Sunday, July 9, 2017

Of Rice and Men

"Fast rather than slow, more rather than less -- this flashy 'development' is linked directly to society's impending collapse. It has only served to separate man from nature."

Japanese author and farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, wrote these telling words in his 1979 treatise, The One Straw Revolution. For many of us striving to reconcile humanity's rather large footprint on the planet, this manifesto provided a glimmer of hope for both society and ecology. Yet, rereading this prescient prose, I am struck not only by the relevance of this warning nearly forty years later, but by how pressing is the need to shift our current paradigm.

While I could point my finger to numerous places on a map that have embraced this separation from nature, we need not venture beyond Fukuoka's homeland. On a recent trip to Japan, I was struck by a tension - simultaneously, a deep rooted appreciation and ceremony around food and the environment, and a tendency toward fast, flashy, and facile. Japan is admittedly a leader in thinking around sustainable development pathways. They have hosted momentous climate change summits, yielding the Kyoto protocol in 1997, and supported biodiversity conservation, facilitating the establishment of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010. But I'll focus on two aspects of food that that seem to plague many highly developed countries (with a distinctly Japanese flavour): the distancing of people from agriculture and 'the land', and the shifting nature of diet.

As in much of the world these days, the farming population in Japan has fallen precipitously in the last half century (under 2 million in 2016). Recently, the fallout from the nuclear reactor at Fukishima has forced farmers to confront the long lasting consequences from radioactive contamination of crop land, and give up farming as well. Yet, the Japanese government has put in place policies to protect farmers and domestic production, heavily subsidizing rice growers and taxing imports. Interestingly, these policies have resulted in much rice-producing land lying fallow (40% of rice paddy terraces, in fact), in turn providing marshy habitat for migratory birds. These relics are a demonstration of the fine balance farmers had to strike between nature and needs of people, landscapes referred to as Satoyama. Even with these shifts, the relationship between people and land cuts to deeper shifts in lifestyles and livelihoods.

During a walk through the arches and woodlands of the Fushimi Inari temple outside of Kyoto, I got to talking with a gentleman* taking his late afternoon stroll. The pervasive (if subtle) influence of the indigenous Shintoism instill a particular life and spiritual meaning to natural elements, and stress living in harmony with nature. My impromptu walking companion spoke of the fox, the guardian at the temple, who traditionally protected the rice crop and helped ensure it could sustain the local population. As in most parts of Asia, the predominant land use and occupation until recently was agriculture, specifically rice paddy. Yet as this has shifted, the association with the health of the land and wellbeing has faded, with guardians rather now attended to for business success and prosperity. 

Despite its majestic natural beauty and verdant hills, Japan is also known for its urbanisation - in 2015, nearly 94% of the population lived in cities. You can imagine why. Japan is not a big country...the island nation is a mere 378,000 square kilometres with 127 million people (that's like adding all the people in Poland to Germany). Further, the landscape itself seems to promote separation. Take Tokyo and Kobe, where 45% of Japan's population squeeze into 17% of the land area. Food has had to adapt to these conditions. While we are all familiar with sushi, miso soup, udon noodles, and the like, the ubiquity of packaged and convenience foods astounded me. Food is not cheap, and fresh produce costs dearly. This is not unique to Japanese cities, but perhaps the overwhelming number of people living in urban areas (and growing reliance on imports) probably is not helping to counteract the trend.

Going back to Fukuoka, his vision is worrisome in our modern world. We need to fight more against this tide of my last post I wrote about plastics. While there are some common goods that will require lobbying for government action, there are meaningful impacts that can result from our own decisions in the way we 'consume', being more conscious and deliberate about those 'development paths' we overtly or implicitly support.

* I lost the man on the way back to the main temple, so I never managed to thank him for the company and the insights. Hopefully, he knows how much I appreciated it. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Sweating the Small Stuff

This wasn't exactly a glowing week leading up to World Environment Day yesterday. However, while mitigating climate changes we've put in motion requires more globally coordinated action and government intervention (... the atmosphere is the ultimate common pool resource, no?), there are heaps of other environmental travesties that emerge in large part due to our decisions as consumers. World Environment Day's theme this year is about reconnecting to "nature", which is a lovely message with very little depth. Although hitting up green spaces - parks, wilderness areas, etc. - often benefits both human health and encourages positive environmental values, this idea of needing to "reconnect" implies we live apart from nature. The ambitions of this year's World Environment Day seem a bit modest for the scale of the problem, making the proffered actions far less meaningful if not connected to the consequences of our actions during daily existence.

