The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food

The World’s Food Supply is at Risk

It happens on the same day every year and on each occasion the world falls farther behind. Today, October 16th, is World Food Day, whose purpose is to mobilize global awareness and citizen action for those suffering from hunger around the world. We occasionally hear that the battle against hunger is getting better in developing nations, but that is only partially true. And in developed countries like Canada? Well, that’s another story.

Food Secure Canada estimates that almost 2.5 million Canadians live without secure access to food. Of the 850,000 Canadians that visit food banks each month, one-third are kids. Between 20-25% of American lives are mired in the same situation. Countries with lower rates of child hunger than the United States include Vietnam (18%), Myanmar (17%) and Ukraine (15%). The number of people suffering from hunger last year rose at the fastest pace since the beginning of this century, with the number increasing since 2000 by about 38 million to a total of 815 million at present – roughly 11% of the global population.

While sincere efforts are being mounted to deal with global hunger, two outliers are increasingly threatening any advancement and they are significant.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently noted that, “Deteriorations have been observed most notably in situations of conflict, often compounded by droughts or floods linked to the El Niño phenomenon.” So, there we have the two great outliers – conflict and climate change. Both can be dire, but climate change alone has the capacity to upset the world’s food system in ways that make hunger itself an ever-greater possibility.

The United Nations says that over half the hungry remain impacted by violence, both domestically and across borders. Many of that same number are facing food scarcity through lack of rains and, ironically, flooding. Indeed, climate change is in the process of altering the world’s demographic map, as millions begin the journey of leaving their historic homes in search of food, water, security, and more predictable climate patterns.

Underlying all of this is the troubling possibility that the world could start running out of food, in both rich and poor nations. Damian Carrington of The Guardian reminded us recently that three-quarters of the world’s food supply comes from just 12 crops and 5 animal species and that each of these is growing increasingly vulnerable to disease and pests. This was his response to the release of a recent report by the Bioversity International research group, which concluded:

“Reliance on only a few strains also means the world’s fast changing climate will cuts yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.”

Should something destroy these strains, climate change will have already insured that our ability to adapt and grow other food varieties will be limited. Half of the wild animals on earth have been lost in the past 40 years and 1,000 cultivated species of food are presently endangered.

While there have been some signs of improvement in recent years, the overall threat to the world’s food supply, and our access to it, is growing more dire. In countries like Canada, the effects will be felt in higher food prices and less food access. For low-income families the effects of all this will have troubling impact.

On this, World Food Day, we must gain a better understanding of the irony of celebrating Nature’s greatest sustainable gift to us at the same time as it is shrinking and endangering entire populations. This isn’t just about shopping more wisely or planting smarter. It’s about fighting for global peace and a more sustainable planet to fight off the effects of violence and climate change. These are big challenges indeed, but perhaps it will take a lack of access to good food or clean water that will finally awake us from our collective stupor and take global action as citizens and governments.

 

A Crying Shame

“The waste of plenty is the resource of scarcity,” noted Thomas Love Peacock, and in Canada, right now, there is no better example of this than what we do with our food. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then it’s also true that we become what we toss out.

So, it’s only logical, then, that we grow a little troubled and philosophical upon discovering that each year Canadians throw out 200,000 tonnes of food into our landfills – $31 billion dollars worth. That’s $31 billions dollars of lost revenue – all at the same time that roughly 850,000 people turn to food banks for help each month. And it’s troubling to learn that 13% of Canadians lived in a constant state of food insecurity.

Or think of all this in another way: according to Cantech we lose 2% of our GDP each year to food waste. Adding fuel to the fire is Tommy Tobin’s observation, that $31 billion is greater than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries in the world.

It seems immoral and becomes increasingly so as we think of the amount of people in Canada who are food insecure. Why can’t we get our act together on this, say through solid food diversion programs practiced by numerous European countries? What does it say about how we value food, those in low-income, or ethical responsibility when 40% of all food in Canada is thrown into the garbage? Clearly we have some work to do – lots of work, in fact.

Fortunately, the National Zero Waste Council announced a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy a short while ago. It’s a great initiative but it requires support – from citizens, food companies, government, media, and producers, including farmers. The strategy suggests a national target of 50% food waste reduction by 2030. It also puts out another intriguing idea: use federal tax incentives to encourage businesses to donate their excess good food to charities instead of dumping it off at the landfill.

