Lani is currently working as a Consultant at BioTerra in Uruguay. She previously worked in both the NGO & governmental sector and previous chair member of San Francisco’s World Affairs Council International Forum. By Lani Powell
Today, approximately a twelfth of the world’s population do not have enough to eat, and of these hungry people, the vast majority of which live in the developing world, 14.3% are malnourished.
1. For decades, governments and international NGOs have been concerned about feeding the world’s exponentially increasing population, and still the world loses or wastes one-quarter to one-third of all food produced for human consumption.
2. Unfortunately, putting food on the table for everyone isn’t the only big problem; the way we currently produce food poses a serious threat to our environment and health. Agriculture is the biggest contributor to global warming; it produces more greenhouse emissions than all the world’s planes, trains and cars combined.
3. How could this be possible? Some of the elements necessary for food production—Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphorus—are all being released into the environment at alarming amounts by unsustainable agricultural practices. Currently, 40% of the land on our planet is being used for the production of food3 and each year a staggering number of our ‘natural carbon storage banks’, forests and woodlands, continue to be cleared. In addition, the overuse of fertilizers has doubled the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment, polluting both our air and water.3 Excessive leaching of Nitrogen and phosphorus foster the development of giant algae blooms, which eliminate the oxygen required for fish and other aquatic life to survive, and pollute the groundwater from which we drink.
4. Our dietary choice to eat meat also has serious implications for the environment, as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats and camels all, through the natural digestive process, release the harmful greenhouse gas, methane. The growing trend of using corn and soy to feed livestock further exacerbates the problems of deforestation and overuse of fertilizers. All these problems and many more lead us to deduce that we are producing, distributing and eating food in an unhealthy and unsustainable way. In the developed countries, we are becoming conscious of a sustainable alternative to big agriculture production: the organic industry. More people are beginning to understand the advantages of choosing organic—it’s productive and it’s arguably healthier, it’s often local so carbon emissions associated with transportation are largely eliminated and it reinforces a natural process of plant growth that doesn’t require an overuse of fertilizers. All in all, if the organic industry gains support, it could help a great deal in reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment and feed more people a healthier diet around the globe. The problem? The amount of people that know about organic is comparable to finding a needle in a haystack. In the developing countries, where the vast majority of the world’s population still works in the agricultural sector, there is almost no consciousness for organic production, and where there is, it’s overwhelmingly for export purposes only and at times fraught with corruption. According to environmental engineer Martin Henderson, a forerunner of the organic movement in South America and the owner of an Uruguayan organic fertilizer company, BioTerra, “Here people are more concerned about earning money today than sustainable practices or global warming. Lots of people don’t understand nutrition or what organic is, so often there is no domestic [organic] marketplace. It’s a problem of education both on the part of the consumer and the producer.” Therefore, landowners often make detrimental uneducated decisions about how to grow their crops without understanding the consequences of their actions on health, soil, air and water. Anyone in South America that wishes to enter the international organic market faces a problem: the current organic certifying process. In Argentina, regardless of how big or small the farm, all organic producers must pay a hefty yearly fee to private certifying companies. Henderson explains that this is a serious disincentive, especially for small farmers, and advocates, “those [companies] that are doing harm to the environment and people’s health should be the ones to pay for a label, not the other way around.” In addition, Argentine certifying companies that guarantee products as organic for international markets collect a fee of 1% of each sale, creating a huge incentive for corruption.
Governments in all countries have a large role to play in promoting sustainable approaches to agriculture. Implementing realistic policies that limit and monitor deforestation, enacting generous subsidies for organic producers, setting a universal standard for how certifying companies operate, teaching about food production in schools—all these help to get us on a healthier, more environmentally friendly track. But possibly the greatest help that each of us can be is to get back in touch with how food is made. Plant a garden or volunteer at a local farm for a day. Share knowledge about organic food across borders by publishing helpful information in other languages, or even better yet, volunteer abroad and teach about the organic movement to those who need it most. Whatever you do, get involved!
1. World Food Programme, http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats
3. Jonathan Faley, The Other Inconvenient Truth, www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_foley_the_other_inconvenient_truth
4. EPA, Nutrient Pollution, http://www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/problem