FAO in North America

Global plans of action endorsed to halt the escalating degradation of soils

Submitted by Lívia Pontes on July 24, 2014

Urgent action is required to improve the health of the world’s limited soil resources and stop land degradation, so as to ensure that future generations have enough supplies of food, water, energy and raw materials, government representatives and experts meeting at FAO warned today.

The Global Soil Partnership has endorsed a series of action plans at its plenary assembly in Rome today to safeguard soil resources which provide the basis for global agricultural production.

Recommendations include the implementation of strong regulations and corresponding investments by governments for the sustainable management of soils in ways that contribute to the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and poverty.

“Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production,” said Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General. “Without soils we cannot sustain life on earth and where soil is lost it cannot be renewed on a human timeline. The current escalating rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.

“That’s why the adoption of Global Plans of Action to sustainably use and protect soils is a major achievement. But we cannot stop here. We need commitments from countries and civil society to put the plan into reality. This requires political will and investments to save the precious soil resources our food production systems depend on,” Semedo said.

Soils: easy to lose, hard to recover

The area of productive soils in the world is limited and faces increasing pressure from competing uses such as cropping, forestry and pastures/rangeland, urbanization, as well as energy production and mineral extraction, experts at the three-day meeting warned.

Soils represent at least a quarter of global biodiversity, and play a key role in the supply of clean water and resilience to floods and drought. Crucially, plant and animal life depend on primary nutrient recycling through soil processes.

Demographic pressure

While some parts of Africa and South America offer scope for expansion in agriculture, according to FAO, global population which is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 – resulting in a 60 percent increase in the demand for food, feed and fibre – will put an even greater strain on land resources.

Some 33 percent of soil is moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, salinization, compaction and chemical pollution.

The resulting damage to soil affects livelihoods, ecosystem services, food security and human well-being.

Soils are also both affected by, and may contribute to climate change. For example, sustainable management of soil resources can impact positively on climate change through carbon sequestration and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and also by mitigating desertification processes.

Reversing the trend

The Global Soil Partnership, which brings together a broad range of government and non-government stakeholders, stresses the increasing need for governments to preserve soils and make the necessary investments. A Healthy Soils Facility was established with this aim.

The global soil community decided to establish global programmes for the promotion of sustainable soil management, soil conservation and soil restoration. Interventions should be based on the use of suitable technologies and sustainable and inclusive policies that directly involve local communities in actions to protect soils. In particular, there is a need to prioritize the safeguarding and management of organic carbon rich soils, notably peatlands and permafrost areas.

A global soil information system will be established to measure progress made and the status of soil resources. Considering that awareness-raising, education and extension on soils is much needed, a special programme for capacity development will also be established. In addition the first ever Status of World Soil Resources Report is set to be launched on 5 December 2015.

The UN has recognized 5 December as World Soil Day, and 2015 as the International Year of Soils.

KEY FACTS:

• In Africa, approximately 30 percent of land is potentially suitable for agriculture. Yet, soil erosion and nutrient depletion are already affecting these soils. In Somalia, only 1,8 percent of its land is arable. Yet, annual soil loss through erosion in some areas can reach more than 140 tons/ha/year.

• In Latin America, it is estimated that the natural potential soils for intensive agriculture occupy only 25 percent of the continent. Still, soil degradation is a major challenge in the region.

• Since the 19th century, an estimated 60 per cent of carbon stored in soils and vegetation has been lost as a result of land use changes, such as clearing land for agriculture and cities.

• The first metre of Low Activity Clay soils (the majority of the upland soils in the humid and sub-humid tropics) contains approximately 185 Gigatonnes of organic carbon –  an amount which doubles that of organic carbon stored in the Amazonian vegetation. Through unsustainable soil management practices, this carbon could be released to the atmosphere, aggravating global warming linked to the burning of fossil fuels. A release of just 0.1 percent of the carbon now contained in Europe’s soils would be equal to the annual emissions from 100 million cars

“Feeding the world, caring for the earth. Family farming in pictures” – Photo contest winner announced

Submitted by Amy McMillen on July 23, 2014

The contest brought the importance and diversity of family farmers to light as well as their key contribution to a sustainable future free from hunger and poverty.

