Food (Policy) For Thought

A recent grad's musings on sustainable food systems, agriculture and more!


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Going controversial about the burger bind: how about a meat tax?

By Helena Robling

It’s always sensitive to touch upon people’s meat consumption. As a topic for discussion it’s comparable to religion or party politics, everybody has an opinion, standpoints are usually quite firm and not seldom extreme. Saying YES or NO to meat can be as decisive for social identity as religious or ideological convictions, especially in our individualized western societies where consumption patterns rather than values often are permitted to determine who we are. This is one of the reasons why I love debating food choices, meat in particular, and why I am now dusting off the old meat tax idea.

 As a starting point, some perspective: We know that globally, livestock production is responsible for more GHG emissions than the transport sector as a whole (which is already completely crazy, that means more pollution than all cars, planes, trains and boats together!)

Furthermore, on a finite planet with a growing population, the way we use the land is a huge issue. Today animal agriculture uses far more land resources than any other human activity. One third of all arable land on the planet is used to grow feed crops for livestock, and 40% of cereal and about 7785% of the world soy production goes to animal feed.

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Kg of Co2 equivalents per kg product and their distribution in different greenhouse gases (Methane: green, Nitrous oxide: light grey, Carbon dioxide: dark grey.) Products from left to right; 1. Beef, 2. Lamb, 3. Pork, 4. Poultry, 5. Fish, 6. Eggs, 7. Tofu, 8. Legumes, 9. Milk, Sour milk, Yoghurt, 10. Cheese, 11. Rice, 12. Potatoes, 13. Pasta, 14. Bread, 15. Citrus fruits, 16. Salad vegetables, 17. Root vegetables, Onions, Cabbage, 18. Vegetables and fruits transported by airplane, 19. Oil, Margarine, 20. Potato chips, 21. Soda

The deforestation to create pastures is also a major contributor to GHG emissions as well as land and soil degradation and loss of biodiversity connected to animal agriculture.

I could go on..

But.

The idea today is not to linger in blaming ruminant animals for their digestive processes leading to methane emissions. In the debate we tend to forget the good things that animals bring, such as the fact that grass-eaters have the sympathetic ability to digest plants that are inedible for humans and thus add to the global food supply. As long as they are not fed cereals and protein plants, of course.

And ultimately, we are discussing people’s meat consumption. And people like their burgers.

So if we want to diminish meat consumption without completely killing farmers that produce meat in a sustainable way there has to be some kind of compromise between extreme standpoints of meat eaters and non-meat eaters. One idea on how to do this came from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation in a report last month (sadly once again only available in Swedish..)

The central idea of the report is a fee per kilo on all meat products, imported and exported, in the consumption stage. The amount collected through the fee would be introduced in a payment scheme for the ecosystem services that sustainable agricultural methods provide. The idea is to give farmers an economic incentive to steer production away from environmentally damaging methods and support grass-fed pasture farming that positively contributes to an open landscape and biodiversity in the countryside.

During a forum for vegetarians (yes I attended..) the author of the report explained that a fee can be fully redirected to the ecosystem payments in contrast to a tax which would have to be included in the governmental budget and hence more easily be subject to political or budgetary fluctuations. Also, the same fee per kg (about 2-2.5 €) for all meat would make the cheapest meat relatively more expensive in comparison to previous price than an expensive meat more likely to have been produced in a sustainable way. It is primarily the cheapest meat on the market that is targeted with this fee and the purpose is to substitute it with vegetable alternatives.

A Previous report showing the carbon dioxide equivalents from different school meals, this one showing the difference between spaghetti with meat sauce and with lentil sauce.  (Ingredients are listed to the right: Milk, bread and margarine, salad, ketchup, meat/lentil sauce, spaghetti)

A Previous report showing the carbon dioxide equivalents from different school meals, this one showing the difference between spaghetti with meat sauce and with lentil sauce.
(Ingredients are listed to the right: Milk, bread and margarine, salad, ketchup, meat/lentil sauce, spaghetti)

A Previous report showing the carbon dioxide equivalents from different school meals, this one showing the difference between spaghetti with meat sauce and with lentil sauce. (Ingredients are listed to the right: Milk, bread and margarine, salad, ketchup, meat/lentil sauce, spaghetti)

My spontaneous reaction was very positive when reading the report, I would however like to highlight three aspects that I think are essential in applying something similar.

* The payment scheme for ecosystem services can be a way to get the farmers on board, which ultimately is the most important factor to make such a policy successful. There has to be some incentive for farmers to agree on the adjustments and they should also to some extent participate in the policy making process, as well as consumers associations.

