Thursday, June 9, 2016

Reconciling People and Nature: A Week of Photos

A friend set me a challenge: post one photo of 'nature' a day, every day for a week. So I rooted through photos from years past and just a few weeks ago, tied the seven images together with a pretty bow of a storyline, and submitted them for gawking purposes on Facebook. It seemed only right, when all was done, to leave them for posterity on the blog.

The challenge was intended to highlight the beauty of the natural world, but I turned it on its head a bit and tried to depict human’s interaction with nature (as you might expect from me). I mean, what is 'natural', anyway? It was also a bit of a world tour in an attempt to represent a different region of the world each day.

We’ll start in the Cascadian Region of North America. The contrasting values in this scene in a Vancouver, British Columbia bay struck me when I visited last May - with paddle boarders and sailors enjoying the peacefulness of a spring evening against the backdrop of shipping vessels and tankers.
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Keeping with the theme of people and nature, we travel up and over the Arctic to the island of Ice and Fire. It just astounds me that people have lived in these harsh conditions for hundreds of years, with essentially no trees (and thus no wood) and frigid temperatures. Yet here we see a farm (!) snuggled in close to a volcanic crater along the south coast of the island.  
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This one was hard, because I seem to have a disproportionate number of photos from Europe. These vibrant leaves along a country road show up much better when contrasted to a gray drizzle. On a rainy autumn day, Katty Glover and I embarked on a muddy meander to the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire, UK. Like many landscapes in the British Isles, this one had signs of human occupation dating back thousands of years, and culture probably shapes the notions of ‘natural’ more than any pristine baseline.
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(Close second was taken in North Berwick, Scotland on my moderately successful attempt to see a puffin https://flic.kr/p/wT1QQi)


Moving from temperate to tropical, we make our way to Southeast Asia. The ancient temples encountered on my trip in Thailand and Cambodia, spoke to the ephemeral nature of our societies, despite our modern concrete jungles appearing very much to the contrary. This Buddha head is found entwined in the roots of a banyan tree in Ayuthaya, Thailand. Given time, ‘Nature’ will take back what was hers

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(Close second for Asia was at Angkor, Cambodia: https://flic.kr/p/FfG3xU)
We make our way across the Indian Ocean to the fourth largest island in the world, off the eastern coast of Africa. For a 20-year-old on her first solo fieldtrip (i.e. me in 2007), Madagascar was a bit overwhelming. The wildlife and landscapes were amazing (and I still have photos of lemurs adorning various walls), but observing the dependency of the local people on natural resources had a more profound and longer-lasting impact on my values and career path. This photo is from Mananjary, a coastal town in east, where fishing is the primary livelihood.   
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Back to the Americas, we take a quick jaunt to Costa Rica. The country is the poster child for ecotourism, a shift from the 1990’s that has helped rehabilitate the extensive forests. We passed this small montane humid forest settlement in Orosi on the way to the west coast.
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Ending where I am now, this final photo is from a recent Australian excursion. This is taken from Lamington National Park, looking out across an extensive production landscape. Much of Queensland’s diverse forested areas - running the gamut from open woodlands and sclerophyll forests to both temperate and tropical rainforest - have been converted to crop agriculture and livestock pasture. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

When it Rains, It Pours

On Saturday it rained. Not some pizzly drizzle, but a proper downpour. And as I revelled in the excuse to remain at - luxuriating in the slothfulness of a damp day, listening to the melodic drum of the raindrops on the roof - it struck me how much the relationship with rain has shifted for over half the world's population (see urbanization post...). In the concrete jungles we have built to house a rapidly growing global population, water finds few permeable surfaces to infiltrate the soil below, and heavy rainfall often means the floodgates open, infrastructure is damaged, and lives are lost. We've seen this recently: people paddling through the streets of Paris, much of Texas submerged, and residents of Sydney (among many other areas of eastern Australia) fleeing for high ground. This simple molecule of hydrogens and oxygen wreking havoc on society.

Perhaps it is this urban existence that leaves us unaware of the vital role precipitation events and flooding played and continues to play in the existence and continuation of society. Yes, water quenches a thirst, but it also feeds the soil. Human habitation and subsequent civilization crept up around bodies of water that flooded regularly. For instance, the Nile supported the empire of Ancient Egypt, whose fertile growing regions depended on the influx of nutrient-rich silt from the highlands of Ethiopia, transported during the flood season. The floodplains back home in Puget Sound serve the same end, yielding highly productive agricultural zones and salmon habitat, supporting people back probably thousands of years when Native Americans first settled the region. 

In South Asia, people similarly depend on the arrival of the rains, here in the form of the monsoon. The summer monsoons in India recharge aquifers, drive hydropower, and enable the production of rice, tea, and dairy where rainfed agriculture still dominates. Because of the importance of the arrival of monsoon rains, festivals and traditions arose over time. In the past twenty or so years, with decreasing dependability of rainfall in the region, countries like India have seen an increase in the number of farmer suicides as the industry's prospects look more and more bleak.

