Crossing the Equator: What’s For Christmas Dinner?

By Wanqing Zhou

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

No matter where we are, there is one thing in common for the end of year holidays, whether you’re celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or another festival: food. Special dishes. Holiday meals. Gathering around a table. It’s time to be merry and stay happy, to try and forget about sorrow and anger, and often, to give up asking too many questions—questions that may lead to the truth, and the truth can be inconvenient.

On November 28 and 29, 2014, Brighter Green’s Mia MacDonald and Wanqing Zhou joined environmental and rights advocates at the International Strategy Meeting on Impacts of Unsustainable Livestock and Feed Production and Threats to Community Conservation in Paraguay. The meeting and field trips were organized by the Global Forest Coalition, an international non-profit network of organizations based in Paraguay and the Netherlands.

"Agrochemicals violate human rights - a tribute to Silviono Talavera."

“Agrochemicals violate human rights: A tribute to Silvino Talavera.”

Just six miles from the conference site, across the Asunción airport, Elvio Sosa is the “Chief” of 23 MbyáGuaraní families. Five years ago, soybean farmers occupied Elvio and his indigenous community’s territory in Caaguazú Department in east Paraguay (the name Caaguazú means “big forest”) and burned their houses. People fled in different directions, with some families arriving at Zárate Isla, a place where no one came to chase them away.

They settled down with other Mbyá people from other parts of the country, built huts under the tree shades, kept chickens and ducks, and some also began to grow food around their huts. The children don’t go to school because families cannot afford school supplies and required uniforms. Only temporary jobs are open to them, while most of the time, they go to the streets and try to find “luck”—this Christmas season they are probably selling Mbocaya flowers to drivers on the road.

From Asunción heading east, the tropical forest landscape gradually turns into uniform soybean monocultures that run through Canindeyú, Caaguazú, Caazapá, Alto Paraná, and Itapúa. As the raw material for livestock feed, cooking oil, and various food additives, acres and acres of genetically modified (GM) pesticide-resistant soybean cover the red soil, turning natural forests into deserts of dark green or arid brown. Small pockets of woods leave people to imagine the lost habitats of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities.

Huge metal silos shine under the sun. Billboards for pesticides, fertilizers, seeds and farm machinery stand along the repeatedly-mended, two-way, single-lane highway. Ruts left by heavy trucks tell the story of prosperous agribusiness in silence—one cannot hear insects or birds in these fields, nor farmers calling to each other—and two or three people are enough to manage all the work with the help of modern technologies.

According to communities living near the soy fields, four or five people are enough to manage all the work in 50,000 to 70,000 acres of soybean monoculture with the help of modern technologies. Pesticides, sometimes sprayed by small planes, are applied to the soy, ten times per rotation, three rotations a year, without any notice to surrounding communities. Cases of skin disease, malformation, stillbirths, and cancer have increased dramatically in these communities. School kids play by a wall of eucalyptus trees, planted along the edge of soy fields, with the hope that the trees shield some of the fumigation. In 2003, 11-year-old Silvino Talavera died in front of his mother’s eyes after being directly exposed to pesticide spraying in the soy fields near his home in Itapúa.

For campesinos (small-scale peasant farmers) in Paraguay, who try to preserve traditional varieties of crops and practice agroforestry, life is getting harder. The soybean fields are encroaching, withering the peasants’ vegetables and fruit trees as agrochemicals fill the air. Standing by rolls of stakes, peasant farmer Geronimo Arevalos told us how he had to replant his tomatoes because the fumigation just killed his last batch. As an activist for small farmers’ rights, he was featured in the award-winning documentary Raising Resistance, and proudly displayed the Golden Butterfly trophy from the Movies That Matter Film Festival.

Moving up the supply chain, victims of industrial agriculture are affected in different ways, and not all of them are heard like Geronimo. Some soybeans are transported to Capiatá near Asunción, where industrial livestock farms and slaughterhouses are located. Pechugon (pechugón means “big breasts”), the chicken meat brand created by processing company Avícola La Blanca, has a facility in Capiatá that produces poultry feed and slaughters chickens.

