Food chain is something students get to know early in their schooling. But with increasing ecological challenges, students and everyone else needs to quickly learn the new food chain – the green food chain.
The country with the largest production of milk, mangoes and bananas is none other than India. It is also the second largest producer of vegetables and fruits in the world and the largest producer of sugar. That much for the shining side of India.
Then comes the flip side. India is also home to the largest poor population in the world, about 400 million. Nearly half the children under age of 5 are malnourished- a fact that is publicly lamented as ‘national shame’ even by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The diversity in India of its flora, fauna, languages, religions and culture is also evident in such social contrasts and dilemmas.
India continues to increase its food production to feed its 1.2 billion people and spins its national policies to make the food available to its poor at the most affordable price. The question is at what is the food security achieved? Considering the strong nexus between agriculture, water, energy and food supply chain it is obvious that such cost cannot be measured by the market price per kilo but by carrying out the valuation of the ecosystems which provide the input for the food production and distribution. The permanent damages that the food production, distribution and processing inflict on our ecosystems i.e. land, water, air and biosphere have to be accounted and internalized to arrive at the real costs of the food that we consume.
‘Think. Eat. Save” that’s how goes the title of the theme of a campaign promoted by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) targeted to contribute to the food security issue globally, specifically targeting food wasted by consumers, retailers and the hospitality industry. The campaign has intention of reducing the food-print and supporting the SAVE FOOD Initiative of Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
When I read about the campaign at the time of its launch early 2013, I wondered if the campaign has sequential suggestion. It asks food-consumer to THINK first. Then EAT and then SAVE. I am not sure if the one who coined the title has ever heard of the age-old adage that said: ‘one cannot think with empty stomach’. More recently, Albert Einstein put it straight, ‘Man with empty stomach is not a good political advisor’. Indians and surely others consider food as God and hence they pray before eating. ‘To a man with an empty stomach, food is God’ – said Swami Vivekananda 100 years back.
But food does not represent just eating and digesting. What is needed therefore is to THINK not only about eating and saving but re-think about the integrated food chain starting from conception to consumption, from seeds sown down in the earth to digestion in the alimentary canal and from “Farm to fork to the faces”.
The food that we eat is part of the long chain that impacts almost entire ecosystem on which depends our livelihood. Any adverse impacts on the ecosystem due to undesirable practices followed during this long chain would erode the very sources of the raw materials needed for making the food.
Food-foot-print at every step
‘We the 7 billion’ are facing the 11 billion challenge, a population projected by United Nations by end of this century. Many say that we are not there yet, but moving fast towards it. Are we equipped to handle the challenge of adequately feeding the 11 billion by respecting and sustaining the ecosystems?
At around the same time in year 2007-08 when the global financial crisis of the proportion not seen over last 80 years, started engulfing the world, the food crisis made its appearance. As food price inflation soared to 200 percent in some grains, there were dire shortages, many artificial or temporary, and these led to food riots in various countries. The media paid more attention to the food riots and scenes of the angry and hungry people overlooking the root causes and analysis. The fluctuation in prices followed by the complacency arising out of ‘ample stocks’ has made the issue of food crisis swing back and forth. It has taken front and then back seat in the media. It is unfortunate fact that ‘ample stocks ‘ of food have come at the cost of the gross and permanent damage to our ecosystems on which our society grows, develops and aims to thrive.
The way we sow the seeds
We start stamping our food footprints by the way we sow the seeds and grow the saplings -in literally as well as figurative sense. The soil nutrients –like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients are essential for plant growth and food production. Excessive use of these nutrients through man-made mass produced fertilizers is not only depleting finite supplies, but triggering water pollution locally and beyond. Undue and disproportionate use of nitrogen fertilizers is triggering threats not only to freshwaters but the air and soils with consequences for climate change and biodiversity. The worst, while many sub-Saharan African farmers struggle to access enough nutrients for quality crop production, in the developed world and in several rapidly developing regions of South and East Asia, there is the problem of excessive nutrient use which is triggering a web of unforeseen consequences.
India represents the similar unequal and indiscriminate use of fertilizers across its land among its rich and poor farmers. Without urgent and collective action, the next generation will inherit a world where many millions may suffer from food insecurity caused by too few nutrients, where the nutrient pollution threats from too much will become more extreme, and where unsustainable use of nutrients will contribute even more to biodiversity loss and accelerating climate change.
The way we harvest
While the natural capacity of the ecosystems has remained static over millions of years, we have exploited the limited natural resources in an unsustainable way. For example, it takes about 1,000 liters of water to produce 1 liter of milk that we buy in the market and about 16,000 liters goes into a cow’s food to make a hamburger. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions from the cows themselves, and throughout the food supply chain, all end up in vain when we waste food. In fact, the global food production occupies 25 pc of all habitable land and is responsible for 70 pc of fresh water consumption, 80 pc of deforestation, and 30 pc of greenhouse gas emissions. It is the largest single driver of biodiversity loss and land-use change.
