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Posts tagged ‘climate change’

Mind Your Own

My parents moved house last week. They weren’t, though, the only inhabitants of their property to relocate. During their final few days of packing, a swarm of bees took up residence in my sister’s old tree house. Unfortunately for the bees, there was no way that they could safely establish a hive there, so my mother called Gerald the Bee Man, who put her in touch with a couple of local beekeepers. They lulled the bees into submission with smoke, and then coaxed them into a new hive over the course of two days. The queen and her underlings will spend the rest of their lives pollinating fruit trees, far away from the temptations of suburban tree houses.

Deciding to remove, rather than exterminate, errant bee colonies has implications beyond the ethics of killing animals and insects. Bees exist not only to make a cheerful buzzing in our gardens and to provide us with honey. Einstein remarked, famously: ‘if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live.’ Although this is something of an exaggeration, I can understand his terror at the thought of the disappearance of bees, both culturally and ecologically.

Bees are invoked, frequently, as metaphors for our societies – the way we live, the way we organise ourselves – and for how we should be. One of the most striking features of researching the Victorian period is the number of references to bees and beehives. During a debate on a new Bees Regulation Bill in the Cape Colony’s House of Assembly in July 1894, one MP objected to the legislation which, he believed, would limit beekeeping in the Cape on the grounds that bees provided the poor with an example of hard work and co-operation:

Yesterday they were treated to various dissertations on the abject misery of the poor white population, and yet they were now asked to consent to the second reading of a measure which would deprive the poor white population of the country of one of the most useful object lessons they could possibly be afforded them.

Describing colonial society as a beehive, Henry de Smidt, the Director of the Census in the Cape, argued for the inclusion of ‘idle’ children in the Census because they formed ‘an integral portion of the human hive, drones though they might be.’

Both men echoed Isaac Watts’s tremendously popular poem ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

(I prefer Lewis Carroll’s version, ‘How doth the little crocodile?’)

For the Victorians, the appeal of the beehive lay in its tightly organised and maintained social structure, its strict hierarchies, and its efficient productivity. It was at once a metaphor for a harmonious society and a well-run factory.

Bees are also useful for describing our often fraught relationship with nature: I think of the periodic, National Enquirer-esque hysteria around killer African bees invading the United States. I wonder if the horror of Roald Dahl’s story ‘Royal Jelly,’ where a beekeeper accidentally turns both himself and his baby daughter into bees, was reflective of wider anxieties about the implications of human tampering with nature during the early 1980s.

The decline of bees says as much about us, as it does about bees. But other than providing a series of handy, mutable metaphors, bees and, indeed, other pollinators both wild and farmed, are absolutely essential to our food chain. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain:

honeybees are vital for the pollination of around 90 crops worldwide. In addition to almonds, most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are dependent on honeybees. Crops that are used as cattle and pig feed also rely on honeybee pollination, as does the cotton plant. So if all the honeybees disappeared, we would have to switch our diet to cereals and grain, and give our wardrobes a drastic makeover.

The disappearance of the world’s bees has significant implications for our food security. Ensuring that we have enough to eat is linked to health of our pollinators.

The decline in European bee populations began in the 1960s, but since the late 1990s, this has both accelerated and spread around the globe. Between 1985 and 2005, managed honeybee populations declined by 20 per cent across Europe, and 54% in England. In the United States, four of the main bumblebee populations have diminished by up to 96%. In Britain, three of the region’s 25 bumblebee species are now extinct, and half of the remainder have declined significantly, some by as much as 70% since the 1970s.

A paper published last month in Science

showed more than half the wild bee species were lost in the 20th century in the US. It made use of a remarkable record made of plants and pollinators at Carlinville, Illinois between 1888 and 1891 by entomologist Charles Robertson. Scientists combined that with data from 1971-72 and new data from 2009-10 to discover the changes in pollination seen over the century as widespread forest was reduced to the fragments that remain today.

