Home » Agriculture » Feeding the World While Watching the Environment

Feeding the World While Watching the Environment

November 2, 2009


This is the fourth blog in a series of posts about agriculture and food security. In the first post of the series, I touched on the notion that mankind’s effort to feed itself has been impacting the environment for thousands of years. Although people are trying hard to determine what those impacts are today (see my posts Counting Carbon), most analysts admit we still have a lot to learn [“Green credentials have little to do with transport,” by Sarah Murray, Financial Times, 16 October 2009]. The central point of Murray’s article is that too much focus is being placed on the carbon footprint of transporting food and not enough focus is being placed on the carbon footprint of producing and processing food. Murray writes:

“In recent years, attention has focused on the affect of ‘food miles’ on the Earth’s atmosphere. However, there is a growing recognition that simply measuring the distance food is transported does not provide an accurate picture of its carbon emissions, or of the natural resources the food industry consumes. Determining food’s environmental impact, say experts, will require broader assessments.”

In a number of past posts, I’ve noted that the lowly cow has been singled out as prime source of carbon emissions. The offending emission is the methane gas that cattle burp into the atmosphere as they digest their food. Murray, too, points the finger at cattle. She reports:

“Meat production is particularly damaging. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, if emissions from land use are included, livestock – which occupies more than 30 per cent of the planet – generate more greenhouse gas than global transport. Moreover, cows produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Soil management techniques and fertilisers used to produce animal feed generate nitrous oxide, the emissions of which heat the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide.”

Murray goes on to point out that every food (like every human) has a so-called “carbon footprint.” She uses the example of a bag of potato chips (called “crisps” in the UK) to make her main point that transportation isn’t the biggest part of the food chain’s carbon footprint.

“Studying food products in detail can deliver surprising results. In a study of the carbon footprint of a packet of crisps, Walker’s says the biggest proportion (36 per cent) can be put down to agriculture and producing the raw ingredients. Another big portion comes from packaging (34 per cent). Distribution and transport account for just 10 per cent of the footprint, according to the study, which was conducted with the Carbon Trust, the UK government-backed environmental adviser. ‘The whole food miles debate is nonsense,’ says Euan Murray, general manager of carbon footprint at the Carbon Trust. ‘For the vast majority of products there’s no link between the distance it has travelled and its carbon footprint.'”

Claiming that’s there “no link” between the distance food travels and its carbon footprint is stretching the truth to make a point; but at least the point is made. Even Mr. Murray (whom I assume is no relation to the author of the article), must admit that transportation companies need to be environmentally conscious.

“Mr Murray stresses the need for companies to improve their logistics so that delivery trucks do not return empty and use of airfreight is minimised. ‘But in the grand scheme of things, that’s just a small part of what a company should be doing to green its supply chain,’ he says.”

With renewed global emphasis being placed on growing foods locally rather than counting on the global supply chain (see my posts entitled Food Crisis and Recession and New Approach to Food Security Applauded), transportation costs are likely to be an even smaller portion of the global food chain’s carbon footprint in the future.

“David Rich of the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative agrees. ‘We’re developing new standards for greenhouse gas accounting of supply chains and product lifecycles, where you look at the whole chain,’ he says. ‘That’s not to say you should neglect transportation. It may be important but it may not be the biggest piece of the pie.'”

As you might imagine, fresh fruits and vegetables generally have lower carbon footprints than processed foods.

“Companies that are serious about addressing their carbon footprint are looking more broadly. In the US, Wal-Mart has recently started working with the Environmental Defense Fund, the New York-based non-profit organisation, on analysing a range of its own-brand products, including canned tomatoes, sour cream and sliced turkey. Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships at EDF, says that undertaking such assessments is a complex business. ‘With processed food there are so many steps, most of which are invisible to the consumer,’ she says. In the case of the canned tomatoes, for example, Wal-Mart found that the biggest impact came from the cans and the labels. Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions is just one environmental impact from a whole range associated with food production. As pressure grows on global water resources, agriculture, which consumes about 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, is coming under the spotlight.”

The challenge, of course, is that fresh foods have a much shorter shelf life than processed foods. You simply aren’t going to be able to feed the world without processing a large portion of the food that people need. This is especially true in the developed world where refrigeration is limited. When fresh food goes bad, it is tossed out as waste and that adds to the food chain’s carbon footprint — as does waste elsewhere in the food chain.

