Bigwigs have big ideas for cutting our food waste in half

Grist – Thursday 21st January

Two recent initiatives on waste have been showcased at the World Economic Forum in Davos, indicating – perhaps – that waste is finally getting the attention it demands on the world stage. The first initiative is cryptically titled Champions 12.3, a reference, for those in the know, to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – 12.3 focuses on food waste. The initiative calls for food waste to be cut in half by 2030 and food loss to be reduced, and it is backed by a range of political and corporate powers that be. It is, however, largely a communications strategy according to Grist writer Clayton Aldern indicating that it is long on talk and short on action. It aims to do things like “mobilis[e] action” and “accelerat[e] progress” towards the achievement of goal SDG Target 12.3, and while it’s great to get some weight behind this Goal, what is really needed is meaningful action.

The second initiative from Davos has more meat to it, taking on post-harvest food losses in sub-Saharan Africa with a $130 million from the Rockefeller Foundation. This is a significant portion of food waste that is often overlooked – produce that never gets to market because it spoils or is damaged in the space between the producer and the consumer. It’s a particular problem in sub-Saharan Africa because the technology and transport infrastructure is so poor. Some 40% of staple food never makes it to the point of purchase, so the Rockefeller Foundation is focused on a complement of measures to improve this. The second stage of the project will deal with the front end waste of the UK and US where the problem largely lies with retailers and consumers.

With food waste contributing some 7% of GHG, it’s good to see corporations starting to step up to the problem – their involvement in the issue of food waste is a very necessary step forward. And maybe we’ll be seeing more innovations like Feedback’s Toast if the likes of Unilever and Tesco get creative with their food waste commitment. Toast is pale ale brewed to perfection with toast made from uneaten crusts and unused loaves of bread, reminding us that the best thing to do with food waste, is to consume it.

The imminent death of the Cavendish banana and why it affects us all

BBC News – Sunday 24th January

Bananas have become such a staple of diets around the world, that the possible extinction of the fruit would be a terrible loss. Arguably the original superfood, bananas are packed with potassium and fibre, give you a good punch of sustained energy and deliver both iron and vitamin B-6, both of which contribute to health in multiple ways. But bananas have been under attack from a dangerous plant fungus, Panama disease, for more than half a century and its end could well be nigh.

The Cavendish banana is the banana the Western world loves best. Developed here in Britain, its name comes from the Cavendish family whose ancestral home is the illustrious Chatsworth in the Peak District. In the 19th century, the family’s gardener Joseph Paxton obtained a banana plant from Mauritius, propagated it in the family’s glasshouse, and now its descendants have spread across the world to comprise almost the entirety of the fruit’s export market. 

The Cavendish banana was long immune to Panama disease – a large part of the reason it has done so well commercially. However, the Cavendish is vulnerable to the current strain and at the moment, there is no replacement breed waiting in the wings. If the Cavendish goes, our favourite go to fruit may be off the menu for good. The plight of the Cavendish reminds us once again of how desperately important plant diversity is, and how our food security is put at risk when single genetic varieties (or clones) of plants are cultivated. Plant researcher Dr. Gert Kema comments that “To carry on growing the same genetic banana is stupid.” Without critical genetic diversity, we have fewer options when one plant variety gets in trouble. At present only the Americas are free from Panama disease, so the clock is ticking on finding a new banana immune to the fungus. 

Why we’ve been hugely underestimating the overfishing of the oceans

Washington Post – Tuesday 19th January

News about our seas gets more depressing by the moment. While more and more evidence pours out on the amount of plastic in the oceans and increasing ocean acidification, a new review of national data on fishing catches reveals wide-spread underreporting, indicating that the world’s countries have been catching far more than is sustainable. 

The review of data revealed that a lot of it is missing. For example, when countries did not report a figure for a catch to the FAO, this was recorded as ‘0’, rather than as ‘no data’; figures for discarded by-catch, illegal fishing and recreational fishing were also missing for some countries. Researchers have used a method of ‘catch reconstruction’ to get a more accurate assessment of how much fish was caught in the period between 1950 and 2010. It has revealed that catches were on average 50% higher than the figures indicate.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, the vast catches of the revised records has revealed how productive our oceans are. If we could but manage fish stocks more carefully, ensuring their sustainability, there would be more than enough to fish for all of us. 

Saudi Arabia buying up farmland in US Southwest

CNBC – Friday 15th January

If there is anything that so clearly points out the madness of the global commodities market, it has to be Saudi Arabia’s purchase of increasing amounts of farmland in America’s Southwest, so they can grow alfalfa to feed their dairy cows living half a world away from where their food is grown.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest dairy producers, despite most of the country being comprised of desert with little freshwater available. But cows need grass and grass needs water. What’s not adding up here?

The answer is to outsource your water needs to the other side of the world – that is only after you’ve used up most of the local water available. Saudi Arabia has ceased producing feed for its mega-dairies after depleting four fifths of the aquifer that supplies the nation. Its largest dairy company is now growing its feed in places like Blythe, California and La Paz County, Arizona. California is in the grip of a long-term drought, but Blythe has first water rights to the Colorado River so they can pretty much do what they want with the water; La Paz has ground water and its depletion doesn’t seem to worry them. “You can use as much water as you’d like, as long as it’s put to a beneficial use, and you’re not required to report your water use,” said a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Beneficial for whom, might be the question?

This food production model is the very definition of unsustainable and as water becomes scarcer across the globe, as we are seeing with climate change, this scenario could get very, very ugly.

Ethiopian children hit hard by worst drought in 30 years

The Independent – Monday 25th January

A devastating drought is threatening the lives of children and mothers across Ethiopia as the country’s crisis intensifies. The country’s drought in 1984 made news headlines around the world and with contributing political instability and social unrest, upwards of a million lives were lost according to the UN. This drought could easily be as impactful. Over a quarter of a million babies are due to be born in the country in the next six months and there is little food to feed them or their mothers. Meanwhile governments have been slow to act in the face of the growing crisis which Save the Children has called the second largest humanitarian crisis behind Syria.

Ethiopia has some funding to put towards the crisis but not enough to address its scale. The increasing impact of this drought results in part from a tipping point of policies which have focused the country’s food production on export markets rather than preserving its food sovreeignty. There are political and economic issues contributing to the increasing hunger, not just environmental ones. Widespread poverty in Ethiopia means that there is no resilience to the effects of drought and agricultural policies only intensify this as more and more people in the country vie for finite and degrading amounts of land.

While humanitarian aid is needed, it remains merely a plaster to cover systemic problems. With “War, famine and drought – the unholy trinity changing our world”, we must find ways to support countries like Ethiopia to extend their food security and sovereignty in ways that protect their poor and vulnerable population.

Photograph: Torbakhopper

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