They found that half of the 109 bee species recorded by Robertson had been lost and there had been a serious degradation of the pollination provided by the remaining wild insects, with their ability to pollinate specific plants falling by more than half. There was an increasing mismatch between when plants flowered and when bees were active, a finding consistent with climate change, according to the researchers.

So it’s not just various species of honeybee which are dying, but bumblebees and wild bees too. So why are they disappearing?

Bees on a wall in Woodstock, Cape Town

Bees on a wall in Woodstock, Cape Town

Scientists all over the world are still trying to answer this question. Initially, the dramatic decline in bee populations from around 2005 were ascribed to a mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder – also called Marie Celeste Syndrome – where whole, apparently healthy, beehives seemed to die overnight. In 2007, a third of beehives in the US were wiped out in this manner. In the same year, ten million bees were reported to have died in just a fortnight in Taiwan. In the winter of 2007/2008, a fifth of British beehives disappeared too.

It’s unlikely that there is a single cause for CCD. A combination of factors arising from climate change, depleted habitats, decreasing biodiversity, and widespread pesticide use, have placed ever more stress on the world’s bee populations. Last year, the varroa mite was linked to the global decline in bee numbers:

Varroa destructor has spread from Asia across the entire world over the past 50 years. It arrived in the UK in 1990 and has been implicated in the halving of bee numbers since then, alongside other factors including the destruction of flowery habitats in which bees feed and the widespread use of pesticides on crops. Bees and other pollinators are vital in the production in up to a third of all the food we eat, but the role the mites played was unclear, as bacteria and fungi are also found in colonies along with the viruses.

But the mite’s arrival in Hawaii in 2007 gave scientists a unique opportunity to track its deadly spread. ‘We were able to watch the emergence of the disease for the first time ever,’ said Stephen Martin, at the University of Sheffield, who led the new research published in the journal Science. Within a year of varroa arrival, 274 of 419 colonies on Oahu island (65%) were wiped out, with the mites going on to wreak destruction across Big Island the following year.

The European Union has proposed a partial, two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops to limit the decline of European bee populations:

Scientific evidence has mounted rapidly since March 2012, when two high-profile studies found that bees consuming neonicotinoids suffered an 85% loss in the number of queens their nests produced and showed a doubling in ‘disappeared’ bees who got lost while foraging. Neonicotinoids have been fiercely defended by their manufacturers, who claim there is no proof of harm in field conditions and by farming lobbies who say crop yields could fall without pesticide protection. Some neonicotinoid uses have been banned in the past in France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany, but no action has yet been taken in the UK.

The removal of the hive from my parents’ garden made me wonder to what extent CCD has affected South African bee populations. And the answer – I think – is that local bee numbers appear not to have declined as dramatically as those abroad. I’d like to qualify this statement heavily: this is the conclusion I’ve drawn after a morning’s worth of fairly thorough research. I’m not a melittologist (obviously) and I may well have missed a few vital and obvious studies.

Bees are certainly under threat in South Africa. As the South African Bee Industry Organisation notes, habitat loss and the arrival of foreign parasites have taken their toll on bee populations.

Also since 1990 a problem has emerged caused by the movement within South Africa of colonies of the endemic Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) to regions outside its natural distribution. The interaction between these Cape honeybees and colonies of the other honeybee species in South Africa proved to be disastrous. The so-called Capensis Problem caused extensive damage in the beekeeping industry in South Africa.

Interestingly, though, South Africa’s bees seem to be more resilient to the threat posed by the varroa mite. The mite was first identified in the Western Cape in 1997, having probably entered the country in contaminated hives offloaded at Cape Town harbour. It then spread around the country, even infecting wild bee populations. But only a small minority of bee colonies have collapsed so far.

Why? Well, local bee species may have developed ways of repelling or resisting the mite. Also, South African bees, although under increasing stress, don’t have to contend with the same range of threats as do those abroad. A 2009 survey of the density of bee populations all over the world concluded that ‘Genetic diversity and colony densities were highest in South Africa and lowest in Northern Europe’. The authors of the study suggest that these differences correlate with climate – bees in more temperate regions tend to be healthier than those that are not – but also with the fact that South African bees are able to roam across far bigger wild habitats:

African subspecies disperse via long-distance migratory swarms, leave the nest in response to disturbance or disease (absconding) more readily, and have a faster generation time and smaller colonies than European honeybees. These traits promote population gene flow and high genetic diversity, boosting effective population sizes in Africa.

