Let me count the ways… food makes us sick

A new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food (IPES-Food) outlines how industrial food and farming systems are making people sick in a variety of ways. An Overwhelming Case for Action lead author Cecelia Rocha says “Food systems are making us sick. Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health.”

This infographic from the report summarises the carnage and the resulting economic impact.

IPES Food costs of health impacts

In addition to highlighting the perils of the industrial food system, the document identifies five co-dependent leverage points for building healthier food systems. Among these are lines of action we can all champion.

  1. Promoting food systems thinking.
  2. Reasserting scientific integrity and research as a public good.
  3. Bringing the alternatives to light.
  4. Adopting the precautionary principle.
  5. Building integrated food policies under participatory governance.

This report follows on from their ground-breaking first report From Uniformity to Diversity: A Paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. 

 

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Bananas and climate change

Northland bananasThe question is not “is climate change happening?” The question is, “what are we going to do about it?” Some people continue to deny it, others choose to look the other way and hope it will go away, and another group only want to take action if it doesn’t interfere with economic growth.

In his book Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell described a similar scenario. It was the early 1400s and the world was getting colder, not warmer. In Greenland there were two populations – the Vikings and the Inuit. As temperatures dropped, the Inuit were OK, because their staple was fish. The Vikings liked their meat, so when grass growth slowed down, they first ate their mature animals, then the young, and then their dogs. Archeological evidence reveals that the population crashed – and it happened rapidly. The lesson for us is our adaptive capacity.

Bananas as one of many climate change solutions for Northland

The Drawdown project as described in this post, identifies reductions of 1,051 gigaton of CO2 that can be achieved by its top 80 solutions. Food solutions account for 31% of these reductions – 325 gigatons.

Number 14 on the list are tropical fruit crops (including bananas), accounting for a reduction of 20.19 gigatons of CO2 globally, over 30 years.

Tropical staple crops currently grow on 116 million acres, mostly in the tropics. Their rate of sequestration is high at 1.9 tons per acre per year. Expand this area by another 153 million acres by 2050 and they can sequester 20.2 gigatons of additional carbon dioxide. Our analysis assumes that expansion only occurs on existing cropland, with no forest clearing. Because their yield is 2.4 times higher than annual staples—at 60 percent of the cost—savings are signicant, while cost to implement is low. (Drawdown)

New Zealander’s consume about $18 kgs of bananas a year, mostly all imported. If we can grow our own bananas, we would need about 7,700 hectares of bananas to meet our own needs. Northland is great place to grow bananas. We are at the warm end of the temperate zone, but as we are a long skinny peninsula surrounded but the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea, our climate is benign enough for some tropical crops, especially those from higher tropical altitudes.

Bananas vs. white bread

So can we adapt or are we the 21st Century Vikings? One thing we could do, is to plant and eat more bananas (grown as a perennial crop), and eat less white bread (using wheat derived from an annual crop). Here are some comparisons.

Growing and eating bananas

Buying and eating white bread

Carbon consequences
  • perennial crop with a longer-term presence, building soil carbon
  • large biomass per hectare
  • suits mixed plantings and permaculture approaches
  • grown in Northland, and consumed in Northland
  • minimal to no processing
  • made from wheat, an annual crop with disruptive impacts on soil carbon
  • less biomass per hectare
  • grown as a monoculture sourced from the South Island or imported
  • significant processing
Nutrition consequences
  • Nutrient density rating: 30[1]
  • Glycemic index: 52 for 136 grams[2]
  • Glycemic load: 14 (medium)
  • Higher levels of vitamins and minerals[3]
  • no dodgy additives
  • nutrient density rating: 9
  • glycemic index: 70 for a 30 gm slice
  • glycemic load: 10 (low)
  • generally lower levels of vitamins and minerals[4]
  • additives including possibly canola oil, sugar, acidity regulator and emulsifiers
Economic and social consequences
  • locally grown
  • can be grown in home gardens and by small holders
  • imported from out of region
  • production dominated by large companies

Go bananas!

In another lesson from history, The people of England were collectively traumatised by the First World War and didn’t want to be involved in another. They tried to ignore the threat that Adolf Hitler posed in a “fog of denial”. But Winston Churchill persisted in raising the alarm.

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

Winston Smoking a bananaBananas are part of our Northland climate change solution, so to paraphrase Sir Winston, … we shall plant them near the beaches, we shall plant them in the school grounds, we shall plant them in the fields and in the streets, we shall plant them in the hills; we shall never surrender.