Facilities like this usually take advantage of rainy days to discharge wastewater, which run into streams and enter the Ypacaraí Lake. Pechugon has dug five wastewater treatment pools near Fidel Goncalvez’s community. Houses close to the leaky water pipes are frequently inundated with semi-treated wastewater, including a mixture of blood, animal waste, and toxic chemicals like bleach. The smell is constantly awful, those living around the plant say, and one of the company’s responses was to provide households with window screens. Still, the screens cannot keep these insects from occupying dinner tables.

The stories can go on and on and on. And yet, what’s happening in Paraguay is just a snapshot of the impacts of the global system of industrial livestock production. In other words, industrial livestock production is connected to everyone.

Industrial livestock production technologies and business models were invented in industrial countries such as the U.S. and promoted worldwide; consumers in China and Europe have reached out to the U.S. and Latin America for larger amounts of livestock and feed products. Latin American countries, especially Brazil and Paraguay, are becoming dispossessed—their natural resources have become meat and animal feed that is shipped to consumer countries; the profits go into the pockets of multinational agribusinesses; indigenous people and small farmers have lost their livelihoods; and a large part of the unique ecosystems and their biodiversity are gone, forever.

The truth about the global food system is inconvenient, and not only at Christmas. But Christmas, and the overall end-of-year holiday season, may be a good time—as good as any in fact—to learn more about the food we eat, where it comes from, and how it’s shaping and reshaping the world (as in Paraguay), one purchase, one meal, one technology, one forest lost or one community displaced, one bite at a time.

Photo courtesy of Wanqing Zhou

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Activism in China: Q&A with Associate Wanqing Zhou

By Alessandra Seiter

Outside of the film's premiere at Vegan Hut in Beijing

Outside of the film’s premiere at Vegan Hut in Beijing

This blog originally appeared on the Our Hen House website on July 23, 2014.

Today, I’m excited to tell you about a screening tour across China of the 30-minute documentary WHAT’S FOR DINNER? Providing a unique look into the rapid growth of industrialized animal agriculture in China, the film follows various people in Chinese society—from a retired pig farm worker to a vegan restaurant owner—and examines the impacts of the country’s huge shift in food production and consumption on sustainability, public health, food security, climate change, and animal welfare.

WHAT’S FOR DINNER? is a production of Brighter Green, a public policy “action tank” on environment, animals, and sustainability, for which I’ve been fortunate enough to work this summer, in addition to my internship with Our Hen House. You may remember Brighter Green’s important work from OHH’s interview with Jessika Ava on Episode 216 of the podcast, or from Jessika’s collaborative feature with Brighter Green Executive Director Mia MacDonald on the expansion of industrialized dairy production in Asia, based on Brighter Green’s latest policy paper, “Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia.”

WHAT’S FOR DINNER? has already been shown at film festivals, conferences, and on campuses across the U.S., and in Europe, India, and Korea, but had not yet screened in China until this summer. When Brighter Green Associate Wanqing Zhou’s paper, “The Triangle: Factory Farming in the U.S, China and Brazil” was accepted for presentation at the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption in Shanghai this past June, the organization saw an ideal opportunity to release the newly completed Chinese-subtitled version of WHAT’S FOR DINNER? throughout China.

Recently, I caught up with Wanqing, the main organizer and host of the screenings:
***
Alessandra Seiter for Our Hen House (OHH): Can you explain what you’ve been doing this summer in China with WHAT’S FOR DINNER? Give us a “day in the life” of your work with the screenings.
Wanqing Zhou (WZ): I am bringing WHAT’S FOR DINNER? to different cities in China and discussing the topics of meat consumption and production, and the relationship between diet, the environment, people’s health, and food security. Jian Yi, the film’s director and Xie Zheng, the founder of the organization Don’t Eat Friends, sometimes help me host the screenings. So far, we’ve hosted twelve screenings in six cities.

A typical day during the screening tour involves taking an early morning train with Jian Yi to the next city on our schedule and having lunch with the local organizers with whom we’re collaborating. The screenings take place in the afternoon and usually last for two-and-a-half hours. We screen both WHAT’S FOR DINNER? and Vegucated, then host a panel discussion.

