I love Better World Books, and tend to spend a fair amount of money on their site. Why? Because they are without a doubt the least expensive way to ship books to our overseas grandchildren. I also appreciate that their prices are usually pretty good, if you're okay with used books. It's true they are a bit disingenuous with their "free shipping" policy, since the price of the same book rises considerably if you ship it overseas instead of within the U.S. I'm okay with that, but I don't call it free shipping when the cost is bundled into the price of the book. However, that cost is still a lot less than if I shipped the books myself, so I'm not complaining.
(Well, not about Better World Books, that is. I will complain about the United States Postal Service for its totally unreasonable charges for shipping overseas. They have skyrocketed in recent years, and the only thing that makes me stay with them is that other shipping agents are worse. It's why we never can pack light when we go to Switzerland, as it only makes sense to pack rather than ship.)
It also feels good that for every book I buy, Better World Books donates a book to one of the literacy and library charities that they support, and that's just one of the ways they promote reading. I'm sure they've done a lot of good.
But I'm quite glad that their corporate philanthropy is not the reason I buy from Better World Books. Otherwise I wouldn't know what to do with the discovery I just made.
You see, one of their major partners is a charity called Books for Africa. I learned that on this page. Here's an excerpt:
Better World Books donated 22,000 books to Books For Africa. This sea container went to Bangui and the Central African Republic. These books were part of a shipment of textbooks, part of an ambitious effort called “Million Books for Gambia (MB4G) Project.
“Thank you for your recent contribution to Books for Africa! Your donation towards sponsoring a container to the Central African Republic helps put books into the hands of African children who are eager to learn. We have well over one million books in our warehouse facilities just waiting for funds to ship them to Africa! Books for Africa remains the world’s largest shipper of donated text and library books to the African continent, shipping over 40 million books to 53 countries since since 1988. ” — Patrick Plonski, Executive Director, Books for Africa
I can ignore the fact that they have apparently conflated (or confused) the Gambia and the Central African Republic. What disturbs me is this photo from our visit to the University of the Gambia in 2016. It's taken through glass, looking into a storage closet, so it's not clear that there were boxes and boxes from Books for Africa piled in there, unopened. We were informed that they had been sitting there, untouched, for many months.
Will they ever do anyone any good? Are they still sitting there, in that closet? Are they sitting there because the university is falling down on the job, or because they know the books are likely to be useless First World castoffs? That happens more than we like to think. When Porter worked in Bangladesh, he noted that "charitable gifts" from Scandinavia often included winter coats and hats. For Bangladesh.
Could the money and effort that went into gathering these books and getting them to the Gambia's only university have been better spent? This is only one of the questions raised by our visit to the Gambia. Charitable giving is a much more complicated and nuanced affair than we want to believe.
Fortunately, in the case of Better World Books, that's not my problem. They can continue to work as they see fit to make the world better; undoubtedly there will be some hits among the misses. And I'll continue to thank them for making it possible—even reasonable—to send books to our family overseas.
I've written before about our city's decades-long interest in innovation, particularly with regard to wastewater solutions. Here's another reason to be a happy resident-and-taxpayer, featured in our local city newsletter. Turn to pages 4-5 to read about our public-private partnership that aims to turn two problems—algae bloom in lakes, and biosolids from wastewater treatment—into oil and natural gas. Our little pilot program produces only 4-6 gallons of crude oil in a day, which is 1/7 of a barrel at best. (The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil per day.) But hey, it's a start! And our lakes are getting cleaner.
A friend sent me this interview, from the Indianapolis Star, about our current situation. The interviewees were two area residents, each 102 years old. Clearly they've seen a lot. Here are a couple of their responses that I found particularly interesting.
Did your parents ever talk about what it was like to have a newborn [during the Spanish flu pandemic]?
I don't think they talked to me that way. They didn't talk much politics at home. They just put their head down ... and went ahead and worked and scraped and tried to keep food on the table.
What were your concerns [about polio] as a parent?
We all were worried but didn’t talk about it; it wasn’t blown up like this virus is.
Just like we would be now, when there's no vaccine. You were helpless. You just hoped for the best. ... I don't think we were organized enough to do anything (like this). The government didn't step in and do anything for you.
