Feeding the World slowly, ethically, sustainably

Our planet is facing many dangers. Her very survival is being threatened as we plunder and pollute her at a pace that outstrips her capacity to sustain life.

“The great fruit salad story… fruit salad from tree to table by modern, industrial, unsafe, irrational, global warming contributing, quasi-scientific, bureaucratically controlled, fuel-inefficient, economically perverse farming and distribution methods compared to an indigenous person who will expend one calorie to get 4 calories of food – I wonder how much energy is wasted to get your food to the table.” ~The Little Earth Book – by James BrugesOur planet is facing many dangers. Her very survival is being threatened as we plunder and pollute her at a pace that outstrips her capacity to sustain life.

Global warming, deforestation, ozone thinning, water and air pollution, species extinction and topsoil depletion are just a few of the many problems that need our urgent attention. Many organisations have been formed, many conferences are held around the world, and action is being taken, but it is not until each and every one of us makes a conscious choice to fundamentally change our lifestyles at the grassroots level, that a real and meaningful change will occur.

Food is central to our lives. It is a source of enjoyment as well as nourishment. But food is also at the core of many problems in our world. Nearly 800 million people in the southern hemisphere are chronically malnourished, while in the industrialised world, many die from the effects, such as stroke and coronary heart disease, of overconsumption.

One of the many ways that we can make a huge and significant difference to the world we live in is our choice of food: where we buy it, whether it is packaged or not or whether we grow it ourselves. Millions of tons of natural resources go into processing, packaging and transporting our food, and all this adds to the critical global warming problem and ever expanding landfills that are poisoning our planet.

Nutrition, animal welfare, cultural diversity and taste have been sacrificed for uniformity and standardisation. For the same reason, food now travels from evermore distant parts of the globe; relying heavily upon fossil fuels, creating pollution, increasing the need for packaging and preservation, and often reducing freshness and nutritional content. This, coupled with intensive farming practices, contributes significantly to the release of atmospheric pollutants and has other adverse environmental and health effects.

We have come to expect perfect-looking, uniform produce, heavily packaged convenience foods and out-of-season fruits and vegetables that are often transported thousands of kilometers across South Africa or, worse still, flown in from another country.
The Audubon Society reports that the earth could feed 10 billion people who eat like the people of India or 5 billion people who eat like Italians, but only 2.5 billion people who eat like the Americans.

By far the heaviest burden we place on the planet are when meat and other foods of animal origin are included in our diet. According to World Watch, if the Americans were vegetarian they would save 60% of their fuel bill!

Animals raised for food eat a large percentage of our grain crops, require millions of liters of water. Animal farms and feedlots produce tons of waste which pollutes rivers, the groundwater and soil.

Modern factory farming crowds animals into such unhealthy, cruel conditions that it is necessary to give them tranquilizers and huge doses of antibiotics simply to keep them alive. They then remove the young from their mothers much too early, causing huge feelings of loss and morning on both sides, feed them hormones to make them grow faster than nature intended and chemically-laden grains and other unsuitable foods.

They are then sent to be slaughtered long before their intended lifespan ends. Meat-eating people then have these chemicals enter their system, where they accumulate over time, slowly poisoning them, or they enter the environment and contribute to the demise of our planet.

Eating less food of animal origin is the single most powerful choice you can make for your health and for the earth. The meat industry is the second largest environmental threat. Only transport poses a greater risk.

We have, like in most other areas of our lives, opted for fast and convenient methods of growing our food, buying our food and eating our food.

We have lost touch with the slow, ancient methods where the cultivation of plants for food was a sacred and revered activity, done in synchronisation with the earth’s rhythms, in small communities and in consultation with nature spirits.

Harvesting was a time of thanksgiving, and the eating of food a time to share with family and friends. Food was organically grown (chemical fertilizers, poisonous pesticides and herbicides didn’t exist), was local and in season. For thousands of years this is how it was.

Although over half the population of the world in poorer countries are still in farming families, this is changing fast as people are moving to live in cities, by choice or not. There, they are quickly lured into the consumerist cycle and the need for bigger and better things and the “fast food way of life”.
Refined, processed food, animal products, sugar and bottled fizzy cool drinks laden with sugar (see Issue 2) and highly addictive and toxic are being included in the everyday diet in rural africa and other poorer parts of the world.

The packaging ends up in rivers or scattered across the land, the people end up getting sick as their immune systems are compromised by what they are putting into their bodies and they then either die prematurely or get pumped with drugs from the pharmaceutical system hoping for an easy quick-fix solution to their health problems.

They spend their money on fast foods that they are seduced into buying by the multinationals which often advertise these non-foods successfully by linking them to a desirable social status. It is no wonder that immune related diseases are epidemic.
Instead, they should be growing their own local crops that have been their source of food for centuries.

Contrary to what we have been lead to believe, there is no world shortage of food.

The US has vast surpluses, India exports grain and meat to wealthy countries, and even considers dumping the excess into the sea to keep the price high. There are still billions of people who live daily with the horror that they may not have enough or, worse still, anything at all to eat.

There are now 20 multinationals that dominate a food chain that now spans the globe, and for the fist time in history, a supermarket chain, Walmart, based in the US, has become the biggest company in the world, bigger than any car manufacturer, petrochemical or pharmaceutical company!

All these companies spend billions on advertising and packaging, filling our heads with the lies that these fast processed foods are good for us, and if they are not good for us they taste nice!