OHH: Why did you want to bring WHAT’S FOR DINNER? to China?
WZ: The issues discussed in WHAT’S FOR DINNER? are very relevant to China. Without the public becoming aware of them, nothing in the country can be changed. People in China are just starting to be exposed to information regarding meat consumption, pollution, climate change, and health. However, the information tends to be quite general, and there is not yet a local documentary film that illustrates the problems. I think it’s very important the Chinese people see reflections and reevaluations of animal agriculture that come from within the society, as shown in WHAT’S FOR DINNER?.

OHH: What people and organizations have you collaborated with?
WZ: We have collaborated with local and international environmental groups, media and communication companies, local community governments, vegetarian associations and restaurants, and business clubs. The most prominent among these groups include the Zhejiang Vegetarian Food Association (ZVFA), the Shanghai branch of Green Drinks, Climate Wire journalists, the Shanghai Academy of Natural Resources, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

OHH: How have attendees responded to the film?
WZ: The attendees come from all educational and cultural backgrounds—from illiterate villagers to graduates from top universities, both Chinese and foreign-born. They’re attracted to the screenings by different facets of the topic, including health and nutrition, food safety, the environment, business opportunities, and more.

People have spoken highly of WHAT’S FOR DINNER?, saying that it’s mild yet alerting, resonates with their daily life, and inspires change.

The attendees have been most interested in the discussion of health; they’ve asked if eating less or no meat will provide adequate nutrition, as well as how to differentiate between genetically modified and organic foods. Some attendees have expressed interest in or concern for the environment and food security, but individual health has been the major topic at most screening events.

OHH: What is the general attitude toward veganism in China?
WZ: Among the younger generation, more people are aware of the positive effects of being vegetarian or vegan. The abstention from eating animals used to have religious connections, such as to Buddhism, but that connection is becoming weaker these days, especially as health and environmental concerns appear.

Most meat-eaters in China over the age of 40 see not eating meat as “nutritionally deficient” and/or “extreme.” They might call a vegetarian or vegan person “unfortunate, but mentally strong,” because they would view such an individual as struggling economically, since they’re not able to enjoy the “most delicious foods.” However, only a very small portion of vegetarian or vegan people in China are in an economically difficult situation, so most vegetarians or vegans actively choose such a diet.

Most vegetarians or vegans in China view their diet as a personal choice, rather than as part of a value system. They all do it for different reasons, and they don’t want to label themselves.

OHH: Do you and Brighter Green have any plans for advocacy in China beyond the screenings this summer?
WZ: Right now, Brighter Green is encouraging Chinese civil society and journalists to participate in fact-finding tours with sites in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, organized by our partner, Global Forest Coalition. The tours will focus upon the environmental and social impacts of the production of feed for farmed animals (e.g., soy monoculture). We hope that Chinese participants will bring home what they have witnessed on a tour and provide the seeds of change. Several Chinese individuals and groups have already expressed interest in participating.

OHH: You recently presented your paper, “The Triangle: Factory Farming in the U.S., China and Brazil” at the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption (congratulations, by the way!). Could you briefly explain your paper?
WZ: In short, I tried to use “The Triangle” to illustrate the relationship between the world’s three largest meat and feed producers and consumers.

The U.S. has exported the industrialized, intensive animal production pattern of factory farming to countries including Brazil and China, along with its meat-centered “ideal” diet and fast-food culture. China is now the destination of huge amounts of animal products and feed grains. This puts pressure on the world’s largest producers of such products, including the U.S. and Brazil. Brazil is especially important because large areas of rainforests and savannahs are being cleared to grow crops in order to meet growing demand for meat and feed. The Amazon rainforest is not only home to a vibrant ecosystem, but is also of great global importance as a carbon sink, a storage unit of sorts for biodiversity and biomass, a resource provider, and a climate regulator.

The appearance, adoption, and expansion of factory farming practices in these three countries represent the relationship between humans, our food, and the environment—one in which we have believed for the past 50 years or more. This relationship considers humans as the dominators and controllers of all natural resources, and believes that all species and environments—to be of value—should serve humans.

