Tag Archives: Hunger

Fair Standards for Animals Raised for Food

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 When Chipotle made its pork shortage announcement recently, I was somewhat skeptical. How low were the standards that Chipotle was concerned about?One could be led to think that this was some horrible factory farm scenario gone wrong. But, in fact, it was simply that Chipotle objected to two standard and widely accepted practices used by farmers: farrowing crates which enable them to ensure the safety of newborn pigs and slatted floors which are critical to maintaining cleanliness. NPR spoke to a farmer whose standards meet and extend those of Chipotle  but who was skeptical of this demand from Chipotle. He pointed out that while a small farm with fewer pigs could allow them to roam outside, this is not practical in a large scale operation. And the demand for pork, not juts from a particular fast food chain but from the market as a whole is huge. To meet this, large scale operations are essential. While no one wants a dilution in the care of animals, the demands often come from the consumer side. Most of us, to be perfectly honest, have little or no clue about the raising of pigs.

Yes, as this farmer describes it, we want to think about pigs being raised outdoors because we have a mental image of a gorgeous , sunny summer day. Th reality of a winter day in Minnesota, as she relates might mean broken legs and frost bite for the animals. The writer also takes issue with the vilification of farmers for brand enhancement. Perhaps it is not so much about the pork as it is about nudging consumers toward other options:  Chipotle recently debuted a tofu item in an effort to keep costs down. Maybe the concern over animal welfare would make us pick that instead. And for those who would like their usual options but worry about how green it is, there may soon be an app for that!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Weekend Reading: Future Food, Subsistence Living and the Problem with Solutions

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It is a cold, rainy Saturday, and the plan was to catch up some long deferred reading and stay off grid. The first worked beautifully , the second, not so much!

The first sentence that jumped out at me: “…urging a back-to-the-land movement as a  cure for what ails America. Nostalgia for a direct, uncorrupted relationship between between people and animals and plants that sustain us may be as old as civilization itself, and it cycles in and out of fashion, but it seems particularly potent in times of economic crisis..” An excellent explanation of the pull toward “natural” that takes up so much space in the food debate, from “Off The Land” by David Treuer in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine (paywall).  Writing about people following a path of subsistence living, the author finds that “Subsistence…isn’t a philosophy of quiet, inward-turning wonder about how we relate to the land. It’s a mad, violent pragmatism intent on extracting calories and advantage.”

A very interesting piece on how and why development solutions are effective or not and what might be the ways to go forward suggests a change of perspective. Instead of fixating on one, big, perfect idea and trying to, as the author puts it, unfurl it over the whole world like a picnic blanket, perhaps the answer lies in thinking small, trying what works in a particular context and tweaking as we go. Also relevant in the food world where there seems to be so much conviction that there is only a single perfect solution, when a more realistic focus would be to incorporate different approaches in the most optimum combination for the particular problem/part of the world.

In an NYT article, the writer is convinced of the need to stop interpreting  “eating locally” in a narrow way, but is equally sure that organic agriculture is the only solution to food system issues. Looking into the future however (via the popular YA novel, Divergent) shows us that a very different solution could unfold: “Most of what we eat is frozen or canned, because farms these days are far away. My mother once told me that, a long time ago, there were people who wouldn’t buy genetically engineered produce because they viewed it as unnatural. Now we have no other option.”

Hope you enjoy the reads, and let me know what you think!

(Image Courtest: freedigitalphotos.net)

Experimenting With School Lunch

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The school lunch is in turmoil: efforts to ensure that students get nutritious food that will keep them healthy have run up against problems. Sometimes, schools do not have the resources to provide all the recommended elements of a healthy lunch, sometimes parents object to what they perceive as an imposition by the government on their child’s diet, and sometimes the children reject the new menu. Still, it is good to know that the efforts to make sure kids eat properly continues. In Washington DC, a chef and a dietician collaborated to offer new choices to the students in a local school. Instead of the usual carrot sticks, children were presented with three differently prepared options and the Asian style version won the day and will form a part of the school menu. This experiment gives an interesting insight: today kids, specially in an area as diverse as Washington DC are exposed to a variety of cuisines, what they eat at home might be quite different from the food served at their friend’s home and also differ from what is offered at school. Where possible, substituting the somewhat sad looking boiled sides with more flavorful options might mean that less food is thrown out. of course, a major stumbling block remains: school kitchens are often equipped with only heating and freezing appliances, so the possibility of actually cooking food is limited.