Agriculture, with its pesticides and low biodiversity, seems, then, to have an impact on the health of European bee populations.

We’re already beginning to feel the impact of the decline in bee populations:

The most dramatic example comes from the apple and pear orchards of south west China, where wild bees have been eradicated by excessive pesticide use and a lack of natural habitat.

In recent years, farmers have been forced to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which to individually pollinate every flower, and using their children to climb up to the highest blossoms. This is clearly just possible for this high-value crop, but there are not enough humans in the world to pollinate all of our crops by hand.

Looking at the comparative good health of South African bees suggests ways in which the global bee population could be increased. Limiting the use of pesticides, increasing habitat for bees by planting wild flowers and leaving areas of uncultivated vegetation on farms, and finding ways of preventing the spread of parasites, will all assist in encouraging healthier bee colonies. All over the world, campaigns and organisations have emerged to lobby for the protection of bees, and the coolness of urban beekeeping is linked, I’m sure, to wider concerns about declining biodiversity.

A world without bees, is a world which will struggle to feed itself.

Further reading

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, A World without Bees (London: Guardian Books, 2008).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 30.01.2013

How fair is Fair Trade coffee?

The link between Africa’s portrayal abroad and raising money for food aid.

The milk cliff.

The Indian cow is almost extinct.

Have we reached peak farmland? And a rebuttal.

The FDA has approved genetically-modified salmon.

School lunches are taken seriously in Japan.

The scandal of low pay in restaurants.

Big Food’s big salt experiment.

A tribute to the great Katie Stewart.

Should welfare beneficiaries be banned from drinking Coke?

Ignore sell-by dates.

A short history of gin.

Food dyes, and what is good and bad to eat.

The museum of SPAM.

How to slice bagels.

Where to find the best jerk chicken in Toronto.

The absence of obesity in contemporary fiction.

Dog-powered appliances.

The resurgence of interest in rye whiskey.

Outrageous lies about celery.

Japan’s B-class gourmets (thanks, Mum!).

A recipe for skordalia.

There’s no shame in using shortcuts when cooking.

Umami for vegetarians.

How a Chinese chef saved a restaurant in New Jersey.

An indictment of food TV.

The implications of climate change on the truffle industry.

A Hungry World

One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the United States, about how the western media covers Africa. Laura Seay writes in an excellent article for Foreign Policy:

Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

Similarly, Jina Moore makes the point in the Boston Review that believing that journalists should only report incidents of violence or suffering, instead of other aspects of life on the continent, is

a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.

These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.

Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.

However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.

It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):

Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination.  Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest.  The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’

There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.

If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.

Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.

In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.

This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 25.07.2012

Demand for food parcels increases in Britain. And photographs of foodbanks – and should foodbanks be doing the work of the state?

On the difficulties of researching child obesity in Latin America.

The exploitation of workers in cheap chicken take-away restaurants in London.

The PLoS series on Big Food.

Climate change is contributing to shrinking crop yields.

The curious case of the poisoned cows.

Preserving potato biodiversity in the Andes.

Why we should all eat more mince.

The odd trend for brain-boosting drinks.

Interesting articles about airline food from my Dad: why airline food tastes so strange, and efforts to make it more tasty.

This is fascinating: the Junior League Cookbook and the making of Southern cuisine.

The Byzantine Omelette‘ by Saki.

Japanese designers and tea houses. (Thanks, Mum!)

What is the future of the cookbook?

Making dim sum in Hong Kong’s Tim Ho Wan restaurant.

We do we really mean by ‘artisanal‘ food?

How to barbecue without killing the planet.

This American Life on the recipe for Coca-Cola.

The ingredients in Danish rye bread.

An introduction to ‘umami‘.

The origins of southern cuisine in the US.

Vanilla yogurt gives mice glossier coats and larger testicles.

