Short Thoughts: Clean Technology in China


This week, I’m at SXSW Eco and it’s awesome. I would have loved to have gone last year but tickets were prohibitively expensive and, much as I hate to admit it, 3 months into my time in Austin, I was still floundering. This year, I was able to get a ticket through my work, so I’m a very happy bunny. I’ll be posting about a few of the sessions over the next two weeks or so.

Of the four sessions I went to on Day 1, the one I found most interesting and most inspiring was a surprising one. I decided to deviate from my norm and skip a session on Feeding 9 Billion (gasp! I know) and go to one on Cleantech in China. Maybe a strange choice for me, but I’m feeling so frustrated by the lack of any global progress on reducing GHG emissions that I was really looking for something hopeful.

Image from The Guardian

To an extent, that’s what I got. I also got a much greater understanding of the importance of focusing our attentions outward, rather than constantly inward. Trying to improve the situation in the US is great, trying to improve the situation globally by sharing and expanding technologies is greater. Consider: in the US, one new power plant is switched on each year. In China, one new power plant is switched on every 5 days. The best place to make a real impact is clear. But traditionally, that hasn’t been where we’ve focused. While we’ve pointed a judgemental finger at countries with developing economies, like China and India, shifting much of the blame for climate change in their direction, we haven’t done much in the way of engaging with them to improve the situation. And these countries are in a much better place to make rapid improvements – their infrastructure isn’t calcified, they are in the process of building from the ground up.  These countries now have the same opportunities to make the decisions that we made a century ago. In the 1900s, there were only 8000 cars on the roads in the US – around 50% were steam powered, with the other 50% split almost evenly between electric and petrol. We made a choice – and it was the wrong one. To get the number of electric cars on the road now that we’d like to, we will need to make huge changes, ripping out and replacing existing infrastructure. With the number of people just now able to afford cars in countries like China, we can help them to do things right from scratch. More companies are starting to do that now, but it’s still a slow process – most start ups (understandably) work within the familiar, known quantity of the US and are not immediately willing to take on the challenge of overseas, often complex markets.

While I don’t doubt that China is entirely capable of ‘greening’ its industry and infrastructure on its own, I do think that there’s an amazing opportunity open at the moment for real global cooperation to reduce our GHG emissions and have an impact on the whole world, not just our own backyards.

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TEDx Manhattan: Food, Race, Class


Once again, I’ve been terrible at getting to blogging lately. Life can be so distracting, especially when the chaos of SXSW is on all around you and it’s your first time with your entire city turned inside out and upside down by music and people and then more music.

About two weeks ago though, I went to a viewing of the TEDx Manhattan conference at the Sustainable Food Center. It was a really relaxed afternoon, but it was also an opportunity for me to really stretch my own understanding of food systems and food justice in America in particular. Hearing about day to day life as a Black woman living in New York and the food challenges associated with race and class in that area that was something entirely new to me, and really thought-provoking. The talk I’m mainly referring to here was by Dr. Regina Bernard-Carreno (although another really noteworthy and fantastic talk on race and food was by Nikki Silvestri who did one of my favourite talks of the day).

You can watch Dr Bernard-Carreno’s talk here (NB: It seems to be incorrectly named, but this is definitely the talk!):

Part of what I found so fascinating about Dr Bernard-Carreno’s talk was the divide that also exists, not just in food access, but between those working to ensure food access.

‘Everyone here too, was young [and] white’

Dr Bernard-Carreno describes her journey around New York with her students, trying to find a good, local, city-gardening model that they could replicate on their own small plot in Queens. The first three or so gardens that they visited sound as though they were run by young-white-hipster types with absolutely zero idea of how to engage with and understand their local community. To be honest, some sounded like they weren’t even that interested in working with their neighbours either, charging exorbitant fees for tours and/or setting visitors to work hard in their garden while sitting down to enjoy their own lunch. There was a social gulf between the farmers and the visitors that should not have been there. Hearing this story really bothered me. On the one level, it bothered me because to me, urban gardening is about community and sharing and engagement and equality.  On another level, it bothered me because food access isn’t just about food on shelves, it’s about sharing the knowledge and skills to grow and provide food. None of these things were provided by these young urban farmers and this concerns me. Changing our food system to ensure equitable food access cannot be an exclusive venture. It can’t be the privileged handing out food to the underprivileged. It needs to be an inclusive action, a sharing of ideas, a development of the strengths of the whole community, whatever their circumstances.