Now these deluges are not always causes for celebration even if they are an essential life force; they still bring devastation when in excess. I suppose humans have dealt with these ups and down throughout our history; but with more of the landscape heavily modified and the climatic trends moving towards less predictable and more extreme, the challenges are likely to overshadow the benefits. Food for thought on the next rainy day.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

City Mouse, Country Mouse

Odds are, you are reading this from an urban area. Maybe not from one of the mega-cities ballooning in parts of South America and Asia, but at the moment over half of the world's population resides in urban areas. Although definitions of 'urban' vary geographically, we all agree it relates to population size and density, the public provision of infrastructure and services, and a reliance on non-agricultural income sources. Concentrated areas of human population have been touted as the model toward which we need to move in order to achieve more efficient lving and reduce humanity's ecological footprint. And in theory there is validity in this - compact living arrangements should decrease per capita energy consumption and physical space occupied, streamline waste disposal, and reduce emissions from private transportation (which is often unnecessary or impractical). However, as a nifty Science Magazine infographic has recently illustrated, cities retain more heat than rural areas with air temperatures 1-3°C higher, exhibit worse air quality (Beijing, anyone?), house more impermeable surface so groundwater can't recharge, and have this nasty tendency toward light and noise pollution (that honestly is bad for both people and the rest of the fauna we share the world with). 

Now those are all difficult challenges. An article on the urbanization and food system connection pointed out that there are other implications of cities beyond their immediate footprint. The authors voice concern over the potential loss of fertile agricultural land due to development - particularly because many cities were originally embedded in these productive zones (like in delta regions). They also note that urbanites tend to eat more animal protein. And as you guys know, the environmental impact of meat is pretty high. Some of the less well-established links between urbanization and food systems relate to changes in social norms and attitudes - for instance, people may be less particular about their food's environmental impact when not in close proximity to where and how it's grown; days tend to be jam-packed in metropolises and so convenience and packaged foods are popular; or even on the retail end, the need to err on the side of overstocking shelves to suit all consumer preferences and needs may result in greater food spoilage and waste (and few places to compost it).

The article also notes that the impacts on the farmers themselves, especially smallholders in these newly and rapidly urbanizing countries, is very little studied. Yesterday also happened to be World Hunger Day, as we continue to strive toward the Millennium (and now Sustainable) Development Goal of ending world hunger. This connects us to food security concerns, which are often concentrated in rural areas - as being poorer and with access to more limited supply and variation in food. But it's also important to recognize that hunger is not just a rural versus urban divide, and that cities often have great income disparities leading to inequality in access to and quality of food among the urban poor. The industrial revolution's rise in malnutrition as former farmers flocked to cities for factory jobs was just the beginning, and this continues to be an active area of study in both developing and industrialized nations.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Chocolate: When Could does not Mean Should

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We haven't talked about chocolate in a long time. This would be the time when your friends notice something's amiss, and start asking if everything is alright. So before anyone gets too concerned about the recent lack of chocolate on My Munchable, let's turn to the Australian cacao producers. Now, before we get too far, it's worth mentioning that yesterday was World Fair Trade Day, which in principle is great - striving for fair wages and labour conditions, as well environmentally responsible practices. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you will know I'm a bit skeptical and have found little convincing evidence about the efficacy of Fair Trade in achieving its stated goals. Chocolate has been one of the biggest targets of Fair Trade efforts, largely because of the outrage over child labour practices in Cote D'Ivoire and other West African countries, and the resulting campaigns against major brands like Hershey's.

But I want to take a slightly different look at the fairness of trade in the global cocoa sector, and particularly transboundary issues. Why? Well, as you know I recently moved to Australia. While a vast country spanning a large number of ecological and climatic zones, the far northern reaches are suitable for growing certain tropical commodity crops - tea, sugar cane, coffee, and - yes you guessed it - cacao. A residue of a colonial past, it's pretty well established that the consumption of these crops is usually some place other than where they're grown. Ghana may be the second largest producer, but the amount per capita consumed (~0.5kg per year) falls even below India! While still only half of what the Swiss manage, Australians eat around 6kg per person per year! And although it's pretty atypical for one of these top consumers to also grow the crop, Australia produces such an insignificant amount that I can't even find a statistic from the Department of Agriculture or the FAO statistics (compared to Ghana with over 800,000 tonnes in 2013)!


