New Scientist focus on food

The latest issue of New Scientist (13 September 2008) has a couple of articles focusing on food and its impact on our health or on the environment.

In ‘Superfoods wanted’ (page 18), Matt Walker highlights the need not only for more food but also for food that meets our nutritional needs. This is a refrain that will be familiar to readers of Michael Pollan’s book, ‘In Defense of Food’. Pollan extrapolates from the old adage, ‘you are what you eat’, and makes the point that the simplified ‘diets’ provided to crop plants through inorganic fertilisers results in less nutritious seeds, fruits and leaves.

Walker points to efforts to enhance the nutritional quality of food crops by increasing their contents of essential micronutrients (such as the CGIAR Challenge Program, HarvestPlus) — unfortunately, he refers to ‘engineering’ such crops, implying that such improvements are possible only through genetic modification rather than also through conventional breeding. But he does bring out an important issue — that little has been done to demonstrate whether ‘fortified’ crops actually deliver improved nutrition. “More research is urgently needed,” he states.

The cover story from this issue, ‘Dinner’s dirty secret’, focuses on the ‘carbon footprint’ of our food and looks at what influences this. The major conclusion is that we can reduce the carbon footprint of our food most by reducing the amount of red meat and dairy products. (There is much more to the article than this, but I wanted to pick up on this issue.)

My concern is that this article, and others I have read recently about the role of livestock in producing greenhouse gases, seems to be written purely from a developed-world standpoint. For example, it picks up on the fertiliser that is used to grow the feed for livestock and the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from manure. But this completely overlooks the typical situation in smallholder agriculture in the developing world, where livestock commonly graze land that would otherwise be unproductive (from the point of view of producing food for people) or are fed crop residues (i.e. no ‘additional’ fertiliser application). Their manure is often the only fertiliser available to poor farmers; rather than being the waste management problem it is in the developed world, manure is often a traded commodity.

Livestock are a crucial component of smallholder agricultural systems in the developing world — let’s not write them off by looking at the issues only from a developed world perspective.

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