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.
The New York Times Sunday Magazine just profiled the latest venture from Doug Rauch, a former Trader Joe’s president. Here’s how Hope Reeves’ interview with Rauch begins:
You’re opening a store called Daily Table early next year. It’s going to sell food that’s past its sell-by date. Can you elaborate?
Yes, and food that’s cosmetically blemished or food that is excess — like fish that is perfectly wholesome, but not the fish they were going out to catch. We’re going to grab all of this stuff, bring it on-site, cook prepared meals with it and also offer milk, eggs, bread and produce. It’s going to be priced the same as junk food, basically.
It’s an interesting (and not controversy-free) concept. Find the full interview here.
For a look at what currently happens with expired and otherwise less-than-perfect items from the supermarket, check out this earlier post.
Although it’s from a dozen weeks ago, an article in The Guardian didn’t lose any of its relevance over the summer. As Fiona Harvey describes,
People in Britain should eat meat less often, in order to help ease the food crises in the developing world, an influential committee of MPs has urged.
It could also help to mitigate the rampant food price inflation that has seen the cost of staple foods in the UK rise by close to one-third in the last five years.
The massive increase in meat consumption in rich countries in recent decades has led to spikes in the price of grain, used for animal feed, as well as leading to widespread deforestation and pressure on agricultural land, and has contributed to the obesity epidemic. By avoiding meat even for a day or two each week, people could help to ease some of these pressures.
Sounds like the people of Britain have something in common with the people of the United States, huh? Find the full article here.
Since the yearlong public media project Food for 9 Billion (which I’ve posted about regularly) appears to have concluded, I thought I’d share a piece in a similar vein from Robert Dreyfuss, writing for The Nation. It’s one of a series of four posts from his visit to Tanzania. (Here are links to the first, second, and third entries.) As part of a CARE USA delegation, in this post he visits Morogoro, “a bustling town with a busy marketplace and a network of paved thoroughfares that lead to dirt roads leading in every direction.” As he writes,
As in most of Tanzania, the majority [in Morogoro] are desperately poor, subsistence farmers. Nearly all of them farm tiny plots, growing barely enough to feed their families, if that, and few have any substantial surplus to bring to market.
One exception is the Uwawakuda irrigation cooperative farm. More than 900 Tanzanian farmers, including 414 women, have banded together to farm a 5,000-acre spread whose productivity is fed by a pumping station and irrigation system that provides underground water to the farm. Originally installed three decades ago during the era of Tanzania’s president and founder, Julius Nyerere, the pumps are creaky now, and thanks to a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) new ones are being installed. It’s a star attraction for USAID’s Feed the Future program….
Problem is, for the rest of the 2 million people in and around the area, things are bleak.
A drought, worsened by climate change and rising temperatures, has wracked the region. When I asked George Iranga, who manages the project, what happens to the farmers outside the coop, who don’t have access to irrigation, he says that they are struggling. That’s an understatement.
For the full story, which is thoughtful and eye-opening, head here.
This recent piece from Beth Hoffman at Forbes highlights ways that surplus fruits and veggies can make it to those most in need.
… how can leftover locally grown produce get into the hands of those who can use it quickly, without expensive refrigeration, storage and staffing? The answer: via the web. Three year old AmpleHarvest.org is an online forum created to connect the dots between fresh local produce and those in the community who need it most.
At the AmpleHarvest website, gardeners can enter their zip code, find nearby food pantries, and get links to more information such as donation times and contact info. With summer just around the corner, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to can, freeze, or force onto your friends those sometimes-overwhelming amounts of extra produce that come in at harvest time; consider sharing some of your bounty with folks near you who could use a helping hand.
I just learned about the Field to Foodbank program of UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), which has been working with folks involved in all aspects of Wisconsin agribusiness and food processing to turn excess produce into supplies for area food banks.
I was a little surprised that no fresh vegetables are delivered to food banks—perishables get canned to avoid the need for refrigeration—but I guess this makes sense given the huge amounts of produce involved. As explained in this interview by Jed Colquhoun (professor of horticulture and director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture), delivering a fresh crop to a food bank “isn’t terribly realistic when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds of carrots,” for example.
He continues, describing the involvement of a variety of Wisconsin businesses: “I remember sitting in a coffee shop in central Wisconsin, watching the logistic chain develop to get snap beans and sweet corn to Second Harvest without my involvement at all. Somebody in the room lined up trucking and asked when they could get somebody else’s harvester over there. The processor asked when they could can that produce and how they could get it down to Second Harvest. So are they generous? Are they engaged? Very much so. And they’re asking how they can do more. They’re in business, yes. But they’re in the business of providing food.”
This week there were two installments in the ongoing series entitled “Food for 9 Billion,” a yearlong collaborative project by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions, PBS Newshour and American Public Media’s Marketplace.
On Tuesday this week, Marketplace aired this piece focused on Bangladesh and the problems its people face due to climate change. As John Miller reports, “Bangladesh is one of the world’s great food success stories. In the 1970s, famine killed more than a million people. But since then the country has made huge strides. It’s still extremely poor. But incomes are up, malnutrition is down, and the population growth rate is about half what it was a generation ago. And it produces enough rice — the staple food — to feed just about everybody. Which is no small feat, since it’s got half the population of the United States crammed into a space the size of Iowa. The question now is whether climate change will sweep those gains away.”
