Recently, knowledge about the importance of human interaction with microorganisms is questioning the lifestyle of many societies while recognizing the importance of biodiversity in every way.
We had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Clelia Peano, a researcher of the Institute of Genetic and Biomedical Research CNR and Head of Genomic Unit at Humanitas Clinical Center in Milan, Italy. Clelia is part of a group of researchers studying the intestinal microbiome with an aim to understand the functions of microorganisms and their impacts on human health.
It is worth mentioning that the importance of the microbiome is recently recognized by the scientific community. Only since the year 2000, the interactions of microorganisms with their host (animals (humans), plants, soil, water) are known to be relevant to the sustainability, balance and overall health of all constituents within the ecosystem.
But now, let’s allow Clelia to explain it to us:
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is composed of all microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi, etc.) that colonize an environment. It constitutes an ecosystem.
What is the human microbiome and why is it important?
The human microbiome refers to all microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi) that live within our body.
Inside the human body, the skin and the intestine are the organs that are colonized by the largest diversity of bacterial species (more than one thousand species), followed by the oral and pharyngeal tract (more than six hundred spices).
The microbiome is important because our body is dominated by bacteria. As a matter of fact, the bacterial cells colonizing our body are 10 times more abundant than are our human cells.
Inside the intestine, microorganisms exert very important functions such as extracting energy from food, producing vitamins and regulating the immune system, glucose level and metabolism.
How does the microbiome control these body functions?
The microbiome produces metabolites that can contribute to maintain a systemic state of equilibrium or, in some cases, can cause diseases.
The alteration of the correct balance between the microbiome and the immune system is known as dysbiosis, and it can be correlated with the occurrence of diseases such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, liver disease, depression, heart disease, colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
What is the difference between a healthy microbiota and a sick microbiome?
An important difference is related to the relative abundance between different kinds of bacteria. For example, a sick or dysbiotic microbiome has a higher ratio between femicutes/bacteroidetes, and can lead to a systemic inflammation, while a healthy microbiome exhibits a higher bacteroidetes/fermicutes ratio that may be correlated with the maintenance of low levels of inflammation.
What factors influence the microbiome composition?
First of all, the microbiome is an ecosystem that responds and continuously adapts to the organism that hosts it; in this case to our body and lifestyle.
The factors that influence the microbiome composition are:
food: a diet poor in fiber, high amounts of processed foods and high levels of sugars, predisposes to gut microbiome dysbiosis;
lifestyle: poor physical activity and excessive/use of drugs can compromise the balance of our microbiome. For example, excessive use of opioids can slow down the digestive process, antipsychotics can have a direct antibacterial effect, gastroprotectors can cause gastric cancer;
genetic predisposition: our genes play an important role in shaping our intestinal microbiome, this was demonstrated in a study in which from the analysis of 416 pairs of twins, it was observed that identical twins (homozygotes) have a microbiome more similar to each other than different twins (heterozygous).
Two stories to better understand how the intestinal microbiome evolves and transforms, adapting itself over the course of human lives:
1. Comparison between the intestinal microbiome of Hazda and Italians:
We compared the microbiome of two very different populations: the Hazda, and the Italians.
The Hadza are a nomadic population living in Africa (Tanzania). They are the last Human hunters and gatherers living on Earth. They have a lifestyle similar to that of the people who lived in the Paleolithic era which occurred more than 10,000 years ago. They have never experienced either agriculture or farming.
Italians, on the other hand, are a settle/civilized population living in Europe. They have a western lifestyle and live in urbanized environments.
The Hadza microbiome is dominated by bacteria that serve to degrade fibers while the microbiome of Italians is specialized in the degradation of carbohydrates. Since the diets of these two peoples have a very different composition, the diet of the Hadza is much more diversified and involves the consumption of large quantities of fiber and protein, while the diet of Italians is made up of more than 50% of carbohydrates.
In the Hadza microbiome, there are no Bifidobacteria, which are present in the microbiome of all other human beings. Their microbiome is different from that of all other peoples: Africans, Europeans and Americans.
The Italian Microbiome is rich in bacteria that perform functions to metabolize drugs, antibiotics and pollutants. These functions are totally absent in the Hadza microbiome.
Genes for antibiotic resistance in the Hadza intestine are derived from soil bacteria, which are antibiotic producers, and give an advantage to them.
Genes for antibiotic resistance in the intestines of Italians derive from the excessive use of these drugs and are a disadvantage for us.
2.Comparison between the intestinal microbiome of newborns and centenarians:
To understand how the microbiome develops and transforms itself over the course of our life, we compared the microbiome of individuals of very different ages: newborns and centenarians.
The microbiome of infants is dominated by Bifidobacteria, which are essential for the digestion of oligosaccharides (sugars polymers) contained in breast milk and for the correct development of the immune system.
The interruption of breastfeeding allows the complete maturation of the intestinal microbiome of the newborn.
