Taihu Pig: A Fertile and Tasty Breed of Swine

By Caitlin Aylward

Pork plays a prominent role in Chinese cuisine, particularly in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River Valley. As a result, swine, like the Taihu pig breed, are important components of native agriculture and livestock production in the region.

The Taihu pig is a Chinese heritage breed known for its tasty meat (Photo Credit: Robin Loznak)

The Taihu is a domestic breed of pig from the Taihu Lake region in the lower Yangtze River valley of China. In general, the Taihu is a relatively large breed of pig, characterized by its thick skin, black color, large floppy ears, and distinctly wrinkled face. However there are several different varieties of Taihu, including the Meishan, Fengjing, Jiaxing Black, and Erhualian varieties, all of which are differentiated by the variability in character and the region they inhabit.

The Taihu pig is one of the most prolific pig breeds in the world, and is particularly well known for its high fertility rates. The Taihu sows are capable of producing multiple litters throughout their lifetime, often averaging around 14 piglets each; however litters can range in size from anywhere between 12 to 20 piglets. The Taihu also matures sexually at an early age, making it a popular swine among breeders.

Taihu pigs are typically raised in densely populated townships and cities. Consequently, the Taihu are often kept in enclosures year round. The diet of the Taihu is mostly comprised of barley and rice brain, but also includes radish, pumpkin, grass, and certain aquatic plants. The Taihu’s rich diet contributes to its highly desirable tasty and juicy meat. The swine’s exceptional resistance to disease is yet another advantageous characteristic that distinguishes the Taihu pig from other breeds.

The recent rise in income and living standards among the Chinese has resulted in an unprecedented demand for high quality meat. In response, pig farmers in the region have become increasingly interested in rearing greater numbers of Taihu to meet this emerging market demand.  The Taihu’s proflicacy, in addition to its high fat to meat ratio, has made it a highly desired breed among pig farmers and consumers.

The Taihu’s desirable rearing characteristics and exceptional taste have interested genetic engineers and breeders around the world. Although native to the Taihu Valley region in China, the Taihu have since been introduced in nations around the world, including France, Japan, and the United States. The Taihu is often crossbred with other swine to improve the overall quality of meat, as well as the birth weight and survival rates of hybrid pig litters. Given the breed’s many desirable rearing characteristics and high quality meat, the Taihu is an indigenous livestock breed that is undoubtedly worth preserving.

What are some lesser-known breeds of pig that you know about? Share with us in the comments below! 

Caitlin Aylward is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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Meet the Nourishing the Planet Team: Devon Ericksen

We have a whole new crop of interns joining the Nourishing the Planet team this fall. Today, meet Devon Ericksen.

Devon Ericksen

Devon graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology and a minor in Global Sustainability. Studying anthropology at UVa stimulated her interest in the relationship between culture and food, as well as the role of women in agriculture.

While at UVa she worked with local organizations on projects to reduce the energy use of low-income homes in Charlottesville. She also captained the school’s club ultimate Frisbee team for two years, travelling to tournaments across the country and discovering great food that cities such as Boulder, Colorado, and Austin have to offer.

Devon’s love of sustainable food was developed by her parents. Her dad taught her the value of healthy and delicious cooking, and her mom’s backyard garden in Ashland, Virginia produces raspberries, peppers, cantaloupes, corn, and much more. She enjoys learning about urban farming, and recently began volunteering with Renew Richmond, an organization that creates community gardens in Richmond, VA.
Devon also enjoys photojournalism and visual storytelling, and once spent a summer as a photographer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She hopes to apply her creative skills to the Nourishing the Planet project to spread the word about sustainable agriculture innovations and the brilliant people behind them.

Her hobbies include hiking, cooking, and making her own sunscreen.

For more information on how to apply for an internship with Nourishing the Planet, click here.

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Saturday Series: An Interview with Dr. José Daboub

By Devon Ericksen

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Dr. José Daboub of GAIN (Photo Credit: GAIN)

Name: Dr. Juan José Daboub

Affiliation: The Global Adaptation Institute (GAIN). GAIN  is a non-profit made up of global leaders and climate scientists focused on the urgent need for adaptation in a changing world. By measuring what is at risk and supporting projects that are working towards adaptation, GAIN hopes to save lives and livelihoods around the globe.