The good thing is, there are groups who recognise this. Eventually, Dr Bernard-Carreno and her students found an urban farm that operated on those principles. This article on NPR’s website about JuJu Harris was absolutely inspirational – a real joy to read. It also shows what is so, so important: that sharing of knowledge and skill with everyone, no matter their race or socioeconomic status.

We can change the food system for the better, but not if we’re letting our social circumstances divide us.

Food Friday: Investigating ‘Food Babe’


Apologies for the lack of posting last week everyone. I was spending some time exploring the US again, this time in New Orleans. I might tell you a bit about it sometime because it was an amazing week.

In the meantime though, this is a bit of a different Food Friday, but something I’ve been itching to write about for a few days. You have probably heard in the news recently that Subway have changed their bread recipe after thousands of signatures on an online petition requesting that they remove the ingredient azodicarbonamide. What you’re less likely to know unless you’ve dug a little deeper (which I’ll admit I hadn’t until just this week) is that the entire great-big-thing was sparked by a post by a blogger who calls herself Food Babe.

Far be it from me to detract from someone who is making an effort to improve our food system and working hard on it – but Food Babe drives me more than a little crazy. I admire what she is trying to do in some instances – for example, she recently convinced Chick-Fil-A to start using antibiotic-free chicken – but so many of her efforts seem to be based on pseudoscience and half truths, combined with some plain old avoidance of facts that don’t suit her agenda. (For a really good run down this exact approach to research in the yoga-mats-in-Subway-bread debacle, I’d suggest this post on the NeuroLogica blog). Her focus on unscientifically backed ‘issues’ like this one with Subway detracts from real issues in our supermarkets and fast-food outlets.

This Subway incident isn’t the first time that she’s engaged in scaremongering based on science that is dubious at best. For example, this from her ‘Don’t Poison Santa‘ sugar cookies post:

‘Don’t poison santa (and yourself) with these cookie brands with terrible ingredients… whether you choose Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Nestle or store brands like Great Value – you can almost be guaranteed they have GMOs linked to infertility, allergies, and cancer, trans fats that cause 8,000 deaths per year and 20,000 heart attacks, aluminum linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and/or very controversial artificial ingredients made from petroleum that are contaminated with carcinogens.’

Let’s just look at that first claim, that GMOs have been linked to ‘infertility, allergies and cancer.’ Really? A quick Google search turns up this paper ‘Genetically modified foods, cancer, and diet: Myths and reality‘ in the peer-reviewed journal, Current Oncology. The authors have this to say about GMO foods and cancer:

Avoiding [genetically modified foods] will neither stop nor prevent carcinogenesis.

and additionally that:

The recent report claiming that [genetically modified foods] are causally associated with cancer development in rats has been debunked by informed opinion: genetically tumour prone rats were used; a spurious construct and research protocol was followed; and the statistical approach used did not satisfy confounding factors. The publication was apparently not subject to satisfactory objective refereeing, and certain tainted financial interests were also operative. All the foregoing factors skewed the results, rendering them invalid and not significant.

For a shorter version of the debunking of the spurious study that suggested that GMOs can cause cancer, here’s a concise piece by Bloomberg.

So that’s cancer. What about allergies?

Well, it seems very unlikely (granted, not absolutely impossible).

A piece in the (again, peer-reviewed) Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology states that:

Few products of agricultural biotechnology (and none of the current products) will involve the transfer of genes from known allergenic sources. Applying such criteria provides reasonable assurance that the newly introduced protein has limited capability to become an allergen.

(I’m sorry I can’t provide the direct link to this one, as I connected to it through my university journal database. If you’re interested, look for ‘Will genetically modified foods be allergenic?’ by Steve L. Taylor and Susan L. Hefle, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 107(5): 765-771.)

Here’s another study, this time in Allergy:

to date […] no biotech proteins in foods have been documented to cause allergic reactions

In terms of peer-reviewed science, the most strident evidence I could find for avoiding GMOs for allergy reasons was in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition which suggests that:

The introduction of novel proteins into foods such as a GM soybean variety expressing methionine from Brazil nut […] and GE corn variety modified to produce a Bt endotoxin […] may elicit potentially harmful immunological responses including allergic hypersensitivity. moreover, according to Prescott et al. (2005), the introduction of a gene expressing nonallergenic protein such as GM field pea, expressing alpha-amylase inhibitor-1, may not always result in a product without allergenicity

(This is from ‘Health risks of genetically modified foods’ by Artemis Dona and Ioannis S. Arvanitoyannis, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 49(2): 164-175).