The species and bacterial strains found in the microbiome of newborns derive from the mother’s microbiome. The mother is the main source.
The microbiome is essential for the correct development of the immune system in newborns.
The intestinal microbiome of centenarians and ultra-centenarians is different from the microbiome that colonizes human bodies during the rest of life.
In Centenarians and ultra-centenarians, the microbiome is essential for maintaining the state of health and balance within the immune system. Their microbiome is characterized by the presence of the bacterial genus Christensenellaceae.
What are the advantages of the clinical study of the intestinal microbiome?
The study of the intestinal microbiome can be fundamental for prevention, early diagnosis and therapy and can help to successfully integrate drug therapies while utilizing a personalized diet.
What awaits us in the future?
Once reliable markers associated with the intestinal microbiome dysbiosis in relation to the onset of pathologies is established and validated, it will be possible to integrate microbiome analysis (from fecal samples) with other non-invasive analysis (urine, blood and saliva samples) to combine different clinical parameters and thus obtain a complete diagnosis that can allow us to identify personalized therapies that include the correct and personalized prescription of drugs and diet.
In addition, information about genes and metabolites can help doctors to provide a more effective, comprehensive and personalized health care plan for each individual in the future.
Our lifestyle (nutrition, exercise, drug intake) affects our health. The quality of the food we eat, the quantity and the diversity in our diet influences the balance of our microbiome and, consequently, our health.
Biodiversity and integration: Biodiversity is always positive both in the environment and within our gut. Let’s respect and improve biodiversity by all means!
Another important point to consider is that the excessive use of antibiotics (in humans, animals and plants) not only affects the microbiome but also causes resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a major problem today! To get an idea, watch this video that illustrates the problem and, for more information, check out the World Health Organization webpage dedicated to this topic. We will develop more on this topic in future posts. Stay tuned!
I care where food comes from for social and health reasons. This is why I have joined the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (or G.A.S., in English “solidarity purchasing groups“).
I got to knowGAS by word of mouth. But, I could have searched Google for “gruppi acerto solidale Milano” to find this website that lists all the GAS in Milan or this one talking about them and explaining the concept of social economy in Italy. Just be careful because if you search Google for “GAS Milano”, you will gather all possible offers that supply gas to your home.
What are these GAS?
The GAS are consumers who get together to buy food and other commonly used goods directly from producers or from big retailers at a price that is fair to both.
These groups often share a critical approach to the global economic model which aims a less consumerist way of life. When purchasing, GAS priorities are the respect for the environment and solidarity between the members of the group, the producers and their workers and not savings.
What are the characteristics of the products purchased by GAS?
GAS prefer local products (to minimize the environmental impact of the transport), fair-trade goods (in order to respect disadvantaged producers by promoting their human rights, in particular small farmers, women, children and indigenous people) and reusable or eco-compatible goods (to promote a sustainable lifestyle).
If you want to find more information about these groups, we suggest the sociological study of Cristina Grasseni, and the economic analysis of Matteo Belletti and Lucia Mancini.
Our GAS experience.
My husband and I decided to join a GAS based in the newly gentrified Milanese neighborhood of Nolo, which stands for “North of Loreto”, where we live.
This area of Milan was originally highly densely populated by migrants from South America and South East Asia and is nowadays more and more mixed with young Italians who opened art and design galleries, hipster-looking bars and shops selling both bikes and flowers. I will talk about the economic aspects of solidarity purchasing groups in Italy in my future posts. Stay tuned!
How to become a GASista?
May. A complex procedure to adhere.
The GAS we chose to join is maybe biggest in Milan: more than 100 members. Most of the members do not actively take part to the GAS meetings and activities, such as the organization of evening talks on the several topics such as the virtues of rye, Sunday afternoon bargain-based markets to exchange members’ second hand belongings or supporting not-for-profit projects that produce organic hop.
Because the GAS is very big, over the years its members have created a three step procedure to allow new candidate members to enter the group.
First, there was an interview with one senior member who explained to us (the candidates) how everything works. Our tutor emphasized the GAS’ five criteria to choose suppliers, which are also the leading values of the GAS:
1) bio; 2) local (as far as possible); 3) compliant with tax law obligations; 4) compliant with labor law obligations.
Based on the criteria above, the GAS general meeting regularly assesses producers’ requests to supply the GAS and choose one or two suppliers per category of product.
GASistas can then make orders for specific products within given deadlines set by the selected suppliers (every other week, every month, etc.). Products are delivered on Wednesday night, depending on the type of product, every week, every month or just once or twice per year.
Second, we were invited to participate in the monthly general assembly: a pretty chaotic, cheerful encounter of souls (I’m sure I’ll have other occasions to talk about them).
Third, there was an additional meeting where we have been requested to pay a small membership quota. If we were not very motivated, we would have given up after the assembly which ended up to be quite entertaining, after all.
