In this land of free-flowing corn syrup and 600-calorie coffee drinks, the specter of food scarcity may seem remote to many Americans. That could change in the coming decades.
This week the United Nations Environment Programme released a report predicting that by 2050, global food production may drop by as much as 25% due to climate change, water shortages, land degradation and the spread of invasive pests. During those same decades, the world’s population is expected to climb to 9 billion from nearly 6.8 billion today.
These opposing trends spell catastrophe, especially for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Although none of this sounds like good green news, there is a silver lining: each of us can make a difference with the choices we make every day about what we eat.
Waste less food
According to the UNEP report, more than half the world’s food is wasted due to inefficiencies in the food chain, from produce that rots before it gets to market to food that’s purchased but not eaten. The problem isn’t limited to developing countries with poor distribution networks. In the United States, food waste and losses in the food chain are as high as 40 to 50 percent, according to the UNEP.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that American homes, restaurants and grocery stores generate nearly 32 million tons of food scraps every year. All but about 2.5 percent of that waste winds up in landfills, where it decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
While we may have little say over what happens between the field and the market, we do control what happens between the market and our mouths. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article this week about food waste that includes tips from top chefs on how to use every scrap of food, like serving appetizers of battered and fried Swiss chard stems or making stock with the ends of carrots, the green parts of leeks and other vegetable scraps.
After you’ve strained those cooked veggies out of the stock, you don’t have to throw them away — you can turn them into compost to feed plants. I have a worm compost bin just outside my back door, but outdoor space isn’t a prerequisite to composting. An article in the New York Times this week features city dwellers who vermicompost in their apartments.
Another way to waste less food is to shop your kitchen before shopping the store. I often find I can postpone a trip to the grocery store for days by getting creative with what’s already on my shelves and in the fridge and freezer. Using up what I’ve got keeps me from tossing out bags of freezer-burned peas or jars of mango chutney that have passed their “best by” date.
If you’re a recipe follower, it helps to get comfortable with substitutions. I wonder how much food gets wasted because a recipe leaves people stuck with ingredients they’re not likely to use again. I recently wanted to try a recipe for Coffee Crunch Bars that called for instant espresso powder. I dutifully went out and bought a jar of the dried coffee dust, used two tablespoons in the cookie dough, and then stuck the jar in the back of the fridge where it will probably languish well into the next decade.
If I’d had the right side of my brain switched on, I could have saved money and skipped the trip to the store by brewing up a bit of triple-strength coffee and adding it and a smidgen more flour to the dough.
Eat less meat
More than a third of the world’s cereal is grown to feed animals, according the UNEP. By 2050, that number is expected to shoot up 50 percent. The UNEP report suggests it would be more efficient to recycle food waste into animal feed; this would have the double benefit of reducing waste and making more grain available for human consumption.
Feeding animals more efficiently makes sense, but if we’re going to tackle the intertwined challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and feeding nine billion people, we’re going to have to eat less meat. Livestock generates a whopping 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That’s a larger share than the transportation sector produces.
If you’re thinking about giving up your meaty ways, you don’t necessarily have to go whole hog. Small steps may be easier to sustain over the long haul. I’ve been a vegetarian since the mid-1990s. Before that, I was a devoted meat eater. You name it, I ate it, from fried soft-shelled crabs to grilled quail wrapped in bacon to bolognese sauce so dense with ground veal and pork you could stand a wooden spoon in it. When I was a kid, my mother would put smoked cow’s tongue sandwiches in my lunch bag, much to my delight and my classmates’ disgust.
Shrimp was the first to go. In my mid-twenties, I saw a TV documentary about the nine tons of so-called trash fish that were caught and discarded for every one ton of shrimp harvested. Images of thousands of pounds of dead or dying bycatch being shoveled off shrimp trawlers back into the sea turned my stomach and turned me off of shrimp. OK, I know, this was hardly a sacrifice since shrimp scampi was not one of my staple meals, but this was a first baby step toward becoming a more conscious eater. (Shrimping practices have improved somewhat since the 1980s, but the fact remains that fisheries around the world are in deep trouble.)
My second step is embarrassing to admit. I stopped eating pork in 1995 after watching Babe, the movie about the pig who learns to herd sheep so he’ll be considered as useful as the farm’s sheepdogs and won’t wind up as Christmas sausages. I got to wondering how I could justify treating my pooch like a princess while eating prosciutto and pork chops. When the justifications wouldn’t gel, I cut out pork. In the months that followed, I did have some dreams about BLTs but I got over it.
Not too long after passing on pork, I had a bad reaction to a hamburger (I won’t go into the gory details). After that, my body just said no to beef. By then I realized that life was going to be a lot simpler if I skipped meat altogether. It hadn’t yet dawned on me how deliciously complex a vegetarian life could be.
Being meat-free for the past 13 years is the second most effective step I’ve taken to reduce my ecological footprint (the first being designing my life so that I don’t drive a lot). I still eat dairy and eggs, so I haven’t opted out of the animal-products industry and I don’t believe that being vegetarian is the right choice for everyone. But I am convinced that Americans need to eat less meat (and that means fish, too) if we’re going to stand a chance of putting the brakes on some of the environmental catastrophes we’re facing.
Join an organic farm
During the second half of the 20th century, agriculture’s so-called green revolution, fueled by petrochemical-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, led to an explosive increase in farm yields. That in turned contributed to more than doubling the population, from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to over 6 billion by the end of the century. The dark side of chemical farming has been apparent at least since 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring: extinction of species, loss of biodiversity, erosion of topsoil, pollution of air and waterways, and untold harm to human health.
Today, around the globe, many farmers are shaking off their addiction to chemicals. Growing organically provides a multitude of benefits, from protecting farm workers’ health to improving soil fertility, decreasing erosion and increasing drought resistance. But can organic farming feed a world of nine billion people? The debate rages, but studies by the UNEP and others have shown that organic practices can out-yield chemical-based farming.
One way to tip the scales in favor of an organic food future is to support a local organic farm. Members of community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs share in their farm’s bounty every week and help ensure the farm’s success by giving it a steady source of income. In an upcoming post, I’ll write about my experiences with being a CSA member of a local organic farm. Right now, I’ve got to get dinner started.