To respond to the expansion of the poorly-regulated factory farming system and the trend of growing animal consumption, we need the majority of the people—especially those who live in cities, in the case of China—to be aware that the over-consumption and over-production of animal products is not adaptive to the environment. Individuals, businesses, and social groups need to act first and lay the foundation for change, and policy will catch up with them.

OHH: What inspired you to get involved with Brighter Green?
WZ: I first got to know Mia MacDonald—the Executive Director of Brighter Green—and her organization during a screening event of WHAT’S FOR DINNER? and Vegucated in New York City. I had been interested in the food-climate nexus for some time and thought Brighter Green’s work was very relevant. I also thought that more people, especially in China, should hear about the issues on which Brighter Green focuses, but I never thought I could be the one to bring WHAT’S FOR DINNER? back home! It’s been a great experience and I have enjoyed every minute of it.

Follow Wanqing’s screening adventure and learn more about the film on its official website!

Photo courtesy of Wanqing Zhou

Small, Smart, & Green: Revolutionizing Organic Agriculture in West Africa

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.
Erwin Knippenberg is a guest blogger for Brighter Green. 

Brighter Green sometimes features updates on agricultural changes, particularly the global South.Grain Coast, Inc. Logo

Sam Binda is a farmer like his father and his father before him. He grows okra, African eggplant and other vegetables to feed his family and sells whatever is left at his local market. As a member of CHAP —a community based farming organization—he pools his efforts with his neighbors, sharing tools and know-how. Sam is a Liberian, working to rebuild his country after a brutal 14-year civil war.

A little over a year ago, a local for-profit venture called Grain Coast Inc. started working with Sam and CHAP to promote organic farming, using home-made fertilizers and pesticides. Founded by Bill Tolbert, a Liberian who’d lived in the U.S. for many years, Grain Coast provides tools and training, working with farmers like Sam to increase yields and then buying the surplus produce.

Through a Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, Liberia’s first, customers buy a subscription, which guarantees them a weekly delivery of fresh vegetables. As in CSAs in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, the contents of the box vary with the harvest and the season, but a tropical climate ensures that it stays full fifty two weeks a year. Despite the challenges of operating in a post-war country, the Liberian owned venture manages to break even, ensuring its sustainability.

But wait, isn’t “organic” a “niche” product, aimed at mostly wealthy customers in developing countries? How will organics help feed an additional 2 billion people by 2050, which will require what many researches say is an estimated 70 percent increase in food production? Although agribusiness may insist that factory-farming and GMO’s are the only way, in many countries most food is produced by small-holders using little to no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Recent spikes in food prices (some linked to the Arab Spring) have led to a renewed interest in boosting agricultural production. Money from public and private investors, including the Gates Foundation has come flooding in. Unfortunately, the result is too often a “land grab”, where small farmers lose out to multinational agribusinesses like Monsanto and Cargill.

According to a World Bank report, to date agribusiness companies have sought to acquire 56 million hectares of land globally, more than half (29 million) in Africa, an area roughly the size of the state of Arizona. Farmers lose their land, while the mechanized, mono-cropping techniques introduced destroy the soils and render local populations even more vulnerable to a changing climate.

There is another way. Firms like Grain Coast work to promote organic farming among subsistence farmers. Conscious of the many barriers to accessing markets the farmers face, the firm offers a package deal. It provides tools and training to the farmers on credit. This includes natural pesticides containing self-perpetuating microorganisms, so the farmer can continue making their own.

Produce takes six to eight weeks to grow in Liberia’s lush climate. Normally the farmers then face an uphill battle to transport the crops to market and sell them. Up to half the crop is lost in transit, and they have to sell the rest on the cheap before it goes bad (food waste, in both industrialized and global South countries, is a huge problem).

To avoid this scenario in Liberia, Grain Coast buys the farmers’ crop and processes and packages it for sale in Monrovia and abroad. A portion of the proceeds goes to pay back the initial credit, and within a year most farmers are debt free and making two to three times as much in sales as they were before.