June. Our first general meeting. We took part in our first mandatory general assembly on a warm evening at the beginning of the summer. There, we met the relatively few members that have been actively participating in the GAS life since its foundation: a bunch of seemingly-professionals and teachers in their fifties, led by a democratically elected coordinator who most likely works as a project manager and likes Excel tables.
Many members do not take part in the monthly general meetings and only show up at the GAS offices on Wednesdays night to collect their purchases. When one has kids or has obligations at university like exams or classes on Thursday morning, s/he does not easily give a Wednesday night away to GAS meetings. This is maybe the reason why, among the members participating in the general meeting, last Wednesday night, there were not many young gasistas, students and families.
GAS life is full of surprises. As mentioned, the range of services and activities supplied by our GAS turned out to be far wider than expected. The basic rationale of meeting once per month is sharing values, increasing awareness about healthy and organic products, promoting more sober and fair consumption habits among the members and deeper knowledge about how the food chain operates.
Last Wednesday, at the GAS general meeting we discussed two main issues:
Shall we adopt organic hop plants?
The GAS had been asked to give financial support to a not-for-profit organization aimed at developing an organic hop garden by “adopting” some of their hop plants.
Thanks to the financial contributions of its supporters, the organization would then sell the hops produced to local breweries. So, the question was whether the GAS was willing to adopt one, two or three hop plants and for how many years.
The gasistas seemed to forget that, by “adopting” some of the hop plants, the GAS was basically just making a simple donation. Instead, they discussed for about half an hour whether it was better to adopt one hop plant for three years – that is the maximum life span of a hop plant, after which the hop is going to be harvested – or to adopt three hop plants for just one year. Should the GAS adopt the hop plants for just one year, was there a possibility that these plants would be abandoned in the middle of street after the first year? Someone eventually asked if the organization would than send us some pictures of the hop plants we decided to adopt.
Briefly, we went home wondering if the whole thing was serious or fun.
Let’s support our fisher!
In the second part of the general meeting, the GAS member responsible for coordinating fish purchases explained that the GAS’ reference fish producer was in trouble.
The women cooperative formerly supplying the fish had failed. Only a woman and her husband had remained and had been fishing the GAS’ fish in Liguria for the past couple of years.
Recently, they had asked the GAS members to finance the buy of a small second hand lorry to distribute their fish in local street markets in Liguria. In return, the GAS members obtained a credit for the fish they would later purchase from the anglers couple.
Unfortunately, in the past few months the couple had not fished much as the water currents pushed the fish in the deeper waters. They also had troubles placing their fish in local street markets due to competition of lower-priced fish coming from Croatia, Greece and Turkey. For more information about this issue look here and to know more about the effects of imported fish on bream pricing in Italy here.
Briefly, they have no fish to pay back the GAS members’ loan.
The GAS hence thoroughly discussed the option to adhere to the anglers’ proposal to recover their credit by participating to fishing trips organized by the couple on their fishing boat. Basically a fish-it-yourself-if-you-can package, priced as little as 70 euros per boat trip + dinner.
July, August and September. Some doubts.
During summer my parents’ vegetables garden literally explodes with all sorts of vegetables: courgettes, haricots, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes. Tomatoes are so special, fresh, ripe and tasty that, apart from making ketchup-like sauces and preserves. We are all happy with eating tomatoes in salad with just olive oil and basil every single day.
So, when adhering to the GAS, I was hoping that for the whole summer, I will be supplied with the same tomatoes I had at home and which supermarkets do not even imagine they exist.
Unfortunately, they explained us that between mid-July and August the GAS shuts down, as most members are on holiday and cannot take care of orders. Huge disappointment!
We couldn’t help looking forward to the autumn vegetables: pumpkins are my favorite. My husband still prefers salami.
We decided to continue.
October. Another general meeting.
The nice part about the monthly general meeting is that before the assembly, the GAS members have dinner together. They take something they cooked themselves and share it with the others. It is a way to get to know each other a bit more and to share preferably vegetarian recipes.
A surprise guest came for dinner. This time, Spartaco had dinner with us. He works at RiMaflow.
Maflow was an Italian multinational corporate entity with factories all over the world producing components for the automotive sector. In December 2012, due to allegedly financial speculation, the factory where Spartaco used to work shut down production.
Unexpectedly, in February 2013 this factory was occupied by the same workers who had worked just up till the day before and lost their jobs and Maflow became RiMaflow. To know more about this story click here.
Today, RiMaflow is a recovered factory where three organizations operate thanks to a gratuitous loan approved by the bank that owns the property. About 70 people work at the factory, carrying out different activities which include the coordination of a fair-trade and organic food network, carpentry activities and recycling e-waste (such as computers and electronic household devices) and other types of waste.
RiMaflow aims to prove that it is possible to realize a model economy that can affect standard market mechanisms, starting from building new types of producer-consumer relationships.
While writing this post, we found out that there are similar initiatives all around world. Have a look to the work being done in Argentina).