But my absolute favorite part of the interview came in the interviewer's reaction to one lady's suggestion for ways to save money based on her Depression-era experiences (emphasis mine).
To save money, the little things add up. Roush has always washed Ziploc bags, for instance.
To which my reaction, as well as that of the friend who sent me the article, was, "Is she suggesting that most people don't wash and reuse their Ziploc bags?"
It's been a while since I posted in my Conservationist Living category, which is this post's primary classification, though I've assigned it to several others as well.
America is going to hell, right? Everybody says so. Including a whole lot of people who fervently believe there is no such place as hell, which is an interesting conundrum. But they all believe with equal fervor that we are going there rapidly. Believer or non-believer, left-wing or right-wing, we are convinced that we're in bad shape and on course to get much, much worse. What we disagree on is the attitudes, events, actions, and pathways that are taking us hell-ward.
Believe me, I'm not immune to such pessimism. Neither are you, so I'm going to tell you a small part of the story of Dave Anderson.
The Andersons are friends of our daughter's family, from their Pittsburgh days. Dave's success at building a good life for his family while reclaiming a worn-out strip mine and putting to good use many hundreds of tons of refuse every year was featured last month in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
I made the 45-minute drive to Echo Valley Farm this week because I wanted to meet the man who’d turned strip-mined land in northwest Beaver County into 26 grassy acres on which beef cattle thrive. Mr. Anderson had told me he revived his land by mixing hundreds of thousands of used paper cups from the Pittsburgh Marathon with manure, hay, banana peels and restaurant refuse.
You'll want to read the whole article to learn about the symbiotic relationship between the farm, needing nourisment, and both private businesses and local governments, needing waste disposal, that's a win for everyone involved.
It all works because there’s something in it for everyone. Mr. Anderson said that 14 years ago, the field over my shoulder produced 6,000 pounds of hay at the first cutting. The cutting in [the] same field last year brought 37,000 pounds.
Plus, the farm is a great place to raise kids.
I ask if it’s just the two of them and he says, no, he and his wife, Elaine, have six girls and a boy. They range in age from 10 to 24. All seven of them comprise Echo Valley, a bluegrass/gospel/Celtic band, that just played in Harrodsburg, Ky., Saturday night.
Several years ago—it was probably more than ten, though I'm finding that hard to believe—we visited the budding farm for one of their many social gatherings of food, music, and fun. Kids and animals were everywhere. The children were much younger then, of course, but they were already solid musicians. Here is a more recent video of the group.
and one of my favorites from earlier, just for fun.
Mr. Anderson, an inveterate reader who doesn’t own a TV, and who also was an air traffic manager until he retired last Friday, figured out how to turn desolate land into a lush farm that supports a family of nine with 30 head of beef cattle, six miniature donkeys, 40 laying hens, two turkeys, four guinea fowl, three geese, three ducks, two Australian cattle dogs and six pups.
Not to mention a number of cats, as I recall.
I hope this brightened your day. If America is, indeed, going to hell, people like the Andersons are pulling mightily in the other direction.
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American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Water, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury, 2010)
Score one more for my sister-in-law's library book sale sense, though why the public library in Simsbury, Connecticut saw fit to discard this excellent book is unfathomable. The author of the Fruitless Fall and Chocolate Unwrapped has produced another beautiful book about food, reminiscent of both John McPhee's Oranges and Michael Pollan's Cooked.
My generation grew up on standardized food. Living in Upstate New York, I knew that apple cider was a living drink of complex and unmatched flavor, bearing zero resemblance to the apple juice on grocery store shelves. I knew that the flavors in the blueberries I picked from a friend's farm were so far from those available in the mass market that they ought not to be sharing the same name. It was years, however, before I realized that the same was true of milk, orange juice, bread, oil, lettuce, and other dietary staples. We have not entirely sold our birthright for a mess of pottage—making inexpensive foods available to those who live away from the source is a good thing—but the loss of flavor and variety may bear some responsibility for the rise of obesity: we are eating more and enjoying it less.
Searching for the role of place—soil, climate, altitude, farming practices, and other environmental factors—on iconic North American foods, Jacobsen's essays cover maple syrup, coffee, apples and apple cider, honey, potatoes, mussels, wild forest foods, oysters, avocados, salmon, wines, cheese, and chocolate.
