By Julian Wong Jan.29.2009
In: agriculture, water
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Green Eggs and Ham

The Green Leap Forward visited in the Shanghai Green Foods Expo in December, and ponders about why food matters in the whole energy-climate context.

Happy Lunar New Year and Year of the Ox!   It is rather fitting that in this post coincides with Spring Festival/Chinese New Year, a festival for Chinese worldwide to get together with family and relatives to catch up on old times, and of course, EAT.

This is a long overdue post, covering the Shanghai Green Food Expo that The Green Leap Forward attended (with Leigh Billings of Crossroads) last month.  But the issues that the expo raises are ever present, and in fact become more urgent with each passing day.  More on the urgency of the food crisis after we take a look at some of the sights of the expo:

The duck eggs are green, literally (slight tinge if you can zoom in on the pic) and figuratively.  According to Dalian Green Garden (大连绿园畜产发展有限公司), through controlled feeding of their ducks, their duck eggs are five times richer in selenium than normal duck eggs and also provide increased levels of protein, iron, calcium and other vitamins over their competition.

The “green” ham are from the eucommia bark (a traditional Chinese herb)-fed pigs of Jiangxi province’s Galaxy Eucommia Development Company (江西银河杜仲开发有限公司).  Evidently, the special diet results in “格林米特” (believe it or not, the phonetic translation of “Green Meat”) which are more succulent and tender, richer in protein, and contain levels of antibiotics, heavy metals and pesticide residues that meet the Ministry of Agriculture’s green food standards.

And there were also shrooms.  Lotsa them.  I think the ones pictured left are from Jilin province in the south (from a company called 吉林省森科经贸有限公司).  In fact, in seemed as if every southern province had mushrooms or other edible fungi of their own to show.

The staging of the expo came in the wake of the milk-melamine scandal which left a few infants dead and a few thousand more hospitalized.  One got the sense that the expo was simply one big PR counter offensive.

Leigh at Crossroads has written up an excellent review of the various green food labels that were seen at the expo.  Needless to say, the multiplicity of different green food labels, with varying standards, can cause consumer confusion.  On the one hand, one might hope that over time, the labeling systems becomes more simplified and easier to understand.  On the other hand, the complexity of labeling system perhaps reflects the complexity involved in assessing how sustainable agriculture is, given the very many steps and inputs involved from plow to plate.

A great resource, if you can get your hands on it, is a booklet called 《有机农业110》(Organic Agriculture 110) by the Chinese Agricultural Association which is available for 15 yuan or less.  Written in Chinese and spanning just over a hundred pages and filled with lots of colorful graphics and photos, it provides a remarkably clear yet sophisticated explanation of the different kinds of “green” and organic agricultural practices such as inter-planting, crop rotation, integrated pest management, etc., and provides much helpful information about the regulatory regime and approval processes of green/organic foods in China.

So Why Study food and agriculture?  Let GLF count the ways:

  • Life. At the most basic human-centric level, food is embodied energy and quite literally fuel to human life.  Except when it contains melamine or becomes a conduit for avian flu.
  • Soil. This is where civilization starts and fails.  It is where our food story begins, and also where it ends when soil is mismanaged.  Soil also plays an integral role in the carbon and nitrogen cycles, and are thus one of the largest sinks of greenhouse gases.  As a primer, this National Geographic cover story is a good place to start to appreciate the importance of soils.  It has a nice section on the Loess Plateau.
  • Energy. Global food supply chains require massive energy inputs, from pesticides and fertilizers (both of which are derived from petrochemicals), to the fuel used in operating any high tech machinery (tractors) if used, or in storage (refrigeration) or transporting (planes, trains and automobiles…and trucks and ships) them from “plow-to-plate” (field plow to dinner plate).  The opportunities for energy conversation are massive and Pepsico has kicked off the carbon-labeling wars on food products.
  • Water. The global agriculture and beverage industries competes head on with the energy industry for scarce water resources.  This is part of the food-watergy trillemna.
  • Food versus Fuel Debate. The controversies in the biofuels sector have made the food-versus-fuel debate well known in the public eye by now.
  • Climate Change Impacts. Climate change, brought about by excessive fossil fuel use, has the potential to seriously disrupt the hydrological cycles, and this poses a significant threat to food security.  An excellent paper on this in the China context is the recent Greenpeace report Climate Change and Food Security in China, which project that high temperatures and reduced water supply and loss or arable land will reduce food production in China by 23% by 2050.  This statistic is especially alarming when the Food and Agriculture Organization is saying that the world must double food production by 2050 to “head off massive hunger.”
  • Food Safety. As mentioned above, with the recent melamine scandals and current reemergence of avian flu in Beijing, consumer confidence in Chinese products have taken a severe hit and implications have extended well beyond food sector.  One Canadian cleantech entrepreneur told me a few months ago that his company was considering making foreign direct investments into China but its board decided against it when news of the melamine poisoning broke out.  To paraphrase him from memory, the reasoning went something like this:

If the Chinese are willing to do something like this to their own people [i.e. introduce poisonous melamine into the food system just to boost profits], can you imagine how they will treat foreigners?

Whether or not you agree with the logic of such reasoning of the Canadian entrepreneur, such opinions have the power to work against China’s interests if shared widely.  If nothing else, the food scares have certainly created a heightened awareness and demand for organic foods in recent months.  Sustainable agriculture issues, as promised in our birthday post (the promise to focus on “natural systems”, e.g. soil), will be a topic that will be further explored on this blog going forward.