Their overall conclusion though? The jury is still out. And to date, there is no proof that GMO foods cause allergies.

But what about GMOs and infertility? Well, Google GMO food and infertility and you’ll receive a barrage of pages claiming a link between the two. Some are relatively well researched sites, others considerably less so (Infowars, anyone?). Run a search through a scientific database though and you’ll get only a handful of results, most of which are not that relevant. I was able to find evidence of a study which found a statistically significant reduction in the size of litters born to mice after being fed GM maize (although I couldn’t find the study itself so I’m relying on a piece in the Daily Mail for that…eek), but that study was subsequently withdrawn by the Austrian government due to poor reporting and incomplete and contradictory data.

Again, I’m going with no conclusive evidence of links between GMOs and infertility. Which leaves, overall, no evidence of any of the health issues that the ‘food babe’ attributes to GMOs.

This is why she makes me mad. Vani Hari (Food Babe’s real name) has an enormous readership and extensive media reach. She’s in the position to make a real change in our food systems. Yet, instead of focusing only on the things that are known, conclusive problems, like transfats, like the use antibiotics in the industrial food system, she spreads herself thin, spouting misinformation about GMOs and azodicarbonamide which makes navigating an already complex and confusing food landscape even more difficult for the layperson. Yes, the best goal is for us to all be able to eat real, fresh, sustainably farmed food, but for those who can’t do that due to time or financial constraints, or lack of education, let’s keep the messages simple and focused on scientifically proven problems.

NB: Please don’t take this post to be an endorsement of GMO foods. I still have huge concerns about them, but these concerns are primarily limited to ones of preservation of genetic diversity, the problems of ‘ownership’ of food (in cases where there are corporate patents) and agricultural sustainability in general. 

Why we can’t ignore food in health


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Today in Slate, Heather Tirado Gilligan argues that food deserts are not really a problem. She also argues, using data from three studies, that introducing healthful food to low-income  communities makes no difference to health outcomes. I don’t entirely disagree. Parachuting a bunch of bananas into a low-income grocery store isn’t going to change the way people eat, or have a real impact on health outcomes. Making fresh, healthy food more physically accessible is just the first step. She overlooks the other steps involved in de-food-desertification; ensuring that the food is affordable, providing nutrition education and (as she touches on and thereafter ignores) teaching people with little time and little money how to cook quick, cheap and healthy meals. As Pearson et al argue, policies need to be developed to change cultural attitudes to food, rather than just food accessibility (1).

The way Gilligan writes about it seems as though she expects to just stick a few bulbs of fennel in a community that’s previously only had access to Doritos and Taco Bell and hope that it makes a difference. Of course it doesn’t! Fixing nutrition is a much more complex issue than I think Gilligan is acknowledging and it’s going to take a lot of time. For example, she notes that ‘Since 2004 there’s been a sharp spike in the number of programs like Soul Food that are aimed at reducing such health disparities by making fresh food more accessible to low-income people’ and that ‘Study after study has shown that the fresh-food push does nothing to improve the health of poor people, who continue to live markedly shorter and sicker lives than better-off Americans.’ It’s hard to argue against that – poorer people definitely do still have poorer health outcomes. But the data that she’s referring to is for only ten years in a nation of 314 million people, where the number of programs and locations where they have been available have been limited. It’s long enough to start getting some idea of outcomes, but I would argue, not long enough for concrete conclusions, especially when the aims of these programs are overwhelmingly long-term – it’s not possible to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight. Finally, I would also argue that if you look at what’s happened since 2010 when the Health Food Financing Initiative was introduced, it will give a much clearer idea of the impact of an increased number of programs. The same data problem persists though –  that at this stage, there are only three years of data to work with. It’s really too early to make the call that the Initiative is failing, especially when new and innovative programs are being developed every day.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that just as some food programs are not working so well, others are making a difference in the lives of those who have access to them. And while it’s hard to dispute Gilligan’s claim that the stress of poverty has a likely significant affect on health outcomes, it seems far too soon and very short sighted to disregard the importance of providing the means to improve the diets of low-income communities when aiming to reduce the burden of disease.