*A comprehensive assessment of what will happen to meat production globally if introducing such a fee in one country should be done. Many argue that a country fee would only result in more meat exported and no positive consequences in the long run. However, the report focuses on Sweden’s production climate record. GHG emissions is however a global issue, so if the fee doesn’t reduce the production of meat but only alters who consumes it, little progress has been made in fighting global climate change.

* Drawing on the previous discussing on locally grown food and trade distortion (link to my last post), what will the EU say about such a policy? Swedish meat production is known to have high standards when it comes to animal welfare and environmental protection which leads to a relatively higher meat price. According to the report, consumption of the cheaper (i.e imported) meat is estimated to decrease more than domestically produced, more expensive meat. Isn’t there a risk that such a fee will be accused for over proportionally disadvantage EU producers and subsidizing domestic ones?

Myself, I am what you could call a “flexitarian”, I love the occasional meat feast, especially on a barbecue and particularly if I know the origin and production of what I eat. There is no “meat-hate” in my soul and I don’t want to deprive anyone of their burger… I however firmly believe that we urgently need to reconsider the 3-times-a-day meat routine so many of us follow without further thought. And maybe a similar fee could speed up the process of change.

There is so much more to write on this topic, I will hopefully come back to it in future posts. [Janina chiming in: also check out previous posts on sustainable meats, the willingness to pay for cheap meat and my personal opinion on whether a meat tax is a viable green policy option!]

In the meantime, please comment with any thoughts and opinions you might have on this. And let’s skip some burgers and consider to eat some “bug”ers instead!


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Photo Story: The Chocolate Tale

Hi hi! So sorry to be out of commission for so long! It’s been a busy couple of weeks with applications and paper edits and work, but I’m back and all backed up with stories to write about! Here is one that needs little words and just a lot of imagination, since I will take you on a trip… to a cocoa forest!

It all starts in Cocles, a little beach village on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica…

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with charming views and more charming beach visitors.

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But I wasn’t here for the beach, I was here for the chocolate – specifically, the cocoa forest tour of Caribeans.

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Our group of 10 met at the chocolate ‘tasting lounge’ and marched into the jungle – which the owner and our guide, Paul Johnson, explained had been a cocoa farm that had long been abandoned and recently bought by a friend of his.

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We saw some incredible wildlife, including Golden Thread spiders, howler monkeys and even two toucans just on the way up the hill.

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The canopy was lush and full, but Paul explained that for the cocoa trees, we had to cast our eyes a bit further down – they stay at much more modest heights and therefore spend their lives in the shade of the bigger trees. While some shade is good for coffee, Paul said that their cocoa is technically overshaded and they lose potential yield from not cutting down some of the larger trees. But they couldn’t do it without eliminating the monkeys’ and birds’ living spaces. So they decided not to.

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The cocoa tree is the one to the right with the dark branches.

In the forest, the trees are cared for by members of the indigenous tribes here, which use traditional methods taught to them from generation to generation. They have produced cocoa for personal consumption in a drink similar to the xocolatl of the Aztecs since long before the Spanish came. Paul mentioned that he paid their labor as well as their consulting services, resulting in a wage several times higher than the one they asked for originally.

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See the two cocoa pods at the very bottom of the stem?

Once the pods are ripe, they are harvested using this instrument…

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The crates are used for the fermentation process and for introducing air – all beans are put in the first crate, then the side wall is removed and they tumble into the second, etc.

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… which are dark purple and intensely bitter, but surrounded by some sweet fruit flesh that makes the cocoa also a valuable fruit for several animals. Paul said that because of their integrated approach, every year they use a significant proportion of their harvest to the animals. On the other hand, the animals also do the job the plant originally produced seeds for, and distribute seeds for new cocoa trees throughout the forest.

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The fermented seeds are set out to dry in a tent that has a greenhouse-like effect. At this point, there is no more need to fear animals – they are not interested in the bean. Too bad for them!

IMG_7427 IMG_7431 IMG_7432At this point in the tour, we took a break with a view to sample some of Caribeans’ chocolates. It was amazing how despite the same composition (72% dark chocolate, only made up of cocoa beans and sugar) each had a unique flavor profile ranging from nutty to fruity to smokey.

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We also tried some of that chocolate drink that was more spicy than sweet and quite an acquired taste for some. I loved it though!