What has happened?
We have lost touch with the earth and the food we eat. Our fast, convenient lifestyles have taken hold of us. The lure of bigger and better houses, cars, holidays, clothes, and all the other material temptations controls our lives. In the last 100 years we have we have managed to change the growing and preparation of our food into a soulless, unconscious activity, done by commercial farmers and huge supermarket chains.

We are beholden to these food giants and very few people even question the ethos behind these slick, strip-lit superstores. Unaware of the millions of hectares of chemical-intensive monoculture plantations, exploited farmers, farm labourers, packers and canners, devastated rural communities and carbon dioxide-belching transportation networks.

As we wheel our trolleys down spotless aisles we don’t see the enormous wastage of produce that is not “perfect” and therefore sent to landfill sites already overflowing with supermarket packaging and plastic bags.

Leading scientific bodies in the UK and the US, the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences, said in a joint report in July 2000:

“Modern agriculture is intrinsically destructive of the environment. It is particularly destructive of biological diversity. The widespread application of conventional agricultural technologies such as herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and tillage has resulted in severe environmental damage in many parts of the world.”Modern, chemical farming destroys the quality of the soil, bankrupts small farmers, forcing them off the land and poisons rivers and groundwater. It endangers all life on earth by allowing persistent chemicals (POPs and ECDs) to enter the food chain.
It is interesting to note that we are using on average 33 times more pesticides than 50 years ago, yet crop losses are 20 times greater. This is because pests have become resistant to chemicals, evolving to survive them.

Fortunately, organic farming is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, with sales growing 20-25% per year. So if you support this industry you can help nature to restore her exquisite balance and help rid the planet of poisons.

Monocultures and the loss of diversity
The risks caused by monocultures is becoming more and more problematic every year. The cultivation of only high-yield crops threatens diversity, which is fundamental to life. During the 20th century, three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops was lost. The 100 000 varieties of rice once cultivated have been reduced to a few dozen, and 75% of the world’s cultivated rice now descends from a single plant.

An example of the horrors of monoculture was the Irish experience with potatoes and the starvation that ensued. When species are lost the whole web suffers. We are putting all our eggs into a few genetic baskets. Around 75% of the world’s food comes from seven different crops, and as the natural habitat of these species wild ancestors is being destroyed the genetic diversity of these crops is rapidly disappearing.

“Biodiversity – the sum total of all the world’s life forms, organisms, and genes – is nature’s fail safe mechanism against extinction… any smart banker will recommend a diversified portfolio to hedge against a risk.” ~Kenny Ausubel, EcologistFortunately, heirloom seeds are being saved from extinction by dedicated, far-seeing individuals and groups around the world, including South Africa.

Another area of concern is specialization. Countries and areas which are more suited to one type of crop will focus on single-crop farming, which not only compromises the local communities, but also makes the whole crop vulnerable. When farmers grow a cash crop for export rather than local sustenance the local economy is made hostage to the global economy.

Most major retailers seek efficiency through economies of scale. This often means that they encourage their suppliers to produce a very limited range of varieties of crops in order to simplify their packaging and distribution operations. This reduces traditional regional diversity and results in a loss of agricultural biodiversity.
Industrial agriculture depends on oil for chemicals and phosphorus for fertilizer, both are limited resources, which means they are price driven. As industrial farming relies heavily on fossil fuels it contributes hugely towards global warming and the destruction of the fertile land on which cultivation depends. The predicted 1 meter rise in sea levels will swamp 30% of the world’s croplands.
Importing agricultural products from other countries puts the livelihoods of local farmers at risk, and is having devastating effects on rural communities.

Our food security is being put at risk as the diversity of crops which are cultivated diminishes. Cheap wheat from the US is bankrupting thousands of poor farmers across the world.
Britain imports apples and as a result has lost most of its orchards. European dairy products are destroying local production in milk-rich Mongolia. Dutch butter costs less than Kenyan butter in Nairobi. Importing food should be strictly confined to what cannot be grown locally or in sufficient quantities.

There are two ways of measuring productivity. The first is by the amount one person can grow, the second is the amount that can be grown per unit of land. Big business uses the first measure, which is having a devastating effect of the poor farmers around the world. They are forced to leave their land and become city slum-dwellers. It is estimated that by 2030 one third of the world population will be slum dwellers.

What matters is production per unit of land
The most productive land is the vegetable plot of an enthusiast who feeds her family and gives or sells to neighbours. The large-scale production of crops for supermarkets is the least productive, as inter-cropping is not possible, and produce which is not of the required size and uniformity is dumped.

The highly productive, intensive farming of chickens, for example, is not only horrifically cruel, but relies on antibiotics and other medications used prophylactically (these pharmaceuticals don’t biodegrade, and so pollute both the consumer and the planet) and has the inherent risk of viruses spreading out of control, seen most recenly in the outbreaks of avian flu in south-east Asia.
Importing and transporting crops over large distances is extremely energy inefficient and adds hugely to the crisis facing us from global warming. The long distance transportation of food can also result in greater use of agri-chemicals to protect the crops in transit or storage. Unlike chemicals used while the crops are being grown, these post-harvest chemicals are intended to stay on the produce.

So, if we are to feed out families slowly, ethically and sustainably, we are going to have to change our ways. The editors of World Watch magazine have stated that it is no longer a question of personal choice, it is a necessity for the survival fo the planet that we stop eating meat. Local, in season from the small grocery store next door is what we need to get back to, if we are going to survive and allow our planet to resore her natural balance.

1. Eating To Save The Earth – Food Choices For A Healthy Planet by Linda Riebel and Ken Jacobsen
2. The Little Earth Book by James Bruges
3. The Great Food Gamble by John Humphreys