It’s important to realize that 50% of food waste is generated by consumers directly, so a lot of the needed change can start with us. Companies can enhance their infrastructure to begin diverting their food earlier in the process. Governments can help with legislation and resourcing. It can be a win-win-win.

The arrival of this initiative is welcome, but it comes at a time when we are already behind American and European efforts. There’s a lot of catching up to do, but at least with a national strategy we can now move quickly – if we wish to. Since we say we care about hungry families, and since we maintain that we are an ethical, value-driven people, we must do something.

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” Pope Francis said recently. And yet it’s more than that. It also about tossing out the better angels of our nature. We are better than this in our values and in our abilities, but not in our choices. That time has now come.

 

 

 

 

Repackaging the Food Story

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TALK OF IT IS EVERYWHERE these days: why do we throw out so much good food when families are going hungry? Answers abound, but in recent months increased attention has been directed towards grocery stores and some actions that are, and can be, taken to cut into all that waste.

Key to much of recent efforts to divert some of the billions of dollars of food from being tossed out is that businesses themselves are coming to terms with the cost savings they could accrue through more efficient methods. Maximizing profits while cutting costs has been a mantra for businesses since the birth of capitalism and food companies and stores are now applying that method to food waste.

For decades the practice of “stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly” witnessed food stores pile an over-abundance of fresh product on their shelves in the belief that customers felt more inclined to select more than they required. But research is revealing that such stacks created more spoiled product than necessary and extra staff time was required to clean up the mess. Some stores then began makes the piles lower only to discover that customers like their shopping experience better because the produce on display was roughly three days fresher than previous. The end result was that sales rose, less produce was tossed out, and customer satisfaction rose. It also turns out that that better packaging also absorbs food odours that would otherwise prompt consumers to think their food was spoiling when it wasn’t.

In Canada, $27 billion in food waste should be telling us that we are not only wasteful but that there are significant opportunities to save the landfills, the pocketbooks, and business costs. Recent research by food expert Martin Gooch titled, Developing an Industry Led Approach to Addressing Food Waste in Canada, suggests that perhaps it’s time for business to take the lead in this country.

He suggests Canadian grocers can play a big role in helping to reduce those losses, and boost their bottom lines in the process. His partnership with London, Ontario’s Ivey School of Business to research food waste in Canada’s agri-food industry was revealing, causing Gooch to note: “There are significant opportunities for businesses to streamline their operations, reduce food waste, and increase profits.”

All of these efforts couldn’t come soon enough. Not only is there great hunger enduring in the world, but climate change, and our ongoing pattern of wasting our natural environment, means the time has come to treat such problems realistically. Business and food companies, along with consumers, must begin the process of leading the way.

We are living in a world where lemonade is made artificially and furniture polish is made from real lemons. Something’s clearly wrong, and dealing with how we waste food is a beginning stage in repurposing our entire food system.

“Making Food Waste Illegal?”

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AT YESTERDAY’S PRESS CONFERENCE FOR THE Curb Hunger Food Drive for the London Food Bank a fellow named Steven approached me and asked if I had heard of all the things Europe is doing to divert food from the trash. We talked about the situation for a few minutes and he closed by saying, “Why can’t we do something about it in Canada. I mean, we have all this food, and with hunger growing it seems a crime to just let stores and restaurants throw good food away.”

It appears that a town councillor in France felt it was criminal too, and he recently succeeded in getting a national law passed that would ban supermarkets in France from tossing out or destroying unsold food. And it goes farther. The same law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to low-income families. And further yet, it prohibits food stores from pouring bleach over food (a practice used sparingly in France) in their dumpster bins lest some hungry person eats it and gets sick, leaving the door open to all kinds of liability issues.

It was inevitable that something like this would eventually come out and that France, with its social progressive kind of politics, would lead the way. The fact that it emerged through the efforts of one individual is even more impressive.

The timing of something like this couldn’t be more important. The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) came out with a staggering reminder last week that almost half the food produced in the world is never eaten. In Canada, the food thrown in the dump is in the billions of dollars – all at the time that food banks are staggering under the pressure of high demand.

We have to start somewhere on this problem, but targeting grocery stores is perhaps too simple a way to go about it. Such establishments have been important community partners, provided generously to food banks, and are slowly, and with much citizen pressure, placing an increased emphasis on locally grown and fresh food. We can target them, but the problem is really a societal one, not merely a capitalist oversight.