Bio: Dr. Juan José Daboub is the Founding CEO of GAIN, as well as Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Climate Change. Dr. Daboub’s career began in El Salvador, where he became a respected business leader and from 1999 to 2004 he served as both the country’s Minister of Finance and the Chief of Staff to President Francisco Flores. In 2004 he joined Flores in starting the America Libre Institute, a non-profit that implemented projects in Latin America promoting liberty, stability, and growth. From 2006 until the creation of GAIN in 2010, Dr. Daboub was the Managing Director of the World Bank, where he oversaw operations in 110 countries around the world. Dr. Daboub brings his global experience to GAIN, and shares with us his thoughts on the Institute’s work.

How did the Global Adaptation Institute begin and what led to the creation of the GAIN Index?

The Global Adaptation Institute was created in 2010 in order to fill a gap in helping countries, especially those in the developing world, to be more resilient and have a better capacity to adapt to an ever-changing world. We brought together a group of world leaders in both the private and public sectors to encourage organizations, especially private ones, to be more conscious of the urgent need to adapt.

With that in mind, the Institute focuses on three areas that we believe are very effective at helping to save lives and livelihoods:

  1. We need to be able to measure what matters. We need a proper matrix to know whether policies and investments are helping to build resilience. Creating this matrix, called the GAIN Index, is a focus of the Institute. We believe the GAIN Index is the most modern and advanced tool out there for measuring a country’s readiness and vulnerabilities in order to improve their conditions.
  2. Identify what’s going on in the real world and highlight practical solutions that investors can focus on.
  3. Build strategic alliances with organizations such as universities and think tanks that are interested in the subject of adaptation.

What kind of response have you received to the GAIN Index? Have you had much success in convincing governments and private businesses to adopt climate adaptation measures?

Many companies, such as ABM, Caterpillar, Cargill, Pepsi-Cola, and Coca-Cola, are beginning to consider adaptation risks in certain countries and in certain parts of their production lines when making investments and building resilience in their supply chain. Any company that deals with food production, insurance, water, infrastructure, or energy in the international sphere must consider these factors, and many are beginning to do so.

What are some of the factors used to measure a country’s agricultural readiness and vulnerability in the GAIN Index?

The GAIN Index contains information on the level of irrigation, use of modern technology and fertilizers to show a country’s food capacity. These are factors that reflect the ability of people to access and use technology to adjust to changing conditions. Access to and quality of water is another important factor in agriculture, as it takes a great deal of water to grow food and nourish livestock.

Other indicators, such as “yield change,” show how the agriculture sector might suffer based on the projected impact of climate change. Readiness indicators reflect factors such as regulations and subsidies, investment freedom, level of corruption, and education. These show how quickly and efficiently countries can utilize new technologies, information and investments to build resilience. The Index helps manage all of these factors and reach conclusions on a case-by-case basis.

What are some examples of the GAIN Index being utilized to focus attention on agricultural adaptation strategies?

Through the GAIN Prize, we have highlighted two projects, run by Engineers Without Borders and the Mennonite Economic Development Association, that are building agricultural resistance in Peru. EWB is helping increase irrigation access while MEDA is strengthening the use of agricultural technology amongst small- and medium-sized farmers. These are factors directly measured in the GAIN Index.

What kind of potential is there for the private sector to find profit in adaptation strategies, specifically in relation to agriculture? 

There are opportunities all along the value chain. Small industry and manufacturers can benefit from the sale and installation of irrigation equipment, improved fertilizers and other basic agricultural technology that can increase yields significantly. Farmers themselves can gain by becoming more knowledgeable about changing weather patterns and growing conditions and the strategies that help maintain food production. Research and technology firms can continue to refine varieties of crops that can withstand altered conditions—be they increased aridity, expansion of pest and predators, or more severe flooding.

The potential for the private sector to find profit in adaptation strategies, especially in agriculture, is extremely high. This is not only because of the return on investment, but also the great possibility of helping a country save lives and improve livelihoods. There is great opportunity for companies of all sizes, from large corporations to small micro-enterprises, to make these types of investments and help people have better living conditions.

What can your community do to adapt to climate change? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!

Devon Ericksen is a media and communications intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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Bridging the Gap: The Need to Unite Global and Grassroots Approaches to Sustainable Development

By Sophie Wenzlau

“Human actions are rapidly approaching or have already transgressed key global thresholds, increasing the likelihood of unprecedented ecological turbulence,” according to a report co-authored by scientists from the STEPS Centre, Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Tellus Institute. The report cites an urgent need to promote Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) uniting global and grassroots approaches to sustainable development.

