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GROWING GREEN - Sustainability in the Food Chain

GROWING GREEN - Sustainability in the Food Chain

We did it! Last month – November 2011 – planet Earth’s population increased to over 7 billion people. A stunning figure, considering – in a historic time span - the “short” time it has taken to get from 1 million to that 7 billion.

10000 years BC   1  million people
 AD1  200  million people
 1750  791  million people
 1950  2.5  billion people
 2010  6.0  billion people
 2011  7.0  billion people

But it gets really scary over the last 300 years, when the world population increased ten times.

And as we all know, the estimate for 2050 is around 9 billon inhabitants.

And lets not forget; we live on a planet that is rather unique in our galaxy with a couple of million other planets or stars - actually most likely “very unique” in the numerous galaxies that scientists have discovered in the “observable universe” with probably more than a 100 billion galaxies (no need to try estimate the trillions of stars and planets!). And so far, they have found no signs of a planet Earth with sustainable life as ours. So our planet, we humans and the rest of the planets living species as well as nature itself, is – very, very unique. That’s why we really have to take good care of this planet of ours and secure its well being for future generations.

We have to learn to live a comfortable and good life with the sustainable resources we have at hand, getting away from non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels - oil, coal and gas. The million of years that is has taken to create life on earth, has served us these resources on a silver plate (probably a bad expression as silver is considered non-renewable but of course, re-cyclabel). This resource is called nature and if we learn to respect it and use it correctly, it can - together with solar, wind, geo-thermal and other energies – provide us with all the resources we need for a good life; we do not need to go back to middle age civilization; we can live well with plenty of energy. But we must learn to master it correctly, use it efficiently and definitely not waste it; nature is generous but there is a limit!

Food is another matter; planet Earth can produce enormous quantities of food, but the planet has limited land areas that do not expand as well as limited quantities of fresh water. And both food and water is part of a biodiversity that depends of the right climate and temperatures and are subject to numerous other conditions that must not be distorted. And food can not be produced in unlimited quantities to meet the ever growing demands of an ever growing population; the planet is not expandable.

To quote Wikipedia; from 1950 to 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the world, grain production increased by over 250%. The world population has grown by about four billion since the beginning of the Green Revolution and most believe that, without the Revolution, there would be greater famine and malnutrition than the UN presently documents (approximately 850 million people suffering from chronic malnutrition in 2005). The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon-fueled irrigation.

But the potential peaking of world oil production shall affect agriculture and food production as well as prices, as oil is of crucial importance to global transportation, power generation and agriculture. In May 2008, the price of grain was pushed up severely by the increased cultivation of biofuels [not proven!], the increase of world oil prices to over $140 per barrel ($ 880/m3), global population growth, the effects of climate change, the loss of agricultural land to residential and industrial development, and growing consumer demand in the population centers of China and India. Food riots subsequently occurred in some countries across the world. However, oil prices then fell sharply, and remaining below $100/barrel until around 2010, but it is unclear whether rising living standards in developing countries will once again create resource shortages.

Some may say that mankind is innovative (yes) and shall find new technologies (yes) that can solve or replace nature (doubtful) and that could meet our future demands for nutrition (very doubtful). Or we can move to another planet! But as I said, so far none has been found that matches planet Earth in terms of life conditions as we know them. The next exploration of mankind is to travel to Mars; 520 days travel back and forth – and with a surface temperature of minus 5 to 87 degrees Celsius - and the atmosphere is 1% of Earths surface pressure; hardly a place for living, even less for agriculture and food production. No need to make any further space exploration, nor build any expectations. So without doubt and whatever the views are, we shall face difficulties in meeting the food demand of the future as can be seen from the following statements (also Wikipedia).

Food security refers to the availability of food and one's access to it. A household is considered food-secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation. According to the World Resources Institute, global per capita food production has been increasing substantially for the past several decades. In 2006, MSNBC reported that globally, the number of people who are overweight has surpassed the number who is undernourished - the world had more than one billion people who were overweight, and an estimated 800 million who were undernourished. According to a 2004 article from the BBC, China, the world's most populous country, is suffering from an obesity epidemic. In India, the second-most populous country in the world, 30 million people have been added to the ranks of the hungry since the mid-1990s and 46% of children are underweight. Quite an imbalance!

Furthermore, intensive farming often leads to a vicious cycle of exhaustion of soil fertility and decline of agricultural yields. Approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded. In Africa, if current trends of soil degradation continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa

Land deals and Climate Change shall also have an impact. Rich governments and corporations are buying up the rights to millions of hectares of agricultural land in developing countries in an effort to secure their own long-term food supplies. The head of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jacques Diouf, has warned that the controversial rise in land deals could create a form of "neocolonialism", with poor states producing food for the rich at the expense of their own hungry people. The South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics has secured a large piece of farmland in Madagascar to grow maize and crops for biofuels. Libya has secured 250,000 hectares of Ukrainian farmland, and China has begun to explore land deals in Southeast Asia. Oil-rich Arab investors, including the sovereign wealth funds, are looking into Sudan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Cambodia and Thailand.

