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

Sochi & Environmentalism (& Brighter Green’s Primer in Russian)

By Elana Sulakshana

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

Brighter Green is partnering with the Global Forest Coalition (GFC) and Biofuelwatch on a new project studying the intersection of deforestation, climate change, and industrial animal agriculture, in hopes of bringing attention to the connections between these issues at the global policy level. Brighter Green and the Global Forest Coalition recently produced a primer on this project that can be viewed here. We also recently translated this primer into Russian, opening it up to a wider audience. Russia is a significant importer of meat products from Latin America, where the livestock and feed industries are major players in the region’s deforestation.

Russia also has been in the hot seat by environmental standards, as much controversy swirls around the Sochi Olympics. In 2007, when Russia received the bid for the games, the administrators claimed that they would work as hard as possible to be “green” and produce “zero waste,” but the past few weeks have revealed a lack of follow-through on these ambitious (and vague) promises.

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Though they spent nearly $51 billion, environmental standards were almost completely ignored; there is absolutely no mention of provisions for waste disposal in the budget. The Russian government relaxed environmental standards in order to build the Olympic village, which cuts through 8,000 acres of Sochi National Park and the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The construction destroyed much plant and animal life, in what is considered the region of Russia with the most biodiversity.

Despite their zero-waste promise, tons of waste was produced, and it has been disposed of in the Akhshtyr dump, an illegal landfill located in a water protection zone. This trash has contaminated Sochi’s potable water and is expected to continue to do so for 10 years; journalists covering the Olympics have reported disgusting yellow-colored tap water.

Russian administrators have taken drastic steps to suppress all who have raised awareness of these issues. Russian environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko co-authored a report that chronicled the ecological impact of preparing for the Olympics, detailing, among many problems, the devastation of salmon populations and the building of ski slopes inside Sochi National Park. He was recently sentenced to three years in prison–for spray painting a fence. Members of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, with whom Vitishko conducted research and wrote the paper, have reported being in a “state of war” with the Russian government, facing threats from the Federal Security Service.

Russia has continuously put up a front against these claims. A representative for Olympstroy, the state-owned company in charge of the majority of Olympic construction said, “Issues of environmental protection have become a priority in the design and construction of Olympic infrastructure.”

Russia must get on board with the protection of our earth and allow free environmental expression and activism, and the international community should place pressure on them to do so. We cannot face these same issues in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 or Pyeongchang in 2018; sustainability must be a key feature of future Olympics.

Photo courtesy of: Kenyee/Flickr

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part I)

By Wanqing Zhou – originally published on the Brighter Green website on February 7, 2013
As a major producer and consumer of agricultural products on the planet, China faces a serious problem of food waste as it takes off towards a sustainable urbanization and industrialization. In order to mend the cycle of food, it is critical for all groups in the society to recognize the issue in an environmental context, and face the challenge collaboratively.The Appetite: Growing and Spilling
Released two months ago, Back to 1942, a film telling the story of a famine in Henan Province during the World War II, spurred discussion about the Great Famine in early 1960s, one of the post effects of the Great Leap Forward that still affects the food consumption psyche of average Chinese. The Great Famine encouraged the world to analyze China’s food security, as outlined in Lester Brown’s 1995 book Who Will Feed China?

Ironically, in a university cafeteria in Beijing, one can see students throwing away about 1/3 of the food. “That’s normal,” said one student, “we seldom pack up leftovers. If nobody asks, I won’t ask. And it’s inconvenient because we don’t have a microwave oven in our dorm to reheat it.”

Then why order more than enough? “Well, it looks good to have at least the same number of dishes as the number of people. Common sense, isn’t it?” This is an example of what has become an underlying problem: the desire to appear abundant. This problem leads to extensive waste when the bill is paid with public funds.

This problem shines a light on the lack of basic components in the education system – knowledge about the Planet Earth. When dumping food becomes so easy for young people, it is extremely difficult for any society to step into sustainability.

The facts about food waste might be more disturbing than one could imagine. Recently, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers released a report on food waste, estimating that 30-50% of the annual global food production is wasted. The astonishing result covers food lost during harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as those thrown away by retailers and consumers.

In China, about 70% of national waste is food, and food makes up 61% of household waste. Researchers from China Agricultural University studied data from 2006 to 2008and found that edible food thrown away from restaurants each year is equivalent tonearly 10% of the country’s annual crop production, which is enough to feed 200 million people. When including the waste from schools, businesses and households, the number can easily reach 300 million people.

In response to these numbers, a Clean Plate Initiative is heating up the social networks right now, advocating for zero food waste when dining out. As the movement has spread and an increasing number of netizens, including familiar faces and food businesses, have joined in. More and more people have become aware of the issue and are acting. Good news and good timing, given the coming Chinese Spring Festival is the biggest feast of the year.

Yet the story does not end at dining tables. To complete the cycle of nature, what grows from the soil needs to return to the soil, regardless of the pathway.

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part II)