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


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

Update on Brazil: The Effects of the Soybean and Meat Industries

By Lauren Berger
This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

Soybean fields in Brazil

Brazil, the world’s second largest producer and exporter of soybean, and the world’s largest exporter of poultryreports a 39 percent drop in greenhouse-gas emissions between 2005 and 2010.

However, this “good news” is not all its cracked up to be. For the first time, greenhouse-gas emissions from the agriculture industry make up the largest share of Brazil’s total emissions.

Cattle raising and industrial soybean farming have wreaked havoc on the Amazon and Cerrado. In an effort to stop deforestation, a 2006 moratorium on soybean farming on deforested land has dramatically decreased deforestation rates in the country. This accounts for the 76 percent drop in emissions from deforestation from 2005 to 2010. However, emissions from the agriculture industry increased 5.2 percent from 2005 to 2010 with crop yields growing faster than emissions, indicating an increase in agricultural production and an increasingly potential threat to the environment.

Historically, deforestation in Brazil has been a direct result of cattle raising and industrial soybean farming. In order to increase soybean production and exportation, parts of the Amazon and Cerrado forests have been deforested for farmland. The moratorium helped dramatically decrease deforestation, but the soybean industry has been complicit in indirectly contributing to deforestation. The soybean industry has been using abandoned cattle raising plots to plant and produce soybeans. Cattle ranchers continually burn down the jungle (as it is inexpensive) and plant grass in order to raise cattle. When the land is no longer viable, ranchers typically move on to deforest other parts of the jungle while the soybean industry buys this used land that is easier to cultivate soybean production. And while deforestation has declined over the last few years, Amazon deforestation has increased 5-fold in 2013 compared to 2012, believed to be linkedto the soybean industry’s continual “indirect” deforestation.

Additionally, Brazil’s meat production is expected to expand over the next 10 years, which will indubitably contribute to Brazil’s agriculture industry’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Increasing meat production will also directly increase Brazil’s grain production as soybean (projected to increase 22 percent over the next decade) and other grains are continually used in animal feed.

While the moratorium and overall decrease in greenhouse-gas emissions in Brazil seems positive, when looked at more closely, the soybean industry continues to negatively effect the environment through deforestation, pesticide use, and greenhouse-gas emissions. The effects of increase soybean and meat production have direct links to the environment and while past actions have helped decrease environmental effects, its clear that with continued growth expected, the negative effects will only continue to increase.

Photo courtesy of Dami Izolan/Flickr

Junk Food Marketing Makes Big Moves in Developing Countries

By Judy Bankman and Ross Miranti

This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations.

KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations..

KFC TV commercials that have aired in China over the last few years reveal a remarkably wide range of marketing techniques. In the ads, humor, irony, playfulness, and sentimentality present the restaurant’s quick-serve food as something that can help families bond, nourish athletes, entertain children, and even make teenagers cooler. Overall, the ads associate KFC with a modern lifestyle, suggesting (implicitly of course) that the Chinese can get their piece of middle class affluence–along with a full belly–for a reasonably low price.

The ads might feel strikingly familiar to American consumers. Though they are in Mandarin and resemble some of the disingenuous marketing from the mid-20th Century, at their core they are just examples of modern marketing, with the primary goal of boosting sales. And sales are booming for fast food and convenience food corporations in China and the rest of the world, as billions of dollars are pumped into marketing their products each year.

While people in all countries are vulnerable to junk food marketing, developing countries might be facing the worst of it. Many transnational food corporations are moving into emerging markets because their markets in developed countries are at a “saturation point.” According to Carlos Monteiro, Head of the University of Sao Paolo’s Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, that point is reached when processed foods provide 60 percent of a country’s total calories. The U.S, Canada and the U.K. reached this level several decades ago.

It’s no wonder, then, that transnational companies like KFC, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola are ramping up marketing efforts in countries like China and Brazil where average incomes are rising, urbanization is well underway, and the opportunity for growth is huge.

Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, earned half of its 2011 operating profit of $1.8 billion from its operations in China. By utilizing some of the tried-and-true techniques that have worked at home in the U.S., Yum! has been incredibly effective at reaching Chinese consumers with catchy ads that drive traffic to a growing number of KFCs and Pizza Huts in and around urban centers.