To mark the 2014 International Year of Family Farming, FAO in collaboration with the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, called on students in the areas of communications, graphic design, journalism, agriculture and other related disciplines to participate in the photo contest “Feeding the world, caring for the earth. Family farming in pictures. ”

The contest closed on 28 May 2014, receiving applications from 15 countries in the Region of Latin America and the Caribbean (RLC). In line with the IYFF objectives, photo entries focused on smallholder agriculture, community forestry, livestock production, family or small-scale fisheries and their contribution to food security, the eradication of poverty, land development and sustainable use of natural resources.  The representation of gender equality, youth and teamwork in family farming were also encouraged.

The 20 finalists were selected based on these key themes, in addition to visual and communicative qualities. The jury, consisting of officers from FAO-RLC chose the winning photograph Paciencia (Patience) by Juan José Toro Letelier because it captured the complex reality of family farming and, above all, the human element, rich in experiences and stories.

Winner and finalists photo gallery

“Born to Farm” Exhibit, Selections from #FARMVOICES project

Submitted by Qin Tang on July 21, 2014

Summer is the season of exhibits. Among them, some are entertaining, some are educational, and this one will surely touch your heart. An integration of photography and storytelling, the new exhibit will pay homage to the families working every day to feed the world.

The “Born to Farm” Exhibit premieres July 18-27, 2014 in the K-Days in the Farm Hall at Northlands in Edmonton, Alberta.  Incorporating the story of multiple generations of family farmers, along with #FARMVOICES submissions posted to social media by farmers from across the globe, the exhibit is designed to give consumers a glimpse into the world of farming through the eyes of real farmers.

Family farmers are the heart of the food chain, many knowing from a young age that they were born to the calling.  What many may be surprised to know is that the majority of farms in the world are owned and operated by families. However, in the past 75 years North America has lost 70% of its family farmers.

“We believe that the future of a responsible, sustainable food system lies in the success of family farmers,” said Sarah Wray, with the International FarmOn Foundation.  “Because food produced by family farmers is just different.  They have a passion and commitment to farming because it’s not just a business, it’s their life, legacy and home.”

Visit www.farmon.com/farmvoices for more information about the “Born to Farm” exhibit and the #FARMVOICES Movement.

Organic Foods Are Tastier and Healthier, Study Finds

Submitted by Amy McMillen on July 16, 2014
Photo of a potato basket.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANGIE MCPHERSON
Baskets of locally grown potatoes were on display at a farmer’s market in Maryland.

By Mary Beth Albright for National Geographic

This article was originally published on July 14, 2014 by National Geographic.

Can I interest you in consuming a more nutritious and tastier diet without changing the kinds of food you eat? Back in 2012 a study famously declared organic foods to be no more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts, but get ready for conventional wisdom about conventional crops to be turned on its head.

Organic fruits, vegetables, and grains have several measureable nutritional benefits over conventional crops, according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN) and released Thursday. Analyzing 343 peer-reviewed publications, researchers from the United Kingdom with the help of American Charles Benbrook of Washington State University found that organics contain 18 to 69 percent higher concentrations of antioxidants. Translation: the organic eater consumes the antioxidant equivalent of approximately two extra produce portions every day, without altering food intake.

“The study likely says more about nutrient decline in conventional food than it does about a miraculous quality of organic food,” Benbrook said when I spoke with him last week. Organic farming prohibits chemical pesticides that are widely used in conventional farming. Without pesticides to guard against harm, an organically farmed plant will produce more of its own compounds, called antioxidants, to fight damage. And when consumed by humans, these antioxidants also protect our bodies from harm.