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As a last part, we were invited to pair the dark chocolate with some other flavors to create our perfect chocolate: the options ranged from mint or basil to coffee, cinnamon, sea salt all the way to turmeric, chili, garlic and dark pepper. Soon everybody had found their personal favorite. Mine was more on the traditional side with coffee and cinnamon, but there was a brave kid that did garlic everything. Kudos!IMG_7449 IMG_7450

We continued the tour to the chocolate factory itself and on the way casually stumbled upon more wildlife.

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There, Paul explained the process: roasting the dried beans, grinding them, removing the shell, and then grinding the pieces up even smaller until you get chocolate liqueur, the pure liquid chocolate. Then you add your desired amount of sugar and put it to set, all the while tempering it to get the best possible texture and ‘snap’.

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All in all, it was such a great experience and really insightful to see the challenges and tradeoffs that come with sustainable farming in this context. Paul explained several times that the choices he made had real impacts on his bottom line, and that without the income from the tours and the coffee shop side business it wouldn’t be financially viable. Still, seeing his “farm” set in this lush and vibrant forest made me wish more would be like that. As always, it depends on how much the consumer is willing to pay at the other end.

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And with that and a Costa Rican sunset, I close my chocolate tale.

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Digging Deeper into the Pineapple Paradox

And the plot thickens…

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Image by ECohen, via Flickr CC.

When I published my story on the flies and the pineapples the other week, I got a couple of fascinating follow-ups from people that know way more about the industry than me. In addition, I’ve been working more on the topic as well, adding to my knowledge of the production methods and problems attached to them (which, I frankly admit, was hitherto rather underdeveloped, despite the fact that pineapples are my favorite fruit). So, in no particular order, here are some additional factoids about pineapple production:

  • When you think about it, pineapples are the ultimate luxury fruit. Reading through a pineapple growing guide for producers in Guyana (it’s absolutely fascinating to approach it from the farmer’s angle), what stood out to me is how difficult it is to grow them. They require high levels of fertilizer, they grow at a snail’s pace, which means that in the beginning weeds are a huge problem. Consequently, the guide recommends a number of solutions – of course, all chemical herbicides (prominently figured: glyphosate and 2-4D amine). The ideal plot for planting pineapples is completely cleared of any other growth – meaning that you have to kill all other vegetation off first. They thus recommend to use herbicides before planting, after planting, when the pineapple plants are 3 – 5 months old… it seems an awful of spraying. Then, there are a number of insects that all threaten the plant’s survival (and you need insecticides, of course). Plus, you only get one fruit per plant every year or so, and have to replant every two years. What an effort!
  • Another interesting aspect – the guide (and several others I found) doesn’t even consider what to do with the residues left on the field. Literally, it ends with bringing the pineapple to market – with a “you made it!” attitude – and leaves the producer to wander his fields, scratching his head on what to do with the rests on it. Not cool.
  • One commenter mentioned an interesting possibility: fight flies with flies! In particular, black soldier fly larvae have been used as livestock feed and composting helpers with really good results in the US, and apparently love organic waste such as pineapple leafs. Plus, in their adult stage they don’t have mouths, don’t bite and aren’t disease vectors, unlike the problematic bloodsucking flies people are dealing with here. The commenter also mentioned the possibility of having freeranging chickens between harvest and replanting time. I love these ideas in theory, though I have a hard time wrapping my head around their applicability in an industrial ag setting – that would require a hella lotta chickens, wouldn’t it? Still, at least there are some first research efforts ongoing on the use of black soldier fly larvae in Costa Rica; one PhD student even wrote his entire thesis on it! It’s still to be seen how to scale up these approaches, but it’s promising that different ways forward are possible.
  • From one organic symbiosis to another organic dissonance: a friend told me that the flies could also be attracted by the spreading of dried cow blood from Costa Rican butchers on the fields as a natural fertilizer (as the main source of nitrogen), at least in organic pineapple production. Yuck!
  • Finally, the environmental impacts have high social costs: just last month, there was a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of rural communities claiming their right to clean water, since they have had to truck in drinking water ever since pineapple plantations surrounding their properties started using carcinogenic agrochemicals which ended up in the local groundwater supply. This is a really good and in-depth article on the issue (if you read Spanish).


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A Pineapple, A Cow and Thousands of Flies Meet in Costa Rica…

... how would you finish that joke? Unfortunately, for Costa Rican farmers, this issue is no laughing matter. Rather, it’s a conflict that pitches two of the largest agricultural communities of the country against each other in a perpetual feud. It’s the yeoman-versus-rancher battle you’ve never heard of. But new technologies might offer a solution that also contributes to Costa Rica’s climate change strategy.