A blog on keeping chickens.

The origins, state, and future of the British breakfast.

How to make cold brew coffee.

A mathematically correct breakfast.

Street food in Palermo.

The art of coffee.

Cakes, cupcakes, and biscuits inspired by…Fifty Shades of Grey. (Truly, there is no hope for humanity.)

The long history of the espresso machine. (Thanks, Dan!)

Why organic wines still struggle to find an audience.

A milk map.

America’s affection for homegrown confectionery.

Molecular cooking to try at home.

An interview with Reuben Riffel.

How much calcium is too much?

Food Links, 25.04.2012

Famous explosions recreated with cauliflower.

Bertha Haffner-Ginger, godmother of the Mexican food craze.

How climate change is transforming the wine industry in the Old World.

How agriculture and the food industry are responding to Ireland’s high levels of unemployment.

An egg sandwich.

Read more

Justice, not Philanthropy

This week José Graziano da Silva, the Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, announced that the famine in Somalia has ended. A combination of good rain, the most successful harvest in seventeen years, and the effective dispersal and deployment of food and agricultural aid means that most Somalis now have adequate access to food. But this is likely to be a temporary reprieve: it’s uncertain if food stocks will last until April, when the next rainy season begins and the main planting is done.

This already fragile situation is compounded by Somalia’s complicated politics: the southern part of the country is still controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which banned the Red Cross from operating in the area this week, and has disrupted food supplies in the past. Tellingly, around half of the 2.34 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and seventy per cent of the country’s acutely malnourished children are in southern Somalia.

The end of the famine is no cause for celebration, then. Thirty-one per cent of the Somali population remains reliant on food aid, famine looms in another three months, and there are the after-effects of the famine to cope with: the plight of the refugees scattered around Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and the generation of malnourished children.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine, half of them children.

Clearly, something isn’t working.

And as one famine comes to an end – or, at least, a halt – in East Africa, another one seems to be developing on the other side of the continent. Niger, and, indeed, its neighbours Chad and Mali, is both drought- and famine-prone. Even in good years, it struggles to feed itself. Fifteen per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in Niger. But poor rainfall at the end of 2011 and a spike in global food prices means that the country’s population faces famine.

Niger’s last famine was in 2010, when the World Food Programme provided food to 4.5 million people. But things seem to be more hopeful there than in Somalia, and largely because Niger has a government which functions relatively well. Realising that it needs to store its food supply properly, provide jobs so that its population can afford to buy food, and also limit the growth of its population, the government of Niger is introducing measures to improve people’s access to food. One new piece of legislation will make it compulsory for children to remain in school until the age of sixteen, partly because of the strong link between girls’ education and declining family size.

Somalia’s weak and ineffectual government can’t do anything to prevent famine from occurring there again. With all the will in the world, there is no way that Somalia’s food crisis will end until its political situation stabilises.

The comparison of Niger and Somalia is particularly useful for demonstrating the extent to which responses to famine – from the media, NGOs, charities, and other international organisations – are heavily politicised. Reporting on the Niger famine in 2010 was fairly muted and I’ve only seen a couple of references to its most recent food crisis. Somalia, though, never seems to be out of the news. The reason for this is depressingly simple:

Niger, the large West African country whose name is best known for being just one unfortunate letter away from a pejorative racial insult, has a few terrorists, but not enough to really matter. Elements from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wander across Niger’s border every now and then, taking advantage of the large desolate areas which characterise most of the country, but for the most part its contribution to the War on Terror is minimal.

Al-Shabaab is loosely affiliated to al Qaeda and the United States fears that the Horn of Africa could prove to be a useful base for planning future terrorist activities. It probably also helps that Somalia has media-friendly pirates too.

So all famines aren’t equal. All famines are complicated. Indeed, the whole question of ‘hunger’ is complex. I was amused to note that Monday marks the beginning of the WFP’s Free Rice Week. The project encourages individuals to play a game on a website. For every correct answer, Free Rice Week’s sponsors donate ten grains of rice to the WFP. The aim of the project is to ‘provide education to everyone for free’. Hmm…. ok – it includes some basic, if vague, information about ‘hunger’. And also to ‘help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.’