This diner was indeed very inspiring.
December. Some thoughts about our GAS experience so far.
GAS is a complex market within the market. Over these first few months we tried to understand the economics behind these groups and tried to explain ourselves why fair, organic and local food is expensive.
An objection concerns the users of GAS: GAS are in fact not for all users. On the one hand, they are undeniably pricey and exclusive and, on the other hand, due to the complex order-and-collect mechanism, little accessible markets.
Briefly, some work still needs to be done to make a mass market out of GAS.
Our GAS experience also raised some additional objections.
It is easy to understand how organic food – which is sometimes so much more vulnerable to pests and adverse climate conditions – and “fair” food – whose producer is compliant with tax and labor laws – faces high prices, but less so when food is produced very close to consumers because this food does not need to travel so far.
Also, sometimes we perceived some naivety in some little experienced farmers who supply our GAS. They seemed to be rather concerned about marketing their activity than delivering quality food: as a result, their pears were awkwardly small and little tasty but the events (such as lunch-parties at the cottage, Halloween bonfires, etc…) they organized over the past year at their farms, their websites and the design of their packaging were over-cared of.
Growing vegetables and breeding animals are hard, time and energy consuming jobs: they can hardly tolerate “extracurricular” activities and improvisation. Still, the GAS seems to select producers based on the dreamer farmers image that the producers manage to convey more than based on the quality of the food they deliver.
To sum up, we got the impression that our GAS still does not expect enough from its producers. This is just a first impression from our GAS experience which we will try to investigate and develop better later on this blog.
As Hippocrates, the father of medicine, already stated ca. 460 BC, …”Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine your food”… ourhealth is directly related to the food we consume!
This raises up the question, what shall we eat to be healthy?
The WHO (World Health Organization of the United Nations) emphasizes the importance of eating fruits, vegetables and legumes, and to restrict consumption of free sugars, trans-fats and salt.1
Importantly, it points out that diets evolve over time, being influenced by social and economic aspects including cultural traditions, individual beliefs and preferences, food prices and environmental factors.1 Therefore, an ideal diet can only be established inside the local contexts, meaning that there is a huge diversity of diets.
In recent years, the awareness
regarding a sustainable way of eating has increased.
For FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)…”sustainable diets are diets with low environmental impact which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”…2
So, sustainable diets are
healthy diets for which the economic, social and environmental aspects are
taken in consideration, right?
A nice way of looking at the relationship between the nutritional value of food and its environmental impact is the double food and environmental pyramid model developed by the Barilla Center of Food and Nutrition and adapted to the Italian Mediterranean diet. For example, animal products that have a high environmental impact (bottom of the environmental pyramid) are recommended to be consumed in low amounts (top of the food pyramid) and fruits and vegetables that have a low environmental impact (top of the environmental pyramid) are recommended to be consume in high amounts (bottom of the food pyramid).
Of course, all of this has to considered
within the local context. If you live in north Canada as Inuit do, you might
not be able to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and you probably get
high quantities of animal products, and that is ok! In fact, for centuries, we
all have adapted to our local conditions by eating mostly local food.
And very importantly, we shall
not all eat the same to be healthy. For example, indigenous people inside the
amazon don’t need wheat as a source of carbohydrates as they have manioc, they don’t
need olive oil as they have other sources of healthy fats (e.g. sacha ichi, Brazilian
nut, macambo), they don’t need salmon as they have paiche. Wouldn’t you agree?
And we are not saying we should eat strictly local food but, if we prefer it on regular basis, we support the local economy, preserve local traditions and protect local environments.
A very interesting article presented in the National Geographic magazine shows the evolution of diets and how similar or diverse these are in different countries. Really worth seeing.
According to FAO, diets that are
healthy and sustainable have the following characteristics:2
diverse (a wide variety of food)
balance between energy intake and
energy needs (or eat what the body needs)
based on minimally processesed tubers
and whole grains; legumes; fruits and vegetables – particularly those “robust”
(or less prone to spoilage) and those which require less of rapid and more
energy-intensive transport. Meat, if eaten, in moderate quantities – and all
animal parts consumed
eat in moderation: dairy products
or alternatives (e.g. fortified milk substitutes and other food rich in calcium
unsalted seeds and nuts
small quantities of fishand aquatic products sourced from
very limited consumption of food high in fat, sugar or salt and low in micronutrients (e.g. crisps,
confectionery, sugary drinks)
oils and fats with a beneficial
omega 3-6 ratio such as rapeseed, olive oil, avocado oil (and others)
tap water in preference to
In fact, these characteristics can be adapted to all
diets, don’t you think?
But let’s wait a second, before industrialization and globalization,
weren’t these characteristics followed by most cultures? It might be wise to look back and retake some food habits practiced by
A practical example of a healthy and sustainable dish
has recently been presented in the study of the EAT-Lancet Commission.3 Worth seeing!