In its first year of operation, GrainCoast maintained a base of fifty customers and yielded gross income of 33,000 U.S. dollars. In 2014, Grain Coast expects to expand the CSA subscribers to 100, with sales of more than 60,000 U.S. dollars.

But Grain Coast isn’t stopping there. Founder Bill Tolbert recently launched aninternational crowd funding campaign to finance a starter kit for co-ops, drill wells and to build a processing facility.

As the campaign states, the plan is to:

-Supply a large volume of fresh okra to a European supermarket chain. Our buyer is willing to work hand-in-hand with us to ensure quality and on-time delivery.

-Use an out-grower scheme to fulfill this order and follow-on orders.

-Target fifteen smallholder farmers and two community-based farming organizations in the first year.

Bill also plans to diversify into rice, using the SRI techniques developed by researchers to end Liberians dependence on imported food. “I want to inspire entrepreneurs to transform agriculture in Africa!” he says. I suggest: stay tuned.

A Flood of Refugees

Millions were displaced after Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

By Elana Sulakshana

Climate change is not just poised to affect plants, coral reefs, insects, and non-human mammals. With rising sea levels, increased temperatures, more extreme natural disasters, and reduced agricultural yields, entire human communities are at risk of displacement. The rise in refugees due to environmental causes is projected be one of the most significant impacts of climate change, affecting millions of people worldwide.

According to the International Red Cross, there are currently more people displaced due to climate and weather-related events than war. However, under the Geneva Convention, these people are not technically considered refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees defines a refugee as someone who is forced to flee their country due to “persecution, war, or violence”. While the official refugee count is 20.8 million, there are an additional estimated 25 to 50 million climate refugees. International law, unfortunately, is silent on this issue.

The Global Governance Project categorizes a climate refugee as a subset of the term “environmental migrant”. This group is defined by displacement “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity”.

Who are these refugees? They are found all over the world—in small island communities in the Pacific, mountainous regions of Nepal, and even New York City’s low-lying coastal areas (think Hurricane Sandy). Yet they are disproportionately drawn from developing nations and from the poorest sectors of society. For example, in the Far Rockaways, which is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, 27 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2011 (in comparison to New York City’s 16 percent).

The impact of extreme weather events is the easiest to envision. Hurricanes and typhoons lead to storm surge and flooding, resulting in the destruction of homes and livelihoods and forcing entire communities to relocate, temporarily or long-term. Low-lying coastal areas and small island nations are acutely at risk, since rising sea levels are intensifying the threat of flooding.

Other changes, particularly warming and precipitation extremes and variability, are leading to the breakdown of traditional food systems, which results in the loss of livelihoods. Hunger and thirst—as agricultural yields decrease and the availability of safe drinking water falls—are compelling people to move.

It is estimated that 250 million people will be forced to relocate by 2050 due to the effects of climate change—a number that is close to the current population of the United States. This raises important, unprecedented questions surrounding where they will migrate, how the law will view them, and their immigration status in other, also vulnerable, nations.

As former Maldives senior advisor Edward Cameron said, “This will be the largest migration in history. This is not migration as we’ve known it before. We’re talking about people migrating from sensitive places into other very sensitive places.”

Movement has already begun, mainly within countries. Due to changing weather patterns, many are making the trek from rural to urban areas, where they are less dependent on the unpredictable climate for their livelihoods.

In Bangladesh, for example, which is facing the gravest threats due to climate change, more and more people are pouring into the capital, Dhaka. Yet, estimates say that 15 million people could be displaced from Bangladesh alone, as 25 percent of the country (including Dhaka) floods. These people will need to find somewhere else to go, along with millions of others around the globe.

This is the second piece in a series on climate change and inequality. Read the first here and second here.

Photo courtesy of the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO).

Climate Change and Food Security

By Elana Sulakshana

Image

Climate change will continue to affect crop yields significantly.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II recently published a report titled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” One of the major issues that the report raises is that of food security, exploring the connection between mounting pressures due to climate change and agriculture. These links between climate and food are intrinsically tied to inequity.

