Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Food Foolish #7: A 2017 Report Card

When Food Foolish was published in mid-2015, John Mandyck (@JohnMandyck) and I argued that minimizing food loss and waste was the most effective way to reduce chronic hunger and mitigate climate change.  We painted the picture of a broken global food model, with humankind wasting one-third of everything produced--some 1.3 billion metric tons of food.  The energy used to grow this mountain of wasted food contributed 4.4 billion metrics tons of carbon equivalents to the atmosphere, diverted enough freshwater to meet the needs of the entire continent of Africa, and destroyed wealth equal to the GDP of France.  And those stunning figures were secondary to the fact that more than 800 million people, nearly the entire population of the European Union and United States combined, went hungry each day.

We demonstrated the magnitude of our broken food model by detailing the loss of some 50 percent of the banana crop in India, impoverishing nearly 35,000 smallholder farmers in that country.  We described the 1.7 million deaths that occur annually due to low consumption of fruits and vegetables--foods that suffer particular loss because of their perishability.  We interviewed professionals who had battled international hunger through the World Food Programme, and those fighting domestic food insecurity at the Houston Food Bank.  We described the impact of micronutrient deficiencies on some two billion people, many of them children faced with anemia, blindness, stunting, and wasting.  And we discussed the impact of a twenty-first century mega-trend, urbanization, which is rapidly creating a global middle class that is just as rapidly becoming removed and detached from its sources of food.

We find different ways to lose and waste food around the world, but we're
all consistent in destroying a third of everything intended for our stomachs.
Saddest of all, we did the underlying math on the global food model and found that not only do we produce enough food to feed all 7.4 billion of us today, but if we can reduce loss and waste, we can essentially feed all 9 or 10 billion of us likely to inhabit the planet by 2050.

More than two years after publishing Food Foolish, as we close out 2017, it's a good time to take stock.  How are we doing?  What progress have we made against climate change, hunger, and food waste?  And what's next?

Here's a brief report card, with two caveats:  All opinions are mine.  And, in Food Foolish University, there is no such thing as grade inflation.

Climate Change: F  According to NASA, 2017 is likely to be our second warmest year in 137 years of record-keeping.  October 2017 marked 387 months since the last colder-than-average month; this means that if you are 32 years or younger, you have never lived through a month that was colder than average.

The 2017 Arctic Report Card warns that the scale and pace of this century's reduction in sea ice is unprecedented in the last 1,500 years. "The Arctic shows no signs of returning to the reliably frozen state it was in just a few decades ago," says Jeremy Mathis, leader of the Arctic program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  This will impact everyone's lives, Mathis adds, from greater extremes in weather to more climate refugees to higher food prices.  And if you need a reminder of what global warming is doing to magnificent animals like the polar bear, National Geographic posted this video:

It's not just hot on land, either.  Since the 1970s, more than 93 percent of excess heat caused by greenhouse gases has been absorbed by the oceans, now under the greatest threat in history.  When carbon dioxide from fossil fuels dissolves in seawater, it turns the water acidic, bleaching and dissolving reefs and shells.  Marine animals suffer.  The warming oceans also risk releasing billions of tons of methane from thawing seabeds, triggering additional warming on land.

Houston, home to three 500-year floods in three years
In the United States this year, Houston experienced its third 500-year flood in the last three years, while hurricane Harvey brought 1,000-year flood levels to parts of city.  Nearby, Dallas hit 90 degrees in November, the first time in 118 years of weather records.  Wildfires ravaged California, historic floods hit Missouri and Arkansas, drought parched the Dakotas and Montana, and hurricanes swept Florida and the Caribbean.

Not that this is a crisis exactly, but in my New England backyard, the leaves no longer fall off the trees in time to rake things up by Thanksgiving.  October is the new September, November the new October.  It would all be very pleasant if it wasn't so terrifying--a good reminder that confusing weather and climate is the road to disaster.  My tenacious backyard leaves are a function of the region's average annual temperature rising about 2 degrees F in the last century.  Scientists now believe that if carbon emissions are not reduced, average annual temperatures in the Northeast could rise by as much as 9.1 degrees F by 2071, higher than the projected average increase for the U.S.  And we could get lots more precipitation, both rain and snow.

When the global community gathered in Bonn in November to continue its work on the 2015 Paris climate accord--the agreement from which the United States has threatened to withdraw unless we can get "a better deal"--the news was that the world is backsliding on global emissions. After three consecutive years of plateaued carbon emissions, we're back at record highs in 2017.  And what did the official U.S. delegation do in Bonn?  It presented a paper titled "The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation." 

You can't make this stuff up.

The Administration also decided to exclude climate change from current national security threats just a month after government scientists released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which contained a dire warning on the impact of climate change.  In a separate report, the Government Accountability Office explained that climate change poses operational risks to Department of Defense installations overseas.  And, if you're trying to get funding from Congress in 2018, try to avoid the terms "science-based" and "evidence-based," both apparently troublesome concepts.

There's a new threat to the environment, too, something nobody had figured into the climate change equation until a few months ago.  Digiconomics now estimates that worldwide bitcoin mining, which already uses more electricity than Serbia, will require, by 2020, more electricity than the entire world does today.  This is the Paperclip Maximizer thought-experiment come to life: "the Bitcoin P2P network is essentially a distributed superintelligence utterly dedicated to generating bitcoins, so of course it wants to convert all energy (and therefore matter) in the universe into bitcoin.  That is literally its job."  (As I said to the CTO at Sensitech, it is unclear to me what will happen first: I will actually understand bitcoin, bitcoin will implode, or the world will end.)