The international community has neglected to emphasize community-led responses to sustainable development (Photo Credit: Antonio Lacerda/EPA)

At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, officials endorsed a document, Agenda 21, emphasizing the need for community-led responses to sustainable development challenges. However, in the 20 years that have since passed, local responses to sustainable development challenges have seldom been acknowledged at the international level.

In general, high-level international panels on sustainability have promoted development from the top-down, focusing on, “particular forms of technological fix, whereby advanced science and engineering are harnessed towards solutions that can be rolled out at a large scale—whether in biotechnology (to produce high yielding crops to feed 9 billion people), or geo-engineering and low carbon energy technologies (to mitigate climate change).” The international approach has tended to ignore small-scale, grassroots innovations. It has, “related only sporadically, if at all, to the array of innovative grassroots initiatives springing up in farms and forests, villages and municipalities, factories and homes,” around the world.

According to a press release from the STEPS Centre, “the targets, indicators and approaches being used to pursue progress towards sustainable development at Rio+20 are counterproductive,” because they rely on large scale technological solutions. Scientists at the STEPS Centre, Stockholm Institute, and Tellus Institute, are actively promoting the idea that the principles of sustainable development should emphasize a diversity of solutions, embracing both small-scale grassroots and large-scale technological innovations in a multidimensional way.

To effectively address food insecurity, for instance, these scientists suggest the dual promotion of large-scale innovations, like plant breeding and biotechnology, and small-scale innovations, like soil and water conservation education for indigenous farmers. They recommend dialogue that brings farmers, scientists, businesses, and policymakers together, for they believe it can help, “to clarify the roles of these different innovation pathways in addressing diverse national and local sustainability priorities.”

According to Professor Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, “science, technology and innovation can help avert catastrophic developmental and environmental damage. But only if we move beyond outdated notions of whose innovation counts, to empower the vital contributions of poorer people’s own creativity in building green and fair economies and contributing to resilient socio-techno-ecological systems.”

Sophie Wenzlau is a research associate with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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What Works: Saving Seeds

By Carolyn Smalkowski

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

Community seed saving can help farmers achieve greater independence, adapt to climate change, and rise out of poverty (Photo Credit: Navdanya)

In the last several years, many developing country governments around the world have cut federal agricultural investments within the seed sector. As a result, private seed companies promoting hybrid seeds are filling in the gaps. Farmers’ groups, however, are doing their own community seed saving so they can achieve greater independence, adapt to climate change, and rise out of poverty.

More than half of the world’s commercialized seeds are in the hands of just three companies – Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta. The hybrid seeds these companies promote are bred in a way that future generations of seed are unable to maintain the same qualities of the hybrid seed. As a result, farmers develop a dependency on the seeds and must re-purchase them after each growing cycle if they want production to remain stable. Hybrid crops can require more chemical inputs and water than traditional varieties.

Fortunately, organizations such as Navdanya, La Via Campesina, and ETC Group are advocating on behalf of farmers to promote farmer sovereignty through the development of local seed-saving and sustainable agricultural initiatives. Saving seeds helps contribute to food security by securing the accessibility of safe, nutritious food through community seed banks. These seed banks facilitate greater sharing among farmers and promote greater economic stability.

Community seed saving also supports local adaptive capacity by helping to conserve indigenous knowledge and culture. Farmers are more easily able to adjust to changing weather conditions due to centuries of careful seed selection and breeding.  Traditional seeds are thus more genetically diverse and environmentally resilient, which can better prepare communities for an unpredictable and changing climate.

Most importantly, “Seed saving gives farmers life,” according to activist Vandana Shiva. According to Shiva, the increased poverty and indebtedness that results from dependency on seed corporations like Monsanto led to the farmer suicide tragedies in India.  Seed saving can empower small farmers to regain sovereignty and independence so they can take control over their own futures and the futures of their families.

Do you know of any community seed saving initiatives? Have you experienced first-hand the consequences of seed commercialization? We welcome your comments below.