Agricultural yields are expected to fall at a rate much faster than previously predicted. Production of corn and wheat, in particular, faces grave risks due to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns—the report says yields of these two crops will reduce at least 2% per decade. This may lead to food prices rising 3% to 84% by 2050. At the same time, the global population is increasing rapidly. Predictions state that there will be at least 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050 (an increase in the world’s population by about 35%), which will require crop production to double, according to National Geographic.

Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the authors of the report, stated: “Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields.”

As Oppenheimer indicates, these are not just concerns for the future. The report discusses how climate change has already impacted food supply and continues to do so. Many link the 2007-8 spike in wheat prices to political unrest and violence in the Arab spring, just one example of the far-reaching influence of fluctuations in food supply and prices.

The world is polarized in terms of hunger. The number of overweight and obese people is booming worldwide, now comprising more than 33% of the population, or 1.46 billion adults. Meanwhile, 842 million—about one in eight—people are starving, struggling with the under consumption of energy, protein, and micro-nutrients.

Recent decades, though, have seen an greater consumption in developing nations. From 1980 to 2008, the number of obese and overweight adults increased about three times from 250 to 904 million (compared to 1.7 times in the developed world). Diets in the developing world are increasingly featuring dairy and meat (check out Brighter Green’s report on industrialized dairy in Asia). National Geographic predicts that the demand for protein—i.e. meat—will increase by 103.6% in developing countries, 69.2% in the least developed, and just 15.3% in developed.

This will have significant repercussions on the environment, as meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, comprising 18% today. Raising livestock is highly intensive in terms of water and grain. Currently only 55% of global crop calories are used for food, whereas the rest is dedicated to feed (36%) and fuel (9%).

As we move forward, one of the key ways that we can tackle climate change and eradicate hunger is by reducing meat consumption in both developed and developing countries. If we were to shift all crop production to direct human consumption, that would create enough food for 4 billion people, easily ending hunger today and fulfilling the needs of the predicted population of 9 billion in 2050. This is wishful thinking, as we are witnessing the opposite process, as developing countries take a cue from the developed and increase meat consumption as incomes rise.

This is the second piece in a series on climate change and inequality. Read the first one here.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Multimedia.

Brazil’s New Dietary Guidelines: Cook and Eat Whole Foods, Be Wary of Ads

Brazilian homes

By Mia MacDonald and Judy Bankman

This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

What if your national dietary guidelines advised you to cook and enjoy fresh, whole foods, and serve them with friends and family while thinking critically about advertising? Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Well, that’s exactly what Brazil’s Ministry of Health is recommending with the “food based” dietary guidelines it issued recently.

Unlike the U.S. dietary guidelines (or “MyPlate”), which focus on reducing solid fats and added sugars, and pinpoint a long list of nutrients to consume or reduce, Brazil’s guidelines keep it simple by encouraging people there to eat more fresh, unprocessed foods.

Here are the guidelines in full:

1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.

2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.

3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products.

4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.

5. Eat in company whenever possible.

6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.

7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.

8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.

9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.

10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

“I think it’s terrific that [Brazil’s guidelines] promote real foods, cooking, and family meals, rather than worrying about the nutritional quality of processed foods or dealing with single nutrients,” Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, told us recently.

Like many developed and developing countries, Brazil has seen recent spikes in the numbers of overweight and obese people. In 2011, nearly half of Brazilians were overweight, and about 16 percent were obese. Carlos Monteiro of the University of Sao Paolo attributes this widespread increase in body mass index (BMI) to the transition from unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as rice, fruits, and vegetables to “ultra processed foods.”

Like the U.S., Brazil is a major agricultural producer. Brazil-based JBS is the world’s largest processor of animal protein, and the nation tops the world in exports of beef and chicken. It’s also a leading player in the global soybean boom, and miles and miles of Brazil’s rainforest and savannah have been bulldozed in recent decades to grow livestock feed. In addition to their thriving export trade, Brazilians have begun eating more meat, dairy products, and eggs. And as the Brazilian middle class has grown, transnational food companies like McDonald’s, KFC, and Coca-Cola have expanded their operations and marketing in Brazil, spreading U.S.-style fast food culture further.