Some countries are using the acquisition of land for agriculture in return for other gains. Egypt is seeking land acquisition in Ukraine in exchange for access to its natural gas. Qatar has plans to lease 40,000 hectares of agricultural land along Kenya's coast to grow fruit and vegetables, in return for building a £2.4 billion port close to the Indian Ocean tourist island of Lamu.

Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers. India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by severe droughts in coming decades. In India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people. The west coast of North America, which gets much of its water from glaciers in mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, also would be affected. Glaciers aren't the only worry that the developing nations have; sea level is also reported to rise as climate change progresses, reducing the amount of land available for agriculture.

In other parts of the world, a big effect will be low yields of grain according to the World Food Trade Model, specifically in the low latitude regions where much of the developing world is located. From this the price of grain will rise, along with the developing nations trying to grow the grain. Due to this, every 2-2.5% price hike will increase the number of hungry people by 1%. Low crop yields are just one of the problem facing farmers in the low latitudes and tropical regions. The timing and length of the growing seasons, when farmers plant their crops, are going to be changing dramatically, per the USDA, due to unknown changes in soil temperature and moisture conditions.

Consequently, sustainability in the food chain is a very complex and complicated issue to handle. As a cool chain association, we are in the challenging position to handle and transport PTSPs from the growing area to the destination where the consumers are – often half around the globe. While there shall be certain trunk routes - like Africa to Europe and South America to North America and so forth – there shall also be challenging demands for unforeseen transport requirements as climate change shall reduce or eliminate some growing areas due to draught or too warm or too cold and even consumer demands may change. But at the same time, for various reasons as mentioned above, new land areas shall produce food that needs handling and distribution over new routes and with new logistics.

At the same time, we shall have to face and cope with the new demands of sustainability issues in order to reduce global warming, eventually returning to a global average temperature level that was prevailing in the world before the industrial revolution (1750-1800). As a consequence, you may say that food patterns may also change over times. It shall require a transition from use of fossil fuels to sustainable energy for agriculture and transportation. It shall require a more intelligent use of food resources and a respect for climate change, biodiversity, reduced use of fresh water, sustainable packing materials as well as handling in order to meet the demand of the future, being a sustainable economy and society. Not easy challenges, yet not insurmountable either. At the same time, moving food from where it’s grown to were it’s needed is going to be another - sustainable – challenge.

I shall not review further the need for a sustainable agriculture, but a transition from fossil based energy and fertilizer as well as many other non-sustainable products and productivities shall be necessary in order that agriculture meets its part in reducing GHG emissions and pollution. Likewise, the cool chain distribution and handling shall face the same challenges; a transition away from dependence and use of fossil fuels and fossil based products and move towards a sustainable based industry and society. Over time, even the use of metal in machinery and equipment becomes an exception as we move towards composite materials and other bio based resources and recycling becomes the norm. Take an example - as mentioned in Braungart and MrDonough’s book “Cradle to Cradle – packing material. Up to 50% of our waste is packing material and many of these packing materials are NOT bio-degradable and are often designed to last longer than the products they contain.

But they could easily be designed to be bio-degradable and with a limited life span. As such – if done cleverly – could be returned to “nature” and be part of natural fertilizer instead of being burned or recycled to a down-graded product. But if so, they must not be mixed with synthetic chemical materials, such as a label with a print material that is not naturally bio-degradable – on bio-degradable carton. The solution is to make sure that everything is bio-degradable, even the type of print materials used. The technology is available and the cost would not necessarily be more expensive, but the product should be produced by having that objective in mind, using only bio-degradable materials. Likewise, the “remaining” 50% waste in the food chain could also be tackled; firstly by improving the temperature control prior and during the distribution and secondly, by sensible handling of PTSPs due to delays and common sense if the unforeseen occurs. Such action could further reduce the waste in the cool chain, leaving us with a small quantity of “unavoidable” waste (I bought too much, I did not eat all the salad etc), that again could be recycled where the biological residue would be re-used to grow new food - well explained in the “Cradle to Cradle”.

So why should the cool chain industry be interested in these issues – or even worried! - Simply because it’s our business! We handle and transport fresh, perishable and temperature sensitive products. The way we operate as well as the use of needed equipment and material shall be subject to the same rigorous and sustainable regulations and terms as all other industries shall be faced with over the coming years. And the faster we recognize this and the faster we act, the better off we shall be to face the challenges in the sustainable world of the future. This means that we must prepare for sustainable and renewable equipment, use sustainable energy and materials, move away from fossil fuels for all our transportation needs and replace it with electrical (based on sustainable electricity of course) vehicles, trains and for heavy trucks, sustainable gas and other renewable energy sources that meet the specific requirements of such type of equipment. The aviation industry is in a leading position as it’s already moving towards biofuels and by 2050 shall reduce its GHG emissions with up to 80% (certain types of biofuels have already been certified for use with up to 50% blend with fossil fuels and it’s now a question of how fast the large scale production of biofuels can be achieved. Also the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) shall be a critical part of such future use of sustainable energy and products; in order words, the total GHG emission from manufacturing to recycle or destruction shall be accessed to stipulate the final GHG emission and its effect on the planet’s CO2 emissions, health and pollution. The LCA certification is still in its infancy, but there is no doubt in my mind that it shall be part of the mandatory regulations of the future.

Good luck - and let’s work together in the Cool Chain Association for a successful and sustainable PTSP industry of the future.