But it's not a huge leap to connect our daily doings with the health of the planet. In Australia - and the UK before that - a pretty nifty three part series about the War on Waste tried to expose the nature of our "Throw-Away Society" and the consequences for the environment. for Oz, the numbers are staggering, ranging from 20% of our groceries ending up in the bin to 6,000 kilograms of fast fashion in the rubbish every ten minutes to 113 take-away coffee cups discarded every four seconds (that's 2.4 million in a day)! But plastics seem to be making the headlines these days.

Australia uses nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, the majority of which end up in landfill (or inevitably waterways). Some researchers calculated that worldwide approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans each year. Once some of the most pristine beaches in the world are now littered in plastic debris. While this is an eyesore, a visual reminder of our plastic addiction, there are more hidden and insidious impacts. Almost every seabird on the planet has eaten plastic - which may not always kill the bird, but can't be particularly good for it. But plastics also break down into smaller and smaller particles. These then accumulate along the food chain, similar to other toxins in our environment like mercury in tuna. We don't yet know how harmful all of this is, but we can make sure it doesn't get worse. 

This last week, UQ sustainability challenged staff and students to contain all single-use plastics in a small jar - mine was 350mL to be precise. The idea was to be more aware of our frequent and often thoughtless use of disposable plastics, and to consider steps to take to reduce. Sure, recycling is a good first step, but it's not a guiltless affair. Not every plastic is recyclable nor gets recycled, and even if it does, it takes energy to go from plastic bottle to new plastic something or other.

But the alternatives are hard, because they rely on people changing their daily actions and breaking habits ... and let's face it, even the well-meaning of us just can't be bothered if something seems like too much effort. Making your own shampoo may seem like an impossibility, but there are plenty of low-hanging fruit. Bring a cloth bag or a reusable mug, and don't succumb to the draws of straws or pre-bagged produce. It's just a matter of making simple behaviour changes part of your routine. Easy.

So on this World Environment Day, rather than just "reconnect with nature", try reconnecting with your personal impact on the planet and commit to doing something about it.

In case you're also interested in food waste, it's a favourite topic...
Jingle the Waste Away
Smashing Pumpkins
America the Wasteful

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Dietary Doomsday? afar it seems like something out of a post-apocalyptic fiction world - a massive vault, bored  into the Norwegian tundra, an icy tomb deep within the island of Svalbard, intended to preserve the raw materials of our agricultural system. In the face of massive global changes in terms of climate, land degradation, diet homogenization, and even conflict, this seed repository houses the world's diversity of crops in preparation from looming crises. Then, this last week, the world's insurance policy for food supply had an unwelcome infiltration of water from permafrost melt in the far north. While various news sources assure us that the vault will be just fine, the symbolism of seeds succumbing to climate change is all to real. A worrying percentage of the world's food comes from a select few crop varieties that do best under a narrow range of climate conditions with adequate fertilizer, pesticide, and water. Modern agriculture has done amazing things, but it also has made sweeping reductions in local understanding of things to grow and how to respond to variability and change. While we may have stocks of genetic variation (ironically housed in melting permafrost...) to help weather the storm, I remain skeptical of the utility when actually confronting needs on the ground. 

Short post, stay tuned for plastics this week. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Peasant Diet for the Planet

Ok, I admit it, I like charts...
This week I'm eating like a peasant. Now that (or more likely, this post's title) might have rubbed you the wrong way. For some, it conjures up unpleasant images of feudalism, toiling under rich landlords; for others it may have too many associations with colonialism and hearkening to an era where rural people in developing countries were somehow seen as inferior beings. But at its root, the word means country dweller.* And most people living in poverty live in rural areas.

"I'm eating like the average resident of a developing country" would have been a more accurate statement. If you look where my calories are coming from over the course of the Live Below the Line Challenge, it's quite similar - although missing the eggs, fish, and other animal products that do feature in most diets. Cereal grains (oats and rice) comprise nearly two-thirds of my daily 2000 calorie intake, and pulses are a major source of protein. Now take Asia for instance, which houses the majority of the world's poor (and population as a whole). Rice is the staple food, making up 50-66% of caloric intake in the region (with the higher values corresponding to the less economically developed countries). Pulses (e.g lentils) are also staple foods that, although usually contribute only a small fraction of calories, can actually make up close to half of protein intake. Roots and tubers (e.g. sweet potato and cassava) have historically made up nearly half of calories in many African countries, but this begun falling during the Green Revolution.