Why is diversity so important?
The diversity of diets is not only key for protecting the
loss of biodiversity (i.e. genetic, species and ecosystem diversity4) and environment degradation but to preserve human food cultural knowledge
Keep in mind that diversified varieties, cultivars, and breeds of the same food have different nutritional content.4
Since the beginning of agriculture (ca. 12000 years
ago), we have faced a dramatic loss of plant and animal species used by humans as
food. For example in Thailand, from the 16,000 varieties of rice traditionally
cultured, today, only 37 are being cultivated.4
Not all of us should be eating the same things. Local traditions need to be
preserved for our health and for the health of our planet!
Recently, a scientific study has quantified the mass
of life on earth (biomass) and has shown that within the animal kingdom (2% of
the entire biomass), there are many more humans than wild animals and that
there is around 40% more livestock than humans.5 This is crazy!
Accrording to FAO, countries, communities and cultures maintaining their traditional food systems not only conserve their local food specialties with the corresponding diversity of crops and animal breeds but are also less likely to suffer diet-related-diseases.4
A great scientific work safeguarding agricultural and
tree diversity to achieve a sustainable global food and nutrition security is
being performed by Biodiversity
International. One recent publication has shown that a great
diversity of cultivated vegetable species (1097) still exist around the world –
some of which could have the potential for a widespread diffusion, and many others
could fulfil important roles in nutrition at the local context.6
Also, a nice photographic social study performed by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio is presented in several books that
can be viewed online. They show photos and information about food habits and traditions of
people around the world. Really worth looking!
Why are we losing traditional food heritage?
industrial development, population increase and urbanization have changed
patterns of food production and consumption affecting deeply ecosystems and
For different reasons, the global market requires high
yields of some foods to be commercialized around the globe at a low price. This
need has pushed agriculture towards intensive farming and the cultivation of big
areas of monocultures and livestock. The abundance of these “cheap” global foods
(cheaper than locally produced foods) has simplified diets and damaged the
ecosystem (intensive-use fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, deforestation,
etc.). We will talk more about this topic, so stay tuned!
Also, to understand
our current food system better, have a look at the YouTube video created by Denis van Waerebeke (available in English with subtitles in many languages) which explains
the global players, dynamics, problems and inequalities affecting food
production and what can we do to be part of the solution. Worth watching!
The simplification of diets, the decline in
consumption of local nutritional food and the little time/interest we invest in
our food (cultivation, selection, preparation) are related to the increase incidence
of chronic diseases (nutritionally-poor and energy-rich).
Poor dietary habits and unhealthy diets are the cause of many nutrition
Interestingly, before all the scientific and
nutritional awareness about food (mostly on individual nutrients), culture
mediated the relationship between people and nature, and therefore, people’s
relationship with food as well. Industry, wanting to sell more, has undermined
the authority of traditional ways of nourishment, impacting how we eat and
causing serious harm to human health.
Food as a Public Health Problem
Today, 815 million people are undernourished7 while 1.9 billion are overweight, and from this 650
million obese.8 About half the global population is inadequately nourished (hunger,
micronutrient deficiencies and overweight/obesity).9
If we think
about it, these pandemic nutrition problems are a direct consequence of food waste
(link to post 3). Not only does our current food system waste 1.3 billion
tonnes per year10, but we waste food when we eat more that we need.
To waste food means not consuming it and overconsumption!
But let’s think about for a minute, our current food
system seems to be designed to waste, we need to change this! We need to
produce respecting our planet (including technological advancements) and the
people working to preserve it (e.g. agroecological farmers, sustainable
fishers). It sounds reasonable, don’t you think?
Changes might not be done in the twinkling of an eye,
but if we start at home (paying attention to what we buy, from who we buy, at
what price, buying seasonally, locally and only what we are going to eat and support
the work of farmers producing taking care of the ecosystem (at home or abroad)
and politicians willing to take actions in their favor) and talk about it, soon
we will be more until we become the majority. .Then, the industry that wants to
sell will sell what we want.
Things can change if we really want them to change. We,
as individuals, can make the difference, we are already doing it!
But to change, we need to get informed and understand how things work and
what is good for our health which is not disconnected from what is good for our
society and our planet.
A healthy diet is a diet that must satisfy energy
needs (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) and essential nutrients (vitamins and
minerals) through food, to attain and maintain optimal health and physiological
Importantly, our bodies need energy (energy
requirement) for a series of functions that are essential for life or basal
metabolism (e.g. heart beating, respiration, brain activity, cell function and
replacement; synthesis, secretion and metabolism of enzymes and hormones, or
everything that our smart bodies do on their own), to process food and to perform
physical activity. Additionally, at some stages of our lives we need more energy, to
allow growth and development during childhood, deposition of tissue during
pregnancy and the secretion of milk during lactation.11
So, every day and depending on our body needs (age,
gender, body size, body composition, metabolism and physical activity), we need
to achieve an energy balance. This happens when the dietary energy intake (what
we eat) is equal to the total energy expenditure (what the body consumes).11
Malnutrition occurs when, at long term, the energy balance is not
reached (either too much or too little)
and/or there is a deficiency of nutrients.
