800s in Indonesia and Malaysia, where we discovered the oil palm was very rich in oil that could serve multiple purposes from making soap to fueling a steam engine. Palm oil yields average about 6000 liters per hectare, far beyond other edible oils (more than eight times that of soybeans), making it an oil that requires a lot less space to farm and a very cheap oil in the global market. Palm oil also has a longer shelf life than other oils. Virgin red palm oil has recently earned a healthy reputation for a very high antioxidant capacity of beta-carotene, tocotrienols, tocopherols and Vitamin E. Sounds great, right? … Not so fast.”
Moore goes on to consider a wide array of health, environment, and social justice concerns with most current palm oil production, alongside benefits and alternative production models. The issues are worth considering, since—as Moore details—”The overall use of palm oil has grown exponentially since the 1960s, rising from about a half million to over two million tons in the 1980s, and over 48 million tons in the mid-2000s. In 2005, palm oil surpassed soya as the world’s most produced vegetable oil.” For the full article, head here.
For more, check out these earlier posts of mine that touch on the subject of palm oil:
- October 27, 2011: Conscientious Halloween
- December 7, 2011: Locavore Scouts
- February 13, 2013: Migrant children working Malaysia’s oil palm plantations
In the California wine mecca of Sonoma County, climate change is pitting redwood lovers against red wine lovers.
This [past] Friday morning, a coalition of environmental groups [were] in a Santa Rosa, Calif., courtroom fighting to stop a Spanish-owned winery from leveling 154 acres of coast redwoods and Douglas firs to make way for grapevines.
Redwoods only grow in the relatively cool coastal region of Northern California and southern Oregon. Parts of this range, such as northwestern Sonoma County, have become increasingly coveted by winemakers.
Chris Poehlmann, president of a small organization called Friends of the Gualala River, says the wine industry is creeping toward the coast as California’s interior valleys heat up and consumers show preferences for cooler-weather grapes like pinot noir.
Leaving aside Bland’s false dichotomy—I’m pretty sure plenty of redwood lovers enjoy red wine, and vice versa—It’s an informative piece that places details of this particular case in a larger context. Check out the full article here.
Alistair Bland had a great post at NPR yesterday, highlighting a number of the problematic ways that some marine species are caught. As he notes,
If sustainability is a top priority when you’re shopping at the fish counter, wild-caught seafood can be fraught with ethical complications.
One major reason why: bycatch, or the untargeted marine life captured accidentally by fishermen and, often, discarded dead in heaps. It’s one of the most problematic aspects of industrial fishing.
Tuna fishermen don’t only catch tuna. In fact, they mostly don’t catch tuna — especially when they use long lines rigged with hundreds of baited hooks. A recent commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization found that tuna fishermen hauled in 750,000 tons of tuna and 828,000 tons of non-tuna creatures per year in the mid-2000s. In some regions, a quarter of the total catch is sharks, according to a published in 2007. Many sharks are thrown back dead — including 20,000 tons of blue sharks annually in the North Atlantic, as in the Marine Ecology Progress Series.
For each aquatic animal he discusses, he offers suggestions for good alternatives. For tuna, the alternatives are
Pole-caught tuna, often yellowfin and albacore. As with other species, finding these alternatives may be a matter of chatting it up with those selling the fish.
Check out the full post here. You’ll come away informed and prepared to make better choices at the market and when dining out.
The fourth installment of Tales From Planet Earth hits UW-Madison this November 1-3. As their website describes,
Tales From Planet Earth showcases environmental films from around the world on the belief issues don’t move people, stories do! To that end, we link compelling narratives of films to engagement efforts of community partners working for environmental and social justice in Wisconsin. The highlight of our efforts is a biennial film festival thematically journeying around the globe to explore how stories told through film shape our understanding of nature and inspire action on behalf of environmental justice and the diversity of life.
This is as cheap as a cheap date can get: “As always, all screenings are free and open to the public, no advanced ticket needed.” All seating is first-come, first-served, so you might want to plan to arrive a little early for smaller venues.
A number of food-related films will be a part of this year’s event. I’ve listed below the descriptions of each one that I spotted, including a pair of films on commercial fishing and a pair on trash. Head to the festival website for the full schedule, details on special events, and links to previews and/or official websites of many films.
Sons of the Land (2012)
Edouard Bergeon (88 min., color, HD Cam, France, In French with English subtitles)
Saturday, November 2, 2013, 1 p.m.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Sons of the Land screenshotIn 1999, Edouard Bergeon’s father became another of the 400 to 800 French farmers who commit suicide every year, suffering from despair at the crushing debt burdens suffered by modern farmers at the same time that their marginal profits continue to erode. In exploring his father’s story, Bergeon meets the Itards, a family of dairy farmers in southern France going through similar issues that overwhelmed his father. For 14 months, his camera penetrates into the heart of a modern farm family — its hopes and frustrations, intergenerational disagreements, debt burdens, family strife, but also abiding love and loyalty. In the end, from near-tragedy, the Itards find hope for a sustainable farming business model that might allow these sons of the land to pass their family farm on to another generation. Official selection of the IDFA, Eurodok, Vera, and Göteborg International Film Festivals. Film will be followed by a panel of local farmers and UW faculty discussing contemporary farming challenges.
John Grierson (49 min., b&w, Blu-Ray, U.K.)
