Tag Archives: food security

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)

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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)

About Those Cows….

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When work , laundry, dishes are all piling up and you want to run away from it all, the best place to go is Pinterest. I know because I have been there a lot. Scrolling down the crafts feed is bewildering:  it is simply bursting with ideas for rustic, barn weddings: lots of burlap, distressed wood, tables laid out on emerald green fields with a picturesque cow or a duck adding an idyllic note. This gorgeous visual has very little to do with an actual, working farm as one writer pointed out here, but neither is it true, as the piece describes, that in the real world cows are raised in “warehouses” and are a source of pollution. In the comments, those who actually raise cows contributed facts to the discussion, most of which would be new to that many among us, far removed as we are from the realities of food production.

It is common to read about cows contributing to global warming by releasing methane into the atmosphere. It is argued that if we stopped raising cows for food, this would be a greener choice. But if we just stopped eating beef what would happen to the cows? Well, they would live long and prosper, (check out the calculations in this excellent blog) leading to exploding cow populations which would be standing there chewing, polluting and watching barn weddings and wondering what this was all about. The only way to do away with the methane problem would be to actually kill all the cows.

The other great debate centers around the question : “what is an authentic cow?” What is the difference between a cow grown on GMO feed and one that is not? Surely, there must be a difference, the former cannot be the same as the cows our ancestors raised. But, in fact, they are exactly the same: the animals are the same,the milk and the meat are the same. This study looked at livestock productivity and health from public sources for 100 billion animals, starting at 1983 before the introduction of GMO feed in 1996,  through to 2011 which had high levels of GMO feed in use; and found no negative effects on livestock health or humans who consumed animal products.

And still, today, social media is bursting with people who are concerned because not enough tests have been done over a long enough period of time. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Neither, sadly, do dishes, no matter how beguiling the alternative!

(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)

Preparing the Food System for Climate Change

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Sometimes just looking at my Twitter feed can be overwhelming: people calling attention to melting glaciers, deforestation, endangered animals, submerging islands, and then some  people saying this is untrue; and then even more squabbles on what to do about it all. But take a step back and block out the noise and you might find that there is something that can be done, by all of us. That is the key actually. Each of us needs to take action. Governments have their responsibility but are often slow to move and cannot carry this through alone. There is much for us to do at our level.  I liked this article because it sets out concrete action options for agriculture.

First, we should not sit back and  “accept” climate change”. Taking steps to reduce emissions in agriculture, switching to climate resistant crops are among the possible solutions for growers to implement. However, there is a huge shortfall in the investment needed for research to come up with such solutions, that could be an area for governments as well as private individuals and corporations to make an impact. For consumers, we need to reduce food waste: buy according to a plan so nothing is thrown away unused, put smaller portions on the plate, work with restaurants to channel extra food to shelters or food banks. A big help would be to reduce meat consumption as well.

Even before we take these steps, a basic truth must be acknowledged: people, animals, crops and the environment they exist in succeed or fail in dealing with climate change as a unit. Conservation and  preservation activities have to be in tandem with ensuring that people are able to maintain a decent existence. Where the goals are unclear or weighed excessively in one direction, conflicts will inevitably erupt. So instead of bringing all our resources to bear on meeting the challenge of climate change, we might be stuck in the trap of dealing with escalating social unrest as the struggle to control and access  scarce resources becomes sharper and are thus, left vulnerable to climate shocks.

Ideological positions will have to be tempered with pragmatic solutions. All those wars on social media, passing judgement on the best/only way to grow/consume food, demonizing the other side, trying to score points, that is such an absurd waste of time and energy. It will take all options to walk through this storm; so technology and better farm practices, urban farming and ranches all will be part of the solution and throwing one or the other out is the equivalent of scoring an own goal.

The time to act is now, find a way to help and  try to make it happen. And yes, this means going out and actually putting an effort into a program or an initiative; putting up a cute profile picture or retweeting to make a hashtag trend is not enough. We know what we must do and there are no excuses for not doing it.