Globally, six of the 10 most “liked” companies on Facebook are fast food or convenience food corporations. Coca-Cola is on top, with 47 million “likes”; McDonald’s has nearly 22 million. In the U.S. too, of course, junk food purveyors wield enormous power. Children watch on average 13 food commercials per day in the U.S., most of which advertise sugary breakfast cereals, fast food, or soda. Online marketing in the form of “advergames” included in Web sites designed for children is another insidious means of popularizing unhealthy foods.

Largely because of skyrocketing obesity rates and resulting healthcare costs, public health professionals in the U.S. have made the links between marketing of unhealthy foods, consumption of them, and chronic disease. About 17 percent of American children aged two to 19 are now considered obese.

In general, many Americans are aware of the negative health impacts of eating fast and convenience foods (obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, among others). But public policies are, by and large, lagging behind; still, there’s some progress.

Governments in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere may not do much to regulate the marketing and selling of unhealthy foods, but they do promote healthy eating through food nutrition labeling requirements, dietary recommendations, and public health initiatives.

And there’s a range of advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest Food Marketing Workgroup and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) work to counterbalance the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. CCFC, for example, conducts a number of campaigns to stop such advertizing to children, including in schools and on school buses.

Though much more needs to be done, the American public health community has made childhood obesity a key issue and is committed to changing the food environment, including manipulative advertising strategies, which drives dietary choices. This awareness and commitment remains to be seen in most developing countries. But that may well change.

Many developing countries have “leapfrogged” industrialized nations technologically and learned from some of the mistakes high-income countries made during their economic development. Ideally, these countries would likewise adopt healthier diets without having to reach the high rates of chronic, diet-related diseases that have become a bane in the U.S. and other high-income countries.

Brazil provides an example of a potential counter-narrative, with government legislation requiring healthier school meals and the right of accessing healthy food written into the Brazilian constitution. Organic and natural foods are also increasingly popular in Brazil, as incomes rise and concerns about health and food safety become stronger.

Is it utopian to imagine the transformation of the vicious circle of junk food consumption into a virtuous circle of healthy eating? Not completely. When consumers demand healthier foods choices, companies respond by producing and marketing such foods or new companies enter the marketplace to provide them.

Changes in the U.S. market suggest that companies are willing to respond to consumer demand for healthier foods. Fast food outlets have begun to offer somewhat healthier menu items and the market for organic foods is growing steadily.

The U.S. public, increasingly alarmed by the scale of the health crisis being created by junk foods, is learning to demand greater accountability from the food industry—for both its products and marketing practices, particularly its targeting of kids.

But here’s the catch: Companies react to consumer demand only if their profit is not adversely affected. Plus, some of these companies adopt “healthier” options (sometimes they aren’t that different from the original products), or take modest steps to self-regulate, in order to avoid possible government regulation.

Consumer demand is important. But from a public health perspective, policy action is essential, too. In developing countries and the U.S., governments should at a minimum regulate marketing to children. By completely banning junk food advertising on television and sales of junk food in public schools, we may begin to see less consumption of these foods among children, and lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.

While government regulation may help reduce the amount of unhealthy foods kids and adults eat, public health officials and policy makers face an uphill battle. According to Yum! Brands’ optimistic CEO David Novak: “China is the biggest retail opportunity in the 21st century.” How can public policy compete with that?

Photo: KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations. Credit: Jun Li/Flickr

World Environment Day: Food Waste, Sustainability & China’s & the U.S.’ Pigs

World Environment Day: Food Waste, Sustainability & China’s & the U.S.’ Pigs

WED 2013 logo

WED 2013 logo

Note: this post was originally published on the Huffington Post’s Green section.

It’s World Environment Day and this year’s focus is on reducing food waste and getting people to shrink their “foodprints,” particularly, of course, if they’re large. Many are. In the U.S., between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is simply wasted, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, announcing a national Food Waste Challenge.Some of the bad habits around food we’ve developed in the U.S. have gone global. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that 1.3 billion metric tons of food iswasted throughout the world every year, the amount of food that’s produced in all of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries. A study by Chinese researchers concluded that the food wasted in a year by 2,700 families in differently sized Chinese cities could have fed 200 million people, about one-sixth of China’s population.