To read more about savings seeds, see FAO Seed Distribution and the Biopiracy Controversy, Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change, Kibera’s Vertical Farms, and From Seeds of Suicide to Seeds of Hope: Why Are Indian Farmers Committing Suicide and How Can We Stop This Tragedy?.

Carolyn Smalkowski is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.


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What Happened to King Coal?

Figures for the first half of 2012 show a remarkable shift in U.S. energy trends. Coal-fired power generation has plummeted to 20 percent below last year’s level and 31 percent below the peak reached in 2007.  Far from being the fossil fuel of the future (according to many industry leaders and even some environmentalists) American coal may now be in an irreversible downward spiral.

Coal’s decline has two main causes.  Electricity use has virtually leveled off in the United States since the great recession began in 2008, leaving many U.S. utilities with excess generating capacity and more latitude to choose which of their power plants will operate.  Meanwhile, the rapid decline in U.S. natural gas prices this year—averaging the equivalent of $13 per barrel of oil—has allowed utilities to fire up some of their newer and more efficient gas plants while idling many of their coal plants.

Electricity Net Generation from Coal and Natural Gas, 1990-2012. Note: Figures for 2012 are estimates based on data from the first six months of the year. (Source: Worldwatch Institute)

The steep decline of U.S. coal is already yielding substantial environmental dividends, including a big decrease in sulfur dioxide pollution in the Midwest and Northeast.  Coal’s misfortune is also contributing to an unprecedented fall in U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas.  Emissions are down 14 percent from the peak in 2007 and are now only 2 percent above the 1990 level—the base year for national commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

Coal’s loss of market share has stunned energy analysts who are scratching their heads about where the U.S. power business is headed next.  The industry is burdened by scores of 50-80 year old coal plants that spew disproportionate quantities of air pollution.  For two decades, they’ve been repeatedly exempted from U.S. clean air laws for new plants. Under President Obama, the EPA is finally implementing tighter standards for sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulate emissions as well as rules for the disposal of coal ash.  If gas prices stay relatively low, utilities may permanently close many of their older coal plants rather than making the substantial investments needed to bring them up to 21st century environmental standards.

The current price of gas for utilities is just one sixth the price they pay for dirty residual fuel oil—44 cents per gallon equivalent vs. $3.10 per gallon. Where coal used to provide over half of U.S. electricity, it’s now down to 35 percent this year while gas stands at 30 percent.  Given the pace of change, gas could well become the largest source of U.S. electricity by the end of the decade. Wind and solar power are also growing rapidly—and falling in cost—which will further expand options for low-carbon electricity.

Those who were betting on a big future for coal, including the future addition of costly carbon capture and storage technology, may want to re-think their plans.  A low-carbon American electricity system may be closer and less expensive than they imagine.

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Oxfam Action Corps: Growing a Better Food System through Action and Conversation

By Alyssa Casey

Oxfam Action Corps is a growing group of concerned citizens using local conversation and action to help end global hunger. The Action Corps currently exists in 14 U.S. cities, spreading the mission of Oxfam International. Oxfam International is a confederation of 17 organizations located across North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. As an international relief organization, Oxfam aims to eliminate global injustice by providing immediate aid and improving long-term sustainability. They also distribute a variety of publications including annual reports, books, facts sheets, and the magazine OXFAMExchange.

Oxfam Action Corps volunteers in Indianapolis, IN work to spread the GROW campaign and recruit new Action Corps members. (Photo credit: Indianapolis Oxfam Action Corps)

Oxfam America’s Action Corps aims to enact change by educating people about better living habits, as well as lobbying government on issues such as water conservation, food security, aid reform, and workers’ rights. One of their newest and fastest-spreading campaigns is GROW, a food justice campaign. GROW aims to build a better food system that will adequately feed the world population by promoting a more equitable distribution of resources among the world’s farmers, holding governments and businesses accountable, and helping farmers prepare to cope with climate change and natural disasters.

GROW emphasizes that everyone has a role in the movement towards a healthier, more sustainable food system. With its slogan “feed your family and help 1 billion people feed themselves,” the GROW Method demonstrates that each person can impact the global food system by simply adopting sensible eating habits. The method contains five actions that help eliminate inefficiencies in food habits. Planning meals in advance and incorporating leftovers into recipes helps reduce food waste. Decreasing meat and dairy consumption, and using minimal water and energy while cooking can conserve natural resources. Buying from local farmers markets and eating seasonal foods reduces the amount of energy used in food transportation. On the GROW method’s interactive website, people can learn more about the initiative, browse recipes, and watch videos created by Oxfam to explain how current food systems operate.