When we hear demands for changes or objections to the new rules, we must remember that these need to be looked at in the context of the troubling problem of childhood hunger. In many households, children are going to bed hungry and rely on school meals for a significant source of nutrition. All too often, we read about children who have to go hungry when snow days are called. In such cases, the school lunch is not so much a matter of taste or liking but one of making sure children do not go hungry.

In another example, experimenting with the school lunch not only helps to achieve the goal of keeping children from going hungry but it also addresses the problem of malnutrition. In India, a government sponsored program provides freshly cooked meals to children in an area with high rates of anemia. The program serves the dual purpose of bringing  the children in to school with the promise of a meal and getting them an education; and by incorporating iron fortified rice in the meal, the widespread problem of anemia is also being tackled.

The shape that a lunch program takes would seem to rest in the context of its use, we can use it to address big challenges. That is an important lesson to remember when we start to get disappointed because the lunch plate does not look exactly as we might want.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Is Your Turkey Organic/Humane/Conventional/Too Big?

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It seems like fretting over the kind of turkey on the table is becoming a new Thanksgiving tradition. There is certainly an air of my-turkey-is-better-than-yours creeping into daily chats at the bus stop; based, not on the crispiness of the skin, the moistness of the meat or the flavor of the glaze but on how the turkey was raised. A flippant reaction this is, of course, that no matter how humane the raising, if the objective is killing and eating then the superiority sort of loses steam.

But let’s get serious and see why we should pay what seems to be a really high price for an organic turkey: while “conventional” turkeys cost about a dollar a pound at regular grocery stores;  heritage, free range, organic turkeys cost almost four times as much per pound. Organic here relates to the feed and organic feed costs more, the processing of the organic turkey also costs more. Organic producers may lose more birds to disease as they are limited in the methods to cope with sickness so that adds to the cost as well. The cost of turkeys that are not confined is higher also because they can contract more diseases from being outdoors.

“Conventional” is generally supposed to convey that the turkey was raised on regular feed and the feed may consist of GMO corn.  Being less expensive, the customer gets more for his dollar and is able to put as huge a turkey at the center of the meal as he/she likes. And that bring us to the “too big” issue: why are turkeys so huge? the answer lies in consumer demand. The most commonly bred turkey, called the broad breast white, is popular because consumers want big portions of lean white , breast meat instead of dark so turkeys have been bred (conventionally, there are no GMO turkeys) to meet that demand. The disproportionately large breasts also means that they cannot breed naturally and must be artificially inseminated.

Now that we have this information, how will this impact what we buy? One, perhaps some might stop eating turkeys altogether if the process of bringing them to the table causes discomfort. Second, for many among us, the organic version just will not fit the budget so it helps to have alternatives so the two markets might coexist for a while. Third, if you want a turkey, then using  the whole turkey instead of only a certain portion is a better option, and a better use of the resources needed to raise turkeys. No matter what we choose, we are thankful to have choices and not be in the grim circumstances that preceded the very first Thanksgiving dinner.

(Image courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

The Problem With Solutions to “Feed the World”

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It seems like everywhere on social media there are pieces on meetings and  conferences to discuss the challenge of “feeding the world”. There are lots of lists of solutions, assertions that this innovative project from Country Y is the perfect answer, it just needs to be replicated across the globe and then objections that this would completely destroy the food heritage of Country Z and should be abandoned. At first, it appears to be just a muddle, but the debate is intense and sometimes severely combative: scientific research is targeted and destroyed and websites dedicated to scientific communication are hacked and prevented from functioning.

Perhaps it might be helpful to take a closer look at the question to begin with: at issue here is the intent to tackle global hunger and malnutrition, with population still rising and arable land in short supply, and all this in a time of probably the biggest challenge humans have faced: climate change. Often the aspects of the food system which get the most prominence in the media are those of individual consumers: so consumers in one part of the world might vote to ban GMO crops but how do we justify this to parents who are watching their children struggle and suffer from Vitamin A deficiency but have no access to Golden Rice. The food system debate touches everyone so solutions have to be evaluated in that context as well.

Sometimes we hear the argument that our ancestors did this/did not do that so we should continue to follow that path or return to it. Certainly we can carry forward the knowledge of the past but the future is not a replication of what we have lived through and needs different approaches. Small farms existed before the growth of agribusinesses but that should not preculde the idea that big farms as well as small ones can participate together in creating and being a part of a better food system. Faced with altered growing conditions, can we adopt ways to conserve water in rice farming as well a technique that can help plants process excess salt and flourish? There is no reason why we cannot do both, other than the desire to maintain entrenched positions.