But these new guidelines are pointing in the opposite direction: They advocate slower food. By focusing on the importance of taking the time to prepare meals and eat in good company, the new Brazilian dietary guidelines prioritize food culture and the environment in which meals are eaten. This is extremely important: Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown a link between eating outside the home and increased obesity.

Brazil’s new dietary guidelines are especially illuminating when we compare them to the ones we’ve been told to follow here in the U.S. Our latest guidelines, dating from 2010, focus entirely on specific nutrients. They include statements like “reduce daily sodium intake” and “consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.” While these are clearly good recommendations, their specificity makes it difficult to know exactly what foods to consume. This complicates and can even obscure the fundamentals of a truly healthy diet.

Critics have also pointed out that the U.S. guidelines implicitly protect the food industry by leaving out a recommendation to eat less of specific food products. They also complicate individual decision-making. For example the guidelines state, “Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oil.” For those well-versed in nutrition, this statement might mean, “replace red meat with plant proteins.” But for many others, it’s hard to know for sure what you’re being encouraged to do (or not do).

As the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee works on the 2015 guidelines, they’ve also been accepting public comments. Some commenters have suggested the Committee use Brazil’s new guidelines as a model. “It’s clear from the questions the Committee is asking that its members are increasingly concerned about cultural and environmental influences,” says Nestle. “This is a good sign.”

The tenth and final recommendation, “Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products,” is particularly unusual in the world of dietary guidelines. This indicates the Brazilian government is aware of the harmful effects of advertising and is actively trying to combat food industry manipulation through its policy statements (and actions).

There’s a history here. In 2013, the city of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, fined McDonald’s $1.6 million for using toys and other inducements to appeal to children. São Paulo also was the first city in Brazil to adopt Meatless Mondays (“Segunda Sem Carne” in Portuguese), which has now expanded to 15 cities across the country. Brazil’s government has also mandated healthier school food.

In contrast, our dietary guidelines mention food marketing to kids just once, on page 59 of a 95-page document. And while non-profit groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are working to combat junk food marketing to kids, most government agencies are silent on the issue. First Lady Michelle Obama did announce a new proposal to regulate the marketing of junk food in schools, but it is yet to be seen whether any such language will make it into the 2015 dietary guidelines.

Perhaps the drafting Committee will look south, and Brazil’s pioneering food guidelines will encourage our own policymakers to put more value on a critical-thinking, home-cooking, socially vibrant culture of real food than on the interests of the food industry.

See Brighter Green’s multimedia policy research on climate change, animal agriculture, and natural resources in Brazil here (in English and Portuguese).

Photos courtesy of Gabriel Prehn Britto

Got Milk?: New Policy Paper on Industrialized Dairy in Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Brighter Green is excited to announce the release of a new policy paper exploring the growth of industrial dairy systems in India, China, and countries of Southeast Asia. The report, Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia, explores the trend toward increased dairy consumption and production and argues that the growth of industrial systems results in severe consequences for the environment, public health, animal welfare, and rural economies.

By 2025, countries in the global South are expected to consume nearly twice as much milk and dairy products as they did in 1997, and Asia is now the world’s highest dairy-consuming region, with 39 percent of global consumption. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms” for dairy production are being set up across the continent, many housing thousands of cows, but the detrimental impacts of this phenomenon for Asia are still largely undocumented.

The report analyzes the effects of CAFOs on a range of ecological, economic, and social systems, and it discusses the possibility of a sustainable future in dairy production with far fewer negative effects on the environment, livelihood, and equity. Country case studies chart the growth and effects, current or anticipated, of CAFO-style dairy production in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

“It’s crucial for policy makers and civil society to take notice of the consequences of dairy CAFOs now,” says the paper’s author Jessika Ava. “Many operations are in the early development and planning stages, and can thus be halted, allowing for the reintroduction of more traditional, more sustainable plant-based agricultural systems for long-term food and livelihood security.” Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia includes a set of recommendations for policy-makers, civil society organizations, international institutions, and the private sector to move in this direction before it’s too late.

Photo courtesy of: Meena Kadri