Photo of organic vegetables.

Notably, when a plant grows organically without pesticides its taste is enhanced as well. Studies considered in the BJN paper show that higher antioxidant levels affect food’s organoleptic qualities—taste, aroma, and mouthfeel—and how the human senses detect a food’s unique flavor. Benbrook explained: “The concept of terroir can be traced to particular biological stresses in a region or soil types that impact how a plant responds to stress. The chemicals that a plant produces to respond to stress become part of that plant’s signature taste. People are yearning for more intense flavors, and there’s good news that organic farming accentuates flavor in fruits and vegetables.”

Conventionally farmed soil also tends to have high levels of nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers, which a plant uses as quick, easy energy to create high levels of sugars and starches (not generally deficient in my diet…yours?) in the fruit or vegetable, at the expense of flavor-producing, healthful antioxidants. The study additionally found cadmium, a toxic metal contaminant, to be about 50% lower in organic crops than in conventional foods.

Raising the $429,000 required for the study was possible in the UK, according to Benbrook, whereas “it never would have happened in the US. In the UK, funding sources want answers about food safety and the nutritional quality of food.” But with organics as an expanding $35 billion industry (and even Wal-Mart entering with its recent deal to carry a steeply discounted Wild Oats organics line), that may be changing. The more eaters express concern for scientific food-quality information, the closer our conventional wisdom will come to the truth.

potato4

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.

The National Geographic Society and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations(FAO) have teamed up to raise awareness on food and agriculture issues as National Geographic embarks on an eight-month, in-depth report on food issues in National Geographic magazine and online at NatGeoFood.com. Among the themes that will be addressed are food and agricultural statistics and trends, feeding megacities in a world of changing demographics, reducing food loss and waste, the role of animal and insect protein in diets, and global forestry issues.  ”Combining FAO’s specialized expertise with National Geographic’s 126 years of award-winning photography and reporting is very exciting, and this agreement will help bring up-to-date information about hunger and  nutrition challenges and solutions to a very wide public audience,” said Mehdi Drissi, FAO Chief of Media Relations.

As Honeybees Die Off, First Inventory of Wild Bees Is Under Way

Submitted by Amy McMillen on July 15, 2014

Could wild bees be the key to saving U.S. crops?

By Sasha Ingber for National Geographic

This article was originally published by National Geographic on July 11, 2014.

Not every bee may count, but Sam Droege is counting every bee.

On Saturdays, the head of the landmark Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program at the U.S. Geological Survey leaves his straw-bale house, where bees burrow in the walls, and goes to his office—for pleasure. From his desk, a recycled segment of a lane from a bowling alley, he pores over bee specimens with a microscope.

“I’m looking deeply into [their] eyes to see what they reveal,” said Droege. “I’m looking for species in potential trouble, gathering information on their status before they’re designated an endangered species.” (See “Intimate Portraits of Bees” for more of Droege’s bee pictures.)

Droege is pioneering the first national inventory of indigenous wild bees, a task of growing importance. The buzz started in 2006 when honeybees, the non-native species used commercially to pollinate crops, began to mysteriously vanish after leaving their hives. If honeybees continue to wane in coming decades, scientists believe wild bees could save our crops. (See “The Plight of the Honeybee.”)

Problems for Pollinators

More than half of managed U.S. honeybee colonies have disappeared in the past ten years. Though native to Eurasia and northern Africa, honeybees pollinate a third of the American diet, from nuts to produce—not to mention coffee and cotton. In 2010 they contributed to more than $19 billion worth of crops. (Related: “U.S. Honeybee Losses Not as Severe This Year.“)

Pesticides, fungicides, and viruses, among other factors, have contributed to the honeybees’ decline. Though they lack a traditional vertebrate circulatory system, they’re vulnerable to parasites, such as the bloodsucking varroa mite, which deforms their bodies and shortens their life span.