Sources of energy
Fats and carbohydrates are the main sources of dietary
energy, though proteins also provide important amounts of energy, especially
when total dietary energy intake is limited.11
Current energy recommendations for a healthy diet
suggest a distribution of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are in the range of
15, 29 and 55 percent daily (conversion factor of 4, 9 and 4 kilocalories per
gram (kcal/g) for proteins, fats and carbohydrates).12 Meaning that, if an adult consumes 2000 kcal/day as commonly recommended, the
energy intake should be divided in 300 kcal coming from proteins, 580 kcal from
fats and 1100 kcal from carbohydrates (or 75 g, 64 g and 275 g) daily.
Additionally, dietary fiber (ca. 2% daily requirement)12 is very important for a healthy diet as it interacts with the gut’s microbiome
maintaining or improving the microbiota. In recent years, the awareness about
the importance of human microbiota (microorganism within our body) has increased.
We will talk more about this topic. Stay tuned!
We need quality and diverse food that provides energy, vitamins and
minerals needed to live in a healthy way!
It’s worth noting that the values recommended for
daily energy requirements are used as a matter of convention and convenience as
they represent an average of energy needs over certain period of time and that
there is a large inter-individual variation.11 So, if we considering
the average energy value for everybody (e.g. 2000 kcal), some people could be
eating either too much or too little.
It is possible to calculate individual energy
requirements12, soon we will perform an exercise to share it with
you, don’t miss it!
The Best Diet
There is misunderstanding about the exact components
of a healthy diet, and many diets considered to be healthy.
The confusion is probably because the scientific
information available is misleading. Many studies have been based only on
individual nutrient (e.g. fats, carbohydrates), others have been sponsored by
companies which comprises the accuracy of the conclusions, and a lot of
knowledge has been spread without really understanding the long-term benefits.
To clarify these misunderstandings, it would help if
scientific studies would focus on nutrients in the context of food, food in the
context of diet and diet in the context of lifestyle.
Common sense about diet is not common yet!
Luckily, it seems like most recognized diets have a
lot in common. This is the outcome of the True Health Initiative, a global community with more than 400 world-renowned health experts. The
initiative evaluates scientific information and spread fundamental evidence and
consensus-based truths about lifestyle as medicine.
What do most recognized diets recommend?
(true food). Not too much. Mostly plants”…
And drink mostly water with it!13
In essence, most diets recommend meals rich in
vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, seeds with or without
other elements such as dairy, eggs, meat (consumed in small portions), and
prevailing quality over quantity.
Seems easy, right? But, what is true food?
True food refers to food that grows in nature (fruits,
vegetable, grains, seeds, nuts, etc.), minimally
processed (traditionally or innovatively transformed/conserved (e.g. bread,
cheese, yogurt or under vacuum); the less additives the better and even better
if they are all natural), sustainable
(produced on healthy soil using clean water, respecting the environment and
conserving biodiversity), and ethically
produced (towards humans and animals).
The production of true food treats the environment, plants, animals and
people with respect avoiding intensification (that requires the use of
chemical fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics) and exploitation.
However, this is not the way most food is produced. The cost of this food is cheap for the
consumer but comes at a very high price for the farmers and the environment. It destroys our society, our planet and our
health because at the end, it is all connected!
If we care about consuming true food, we support not
only a healthy way of eating but we also build a community that shares values
of respect towards nature and humans beings.
In post 2 we talked about food as a good and the environmental connotation of its production. But, food is much more, once it is prepared and placed in the table, it connects us, brings emotion and joy to our life and at the same time it nourishes us!
Food is meant to be enjoyed! Pleasure is good for our health.
If we think about it, people having fun tend to be healthier.
Lifestyle as Medicine
Nowadays, there is a general consensus that health
needs to be approach in a holistic way – meaning that food is very important
for health but not less important than physical activity, sleep, happiness, low
levels of stress and good social interactions. Lifestyle as medicine is not
only important for disease prevention but also improves the outcome of many
On this regard and remarking on the importance of
healthy diets have a look to the YouTube video What is the best diet? with Dr. Mike Evans from the Reframe Health Lab. Many nice
videos on his website that are really worth watching!
Many factors influence our health – and a very
important one is what we eat.
It is important to eat in a sustainable manner,
prevailing quality over quantity, thinking of our health and our planet, respecting
all living beings, and safeguarding local food traditions and biodiversity!!
Let’s remember that changes in the food system can
come either from above (e.g. politics-related work, activism) or from below (e.g.
food demand, health literacy, label reading ability).
The industry produces what the consumer wants! So, we,
the consumers, are able to change things if we really want!