Saturday, November 2, 2013, Noon
A landmark film from the father of the British documentary movement, in many ways Drifters was the first modern British documentary feature film. Training his lens on a disappearing traditional method of herring fishing in the British North Sea, Grierson’s portrait of the hard life of a commercial fisherman makes for an interesting pairing with a more recent film examining the same livelihood some 85 years later. (Screens with Leviathan)
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel (87 min., color, Blu-Ray, France/U.K./U.S.)
Saturday, November 2, 2013, Noon
Lucien Castaing-Taylor has been hailed as one of the most innovative documentary filmmakers working today and is fast becoming a Madison favorite. Previous screenings of his films — Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2012) — have sold out at the Wisconsin Film Festival. So popular was Leviathan that we decided to bring it back once more, this time with the added benefit of Castaing-Taylor’s presence. Leviathan is unlike any film you’ve ever seen — a lush immersion in the sights, sounds, and sensations of life aboard a New England commercial fishing boat. Lacking a traditional narrative structure, the film nevertheless gets under your skin as you discover for yourself the hardships of this vocation. Official selection of over 25 international film festivals! Filmmaker scheduled to be in attendance. (Screens with Drifters)
Plastic Bag (2009)
Ramin Bahrani (18 min., color, Digital File, U.S.)
Sunday, November 3, 2013, 5 p.m.
The Marquee Theater at Union South
There it is. See it over there — that majestic bit of wildlife? It’s the . . . plastic bag. With tongue firmly in cheek, Ramin Bahrani elevates the humble plastic bag to the role of documentary star, using all the usual tropes of big budget wildlife films to underscore just how much trash such as plastic bags plays a role in human and non-human landscapes, interacting with us in ways similar to any natural wild animal. But the impacts of trash are obviously far from natural, as the film starkly illustrates at the end with the bag’s final migration to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating slick of plastic and garbage in the Pacific Ocean that may be as large as twice the size of the continental United States. (Screens with Trash Dance)
Trash Dance (2012)
Andrew Garrison (62 min., color, Blu-Ray, U.S.)
Sunday, November 3, 2013, 5 p.m.
The Marquee Theater at Union South
When we have trouble envisioning the future, it makes it more difficult to find reasons for optimism in our present day. Enter choreographer Allison Orr – her mission is to find visions of beauty and dance in our everyday life. But her latest project may be her most challenging yet: trying to find hope in trash collection. For several months, she works alongside the Austin, Texas sanitation workers — seeing in their movements and interactions with their equipment a beauty and a unique knowledge about place. Virginia, Don, Ivory, Orange and other workers are wary: just who is this crazy woman riding along on their trucks? With unbowed optimism, Orr wins them over, convincing them to volunteer for her dance project. Finally, the night of the outdoor performance arrives. The skies have been pouring rain. Some of the performers are still uncertain about their participation: a performance piece about trash collection!?!? Will anyone even show up? A glorious reminder of the power of individual vision to restore hope and to reshape our appreciation of the world. Winner of Audience Awards at the SXSW, Full Frame, Silverdocs, Woods Hole, Docuwest, Heartland, Sedona, and Rockport Film Festivals and featured at over 20 other film festivals! (Screens with Plastic Bag)
A few weeks ago, Harvest Public Media posted a story about how certain herbicides used on corn and soy fields, along with golf courses and lawns, can pose serious risks to the relatively small but growing number of Midwestern vineyards. As Grant Gerlock reports,
Occasionally, herbicides like 2,4-D drift beyond their target, and for nearby vineyards the results can be devastating.
2,4-D is a common herbicide used by farmers because it kills weeds but doesn’t kill their corn….
“Unfortunately, it just so happens that grapes are very sensitive to small amounts of 2,4-D,” said Lowell Sandell, a weed scientist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.
The problem is not direct spray, it’s herbicide drift. Drift can happen with any weed killer. A stiff breeze can carry tiny droplets from the sprayer in one field to the vineyard next door.
But 2,4-D and another chemical, dicamba, remain a threat for drift up to two days after they are sprayed. On a hot day they can volatilize, or evaporate, and take to the wind.
It’s a thoughtful story about an important way that commodity production and smaller-scale farms interact, for better or worse. Find the full audio and text versions of the piece here.
In an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News earlier this year, New England chef and restaurateur Michael Leviton describes the challenge of producing healthful, flavorful, sustainable, local food within the constraints of current economic and agricultural realities. As he describes to Bret Thorn,
I see commercials for chains selling two large pizzas for $5.99 or something, and I don’t know how that’s possible.
Whether it’s pizza or the piadena sandwiches we serve on our food truck, or the fancy-pants food that we serve at Lumière, our food’s going to cost more. It just is. But there’s a value proposition in doing what I and many others are doing. We have to look forward toward our customers, giving them better, healthier food, and backward at the environment and the economy.
But I completely get that people are on a budget and they have to make choices. I would love to tell you that I can use a Massachusetts-grown flour, but the fact of the matter is it would probably cost me in the range of 4 to 5 times as much as what I use. In order to get the mouth feel we want, we are blending a number of different flours for our crust, but they’re not from New England. But if I start quadrupling my costs, no one’s going to buy my pizza. All my high and mighty proselytizing won’t keep my doors open — I don’t have a place where I can charge you $200 for a meal of pizza.
Check out the full piece here.