Huh?

So this is going to end world hunger by giving all hungry people rice?

Seriously?

Other than the fact that it would be as – or even more – effective for the project’s sponsors and participants to skip the cute competition and simply donate rice to the WFP (or, even better, to a local feeding scheme or food bank), this really isn’t going to end world hunger.

I know that this seems like a soft target to shout at, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with donating food or money to the WFP, but my annoyance with projects and competitions like this one, stems from the fact that they’re dishonest. There is no way that Free Rice Week is going to end world hunger. It’s a pity that the WFP sees fit to inform people that by taking part in it they’re contributing to solving the food crisis.

In fact, I think that Free Rice Week and other, similar projects actually contribute to the problem.

Firstly, they fudge the meaning of ‘hunger’.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become familiar with the FAO’s horrifying statistic that one billion people go hungry every day – that one sixth of the world’s population does not have adequate access to food. But there are problems with this statistic:

it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.

These figures need to be accurate because they ‘are also used to help guide where to send foreign aid, track progress towards international development goals, and hold governments to account for promises made.’

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that there are many kinds of hunger: the extreme events – the famines – which are the products of natural disasters, conflict, and state collapse; the hunger which is the product of poor diets and an inability to buy or access enough food; and the hunger in developed nations. In Britain and the United States, the numbers of people now reliant on food stamps and food banks has spiked during the recession.

Secondly, these projects ignore the fact that responding to various kinds of hunger requires far, far more than throwing money at the problem. In fact, the WFP’s website even acknowledges this: ‘People can go hungry even when there’s plenty of food around. Often it’s a question of access – they can’t afford food or they can’t get to local markets.’ Famines in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries occur as a result of a collapse of distribution systems, usually caused by conflict or a crisis in government. Famines tend not to happen in stable democracies. The WFP must receive money for food aid – that is absolutely non-negotiable – but long-term change, as we’ve seen in the cases of Somalia and Niger, can only occur once stable, effective governments are in place. No amount of free rice is going to end famine in Somalia.

In other cases of hunger, it’s clear that people are simply too poor to buy food: employment, education, good health systems, and higher wages will go far in remedying this situation. But even then, we have to accommodate the choices that poor people make when spending their money. In an article for Foreign Policy’s special edition on food last year, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo took a closer look at the lives of the ‘one billion hungry’ and came to some interesting conclusions:

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk [a Moroccan peasant] what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, but television is more important than food!’

We need to take people’s choices about how they spend their limited funds, more seriously.

Thirdly, by focussing on raising funds, the WFP transforms itself into a philanthropic organisation. Donations of food and other forms humanitarian aid are absolutely necessary to alleviating food crises, but they won’t end these crises – or end ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that). In an excellent article for the Guardian, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter argues:

our global food system…is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

Food aid doesn’t address the deeper, structural problems underlying the food crisis. It doesn’t consider bad governance; the impact of food speculation on rising food prices; and agricultural efficiency, particularly in the light of climate change.

By appealing to people to donate money to fund their response to food crises – which could have been avoided – the WFP and others cast hunger as something which can be remedied with old-fashioned philanthropy. It’s certainly true that philanthropic organisations can do immensely good work – like reducing rates of polio and malaria in the developing world. But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problems which give rise to these crises:

the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Precisely. The world’s poor should not be dependent on the goodwill of wealthy people who have the time and inclination to play games on the internet.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 25.01.2012

Niger faces famine. Again.

The role of Glencore in the international food chain.

Badaude designs a sausage menu.

Awesome lunchboxes.

How to make orange beer.

A history of daft diets.

How smart are smart fridges?

Climate change and beer.

How to sell a burger.

The science of taste.

Baghdad Eggs.

Claufoutis by Virginia Woolf; Chaucer’s onion tart; and a recipe for lamb with dill sauce by Raymond Chandler: famous authors of literary fiction re-imagined as food writers.