Another source of controversy arises from viewing climate change as solely related to the environment, and the effort to nurture and conserve nature is in opposition to agriculture. Worsening air quality hurts our health but also impacts the productivity of our crops.  So cleaner air brings even more benefits than we might have considered earlier. Agriculture does not have to mean the end of habitats and indigenous plants. Conserving nature can work with the goal of sustaining people as these successful projects show.

That so many lists of solutions are available is great but we cannot stick to one or the other set of answers. The clock is running against us on climate change and we need to use the best tools possible.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 23: Urban Farming for Food Security

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First, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the local food supply system in New Orleans and then the BP oil spill wiped out the fishing industry. The fishermen were mostly from the Vietnamese community which had a history of urban farming to meet the local demand for vegetables for Vietnamese cooking.  In an interesting convergence, the Vietnamese fishermen drew on this practice of urban farming to offer locally grown vegetables to area residents still awaiting the return of grocery stores destroyed by Katrina; a solution which worked towards food and income security.

Conservation and Agriculture in the Age of Climate Change

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When I first started learning and writing about food issues, it was the food landscape that was in my mind: the growing of food, its journey to markets and stores and, finally, to our homes and the table. As climate change moves into the center of our lives and we realize its enormous impact  on our environment, I am starting to look at the landscape in a different way, one where the need for conservation and food production exist in the same landscape. The challenge, I am learning, is to balance the need for food with the need for conservation at a time of climate uncertainty.

We depend on the land and water sources for food but no farm land has important benefits too. Woodlands, grassy areas, slow down the movement of pathogens and pesticides into the rivers and lakes, are providing a sort of natural filter for our water supply. Preserving natural habitat on farms provides a living area for pests that serve as predators for primary pests that attack crops and thus reduce the need for pesticide to control agricultural pests. There is a perception that  food production and biodiversity conservation are opposed goals, the solution actually lies in achieving the best balance we can between these ends.

What is crucial is recognition that there are competing uses of land and we have to find the optimum strategy to achieve biodiversity conservation, agriculture, urban development and carbon storage. I wanted to share in this post some examples of  an approach that looks at the entire landscape and handles several variables at once:  improving soil health, conserving habitats, lowering emissions, and ensuring food and livelihood security.

So what tools can we use, what are the strategies to follow? There are examples from different countries which have all looked at this issue.In essence, the idea centers around a more considered and thoughtful use of the landscape and its resources. Different policies give varying results and solutions that arise in response to local circumstances are likelier to succeed. In an example from Argentina , market led agricultural expansion resulted in the  deforestation of 8,000 hectares in one area but also led to a fall in grazing intensity. This meant a better recovery of wildlife habitat in the remaining area which is not being cultivated. In another part of the same region, government support for farms to provide incomes and increase food production has negatively impacted the local fauna and resulted in forest degradation because more people have moved in but the food production continues to be low.

In Kenya’s Kikuyu escarpment area, old forest growth, tea plantation, rare bird habitat, subsistence agriculture and dairy farming all coexist. Recognizing the negative impact of increasing population growth in the area on these activities, resources, habitat etc, a landscape approach was adopted which took into account food security, reliance on the environment for food, fuel and fodder and rural poverty. Having recognized these needs, the people of the community integrated agriculture, fish farming, confined livestock management, agroforestry into their farming practices. This helped them to work toward their goals of confining farming sprawl, maintaining soil quality and nurturing bird and wildlife habitat in the farmed areas.  To achieve the goal of livelihood security, this program is taking advantage of “landscape labeling” where products are able to command a price premium not only because of their quality but because they also meet green criteria such as maintaining wildlife habitats, clean water, carbon sequestration etc.

In California, urban expansion and drought have significantly reduced the wetlands where migrating birds would collect before moving further south. A conservation project initiated here involved a reverse auction, which paid farmers to flood their rice farms and create a wetland refuge for the migrating birds. The existing practice of flooding rice fields post harvest was used to engineer a “pop up habitat” for the birds and integrated conservation goals into a farming landscape.

And, in a really wonderful “when life gives you lemons” story, farmers in Bangladesh decided to grow pumpkins on the sandbars left by receding flood waters which destroyed their fields. After the floods, holes were dug in the bare islands of sand and silt and pumpkin seeds were planted. Farmers had a rich harvest and could store some of it to supplement income later in the year as well. In the dry winter season, the greenery that had sprung up as a result of sandbar cropping supported birds, insects and other fauna.

It is encouraging to know that innovative solutions exist, bringing them into practice is  a matter of working together on a bigger picture, we need to zoom out!

(Image courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)