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

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)!!pioneering/cvfu
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 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)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Optimizing Below the Line

The week's food for Live Below the Line 2016
Over the years that I've been involved in the Live Below the Line challenge, friends have voiced concern about whether I consumed enough calories over the week. My response has been to address them in a cursory fashion - it's only for five days, no real harm done. This year I thought it would be useful to provide a bit more detail on how my dietary choices for the week stack up. It's  interesting, because even in the microcosm of a week of impoverished eating, we can glean insights about the trade-offs confronted when living at the poverty line. And maybe consideration for these trade-offs happens overtly, making calculated decisions over the week as I have done, weighing the costs and benefits of consuming adequate calories versus avoiding often highly processed foods. Or perhaps not so overtly or consciously contemplated (we don't all like playing with spreadsheets...), where foods are chosen that induce happiness or make you feel full or are just plain convenient. For many, in the end it's still an economic choice.

On looking at the spread of food I picked up for the week, it actually not only looks adequate, but relatively varied and nutritious. However, it quickly becomes apparent that optimizing solely for calories leaves some gaps in variety and micronutrients that are sought after in a balanced  diet. In years past, I've forgone additional grains in favour of a nice cabbage or a few extra sweet potatoes. But this was also possible given that I only undertake this 'challenge' for a week. For those who don't have the option to go back to their 'regularly scheduled programme' after five days, a calorie deficit day-in and day-out, months and years on end, can be wearing and debilitating. In this year's breakdown you'll notice that starchy staples (I include split peas) make up over 85% of calories and over half of my budget. FAO estimates that over 70% of calories in the developing world come from carbohydrates in contrast to less than 40% in developed countries, which seems to check out. 

Calories per Day
Other Redeeming Qualities
Rolled Oats (750g)
High in fibre
Brown Rice (1kg)
Split Peas (500g)
Protein and fibre
Potatoes (500g)
Sweet Potato (240g)
Beta carotene/vitamin A
Pumpkin (675g)
Beta carotene/vitamin A
Carrots (400g)
Beta carotene/vitamin A
Onion (170g)
Canned Tomato (400g)
Vitamins C & E; lycopene
Salad (120g)
Vitamins A, C, & K; Iron
Bananas (600g)
Salt (25g)
Iodine; flavour enhancer ;)
Curry Powder (15g)
Anti-inflammatory properties
Cinnamon (2g)
Anti-inflammatory properties
1990 kCal/day


The trade-off perhaps also helps to explain why the food security discussion has for so many years focused on quantity over quality (it could also have something to do with the history of food aid...). Getting people enough food is far easier and cheaper than getting the right food to them. Some effort has gone into the breeding and integration of fortified crops like golden rice and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, both of which try to address vitamin A deficiencies, particularly among malnourished children. More recently, development groups have tried promoting home gardens as a means of introducing variety and nutrient-dense foods into both rural and urban diets. In developed countries, we are less plagued by a reliance on cassava, maize, and rice, and moreso on processed foods that replace nutrient-dense whole ingredients with cheap fillers and additives.

Finally, let's turn to the situation here in Australia. It has been quite a shock to me, finding the cost of food here in Brisbane greater than either Washington, DC or Oxford (check out the related posts for past budgets...). I think part of the reason the breakdown this year is so carb-heavy - and I should note it's the highest calorie count of the five years - is because fruit and veg is so gosh-darn expensive. This in and of itself is astonishing considering how conducive the weather is to growing crops year-round (kinda like California...) - 2/3 of Australia's land is devoted to farming, although 90% of that is for grazing animals and livestock. According to the Queensland Farmers' Federation, the state produces the majority of the country's banana, pineapple, mango, mandarin, avocado, beetroot, and  tomato harvest. That said, there are a couple of things that could be driving the prices up: Australia is a large country, concentrated in urban hubs (with a tiny part of the population growing food distributed across the vast rural areas), so the distance food travels is generally high; water is scarce and irrigation is usually a necessity; and a small number of retailers (well, two) dominate the sale of food. So for now, I will have to make due with produce from the 'sale' shelf and large quantities of rice over the next five days. At least it provides ample fodder for contemplating 'nutrition security' and the everyday challenges of making dietary trade-offs when faced with financial constraints.

Don't forget, You still can donate this year!

Related Posts:

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Challenges of the Food Kind

So you may not know, but I recently moved (again). Not down the street to a new house; not even back to the US because my student visa expired. No, I decided it made sense to pick up and fly south, to the country where everything can supposedly kill you and I knew next to no one: Australia. You might imagine that a couple of things may have slipped my mind in the process. Well, both have made their way back onto my radar, and will now be on yours. 

The first, Friday at sunset the Jewish holiday of Passover began, marking the eight ensuing days of no grains and leavened products. It is an interesting holiday in that it actually touches on many salient issues in our contemporary world (e.g. slavery and freedom, injustice and inequality, agriculture and nature), and yet grasps firmly a set of archaic and at times illogical rules and restrictions. That said, an article I read this morning got me thinking about why we continue to follow these seemingly pointless traditions. The author noted, "I worry about making Passover too easy". And that's it; when something is easy, you don't need to think about it, take time to contemplate 'why am I doing this?', dwell on its relevance.

But this is not just a case for Passover (or the fasting holiday of Yom Kippur, either), but rather relates to many of the challenges that present themselves in our lives. So to me it is interesting that the annual Live Below the Line challenge* seems to coincide approximately with the completion of the holiday (and on occasion even overlaps). I almost missed the boat on having two food-related challenges over the course of two weeks, but luckily caught the oversight in time to begin living on AU$2 per day from May 2-6. Having taken part the last four years ($1.50 in the US and £1 in the UK), I can genuinely say it is a challenge, particularly considering I've always been in places with high costs of living (Washington, DC and Oxford are not known for their bargains...). But the challenge of it had made me think a bit more, empathize a bit more, pester all of you a bit more (donate!!). Tackling year five of the challenge in another new place has now made me research a bit more.
This brings me to the final topic of today's blog post: 'purchasing power parity'. Now, I am definitely no economist, so bear with me, but the concept of significance to understanding cost of living and affordability. It basically adjusts the price of good or bundle of goods to a common currency to compare against a baseline - for example, how many Big Macs could you buy in country X for US$1? The result is an idea of how expensive a place is to live (according to the Big Mac Index, we should consider moving to Venezuela for the greatest bang for our buck). And while it might explain why I now find the price of food in Australia to be a bit daunting (the dollar goes lessfar than in both the UK and the US), it also provides a rationale for those struggling in their home countries to migrate for work. My friend in Hong Kong pointed out the large number of Filipino and Indonesian women who come to the country for domestic work - not forever, just to send money home for a while. Price of goods is far greater in Hong Kong than either of the other two countries, but so are wages, much of which are sent back home where they can be stretched further.

Phew. Weighty stuff for a Monday morning (or Sunday evening). All of this is to emphasize the power of a little challenge to make us dwell a bit more on issues like hunger, poverty, and inequality. Stay tuned for more from my week Living Below, and don't forget to support the effort!

Further Reading:

*for some reason, it is not happening this year in the US or UK, so I have registered in Australia. This means that neither the Hunger Project nor the Rainforest Foundation, to which I have given in the past, will be on the receiving. But please do consider supporting the Oaktree Foundation working towards improving education!