We can start caring about what we eat in an active way. Let’s prepare our own food.Let’s start cooking!!
If we think about the increase in population (post 1) and the effect of human activities on global warming (posts 2, 3 and 4)), it seems like we have surpassed any chances of sustainability.
We really need to start regenerating! So, what can we do? Walk, ride a bike or take public transport, turn off the lights and unplug electronic equipment we are not using, use LED lights, don’t overheat or over cool, take shorter showers, reevaluate, reconceptualize, restructure, redistribute, relocate, reduce, reuse, recycle and, regarding food: pay attention to what we buy, from who we buy, at what price, buy local, seasonal and only what we are going to eat. Also and very important, let’s support the work of farmers producing with agroecological=permacultural=organic practices (taking care of the ecosystem: soil (post 5), water and biodiversity) and politicians willing to take actions in their favor, in favor of humanity!
else can we do? Start a garden!
Luckily, we don’t need an actual garden. In the cities, we can do it in a terrace, balcony or even outside the window. Also, we could get together with our family or community and use common areas such as terraces, patios, and rooftops.
When soil is unavailable, plastic lined wooden crates, costume made tables, pods or any recipient can be filled with garden soil or a “substrate” made from local materials (e.g. compost made with vegetable peels, coffee and tea). And if substrates are unavailable, plants can be even grown on water enriched with a soluble fertilizer.1
countries, startups have even created fully atomized and conditions controlled
Many cities around the world are doing urban gardening, also known as
urban farming or urban agriculture!
look at the amazing work done by the Green Bronx Machine with school students in one of the poorest and unsafe neighborhoods in
New York city and not only there! This is very inspiring!
agriculture is an industry growing, raising, processing and distributing a
diversity of agricultural products from plants and animals, using human, land
and water resources, products, and services found in and around the urban area (village,
town, city or metropolis). The scale of such practices may vary form
subsistence-oriented cultivation, recreational type of agriculture, small-scale,
semi-commercial gardeners and livestock keepers, to medium and large-scale
form of farming integrates horticulture production techniques with
environmentally friendly technologies suited to cities, such as rainwater
harvesting and household waste management1 (except for the fully
automated vertical farms that have a higher energy consumption due to the use
of artificial light).
following figure shows general information about urban growth and farmers:
As we can see in the figure, urban areas are growing (and will grow more in the future) demanding jobs, land, water, and food. For this reason it is important to consider the multiple benefits that urban agriculture offers:2
even an award given by the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, acknowledging the innovation and economic and political efforts of
cities in developing sustainable food systems and promoting health diets.
Urban agriculture plays an important role in building resilient cities!
is resilience? According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations) “resilience is the
ability of people, communities or systems that are confronted by disasters or
crises to withstand damage and to recover rapidly.”3
Urban agriculture encourages agricultural practices in urban areas to
build cities that are resilient, green, inclusive, and sustainable.2Additionally, urban gardens can be highly productive. FAO studies show
that a 1 square meter (m2) garden can produce any one of the
following products: ca. 200 tomatoes a year, 36 heads of lettuce every 60 days,
10 cabbages every 90 days or 100 onions every 120 days.1
the world, cities in both developing and industrialized countries are including
urban agriculture and forestry in their climate change strategies and actions
plans. For example:2
– in Toronto, Canada, financial support to community based agriculture projects is giving for the formation of community orchards and gardens, home gardens; promotion of composting of organic waste and rainwater harvesting; supporting farmer’ markets and preferential procurement of food; – in Durban, South Africa, it is being implemented the promotion of productive green roofs for stormwater management, biodiversity and food production (testing the replacement of crops for maize to adapt to lower rainfall) and community reforestation and management; – in Callao, Peru, urban agriculture is being included in municipal development plans and special municipal structures are being set up. Additionally, municipal budget is allocated to urban agriculture.
now we all agree that urban agriculture is a fantastic practice offering many
benefits to city inhabitants. And that by doing city gardens/farms, we can
actively help mitigating climate change while profiting from fresh food.
In post 5 we saw the benefits of using agroecology for growing our food.
keep in mind that the type of urban agriculture is highly dependent on the
location and the agricultural method use for planting. For example, the farming
performed in the household space (on-plot) is often destined for subsistence
while the one performed using publicly available or private open space in the
city (off-plot) can be intended to commercial farming.2
all biological methods (e.g. biodynamic, biointensive) aim to have and maintaina healthy and fertile soil where strong and
healthy plants grow respecting all living organisms within the ecosystem.4 Which means, that there are many ways of doing our garden, we just have
to take care of the soil and respect all life forms.
that within a healthy ecosystem co-exists animals, plants, fungi, algae and
bacteria and therefore, a balance between all these living forms is the key for
sustainability (sustainable = lasting for a long time).
long term success of our biological garden will depend on achieving an
equilibrium within our ecosystem (field, garden or balcony).
need time and patience to understand what is going on, the right association,
nutrients and water requirements, composting, rotations, etc. But once we
manage, it will be for sure very
rewarding so let’s start experimenting!!! Let’s have fun learning from nature!!!
