Monday, October 31, 2011

Feeding the world, a scary proposition.

This semester, I am taking a course at UC Berkeley called Edible Education: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement – organized by Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Nikki Henderson (who I gushed over in a previous post). Each week, at least one speaker addresses the class of nearly 400 students and members of the general public on a topic related to food, including sustainability, world poverty and hunger, the rights of farm and food workers, and health. Although I have spent a lot of time learning about our food system, this class has helped me put things into a global context.

Hunger and poverty throughout the world are seemingly insurmountable problems that are likely to worsen as the world population grows. In fact, as of today, the population is estimated to exceed 7 billion. In 2010, there were 925 million starving people in world, so how can we possibly hope to feed everyone in the future?

I have often heard proponents of agribusiness, and especially the biotech industry, argue that feeding the world will only happen if we make agricultural technologies – such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides – more accessible and continue to develop and introduce genetically modified seeds. The idea they present is essentially this: to reduce hunger, we need to increase crop yields.

The opposing viewpoint, as presented by Raj Patel during a recent lecture, is that we already produce enough calories to feed the world. People are hungry because food is too expensive or simply inaccessible. To reduce hunger, we need to empower the poor.

So which is it? Do we have a production problem, or a distribution problem? Most importantly, how can we reduce the number of hungry people in the world?

A numbers game.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) calculates and tracks hunger statistics throughout the world. Chronic hunger and undernurishment are words the FAO uses to describe people who are consistently unable to consume their minimum caloric needs – 1800 kCal for the average person. People who live under these conditions are classified as food insecure.

Determining the number of people who are food insecure takes several steps. First, the FAO calculates the number of calories available for consumption in every country in which they can obtain data. The number of available calories includes sources, like domestic production and imports, and sinks, such as exports and the amount of calories wasted or put to uses other than human consumption. The FAO compiles statistics over a period of 1-2 years, and then converts that into the number of calories available per day. Lastly, they divide the total number of available calories by the population of the country to get the “food supply” in kilocalories per person per day.

The FAO then tries to estimate the number of calories that the population needs, which is based on the proportion of men versus women and the age breakdown of the population. According to the USDA, men aged 19-30 need at least 2400 calories per day. Women of the same age require at least 1800. Children under 3 require only about 1000 calories per day. Based on the population statistics, the FAO calculates a number of calories needed for everyone in the country to get the food they need.

The last step is to estimate the amount of food that actually makes it into the mouths of the people. First, the FAO assumes that caloric intake within a country follows a log-normal distribution. A log-normal distribution looks a bit like the profile of a baseball cap. It implies that most of the population consumes a range of calories corresponding to the width of the cap, but there are still some people in the bill who consume a lot more than average. There can also be a small tail at the low end, which would indicate that a small portion of the population get many fewer calories than average. A log-normal distribution can come in different proportions. To tailor the distribution to a given country, the FAO uses information provided in household surveys to determine the width and location of the distribution’s peak and the extent of the tails.

By comparing the available calories with the calories required to feed the population and the way in which food is distributed in a country, the FAO finally arrives at an estimate of the number of people who are food insecure. The FAO hunger map is shown below; there is also a nifty interactive version on their hunger website.

The map is interesting (and depressing), but what does it really tell us about the reasons for hunger? The FAO makes informed assumptions about distribution, but how can we know for sure the effect of distribution? To get around these issues, I decided to look up the statistics for only the first two steps of the FAO’s process: the available calories in a country and the calorie requirements based on the population statistics.

Food for thought.

Below is a table I created using FAO data that is available from a searchable database called FAOSTAT. I have listed statistics for the 10 countries with the highest percentages of undernourished people as a percent of the population. I then show the same statistics for the Unites States and some groups of countries: the FAO’s group of least developed countries, South-east Asia, Europe, and the world.

I included some extra information because I thought it was interesting, but the most relevant columns are the average caloric requirement, which has been weighted by the age and sex distribution of the given population, and the food supply. A country that literally does not have enough calories for all of its citizens to consume their minimum requirement would be one in which the food supply is smaller than the average caloric requirement. Of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of hunger, only two actually have too few calories: Eritrea and Burundi, each by less than 100 calories. In Mozambique, in which 39% of the population suffers from a chronic lack of calories, there are over 2000 calories available each day, compared to a requirement of only 1800.

The bottom line is this: there is enough food in all of these countries for just about everyone to get the calories they need. However, even if the FAO’s assumptions about distribution are not completely accurate, there certainly are starving people in these countries.

How can there be more calories than the population needs and still be starving people? In more economic terms, how can there be too much supply and unmet demand? What is happening to the extra calories?

We are the 99%.

The FAO suggests that inequality and food insecurity rise together. That would suggest that richer people either eat more calories than they really need (because they can afford to) or are able to control the calories in some other way. Perhaps poor people also have a harder time getting food because of transportation issues. Certainly, the political stability within a country has some bearing on food access as well. As the FAO points out, violent conflict can reduce or cut off the food supply to some people. Even economic interventions aimed at helping developing countries have been criticized, by Raj Patel and others, when it comes to food markets (read more here or here). I’m not well-versed enough in economics and global trade to really assess these arguments. However, one thing is clear to me. We cannot solve world hunger by simply increasing crop yields.

It’s one thing to say that the world produces enough calories to feed everyone. But even in the countries with the highest rates of undernurishment, there are enough calories to feed nearly everyone. As the population grows, perhaps we really will need to increase production to make sure everyone can eat, but I doubt it will matter much unless people can access those calories. Otherwise, the only number that changes is the number of available calories, not the number of hungry people. And that’s a scary thought.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A food day throw-down.

Today is Food Day – an event put together by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to the website, Food Day is about six principles:

1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods
2. Support sustainable farms and limit subsidies to big agribusiness
3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger
4. Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms
5. Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids
6. Support fair conditions for food and farm workers.

This is a great list that encompasses all my reasons for changing my eating habits and fighting for food system reform. You can follow the links on the site to get more information about the problems and proposed solutions in each area. While you can get a good overview of the food system from this site, I found that a lot of the material glossed over the details and made assertions that I’m not sure would hold up to scrutiny.

My biggest disagreements with the Food Day message are in regards to what they consider safe, healthy food – especially their promotion of whole grains. I’ve talked about these issues in detail in a previous post, so I won’t belabor the points. Promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, supporting sustainable farming practices, and reforming the food system are all extremely important, so I’m glad the Food Day folks are working to get the message out. Instead of arguing over the details, I’d like to issue a Food Day challenge that I think really will promote better health and environmental sustainability.

Life, unsweetened.

My challenge is to go unsweetened – period. For the next 30 days, I will not eat anything with added sweetener of any kind. That includes sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, fruit juice, etc. It also includes non-caloric/artificial sweeteners like Stevia. Luckily, fruit contains no added sweetener, so I can have as much as I want!

Why go unsweetened?

We consume more sugar than we ever have in all of human history. As I reported in a previous post about sugar, the average American consumes 440 calories each day in the form of caloric sweeteners. The average teen in America consumes 72 grams of sugar a day. Overconsumption of sugar, especially in the form of fructose, can reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin leading to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even liver failure.

Another benefit of avoiding added sweetener is that it forces you to read labels and know what is in your food. You may be surprised by how many foods contain sweeteners, including things like bread and tomato sauce. Fat free products are notoriously bad about substituting sugar for fat. Avoiding added sweetener will likely mean buying more whole foods, like fresh produce and meat, and staying away from processed food. It will also mean a little more preparation and time in the kitchen. But trust me, cooking is fun!

The reason sweeteners are in so many things is twofold. First, we are hard-wired to crave sweets because they exist so rarely in nature. Making food sweeter will generally keep people coming back for more. The other reason for all the added sweetness is that corn sweeteners are really, really cheap. Farm subsidies promote resource-intensive monoculture cropping systems that damage the environment but are very good at producing vast quantities of industrial-grade grains. Corn produced in this manner is processed into many kinds of food additives including sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. By eliminating added sugars and sweeteners from your diet, you are saying no to these damaging farming practices.

But I just can’t live without my…

Of course, we all have sweet things that we love so much, they don’t seem worth going without. It’s only for one month, though. And you may find that, after a month without added sugars dominating your palette, sweet things may lose some of their appeal. Still don’t think you could go without? Make yourself a deal. If you love ice cream, buy a pint and make it last the whole month.

Still don’t think you could take the challenge? Flip it around. Pick the one sweetened thing you consume the most - soda, diet soda, donuts, whatever - and eliminate that for one month.

Take the challenge!

