Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Part Two: Food Crisis and Carbon Footprints

I began this two-part series Monday with a piece, “The World Food Crisis: A Hydra-headed Monster.” Trivializing human suffering on a scale impossible to imagine by this writer and those who read what I write is easy. How can you wrap your mind around this reality?
“We are the canary in the mine,” says Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN's World Food Programme, the largest distributor of food aid. Usually, a food crisis is clear and localised. The harvest fails, often because of war or strife, and the burden in the affected region falls heavily on the poorest. This crisis is different. It is occurring in many countries simultaneously, the first time that has happened since the early 1970s. And it is affecting people not usually hit by famines. “For the middle classes, it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.”
Because the problem is not yet reflected in national statistics, its scale is hard to judge… But by almost any measure, the human suffering is likely to be vast. In El Salvador the poor are eating only half as much food as they were a year ago. Afghans are now spending half their income on food, up from a tenth in 2006. … Just over 1 billion people live on $1 a day, the benchmark of absolute poverty; 1.5 billion live on $1 to $2 a day.
The current population of the world is estimated to be about 6.6 billion people, which means that over one third of this planet’s people survive on less than $2 a day. They are the ones most immediately threatened by the world food crisis.

At another level, but no less real, in the United States,
thirty-seven million people live in poverty, or 12.7% of the population, the highest percentage in the developed world. Under President Bush, an additional 5.7 million have slipped below the line. With today’s oil and food crisis, the number dropping below the poverty line poverty is accelerating at an even faster rate.

I used the word “trivialize” above intentionally, not because I want to make light of this reality but because my inability to comprehend it almost inevitably results in seeing the suffering as less than it is. It is always so when we are not the ones suffering. Perhaps it is also protection for the psychic distress it would cause us if we were able to sense its magnitude.

Trivialization is, to me anyway, less an evil than looking away and ignoring the problem altogether. If you’ve read this far and haven’t done the latter, you can simply be warned that whatever you are likely to read below is not a remedy for catastrophe. At best, I hope to point to ways that will lead us to a better place than we are now.

The world food crisis may in part be an immediate manifestation of an even larger problem looming on the horizon—“global warming,” or as it is sometimes euphemistically called “climate change” to make the reality more palatable to those who refuse to acknowledge that the planet is warming. Without the vast vested interests of fossil-fuel industries lobbying against it and a wide-spread anti-science know nothingism, I am confident there would be no doubts about what has been self-evident to those who have seriously studied the problem for a generation.

While I have no doubt about the reality of global warming caused, or made critical by, human carbon emissions, we still don’t know if it is too late to stop or retard. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing all we can to try. We need to elect a president and congress this November who do not have to be convinced of human complicity in the problem and the necessity of addressing it with a sense of urgency. But neither should we simply relegate it to our leaders.

“Carbon footprint” is a measurement of how many pounds of global-warming-causing carbon dioxide individuals and families emit annually into the atmosphere from our daily lives — energy we use to power our home, to get around, and the energy used to make all the products we consume. For years, governments and corporations have been balancing out their emissions by participating in carbon-offsetting, investing in renewable energy to compensate for the global-warming pollution they produce.

In an important
article in The Los Angeles Times, staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss wrote about taking carbon footprints to another level:
Conscientious consumers who want to tread lightly are increasingly concerned about their own carbon footprints. They've changed lightbulbs. They covet a Prius more than a Porsche. Now their anxiety over global warming has shifted to the supermarket and dinner table.The global food and agriculture system produces about one-third of humanity's contribution to greenhouse gases. So questions about food are shifting from the familiar "Is this good for me?" or "Will it make me fat?" to "Is it good for the planet?"
Weiss explores what diets might be good for the planet and begins at the University of Redlands cafeteria.
"No hamburger patties?" asked an incredulous football player, repeating the words of the grill cook. He glowered at the posted sign: "Cows or cars? Worldwide, livestock emits 18% of greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector! Today we're offering great-tasting vegetarian choices."
Can what is good for the planet also be part of solving the world food crisis? In a table titled “
Food Miles” one can easily see that not all modes of transporting food are equal. Airplanes emit ten times more carbon dioxide per ton of freight than cargo ships over the same distance. Bon Appétit, the management company supplying the cafeteria with its “low carbon diet” takes food miles seriously.
"Does your sushi get more frequent-flier miles than you do?" another poster flashes on the screen. It draws a laugh from the audience -- until York explains that Bon Appétit is phasing out fresh seafood brought in by air freight.

About 80% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and nearly all of it takes to the skies. That means delicate slabs of fresh halibut and salmon carry a long contrail of aircraft exhaust to the table. Bon Appétit is setting up supply lines to buy Alaskan salmon fillets and other fish frozen at sea.
I hope you’ll read Weiss’ article to see what else you can do to eat with a lighter carbon footprint.

With “food miles” in mind, another option is to eat locally as much as possible. “Locavore” was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s
word of the year for 2007. It refers to the movement of people committed to eating locally produced food.

What I hope you are asking now, is how this is related to the global food crisis. Think “food miles.” In its April 19 report, The Economist, offered
this prognosis for the world food crisis :
In the short run, humanitarian aid, social-protection programmes and trade policies will determine how well the world copes with these problems. But in the medium term the question is different: where does the world get more food from? If the extra supplies come mainly from large farmers in America, Europe and other big producers, then the new equilibrium may end up looking much like the old one, with world food depending on a small number of suppliers and—possibly—trade distortions and food dumping. So far, farmers in rich countries have indeed responded. America's winter wheat plantings are up 4% and the spring-sown area is likely to rise more. The Food and Agriculture Organisation forecasts that the wheat harvest in the European Union will rise 13%.
The long-term answer does not lie with large producers but with small ones nearer where the food will be consumed.
Ideally, a big part of the supply response would come from the world's 450m smallholders in developing countries, people who farm just a few acres. There are three reasons why this would be desirable. First, it would reduce poverty: three-quarters of those making do on $1 a day live in the countryside and depend on the health of smallholder farming. Next, it might help the environment: those smallholders manage a disproportionate share of the world's water and vegetation cover, so raising their productivity on existing land would be environmentally friendlier than cutting down the rainforest. And it should be efficient: in terms of returns on investment, it would be easier to boost grain yields in Africa from two tonnes per hectare to four than it would be to raise yields in Europe from eight tonnes to ten. The opportunities are greater and the law of diminishing returns has not set in.
There are many obstacles to overcome, and corporate globalization may kill this option, but the “small is beautiful” answer may not only be the most effective way to end the global food crisis, it is also the way with the lightest carbon footprint.

In the meantime, we can contribute humanitarian aid (through reputable agencies) confident that it will save lives. We can also be informed advocates on aid, social protection policies, and trade policies. As individuals and families, as well a corporations and governments, we need to take steps to lighten our carbon footprints. Step lively and without delay! The earth’s people and the planet depend on it.

- Milo

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