Little is known about the hardiness of the honeybee’s native counterpart, the mostly solitary wild bee. Many scientists believe that wild bee populations were once greater, but have dwindled as land was developed and agriculture intensified.

Home gardeners may also be contributing to the bees’ habitat loss. Gardeners with a love of exotic plants often uproot native ones, not realizing that this deprives most pollinators of their food. Other factors limiting the bees’ food supply include the effects of climate change, droughts, floods, and flowers blooming prematurely as the days grow warmer.

The Bees in Our Backyard

“People were collecting bees in the early 1900s, but they weren’t doing quantitative analyses,” said Georgetown University biologist Edd Barrows.

In 1998, Barrows gathered bees in Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve in Alexandria, Virginia, using mesh, tentlike structures called Malaise traps. The bees he collected then—still awaiting examination due to lack of time and funds—could serve as a historical reference point to show scientists how the preserve’s bee fauna is changing due to water and air pollution, erosion, and invasive plants.

“We need to have some way of measuring whether native bees are increasing or decreasing,” said Droege.

His own survey methods are unconventional, albeit familiar to scientists on shoestring budgets. To collect bees, plastic party cups act as pan traps. (Droege says the idea stems from the 1970s, when butchers gave their customers yellow pans, which people would fill with soapy water to catch bugs outside.)

Workers from New Horizons Supported Services, an organization that helps adults with developmental disabilities in Maryland gain employment, paint the cups to mimic the colors bees prefer in flowers. Then the cups are filled with propylene glycol—the same substance used to maintain moisture in food, medicine, and cosmetics. Its low surface tension means that insects will sink to the bottom. Every two weeks, the traps are emptied by volunteers.

After that the bees are washed, dried, and stored at the USGS lab in repurposed pizza boxes. Their deaths serve as a chance to learn about, and monitor, potentially endangered native bee species.

The biggest problem is telling the bees apart. Bees are often difficult to differentiate, and about 400 species—ten percent of North America’s bees—lack names. (Compare that to the 1,000 ant species that have been named.)

“[They're] not something someone like a birder could look at, and say, ‘That’s a robin,’” said biologist Daniel Kjar of Elmira College in New York.

So Droege spends hours trying to identify species. His team captures the pitting on their skin, the striations of hair on their abdomens, and other physical traits with a macro lens camera—a sort of insect portraiture. Droege says these body features may help bees avoid predation and attract mates.

Harvesting the Unknown

Today, scientists will go to great lengths to study the small insects.

Sean Brady, head of the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Entomology, is studying evolutionary relationships between different bee species. He’s sequencing their genetic material, which can cost between $10,000 and $50,000 for a complete genome.

He’s also interested in understanding why, among certain bee species that produce offspring twice in a season, the first brood spends its lifetime caring for the second hatching instead of reproducing. The work may help him understand the social behavior and pollination strategy of wild bees.

“The unknown can be a good thing,” said Brady. “There is a lot to learn in the next 10 to 20 years.”

In 2010 and 2011, Brady and Droege set up traps in the cacti and thorn scrub of Guantanamo Bay, where the native habitat is preserved in the midst of the prison camp. They collected more than a third of the bee species that live on the entire island of Cuba. A new species they discovered was quickly named—Megachile droegei, after Droege.

The National Geographic Society and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations(FAO) have teamed up to raise awareness on food and agriculture issues as National Geographic embarks on an eight-month, in-depth report on food issues in National Geographic magazine and online at NatGeoFood.com. Among the themes that will be addressed are food and agricultural statistics and trends, feeding megacities in a world of changing demographics, reducing food loss and waste, the role of animal and insect protein in diets, and global forestry issues.  ”Combining FAO’s specialized expertise with National Geographic’s 126 years of award-winning photography and reporting is very exciting, and this agreement will help bring up-to-date information about hunger and  nutrition challenges and solutions to a very wide public audience,” said Mehdi Drissi, FAO Chief of Media Relations.