Food Day is a chance for all of us to rethink our food choices. Whether you do it for your health, the environment, or just to try something new, going unsweetened is a great way to spend a month. So, leave a comment and commit to a month without sweets!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Three cheers for salad!

Given that I avoid meat in restaurants and have made a commitment to eating at least 8 cups of veggies a day, you might be surprised to know that I hate salad bar restaurants. Or at least, I used to. Generally, I have found these places overpriced and more focused on pizza and pasta options than on actual salads. Recently, however, a friend dragged me to Fresh Choice, an all-you-can-eat salad bar restaurant.

Although they do serve soups, pasta, pizza, and other non-salad options, the actual salad bar is pretty extensive. And, more strikingly, they make an effort to offer local and organic produce. The labeling system is also quite impressive. Every house-made salad, like the Sesame Kale Toss offered for fall, includes a list of ingredients and icons for every common allergy, as do all the salad dressings and soups. It was easy to deduce the vegan items, vegetarian items that were still dairy free, and the gluten-free offerings. In total, they have labels for foods containing eggs, sesame seeds, sulfites, milk, honey, shellfish, pork, fish, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and wheat.

At the start of the Fresh Choice salad bar, there is a sign stating what percentage of the day’s produce is locally-grown. I recognized a lot of produce that I’ve been seeing at the farm stand. After all, that’s what grows here! Because of their commitment to local produce, the Fresh Choice menu changes with the seasons. As a child, I remember the excitement when peaches were finally in season, or cherries, or pumpkins. And now, as an adult, I know that eating seasonally is also better for the environment and provides access to cheaper, fresher food.

In addition to the extensive salad bar, some of my favorite Fresh Choice offerings were the baked yams, the broccoli obsession salad, and the spicy curry lentil soup. The only thing they are missing is avocado! After my awesome meal, I had to wonder whether all salad bar restaurants are as progressive as Fresh Choice. So, I checked out the websites for Sweet Tomatoes and Souper Salad.

Sweet Tomatoes lists items that are vegetarian (or not) and gluten-free foods. According to a review on GlutenFreeAZ, however, Sweet Tomatoes does not label the foods within the store. Rather, they have a binder with nutritional information that customers can browse before eating. Sweet Tomatoes also makes a big deal about being a sustainable business. In fact, they have received a Green Restaurant Association Certification. Having never heard of this program, I decided to investigate. According to the press release on the Sweet Tomatoes blog, they received a two-star certification, which is based on seven areas including sustainable food.

Two stars is the lowest certification level, and to achieve that, a restaurant has to be awarded at least 10 points in six of the categories plus an additional 40 points from any or all categories. Even a 4-star certification requires a minimum of only 10 points in the sustainable food category. The points are assigned by calculating the percentage of food costs that meet certain criteria. Buying certified organic food or sustainable seafood is worth 40 points; if a restaurant spent 100% of its food budget on organic food, it would get 40 points. A small number of points are also available for purchasing grass-fed, cage-free, or hormone and antibiotic-free animal products. Vegetarian and vegan fare are rewarded with 30 and 45 points, respectively. Buying regionally can get another 20 points, while buying within 100 miles of the restaurant is worth 40 points. So, if a restaurant served 100% organic vegan food sourced from within 100 miles, it would receive 130 points. Recall that certification requires only 10.

I couldn’t find a break-down of Sweet Tomatoes’ points, but without any mention of commitment to local organic food, on their website I’m not convinced that they are doing anything special in terms of sustainable food. It’s great that they are making a commitment to reduce water usage and waste – some of the other categories within the certification, but I wouldn’t get too excited about their food.

As for Souper Salad, the salad toppings listed on their menu are rather meager. There is no mention of local or organic produce; their cheddar cheese even says it is imitation cheese. They do have icons for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items, and the folks at GlutenFreeAZ were pleased with their experience at Souper Salad. So perhaps this is a good option for people with food allergies, but it doesn’t offer much beyond that.

All in all, it seems that Fresh Choice is doing something novel by really committing to nutritious, environmentally-friendly food. Their practice of listing ingredients and their extensive suite of allergy icons puts the customer in control. Of course, you can still eat badly at Fresh Choice. I saw several people skipping the salad bar all together in favor of pizza, and I saw one kid with only noodles. You can also eat a healthy and wholesome meal, though, and that’s not so easy to do at most restaurants. Next time I have to chose a place to eat, I’m glad to know there is a fresh, and progressive, choice.