Fixing the Broken Food System Will Improve Human and Environmental Health
Worldwide, 30 percent of food is wasted, 1 billion people go to bed hungry each night while another 1 billion suffer from health problems related to obesity, and agriculture contributes to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, young people are increasingly disconnected from how their food is grown, making solutions to the global agricultural system seem even further out of reach.
In response to these problems, the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) is releasing a report, Eating Planet, highlighting the challenges facing today's food and agricultural system, as well as the myriad benefits that reform could bring. As World Environment Day approaches, it is important to appreciate the linkages between technology, culture, and agriculture, and how they can alleviate hunger and poverty.
"Access to food is one of the first and most fundamental of all human rights," says Guido Barilla, chairman of the Barilla Group. "Where food is lacking, it becomes impossible to live with dignity, and the rights to a healthy life and peaceful coexistence are undermined."
The Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project, an evaluation of environmentally sustainable solutions to alleviate hunger and poverty, collaborated with BCFN to produce the report. "The study's conclusions represent a major step toward ensuring that agriculture contributes to health, environmental sustainability, income generation and food security," said Nourishing the Planet project director Danielle Nierenberg. "The ingredients will vary by country and region, but there are some key components that will lead to healthier food systems everywhere."
The report is divided into four sections: Food for All, Food for Sustainable Growth, Food for Health, and Food for Culture. Each of these sections ends with concrete recommendations, proposals and actions that need to be taken to solve the global food crisis.
Food for All: Agriculture offers a crucial opportunity for effective investments in development. Because agriculture plays such a large role in rural populations in developing countries, growth in this sector is at least twice as effective in boosting incomes as growth in a non-agricultural sector. Agriculture also directly contributes to food security among the world's poorest populations, and reforms to the sector are badly needed to reduce both poverty and hunger. These include reinforcing the mechanisms of global governance, such as curbing the trade of food-related stocks to lessen price volatility; encouraging the use of new approaches and tools to measure and promote well-being, in part by shifting away from Gross Domestic Product as a primary indicator of national development; and fostering eating habits that are healthier for humans and have a lower environmental impact.
Food for Sustainable Growth: While many agricultural activities, such as artificial fertilizer application or heavy pesticide use, may boost food production in the short term, they create serious obstacles to feeding the world over the long term. Environmental degradation, including water scarcity, soil depletion and deforestation, are all results of the industrialized agricultural system, and these problems seriously compromise future generations' prospects of well-being. Part of achieving sustainable well-being involves an understanding of the environmental impacts of different types of foods. To facilitate this understanding, the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition has devised the Double Food and Environmental Pyramid. This pyramid, a new take on the traditional food pyramid, links the nutritional aspects of different types of food with their environmental impacts, to promote environmentally conscious and responsible food choices.
Food for Health: The global food system also affects issues of human health, including incidences of disease, malnutrition, obesity and diabetes. The report notes several unhealthy changes in dietary and lifestyle patterns, including an increase in calories consumed, a lack of balance and diversity in diets, a lack of education about health and nutrition early in life, and a significant reduction in the amount of time dedicated to physical activity.
Food for Culture: The report emphasizes the need to reconnect people with producing, obtaining, preparing and eating their food. This involves the transfer of knowledge from older to younger generations about the production and preparation of food, the return to a healthy relationship with and appreciation of the land on which food is grown, the revitalization of conviviality associated with food preparation and consumption, and the recovery of traditional flavors in the context of contemporary tastes. In Italy, the University of Gastronomic Sciences is finding ways to combine the passion of food connoisseurs with the science of agriculture. The university conducts courses in food anthropology, food cultures, food policy and sustainability, and students participate in study trips to examine regional food systems.
The book draws on advice from experts and activists around the world to suggest specific reforms to the food and agricultural systems. These include:
Healthy eating and lifestyles: In developing countries, where rising average incomes are affecting dietary choices, it is important to provide access to and education about healthy foods like fruits and vegetables before bad eating habits develop into deep-rooted cultural practices. Ensuring proper nutrition among infants and children can greatly improve overall health later in life. Among both children and adults, a balanced diet, coupled with an active lifestyle, can minimize the risks of overweight, obesity, tumors, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. One extensively studied example is the Mediterranean diet, which characteristically emphasizes a balanced consumption of fruits and vegetables, legumes and grains while limiting meat intake. A study completed by EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) found that strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet resulted in a significant reduction in the risk of developing a gastric carcinoma.
Fair food prices: To ensure that agriculture remains a viable and sustainable source of livelihood, farmers must be able to ask realistic prices for their products. In many countries, food prices are kept artificially low because they do not take into account the environmental impacts of producing food, the high medical costs associated with long-term unhealthy eating habits, the costs required to pay farmers and farmworkers a decent living wage plus benefits, and the billions of dollars in government subsidies that farmers receive to grow certain commodities. If farmers could charge real prices for the food they grow, consumers, especially in wealthy countries, would reconsider the impacts of their various food choices.
Transparent and responsible food trade: To improve universal access to food, policymakers must address the lack of transparency and responsibility in the commercial exchange of food around the world. This means, for instance, ensuring that production of crops to be used as biofuels does not interfere with the cultivation of crops for food. In Europe, 8.6 million metric tons of vegetable oil is used for the production of biodiesel fuel and continues to expand by 15 percent annually. The food system must encourage "sustainable well-being," or the idea that people's current well-being should not be achieved at the expense of the happiness or prosperity of future generations.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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