The Action Corps also hosts local Hunger Banquets. An Oxfam America Hunger Banquet is a dinner hosted by an individual or group at which guests are given basic information about both Oxfam and global food systems. The Hunger Banquet avoids simply inundating people with facts and statistics, and instead provides basic information to encourage discussion. The idea is the more people that discuss and think about food systems, the more attention will be paid to the issue, and therefore the greater likelihood for positive change. Oxfam provides all the materials needed to host a Hunger Banquet, some of which can be downloaded from their website, free of charge.

The idea of discussing food while eating food has sparked other Action Corps events. There is an Oxfam group on Grubwithus.com, a social dining network that aims to bring local community members together over meals. Using the site, anyone can create a meal by setting up a date, time and location. Once the meal is created, other interested members in the area can sign up to join. When the day arrives, all those signed up meet at the specified location and enjoy a meal together while getting to know fellow community members. The Oxfam group uses the site to organize meals for interested parties to discuss poverty, injustice, and how to fix the food system. The first of these Oxfam-themed dinners took place in Boston under the theme “Love Food, Hate Injustice.”

The Action Corps is currently preparing to celebrate World Food Day, which takes place every year on October 16th, the day the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was founded. Each year World Food Day carries a different focus; the theme for World Food Day 2012 is “agricultural cooperatives – key to feeding the world.” Oxfam’s World Food Day 2012 website details information for hosting a World Food Day Dinner. Resources include recipes, discussion guides, and videos from well-known figures endorsing World Food Day, such as South African activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Oxfam hopes to reach a goal of 1,000 World Food Day Dinners taking place this year across the United States.

Further information on the Oxfam Action Corps can be found on their website. The Action Corps blog tracks the initiatives and progress of Action Corps groups across the nation.

What changes are you making to your eating habits to reduce food waste and conserve resources? Do you have plans to celebrate World Food Day on October 16th? Let us know in the comments below!

Alyssa Casey is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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Support Food Workers by Signing the Real Food Real Jobs Pledge!

Do you support the critical role that food workers play in the global movement for a truly sustainable food system? Nearly 100 food movement leaders have already shown they do by signing on to the Real Foods Real Jobs Pledge with UNITE HERE!

Support food workers by signing the Real Food Real Jobs pledge (Photo Credit: UNITE HERE!)

All across the country, people from all parts of the food chain are uniting in their support of food workers and the importance they hold in the success of the food movement. Whether you’re an activist, advocate, farmer, or foodie, signing the Real Foods Real Jobs Pledge can help show your support and commitment to working together for real food, real jobs, and real transparency throughout our food chain.

You can sign the Real Food Real Jobs here.

Take action now by signing it today!


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Finding Ways to Sell Degrowth–and Profit in the Process

Degrowth is a dirty word in growth-centric cultures like the United States. But with humanity using one and a half Earths worth of biocapacity every year, if we want to stabilize the climate and other declining ecosystem services, we’ll have to stop both our populations and the global economy from growing any larger. And some of the most developed—or what I’d call overdeveloped—economies will actually even have to degrow to a significant degree, especially as least developed economies will still need to grow to provide a basic level of well-being for their populations and as the global population is projected to grow by another 2 billion before stabilizing.

Although degrowth is not an idea many are willing to embrace or even grapple with, degrowth is inevitable. The question is only whether we control the process or it takes the form of a rapid collapse—Soviet style or worse. But controlled degrowth, far from being uncomfortable, may actually help to solve many of our current societal problems. Obesity is an obvious one—with two-thirds of Americans now overweight or obese—but so are work stress, high debt levels, social isolation, and pharmaceutical dependence (anti-depressants are the third most prescribed drug in America).

U.S. government social marketing poster from 1917

In business terms, degrowth sounds even more disturbing—almost sacrilegious. But let’s not forget that there are ways to profit even from degrowth. Those in the home energy-retrofit industry can attest to that. As can the local bike shops and shared car and shared bike services, which are cropping up in cities around the world. But that is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. While I won’t go into a broader plan on how societies can best degrow here (I do that in my State of the World 2012 chapter “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries”), I will describe some business sectors that will bloom as degrowth is pursued in earnest, in case there are some bold entrepreneurs reading this article.