Paula Deen’s most egregrious recipes.

The amazing history of the bendy straw.

Opening a bottle of wine…with a shoe.

Glass and sugar.

Cutlery as jewellery.

Cleaning up the Mexican dairy industry.

Cocktails exploding in slow motion.

Sex, death, and kefir.

The British government’s food buying standards are worse than McDonald’s.

In praise of my favourite fruit: quinces.

An interview with Heston Blumenthal.

A new hangover cure?

Big food opposes measures to encourage American children to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Decoding famous recipes.

Nerdalicious – a food blog for nerds.

Food Links, 02.11.2011

On famine and food in North Korea.

How hummus conquered Britain.

How to taste wine without sounding obnoxious.

Cape Town appears in the London Review of Breakfasts.

More evidence that healthy people shouldn’t take vitamin supplements.

Beer and the ethics of food blogging.

Allegra McEvedy discusses her knife collection.

The New York Times awards Imperial No. Nine no stars in a scathing review – and here are some of the worst lines, presented by kittens.

The link between obesity and the incredible increase in rates of type 2 diabetes in the UK.

So who is Ruth Bourdain?

Will the cupcake ever die? (Thanks Jane!)

How to make sloe gin. (The answer? Sloe-ly. *ahem* Sorry.)

The empty pantry: food insecurity in the United States.

Jay Rayner waxes lyrical about a new food venture in London, Brixton Village.

China seems to re-think its embrace of industrial agriculture.

How to make vanilla extract.

Peanut butter and climate change.

The ten best and worst aspects of America’s food scene.

On cooking sous-vide. (Thanks Dad!)

Ten food myths debunked. (Thanks Mum!)

Berliner Pfannkuchen.

How to eat the rich.

Food Links, 05.10.2011

The best and worst places for vegetarian travellers.

Things are looking up for bottled beer in Britain.

Pissaladiere.

A useful infographic on food speculation and global hunger.

Farming after the Fukushima disaster.

How pure is the milk we buy?

On the Irish Famine.

Did you know that Cape Town has more than 3,000 micro-farmers? Here’s a video of them too.

Farmers in Vermont rebuild after Hurricane Irene.

Use food to show your support for Occupy Wall Street.

What a novel idea: making gelatine from human DNA. (Which makes one totally rethink jelly babies.)

An ode to mutant fruit.

Sam Clark from Moro shows how he makes the restaurant’s sourdough bread every morning.

The second hungriest state in the US is…Rick Perry’s Texas.

The Middle Class Handbook ponders the caffeine-averse.

Snacks of the great scribblers. (Thanks Mum!)

Almond and yogurt cake at Design*Sponge.

Macaroon wars.

A socially-responsible approach to dairy farming in the UK.

Knitting + baking = cupcakes in the shape of balls of wool. (Thanks to Jane-Anne!)

It Sticks in the Throat

Disclaimer: this post concerns the organisers of next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference. At the beginning of July, I noticed that they were beginning work on a food magazine and contacted them about writing for it. We had a brief, yet friendly, correspondence which ended when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to afford the R1500 (about £150) ticket for the Festival. (I see that they’re now selling day tickets to the exhibition and market for R50 each, which is excellent.) So please believe me when I say that this post isn’t a case of sour grapes. Also, it contains some swearing.

This week’s post was supposed to be about food, eating, and ideas around ‘authenticity’ – inspired by an article from Prospect about the end of postmodernism – but I find myself suddenly enraged and can’t think about anything else. This month’s Woolworth’s Taste magazine comes with a free copy of Menu: a publication which accompanies next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference in central Cape Town.

Menu lists Cape Town’s 167 best dishes, and includes short essays on a range of subjects: interviews with local restaurateurs, aspects of southern African cuisine, and the inevitable peon to Elizabeth David. It begins relatively uncontroversially with the usual range of comments of shopping malls having killed our ‘food culture’ and the need to encourage an interest in local cuisines. I’m annoyed by the ignorant, rose-tinted view of the past which informs this kind of thinking, but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about a desire to improve the way people eat. No, my problem is with this:

This issue of Menu magazine compiles some of the best food experiences in the city. The visuals show food dropped on floors at home and in the street, because the best pizza always lands on the floor.