Once Upon a Map: The African Atlas of Smallholder Agriculture

Submitted by Amy McMillen on July 14, 2014

This article was originally published on July 14, 2014 by Food Tank.

By Airlie Trescowthick

Airlie grew up on a livestock and cropping farm in Australia and is currently completing a Masters in Food and Resource Economics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The Atlas of African Agriculture Research & Development weaves a picture through maps that shows the opportunities for increased smallholder productivity in Africa. (shutterstock)

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) recently published The Atlas of African Agriculture Research & Development (Atlas), which brings together a range of maps and analyses of the continent that show where different challenges and opportunities lie to improve the productivity of African agriculture.

Shenggen Fan, Director General of IFPRI, notes in the foreword to the Atlas, “It has long been recognized that Africa needs to significantly and sustainably intensify its smallholder agriculture. Comparing and contrasting where the challenges to, and opportunities for, growth in productivity are located…can give us powerful insights that can enrich our understanding of the variables that affect agricultural productivity.” Fan states that the Atlas, by presenting a broad range of geospatial data, can inform and guide agricultural decision-making, to increase productivity.

The maps used in the Atlas cover a broad set of interdependent issues related to African smallholder agriculture via seven key themes: political, demographic, and institutional classifications; footprint of agriculture; growing conditions; role of water; drivers of change; access to trade; and, human welfare.

With more than thirty maps across the seven themes, the project took over five years and the Atlas involved the collaboration of a multitude of experts and organizations. Examples of different maps (and their contributors) include:different farming systems (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)); theextent of cropland and pastureland (McGill University); livestock production systems by climate zone (CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)); agroecological zones (HarvestChoice and IFPRI); and, severity of hunger (Welt Hunger Hilfe, Concern Worldwide, and IFPRI).

With every map, the Atlas asks four questions: What are these maps telling us? Why is this important? What about the underlying data? Where can I learn more? Together, the maps, and the responses to the questions posed, weave an illustrative story about current smallholder production in Africa. IFPRI believes that a better understanding of these spatial patterns in Africa can contribute to better-targeted policy and investment decisions and, ultimately, to better livelihoods for the rural poor.

The geospatial presentation of the data is important to IFPRI because it enables“easy access to high-quality data and information.” The Atlas, according to IFPRI, is intended to serve as a guide that introduces readers to a wealth of data, in one place, which can then inform efforts to improve the livelihoods of Africa’s rural poor.

The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers. Food Tank is partnering with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to commemorate IYFF, and will feature weekly posts and other media highlighting the innovations that family farmers are using to alleviate hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation along with the campaigns and policies that support them.

Event: Codex Alimentarius Commission, Geneva 14-18 July 2014

Submitted by Lívia Pontes on July 11, 2014

Countries to adopt recommendations on use of drugs in food-producing animals, maximum levels of lead in infant formulae and arsenic in rice, and new food safety and quality standards for shellfish, fruit, vegetables.
Members of the international food standards body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, will meet in Geneva next week. Highlights of the meeting include decisions on:

  • Maximum levels for lead in infant formulae, arsenic in rice, and fumonisins (toxins produced by certain moulds) in corn
  • Recommendation for the prevention of residues of certain veterinary drugs (including some antimicrobials and growth promoters) in animals producing meat, milk, eggs, or honey, due to human health concerns
  • A Code of Hygienic Practice for Spices and Dried Aromatic Herbs
  • Maximum residue limits of pesticides in food and feed
  • Maximum use levels of additives in food
  • New safety and quality standards for foods such as raw scallops, passion fruit, durian and okra

When: The 37th session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission will take place Monday 14 July to Friday 18 July 2014.

Where:
International Conference Centre, Geneva, Switzerland.

To receive updates on items as they are adopted, follow #CodexAlimentarius on @FAOnews and @WHO on Twitter.