(1) Pearson T, Russell J, Campbell M J, Barker M E 2005, Do ‘food deserts’ influence fruit and vegetable consumption?—a cross-sectional study, Appetite 45(2): 195-197.

 

Strange variations: Ecological Footprints in two countries


Last week I started an online course, An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health which is being run by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. It started out well. A lot of the introductory information was about things that I’m reasonably familiar with, through my studies or just general reading-for-interest, but there were also other elements that I didn’t know about, so it was nice to continue my learning.

One of the things that really fascinated me was taking the Ecological Footprint quiz. The coordinators suggested that we do this and respond to an overall class poll so we could see the wide range of resources that different students are using. They also suggested that we play around with the poll and explore how different living situations might produce different outcomes. Out of curiosity, I decided to compare my life here in the USA and my life in Australia.

This was my result for the USA:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 2.44.15 PM

This was my result for Australia:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 2.49.41 PM

 

Whaaaaat?! This seemed completely crazy to me. I really thought the outcomes would be very similar – my diet is very similar in both countries, our energy consumption is similar (although green options seemed more accessible in Sydney – possibly because I knew more about the electricity market at home), I use a car with the same very limited frequency, my purchasing habits and recycling/trash habits are much the same…even more strangely, I would typically fly further in a year in Australia than here!

I’m honestly having a lot of trouble figuring out this discrepancy. I’ve taken the quiz multiple times to make sure there wasn’t a glaring error. I’ve looked at it over and over. One difference I can see is that the Australian quiz is a lot more specific – for example, it asks what type of lightbulbs you use, how much your gas/electricity bills are per month etc. These aren’t options in the US version. Even so, I just can’t see any really compelling reason for the difference.

I’d be interested in what your thoughts are. I’d also be really interested to know what quiz results you get (and because it seems surprisingly relevant, what country you’re based in). You can take the quiz here.

A little note of positivity


It’s funny how things sometimes come together. Yesterday I saw both the following infographic and this article from NPR.

Source: APHA. Click through for more.

I think there’s a lovely symmetry between the two – an acknowledgement of the worrying state that we’re still in now, but with a hopeful twist: real change is starting to happen. There are so many organisations and individuals that are working to alter the food landscape by reconnecting farmers with consumers, increasing the availability of healthful food in disadvantaged communities and educating the public on food, health and the environment.

The best bit is that some of this work is already starting to show benefits. For example, in Australia, community and research interventions in remote indigenous communities have shown significant reductions in the incidence of hypercholesterolemia and other cardiovascular disease risk factors, and improvements in child health (1, 2).  In the Bronx, the Rx Fruit and Vegetable program is making healthy food affordable and having an impact on the lives of children – which is important to ensuring a healthy and sustainable food future. And of course, as the first article I linked to mentions, simple conversions to the layout and produce in corner stores are starting to make a world of difference in East Los Angeles Latino communities. These three examples represent just a fraction of the changes that are happening in the U.S and Australia alone.

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by statistics like ‘Obesity has tripled among kids and teens in the past 30 years’, or that 8.3 percent of the US population is diabetic (with 90-95 percent being type 2 diabetes). The existence of initiatives like these gives me hope though, because people can and are making a real difference.

1.  Rowley G, Su Q, Cincotta M, Skinner M, Pindan B, White G A, O’Dea K 2001, Improvements in circulation cholesterol, antioxidants, and homocysteine after dietary intervention in an Australian Aboriginal community, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 74:442-8.
2. Jones R, Smith F 2006, Are there health benefits from improving basic nutrition in a remote Aboriginal Community?, Australian Family Physician, 35 (6): 453-4.

 

 

2014: Year of Family Farming


Last week, I recapped 2013, noting that in general, it wasn’t a great year for issues around food and the environment. I also mentioned a few hopeful things for the year ahead, but what I decided to leave for a post of its own was the United Nation’s declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

The stated aims of the IYFF are:

‘to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.’

This is so significant, especially in the context of increasingly globalised and monoculturised (let’s just pretend that’s a word for a moment) agriculture. Increasingly Big Ag is buying up land in developing countries, damaging local ecosystems, reducing food security and eliminating traditional food cultures. I wrote extensively about this last year in a couple of posts, and if you’re really interested, I’d recommend reading Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved. 

Shifting the focus of food from our industrialised system to the more traditional smallholder model is important for all parts of the world though, not just for developing nations. The reasons are different, but the significance is not. So, how is this relevant to us in the ‘global north’?