I searched for ways to turn our Climate grade into at least a D-, some kind of extra-credit activity.  Bill Gates's "Four Signs of Progress on Climate Change" has some heartening news, including a $1 billion clean-energy investment fund.

This contraption pulls the carbon equivalent of about 200 cars
from the air each year
There was rogue U.S. activity at the Bonn meetings spearheaded by U.S. governors, mayors, and business leaders such as Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown.  California is stepping up to meet the climate challenge and--with an economy now larger than that of France--that's not insignificant.  Still, Brown said, "we can fill maybe half the void."

Meanwhile, the world's biggest polluter, China, announced recently that it will create the world's largest financial market to trade credits for the right to emit planet-warming greenhouse gases.  China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, so it's got some ground to cover, but if the plan works, Chinese power companies will have a financial incentive to operate more cleanly.

There have also been new efforts directed toward carbon harvesting, like the enormous apparatus in Switzerland now sucking carbon from the air.  It's a start, but the scale-up looks to be daunting.  And the problem with focusing too much on harvesting technologies is that we begin to believe in techno-miracles.  This can take the pressure off nations to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.  Which makes them look, I'm afraid to say, like the United States.  And that's a bad thing.  Final verdict on Climate Change: F.

I placed a "4.4"-sized circle in this illustration (here) to show the relative impact of food loss and waste
Hunger: F  At the risk of writing my most pessimistic post in a decade, there's really no way to give ourselves anything in this category but another failing grade.  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number of hungry people around the world has grown to 815 million, the first increase in more than a decade.  Some of this increase is caused by war and conflict, but some is caused by weather extremes--a result of climate change.  We need to help farmers in the world's most vulnerable regions become more resilient, and we need to build a stronger worldwide cold chain to guard and distribute the food we produce.

Hunger and obesity turn out to be two sides of the same coin. Worldwide, 2.2 billion adults and children suffer from health problems related to being overweight or obese.  In some countries, parents are obese while children in the same family are stunted from micronutrient deficiencies.  In the United States, new research published by the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that, if current trends continue, 57 percent of the nation's children and teens will be obese by age 35.  Consider this mind-bending twist in the food model of the richest country in the history of the world: One third of the U.S. population today is obese while 50 million Americans are food insecure and struggle to find enough to eat--all while the country wastes more than one-third of the food produced each year.  Final verdict on Hunger, with immediate extra effort required: F.

A shameless plug
Food Loss and Waste: C+  This is, fortunately, the subject that will keep us from flunking out of Food Foolish University entirely.  Since publishing Food Foolish in 2015, the focus on food loss and waste around the globe has been nothing short of astonishing.  In 2015, the USDA and EPA announced the first-ever U.S. domestic goal to cut food loss and waste in half by the year 2030, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  Currently the U.S. ranks ninth in the world in food loss and waste, though our end-user performance (that's you and me) lags, with about 40 percent of our food destined for landfills.

One U.S. organization that has been focused and effective is ReFED, whose "27 Solutions to Food Waste" is an especially good way to understand and target the food waste issue.  (Their newsletter is a good way to keep up with their many activities.)  The National Resources Defense Council is another stellar organization focused daily on activities to reduce food waste.  Likewise, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has an initiative focused on food and land use that helps to deliver tangible food waste and loss solutions.  And, of course, there's important cold chain activity going on, helping to reduce the loss of perishable foods.

In Denmark, just to pick an example of the kind of efforts going on globally, Selina Juul has been credited by the Danish government for single-handedly helping to reduce food waste in that country by 25 percent in five years.  Her organization, Stop Wasting Food, is credited with "changing the entire mentality in Denmark."  Juul convinced Denmark's largest discount supermarket chain to replace all of its quantity discounts with single item discounts.  (One grocer wasted 80 to 100 bananas daily; after putting up a sign saying "Take Me I'm Single," it cut waste by 90 percent.)  A charity in Copenhagen opened Denmark's first ever food surplus supermarket.  And on.  There's hope. Final verdict on Food Loss and Waste: C+.  

More people live inside this circle than outside it. . .
Bonus Reading of the Year: Anything by Naomi Klein, Elizabeth Kolbert, Katharine Hayoe, or Dana Gunders.  And, of course, my colleague John Mandyck.

Anything and everything from National Geographic.

A few favorite articles sent to my Evernote files: "I'm an Environmental Journalist But I Never Write About Overpopulation. Here's Why," "This Tiny Country Feeds the World," "More People Live Inside This Circle Than Outside It, and Other Demographic Data You Should Know," "How the Climate Crisis Could Become a Food Crisis Overnight," "Is This the Next Green Revolution?" "This Quiet Agricultural 'Moonshot' Could Change the Nature of Food," "Farming the World: China's Epic Race to Avoid a Food Crisis," "Does Big Ag Really Feed the World?", "Down the Rabbit Hole: Why Measuring Food Waste is So Confusing," "Widely Accepted Vision For Agriculture May be Inaccurate, Misleading," "Water: The Dry Facts," "Is 'Food Waste' Really Such a Waste," and "Deep Trouble: How to Improve the Health of the Ocean." (My apologies if some of these are gated.)  There's also a recent NBER white paper about food deserts that may change how we think about delivering nutrition in America.