Multi-generational Housing

The recession has led many elderly parents to move in with their children and unemployed adults to move back in with their parents. For many who have grown up in individualistic cultures,  this is viewed as unfortunate, even tragic, but in reality this is how human families have lived throughout much of history. As formal sector jobs become scarcer, the security of community is rediscovered, and expensive energy reduces the ease of mobility, the multi-generational home will once again become the norm. Those first adopters that start selling multi-generational housing, like the U.S. housing developer Lennar, or that retrofit houses or properties to make them multi-generational friendly will stand to prosper in this transition.

Gardening Suppliers

As the Great Recession took hold, sales of seeds also skyrocketed as more people converted grassy lawns into vegetable gardens. The era of wasting money, time, and water on something as useless as grass will come to a quick end as food prices soar. During this transition, sellers of seeds, shovels and other basic farming implements, and eco-accoutrements like rain barrels and compost containers will thrive.


Author Cooking Cicadas

Although containers of crickets or grasshoppers won’t be sold in U.S. grocery stores anytime soon, consumers have shown that they are quite willing to eat strange things when embedded in a frozen patty—whether soy protein concentrate, the fungus Fusarium venenatum (better known as Quorn), or ground Tenebrio molitor (better known as mealworms). As cultural taboos weaken over time and the price of hamburger skyrockets to $20 per pound, entrepreneurs in the edible-insect industry will stand to do very well. Indeed, the Dutch government recently invested a million Euros to draft legislation that oversees the development of insect farms for human consumption.  Such policy will position the Dutch as a leading producer of insect protein, and at the forefront of a burgeoning industry.

Green Burial

Any industry that leads to the extraction of millions of tons of material each year—including 1.6 million tons of concrete and 90,000 tons of steel—only to bury it once again is clearly an ecological mistake, and in the long-run, a failed business model. But some entrepreneurs in the funeral industry are reinventing what constitutes a “normal” burial, burying people in simple shrouds, untoxified with formaldehyde and using the funeral costs to help finance creation of innovative, natural cemeteries—which in turn create new parks, sequester carbon, and become protected biodiversity reserves. With the increasing expense of natural resources combined with an aging and sickly population—thanks to the consumer diet and lifestyle—green burial will surely be a growth industry for years to come.

Green burial (courtesy of Green Burial Council)

These are just a few of the sectors that could bloom as we shift to a constrained future where the fast-paced, unhealthy, and unsustainable experiment of consumer-driven globalization winds down. Yes, new sectors might not make up completely for jobs lost in old polluting sectors, but more people will be working fewer hours; living simpler, less stressed lives; and will rediscover that homesteading as part of a connected community is a much more secure way of life than depending on a globalized food system that is regularly disrupted by drought, storm and wildfire. Best of all, seizing these opportunities will take pressure off Earth’s overstressed biocapacity. Let’s just hope that we take control of the degrowth process while we still have that luxury.

(Written by Erik Assadourian; Edited by Antonia Sohns; Originally published on CSRwire Talkback as a part of a series on Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity).

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Citywatch: Getting to the Right Question on the Nutrient Benefits of Organic Food

By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. Click here to read more from Wayne.

Stanford recently released a controversial study comparing organic and conventionally produced foods (Photo Credit: Susan Troccolo)

The international media had a field day headlining a Stanford university study dissing the nutritional benefits of organic food. I hope it’s not too late for me to ask a few questions that might steer the debate in a more useful direction.

I would like the media to explain why a study that was not based on either original research or professional expertise was considered so significant.

The paper, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is strictly a “meta-analysis,” combining some of the findings of some 200 other scientists’ publications over the years. It is the ninth such paper to come out in a decade, and the fourth to turn thumbs down on organic claims to significant superiority in the nutritional realm – not exactly trail-blazing stuff. Nor, considering the ability of writers to cherry pick various findings from different individual studies, does a meta-analysis inherently prove much more than ability to cherry pick. That’s why new hard research, rather than summaries of old research, is usually the stuff of news stories.

I would also like to ask why no-one checked the qualifications of this 12-person team, which was granted immediate credibility, despite the absence of a professional nutritionist, agrologist or bio-medical specialist. One is a librarian, a few are graduate students,  several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious disease, bio-terrorism, diagnosis or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant.