Making informed decision therefore means, for example, that you purposefully select foods that have less of an environmental impact, such as organic foods that do not use chemicals in the production process. Choosing to buy locally can also mean that foods are not flown halfway across the world and therefore limit emissions.
The way we consume
Norman Ernest Borlaug, agricultural scientist and Nobel Laureate considered by some to be the father of the green revolution once remarked that India’s food problem is more about its storage and distribution policies and infrastructure. The images of the rotten food bags in huge storages and statistics of the shortages in wake of the abundant stocks in the country are common in the media.
India, a software giant of the world, is known to waste its soft-food products –vegetables and fruits in a staggering proportion. The existing food supply chain systems have been unable to cope with the fast changing demographic situation and mega-migrations of the population to the cities. The lack of efficient and effective supply chains is understood to lead to a variety of losses in the perishable food segment. In 2012, Indian farmers produced 240 million metric tonnes of horticultural produce, almost equal to its grain and cereals production. Various studies indicate that up to 40 pc of this produce was
lost due to supply chain inefficiencies. The transportation and distribution losses due to weak or absence of efficient supply chain are as high as 6-12 bn per annum from the agriculture sector alone. Recently, Government of India tried hard to reduce its current account deficit by 7.5 bn by restricting imports of gold and other electronic items. The comparison shows the importance of saving the wastage of food during transportation for the macro maneuvering of the Indian economy.
The global waste of the food is even more staggering i.e.1.3 billion tonnes per year. It is not only causing major economic losses but also wreaking significant harm on the natural resources that humanity relies upon to feed itself, says a new 2013 FAO report Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural.
Key findings by FAO
Each year, food that is produced but not eaten guzzles up a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River and is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere.
In addition to its environmental impacts, the direct economic consequences to producers of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) run to the tune of 556 billion euros annually, FAO’s report estimates.
“We all – farmers and fishers; food processers and supermarkets; local and national governments; individual consumers – must make changes at every link of the human food chain to prevent food wastage from happening in the first place, and re-use or recycle it when we can’t,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.
As a companion to its new study, FAO has also published “tool-kit” that contains recommendations on how food loss and waste can be reduced at every stage of the food chain.
The tool-kit profiles a number of projects around the world that show how national and local governments, farmers, businesses, and individual consumers can take steps to tackle the problem
Green Food Chain tied to Green Economy
There are key actions that can put the agriculture and food production and consumption from ‘Farm to Fork’ on sustainable path. It is interesting that though human beings have made continental shifts in its behavior towards exploiting the ecosystems, the natural processes of photosynthesis and food digestion have not undergone any change. Human beings need to consider these facts, particularly how nature deploys its low energy processes to carry out complex jobs without causing any adverse impacts. The first action that we need to consider therefore is to THINK how to mimic the nature – a new science is bio-mimicry.
Green Economy – the inclusive development economics that aims at well being of the people without damage to the ecosystems-was one of the themes of Rio+20 event in 2012, when 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit – United Conference on Environment and Development was held. Sustainable Agriculture, it was recognized, within the framework of Green Economy would be the desirable path with number of key positive impacts.
Central to this theme would be improving nutrient use efficiency, thereby improving food and energy production, while reducing losses that pollute our environment.
A focused effort to promote the forgotten traditional knowledge of producing and using the bio-fertilizers, climate friendly agricultural practices, cold-chain with environmentally friendly technologies and enabling policies would be the frame work. Specifically, the Green Chain that ties up the beads of the sustainable agriculture would require a Green Charter with a series of initiatives and actions.
Improving energy and nutrient use efficiency in crop and animal production by reducing carbon and water foot prints Acting on the evidence based balanced policies and experiences related to use of land for energy producing crops, urban land/terrace use for food production, local food production Increasing the fertilizer equivalence value of animal manure, human feces, waste containing nutrients.
Transport and Industry
Low-emission combustion and energy-efficient systems, including renewable sources for the transport and fuel efficient engines Solar or Wind based Cold storages using ozone friendly and climate friendly refrigerants Waste and Recycling Improving nutrient efficiency in fertilizer and food supply and reducing food waste, recycling agriculture waste, Recycling nitrogen and phosphorus from waste water systems, in cities, town and villages, agriculture and industry, Societal consumption patterns.
Energy and transport saving, Lowering personal consumption of animal protein among populations consuming high rates (avoiding excess and voluntary reduction), Spatial and temporal optimization of nutrient flows.
While malnutrition is national shame for India, wastage, every year of 1.3 billion tonnes of food, which is equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, is global shame. The facts that 1 in every 7 persons in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 dying daily from hunger remind us of what Mark Twain said “To eat is human, to digest, divine”. It is not possible to digest these facts unless we start taking actions on Green Chain.END
By Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE and Former Director UNEP