Summaries of key decisions made by the Commission will be published on the FAO and WHO web sites throughout the week-long meeting.

IICA and FAO to increase knowledge management in agriculture

Submitted by Amy McMillen on July 11, 2014
IICA and FAO have signed a letter of understanding to develop a new distance-learning course designed to enhance management capabilities. The agreement was signed by the Deputy Director General of IICA, Lloyd Day, and the Director of FAO Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy, Marcela Villarreal.

Costa Rica. As part of IICA and FAO’s joint activities, this week the two agencies signed a letter of understanding aimed at the development of a distance learning course on information strategies, whose ultimate objective is to improve food security in the Americas.The course will be entitled “Strategic approaches to information” and form part of the Information Management Resource Kit (IMARK) available at www.imarkgroup.org. The initiative is designed to enhance the capacity of the two agencies’ member countries to generate, manage, analyze, and access information that can help improve food security and nutrition.

The agreement was signed in Rome by the Deputy Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), Lloyd Day, and the Director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy, Marcela Villarreal.

Under the agreement, IICA will draw on its expertise to develop new content and adapt 17 lessons of the course for Spanish speakers, while FAO will contribute financial resources to meet the production costs. In addition, the Institute and FAO will coordinate the development of new materials on knowledge management, scientific writing, and the delivery of information services via cell phones, which will be made available in 2014 and 2015.

IMARK is an initiative spearheaded by international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), IICA, and FAO. Created a decade ago, its objective is to assist professionals in agricultural information and knowledge management by providing an array of training resources, standards, directives, and tools related to the sharing of knowledge.

Its materials are totally free and available on CD-ROM and on line to facilitate self-learning around the globe.

IICA has been actively involved in the initiative since 2003, helping to ensure that the courses mentioned, and others, including Management of Electronic Documents, Building Digital Libraries and Strategic Approaches to information, are used as widely as possible in Latin America and the Caribbean.

For more information, contact: federico.sancho@iica.int

Map: Here’s how much each country spends on food

Submitted by Amy McMillen on July 11, 2014

This article is crossposted from Vox.  Vox – Explains everything you need to know, in two minutes.


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When droughts or crop failures cause food prices to spike, many Americans barely notice. The average American, after all, spends just 6.6 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. (If you include eating out, that rises to around 11 percent.)

AMERICANS SPEND A SMALLER SHARE OF THEIR INCOME ON FOOD THAN ANYONE

In Pakistan, by contrast, the average person spends 47.7 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. In that situation, those price spikes become a lot more noticeable.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service keeps tabs on household expenditures for food, alcohol, and tobacco around the world.

Americans, it turns out, spend a smaller share of their income on food than anyone else — less even than Canadians or Europeans or Australians:

Food_spending_worldwide_2

Note that the map above is based on data for food consumed at home — the USDA doesn’t offer international comparisons for eating out, unfortunately. Still, even if you do include food consumed at restaurants, Americans devote just 11 percent of their household spending to food, a smaller share than nearly every other country spends on food at home alone.*

Below is a chart showing numbers for a handful of select countries. Note that this doesn’t include spending on subsidies and the like — it’s just a measure of the fraction of household expenditures devoted to food consumed at home:

How_much_countries_spend_on_food

There are a few notable points here:

1) Richer countries spend a smaller fraction of their income on food. This makes intuitive sense. There’s an upper limit on how much food a person can physically eat. So as countries get richer, they start spending more of their money on other things — like health care, or entertainment, or alcohol. South Koreans spent one-third of their budget on food in 1975; today that’s down to just 12 percent.

SOUTH KOREA SPENT ONE-THIRD OF ITS BUDGET ON FOOD IN 1975 — TODAY THAT’S JUST 12%

That said, this relationship doesn’t always hold. It depends, at least in part, on what kind of food people favor, patterns of eating out, and the specific food prices and subsidy schemes in their country. Note that India spends a smaller fraction of its budget on food consumed at home than Russia, which is much richer. Likewise, South Korea spends a smaller share of its budget on food than wealthier Japan does.