“Food waste is … a growing problem. When left in landfills, solid food waste produces methane, which can leach into the atmosphere. In the UK, about a third of food purchased is thrown away, according to the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. Meanwhile, in the US, more than 25 per cent of the food Americans prepare is discarded, generating about 43.5m tonnes of food waste a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Persuading consumers to change their behaviour will make a difference – and not only in helping reduce food waste.”

In a future post, I’ll address how consumers are being targeted to help protect the environment by selecting what they eat. Even selecting the right things and then not eating all of it, creates a problem. Consumers are used to getting generous portions, especially in the U.S., and they often feel cheated when they don’t. I think it’s a Denny’s commercial that uses an advertising slogan that goes something like, “Come hungry, leave happy.” The point of the advertisement is that you are going to get all the food you can possibly consume — not good for the environment and not good for your health. If you don’t eat everything on your plate when you go out, don’t be shy about asking for that doggy bag. Waste not, want not. Even at home, Murray writes, consumers can make a difference. “The Carbon Trust,” she reports, “has found that boiling potatoes in a pot with the lid on can cut the energy use of those potatoes on the consumption side by up to 80 per cent.” She concludes:

“The challenges of reducing food’s environmental impact should not be underestimated. Global food supply chains are among the world’s most complex, taking in everything from millions of smallholder farmers to large agribusinesses and packaging manufacturers. There are powerful incentives for food companies such as significant risk management considerations of supply chains. Ms Ruta points out that by re-examining the impact of products throughout their lifecycle, companies can reduce the risk of a food contamination incident. … Companies may also save money in the long run. In the production of its sour-cream, Wal-Mart estimates that, through measures such as converting bovine methane into electricity, introducing distribution efficiencies and reducing energy and water use in the pasteurisation process, it will save $250m a year.”

Older generations remember their mothers trying to motivate them not to waste food by reminding them that there were starving children in the world who would love to have something to eat. Those starving children haven’t gone away. As I noted in the first post in this series, there are now over a billion people at risk of starving in the world. Figuring out how to feed them remains one of the big challenges for the international community. That is the subject of a companion article written by Murray [“The search for a fresh recipe,” Financial Times, 16 October 2009]. She begins her article by relating some of things I discussed in my first few posts on food security.

“While the soaring food prices that sparked riots in many countries are no longer in the headlines, the global food system is still in turmoil. Experts say last year’s food crisis was simply a wake-up call, signalling a new era in which rising prices, increasing volatility and growing food insecurity present daunting challenges for policy-makers and development organisations. ‘Even though prices have come down from last year, they’re still at levels significantly higher than the averages in the 1990s,’ says Oscar Chemerinski, director of global agribusiness at the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group. ‘Volatility will continue and prices will remain higher than the historical levels we’ve seen in the past two or three decades.'”

She goes on to talk about how commodities speculators and the diversion of food crop acreage into biofuel production have increased the price of food. She does concede that biofuel production has waned due to falling oil prices, but she isn’t sure that trend will last. She worries that growing crops for biofuels will continue to have a significant and negative impact on food availability and cost. But, she admits, there are other forces at work as well.

“Rising incomes in emerging markets have prompted a shift in eating habits, with meat consumption increasing, leading to a higher demand for grain. Christopher Barrett, a Cornell University development economist specialising in poverty and hunger says: ‘It takes many more cereals and oilseed to generate poultry, meat and eggs than it does to eat the cereals and oilseeds directly.’ Prof Barrett also points to slowing growth in agricultural yield during the past 20 years due to lack of investment in research and development. ‘We’ve not yet addressed the need to restore agricultural R&D, especially in the developing world,’ he says. ‘And even when we do, it’ll take some years before we begin to enjoy the fruits of that.'”

I believe the tide is beginning to turn as more and more people are starting to get involved in the area of food security, especially in the developing world. In a recent post entitled Updates Continued: Mo Ibrahim Prize/Food Security/Participatory Innovation, I noted that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is renewing its focus on food security in the developing world. That kind of attention is exactly what’s needed to help spur R&D efforts. Murray goes on to stress that the current recession “has added to the pressure” on those who are trying to feed at-risk populations.

“In many developing countries, food prices remain high while incomes have shrunk. And it is the world’s poorest that suffer the most: families in developing countries spend up to 70 per cent of their income on food, compared with 5 to 10 per cent in the US. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the added impact of the downturn will push the number of hungry people in the world over the 1bn mark this year.”

Murray then turns to the subject of climate change and its impact on food security.