The heavy-hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, an 88 year-old retired professor of statistics. Stanford University media releases cite his renown as a specialist in meta-analysis, without mentioning that his name is batted around as a paid witness on statistics for the tobacco industry. Given that the Stanford team’s use of statistics is subjected to withering criticism by organic advocate and academic Charles Benbrook, it’s odd no mainstream reporter checked to see if where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

It’s also a bit odd that no-one asked what an article on nutritional merits of organic foods was doing in a medical journal, given that doctors have minimal training, credentials or interest in this field – although maybe I’ve just answered my own question.

One of the first things I learned when researching for my first serious food book some 15 years ago was that the relation between organic and nutrition does not compute.

Nutritional levels vary according to a host of factors. One big one is the quality of soil long before anyone farmed it organically or conventionally (no history of volcanoes in New York means no rich volcanic ash in the soil, for example). Another factor that has little to do with organic or conventional is when the crop was picked (tomatoes get most of their vitamin C as they turn red, not when they’re hard and green, which is when they get picked by machines).

The list of crucial questions and variables keeps growing: how long was the produce in a truck or store, under what conditions was the food stored, how was the food prepared (some vitamins are destroyed by heat, some nutrients only become available when heated).

It’s quite likely that healthier and stronger plants grow on organically-managed soils, without any help from synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  But that’s no guarantee that the plants bulked up on more nutrients. Organic or not, plants work to meet their own survival needs, not ours, and the optimum level of vitamin B needed by a particular plant may or may not work best for humans. That’s why people choose particular plants if they’re looking for high doses of particular nutrients.

Put the whole mix together, and a study based on analysis of a conventional ruby red tomato, lightly cooked immediately after picking, will probably show more nutrients than an organic tomato picked green from an industrial organic farm a week ago, hauled across the continent on a truck, and left to sit at a salad bar, for example. These are the kinds of things that affect nutrient levels, and anyone who knows more about nutrition than editors of a conventional medical journal would hear alarms ringing in their ears if writers started making a big case about nutrient differences with or without organic.

This is why nutrition expert Marion Nestle started her blog item on the controversy by saying “sigh,” as in “have I not explained this a hundred times already?” Organic advocates rarely make a nutritional claim, she points out. So the Stanford article is knocking down a straw man.

With dairy and meat, new evidence suggests that a key issue is how animals are treated. Still- controversial studies suggest that grass-fed animals have more nutritious milk and meat than animals fed corn and soy – no matter whether organic or conventional. That’s only logical, given that most animals evolved to eat grass rather than corn or soy, which are good for bulking up fast, but not necessarily so good for complex nutrients.

Organic scores well, even in the Stanford study, in terms of pesticide residue, which is as important to personal health as nutrients. Almost no-one is suffering from scurvy, rickets or wasting in North America or Europe, where the Stanford study got a lot of media, but breast, prostate, colon and bladder cancers have affected almost every family. A strong case can be made that toxic residues from pesticides, brought into the body by food, are implicated in these cancers. So this isn’t exactly a minor selling point for organics.

On the question of toxins, however, I’m also intrigued that there are any—not 30 per cent less, but any—pesticide residues on organic. That can only mean that the toxins from conventional fields migrated by air, rain or water table to organic fields, and who knows where else.

Why didn’t that set off media alarm bells? It means that people who pay extra for organic are still getting toxic residues that rightfully belong to the people who produced and bought conventional food.

This is an issue worthy of a meta-analysis. Are organic consumers dupes, taking the toxic bullet for people who saved money thanks to pesticides. Is it fair that some farmers get to cut their production costs by spreading toxins throughout the environment?

Since the Stanford team is asking whether organic costs more when it doesn’t deliver more nutrients, why doesn’t the team also ask the flip side of the question—whether conventional gets to charge less because the toxic load is passed on to everyone?

That question gets to the penultimate tricky question of agricultural prices. Why do some get to offload costs to the environment for free, while those who contribute to a safer environment get no fee compensating them for their extra work on behalf of the public good? If an environmental fee was paid to the farmer producing the environmental service, then all farmers would compete on an even playing field, and no academics would ever have to ask whether organic delivers more value for the money.

Why doesn’t the Stanford team, or any of the media following their study, ask that?  There I go again, answering my own question.

Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds “cials” in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as one of their delegation.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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