2) Americans spend less than Europeans on food. The fact that Americans spend a smaller portion of their budgets on food than Europeans do is partly a consequence of the fact that Americans are richer. But Americans spend less on an absolute level, too.

The average American spends $2,273 per year on food consumed at home, the USDA notes. The average German spends $2,481 per year. The average French person spends $3,037 per year. The average Norwegian spends a whopping $4,485 per year on food.

The USDA doesn’t explain the variation. Some of it likely has to do with different tax systems in Europe (here’s a comparison of food prices in Europe), as well as differences in eating out. But there are also dozens of forces making food in the United States so cheap — from farm subsidies to advancements in industrial agriculture that have pushed down the price of food. (Over the years, the price of meat, poultry, sweets, fats, and oils in the United States have fallen, although the price of fresh produce has risen.)

There are fierce debates about the downsides of industrial agriculture — as well as the desirability of subsidizing agriculture. But one thing this system has done fairly well is keep the sticker price of food at the grocery store down.

3) High spending on food and malnutrition seem to go hand in hand. This is another perhaps obvious point, but worth highlighting. Poorer countries that have to spend a much larger share of their budget on food also end up with much higher malnutrition rates.

Here’s an older map from Washington State University making this point (click to enlarge, although note the date is from 2008):

Food_expenditures_and_malnutrition

Washington State University

You can find the USDA’s data on international food expenditures in this spreadsheet. (Note that there’s also data on alcohol and tobacco spending — the Czech Republic comes out on top here, spending 9.3 percent of expenditures on booze and cigarettes.)

* Updated by  on July 6, 2014, 12:50 p.m. ET @bradplumer brad@vox.com.  Update/clarification: I added a clarification about how the USDA data handles food consumed in restaurants. Apologies for the omission originally.

Further reading: 40 maps that explain food in America

Food Cowboy app helps charities get passed-over produce onto plates faster

Submitted by Amy McMillen on July 10, 2014

Brett Meyers, left, founder of Nourish Now, and Roger Gordon of Food Cowboy load Meyers’s truck with produce from Mexican Fruits. Once the produce is picked up, it is delivered quickly to those in need. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

By Pamela Constable, July 4, 2014, Washington Post

Behind a Mexican produce market in Northeast Washington on Tuesday, three laborers were stacking boxes of slightly bruised tomatoes, bananas and oranges next to a dumpster. A white refrigerated van pulled up, and driver Brett Meyers jumped out. To him, the imperfect produce was a precious find, and he was just in time to sort the items and salvage them.

“These are great,” said Meyers, inspecting the tomatoes. “A little too black,” he said, discarding some of the bananas. “Look — these are almost blue,” he noted with a scowl as he pointed to a bag of moldy oranges and then tossed it into the trash. “We can’t take the risk of people getting sick,” he said.

Meyers, who runs Nourish Now, a private food charity in Rockville, had already picked up a dozen boxes of chilled broccoli from a Korean warehouse manager across the street. Now he had four more crates to stash in his van. Within two hours, the produce would be boxed with other donations, and by the next day, it would be delivered to needy families in Maryland.

The day’s scavenging success was based on more than luck. Meyers also had some high-tech help from Food Cowboy, an organization that uses a mobile app to link facilities with excess produce with groups that can make sure it reaches hungry people while still fresh.

Food Cowboy was founded two years ago by Roger Gordon, a former community-development activist on the West Coast who is now based in Bethesda. He said he decided to launch the nonprofit initiative after he learned that tons of edible fresh food was going to waste — tossed and left to rot in landfills — because there was no systematic or timely way to match supply with demand.