 

 

 

[1] from  Dr. Furhman’s Nutrient density chart https://www.drfuhrman.com/content-image.ashx?id=73gjzcgyvqi9qywfg7055r

[2] from SelfNutritionData: http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/glycemic-index lowest number is best

[3] For additional nutritional information about bananas: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/4872/2

[4] For additional nutritional information about white bread: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/4872/2

[1] from  Dr. Furhman’s Nutrient density chart https://www.drfuhrman.com/content-image.ashx?id=73gjzcgyvqi9qywfg7055r

[2] from SelfNutritionData: http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/glycemic-index lowest number is best

[3] For additional nutritional information about bananas: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/4872/2

[4] For additional nutritional information about white bread: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/4872/2

Climate change hope

drawdownThe Drawdown project has raised my optimism about climate change. There are plenty of doomsayers who think that we are stuffed. For a whole lot of people, its a problem that is just too big to handle, so the strategy is to ignore it. In New Zealand our government tells us that we are too small to make much impact and they appear to believe, action on climate change and improving the economy are mutually exclusive.

There be dragons!

Centuries ago Europeans had some limiting perceptions that inhibited world travel. Some pre-Columbus maps marked the possible presence of dragons, and there was always the prospect of falling  of the edge of a flat earth. Now we have got better knowledge and GPS!

Our collective perception of climate change is like those centuries old perceptions of the world. Climate change is scarier than dragons, so for most people it seems it is better not to go there – and just hope its not true.

Drawdown has changed all that. As most of us accepted, climate change is the result of an increase in greenhouse gasses but the Drawdown team have quantified targeted reductions of CO2 that will get us to the point where we start to reduce atmospheric concentrations. They have also quantified the top 80 solutions and calculated the CO2 reductions in gigatons. We now have a map and GPS! They acknowledge that the         System is dynamic, so exact calculations are problematic. However most of the calculations are based on trends that are already happening.

So we can move beyond our collective paralysis and choose the solutions that work best in our lives? Here is a link to Drawdown’s Solutions webpage.

Mother Teresa told us “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. I love this planet and its more than gravity that makes me attached to it. When it comes to climate change, I can’t do great things, but I can do small things with great love. Not just for the planet, but for all of my descendants, and all those who will suffer as a consequence of climate change. And what encourages me more is the actions I can take to reduce CO2 in my world also have other positive benefits.

Here are some solutions I can work on.

No. 3: Reduce food waste

Drawdown calculates the a 70.5 reduction in gigatons of CO2 over 30 years if we collectively waste less food.

A third of the food raised or prepared does not make it from farm or factory to fork. Producing uneaten food squanders a whole host of resources—seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, hours of labor, financial capital—and generates greenhouse gases at every stage—including methane when organic matter lands in the global rubbish bin. The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. (Drawdown)

I can reduce waste by growing my own food – that cuts out the waste in the supply chain. I grow my own bananas, so I am not contributing to the waste produced when those bananas that are either too long or too short are discarded. I can also monitor what goes out into the compost. Working my own land and composting returns food waste to the land and increases the organic matter (carbon) in the soil. I only have a little bit of land, but it all helps.

No. 4: Plant-rich diet

I’m reducing my meat intake. Meat takes a whole lot more resources than fruit and vegetables. According to Drawdown this will reduce CO2 by 66 gigatons in 30 years. We can also expect a health dividend from reducing meat intake.

Plant-rich diets reduce emissions and also tend to be healthier, leading to lower rates of chronic disease. According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved. (Drawdown)

No. 69: Electric bikes

I want to by an electric vehicle (no. 26) but I have never spent more than $10,000 on a car. But I can get an electric bike. If I do, I will be contributing to the 0.96 of a gigaton in CO2 reductions over 30 years. Not a lot, but every bit helps. And if I keep riding my non-electric bike the result will be better still.

An e-bike’s battery gets its charge from the nearest outlet, tapping into whatever electricity is on hand—from coal-based to solar-powered. E-bikes have higher emissions than a regular bicycle or simply walking, but they still outperform cars, including electric ones. (Drawdown)

So there are just three of the 80 solutions that I can contribute to. How about you?

The food solutions to climate change

drawdownWow. Who would have thought that there are so many ways that we can reverse climate change. The Drawdown project, led by Paul Hawken is a game changer.  His project team details 80 ways we can take carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere. Drawdown is the point where globally we start to reduce atmospheric CO2.

The project groups the 80 interventions into 7 clusters, and the cluster that can generate the highest reduction – 31%, is FOOD! Between 2020 and 2050, food initiatives that are already underway can reduce CO2 by 321.9 gigatonnes.

Drawdown sectors

The graph indicates where the reductions can come. Food leads at 31%, followed by energy at 23%.

Surprisingly, efficiencies in refrigeration management is the single biggest item in the top ten CO2 reducers. Reduced food waste comes in at number three, contributing a 70.5 gig tonne reduction, with a plant-rich diet coming in fourth with a 66.1 gigatonne reduction. And I thought effective action was all about renewable energy and electric cars! But as Paul Hawken states, we all of these actions will make the difference.

Here is the full list of food interventions.

Food interventions 2

You can find more detail of there at the Drawdown website under the solutions menu and buy the book.

