Ertharin Cousin – We Need a Food System for Human and Planetary Health

By Steve Schaefer

Ertharin Cousin-image

“The global food system is broken.”

That’s what Ertharin Cousin told the audience at The Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation in Palo Alto on a Thursday evening in late September. The event, sponsored by Acterra, featured this renowned expert, currently the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

Ideally, we should consider the health of the planet and all the people on it, Cousin told us. But we don’t. We are facing two interrelated challenges: How will we feed 9.5 billion people in 2050, and how can we cope with climate change as it throws normal growing cycles and locations into disarray?

Cousin explained that we need to consider the whole picture, including the social, economic, and environmental outputs of food. We have to deal not only with production and human consumption of food but also its disposal. Food is unevenly distributed in the world, and a large proportion of it is wasted.

The World Food Programme, which Cousin ran, distributes food to developing countries, but it is a tremendously complicated, and at times, dangerous occupation.

How is the system broken? According to a recent report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 821 million people are undernourished, without a secure source of food, and 150 million children are chronically malnourished—including 35 percent of the kids under the age of 5 in Sub Saharan Africa. Cousin explained that children that are undernourished during pregnancy or the first two years of life will suffer from stunted growth and development. The report above was jointly published by five organizations, including two from the UN, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization.

In North America, there is increasing obesity, which causes its own diseases and problems. Now, in other parts of the world, some populations must deal with both starvation and obesity at the same time.

Food production and climate change affect each other. Agriculture and raising livestock produce global warming emissions, such as methane, and nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer have negative climate effects as well, as well as contaminating sources of safe drinking water. As the global population increases, more land is cleared for cultivation, negatively affecting the climate by removing trees that can sequester CO2. All this means that areas that are marginal can become unusable for growing crops.

Climate change complicates the food crisis by creating more erratic and extreme weather, leading to more droughts and floods. A climate-change-related loss of biodiversity means that plants and animals have a harder time adapting to changing conditions.

Cousin explained that food waste is the third largest greenhouse gas emitter—about 3.3 billion tons of CO2 and methane a year. In the southern hemisphere, a $310 billion loss can be attributed to problems of spoilage and distribution, while in the Northern Hemisphere, $680 billion worth is partly the result of food that is wasted or is rejected because it’s not “perfect.”

Cousin says we need an interdisciplinary approach. “We need to work as individuals, companies, and nations, because issues of global food security and planetary health are too complex for us to simply make incremental changes.”

Cousin proposes that we actively pursue research and innovation, into soil and seeds, for example. We also need to research and develop more efficient water use and better post-harvest practices.

Some developments are helping. For example, there are new ways to reduce cattle and dairy emissions. One experiment placed seaweed in cattle feed and was found to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent.

Beyond the farming aspect, we need changes in consumer behavior, because customer demand affects what farmers grow—they want to make a profit. New research and innovation in alternate foods can develop new proteins that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Although there are some areas of the world that struggle the most, we need food safety for everyone, no matter where they live, Cousin advises. “We need to take care of the smallholder farmers,” said Cousin. “Eighty percent of the food in Asia and Africa is grown by these farmers.”

“We need collective action by farmers, academics, citizens, and government,” said Cousin. Governments can make policies that affect behavior. For example, you can get a tax deduction for giving food away to food banks, but if you give it to a group that sells food at a lower price you can’t. That has to change.

Cousin pointed out that there are lots of subsidies for sugar and soybeans—much more than for fruit and vegetables. As part of looking at the whole picture, we need to weigh the tradeoffs, since jobs and livelihoods can be negatively affected when we make changes that seem like the right thing for food and the planet, such as reducing beef or dairy production. People in those industries will lose their jobs.

Cousin says, “We need to decide issues on facts, not emotions.” For example, there are negative implications to transporting food, including generating more climate-changing CO2 from the trucks that bring it—but it can help prevent people from starving. What takes priority?

Cousin brought up an idea that might not seem directly related to food—gender equality. That means equal access to training, capital and inputs for women, which can affect the way food is handled in communities around the world.

“We need international trade policy to create mechanisms to respond to climate change and food security issues,” says Cousin. “We need the right research and data to support contextual policies to meet the real needs of the global community.”

The Bottom Line

Food security and climate change are complicated issues, and they are interrelated. We must be willing to take collective action to support the health of people and the planet. It’s an enormous undertaking, but every hungry child needs our attention – no matter where they live.

 

Ertharin Cousin is the former executive director of the World Food Programme and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, nominated by President Obama. She is on Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list and was named one of TIME’s 100 Must Influential People.

Acterra’s Mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

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A Dose of Climate Reality

Me in the circle-edited

Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training

Yesterday, I became a Climate Reality Leader when I completed three days of training in Los Angeles. Now, I am committed to doing everything I can to fight global warming and the climate change it brings, as a writer, environmental activist, and a grandparent.

Here is the mission of The Climate Reality Project:

“Our mission is to catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis by making urgent action a necessity across every level of society.”  

The Climate Reality event I attended was the 39th training led by former Vice President Al Gore, who has spent 40 years studying, writing about, and advocating for this topic. This training was by far the largest, with 2,200 people in the energy-efficient Los Angeles Convention Center. The first one, in 2006 in Mr. Gore’s barn in Tennessee, trained 50.

Over the three days, we covered many areas. We heard from distinguished scientific experts, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, community justice advocates, policy makers, and experts in how to present this crucial message. Amanda Gorman, the 20-year-old Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, read her poem. One young woman described her difficult life living next door to an oil well.

Numerous panels discussed the various aspects of the crisis and the many solutions that are already in process. I met and spoke with dozens of people. And throughout the three days, Vice President Gore was present, usually on stage, guiding the program.

Vice President Gore gave a special two-hour version of his famous climate presentation early on, and near the end, showed us his compact 14-minute one. That’s the one we will start with ourselves. The message, regardless of length, is compelling, and I will share the essence of it below.

I originally created stevegoesgreen.com to tell about my personal experience of electric vehicles. Now, it will expand to talk about a wider range of environmental and sustainability issues, but will focus on:

  • Replacing gasoline vehicles with EVs
  • Moving from carbon-based energy generation (coal, natural gas) to clean power (solar, wind, hydroelectric, etc.)

We can create a new, better way of life, while keeping our economy strong. In 2016, solar energy employed more than 373,000 Americans and wind energy more than 101,000. Only the coal and oil companies will be unhappy about the move to renewable resources.

Here’s the Problem

The basic science behind global warming is simple, but the processes are very complex and interconnected.

We may look up and think the atmosphere goes a long way out into space, but it’s actually a thin shell. And we are dumping 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into it every day.

Sun to earth

Energy comes from the sun to the earth as light, which warms it. Much of the energy bounces back into space, but some remains. This is the well-known greenhouse effect, which you can experience for yourself if you sit in a car with the windows up on a summer day.

Our atmosphere has done a great job of keeping conditions right for us, but the added pollution, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), has thickened it, so now, more heat remains, warming the planet.

There are many sources of global warming pollution, but the largest is from burning fossil fuels for power generation and in vehicles. There’s been a huge spike in emissions since World War II, and that has caused the surface temperature of the earth to gradually rise. Sixteen of the hottest 17 years ever recorded have occurred since 2001.

The oceans are warming, too. Warmer air holds more water vapor, leading to stronger storms. When the land can’t absorb the additional rainfall fast enough, it leads to floods. Extreme rain storms have become more common since the 1950s. And the disruption of the established patterns and flows on the earth leaves some areas with more rain and some with much less.

An additional problem is that as the ocean absorbs the extra CO2, it becomes more acidic, creating problems for shellfish and bleaching coral reefs. It can affect the flow of ocean currents and the lives of fish, too.

The added trapped heat dries out the land, leading to higher fire danger. The fire season in the Western U.S. is 100 days longer than it was in the 1970s. It sure has been awful this year in California.

Another issue is that with higher surface temperatures, glaciers start to melt and contribute to a rise in the oceans. This can flood coastal cities—and it’s already starting. Low-lying Miami is a mess, with flooding even on sunny days.

All of these disruptions can lead to the spread of pandemic diseases, as tropical insects move north, and create water and food shortages. Animal habitats change, and species can become extinct. And beyond all that, as floods and drought displace people, migrations can cause serious refugee crises.

We must change, but what can we do? There is great progress in renewable energy. Wind and solar energy have become dramatically cheaper and capacity has grown exponentially. Countries like Chile have made huge advances. It’s cheaper now to use renewable energy, so why not?

windmills

There’s more than enough sun and wind to power everything, and battery storage is being developed to hold electricity generated when the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing for use when they’re not. Battery tech improvements are essential for EV progress, too.

In the next few years, there will be many more choices of EVs, and prices will go down as batteries get cheaper. Range and charging speed and convenience will go up. Soon, it won’t make sense to drive a gas car.

The ideal situation is to have 100% renewable energy powering an EV fleet.

There’s so much more to deal with, including other global warming pollution such as methane, and the cutting down of rainforests (which reduces the earth’s ability to absorb the CO2), but there are solutions. We need to act on them quickly.

So, we can change. We need to muster the political and social will to do it. And it starts with understanding the problem, feeling the urgency, and taking action. Then we will change.