American Terroir is good all through, but the first sip was the best: the chapter on maple syrup.
Anybody can make the late-season treacle, but pulling off a batch of super-delicate Fancy requires skill, experience, and luck. You have to use the first sap runs of the year, which are higher in sugar content and thus require less boiling, because the longer you boil syrup, the darker it gets. And you have to boil right away, because if sap sits, microorganisms flourish in it, and these "impurities" are what make the syrup dark and strong....
Of course, nobody really cares except the handful of remaining maple sugar manufacturers and the old-time New Englanders who continue to go to great lengths to keep flavor out of their syrup. Until recently, they even charged more for it—a really bizarre situation, since most everyone who didn't grow up in a sugaring family prefers the rich, chewy, darker grades....
Fancy is the color of vegetable oil, Medium Amber the color of honey, Dark Amber the color of Amontillado sherry, and B the color of iced tea. Commercial, which has the color and flavor of motor oil, can't be sold retail and is shipped by the barrel to the packaged-food industry for products "made with real Vermont maple syrup."
The chapter on apples is fascinating, but also disappointing. Jacobsen correctly makes the point that pasteurization and the loss of heirloom apple varieties have ruined what the grocery stores call "apple cider," but he errs in insisting that the only brew worthy of that name is alcoholic. Of the apple's ambrosial nectar—cider that is unpasteurized, unfiltered, and made from small, old-fashioned apples with unfamiliar names—he makes no mention at all.
Reading what Jacobsen learned about coffee almost made me want to start drinking the stuff. Reading about wine, on the other hand, nearly had me taking the pledge.
Few wines make it through the chop shop untouched. Yet none of this is revealed by the label. Wine is not, according to the U.S. government, a food, so the Food and Drug Administration has no jurisdiction over it. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which has never been big on ingredients lists, does. The only thing a wine label need reveal is the presence of sulfites, which are added to all but organic wines....
Here's the label I'd really like to see: "At Wacky Wallaby Wines, our lifeblood is selling wines in the United States at 5.99 a bottle. A couple of years ago we tried raising our price to $6.99, but we lost market share to Chile, so $5.99 it is. To survive at that price point, we scour Australia for the cheapest grapes we can find, and we buy them in massive quantities, which allows us to really shaft the growers for every nickel. All those grapes come from vineyards that maximize yield, meaning there isn't a whole lot in them other than sugar and water. Unsurprisingly, these grapes tend to make wine that tastes like Hi-C with grain alcohol sprinkled over the top. But here's where we at Wacky Wallaby go the extra mile so that you, the consumer, can have drinkable wine for the price of a Double Whopper meal deal. We start by dusting the juice with powdered acid, the better to approximate the fresh juiciness of Hi-C, plus a quick shot of Ultra Red to give it the inky blackness that usually only comes from low-yielding, expensive vines. Next we order a yeast, developed in Australia's finest lab, that gives the aromas of jam and chocolate to red wines. (Taste tests have shown that you, the consumer, really, really like anything that tastes like chocolate.) We use sulfites to kill any indigenous yeasts in the juice (indigenous yeasts can be so unpredictable), then add the choco-yeast and ferment the juice. The resulting wine is wildly alcoholic because the sugar content of the grapes is so high (hey, that's what happens when you grow vines in a dessert!), so we throw it in the ol' reverse-ossy [reverse osmosis] and remove enough alcohol to drop it to a drinkable 14 percent. We could go further, but you, the consumer, have shown that you like to get hammered. Independent studies have also shown that you actually prefer the taste of Hi-C to that of wine, so our next move is to push the flavor profile in that direction. To soften that rough, tannic taste of red wine skins, we micro-oxygenate. The same thing would happen naturally if we stuck the wine in our cellar and let it age for six years, but we at Wacky Wallaby have to service our debt long before then, so micro-oxygenate it is. Next, we shovel mountains of wood chips into the vat to give a vanilla flavor. And you, the consumer, have shown that the only flavor you like even more than chocolate is vanilla. You like it in everything, and, much to even our shock, you like more than we ever could have imagined. So on those rare occasions when we suffer an attack of standards and consider stopping, we remind ourselves that wineries are going under right and left, and we start shoveling wood chips again. Our commitment to you, the consumer, is that we will follow you to the vanilla-candle-scented ends of the earth if it makes you happy!"
Maybe I won't take the pledge after all. On another front, the Prohibitionists have a lot to answer for.
From a riotous diversity of form, color, and flavor, reflecting the multitude of ends we asked the apple to meet—food, dessert, refreshing drink, inebriator—the apple tree suffered a biodiversity crash in the nineteenth century, brought down by the temperance movement. The campaign to chop down every cider tree drove cider underground and impoverished the drink in a way it is only now recovering from. The apples that survived the purge were the ones that could legitimately claim to be for eating, not drinking. Most of the tannic, astringent apples disappeared, replaced by apples with abundant sugars and enough acid to keep things interesting.
American consumers are not without fault.
It turns out that, given a choice, people overwhelmingly go for the reddest apples. So growers kept selecting for the reddest. They were not, however, selecting for the tastiest. Eventually, Red Delicious apples eclipsed fire-engine red and reached a color imaginatively described by the industry as "midnight red." And most are virtually inedible, with dry flesh and thick skin. Good-tasting apples have small, tightly packed cells that break apart at first bite, spilling their juice in all directions. Red Delicious have cottony, dry cells with too much air in between. This has not been lost on the industry, but until recently, it didn't care. The mealiest Red Delicious outsold the tastiest McIntosh. Why not give the people what they want?
Did you know this?
Today China dominates the apple business, with more than 60 percent of world production. The second-place United States is a speck in China's rearview mirror, with 6 percent, two thirds of which comes from Eastern Washington.
I had the sense to birth Heather during apple season; why is it that her family celebrates half of their birthdays in February? We seem to have developed a pattern of visiting New Hampshire in either the hottest part of the summer or the coldest part of the winter. It's high time we broke the pattern, because New Hampshire has some of the most wonderful apples ever, no matter what Eastern Washington might think.
For my taste, American Terroir's finish is not as strong as its beginning, probably because he is unkind to dark chocolate. That's a pattern throughout the book: the best and most interesting flavors are found in the lighter versions of food: Fancy grade maple syrup, lightly roasted coffee, and chocolate without the compounds that give dark chocolate its signature flavor (and its health benefits).
Two other patterns stand out, repeated over foods as diverse as the book:
- Consistently, the best-tasking food is produced under stress. Altitude, temperature, climate—an easy life leads to bland fruit. Struggle produces character. What doesn't kill you makes you—or at least your children—interesting.
- Yuppies, rich people, capitalists, and food snobs: we love to hate 'em. But it is their tastes, their interest, their efforts, and their money that are rescuing and promoting low-volume farmers and businesses, heirloom (read: flavorful) food varieties, and healthy, sustainable practices. The rest of us only perpetuate our factory-farmed, monoculture-crop system, because—well, because who in his right mind would pay that kind of money for a cup of coffee, a bar of chocolate, a piece of cheese, or an apple?
Altamonte Springs, Florida has been working on innovative water solutions as long as I can remember. It wasn't long after we moved here in the 1980's that Project APRICOT came online, which reclaims wastewater and delivers it almost everywhere in the city for irrigation. That's what waters our plants. Then treated stormwater runoff was added to the mix.
Recently, the city was honored for its pureALTA project, which aims to achieve the last mile, and purify that reclaimed water "to meet or exceed all drinking water quality standards without using expensive, energy-consuming reverse osmosis." You can find a short video about it here, and a news story here.
The IWA Project Innovation Awards were presented at the 12th annual World Water Congress, which focuses on overcoming challenges through the development and implementation of creative water solutions. This global event helps shape the conversation on future water needs. Over 5,000 water leaders representing over 100 countries joined together to share the latest trends, innovative technologies and pioneering sciences to build partnerships that will deliver solutions for major water and wastewater challenges faced around the world.
pureALTA was recognized for its forward-thinking applications and solutions to advance clean and safe water goals, taking home a top award in the Market-changing Water Technology and Infrastructure category.
Altamonte Springs brought home the silver in that category. The gold entry was from Sweden, and the bronze from China. The tiny city of Altamonte Springs was the sole representative of the United States.
This is government at its best. This tiny city (about 9.5 square miles with a population of approximately 45,000) has for decades received national and international acclaim for creating and implementing these innovations, assisted by the local St. Johns River Water Management District. This is not the work of a large, well-heeled corporation, nor the product of Federal government subsidies. This is local government using its tax revenues responsibly and with an eye to the future. I'm proud to pay taxes to Altamonte Springs—taxes that much of the country would consider incredibly low, to boot.
I love our city.
There are at least nine swallowtail caterpillars here. I need to find a butterfly that likes lemon balm (currently overgrowing the parsley).
Rooftop hydroponic gardens. Pretty cool.
I'm not totally convinced that hydroponic growing gives a plant everything a good soil does—I can't help thinking of it as baby formula for plants—but there's a lot that's good about this approach, and what are the odds most of our commercial vegetables are grown in good, natural soil anyway?
Our children, who grew up in Mickey's Backyard, and whose favorite of all the Disney World parks was always EPCOT, may enjoy the memories evoked by this National Geographic article about the Netherlands: This Tiny Country Feeds the World. (Thanks, Eric, for tweeting this.)
In a potato field near the Netherlands’ border with Belgium, Dutch farmer Jacob van den Borne is seated in the cabin of an immense harvester before an instrument panel worthy of the starship Enterprise. From his perch 10 feet above the ground, he’s monitoring two drones—a driverless tractor roaming the fields and a quadcopter in the air—that provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth, measuring the progress of every plant down to the individual potato. ... The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons. Van den Borne’s fields reliably produce more than 20.
Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.
Seen from the air, the Netherlands resembles no other major food producer—a fragmented patchwork of intensely cultivated fields, most of them tiny by agribusiness standards, punctuated by bustling cities and suburbs.
Climate-controlled farms enable a country located a scant thousand miles from the Arctic Circle to be a global leader in exports of a fair-weather fruit: the tomato. The Dutch are also the world’s top exporter of potatoes and onions and the second largest exporter of vegetables overall in terms of value.
The brain trust behind these astounding numbers is centered at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), located 50 miles southeast of Amsterdam. Widely regarded as the world’s top agricultural research institution, WUR is the nodal point of Food Valley, an expansive cluster of agricultural technology start-ups and experimental farms. ... Ernst van den Ende, managing director of WUR’s Plant Sciences Group, embodies Food Valley’s blended approach. A renowned scholar with the casual manner of a barista at a hip café, van den Ende is a world authority on plant pathology. But, he says, “I’m not simply a college dean. Half of me runs Plant Sciences, but the other half oversees nine separate business units involved in commercial contract research.” Only that mix, “the science-driven in tandem with the market-driven,” he maintains, “can meet the challenge that lies ahead.”
Could this be the start of a new, more sustainable, Green Revolution?
Our yard is a wildlife sanctuary. By American standards it's a pretty small yard, but it abounds in nature, especially considering how developed the area is. We lack only a consistent water supply (and the $20 processing fee) to be a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat. We're working on that; the water source needs to be accessible to wildlife (so the pool doesn't count) without being a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Lizards and frogs abound, because we dispensed with dangerous pest control services a few months after we moved here over 30 years ago. Snakes are not as plentiful as they once were, because too many people in the neighborhood think the only good snake is a dead snake. :( We have all sorts of birds, from mockingbirds and Carolina wrens to woodpeckers of several varieties to flocks of ibises to hawks, owls, and recently a swallow-tailed kite.
There have been reports of bears in the neighborhood, but actually I'd just as soon they give our yard a pass. It's really too small to accommodate a bear comfortably, and bears have been known to rip down pool screens without a second thought.
The middle-sized animals are more fun. Our current little raccoon is too shy (read: too nocturnal) for me to have caught him on film yet, though I enjoy his company in the darker hours. Here is a pair of friends who allowed me to photograph them this morning.
What train transportation could be in America.
Don't I wish! I think trains are the most beautiful and relaxing way to travel. More room and ability to move about than either airplanes or automobiles; tables for working; power outlets; and (if done right) lounge, restaurant, and playspace cars. Human-dimensioned views. Someone else drives. But to compete with planes and cars (especially self-driving cars) a few important potential roadblocks come to mind.
- Good parking at the stations (now often inadequate)
- Cost (currently not competitive in most places)
- Security (if it becomes widespread and popular, would we get TSA-style screening?)
Still, wouldn't you love it?
Having grown up without air conditioning, I remember the days when it was important to turn off lights that you weren't using—not merely to save money, but because lights made the room warmer. One advantage to the trend toward fluorescent and LED bulbs is that they don't do that so much.
On the other hand, I don't want incandescent bulbs banned, because sometimes you want that heat. I can keep my composting worms from freezing on a cold winter's night by simply turning on a light under their coop. If it had an LED bulb, they'd freeze to death.
The new, highly-efficient incandescent bulb developed by MIT won't help me with that problem. Nonetheless, I'm glad to hear about it, since (1) it can be cheaper than the flurescent and LED bulbs, (2) it's safer, and (3) it gets the colors right.
An Earth Day thought from George MacDonald in 1875 (from his novel, Malcolm):
Myriads of such rains had, with age long inevitableness, crumbled away the strong fortress till its threatful mass had sunk to an abject heap. Thus all devouring Death—nay, nay! it is all sheltering, all restoring mother Nature, receiving again into her mighty matrix the stuff worn out in the fashioning toil of her wasteful, greedy, and slatternly children. In her genial bosom, the exhausted gathers life, the effete becomes generant, the disintegrate returns to resting and capable form. The rolling oscillating globe dips it for an aeon in growing sea, lifts it from the sinking waters of its thousand year bath to the furnace of the sun, remodels and remoulds, turns ashes into flowers, and divides mephitis into diamonds and breath. The races of men shift and hover like shadows over her surface, while, as a woman dries her garment before the household flame, she turns it, by portions, now to and now from the sun heart of fire. Oh joy that all the hideous lacerations and vile gatherings of refuse which the worshippers of mammon disfigure the earth withal, scoring the tale of their coming dismay on the visage of their mother, shall one day lie fathoms deep under the blessed ocean, to be cleansed and remade into holy because lovely forms! May the ghosts of the men who mar the earth, turning her sweet rivers into channels of filth, and her living air into irrespirable vapours and pestilences, haunt the desolations they have made, until they loathe the work of their hands, and turn from themselves with a divine repudiation!
Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection Between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change by John M. Mandyck and Eric B. Schultz (Carrier Corporation, 2015)
Have you ever heard of a cold chain? Me, neither. Yet we have depended on cold chains all our lives. If you don't drink your milk as it comes from the cow, then your life depends its being kept cold, whether it goes straight from the cow to your refrigerator, or travels thousands of miles in a refrigerated truck before being placed in the refrigerated dairy section of your grocery store. That vaccine your child just received? Useless, if it hasn't been kept sufficiently cool on its way from the manufacturer. Unless they're kept cool, fruits and vegetables start rotting the moment they're picked, losing flavor and nutrition, eventually becoming unusable.
The cold chain explains why the Carrier Corporation published Food Foolish. Keeping things cool is their business, and they've made it their business to develop sustainable technologies to do so. Along the way, they discovered a shocking truth: At least a third of all the food we produce in a year is never eaten.
The impact of food waste on hunger, climate change, natural resources and food security is enormous. It's changing the way we think about our product and technology development. It's strengthening our commitment to sustainable innovation. It's also prompting us to convene research and food chain experts to find solutions. We believe that food waste is an issue that must be elevated and examined globally. That's why we published Food Foolish. It's not an attempt to be the final word on the topic of food waste. Rather, it's meant to connect the issues of hunger, resource conservation and climate mitigation. We hope it will be a catalyst for more meaningful global dialogue which, many think, is essential to the sustainability of the planet.
That's why Carrier published the book. What do the authors say about why they wrote it?
Hunger, food security, climate emissions and water shortages are anything but foolish topics. The way we systematically waste food in the face of these challenges, however, is one of humankind's unintended but most foolish practices. We wrote this book to call attention to the extraordinary social and environmental opportunities created by wasting less food. We are optimistic that real solutions to feeding the world and preserving its resources can be unlocked in the context of mitigating climate change.
Food Foolish is a small book (182 pages) but very powerful. We're reasonably conservationist-minded around here, having been brought up that way. I feel pretty good that we put very little trash out on solid-waste pickup day, and the reason there's not usually much in our recycling bins is that we consume far less soda and beer than average. We take short showers and are in other ways mindful of our water use. Except for animal products, almost all of our food waste goes to feed our composting worms.
Ah. Our food waste. That broccoli that got shoved to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten? It fed the worms, so it's all good. Or maybe not....
When we consider ways to protect our fragile water resources, we need to look first and foremost at the global food supply chain. California provides one good example. The state produces nearly half of all U.S. fruits, vegetables and nuts from the very areas hardest hit by drought. Monterey County alone produces about half of the country's lettuce and broccoli.
Now imagine a consumer rummaging around in the back of his refrigerator's vegetable drawer only to find a forgotten head of broccoli, now yellow and unappetizing. He drops it in the trash. No big deal, right?
But wait: Fresh broccoli is about 91 percent water, and that's just the start. It actually takes a farmer about 5.4 gallons of water to grow that single head of broccoli. Just as each food product has an embedded carbon footprint, it also has a quantity of embedded freshwater from its journey along the food supply chain. In fact, a single person blessed with a healthy, nutritious diet will drink up to a gallon of water per day but "eat" up to 1,300 gallons of embedded freshwater in his food.
This little book stuck a sharp pin in my pride. Sure, it's better that the worms ate our spoiled broccoli than if it had gone into the landfill. But it was still a terrible waste. There's a lot more cost to producing food than what we see at the cash register. Water, fertilizer, pesticides, depletion of the soil, labor, storage, transportation—the human and environmental costs of that head of broccoli make it far too costly to become mere worm food.
Food waste also has a devastating impact on the environment. The water used to grow just the food we discard is greater than the water used by any single nation in the world.
[I]f food waste were a country by itself, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the United states. Yet the connection between food waste and climate change is missing from policy discussions and public discourse.
Throughout history, human ingenuity has consistently foiled those who prophecy imminent doom in the form of mass starvation. Thomas Malthus (in 1798) and Paul Ehrlich (in 1968) both assured us that population growth inevitably leads to massive famine. Ehrlich specifically predicted that no matter what we tried to do about it, hundreds of millions of people were going to starve to death in the 1970's.
Fortunately, both Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong. Since The Population Bomb was published in 1968, the world's population has doubled to over 7 billion people. Despite this increase, humankind has managed to grow its food supply faster than its population. Eighty percent of the victims of famine in the last century died before 1965. Since the mid-20th century, famine has been more a function of civil disruption than of limited food supply.
The Green Revolution spiked Ehrlich's misanthropic guns, but the concern is back, and with reason. Dependent as it is on oil-based fertilizer, irrigation, and monoculture crop farming, the Green Revolution in its original form is not sustainable. A different kind of agricultural revolution is needed.
The political will exists to improve upon the gains of the Green Revolution, bu the landscape has changed. While the focus remains on alleviating chronic hunger, there has emerged a fundamental understanding that simply expanding farmland and improving crop yields are insufficient to feed a growing planet. Any new solution must be sustainable. ... Observers agree that if humankind wants to engineer a new "miracle" to help feed our growing planet, it must be fundamentally different in shape and substance from the Green Revolution of the 20th century.
Enter food waste awareness. By the numbers, if we could eliminate food loss altogether, we could increase our food supply by 50 percent! In the real world, complications must enter the equation; even so, reduction of food loss and waste is an area of tremendous potential for feeding the world while healing the environment.
Food Foolish covers a lot of ground, and if you like concrete information densely but attractively presented, you'll be happy. (If you're fond of Oxford commas, you will be less pleased, but their lack is not as obvious when reading as it was to me when typing up the quotations below—and having to backspace again and again to remove the comma that my fingers automatically insert when typing lists.) Yet the authors cannot cover everything, which I remind myself when I consider issues of corruption, abuse of power, and even bloated bureaucracy that keep food from reaching the hungry. As the International Justice Mission has noted, we can provide people with food, skills, books, schools, medical supplies, tools, seeds, and even land, but without honest and functional political and legal systems, they won't be able to hang onto them. Clearly the problems of hunger, resources, and the environment must be tackled on many fronts.
Fixing the global food supply chain requires investment. ... Sometimes the humanitarian return of "doing good" is enough; certainly governments spend simply for the good of their citizens. Other times a true financial return is required to persuade people to act, especially in the private sector. The moment those two returns intersect is a moment of critical mass, when doing good and doing well align, rapidly accelerating innovation and new investment.
There is precedent for this kind of global alignment. In 1993 the U.S. Green Building Council was formed to promote sustainability in building design, construction and operation. At the time, green investment seemed expensive and was misunderstood. "Prior to the U.S. Green Building Council," remembers Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and founding chairman, "Environmental organizations and business lined up against one another. What we did at USGBC was to create a place where business could actually engage one-on-one with environmental and government organizations. By having a voice and a pace at the table, some of the best ideas imaginable have come forward."
The global green building movement began as a way to protect the planet and "do the right thing." Today it has become a business imperative that drives real financial return, including significant improvements in tenant occupancy and retention with higher rents and overall building value.
One of the strengths of Food Foolish is its emphasis on positive actions more than blame, and its revelations of the global nature of both the problem and the solutions: everyone has a part to play. Half of all global food loss occurs in Asia, and there's much that can be gained from solving the problem there. But ...
What does food loss look like per person? On a per capita basis, Europe, North America, Oceania and Industrialized Asia waste between 300 and 340 kg of food per year. South and Southeast Asia, despite high absolute waste, have among the smallest per capita at 160 kg. In addition, in medium- and high-income regions, most waste occurs at the end of the supply chain when food is discarded by consumers and retailers. This means that energy inputs such as harvesting, transportation and packaging are embodied in the food. For example, if we must waste a tomato, it's relatively better to have it decompose in the field rather than pick, clean, pack, cook, ship and display it at retail, only to have it thrown out by a consumer.
There are two very different kinds of problems associated with food loss and waste. One is structural in nature: bad weather, poor roads, improper packaging and an inadequately refrigerated distribution system. Many of these issues can be addressed through careful planning, poliitcal will and sufficient investment. And then there are problems taht are economic and cultural in nature, powerful forces almost built into the system. Food too expensive to be purchased will rot in the warehouse. Food too unprofitable to harvest will be lost in the field. Meal servings that are twice what a person can eat will be partially discarded. A perfectly edible apple with harmless spots or a misshapen carrot might be tossed in a landfill if there are cheap and perfect alternatives. The elements of supply and demand, pricing, tradition and culture all play an important role in food loss and waste. Most of all, ... [it is] clear that there are challenges and opportunities enough for the entire global community.
Developing nations can have the greatest impact on food loss, hunger, land use, climate change, and ... freshwater by focusing on upstream improvements—harvest and distribution—in the food supply chain. Developed countries need to emphasize reductions in downstream food waste.
And now for the random quote section you all look forward to. I warn you that it's just a taste of the book and I've left a lot of important stuff out. (More)
They don't come any more enthusiastic about public transportation than us, so we were thrilled when SunRail brought a commuter train to Central Florida. There were many disappointments, such as learning that the engines are diesel instead of electric, and most especially with the schedule: the trains do not run on the weekend. During the week, the best frequency is every 30 minutes during rush hour, and midday the trains are one, two, or even three hours apart. What's more, the last train leaves downtown Orlando at 9:30 at night, making it completely useless for anyone planning an evening in town. This is not the way to win a very skeptical population to mass transit. But, we figured, it's a start. If SunRail can prove itself useful for commuters, perhaps it can grow into a real train for the rest of us.
On Friday we decided to check it out. I adore train travel. My life is full of positive emotional associations with trains, from commuting to my first job on the Philadelphia Main Line run, to a luxurious ride from Rochester, New York to Springfield, Massachusetts early in our marriage, to my unplanned "rest and recovery" trip from Florida to Connecticut on September 13, 2001, to the easy and relaxing tourist travel in cities at home and abroad. I planned to love the experience, sitting with Porter and a friend at one of the table seats, watching the world pass by out the window. It was a glorious day, too: sunny and dry, with temperatures in the low 70's.
Alas, it was not to be. Porter described our experience in his subsequent e-mail to SunRail: (More)