Tag Archives: food security

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.

 

 

A Third Way To Describe How Food Is Grown?

 

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When I first started reading about the food system and following discussions on social media, it took no time at all to realize that there was a sharp divide in this world: “organic” to this side, “conventional” to the other and judging by the shrillness of the debate, never the twain would meet. But I am now learning that each of these worlds has their own variations, differences of opinion and intense debate. In the organic community there is a debate over the use of  natural substances as opposed to synthetic ones. While some organic farmers see the utility of substances which may not have been used historically but are useful today, others remain firm on excluding synthetic substances.

There are no magical powers attached to one or the other set of substances: an organic pesticide like rotenone can be more hazardous that synthetic pesticides and arsenic or mercury which are poisonous occur in nature.  Part of this attachment to “natural” is fueled, I suspect by all those memes of scary syringes stuck in produce by people in lab coats.  While the Internet may helpfully suggest a mix of salt, vinegar and dish soap as gentler, more natural alternative to other synthetic weed killers, this study showed that both are as gentle and as effective, it all depends on how they are used.

A lot of misinformation floats around about both types of farming: while there have vocal demands for labeling foods containing GMOs , not many consumers realize that organic producers  are not overseen by the USDA and in fact, the organic certification comes from the National Organic Standards Board (how many of us had heard of this?). This Board is now protesting any involvement by the USDA.

And while we are all getting worked up about which system is better or “purer”, climate change is casting its shadow over our crops, even grape juice , it turns out, will not go untouched! Let us focus on the main thing here: the planet is at a point of crisis. It is time to focus on adopting all those tools and practices that can help us ensure that the growing population can be fed in a way that exerts the minimum pressure on the environment. Can we agree to stop arguing about just two systems and widen our approach to adopt practices that would keep production growing with demand in a way that is compatible with the new climate reality we are living?

 

Farewell To Our Favorite Fish?

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For a Bengali, fish is not just food, it is connected to everything in life. We celebrate our cricket and soccer team wins with fresh fish curry; and send out gorgeously decorated fish to the bride’s house as part of our wedding rituals. Our culture grew in the low islands and mangroves of the Bay of Bengal, awash in tales of the delta and the fearsome legends of the Bengal tiger. With climate change, some of these strands of our heritage will disappear forever. The tiger is in danger of extinction, the mangroves are shrinking and the lowest islands of Bangladesh are being reclaimed by the rising waters.

Still, we thought, we had our favorite fish, “ilish”( Tenualosa Ilisha). It was a momentous treat when I was a child: the first elish of the season which would be prepared in a golden mustard gravy with a bright green chilli pepper, served up with steaming rice. It was an expensive fish, not to be eaten everyday and certainly not during the breeding season. But somewhere along the way, all this changed. With prosperity came an insatiable demand, ilish was being eaten around the year and exported all over the world. Now, we may have to live in a world with only our memories of the delight it brought to our lives.

Efforts are on to conserve ilish by several organisations and the Bangladesh government.  Bengalis all over the world are praying this will work (watching our own ilish consumption would also help!). Perhaps we can look to a conservation success like the blue crabs  in the Chesapeake Bay or the mix of restrictions and incentives that Brazil has used to successfully reduce degradation in the Amazon rainforest to ensure that the ilish continue to thrive.

For a look at the life of people living in the ecosystem of the Bay of Bengal,   “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh is an absorbing read.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Climate Change and Food Security for All: Is it Possible?

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This week most of us felt hopeful as we heard President Obama announce new measures to respond to climate disruption. Although we have been hearing the discussion on climate change for a while, most people think of it as something that might unfold in the future. The fact is that climate change is here and is already altering the world as we know it.

Consider the case of the puffin: parents of baby puffins are bringing in food for them that they are not physically capable of ingesting. Why? Because the fish they usually feed on, hake and herring, are no longer found in the waters around them: the water is simply too warm for the fish to survive. So fewer baby puffins are surviving into adulthood. Their life patterns are also changing and the are coming in late this year to their summer habitats.

Meanwhile, humans too are faced with the challenge of feeding 9 billion people in a time of uncertain climatic conditions. The melting ice in the Antarctic could raise sea levels to an extent where China, India,Bangladesh, and Vietnam would lose millions of hectares of arable land and food production would fall. At the other extreme, higher temperatures threaten crop yield in the USA. A warmer climate also means an increase in disease and pests. The cloud of grasshoppers gathering in New Mexico is not from some movie set in the future, but happening right now.

The challenge is not just to create a more productive, climate resilient agriculture sector but also to ensure that all of our food is produced in a way that reduces pressure on a planet where everything is interlinked. If we look at discrete solutions we risk generating more problems: the effort to limit over fishing in the ocean by raising fish in farms, for example, has resulted in the destruction of mangroves and zones algae blooms that suck up oxygen and kill the fish.

The need is to consider the whole problem: whether we live in the Maldives or Mexico, on a farm or in the city, our lives are about to go in a direction different from what we known for centuries and the solutions we devise must take into account the needs of all the whole planet; humans, puffins and all.

