Resources Research

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Posts Tagged ‘Transition

Throwing it away – food losses, food waste and retail responsibility

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Good job by FAO on this topic, an extremely important one. ‘Global food losses and food waste’ is the title of a new report by FAO and it is an eye opener indeed. FAO has said that food waste is “more a problem in industrialised countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash”. This is true, but only partly.

It is in fact a problem of societies that have industrialised their food handling, processing and retailing systems to the average level that is seen in the OECD economies, and that this problem is therefore as much visible in the urban food consumer markets of say Sao Paulo and Mumbai and Jakarta as it is in North American or west European cities and towns.

The study has shown that per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. The ‘only’ is relative of course. If these averages are mapped to populations and their food wasting habits, then for Bangladesh in 2011 we have a total wastage of 1.275 million tons! What was the total harvest of vegetables in Bangladesh in 2008? It was 1.1 million tons (FAOstat)!

Per capita food waste

Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions. In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialised countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels. Food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers, said the report. Reducing losses could therefore have an “immediate and significant” impact on their livelihoods and food security.

There are wider connections between food loss + waste and natural resources and energy. Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.

Components of food waste/loss

What can be done? For a start, selling farm produce closer to consumers, without having to conform to the quality standards of retail markets, is a good suggestion. “This could be achieved through farmers’ markets and farm shops” said the report, which is in fact one of the strengths of the Transition movement in the West.

The real problem lies in the retail labyrinth in urban areas, particularly in fast-industrialising Asia. Here, in rather myopic copycat fashion without any learning having taken place, food is wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance. My guess is that this report will not have reliability of the kind it ought to for India and China, simply because in Asian cities and towns, a large network of scrap vendors (for food too) exists which will place food rejected by the retail markets into channels used by the urban poor, by small roadside eateries and by micro-businesses in the informal food processing industry.

What the study is cler about is that “consumers in rich countries are generally encouraged to buy more food than they need”. The ‘Buy three, pay for two’ promotions are one example, while the oversized ready-to-eat meals produced by the food industry are another. Restaurants frequently offer fixed-price buffets that spur customers to heap their plates. Generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly, the report found. That means they often throw food away when “best-before” dates expired.

There are some useful numbers in here. The study has shown that the per capita food loss in Europe and North-America is 280-300 kg per year. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia it is 120-170 kg per year. The total per capita production of edible parts of food for human consumption is, in Europe and North-America, about 900 kg per year and, in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, 460 kg per year. Per capita food wasted by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg per year, while this figure in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia is 6-11 kg per year. Food waste at consumer level in industrialised countries (222 million tons) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).


Knowledge and change, the intangible and development

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The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo

The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo: This cultural landscape extends into neighbouring Benin, is home to the Batammariba whose remarkable mud tower-houses (Takienta) have come to be seen as a symbol of Togo. In this landscape, nature is strongly associated with the rituals and beliefs of society. The 50,000-ha cultural landscape is remarkable due to the architecture of its tower-houses which are a reflection of social structure; its farmland and forest; and the associations between people and landscape. Picture: UNESCO

Energy Bulletin, the website which discusses transition, peak oil and ideas of adaptation, has carried an article I have written about intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development.

Before sustainable development came to assume an academic formality (the new ‘earth systems’ science is built around the concept), it drew heavily from intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as expressed through the customs and practices used to transmit traditional knowledge.

That is why there has been a multiplicity of terms used in the field of sustainable development to designate this concept: indigenous technical knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge, rural

Whatever the preference, this is a body of knowledge that has been nurtured and built upon by groups of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It is usually specific to the local environment, and therefore highly adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. At the same time it is creative and experimental, constantly incorporating influences from outside and innovating from within to meet new conditions. UNESCO’s 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage states this explicitly in Article 2:

“This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil: the Samba de Roda, which involves music, dance and poetry, is a popular festive event that developed in the State of Bahia, in the region of Recôncavo during the seventeenth century. The Samba de Roda was eventually taken by migrants to Rio de Janeiro, where it influenced the evolution of the urban samba that became a symbol of Brazilian national identity in the twentieth century. Picture: UNESCO

These three examples [these are available in the Energy Bulletin article] illustrate the value of intangible cultural heritage to the evolving crises of our times: food, energy and climate change. In the communal rice-growing, locally irrigated societies of Sri Lanka are to be found the lessons of the local self-reliance which has today become a community movement in many countries.

The ‘transition’ movements in North America and Western Europe, which are contributing greatly to a wider and participatory understanding of sustainable societies, now embody ideas and practices that have been at work for centuries in the rice-growing communities of Sri Lanka (as also elsewhere in South and South-East Asia). The water tribunals of Valencia and Murcia (which is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) serve as an inspiring testament to the strength and validity of an ancient system of adjudicating rights and resources.

In an increasingly water-scarce and water-stressed world, it is community-based systems such as this one that promise equity with an authority that is easily accepted because of its cultural roots. Here too, the implication of the Water Tribunals’ inclusion on the Representative List is that generic legal systems may provide protection in law and relief in statute, but it is local authority that rest on knowledge-based tradition that provides the most relevant solution.

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt: this oral poem, also known as the Hilali epic, recounts the saga of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the tenth century. As one of the major epic poems that developed within the Arabic folk tradition, the Hilali is the only epic still performed in its integral musical form. Picture: UNESCO

Climate change has altered weather patterns and crop seasons, and in regions where land is suitable neither for dryland agriculture nor irrigation, it is the thoughtful management of rangelands that is the only long-term conservation technique. The extraordinary flexibility of the Qashqai derives equally from their dense store of botanical and livestock knowledge, and serves as an example of the durability of a society in a difficult landscape.

One of the strengths of the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage is that it widens the scope of recognition to traditional knowledge by revealing its cultural roots, which is respected and transmitted through customary systems and expression. How is traditional or indigenous knowledge an invaluable aspect of intangible cultural heritage? Just as ICH is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals, unique to a particular culture and society, traditional knowledge is the basis for decision-making in that culture or society concerning matters of agriculture, health, natural resource management and community organisation.

A great deal of it is tacit knowledge and may not readily be coded. Indigenous knowledge provides the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the monetarily poor and those communities outside formal (usually urban-denominated) systems of labour and production. This aspect of ICH represents a critically important component of global knowledge on development issues, yet it is an underutilised resource in the development process.

Poverty, low carbon, Transition and history

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UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

Energy Bulletin, which is a project of the Post Carbon Institute, has just published my article on the Transition movement and poverty (in the South, Asian and African). I have raised some questions and perspectives about this aspect of the Transition movement which has intrigued me for some time.

It also has to do with knowing the perspective from Europe – which sadly has too often been coloured by a “we know best how to help you” approach. That’s led to all sorts of inter-cultural problems and the last thing I want to see is for Transition ideas to be looked at with suspicion in the South because of historic blunders on aid and ‘dev-econ’.

The full article is available on Energy Bulletin. Here is the intro:

Serious traders see the trends before anyone else. They do so because their business depends on seeing the minute deviation that signals the beginning of a trend. Early in June 2010 commodities traders charted the new signals they were getting from the world’s agricultural exporters and major consumers. What they saw then became the picture that in late July began to alarm governments and international development agencies. World foodgrain supplies were entering a new phase of tightening, as the impacts of drought and extreme weather in grain producing countries around the world became clear.

For the trading community – whose strong and deep links with the world’s financial markets and banks have become more visible since 2008 – the opportunity is large, perhaps even bigger than the one that slowly unfolded in 2007, when the last global food price crisis swept through cities and villages alike. For inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations system, the news is a body blow to the idea and effort that has sustained work on social justice and equality.

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The effects of the 2007-08 food price crisis were still being unravelled when the 2009 financial crisis took hold. That prompted many UN agencies, major aid organisations and hundreds of large NGOs to quickly study the impact of both on their work, and on those whom they work for, which is the poor and marginalised on all continents. Much less visible and quite unrecognised is the impact of the same two crises on the small but philosophically very sound transition movement. Guided by tenets that became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, this constellation of movements (low carbon, sustainable communities, local resilience being some variations readily recognisable in the ‘west’) has adapted practices central to all ur-rural settlements, and continues to internalise the collected wisdom and practice of the world’s indigenous peoples. In so doing, the transition movement in the ‘west’ (and therefore North) has for the most part been unable to conceptualise a response to the human development and social justice needs of the South.

Much of this lack, as I see it, has to do with the very formidable inertness which western societies inherited from the transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the apparently incontrovertible ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, which by the time the Bretton Woods institutions came into being were well suited to form the core of a ‘development economics’ that has wrought havoc on both North and South, although in different periods of the 20th century. Transition ideas and praxis have had to therefore first wage an intellectual battle against ‘development economics’ and then launch a physical struggle against the socio-ecological degradation that followed such economics on the ground.

What we do know is that rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little. Here are a few points that help explain why the MDGs assessment is crippled by its reluctance to face facts:

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished – their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements – not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. The US$1.25 a day line (which can be replaced by any currency unit at any ruling amount) does not describe a poverty threshold. At best it provides a measure of one marker out of many for poverty, and even that marker needs to be localised for it to have community meaning. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa – correlated with poverty – most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

2. The percentage of chronically hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for years even though the number of hungry worldwide has barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these years of slow gains, and now the gathering 2010-11 food crisis (a shortage of availability coupled with price rise) will further reverse the gains.

There is another linkage, that of population. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and could plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall production of food has meant that the fairly weighted global average of available calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water and energy, is not (which is exactly where transition concepts and praxis come in).

3. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares – mostly from South America and Africa – without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.