Two Perspectives on Food Security and Climate Change

Today’s NYT (10/23/09) reports that the Nutrition Department of the Swedish National Food Administration  has begun issuing new food guidelines that give equal weight to climate and health.  Noting this new acknowledgment of environmental health law, Ulf Bowman, head of this department, said “We’re used to thinking about safety and nutrition as one thing and environmental as another.”  The new food labels, which list the carbon dioxide emissions associated with producing each item (taking into account emissions generated by fertilizer, fuel for harvesting machinery, packaging and transport), are beginning to appear in grocery stores and restaurants.

Swedes at a local burger joint, where the menus lists CO2 emissions as well as the caloric and other nutritional values of their meals.

Swedes at a local burger joint, where the menu lists CO2 emissions as well as the caloric and other nutritional values of their meals.

Some examples:  a fast food chain hamburger contains 1.7kg of CO2 emissions; the same chain’s chicken sandwich, .4kg; and a box of oatmeal reads that it contains .87kg per kilo of product. Experts say that Sweden could cut 20 to 50% of its emissions from food production if these guidelines were followed. Overall, since 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions in developed countries are linked to their citizens’ food choices, this isn’t chicken feed (bad pun intended).  Go Sweden, which has vowed to eliminate fossil fuels from its electricity production by 2020 and gasoline-fueled cars by 2030!

Yesterday’s NYT (10/22/09) provided a much different perspective on food security, one more relevant to my life here in sub-Saharan Africa.  The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that the number of hungry people around the world rose by 1.02 billion in 2009 –  to almost one in seven people – despite increasing global food production.  Agronomists and development experts agree that technology and other resources already exist to increase food supply by 50% in 2030 and 70% in 2050, to the amounts necessary to nourish a predicted population of 9.1 billion. The problem is whether the food can be grown in the developing world where the bulk of people needing it can receive it at prices they can afford.  Climate change affects this equation, given its already demonstrated impacts on weather and soil productivity, and the biofuels demand eating up crop land in the developing world.  This has led to robust debate about the success of the “green revolution” of the 60s and 70s, with its emphasis on chemical fertilizers and heavy irrigation, as advocates look to steer international development aid away from soil-depleting nitrogen fertilizers and unsustainable water use toward smaller scale organic farming.  “We have a billion hungry people today, so we can’t say the green revolution solved the problem,” said Markus Arbenz, the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. “We can’t just cut and paste the solution from the 1960s with G.M. crops.”

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