In the last couple of years we’ve come to realize that being “green”, the notion of not harming the planet as we live our day to day lives may not be enough, and many have come to focus their efforts on “sustainability”. While the concept of sustainability is clear, we can more specifically define it as “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs.” Inherent in that definition is not only a continuance of the natural resources available to society, but a very real focus on climate change as well, a very real threat to meeting the needs of future generations.
The scientific consensus is that the climate crisis is real – and we humans are responsible. A leading expert on climate change and agriculture, NASA’s Goddard Institute for space studies Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig said “It was all projections before. It’s not projection now; it’s observational science.”
In 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Scientists reported that without immediate action the rise in global temperatures in this century will likely be twice as severe as estimated just six years ago.
The three major greenhouse gases we hear most about are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), & Nitrous Oxide (N2O). All three gases have direct connection to the food chain. Carbon Dioxide is the main gas we hear about because it accounts for 76.7% of all man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The gases are measured by their global warming potential (GWP). The gases are expressed in carbon dioxide equivalence (or CO2e) Here is a chart of how these gases affect the GWP.
Main Greenhouse Gases
Global Warming Potential relative to carbon dioxide over 100 years
Percent of Total Emissions expressed in carbon dioxide equivalence
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
Global warming potentials from IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 4th Assessment Report (2007)
Professor Kirk Smith of Global Environmental Health at the University of California at Berkeley says that this timescale actually downplays the impact of these other gases. If you consider the GWP of methane during the first five years in the atmosphere, a tonne (metric ton) of methane turns out to be responsible for almost one hundred times more warming than a tonne of carbon dioxide. That’s because methane breaks down much faster in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (about eight-and- a-half years compared with many decades), so a shorter time-horizon emphasizes the greater impact on the gas. Professor Smith likes to call methane “carbon on steroids”.
HOW DOES ALL THIS AFFECT FOOD PRODUCTION?
Researchers recently predicted that by 2100, higher temperatures in regions home to roughly ½ of the world’s population, stretching across Africa, India, & southern China, & covering Australia, the southern US, & northern Latin America, will see corn & rice harvests drop by as much as 40% (David S. Battisti & Rosamond L. Naylor). It is important to realize that grain, especially these two, provides almost ½ the calories human beings eat. In the last 50 years society has been able to basically ignore this problem because much of the production expansion has been achieved through increases in yield rather than area. We no longer have that luxury. Simply put, the rate of growth in population is now greater than the rate of growth in crop yield. Again Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig talking to a group of farmers in New York said “If we don’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2080, farming in New York could feel like farming in Georgia.” Not only are we failing to come close to this fundamental task, we’re emitting more, not less greenhouse gases every year.
If all of this feels like a long way in the future, 2050, 2080, or 2100, realize that we are already feeling the effects of global warming with increased storms, flooding, and drought. And as for our natural resources, the economic impact has been equally devastating. While we have already seen huge food prices increases in the last few years, last year’s food prices have increased by 37%. And since 2009 livestock price have increased by 138%. Food is rapidly becoming one of the most important global economic issues of this decade. The farther one looks down the road, the bleaker things look for the global food situation.
Asked what we can do as individuals to help solve the climate crisis, most of us could recite these eco-mantras from memory: Change our light bulbs! Drive less! Choose energy-efficient appliances! Insulate! Asked what we could do as a nation, most of us would probably mention promoting renewable energy and ending our dependence on fossil fuels. Few would point out changing the way our food is produced, stored or transported. Unfortunately, the dominant story line about climate change – the sectors most responsible for emissions and the key solutions to reducing those emissions – diverts us from understanding not only how the food sector is a critical part of the problem, but also , and even more important, how it can be a vital part of the much needed solution.
From the IPCC on Climate Change, 4th Assessment Report, “Synthesis Report”
So where’s food? You couldn’t be blamed for assuming that the food chain, at most, contributes just 13.5% of the total emissions--that would be the agriculture pie slice. Hiding in the IPCC breakdown, though are the ways in which the food system is connected to climate change within nearly every sector of our economy. You see that the food system is everywhere.
Add all these slivers together—including emissions from the production and distribution of farm chemicals from land as it’s transformed to make way for crops and livestock and from energy for factory farms and food processing--- and the entire global food chain may account for roughly one third of the greenhouse gases heating our planet.
Consider something so basic as fertilizer. The process is so energy intensive that producing one ton of fertilizer requires as much as 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas. To give you an idea of how much 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas is—that is enough gas to run a 1,500 sq foot home for a half a year. In the US alone by 2008 production of fertilizer had ballooned to 139.8 million tons, or enough natural gas to supply 70 million homes for a year.
Living far from the land, many of us think of soil as something inert that holds up plants. Wrong. Healthy soil is alive. A hand full hosts billions of living organisms, most too small for us to see. They interact with decaying roots, stems, leaves, and added composting material, such as manure, food waste, or straw. Like a sponge, this healthy organic matter retains moisture and nutrients.
The organic matter is the key. It prevents the soil from becoming solidified, so that air and water can reach the roots and so the roots can penetrate the soil. Soil’s organic matter is also a source of food for bacteria, fungi, yeasts, insects, and earthworms. Without these living organisms, plants can’t thrive. These tiny creatures convert unusable organic nitrogen into ammonia and nitrates that plants can use. They “fix” atmospheric nitrogen so it’s available to plants and produce acids that make soil minerals accessible. Microorganisms also help plants take in critical nutrients, and they prey on disease organisms that might hurt the plants.
The advent of synthetic fertilizer was just one key in the mechanization of farming that has fostered industrial scale, energy intensive farms on a chemical treadmill. As soils are neglected, organic matter degrades, microorganisms die, root systems weaken, all of which makes soil less able to retain water. Crops become more vulnerable to drought, disease, and erosion, requiring even more irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer. As a result we are now losing topsoil ten times faster than nature is making it.
We’ve long know the consequences of lost topsoil, now we know the climate cost too. As soils are depleted, stored carbon is released as CO2
In addition, as nitrogen fertilizer is applied to soils, the fertilizer breaks down, releasing nitrous oxide. Globally, synthetic fertilizer use is responsible for more than three quarters of agriculture’s total nitrous oxide emissions.
And if there is a single element more important than soil, it is of course, water. While America swigs water at an alarming rate, drinking water represents only a tiny fraction of what we consume. Farm uses, animal & crop related, represent 90% of U.S. consumptive water use. To reach that amount, we’re diverting rivers & pumping water from aquifers faster than they can replenish themselves. In that sense, we’re “mining” our water resources in a way that’s anything but sustainable. Waste makes it even less so.
ü Do you have low flush toilets?
ü Do you have a low consumption dishwasher?
ü Do you have a low consumption washing machine?
ü Do you have reduced flow heads on showers, bath or kitchen sinks?
How much water does it take to grow and produce?
1 lb of red meat – 4,000 to 18,000 gallons
1 lb of chicken meat – 500 to 800 gallons
One cup of coffee – 35 gallons
One glass of OJ – 45 gallons
1 lb of rice – 400 gallons
1 lb of wheat – 150 gallons
One slice of bread – 10 gallons
By looking at the above comparison on water savings—what is going to save more water? Again if we don’t look at the whole problem how can we see what we need to be working on? And of course our focus here is on FOOD. By saving one pound of red meat from going to waste you could take a 7 minute shower everyday for an entire year. Save one slice of bread and you save 10 gallons of water. We all understand that water is our most precious resource, but how many among us have realized that food waste could have such a huge impact on that most precious of resources. Today in the world we waste one third of the food we produce. In the US alone that is enough food to fill the Rose Bowl every day, 365 days a year. The cost to the US is over 100 billion dollars every year. Another question to ask ourselves is “what is the least recycled product in the world”—Food at less than 3%.
Food-related waste is responsible for 28% of all US landfill gas emissions.
Composting food scraps rather than landfilling them can drastically reduce their climate impact. That's because in the oxygenated environment of a compost pile decomposition occurs aerobically and produces carbon dioxide, whereas in the oxygen-poor depths of a landfill food decomposes anaerobically and generates methane, which is 23 times as potent in its global warming potential.
Unfortunately, less than 3% of food scraps are composted.
The UK did a survey by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) on food waste in restaurants.
To reduce the greenhouse gases we are all hearing and talking about local farms and growing organic. Growing organic does not use fertilizers and pesticides thus reducing the greenhouse gases. Consider farms like Full Belly Farm (http://www.fullbellyfarm.com/about.html) in the bay area. It is a thriving sustainable farm. The farm is a model of energy efficient use as the founders are always looking for ways to be more efficient like installing solar panels or experimenting with biodiesel. They steer clear of soil-degrading and ecosystem-poisoning chemicals by constantly searching for innovative alternatives such as planting alyssum between rows of strawberries. This flowering plant attracts beneficial insects that help keep the harmful ones away—by eating them before they cause any damage. They set up homes for owls, whose appetite for mice, rats, and gophers do wonders for rodent control. They also installed dozen of dwellings for bats on barns and buildings across the property. At dusk hundreds of bats fly though the night, devouring colossal quantities of insects that would harm the crops. This is what sustainability looks like.
Another idea in its infancy is a product called Biochar. This product is something that can be used in place of fertilizers. It is a carbon negative solution that actually reduces the carbon in the atmosphere. Something to google in your spare time or look to experiment with in your own garden.
Steve Gerson a chef and coach of the 1997 Gold Medal British Virgin Islands Culinary Team has come up with a system for Chefs to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, by keeping their food fresher, longer. By using an all natural zeolite mineral mix he has been able to increase the shelf life of all foods by up to 50% longer. Food waste being the problem that it is throughout the world, this product will change the paradigm of how food is transported and stored. Last year Steve won the 2011 EcoVisionary award for his forward thinking. It has been said that 90% of the population waits on the leaders to step out and to show the way. These are called “Game Changers” because they have the ability to see the rewards more clearly than others and take the risks that comes with the territory. The EcoVisionary Awards seeks out those in business with the spirit and commitment to show the way forward.
RD Fresh not only keeps your food fresher, longer, but it will reduce humidity and food odors, reduce cross contamination of your food, reduce the spread of bacteria, reduce the energy usage of your cooler and extend the life of your compressor. Every great chef starts with the freshest ingredients possible. This keeps your products at their freshest at all times. As the price of food continues to rise in price, RD Fresh becomes even more valuable.
And consider this… The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has developed a new kind of growth media for plants (called zeoponic materials) that carries within itself the nutrients needed by the plants and provides those nutrients in a very efficient manner. ZeoponiX, Inc. has further developed the technology and now makes a soil amendment/fertilizer zeoponic material to … utilize nutrients more efficiently and reduce nutrient leaching into the environment.
Basically, what is being discussed above is very similar in nature to the byproduct of RD FRESH. After the zeolite minerals absorb the “waste” (the VOC’s that spoil food) it makes a fantastic enhancement to fertilizer. Making RD FRESH not only a 100% passive, 100% “green” product, but a true 100% recyclable to the planet “zero footprint product”, a perfect model for sustainability at all points along the food chain. See RD Fresh at www.rdfresh.com.
Sustainability. We need to act NOW. Otherwise our children and grandchildren will not have the same choice’s we have. Without action now, climate change and food shortages will limit their way of life. We need to make the changes so that future generations can meet their own needs.
*Material used in this article came from Anna Lappe book “Diet for a hot planet” .