Science and advocacy with heart

For those that feel like climate change is too big for them to have impact, this food list and the other interventions provides lots of options for action. That is encouraging! What is also encouraging is the optimistic tone of the book. Paul Hawken writes:

If we change the preposition, and consider that global warming is happening for us – an atmospheric transformation that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do – we begin to live in a different world. We take 100 percent responsibility and stop blaming others. We see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion, and genius. This is not a liberal agenda, nor is it a conservative one. This is a human agenda.

At number six and seven on the list is “educating girls” and “family planning”. At number 62 is women smallholders. These are emancipating aspirations. According to Drawdown women feed many more people than the industrial food system:

On average, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 60 to 80 percent of food crops in poorer parts of the world. Often unpaid or low-paid laborers, they cultivate field and tree crops, tend livestock, and grow home gardens. Most of them are part of the 475 million smallholder families who operate on less than 5 acres of land. more>>

Here’s Paul Hawken. Its a long video, but well worth the watch!

 

 

Building momentum towards a sustainable food system

Every project I’m involved with aspiring to move from an industrial food system to a sustainable food system reinforces the critical importance of connecting people. In Northland we have a lot of organisations aspiring to improve our food system. They range from environmental groups and landowners working to improve waterways, health workers, farmers and growers, marae-based groups, co-operatives, educationalists and researchers to name a few. The problem is, we are barely aware of what each other are doing.

Collectively, I am sure that there are a lot of us. But we fail to leverage our collective voice.

The development this year of the Northland Food Policy Network encourages me. Its a group of volunteers of similar diversity expressed above advocating to influence policy. Our success will be proportional to our ability to connect with others of like mind to generate momentum for change.

The industrial food system has super-tanker momentum! It has slick and seductive marketing, economies of scale, sophisticated supply chains and political influence. And perhaps most insidiously, it is the normal – the orthodox, with mostly unquestioned legitimacy.

This Guardian article identifies a similar dynamics for those advocating for climate change. Advocates for change are often left to work on individual efforts while the neo-liberal agenda actively seeks to shore up the status quo and feed our oil addiction.

Duncan Green, author of How Change Happens (get if free here) outlines the power gradient that is fundamental to change in this video:

  • power within (when the individual finds ways to change)
  • power with (when connections are made with likeminded others)
  • power to (the capability to decide actions and carry them out)
  • power over ( the power to effect and embed change).

Those of us focussed on food system change have taken steps to make connections and are developing the capability for collective action. Our ability to influence will be determined by our ability to make ongoing connections.

Another useful idea from this video is Duncan Green’s power analysis adapted below. Those with high concern about issues, but low influence have to find their collective voice, translate it into action and engage and influence those who have influence but are not engaged to change. We need to reach out to landowners and supermarkets for example.

influence and concern

Follow this link for more on change, based on Duncan Green’s thinking.

A way forward

Two projects that Local Food Northland are working on are supporting the change dynamics. We are supporting the Northland Food Policy Network and Clive McKegg is leading a project to develop a database of individuals and organisations with common aspirations. We are fully aware that a data base is only part of the engagement equation. We need to engage kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face).

What can you do?

If you want to see a food system that serves people by supporting our health, building our economy and sustaining our environment, one practical step is to help us connect with organisations that you are aware of that want these outcomes too. Please contact us or leave a comment below.

The industrial agriculture “feed the world” myth

A video from Friends of the Earth International has some startling claims about how the need for industrial agriculture is overstated. This sounds plausible, but the problem is, I can’t find this video anywhere other than Facebook – so it is difficult to find data that supports the numbers. And my attempts to link to the video – apart from a Facebook link have failed.

The Friends of the Earth video claims that industrial farming feeds only 20% of the world’s population and the other 80% is produced on family farms. This video from Anna Lappé  and Food Myth Busters claims 70% – and provides compelling narrative to support the movement to sustainable food systems.

The landmark 2016 report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (iPES-Food) provides more detailed analysis that asserts the efficiency of agroecological farming. The report identifies “feed the world” narratives, parodied at the beginning of the Anna Lappé video as one of the “lock-ins” that help to prop up a failed system (see page 56 of the report).

My city, Whangarei has plenty of green space and most houses are on sections that would provide adequate space for food production that integrates into the landscape. In an ideal world, we would have very little need for industrial farming. Exporters need not fear, as the world will continue to have a large appetite for what we can grow here in the  short and medium term. The challenge for our commercial growers and exporters is how to farm sustainably.

Writing this post has reinforced for me the need for sustainable food system advocates to    back up claims made in video with hard data somehow. The material is great, but gets picked up and shared on places like Facebook with no way of fact-checking in this era of fake news.

Thinking Resilience

In this intro, Richard Heinberg explains the ground covered in the short, online, Think Resilience course. It is a very affordable course and several of us in the Whangarei Transition Towns have done it. We are keen to get together with others to discuss the course material and its implications for our community. Please let me know if you are interested.