Yes, I know: ‘the best pizza always lands on the floor.’

I’ll wait while you compose yourself.

And so each of the photographs in the magazine depicts food – blobs of ice cream, crisps, bread, salad, and barbequed chicken – dropped on the ground in Cape Town.

A magazine dedicated to promoting the best restaurants in Cape Town, to disseminating information about food in South Africa, and, presumably, to encouraging its readers to eat better – a magazine produced in the midst of a global food crisis where people are starving to death and overthrowing their governments because of a lack of food – includes photographs of wasted food.

This magazine draws attention to the fact that it wasted food in order to create pretty pictures. Seriously?

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MINDS? How was this ever supposed to be a good idea?

Aside from the pretentiousness of the writing and the silliness of the concept, it’s absolutely appalling to promote an awareness of eating good food by throwing it away. I do realise (and hope) that relatively small amounts of food were wasted during the photo shoots, but this isn’t really the point. The magazine seems to suggest that there’s something poetic – or, rather, given its overriding aesthetic, hip – to waste food.

Did you know that we waste a third of our food supply? According to a report published in May by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of the world’s food – food produced for human consumption and which is perfectly good to eat – is wasted or lost. In poor nations, this waste is usually the result of poor infrastructure, where inadequate storage, processing, or packaging facilities fail to keep food fresh and uncontaminated. But in wealthy countries, food waste – and industrialised and developing nations waste roughly the same amount of food (about 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively) – is produced by ordinary people.

The average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year, most of it fruit and vegetables. In sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia – the least developed parts of the world, in others words – this amounts to an average of only 6-11kg of food. People who are poor tend to buy less food and will ensure that they throw away as little of it as possible.

And the proportion of food wasted by Westerners has only increased over the past few decades. Tristram Stuart writes in Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009):

A survey in Britain during the 1930s found that household food waste comprised only 2-3 per cent of the calorific value of food that entered the home. In 1976 waste was apparently only 4-6 per cent, and similar studies in America during the 1960s and 70s found wastage levels of about 7 per cent.

We are now at a stage where rich countries waste 222 million tonnes of food per year – which is only slightly less than the annual food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

At a time when demand for food is only increasing, it’s ludicrous that so much food goes to waste. As the FAO’s report notes, one of the most effective ways of reducing

tensions between the necessary increase in consumption [of food] and the challenging increase in production, is to also promote food loss reduction which alone has a considerable potential to increase the efficiency of the whole food chain. In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority.

So what are the implications of throwing away so much food? It means that the limited amount of land available for agriculture is being exploited needlessly. It means that the greenhouse gasses emitted during the production, processing, and transportation of food are done so in vain.

We know that hunger and starvation are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but, rather, by people’s inability to access it. Drought – increasingly the product of climate change – and food speculation all cause the price of food to increase. Wasting food also contributes to this. As a recent study suggests, there is a strong link between this year’s increased incidence in political violence in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa and high food prices.

The FAO makes a number of suggestions of how we can reduce waste, and one of them is encouraging Westerners and members of the middle classes in developing nations not to waste food.

These are people who can afford to throw food away. And these are the people who read Menu magazine. The problem with including a celebration of dropped and wasted food is that it indicates a profoundly problematic attitude towards food. Stuart explains:

Throughout the developed world, food is treated as a disposable commodity, disconnected from the social and environmental impact of its production. Most people would not willingly consign tracts of Amazon rainforest to destruction – and yet that is happening every day.

Even if the authors of Menu mean well, their magazine seems to forget that food is not another consumer product like designer clothes or jewellery to be artfully arranged and photographed.

If they really do want to change they ways in which we eat, it’s not enough just to encourage people to eat local cuisines and buy their meat from independent butchers. Not only do we need to throw away less of our food, but we must understand the ecological, social, and even political implications of what we choose to eat – and throw away. The decision to waste food in the name of cool sticks in the throat.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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