What’s the size of your foodprint?

Dante Dalabajan
It makes perfect sense now to make sure that when the next food crisis happens we will not be left with an empty beggar's bowl

My article on heroic eating a couple of weeks ago generated far more interest than I expected. I was in Agusan del Sur when the article came out and I was astonished to find out an extraordinary amount of positive feedback when I checked my inbox 5 days later.

I guess there is now a really growing consciousness among consumers about the need to grapple with food choices. But I also hasten to add that I only scratched the surface of heroic eating.  

Heroic eating, as I said in my earlier piece, is about making the right choices to make the world a better place to live in for our family and for our neighbors. Heroic eating is also making the right choices for the environment, making sure that the next generations will have the same, if not more, benefits from our natural resources as we have now.  

Sounds grandiose, right? Actually it’s more common sense than grandiose if you think about the fact that by 2050 the global demand for food will increase by 70% as there will be 9 billion mouths to feed.  

There are a number of barriers that we need to overcome if we are to make sure there will be food on every table. Paramount concerns are the declining productivity of, and growing competition over, land and the scarcity of water as a result of an increase in global temperature.  

What is ‘foodprint’?

I believe we can surmount the challenges and ordinary consumers like us have a critical role to play. The key lies in what I call  foodprint, my shorthand for the life cycle analysis of carbon emission from producing a unit of food item. It’s actually a lot less complicated than it sounds, so let me explain.

Foodprint could be big or small. The bigger it is, the worse off we become. 

A good example of an ideal foodprint is when I, together with my colleagues, stopped by a fruit stand in Bansalan, North Cotabato to buy some marang, a tropical fruit which looks a lot like langka or jackfruit, but is hairy than spiky. We gorged the marang there and then, and when we were done, we asked the woman if she had some more.  

She reached for a long pole and plucked some marang from the tree that stands right above her food stall. The foodprint of marang, in this case, is carbon negative, that is to say, its tree absorbs carbon dioxide. In addition, it didn’t require fertilizer to grow or to be transported many miles away, both of which could have resulted in the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  

Contrast marang with many of the fruits that are ubiquitous in the metropolis —many of which came from China, the US, and God knows where else. Foodstuff grown in industrial scale require massive land conversion and extensive use of harmful chemicals that heat up our planet. They also require the use of more fuel because of the geographical distance from the farm to the market. In short, they are carbon positive and have a very big foodprint.

We know from our Grade 5 Science that we need just enough greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to have life on earth and to grow foodstuff. If we have a very thin atmosphere, we end up like planet Mars where the average temperature could go as low as -150° C, in which case the only food we might have would be halo-halo and ice cream except that we would be left only ice with no other flavor.

If we have a very thick thermal blanket we would end up like Venus, where, given an average temperature of 450° C, we can have  anything roasted every time, except that we could not grow anything to roast.

So, what is the right amount and at what point do we have to stop the pumping of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer will vary depending who you ask.  

Saving the planet

The activist organization 350.org thinks that we should only have 350 parts per million (ppm) to preserve our planet. At the moment, we are marching inexorably towards 400 ppm, a level that planet Earth has not reached in the last 2.5 million to 5 million years, according to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California in San Diego.

Some experts are saying that global emissions must peak at 400 ppm and decline steeply thereafter for us to prevent a 2°C rise in temperature. Bad enough that a 2°C rise in temperature will melt the polar ice caps that cause the water to go high enough to inundate the beaches we go to.

Worse, we may need to find a way to stay nourished without eating food because the climate could be so inhospitable to growing some of the crops we have been accustomed to eating.   

Rice production, for example, could decline by around 10% for each 1°C increase in night temperature during the growing season. It has been speculated that a substantial increase in surface temperature in the seas could trigger massive coral bleaching, alter the chemistry of the seas, which could, in turn, lead to the collapse of some fish that are familiar fares in our dining table.

About 11% of the total greenhouse emission comes from agriculture. So knowing the size of your foodprint is crucial to keeping us from catastrophic climate change. If you consider that the agricultural produce needs fertilizers, needs to be transported to the market, and needs to be processed, the total emission of the global food system shoots up to as high as 19-29%.  

I can offer 3 quick and simple ways to hold our foodprints at bay. 

First, pick brown rice over white rice. 

To begin with, brown rice is tastier and more nutritious. Secondly, the reason it is tastier and more nutritious is because you retain the bran by not milling the rice the second or the third time around to turn the grain white.  

Remove the bran and you remove over a hundred anti-oxidants that keep us healthy and fit. The irony of ironies is that we have to buy dietary supplements and vitamins to get the same benefits that we are losing by over-milling our rice.

Very importantly, processing brown rice to turn it white requires the use of more energy that we could have easily saved or used for other purposes.  

Second, choose fresh organic, vegetables and meat over canned, processed and packaged food.

Inorganic foodstuff is bad for the planet because they use inorganic fertilizer which emits nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more harmful than carbon dioxide and many other harmful chemicals.  

Dangerous chemicals cause runoff in waterways and penetrate the groundwater. Packaging of food also produces emissions that we could have otherwise easily by-passed.  

Third, choose local over foreign foodstuff because food that requires less energy to get to the market is better. 

It’s also good for our local food producers.  

Traditional economics tells us that the Philippines can do away with agriculture because our farmers produce agricultural commodities at higher costs compared to farmers abroad. This assumes, however, that our local farmers are competing in an even playing field. The fact is they do not.  

Farmers in the US and EU are receiving as much as US$21,000 and $16,000 respectively per year. Contrast that with their competitors from the developing world like the Philippines having to be content with a measly $400.

This means that the US and EU governments subsidize their agro-exports in the range of 20-50% which enables them to flood poor countries with a torrent of cheap, often genetically modified, agricultural products at a fraction of their production cost, inundating the rural farm products of developing countries.

I’m afraid that we have given up on our food producers even before we have given them the benefit of the doubt.

If we let our local farmers be clobbered in the market, chances are, we could be in very deep trouble than we have ever realized. In the midst of the food crisis in 2008, Thailand, Vietnam and India, which control 60% of global rice trading, restricted their exports to protect their own domestic supplies.   

At that time, the Philippines was among the countries with “severe localized food insecurity” requiring external assistance in food by UN-FAO’s reckoning. By 2010, our rice imports reached an all time high of 2.45 million metric tons, making us the biggest rice importing country in the world that year.  

We have seen how food producing countries could be stingy in trading food during periods of scarcity — for good reason. Otherwise their governments could face food riots. I think it makes perfect sense now to make sure that when the next food crisis happens we will not be left with an empty beggar’s bowl. It’s neither socially acceptable nor is it politically tenable to leave our fate to the global market. – Rappler.com


Dante Dalabajan is currently the manager of Oxfam’s Building Resilient and Adaptive Communities and Institutions in Mindanao (BINDS) project. He was a former policy and research officer of the economic justice program of Oxfam. He has 17 years of experience in public policy research and advocacy and campaigns.

This piece is part of Oxfam’s online campaign — #GROWChallenge which calls for netizens to commit to at least one of the 5 calls #GROWChallenge: #EatBrownRice, #BuyLocal, #ReduceFoodWaste, #SaveWater, and #ConserveEnergy.

Food/vegetable icons set 1 from Shutterstock.
Food/vegetable icons set 2 from Shutterstock.

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