In fact, this is how I first became aware of the story: I was co-organizing a workshop on the use of organic agricultural residues in energy production. Reps from all kinds of industries – pineapple, sugarcane, coffee, livestock, forestry – came together and talked about possibilities and hurdles to actually use the energy potential of these waste products. One of their activities was to brainstorm co-benefits of changing waste disposal practices. I was tasked with documenting the workshop and so spent my time weaving in and out the intensive discussions. Between snapping photos, I snatched up snippets of conversation. “Oh, and getting rid of the pineapple stems also reduces the flies!,” I heard. Makes sense, I thought to myself, fruit flies are icky. Little did I know that the issue was much more dire than just fruit flies.

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“Mosca” signifies “fly”. I still didn’t get it.

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Organic Coffee in Costa Rica: A Battle of David vs. Goliath?

“To be honest, organic coffee could become a dying breed in Costa Rica.” Leland Westie and I stare at each other, neither of us quite sure how to continue the conversation. Westie seems startled by his own frankness. After a long pause, he qualifies his statement with an apologetic smile: “I mean, I hope it will survive. I am an optimist. But we need all the help we can get.”

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Westie would know – together with his wife and a group of engaged citizens, he co-founded and co-organizes the Feria Verde de Aranjuez, the largest organic farmers’ market in San Jose. In the beginning, the market seemed to lack a gathering spot for shoppers to connect. This is why he founded Taza Amarilla, a local organic coffee roaster and coffee shop that has become emblematic for the market. When one ambles about the stalls, it is striking that almost every second hand is holding a trademark yellow mug. Every Saturday, the micro-enterprise sells around 500 cups of coffee and another 85 bags of their beans. At least on this local level, demand for organic coffee seems to hold up; however, the commitment to organic greatly limits Westie’s sourcing options. “There are two, maybe three organic producers that seem financially sound and of sufficient enough size to survive in the long term,” he explains. Two or three in an entire country of high-end coffee producers. How did it come this far?

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Updates from Coffee Country

Hey little blog, I missed you! I swear I’ve been writing, too, just for different purposes, and then there was the weekend at the beach and the arts festival… Regularly scheduled content should be back soon. Plus, I’m taking “Writing for the Web” and “Community Journalism” MOOCs at the moment, which should help make future posts even clearer and more fun to read. Yay for continued learning!

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And learning I have been a lot lately – especially all about coffee! Want to explore some of the most interesting facts with me?

  • Specialty coffee is the new kid around the block. In 2014, it has for the first time ever taken over non-specialty coffee in the US with a market share of 51%. This is great news, particularly for producers in Central America, because this high-quality coffee can be sold for higher prices than the world market average.
  • However, sustainable coffee is still struggling. The idea spread like wildfire among producers – of course, who doesn’t want premium prices? Yet, this has led to oversupply in many certification schemes. According to estimates, only 30 – 50% of the certified harvest is actually also sold under the labels. Because there is not enough demand for certified products, the rest flows into the conventional market, at farmers’ losses (who had to undergo certification efforts and costs anyhow).
  • The trouble with a global commodity market is also that you get one price, no matter what your production costs are. When South East Asian countries like Vietnam entered the scene, Central American countries – with much higher input costs – started to struggle. And the problem is perpetuated even in the Fair Trade system, where the price guarantee is the same worldwide, which is still at an unsustainably low level for producers here.
  • The solution for many farmers in Costa Rica and elsewhere is to focus on quality instead. However, once you arrive in the segment where coffee tastings define your income, environmental sustainability is secondary – and alternative production systems might even be counterproductive because they may affect the taste, and taste is what counts.
  • Yet, coffee production is inherently resource-intensive. Look at these Ethiopian farmers harvest the red coffee cherries – the only valuable part is the bean. First, you need to get rid of the pulp, the mucilage and the parchment (which are all layers surrounding the bean) – more than 50% of what you grow is essentially waste! There have been attempts to put the pulp to use in animal feed, but if you give livestock too much they get hyped up on the caffeine and will be sick. Furthermore, the wet milling process uses a large amount of water. It is the most commonly used processing method in Central America, despite the fact that some regions are called the “dry corridor” because of frequent droughts.

So my main takeaway so far? We are paying way too little for what we consume. Listening closely, you realize that the only reason the exodus from coffee production in Costa Rica is not mirrored in other countries is that there are alternatives here – and, as one of my interview partners said, “in Honduras you just continue to farm because the alternative is to starve.”

Check back soon for more coffee stories!

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