The @WorldResources Institute On How To “Create A Sustainable Food Future”

It happens that once you specialize in a topic, you get a little jaded about ‘broad overview’ talks. Whenever I go to one of those now, I notice myself mentally playing the ‘food security bingo’ game – what doesn’t the presenter mention? What is emphasized? The point scale in my head looks somewhat like this:

  • Mentions food waste as a problem: + 3
  • Speaks about diet choice: + 3
  • Mentions food sovereignty: + 2
  • Has a differentiated opinion about GMOs: + 1
  • Opens with “how in the world will we feed 10 billion people?”: – 1
  • Speaks about the green revolution as something to emulate: – 1
  • Doesn’t question the current feed vs. food vs. fuel distribution: – 2
  • Speaks about “incredible unused land resources in Africa and Latin America” (which are mainly pastoral or rainforest land): – 3
  • Speaks about multinationals as saviors or alternatively as THE ENEMY: – 3

Like a blackjack player that is counting cards, I try to keep track of whether the tally in my head is positive or negative, and more often than not it finishes around 0 – which is always a slight disappointment. Not so with the World Resources Institute: they thoroughly impressed me with the broadness of their approach, the balanced variety of solutions – focusing on both demand- and supply-side issues – and the honesty with which they presented their research.

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The talk that was presented at DG AGRI was based on the WRI’s upcoming World Resources Report which they dedicate to the challenge of “feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050” and “filling the food gap” (- 1). The speaker thus opened the talk by presenting the fact that we need to produce 70% more food by 2050 – making my eyebrows rise in anticipation of yet another talk focusing on production, production, and yield increases. But I was positively surprised: look at the list of recommendations they give, and look at the top of the list (list as presented in their press release):

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Wait, What’s the Deal with Wetlands?

Ah! I just found this new lecture series and suddenly new and exciting information is all around me! (Those of you in Uppsala, check out CEMUS and the Centre for Sustainable Development in general, there are great events happening all the time!)

Remember when we talked about phosphorus and nitrogen? One of the things that struck me most is the whole “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” idea. The fact that excess nutrients in waste water are seen as pollutants, whereas they are specifically mined and sold as agricultural inputs, is beyond me. Today, however, I learnt another part of the puzzle – there are initiatives taking advantage of that fact and using ecological methods to treat wastewater. I introduce you to – constructed wetlands!

An idea that originated in the 1970s in Germany, it’s built on a couple of main assumptions:

1. Our wastewater (coming from households, farming, or even from industry) is full of components that would be harmful if released into the general water stream, including but not limited to organic matter, pathogens, heavy metals, excess nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) etc.

2. We know that plants can absorb many of these compounds (particularly  the nutrients, but also metals and to a certain extent the other pathogens).

3. And we know of plants that actually grow floating in or standing in water!

4. Why not use the plants as natural filters to clean the water while they grow and produce cellulose and even (occasionally) fruit?

There are different types of constructed wetlands, such as vertical or horizontally flowing systems, those running at the surface or subsurface where the water is just saturating the soils, those with floating plants versus those that have roots, and even those that evaporate all the water and store the nutrients such that the wastewater pretty much disappears. This is especially convenient for single house systems where households thus take care of their own wastewater, and particularly popular in Denmark where you are taxed on the amount of household waste water you contribute to the local treatment system.

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Our lecturer was from Denmark and gave many examples of Danish and Northern European systems, but I was most impressed by the variety of contexts this system can be employed in – notably, after the 2004 tsunami, Danish organisations helped establish constructed wetlands at the Thai coast as a cheap and efficient wastewater management system. It has been employed in coastal villages in Fiji, and is often used to help deal with the de-icing agent glycol at airports.

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2014 – What’s on the Food Policy Agenda?

2014 is shaping up to be an exciting year in the food policy world – wherever you look, new policies are about to be decided upon and/or implemented. So let’s have a look across the globe and see what’s on the agenda, shall we?

USA:

After Congress spectacularly failed to finalize the Farm Bill during its last session 2013 – which resulted in considerable uncertainty for farmers all around -, the Bill is on the top of the legislative agenda for the new year and is likely to be finished in January (this link has a nice summary of the proposed changes as well). Better late than never, I guess, although there is plenty of scorn for the fact that the Bill is now 2 years late (the US is still on the 2008 bill which should have only lasted for 4 years and been replaced in 2012).

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Another roundup of what US farmers are probably facing in 2014 mentions the proposed cut in the US ethanol mandate, which could affect corn prices quite significantly, even possibly letting them fall under break-even values. Thus, there is a huge lobbying effort in course to try and continue the mandate, despite its converse environmental effects which I wrote about here.

Here is a final outlook for US producers which also look at crop production (challenging due to higher break-even prices), livestock (strong profitability ahead) and land values (which are at record levels at the moment). Interesting year ahead, I daresay!

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The Ethanol Saga – A Tale of Politics, Interest Groups, and Scientific Head-Butting

A couple of years ago, the world thought it had found a solution toward more sustainable transportation patterns – instead of pumping fuel out of the ground, why not grow it? The subsequent ethanol craze is one of the best examples of how policy decisions can have very real – one could even say, dramatic … Continue reading The Ethanol Saga – A Tale of Politics, Interest Groups, and Scientific Head-Butting

Full Planet, Empty Plates: Free Chapter on Food Vs. Fuel Online!

“The appetite for grain to fuel cars is seemingly insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon fuel tank of a sport utility vehicle with ethanol just once would feed one person for a whole year. The grain turned into ethanol in the United States in 2011 could have fed, at average world consumption levels, … Continue reading Full Planet, Empty Plates: Free Chapter on Food Vs. Fuel Online!