Gustavo Balbuena, left, of Mexican Fruits; Brett Meyers, founder of Nourish Now; and Roger Gordon of Food Cowboy examine produce before loading it into Meyers’s truck. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

“We are a country that has a surplus of food and a surplus of hunger,” said Gordon, a 46-year-old lawyer. “Two million tons of fresh produce are wasted every year. There is no reason these two problems should coexist.”

In the Washington region, there are numerous volunteer, church and nonprofit groups that collect donated or surplus food for distribution to needy families and soup kitchens. They include Bethesda Help and Manna Food Center in suburban Maryland, and Food for Others and the Assistance League in Northern Virginia. The federal government also provides surplus food to agencies that help those in need.

Often, though, food charities rely on canned and processed goods, since they are easy to transport and store. Fresh produce is more nutritious and not as fattening, but it needs to move fast, it costs more to ship, it requires extra safety measures and it is easier to discard than to figure out how to use. To salvage and donate it takes commitment, planning and agility.

What is different about Gordon’s project is that through the use of high-tech methods, information about unwanted produce can be shared quickly and precisely so groups like Nourish Now can get to it faster.

A food distributor in Baltimore, for example, can log on to Food Cowboy and say he has just received 10 boxes of carrots that a supermarket rejected because of an imperfection. Then, Meyers or workers for another charity, prompted by the app’s generic donor alert, can respond that they will pick up the carrots within three hours.

“This is beautiful, and it’s all going to waste,” Meyers said while inspecting boxes of half-frozen Mexican broccoli on a warehouse loading dock Tuesday. Some of the heads had yellow spots on them, so all had been rejected by their original customer, probably a supermarket chain. But most were still firm and green — perfect for soups and salads. Meyers loaded as many boxes as he could cram into his van.

Some small suppliers have joined Food Cowboy, including local markets and eateries whose owners are happy to have someone pick up their excess food and put it to good use. Dinesh Tandon, an immigrant from India whose family owns a Punjabi bistro in Northeast Washington, often contacts Gordon to let him know what he has available.


Roger Gordon, of Food Cowboy is on the phone while workers of Mexican Fruits gather produce for staffers of Food Cowboy and Nourish Now to sort and deliver. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

“We always have something left over, especially after weekends and holidays, and we hate to throw it away,” said Tandon. Once, he donated a crate of Indian bread to a District shelter and discovered that nobody would eat it, but Meyers said he has begun introducing some of his charity’s clients to Indian cooking.

To replicate this network on a larger scale, though, takes more than a fast van and a strong sense of personal mission. Across the country, thousands of trucks pick up, move and deliver produce for supermarkets, wholesalers and restaurant chains every day. Most of what they carry is sold and whisked away on arrival.

As a result, there is little economic incentive among larger businesses to find homes for a few crates of rejected leftovers cluttering up a loading dock. And they may have additional concerns about food contamination.

“It’s not easy to change culture, to get people to think of donating instead of discarding and dumping,” said Barbara Cohen, Gordon’s business partner.

But apps like Food Cowboy try to make the process as painless as possible by giving both donor and recipient all the information needed to make a precise handoff. Gordon describes it as air-traffic control for food: No one gets lost or surprised, and nothing gets thrown out.

A similar app, PareUp, to be launched this summer in New York, plans to link grocers with individual customers for discount sales.

So far, Gordon’s organization has signed up about 150 truckers, 40 food banks and 30 meal pantries on the East Coast. In the past year, it was able to salvage about 300 tons of fresh food, including 900 pounds of eggplant from a supplier in Florida that were delivered by truck to Lorton. The trucker went to the Food Cowboy Web site and alerted Gordon in time to have them picked up.

Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, the rescue mission fails. In one case, Gordon said, he got word of a truck carrying 20,000 pounds of green beans to Upstate New York. The refrigeration unit had broken, making them unsellable but still safe to eat for a limited period. Gordon tried to marshal friends with trucks in the region to pick them up but ran out of time. The beans ended up in a landfill.

“What I need is a thousand Bretts,” he said with a sigh.



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