And all this, without some coffee to help us along, because that too is likely to disappear as the climate changes.

(Image Courtest: Freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 17: Wishlist From An Indian Farmer

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Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the words “Indian Farmer” and the reply, in most cases, sadly is “suicides”. A while back they might have said “Green Revolution”,  but the myth of the Indian farmer planting a GMO crop and then taking a desperate measure when it fails, has taken firm hold of the Internet. (It has been debunked, for example, here ). Confronted by this, I try to  explain the facts on chronic indebtedness which follows farmers through generations, this information  is mostly ignored. But, here is a piece that one cannot ignore:  an Indian farmer writes about his hopes from the new government. He says, of farmers growing Bt Cotton, “No one forced them to do it. They chose to adopt GM cotton because it makes sense.”  The food system needs to make sense to people at both ends of it. Most often, however,consumers’ voices, specially of those consumers who are unfamiliar with hunger or chronic malnutrition in their own experiences are the loudest.It is time to listen equally to those who actually grow our food.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Revisiting the “eat local” Idea

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I just came across this review of a book called “The Locavore’s Delusion”, and yes, it is a nod to that other book, in case you were wondering! The authors of the book tried to answer the question: why did we start eating a more global diet anyway? The article gives a summary of reasons that most people offer for opting to eat local: more tasty, nutritious, helps local economy etc , and the most often cited reason: it is good for the environment. This has been the subject of much discussion (some of which I wrote about here) and the point at issue is that the contribution to greenhouse gases comes more from the actual cultivation of crops rather than their transportation.

The answer the authors provide to the query, why did global food trade develop, is that it provides increased variety of foods, reduced prices and stability of supply. They also argue that efforts to counter this are really an effort to turn back the clock with negative consequences. If a region was hit by unexpected weather events or pest infestations and the crops failed, there would be no relief available if we functioned as closed off food islands. Indeed, they see the problem as being one of inadequate globalization where subsidies, trade barriers and other distortions are hindering an optimum situation of low prices and assured availability of food.

Some of the discussion here has been heard before but I liked the way the question was posed: why did we start expanding out of the local market? Perhaps we could ask the same question for the GMO question: why did we start developing them in the first place? Was it because some evil people were working up weird stuff in their labs and injecting it into food to try and rule the world like in some bad movie? No, it was because we need to tackle pests to stop crop loss. We will need it in the future to combat climate change. Imagine a flood event that submerges crops. Since genetically modified crops that could withstand the submersion were not planted, there is no food. But there is also no way to acquire it from anywhere else because food trade has given way to purely local markets. It could happen….

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

The Episode of the Disappearing Oysters

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Thanks to a free weekend from Showtime, I was able to catch up on another episode of their show on climate change, “Years of Living Dangerously”. (I reviewed the first episode here).This episode had two story lines: one, in which Ms. Lesley Stahl travels to Greenland to explore the melting glaciers; and the second, where Mr. Ian Somerhalder brings us the climate debate going on in the evangelical community in the USA, a debate that has a significant impact on actual policy making.

We were treated to stunning views of glaciers which drove home the point of how beautiful our planet is and how callous we are in our stewardship of all that it offers. The rumble of the glaciers cracking served as reminders of how quickly all this could vanish. In fact, the melting of glaciers is also opening up possibilities for oil exploration and there is more investment going on in this right now than the GDP of Greenland! This provides income boosting opportunities for the inhabitants of Greenland and here we come up against the reality of climate change: when the environment changes and people’s livelihoods are threatened, policy making and taking action becomes more fraught.

The other narrative thread revisits some territory from the first episode: the attempt to establish that climate change is real and happening now to those whose belief in their faith casts doubt over this. The starting point is the campaign to shut down coal plants in North Carolina and elsewhere in the country. Mr. Somerhalder’s foundation has been committed to calling attention to the issue of  the impact of coal in an effective campaign on social media. But, initiatives like this are being met with resistance by certain faith based groups. We meet pastor Rick Joyner who remains unconvinced about the evidence on climate change despite his daughter’s efforts. She is joined in her effort by Dr. Katherine Hayhoe  who also featured in the first episode; and is a skilled and dedicated communicator on climate change issues.

To illustrate the impact of climate change, we are introduced to the oyster fishermen of Apalachicola Bay which was once full of oysters but is almost empty today. Increased use of water upstream due to drought, and a rise in the sea level, has changed the salinity level of the bay waters making it unsuitable for oysters. A source of income and food has disappeared and, as we know, this story with different players is being repeated all over the world.

The show does not present easy answers: we hear the dilemma of the leadership of Greenland, “our country is not a museum”, people have to survive and they want to give their families a good life; we watch as a tentative coexistence between faith and science develops,  but finally it is up to each of us to find our position and act on it. What is worrisome is that time is not on our side and we need to make changes soon.

I wish that the potential impact of climate change on our food system was highlighted in Years of Living Dangerously. Perhaps that will come in other episodes, there is certainly enough material on it for a whole show to itself!

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)