1) Nutrition

I know I bang on about this a lot. But I really do think that if we devoted a bit more space to family farms that grew a variety of crops, and perhaps even bred some animals, we’d have a whole lot less HFCS and other processed rubbish, and a whole lot more real, fresh food. Maybe that’s really naive of me, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

2) Connection to food and place

It’s so easy these days to lose sight of the fact that food isn’t just conjured up by the magic supermarket fairy. I once read an article about kids who thought that yoghurt grew on trees ( no, really). This alone seems like as good a reason as any to start engaging communities with the process of growing and producing food. I honestly believe that every single child should have the opportunity to spend some time in a vegetable garden, getting their fingers grubby and watching plants grow. Whether that be in their backyard, at their school, in a community garden doesn’t matter. But it’s something that I think is absolutely essential.

3) Land management 

I’ve linked to this report before and I’ll link to it again. Monoculture cropping is destroying valuable fertile farmland. It’s also destroying much of the Gulf of Mexico, literally suffocating the ecosystem. Greater variety in planting means less need for fertiliser, and less erosion. Even diversifying just a portion of each of the huge monoculture farms in the USA could make a difference.

And so, while the IYFF is most relevant to developing nations, where people often rely on family farming for their most basic nutritional needs, it also needs to be taken seriously in other wealthier countries. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s going to mesh too well with the Big Ag bottom line.

2013 in review


First of all, Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 is a great year for you – and for the environment!

2013 was in a lot of ways, a depressing year in food and the environment. The repeal of climate change legislation in Australia, the removal of SNAP from the Farm Bill in the US, continued development of the tar sands in Canada. And all the while, climate change has, if anything, accelerated and inequalities in our food systems continue to be pronounced.

At the risk of being repetitive (there are quite a few year-that-was recaps around at the moment), I thought I’d do a quick run through of my 3-most-important-things-of-2013.

1) The election of the Abbott Government in Australia

I don’t think that there’s too much more that I need to add on top of this post. Truly. I’ll explode if I think about this too frequently.

2) The EU ban on neonicotinoids

Back in January I wrote about a petition for the EU to ban the use of pesticides that had been shown to cause dramatic declines in bee populations. In May, the EU enacted a two year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids. Rare good environmental (and food) news from 2013!

4) 97%: The Consensus Project

In 2013, the results of a project analysing climate change literature from the past 21 years were released. These results found that 97.1% of the papers endorsed the science of anthropogenic climate change. 98.4% of the scientists who authored the papers also endorsed the science. The findings of the study were another huge step in dismantling the credibility of climate change ‘denialists.’ See theconsensusproject.com for more.

Of course, there were other big happenings in 2013, but these are the ones that most struck me. I would like to think that the news will be a little brighter in 2014, and I’ll admit that I’m tentatively hopeful. While Australia looks like going to hell in a handbasket, President Obama actually rolled out a climate plan in June, and while there are still huge issues around Keystone XL and other fracking projects, this is at least a step in the right direction. China is making leaps and bounds in the development of thorium reactors, looking at how these might be a viable alternative energy source to reduce their dependency on coal and traditional uranium nuclear. If they can take this further, and if the rest of the world is on board, this could be a fantastic stop-gap measure to reduce GHG emissions while battery technologies for wind and solar power are improved. Big Food is fighting against GMO labelling laws, but the fight will continue into this year, hopefully with gains by those who support a truthful food future.

Here’s to you, 2014.

A week of infographics: Day 5


Click to link through and embiggen

I love this infographic too (sensing a theme here?). There’s definitely something to the concerns that the world will struggle to sustain its current population of just over 7 billion people, but it’s nice to know that all 7 billion can be fed, at least theoretically.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this week’s infographics. I’ll aim to be back to a more regular posting schedule next week.

 

A week of infographics: Day 4


Click to link through

This is by far my favourite infographic this week. I just find it fascinating. Some of it is not that surprising, like the much wider ranger of healthy food in the highly educated, high income quadrant. Some of it is much stranger though – for example, why the emphasis on whole milk in lower-income, lower-education communities, compared to skim milk in higher income, college-educated communities? Given that there is little to no difference in price, is this a difference of education? Or is it maybe cultural, given the emphasis in the lower-income communities is on many foods often associated with Hispanic cuisine -rice, beans, corn meal etc? I honestly have no idea.

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this one.