“In the longer term, the biggest uncertainty is climate change. As well as changing temperatures and increasing frequency of severe weather events, growing water scarcity will have a dramatic effect on global farm yields, as demonstrated recently by the severe droughts in Kenya and Australia. In a recent report, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) predicts that the effects of climate change would add an additional 20 per cent to the child malnutrition rate by 2050 and that agricultural productivity investments of more than $7bn would be needed to offset this effect. But while most agree that the crisis is severe and will worsen, debates over how it should be addressed are fierce.”

With one in six people on the planet already at risk of starvation, the troubles ahead are easily foreseen. As I reported in an earlier post, there is wide agreement among world leaders that something must be done; but they don’t agree on how to do it.

“In July, world leaders pledged to commit $20bn over three years to a ‘food security initiative’. The commitment reflects a shift from aid to the development of agriculture in poor countries. However, aid agencies remain sceptical about whether the funds will materialise and how they will be spent. ‘Everyone has recognised the volatility of global food markets as a key threat to food stability,’ says Frederic Mousseau, a humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam. ‘But the rich countries and international institutions haven’t really come out with any new thinking on how to deal with volatility – they keep proposing the same old recipes.’ Moves by governments to subsidise fertilisers for poor farmers can help. In Malawi, a widely watched scheme has boosted production. ‘There’s evidence that fertiliser subsidies in Malawi and elsewhere have had some short-term benefits,’ says Mark Rosegrant, director of the IFPRI’s environment and production technology division. ‘But it would be useful to consider whether you really want to put all that money into fertiliser subsidies compared to longer-term productivity investments like crop research.'”

For more on the program in Malawi, see my post entitled Fertilizing to End Famine. Murray continues:

“Variations in climate, geography and population density across the world mean that boosting food production is a complex business. Mr Rosegrant argues that micro, rather than macro approaches are needed, particularly in Africa. ‘One of the reasons the green revolution never really took off in Africa is you have to breed for much more diverse environments,’ he says. “So you need specially-targeted research strategies.” Also widely debated is market liberalisation. During the food crisis, moves by some countries to introduce import bans to protect their farmers raised alarm bells, with many arguing that these ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ policies exacerbated the price crisis. However, Mr Mousseau warns against the one-size-fits-all approach to market liberalisation. ‘There should be space for countries to decide what their best options are,’ he says. This might mean some governments introducing a level of protection for their farmers, while in regions such as West Africa, agreements facilitating trade would make more sense. ‘It’s about pragmatism, finding the right solutions and moving away from ideology,’ says Mr Mousseau.”

I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Mousseau. I’m all for pragmatic solutions to problems, but as the current healthcare debates in the U.S. demonstrate, pragmatism often loses to ideology when politicians are involved. The situation becomes even more complex when politicians from dozens of countries are included in the mix. The good news is that if world leaders follow through on their pledges, the emphasis will slowly turn from food aid to a more holistic view of food production. Murray concludes:

“Among the aims of the recent $20bn commitment is connecting smallholder farmers with markets. Bringing smallholders into global food chains will require everything from improving roads to building new communications systems. Mobile phone technology has helped, giving farmers in remote areas access to real-time commodities prices and facilitating money transfers. Also critical is providing farmers with access to credit so they can purchase the inputs needed to boost their production. The IFC is encouraging global commodities traders to extend financing to smallholders and is also providing liquidity to banks that will lend to small-scale farmers. One scheme established by the Rockefeller and Gates foundations – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – is providing guarantees to local banks so that they can advance seasonal credit to small farmers. ‘That kind of savvy intervention has come from private foundations but there’s no reason governments can’t do those kinds of deals,’ says Mr Wiggins. More innovations will be needed in everything from agricultural financing to the development of new drought-resistant crops. For if last year’s food price crisis was, as Prof Barrett puts it, ‘a warning shot across the bow rather than a one-off event’, it will take a radical rethinking of the mechanisms of the global food system to prevent a reversal of the green revolution, and save low-income families in the world’s poorest regions from starvation.”

As the emphasis changes from food aid to food production, the international community should do its best to ensure that best practices are used by targeted populations. Agronomists and environmentalists should help governments and non-governmental organizations develop sustainable agricultural sectors that don’t just get a country through the next crisis but gets them through the next millennium. Innovative approaches should be tried, especially in areas known for poor their poor agricultural conditions. Although some approaches may be expensive because they are experimental (see my post entitled Urban Farmers), the fate of billions relies on our finding new ways to provide food security. In my next post, I’ll relate how Indian farmers use the latest farming techniques to grow cucumbers that are pickled for export.

Related Posts: