by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Sustainability

Apr 19 2019

Weekend reading: Science Breakthroughs for Agriculture

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has a new report out on Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food and Agricultural Research by 2030.

In the next decade, the major goals for food and agricultural research include (1) improving the efficiency of food and agricultural systems, (2) increasing the sustainability of agriculture, and (3) increasing the resiliency of agricultural systems to adapt to rapid changes and extreme conditions.

To that end, the committee that wrote this report examined “breakthrough opportunities that could dramatically increase the capabilities of food and agricultural science.”

The breakthroughs?

  1. A systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience, and sustainability.
  2. The development and validation of precise, accurate, field-deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines.
  3. The application and integration of data science, software tools, and systems models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system.
  4. The ability to carry out routine gene editing of agriculturally important organisms will allow for precise and rapid improvement of traits important for productivity and quality.
  5. Understand the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harness this knowledge to improve crop production, transform feed efficiency, and increase resilience to stress and disease.

I’m worried about how all this will help make agricultural production more sustainable.  For that, we need smaller scale, fewer chemical inputs, crop rotations, and other such methods.  I wish NASEM would do a serious study on agricultural sustainability.

Jan 25 2019

Weekend reading: The Lancet / EAT Forum report on healthy and sustainable diets

I’ve saved this for Weekend Reading because it will take a weekend to get through it.  The report is a blockbuster: 37 authors, 47 pages, 357 references.

The Lancet commissioned this report from the EAT Forum, which brought together international experts on diet and health (most of whom I do not know) to define unifying dietary principles that best promote will promote the health of people and the planet.

Fortunately, the diet that is best for health is the same diet as is best for the planet.  The report defines it on page 5.

To summarize:

This report has many strengths:

  • It is researched in depth and is now the reference source for information about needed dietary changes.
  • It firmly links dietary health to environmental sustainability.
  • Its findings are consistent with many previous reports on diet and health, including that of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee DGAC).
  • Its messages are unambiguous.
  • The summary report is a big help
  • The timing  is excellent; the 2020 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee, if it ever gets appointed, will have to pay close attention to the science reviewed in this report.
  • It focuses on food, not nutrients (these meals meet the standards of recommended diets).

Does this report settle the questions?  Hardly.  Remember the fuss over sustainability (the “S-word?”) in the 2015 report of the DGAC?

There is lots to read and think about here.  Enjoy!

Jan 4 2019

Weekend reading: A view of how to feed the world sustainably

The World Resources Institute has a new report on how to feed the world in a way that is sustainable.

The report is based on the premise that 56% more food will be needed by 2050.  Given that premise, the unavailability of more land on which to grow food, and the need to mitigate greenhouse gases, the report recommends (among other things) increasing the efficiency of production and managing demand.

I’d like to see some careful evaluations of the basic premise of this report as well as its recommendations, which seem to place a large burden on individuals rather than governments or corporations.  The word “corporation” does not appear in the report; food companies come up only in the context of food waste (a non-controversial issue):

Dec 19 2018

Indexes: Ranking Systems for Sustainability and Nutrition

Two new Index Systems rank countries for sustainability and corporations for promoting health.

I.  Sustainability Index.

The Economist and Barilla have devised a new, interactive Index that ranks countries on the basis of food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, and the ability to meet nutritional challenges.  Its scoring system goes from 0 (terrible) to 100 (perfect).

The top ten scoring countries are:

None of the scores is exemplary.  The US rank is #26.

II.  Access to Nutrition Index

The Access to Nutrition Foundation (Netherlands) ranks corporations on their strategies, policies, and actions to address obesity and diet-related diseases in the US.

The overall rankings, shown here, are relatively low.  Some do better than others on governance, products, accessibility, marketing, lifestyles, labeling, and engagement.

The highest scores are for labeling.  The lowest scores are for accessibility.

Indexes like these are useful for understanding where we are.  They should inspire us to action.

Nov 16 2018

Principles for responsible international investment in food and agriculture

The Committee on World Food Security of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has a report out on this topic, well worth pondering.

 

Sustainability, respect, safety, health, transparency, accountability—all good ideas.  The trick is to put them into practice.

Aug 18 2017

Reports about sustainable and local farming: one after another

Sustainable Food Trust has a report on a conference on the True Cost of American Food.

Health is the obvious cost, but others include:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US are so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits,
  • air pollution from CAFOs shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby,
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

The American Farmland Trust and Growing Food Connections have published GROWING LOCAL: A Community Guide to Planning for Agriculture and Food Systems.

This is an enormously useful how-to guide to developing local food systems with lots of facts and figures .  Here is an example:

The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis , of all things, has issued “Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities.”

Harvesting Opportunity…highlights models for collaboration between policymakers, practitioners and the financial community, and discusses research, policy and resource gaps that, if addressed, might contribute to the success of regional food systems strategies.

New Food Economy has an analysis by Katy Kieffer on who really owns America’s farmland

While urban commercial real estate has skyrocketed in places like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., powerful investors have also sought to turn a profit by investing in the most valuable rural real estate: farmland. It’s a trend that’s driving up costs up for the people who grow our food, and—slowly—it’s started to change the economics of American agriculture.

Aug 15 2017

Agroecology: it’s the hot issue in agriculture, but what does it mean?

If you are like me, you may have trouble understanding what this term means, but it’s the hot new word in alternative agriculture.

Farms of the Future says agroecology is the only way forward.  It is collecting signatures on a petition to make agricultural production practices tore ecological.

But what does that mean, exactly?

The Wikipedia definition is no help at all.

Agroecology is the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems. The prefix agro- refers to agriculture. Bringing ecological principles to bear in agroecosystems can suggest novel management approaches that would not otherwise be considered. The term is often used imprecisely and may refer to “a science, a movement, [or] a practice”. Agroecologists study a variety of agroecosystems, and the field of agroecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming, whether it be organicintegrated, or conventionalintensive or extensive.

Thanks a lot.

Does agroecology mean the same thing as sustainable agriculture?

Fortunately help is at hand.

Start reading!

 

Jul 10 2017

Rotating crops in Iowa–a better way to farm

I am a big fan of Wendell Berry, the inspiring Kentucky professor and farmer, long a leading and inspiring proponent of agrarian values.  He displays these values in his own life—he walks the talk—as well as in his many books, poems, and, these days, tweets (@WendellDaily).

Now there is a movie about him, “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”  It’s a lovely and touching film about Berry’s early start and young family.  His wife and daughter appear in the film, but the contemporary man does not.  He says he doesn’t do movies (a position with which I am increasingly sympathetic).

The film documents what industrial agriculture has done to rural America—emptied it of people, communities, and a way of life (as Berry puts it, the Russians did this with police; we did it with economics).

The film also shows how going  back to a more sustainable production system is good for soil, animals, and food, and makes farmers better off and happier.

This may sound like fantasy, but here is the Union of Concerned Scientists with a new report documenting precisely those benefits: Rotating Crops, Turning Profits.

 

As UCS scientific director Ricardo Salvador wrote me in an email:

A valid critique of the [crop rotation] system, for all its benefits (saves soil, cleans water, reduces inputs and chemical pollution, increases biodiversity, reduces pest pressure, boosts yields and profitability), is that not all Iowa farmers could adopt the system without reducing supply of corn/soy, increasing their price, and thereby driving farmers back to the system. What is the economic equilibrium point? It is an important question.

The short of it, after our economist’s painstaking analysis, is that 20 – 40% of current Iowa corn/soy acreage could be transferred into the system without distorting market dynamics. Interestingly, approximately that amount of corn/soy land in Iowa is highly erodible and should not be in that system to begin with. Farmers attempt to force the issue because of current policy incentives. If instead that ground were put into the extended rotation, it would save megatons of soil and billions of dollars of environmental and health damage annually… All of this, at great profit to the farmer—it should not be forgotten.

This is important work and it’s just thrilling that the Register is writing about it.  I hope everyone in Iowa reads the editorial and pays attention to its lessons.