Can We Craft a Livable Future? – Reflections From the Unite For Sight Conference

Recently, I visited Connecticut for the first time to attend the annual Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University. If you cannot already tell by the title, the conference covered an extremely broad range of topics – maternal and child health, design and architecture, social media and marketing, health policy, photography, and on and on. By the end of the weekend, I felt rather overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the ideas that I had been presented with. However, one session particularly stood out to me, perhaps because it touched on an issue I have limited knowledge of, yet one that plays a role in many of the most pressing matters of today’s world. It undoubtedly has broad implications for global health. The session discussed “hunger and food,” and admittedly, I chose it over the others because it was the final session of the weekend, and I just wanted to hear about something that was “basic” and “easy to address,” given my exhaustion level. But despite the often-mentioned fact that the world already produces enough food to feed everyone – if only distribution could be evened out – food and hunger issues remain complex, and food production practices, particularly in this country, have a lot of scary consequences for the wider world.

My favorite speaker of the three in the session was Dr. Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health sciences, health policy, and international health and director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He really got me to step back and ask, “Why does food production so often have negative impacts on the environment and on our health? Can this be changed?” I’d say the answers to those two questions are 1) because people have simplified the process – prioritizing product yield and ease of production over protecting consumers and the environment as a whole. Also, governmental policy has over and over promoted harmful food production practices. And 2) Yes, this can absolutely be changed.

Here’s a list of some sobering facts related to food, health and the environment that I learned at the conference as well as some follow up reading:

1. Most of the world’s poor are farmers, and most of them are hungry farmers. About 1.3 billion people are small farmers (World Farmers Organization), cultivating less than five acres of land. Farming is by no means a lucrative profession, in wealthy countries and poor countries alike. Farmers depend on an immobile landscape, and the globalization of food has prioritized large-scale producers of cheap, ‘efficient’ food. Farmers have been repeatedly encouraged to engage in harmful practices in order to make a decent income.

2. Pastures now occupy 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon in Brazil, and feed crops cover a large part of the remainder (Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options). The majority of that land farms soybeans, which are not a traditional crop in South America, and are mostly used to meet the demand for soy from China. To get an even broader picture, about half of the land on earth is devoted to farming today.

3. The loss of species is estimated to be running 50 to 500 times higher than background rates found in the fossil record (Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options).  To me, this is simply terrifying. As someone who studies biology, I’m well aware of the often hidden benefits and dependencies species have on each other. When a handful of species disappears, the whole ecosystem suffers, and often in a way that can’t be foreseen. A lot of today’s food production, particularly meat production (and production of livestock feed) uses practices that directly contribute to this species loss, including deforestation, land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing… you get the picture.

4. Global demand of meat and cereal production will largely increase as populations increase in the developing world (the Soil Association). Despite a predicted future decline in the rate of growth of consumption of meat, it will not be enough to offset demand from population growth, and overall there will be a large increase in production. That means that the  environmental impact per unit of livestock production must be reduced by a similar proportion, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.

5. Agriculture is the largest user of water, accounting for 70% of total freshwater use (Stockholm International Water Institute).  Already more than one billion people do not have sufficient access to clean water. Under a “business as usual” scenario (Rosegrant et al., 2002), global water withdrawal will increase by 22% in 2025.

6. Policy makers are slow to respond to harmful practices. Environmental laws and programs are usually put in place only after significant damage has already occurred. The focus continues to be placed on protection and restoration, rather than on the more cost-effective approaches of prevention and mitigation. Perhaps this is partially because policy makers don’t realize how important these issues are to the public. I think that my peers, or just people outside of the political realm in general, tend to overlook the power of their political voice. Simple things such as writing a letter to a representative can have a big impact (another thing I learned at the conference).

7. These issues are about more than just hunger and the environment – they are issues of security as well. By increasing the scarcity of natural resources such as land and water, environmental degradation increases the likelihood of violent conflict, particularly when there is a lack of governing institutions… A Pentagon report (Schwartz and Randall, 2003) suggested that global warming could prove a greater risk to the world than terrorism and could lead to catastrophic droughts, famines, and riots (Yet I wonder how much money has the Pentagon spent since 2003 on fighting terrorism versus address global warming…).

8. The livestock sector is responsible for an estimated 51% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalents. This is a higher share than transport (Worldwatch Institute). Virtually every step in the production of livestock contributes to climate change and/or air pollution. These include the livestock respiration, burning fossil fuel to produce mineral fertilizer, methane release from fertilizer and manure breakdown, land degradation, and fossil fuel use during feed and animal production, not to mention production and transport of processed and refrigerated animal products.

9. Animal foods, as they are produced today, pose a risk to human health. Directly, they can lead to infectious disease. Animal foods are susceptible to pathogens (E. coli, for example) and they often still have chemical residues by the time they make it to a dinner plate. About 75% of recent emerging diseases are zoonotic (passed from animals to humans), according to the CDC. In an indirect way, animal foods (although this is true for other foods as well) increase human exposure to infectious disease due to climate change. Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and schistosomiasis are on the rise as the planet warms.

10. Meat is often times deceptively cheap. Much of the cost of meat goes into externalities – soil degradation, water use, and greenhouse gas production. How much would a McDonald’s hamburger cost if the pricing of land, water, and use of waste sinks were taken into account? What if there were no subsidies that directly encouraged livestock producers to engage in environmentally damaging activities?

11. “The food system is run by people who know nothing about health, and the health system is run by people who know nothing about food,” says Ken Lee of Lotus Foods (see below). We cannot keep pretending that the obesity epidemic and the increasing incidence of heart disease, diabetes, etc. in this country and most others can be solved solely through behavior change at the consumer level. It will require changes at the source of the issue — in food production as well and in the policies that govern food production, pricing, and distribution.

Despite the seemingly onerous task of addressing any of the above issues, there are already many individuals involved in the effort to make food production healthier for people and the environment as well as more sustainable. Here are three examples of cool organizations and what they are doing to change the face of agriculture:

1. Lotus Foods: Ken Lee, co-founder and co-owner of Lotus Foods, introduced his company’s business model, which uses sustainable agriculture practices. Lotus provides exotic rice varieties to small family farms in remote regions of the world, including Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, and the US. Since these heirloom rice varieties are very unique, the global marketplace for them is large, particularly given the superior quality, taste, texture, aroma, color, and nutritional value of some of the rice species. Lotus farmers use a methodology known as “System of Rice Intensification (SRI) or “One Crop per Drop”, pioneered by Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development (CIIFAD) in the mid-1990s. This method of farming reduces the amount of seed, water, chemicals, land, and labor needed to produce a given quantity of rice, and it produces healthier soil, and therefore healthier rice, at a lower cost. Read about SRI here. I really love the way that Lotus sums up the work that they do and their ultimate goals, “Eradicating poverty and promoting social and economic justice has to start with agriculture and it has to be accomplished in a way that protects and restores the natural resources on which all life depends. At the crux of this challenge is rice, which provides a source of living to two billion people, most earning less than $200 a year.”

2. One Acre Fund: Tony Kalm, director of business development, introduced the One Acre Fund, an incredible organization that is changing the lives of “one of the largest groups of ‘forgotten poor’ in the world.” Concentrated on one-acre subsistence farms in Sub-Saharan Africa, the One Acre fund serves small-scale farmers and uses markets to achieve poverty eradication. Their ultimate goal is to make farmers more prosperous. One Acre Fund empowers and educates local farmers, provides environmentally sensitive seeds and fertilizers, facilitates crop handling and storage, and pays farmers in the event of crop loss due to drought or disease. The organization releases performance reports every six months; in the most recent report (fall 2011), 77% of their field costs were covered through farmer repayments on low interest loans. Today they serve 75,000 farm families in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi.

3. The Center for a Livable Future: Directed by Dr. Robert Lawrence, the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health was founded to address the interlocking relationships of diet and health, agriculture and the environment, food equity, and population issues. CLF aims to increase knowledge about these interconnections ‘in order to influence public policy toward more equitable and sustainable systems.’ CLF encourages public health professionals to collaborate and share discoveries to ultimately influence policy. They also raise awareness among individuals and institutions about environmental issues through classroom education as well as public events to ‘effect individual behavior and stimulate societal changes.’ The center puts out a list of research and program ideas for students that could make for some awesome independent study or summer research projects!

As a recent Northwestern graduate with a degree in biology and global health, I’m left wondering why these issues were if anything a sidenote in my undergraduate coursework. I’m also wondering why my fellow students aren’t more up in arms about these harsh realities. Even more importantly, I’m wondering why I’m still not even sure how I fit into a solution – what I can personally to do be a part of the necessary change as someone who will be going into medicine and not public policy. I think it’s time that food production issues were discussed across departments rather than limited to environmental science and engineering. I know that creating renewable energy sources, a more sustainable environment, and new approaches to global health are all focuses of the 2011 Northwestern strategic plan, and I’m eager to see how the university will increase awareness among students, shaping future leaders who will be a part of the solutions to these urgent problems.

Note: This post has been edited for accuracy. Many thanks to Jeff Anhang from the Worldwatch Institute for providing some helpful resources. Check out this report from Forbes about an analysis by Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland if you’re wondering how you can be a part of the solution to climate change. 

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