The UNFAO reminds us that citizens in North American, often awash in food choices, discard far more supplies than their European counterparts. Yes, supermarkets are culpable as well, but so are our restaurants, farmers, hospitals, military facilities, and even government institutions and citizens. We – all of us – have a problem with waste and our refusal to act upon the environmental damage this facet of our individual and collective lives is creating is part of the reason why we are so late in coming to terms with this overabundance problem.

Yes, it’s a good thing that France is challenging supermarkets to donate their surplus to charities, but that’s not really the solution we would want, is it? We require more efficiencies in the food system – growers, storage companies, shippers, sellers, consumers – rather than by just creating a kind of humanitarian impulse at the end of it all to layer over our mass consumption. And the answers to poverty don’t live in charities like food banks but in solid policies that invest in affordable housing, mental health and addictions, education, and the big one right now, secure employment with a livable wage. Anything less than an integrated approach will never heal the environment, eliminate poverty, or make us a people with activated consciences.

Yes, we have to start somewhere – I get it. But why don’t we start together, all of us, and move a country rich in food into a nation wealthy in ingenuity and citizen responsibility. Food is a great place to start, since the necessity of it calls for something better from each of us, and all of us. Healthy and sustainable food production and consumption is one of the ways out of our individual and collective lethargy. We can go big and go home, from refining the most sophisticated of food processing plants and supermarkets to our own kitchens. We require food to live but our handling of it might now generate our chance to evolve.

Half the Sky? Think Higher

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WHEN MAO ZEDONG (CHINA’S CHAIRMAN MAO) noted that women hold up “half the sky,” he might have greatly underestimated that figure. Best selling author, and New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff wrote a book, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn, and filmed a documentary that used “Half the Sky” as the title for both. He made his intentions clear at the very outset of both projects:

“So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.  This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”

Hundreds of researchers and writers besides just Kristoff have repeatedly noted that economies simply can’t flourish unless women are permitted and encouraged to apply their entrepreneurial skills to their local environments. Nowhere is this more true now than in farming and agricultural businesses.

Recently, the United Nations spoke of how former rural dwellers are now migrating to cities by the millions, but a deeper look reveals that the majority of that great migration are men either searching for new lives, or seeking employment to send money back to their families in rural regions. Whatever the reason, the result is that women are having to pick up the agricultural slack left as a result. This represents, for women in developing countries worldwide and their communities, the opportunity they have been waiting for.

But as we might suspect, there are problems – lots of them, as farming increasingly transitions from men to women.

To begin with, women farmers are frequently deprived of land ownership. Laws haven’t kept up with the changes and an entirely new field of lawyers and researchers are rising up to correct such historical oversights in an attempt to assist women to gain a fighting chance. Today, half of all farmers are women and half of the food grown has come from their hard work. But it could be better. According the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), if women could just enjoy the same land rights as their male counterparts, their combined efforts could lift some 100 – 150 million people out of hunger. But that’s not happening because women can’t own the land they till.

But it’s not just about land; it’s also about animals. Women are greatly limited in the animals they can own, and they don’t even get all the revenue raised from the animals they do possess. We see this in South Sudan whenever we visit and it takes dedicated effort to change the culture over many years.

All this is important because it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Women most often have less educational opportunities than men and experience far more difficulty gaining access to seeds, technical information, fertilizers, pest control measures, and tools. That’s a lot to overcome, but they also carry advantages that men don’t. Their understanding of local market operations is vastly superior to that of their male counterparts, and the networks they establish in tireless efforts to feed their families would dwarf what others possess. Combine that seasoned expertise with the tools mentioned above and the developing world would go through transformational change.

We don’t have to venture overseas to witness the distinct disadvantage women face when gaining ownership of their lives is such an uphill climb. Just consider the matrimonial property rights dilemma that confounds our First Nations communities and how aboriginal women can lose a sense of ownership virtually overnight. This isn’t just a developing world phenomenon, nor merely a Canadian aboriginal problem – it is a global travesty of injustice, a lack of political will, and a refusal of many to build legal ownership into communities and countries as they modernize.

Given that women are quickly increasing their oversight over agricultural operations as the men depart to municipalities, it likely is true that the idea women hold up “half the sky” isn’t even close to reality. The task of beating world hunger is now squarely within their opportunity to rectify, but only if the global community fights to win them the rights, opportunities, and the tools to get the job done.

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