World Environment Day’s “Think.Eat.Save.” theme probably wasn’t on the minds of those shepherding last week’s $4.7 billion deal to sell Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer, to Shuanghui, a Chinese conglomerate with global investors that include Goldman Sachs (Morgan Stanley is providing some of the financing). And yet there is an important link.

A particularly wasteful source of food is industrial animal agriculture. Raising pigs in batches, thousands at a time in tight enclosures on factory farms as Smithfield does, is inherently wasteful. It demands large allotments of grain-based feed and therefore land, pesticides, and fertilizers; considerable amounts of water; and antibiotics and hormones to speed the pigs’ growth. Most are slaughtered at the age of six months.

China already raises and slaughters about 500 million pigs a year. Since 1980, overall meat consumption in China has more than quadrupled to 128 pounds a year, about two-thirds of average U.S. levels. Similar to the pattern in the U.S., animal agriculture in China is becoming more vertically integrated, with large corporations increasingly owning not just factory-farm facilities, but also slaughterhouses and feed companies.

An estimated 576 gallons of water and more than four pounds of grain are needed to manufacture just one pound of pork. Factory-farmed pigs also produce titanic amounts of waste, pound-for-pound four times the volume people do. Moreover, the global livestock industry is “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution,” according to the FAO.

With the cash of its soon-to-be new owners, Smithfield is gearing up to sell more U.S. pork to Chinese consumers. Smithfield is also expected to expand operations in China. It’s no stranger to the country. In July 2008, the state-owned China National Oils, Foodstuffs and Cereals Corporation (COFCO), China’s largest food importer/exporter and a Fortune 500 company, bought a 5 percent share in Smithfield; the year before, Smithfield began exporting pork to China.

China is beginning to reel under the weight of its livestock population, the world’s largest. Even though it’s not yet a fully fledged “factory-farm nation,” strains from its fast-growing livestock sector, and burgeoning appetite for animal-based protein, are showing — in significant water pollution, soil degradation, rising rates of obesity and chronic disease, risks to food security and food safety, pressure on small farmers, and declining farm-animal welfare.

A report released in April by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Rural Development concluded that, in 2012, large-scale livestock and poultry pollution had become the biggest source of agricultural pollution in China.

China has also become a major importer of soy, for use as livestock feed. In 2010, China bought 55 million tons of soy in global markets — a record. China’s rising demand for soybeans has been met in large measure by the expansion of soy acreage in Brazil, in both the Amazon forest and the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah. Currently, Chinapurchases more than 40 percent of Brazil’s soy. Through buying Brazilian soy, China is also importing water, an increasingly precious resource for the country.

Although Smithfield gave a nod to environmental and animal-welfare concerns in thepress release announcing the Shuanghui purchase, the company’s business practices have raised numerous concerns. Manure from the company’s hog facilities has pollutedcreeks and rivers in North Carolina. It has been accused of intimidating unions, hiring illegal immigrants, and violating labor laws. A 2010 undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S. exposed systematic cruelty at a Smithfield-affiliated pig farm.

It’s hard to know how high China’s consumption of meat will or can go; presumably Shuanghui and Smithfield are “all in” for boosting supply. But whether China will be able to intensify production on a level akin to that of the U.S. or expand its share of the world protein-export market are open questions. Among the challenges: concerns abroad and at home about Chinese food-safety standards; ecological limits; and rising prices of grain and oil, both essential inputs for large-scale industrial animal agriculture.

Increasingly, Chinese government officials, activists, and netizens alike are focusing on food waste and its effects on food security, natural resources, and climate change. On this World Environment Day, shouldn’t we all be doing the same wherever we are, and with the global perspective that’s required?

Much of the information in this article is drawn from Brighter Green’s policy paper, “Skillful Means: the Challenges of China’s Encounter with Factory Farming”, which is available, along with other multimedia resources, on Brighter Green’s website here.