Yesterday, PBS Newshour ran this segment focused on a struggle over land and water rights in Ethiopia, where the interests of multinational investors seem to be trampling the rights of rural people. As Cassandra Herrman describes, “The Anuak people of the Gambella region have lived in scattered settlements like this for centuries, growing maize in wetter months farming closer to the river in the dry season. But last year, the Ethiopian government launched a program called villagization. Officials told the people here they would be relocated to areas with better access to clean water, health, and education. But this woman says they were forced to move under false pretenses…. The plight of the Anuak people is at the heart of a complex battle over landownership and water rights between farmers, the government, and foreign investors…. According to the company Saudi Star, when completed, this rice farm [being developed on land that Anuak consider theirs] will be the largest in Africa.To attract investors to this area of the Nile River Basin, the Ethiopian government puts few, if any restrictions on water usage in its contracts with foreign companies. Saudi Star will spend $2.5 billion on the rice farm, on clearing forests, on their fleet of new tractors and combines, and on extra experts…. But, in Gambella, Anuaks say they are not seeing the benefits of the country’s investment strategy. While companies like Saudi Star now have access to much of the region’s best land and water, the leader of this village says they’ve been moved to drier areas where farming is more difficult.”
Both stories are well-reported slices of life in the 21st century that, while distant from the US, are nonetheless very much linked to our modern way of life. Check them out.
As I mentioned a couple months ago, PBS NewsHour, American Public Media’s Marketplace, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Homelands Productions are collaborating on a yearlong project examining how the world is feeding the growing population of 7 billion, which is expected to reach 9 billion by the middle of the century.
Yesterday the food struggles and explosive population growth of the Phillipines were considered by Sam Eaton in reports that aired on Marketplace and, as featured below, PBS NewsHour. Very interesting, and very worth checking out.
Ever wonder what happens to grocery store items that don’t get sold before their expiration dates? Wonder no more, thanks to this report from Nadia Arumugam at The Atlantic. The answers include the dumpster, food pantries, and salvage grocery stores. As Arumugam describes, “outdated, damaged, and out-of-season items from supermarkets, collectively known as ‘unsaleables,’ are sent to large clearing houses known as reclamation centers. These are most often operated by the supermarket chains themselves or wholesale distributors. Here, dangerous items such as broken jars and obviously contaminated or spoiled foods are disposed of. The remainder is sold into the salvage industry or donated to food banks. Every two weeks Patricia Quillen, owner of the Country Discount Grocery [in Wautoma, Wisconsin], re-stocks her store with a 53-foot trailer packed full of goods from the reclamation center. The unsaleables are stuffed into cardboard banana boxes, each one containing a mixture of up to 40 different food and health and beauty items. No one box is identical. So Quillen says she really doesn’t know what’s going to line her shelves until she opens them up. In fact, out of the 1,152 boxes in a single delivery there might be just one jar of much-desired blueberry jam.”
Given all the preservatives in processed, packaged foods, many of these foodstuffs are safe to eat past their expiration dates, though eventually their flavor, texture, and/or appearance will begin to suffer. Also, unless you’re talking about baby formula or some baby foods, the resale of these expired products is legal, since the FDA has “decided that expiration dates are simply an indication of optimum quality as deemed by the manufacturer.” Personally, I always use eggs past their expiration date, along with those infrequently used spices that have been in my cupboard for a while, but I haven’t ever intentionally bought expired items.
As Arumugam details, food that ends up in the dumpster also ends up on some folks’ plates, too. Ever heard the term freegan? Click this link or this one for more info, and then enjoy this loving spoof from Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen of “Portlandia.”
As a followup to my post earlier this week that featured Curt Ellis’s (2009) New Year’s Resolution, I thought I’d share this TedxManhattan Talk from Ellis. In it he describes the vision of FoodCorps. Ellis left the documentary production company and advocacy project that he co-founded to help start and run this new national service program that’s part of AmeriCorps. As described on their website, here’s the FoodCorps mission and vision: “Through the hands and minds of emerging leaders, FoodCorps strives to give all youth an enduring relationship with healthy food. We envision a nation of well-nourished children: children who know what healthy food is, how it grows and where it comes from, and who have access to it every day. These children, having grown up in a healthy food environment, will learn better, live longer, and liberate their generation from diet-related disease. We envision a bright future for our Service Members: emerging leaders who, having invested a year of public service creating healthy food environments for children, will go on to become farmers, chefs, educators and public health leaders. These visionaries, armed with the skills to improve school food, will improve all food.”
As reported in this story from Time, the first 50 FoodCorps Service Members (selected from a pool of 1,229 applicants) are busy in their across the country now, “working at sites like the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Rippling Waters Organic Farm in Maine and the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in Arizona.” Ellis’s Tedx Talk is PowerPoint-free, but he’s a pretty compelling speaker so I didn’t miss the slides one bit. Check it out: