Feed The Future

Climate Change & The Food Factor: The Planet Needs A New Kind Of Agriculture

Let's not underestimate the impact on the planet of industrial, intensive agriculture, focused on exploiting machines, pesticides and fertilizers across wide tracts of land.



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Food & The Environmental Revolution: Nourishment To Save The Planet

Soup cans don't grow on trees. Of course some of the ingredients inside them do, as well as in the ground and on plants and vines. But by the time all those natural products reach your stomach, too often they've undergone processing, been transported hundreds (or thousands) of miles and generally bear little resemblance to the organic state they came from.

Yes, the over-industrialization of the food industry has put so many steps between the consumer and the product that most of us have forgotten the most elementary principle of food: We're human beings who rely on the earth for nourishment.

If this same earth is suffering today, it's largely due to the fact that our current food systems operate under the cold calculation that natural resources are a good to be exploited. But in the long term, the availability of these goods rely on a circular process of respecting the natural order.

It's about the planet, and so much more — an environmental revolution in the food sector means saving jobs from disappearing to machines as well saving our own health by increasing nutrition and decreasing pollution. This holistic vision was outlined by environmental activist Sunita Narain in her recent talk "Climate Crisis And Its Impact On Our Lives' (which can be watched here) at Slow Food's 2020-2021 Terra Madre virtual conference: "We can see the impact of climate change happening in our lives today. It is affecting the poorest, most marginalized and the farming communities."

Here are some new initiatives guiding us to a food future that can both better nourish the human race and respect the planet:

Green Deals

Governments around the world are pushing for measures to speed up the energy transition and slow down climate change. One way of doing so is through a so-called Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives aimed at accelerating the transition to climate neutrality, including a clear plan of action that involves important reforms to the agricultural sector:

The United States' Green New Deal, spearheaded by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aims to make the country carbon neutral by 2030. Part of its objective is to combat the harmful effects of industrial food corporations by supporting family farming, and investing in sustainable agricultural processes and technologies that improve soil health and reduce emissions. It remains to be seen if the Administration of Joe Biden will prioritize such measures that also promise to create jobs and food security.

The European Commission's Green Deal is similar to its American counterpart: It aims for zero greenhouse emissions in the EU by 2050 through inclusive measures that stimulate the economy and ensure food security. Three of the nine policy areas within the deal focus heavily on the food industry: biodiversity, Farm to Fork (sustainable food systems) and sustainable agriculture. It also includes a 50% reduction in the use of hazardous pesticides by 2030 and maintaining organic farming on 25% of agricultural land by 2030. Yet the Green Deal's current challenge is reforming the Common Agricultural Policy — which accounts for almost 40% of the entire EU budget — to align with its objectives.

Biodiversity

The biodiversity of our planet is shrinking — and with it, the very ecosystems that keep the earth healthy and functioning. But a growing number of projects are fighting to keep native, endangered species blossoming by educating citizens on the situation and what they can do to help:

Preserving plants: Ark of Taste is a project launched by The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity that catalogues disappearing food products, which often include endangered plant species. Today, more than 5,000 products have been catalogued from 150+ countries. The catalogue allows the Slow Food Foundation to subsequently activate campaigns and other processes to save these dwindling crops.

Backyard biodiversity: David Goulson, an activist and professor of biology at University of Sussex, is helping to fight the growing decline of wild pollinators. In addition to his multiple books on the ecological importance of bees and pollination, his YouTube channel is a free resource on how individuals can encourage biodiversity in their own gardens through tips like identifying weeds, information on which types of trees to plant, and attracting butterflies and recipes using home-grown ingredients.

Rethinking Resources

When respected, the natural world is a bountiful place. Yet when viewed only as a means to make money, natural resources quickly become scarce — especially when it comes to food. More methods around the globe are being designed to work with and not against the land:

USA: The NGO Zero Foodprint cleverly aims to both save soil and sequester carbon in one fell swoop. Founded by award-winning chef Anthony Myint, the project asks the customers of participating restaurants to donate 1% of their bill to the fund, which then provides grants to farmers to switch to regenerative farming practices, which both avoids the permanent destruction of soil and fosters a healthy type of soil that soaks up carbon.

Japan: Water is one of the most crucial resources to both farming and agriculture — and has become increasingly scarce. In the Takachiho-Shibayama mountains, however, the agriculture and forestry system uses an irrigation technique system who's development began in the 1600s and sources more than 1800 hectares of rice paddies in a sustainable manner. The system boths draws from mountain wells and catches rainfall, which helps prevent hillside erosion. Furthermore, the community recycles the excrement of their livestock to fertilize their crops — a great example of short-circuit sustainability in action.

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Food & The Consumption Revolution: Green Justice On Your Grocery List


It's time for dinner — what will you prepare? The factors in your decision may include any or all of the following: your appetite, your beliefs, budget, schedule, location ... or maybe just your mood. What you might not realize is that the very choices you end up making tonight will also influence what will or won't make it to the table tomorrow night.

Consumers are, in fact, co-producers of the food they buy. When they purchase ingredients from local, sustainable and ethical sources, it gives these suppliers more power and space on the market. While our individual purchase choices may seem insignificant when placed within the bigger picture, the fact is that all movements start with individual action, and grow with campaigns of education and awareness.

As the global conversation ramps up around topics such as unbalanced agricultural markets, the health and pollution problems within the food industry, and the adjustment of habits and lifestyles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens everywhere are thinking twice about their consumption habits. Slow Food's 2020-2021 Terra Madre virtual conference is at the center of that conversation, including a fascinating Dec. 1 panel on "Mapping Your Markets" bringing people together from around the world to change the way markets are organized to benefit sustainable producers and consumers.

Here are some of the themes driving the effort to help us consume better to produce better, and vice-versa:

A Fair Market

About 80% of the three billion people living below the poverty line reside in rural areas, and most of them are farmers. Many of them are smallholder farms — which account for almost 35% of the world's total food production — who often employ more traditional methods that are more sustainable than their corporate counterparts. Yet there are initiatives leveling the playing field, helping consumers buy sustainably and locally so food workers can nourish themselves, their communities and the environment:

• Seasonal fruits and vegetables, native legume varieties, locally caught fish: This is not a Michelin-starred restaurant, but rather what's on the menu for the children of Xacinto Amigo Lera, a small school in the rural municipality of Portomouro, in northwestern Spain — a shining example of a "Zero Food Miles' school canteen. Beyond the good health and good taste that come from local products, students also learn the importance of sustainable food ecosystems.

• In many countries, independent women farmers have a doubly difficult time making a living. In addition to the challenges of small-scale farming, the inherent sexism of many societies continues to create big obstacles. One NGO in Indonesia, Gita Pertiwi, is tackling this problem by not only providing sustainable farming and business training to women, but also creating an entire marketing network to reach local communities, providing these women with a more stable income while offering organic food to locals.

• How do we get to consume the foods that are good for us, good for the planet, and affordable? "It really does take a village," noted Jessica Fanzo, Professor of Food Policy & Ethics at Johns Hopkins University at her recent Terra Madre talk. "It involves governments, businesses and civil society." One key for Fanzo is reorienting subsidy policies to "ensure that healthy foods are affordable and unhealthy foods are less affordable."

Healthy Food

Eating healthy isn't just about making sure you're getting enough nutritious ingredients, it means changing our entire relationship with food to create a healthier world. A truly balanced diet involves using climate-friendly products, as we end up inhaling the pollution caused by harmful farming practices. Here are two impactful projects that offer a more holistic approach to healthy food:

• In her recent book Sitopia, Carolyn Steel argues that "cheap food is an oxymoron," as they end up costing us dearly in pollution, poverty and health problems. According to Steel, an expert on food and urban development, the best way to change habits is with "guerrilla localism," both by buying from nearby sources and encouraging the planting of their own community gardens.

• The Slow Food Presidia is a project that not only identifies and protects Italian products, ecosystems and traditional farming methods that are at risk of extinction, but communicates the stories of these products to the general public through websites, newsletters, and markets that promote dialogue between producers and consumers. It allows for a better understanding of the origins and wider impacts of what's on your plate.

Pandemic Problems

The ongoing coronavirus has brought in an era of deeper reflection on how our society operates — how we work, live, communicate, and especially how we eat. In the early days of the pandemic, concerns about wet markets, unsanitary practices and unethical food trade proliferated. Now, consumers in lockdown are rethinking everything from the sources of their ingredients to how their food can safely be delivered. Nevertheless, chefs and food suppliers are stepping up to the plate in innovative ways:

• Ukranian chef Larissa Tytykalo, understanding that today's customers are both stuck in lockdown and increasingly wary of the provenance of what they eat, publishes daily recipes based on local fare, accompanied by a delivery service for regional products. It is a model that supports both small farms at risk during the economic downturn as well as locals trying to keep their bodies and environment healthy.

• In China, too, groceries became greener with the pandemic as demand for crop sharing subscriptions increased by 300%. Also known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), crop sharing is a system where the consumer "subscribes' to a harvest, receiving a weekly box of whatever local producers have to offer. As the boxes are prepaid and much of their distribution takes place outdoors, the system offers a safer alternative to supermarkets where customers are more at risk of human contact.

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Food & The Production Revolution: What’s Driving A Shift To Sustainable

Even in our sprawling, globalized world, it's possible to produce nutritious, wholesome food without negatively impacting the planet or undermining its myriad cultures and farming traditions that rely on local resources: land, water, seeds and the many benefits of biodiversity. While this may seem idealistic as we're told that a handful of multinational companies are needed to feed 7 billion mouths, there is a growing agricultural and food production revolution providing sustainable, healthier alternatives on the local level.

This movement revolves around the principles of agroecology: using ecological concepts to create food systems that ensure healthy ecosystems and secure livelihoods as the surest path to see that everyone has access to food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the environment.The philosophy extends well beyond just eco-friendly practices, and is built on a holistic approach that recognizes the influence of both governmental and social factors in ensuring fair, sustainable agriculture.

University of California Professor Miguel Altieri, a Chilean agronomist and entomologist, recognized by many as the Father of Agroecology, has traced the ways ancestral knowledge of farming communities in Latin America has allowed agriculture to coexist with the natural environment for thousands of years. During a Dec. 10 live "Food Talk," Prof. Altieri will also explore how agroecology can reduce the impacts of pandemics like COVID-19, as part of Slow Food's ongoing Terra Madre digital conference.

From smart legislation to seed education to an alternative to massive rice farming to local initiatives, here are some key battles in the fight to change the way we grow food:

Common Agricultural Policy

When analyzing how legal systems can protect healthy agricultural values, the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, is a great place to start. Recognizing that farming has unique challenges which don't apply to most industries, the European Commission created the CAP — which accounts for about 35% of the EU's budget — to address problems in modern agriculture.

• CAP Goals: Ensure that farmers make a reasonable living, support environmentally-friendly practices and maintain food security.

• CAP in Practice: Through the framework, farmers can receive income support and subsidies to address the specific needs of rural areas. CAP also regulates the market through crisis prevention measures such as encouraging EU governments to buy farm products to be sold at a later date.

• Keeping CAP On Track: CAP is built through legislative processes that also involve consultations with stakeholders. Today, there is still room for improvement, and activist groups like the Food Policy Coalition are calling for stricter CAP reforms that would further align it with the ambition for higher sustainability as outlined in the European Green Deal.

Seeds

In the past century, more than 250,000 plant varieties have become extinct. Yet many of today's seeds are engineered in a lab, and four international corporations control 63% of the seed market. To foster biodiversity and local economies, activists and grassroots groups are campaigning to bring back nutritious, natural seeds:

• Seed Education: The Colorado Grain Chain is an initiative that aims to spread "grain literacy." Created by the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the University of Colorado, the organization is made up of local farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers, chefs and consumers. It offers technical support for grain growers, as well as workshops that teach producers and consumers alike the benefits and uses of local, ancient and heritage grains.

• Freed Seeds: The German non-profit No Patents On Seeds! is driven by the mission to "liberate" seeds, plants and farm animals from being patented under European law. They argue that the uptick in these patents has created both a market that is unfair for small-scale farmers and increased the risk for food security, as a few big corporations minimize biodiversity by deciding what gets grown and where. With help from member organizations like Oxfam and the Corporate Europe Observatory, No Patents On Seeds! publishes reports, organizes protests and circulates petitions to keep the agricultural sector healthy and just.

Small Scale Production

A key tenant of agroecology is the idea that increasing the impact of small farms leads to more environmentally-friendly production, better food security and an equal playing field on the market. NGOs around the world are stepping up to the plate to foster shorter, healthier distribution chains:

• South Africa: The Meat Naturally project recognizes not only the ecological issues with mass meat farming, but the negative impact it's having on communal farmers, who own nearly half the country's livestock yet supply a mere 5% of the market. The initiative partners with NGOs to promote regenerative grazing techniques and rangeland restoration practices. It also organizes mobile auctions, giving these producers a fast, inexpensive and accessible way to sustainably provide meat to their communities.

• Philippines: By joining the energy of NGO and knowledge of scientists, MASIPAG is an association originally founded to improve and promote small-scale rice production. It has expanded to support the objective of fostering "people's control over agricultural biodiversity." Programs help small farmers cultivate crops and livestock naturally adapted to the local climate, shifting farming techniques from chemical to organic, and training farmers in business development. As Alfie Pulumbarit, who heads advocacy for MASIPAG, explained at a recent Terra Madre panel: "It's a bottom-up approach, rooted in the needs and aspirations of the small farmers."

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Future

Food & The Digital Revolution: Plugging In To Return To Our Roots

Technology itself is neither plague nor panacea for our sustainable, inclusive food future. It is always humans who choose which innovations to pursue, and how to use them. The revolution of digital technology presents this challenge in new and old ways, and our choices must be guided by clear morals that view food production and consumption not as just another opportunity for profit, but as fundamental to the survival of our species and the planet.

Empowering small farms, sustainability and farm-to-table are among the most important principles that must guide innovative digital initiatives seeking to make the food industry more sustainable and democratic. These exciting projects harness the digital world's ability to connect people and organize information to change the way we consume: from apps that avoid food waste to online platforms that connect customers to local farmers to virtual tools designed to foster production that protects biodiversity, and help circumvent the international corporations who too often block the redistribution of wealth to smaller, more sustainable farms.

Here are some of the forward-thinking digital projects keeping the way we eat exciting, efficient, healthy and humane.

Avoiding Waste, Connecting Farm-To-Table

Preserving natural resources requires more than good will. Those pushing for a more sustainable food system must know how best to measure, allocate and repurpose the resources at hand to avoid unnecessary waste and pollution. Digital applications and smart systems are using data collection and management to keep a lid on overconsumption and overuse:

• Beat The Expiration Date: More than 27 million tons of food waste is generated every year — in Japan alone. To save resources, Taichi Isaku, a member of Slow Food Japan, created an app called Tabete which connects users with store products on the brink of expiration, so they can quickly be bought and consumed. The popular app came in handy during the COVID outbreak, when many closed restaurants were able to save the food they would otherwise have been forced to discard. Isaku was a feature speaker at the October 16 panel "Edible Cities, Cities of the Future" as part of the ongoing Terra Madre digital conference.

The "farm-to-table" philosophy is driven by the goal of connecting locally grown ingredients with nearby customers, fighting for all citizens to have nutritious and sustainable alternatives to pre-packaged foods — and avoid harmful emissions from transportation. Online platforms have been particularly helpful in this area, using their ability to boost communication to keep small growers in business all over the globe:

• France: As a country particularly keen on terroir, France is seeing a boom in mobile apps that help citizens consume local products. One website, Mangeonslocal-en-idf.com, not only shows a map of markets that sell locally-sourced goods, but also highlights restaurants that work with nearby farms. Other startups, such as La Ruche qui dit oui, allow locals to purchase their groceries from neighboring farms online — and, now in the time of COVID, have them delivered to their door.

• U.S.A.: Another interesting way the digital world has helped connect small farms and locals is through crowdfunding. Steward, an American crowdfunding platform that specifically aims to help small sustainable farms, has reported an enormous spike in demand since the pandemic as increasingly conscious consumers seek to buy direct.

Empowering Small Farmers, Informing Us All

Mobile apps in particular have been a digital weapon of choice for boosting the business of farmers in small and isolated economies, allowing them to both gain visibility and sell their goods more efficiently. Here are two examples in Africa:

• Stay informed: While Uganda's agricultural sector has seen many positive developments in recent years, many of these changes never reached the poor, smallholder farmers located in areas where food is particularly scarce. In order to spread the word, Slow Food Uganda has been working with Agricultural Innovation Systems Brokerage to provide mobile-based services to this demographic. Their platform facilitates space for these farmers to communicate with the government officers charged with disseminating new agricultural findings and techniques, even enabling them to ask questions in their local language.

• Opening up the Conversation: The digital revolution has also helped keep Slow Food's signature event Terra Madre going during the pandemic. What is normally a week-long gathering of artisanal food producers — organized thanks to the commitment of the City of Turin and the Region of Piedmont — has gone virtual. Though nothing can replace the precious in-person human connections, the ongoing series of digital conferences and exhibitions is available for everyone to attend on the dedicated Terra Madre platform.

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