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But people are talking, and to some extent doing. With nearly 3/4 of the world's cocoa production taking place in West Africa - a region expected to become increasingly less viable for the crop due to climate change - there has been a growing fear that the world may run into a cocoa shortage. Cadbury announced big plans for investing in cultivation trials in Australia back in 2013. Then there are a number of small farms popping up in Northern Queensland, trying to get in early on the action. Daintree Estates has been in operation for five years now; the North Queensland Chocolate Company creates raw bars; and Charley's Chocolate Factory has a few Austrlian origin bars in addition to their Pacific varieties. A big barrier to growing cocoa in the country is costs, because of the relatively higher cost of land and more stringent minimum wage and labour condition standards. The latter (and frankly, the size of the industry) make a Fair Trade label essentially unnecessary.

So the 'local' food enthusiast in me was rejoicing, when an article from about a decade ago highlighted how ethical consumption is a bit more complicated. It argued (though not very extensively) that growing cocoa in Australia is not fair to the millions of farmers in neighbouring developing countries whose livelihoods depend on the commodity. So this is a can of worms I'm not interested in opening at the moment, because I think it brings the discussion of 'fair trade' beyond individual instances of justice to tackling issues of historical legacy (ie colonialism...) and the responsibilities of global citizenship. While I don't believe there is much danger of Australia stealing away business from smallholders in developing countries, this does raise ethical questions around unintended (but probably anticipated) consequences of such development. Because we now live in a very globalized food economy, demand from halfway around the world has resounding consequences for suppliers. Coffee is a good example of how changing global demand can lead to boom and bust cycles, where fluctuations may complete undermine the livelihoods of smallscale farmers and most assuredly hinder long-term agricultural planning. Finally, it is aruably environmentally irresponsible to grow another commodity crop in the highly biodiverse, and continually threatened, northwestern region of Australia. But all of these for another day.

Image Credits: Queensland Cocoa Industry Development Association (QCIDA)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bad Accounting: Who Pays for Our Food?

Do you ever wander into the produce section of the grocery store, take one look at that pretty ordinary looking head of organic lettuce, and wonder why on earth it is so much more expensive than the one two shelves over? To me, it's both fascinating and horrifying that buying food grown without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers has become a luxury (when it was merely the norm 60 or 70 years ago). The fact of the matter is the industrially produced lettuce costs just as much, if not more; the details are in who ends up paying.

Before we get too deep in an environmental economics discussion, I just would like to reiterate a few points about organic agriculture. In the spirit of organic agriculture, the health of the soil biome is paramount; in practice, the ag-industry has largely found organic substitutes for conventional chemical inputs, making soil management seemingly less important. Further, the jury is still out, and no evidence has conclusively shown organic produce to be nutritionally superior to conventional produce. Finally, merely lowering the price of organics may appear to improve access for lower income individuals, but at the same time is likely negatively impact those growing the crops. OK, caveats aside, so why the hefty bill on my organic shopping?

While not always the case, organic fruits and vegetables are usually more expensive (sometimes as much as 2-3 times the price) than conventional. The difference in price between organic and conventional foods is not a new topic in the media, and therefore multiple explanations have surfaced as to why the latter is cheaper. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, it is largely an issue of supply and demand and economies of scale. There are relatively small volumes, so less product to distribute the costs over. This makes sense when you consider that growth in demand for organic products continues to outpace supply in the US, in Australia, and I'm sure elsewhere.

But another explanation points to the unseen costs embedded in our food, but not reflected in the price. These are usually things that the public benefits from - like clean water, breathable air, and a stable climate - but that no one person is responsible for maintaining. A classic example in the US is the seasonal dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico when nutrients applied to fields run-off and filter down through the Mississippi River. This is also a problem here in Australia, where land management practices are held partially responsible for the dire state of the Great Barrier Reef. And while organic production still often adds fertility amendments, soils with high levels of organic matter retain more water and reduce the amount of soil erosion. Multiple studies have also shown that organic agriculture results in lower greenhouse gas emissions, largely from the use of nitrogen fertilizers.

One of the problems is that incentives for farming don't take into account these costs borne by society, and counter-intuitively, detrimental practices are often encouraged through government subsidies (and companies driven by profit). Certain crops, and some of the biggest culprits for environmental damages, get the largest portion of billions of dollars in subsidies. Though there are insurance programs now for organic and diversified farms, the biggest rewards still come from using and abusing the land. Unfortunatey, accounting for these public goods usually takes governments and international bodies to put a value on environmentally damaging practices, and this is often politically unpalatable. So, when it comes down to it, paying that extra bit for organics helps support these resources we all appreciate (but nobody wants to pay for). And the blueberries taste better ;)

Tomorrow is my last day of the week of eating below the poverty line...you still have time to donate!

Relevant Reads:
Hunger for Organic Food Stretches Supply Chain (Wall Street Journal 2015) 

Valuation for Poverty Alleviation (My Munchable Musings 2015)
Eenee, Meenee, Minee, Moe (My  Munchable Musings 2012)