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.
Word nerd that I am, I couldn’t resist sharing this recent post from Modern Farmer. Andy Wright gets the lowdown on a range of agriculture-derived expressions from Christine Ammer, author of the wonderful American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Take, for example, living high on the hog. As Ammer details,
To live high on the hog is to prosper luxuriously, and it alludes to the choicest cuts of meat which are found on the hog’s upper flanks. And that come from the late 1800s.
Makes sense, right? Less obvious is the origin of the expression, buy the farm:
That dates from about the 1950s … [and] it means to die. To ‘buy the farm’ alludes to training flights of the air force that were crashing in the farmers’ fields. And when they did the farmers sued the government and the settlements were often enough to pay off the farmer’s mortgage. Since the pilot often died in such a crash he, in effect, bought the farm with his life. It may have originated in World War I, but I haven’t found any specific examples of that.
For more interesting linguistic tidbits, check out the full post.
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.”
The biggest flour miller in the U.S., Horizon Milling, which is jointly owned by privately-held Cargill and the agricultural cooperative CHS, proposed earlier this year a merger with the milling arm of food giant ConAgra. The new company would be called Ardent Mills….
Ardent Mills would dwarf its competitors by the volume it can churn out each day and its market share, controlling more than 34 percent of the U.S. flour market.
Hundreds of smaller and specialty mills will remain, but if the Ardent Mills merger is given the U.S. Department of Justice’s blessing, a huge portion of the market would be controlled under one roof. That could mean lower prices for farmers and higher prices for consumers, according to advocates for both groups….
Thomas Horton, a former Department of Justice antitrust litigator and current law professor at the University of South Dakota, said more scrutiny is needed on proposed mergers. He says a proposal like Ardent Mills will only add momentum to further consolidation within the industry.
“These are fairly cutthroat companies that we’re talking about here,” Horton said. “There could possibly be predatory and cutthroat activities and other exclusionary practices that could jeopardize these smaller mills. There’s no doubt about it.”
Expect to see the remaining large flour millers, like Kansas-based ADM Milling, gobble up more mills just to compete, Horton said.
For audio and text versions of the story, head here.
The name Sugar Bee might make you think of a familiar sweet, golden, oozy substance, but the choice crop at Sugar Bee Farm is spongy, delicate oyster mushrooms. Sarah Wisniewski and Dave Grow own and operate this year-round farm – the only devoted mushroom farm in Milwaukee – producing eight varieties. They plan to add bees and honey to their repertoire next.
With the help of a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) micro loan, Wisniewski and Grow moved into a warehouse space on July 1 and within five weeks had their first harvest. Sugar Bee is the latest addition to Milwaukee’s Green Corridor running along 6th Street from Howard to College Avenue on Milwaukee’s Southside….
Sugar Bee is delivering 50 pounds a week to three restaurant customers right now, although Wisniewski and Grow are hoping to produce a few hundred pounds a week to be fully financially sustainable. “The ability and capacity is there, but we’re still working out the kinks,” says Grow. There is currently room for 800 bags and another untapped room has space for 600 more….
Sugar Bee has its sights set on the Garden District Farmer’s Market, located right across the street, that operates Saturday afternoons from mid-June through mid-October. With significant support from 13th District Alderman Terry Witkowski, the Garden District Neighborhood Association and Simon Landscape Company, there are plans in the works for an urban orchard, a year-round food market and more – which is what originally drew Wisniewski and Grow to the space.
Check out the full story, plus photos by Rob Gustafson, here.
Apple growers wanted to find the best way to grow apples. Agricultural scientists wanted to reduce pesticide use on Wisconsin farms. These groups, starting with different objectives, found one solution that benefited them both: eco-fruit farming.
The Eco-Fruit Program began as a collaboration between the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and several apple growers around Wisconsin. CIAS project leader Michelle Miller spearheaded the program in 2000, and since then it has served nearly 100 apple and berry growers from more than 20 counties.
The Eco-Fruit Program’s main focus is reducing grower reliance on pesticides that are hazardous to themselves, consumers and the environment, while also supporting growers in finding the best farming practices.
For the full piece, including an overview of “integrated pest management” and plenty of informative links, head here.
NPR’s Dan Charles has filed a number of thoughtful reports on modern agriculture, including the use of antibiotics in factory farming of livestock. Another one hit the airwaves and web yesterday:
It’s one of the most controversial practices in agriculture: feeding small amounts of antibiotics to animals in order to make them grow faster.
But what if the drugs don’t even work very well?
There’s some good evidence that they don’t, at least in pigs. They used to deliver a boost in growth, but that effect has disappeared in recent years or declined greatly.
The reason for this is interesting and even paradoxical.
Head here for the full audio and text versions of the story.
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!
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
Just days after I caught a reference to “rooster sauce” on Orange is the New Black*, I happily came across this recent story by Roberto A. Ferdman at Quartz (reposted at HuffPost) about Sriracha, the popular hot sauce made in California. As Ferdman begins,
If David Tran were a more conventional CEO, he would be a fixture at conferences, a darling of magazine profiles, and a subject of case studies in the Harvard Business Review. Sriracha hot sauce, made by Huy Fong Foods, which Tran founded 33 years ago in Los Angeles, is one of the coolest brands in town. There are entire cookbooks written to celebrate Sriracha’s versatility; memorabilia ranging from iPhone covers to t-shirts and all sorts of other swag; a documentary in the works to chronicle its rise; and innumerable imitators. Sriracha sales last year reached some 20 million bottles to the tune of $60 million dollars, percentage sales growth is in the double digits each year, and it does all this without spending a cent on advertising.
Yet Tran shuns publicity, professes not to care about profits, hardly knows where his sauces are sold, and probably leaves millions of dollars on the table every year. His dream, Tran tells Quartz, “was never to become a billionaire.” It is “to make enough fresh chili sauce so that everyone who wants Huy Fong can have it. Nothing more.”
It’s a fascinating look at a unique corner of the modern food system and well worth a read, whether you love the rooster or not. Find the full article here.
* OITNB Season 1, Episode 7, time mark ˜6:00, Tasha aka ‘Taystee’ to Mr. Healy: “The hot sauce in the commissary is bullsh*t. We want that Thailand sauce, the one with the rooster on it.”