A familiar picture, my food for five days of Living Below
Now, the ubiquity of such a diet doesn't mean it's the way forward. For one, although grain-heavy diets provide enough calories, they often lack important micronutrients. Often referred to as the "hidden hunger", insufficient intake of vitamin A, iron, zinc, and folate is particularly concerning in children, who can suffer stunting and hindered brain development. While things like home gardens have been proposed as means of curbing such deficiencies, the poorest of the poor also often face difficulties getting their hands on land. Besides being a human health issue, a healthy and diverse diet is increasingly considered a human right. It is also disempowering not to have the resources to choose what to eat, when, and how much.

But there are also lessons to be learned from how the majority of the world's poor about how to eat for the planet. On average people in East Asia and the Pacific consume around 1/3 the amount of meat as North Americans and Europeans, and in Sub-Saharan Africa it's about 1/8th. Eating a primarily plant-based diet is generally acknowledged to have a lower carbon and water footprint than one heavy in meat (especially beef and lamb). According to the World Resources Institute, if the world's top 2 billion consumers reduced their meat and dairy intake by 40%, we could free up land double the size of India and avoid greenhouse gas emissions three times the global amount in 2009. Furthermore in many developing countries, what animals are consumed are eaten in low enough quantities to be sustainably harvested, or domesticated ones serve multiple purposes on the land - livestock can produce milk as well as manure for crops, or fish ponds can provide fertilizer for crops and feed for livestock. At the end of the day, I think a glimpse of a poverty-line diet is taking a taste of moderation that the big consumers in the world greatly need.

So while I miss green veggies (and chocolate), I'm pretty thankful and content with the bounty that even AU$2 per day can bring. Consider expressing your own gratitude, and sharing your good fortune by support this year's Live Below the Line campaign!

* Old French paisent ‘country dweller’, based on Latin pagus ‘country district’ (Wikipedia)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Dose of Subdued Earth Optimism

Somewhere in the world it is still Earth Day. Dating back to 1970, this now global celebration marked the heightened awareness of manmade threats to the natural environment. The safeguards introduced at that time - the clean air, clean water, and endangered species acts in the USA - have faced decades of opposition from major industrial interests and now (not even 50 years later) the possibility of scaling back or disintegration. In what many of us would consider a more enlightened age - we have been studying environmental phenomena for decades - it's astounding that there is still this war on nature and the crucial services that it provides and which humanity depends on.*

Fishermen in Ghana negotiate rubbish-ridden beaches
But I would argue that much of the environmental activism comes from a place of privilege (I include myself here), and I wonder how much we are successfully giving voice to those whose health, happiness, and livelihood are much more intimately tied to the condition of the natural environment. Sure, we all suffer if the air is unbreathable, and eventually most everywhere in the world will suffer the negative consequences of climate change, but oftentimes the hardest hit by polluted drinking water or habitat conversion or extensive droughts are those least capable of taking action or raising an outcry.

I bring this issue up on Earth Day, because I'm still of the opinion that the poor and marginalized make it into environmental discussion too infrequently ... and in development circles environmental health doesn't come in as a necessity that underlies food, water, income, and other usual indicators of poverty. A recent article in the Conversation called this issue into focus, introducing the concept of "environmentally-adjusted measures of multidimensional poverty". It suggests that we are actually overestimating the impact of increases in GDP and other econo-centric measures of growth and progress. This is not to say we shouldn't celebrate the strides made in reducing poverty and hunger (or as #EarthOptimism is highlighting, in conservation), but we should also be wary of getting too complacent and continue to strive toward recognizing how interconnected is the wellbeing of nature and humanity.

This blog post is just a week before participating in the Live Below the Line Challenge. If you have a moment, please consider donating to the charity sponsoring this effort to raise awareness and support education.

Live Below the Line 2017 Posts:
Related post: Valuation for Poverty Alleviation (2015) 

* Not to mention an increasing combativeness towards the scientific evidence that supports the importance of the planet's natural systems.