But, where do we start?
In practice, to start we need healthy soil (post 5), seeds and clean water butbefore, we need a plan based on our space and needs.
1.Select the Space and Design a Project
need light for growing, so if possible, place the garden in a sunny and lighted
place, close to a source of water and away from sources of contamination (such
as building structures painted with lead).
you cannot chose, select the place you have available. I will plant in a
community park and in my balcony, and you?
selecting the right spot design a project based on you preferences and needs. What
do you eat, which plants might favor your ecosystem, which are annual,
mind that you can be creative using already available containers and most
importantly, you can start slowly, with one plant in a small pot or, plant many
and learn from their interactions trying to grow part of your food. Maybe you
are lucky and can grow directly in the soil! So many variable, how
yourself about the time for planting, the water requirements, which plants are
good neighbors, the light they need to grow, etc.
Remember that plants are living organisms and if not in nature (specially
in direct contact with the land), they need you to take care of them!
2.What to Plant and When
already mention, the selection of which plants to grow and when depends on our
own eating preference, the plant itself, where you live and the season of the
season countries the calendar defines the seeding time. In spring, crops
producing in summer are seeded (e.g. tomato, potato) while in autumn, winter
crops (e.g. cabbage, broccoli) are planted. Experience farmers considered that
the optimal cropping time is between the last and the first light frost in
spring and autumn, respectively.5
tropical regions, best time for seeding is not so evident and will depend on
rain season and other environmental factors.5
get the information about cropping seasons at the local Ministry of
Agriculture, from local farmers and/or in online networks. Also, seeding and
harvest times are usually indicated in seed packages. In cities, small plants
to be transplanted can be usually acquired during the planting periods.
the weather is favorable (cropping seasons longer than 6 months), it is possible
to cultivate some vegetables more than one time within the season.5
some people also looks at the phase of the moon to select the best time for
planting. It is known to influence crop productivity and it for sure influence
water levels inside the plant.
mention there are different biological methods of growing food following agroecological
talking about seeds, now days, there is a big debate regarding genetically
modified seeds (genetically modified organisms or GMO).
to the World Health Organization (WHO), GMO
are organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material
(DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The food
produce with GM seeds or GM foodis developed because there is some
perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer such as lower price,
greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both.6
proportion of the world’s farmers are disillusioned with GM crops and object to
their production. They perceive more environmental damage that conventional
agriculture and harmful human health impacts of GM crops and the chemicals used
there are implications for the rights of farmers to own their crops due to the
existence of intellectual property rights of GM seeds.7
humans have modified seeds since ancient times by crossing species and
selecting resistant varieties or flavor/color appealing crops. This man
modified natural process takes longer time to be produce than GMO and involves
nature in the adaptation processes.
talk in more in detail about seeds and GM seeds in a future post, keep tuned!
can be planted directly on the soil or planted in small trays and only when
plants have germinated and grown a bit, they are transplanted into the garden
or final pots.
plants have established themselves, in order to help conserve moisture, mulch
(layer of material (straw, shredded leaves, dried grass, etc.)) applied to the
soil surface) is recommended.
possible, select GMO free seeds that are open pollinated, biodiverse and local
varieties, maybe antic crops.
second year of cropping and depending on the amount of plants, it is possible
to collect and keep our own seeds! If you are interested on this, check out the
manual of Peter Dobelan (Spanish version available online) that give a very nice
explanation and cite different sources for consultation.8
Here, we can
find a some biointensive growers that can help us to get good seeds for “true food” in different countries.
4.The space and the seeds
selection of the seeds depends on the space you have available for their growth.
In literature, there is a lot of information about how many plants can be seeded
in a square meter (m2) or a square foot. For example, in 0.5 m2
space, it is recommended to sow 1 plant of tomato.
In the biointensive
method however, that uses a greater soil depth (60 cm), allows to optimize the
space placing “good neighbor plants” very close together to create a living
mulch and at the same time optimizes the use of land, water and work, producing
high yields of food.5
plants as human get along well with some plants and not with others. When you
are planting it is very important to consider which plants are good neighbors
and which plants are bad neighbors, and the requirement of nutrients to feed
the soil accordingly.
a strong and healthy garden it is mandatory to keep a healthy ecosystem around
it. A local healthy ecosystem, like in nature with forest, local bushes and plants with flowers, will welcome
beneficial insects that will fight against harmful once. In our urban
ecosystem, to accomplish this, we will plant perennial plants such as Borage
and Ortica (that we can also eat) together with poppy flowers and margaritas
that can be found in the surrounding parks.
5.Nourishing and protect the Soil (Composting and mulching)
As we mention in post 5, the most important part of a healthy garden is to have healthy soil. The soil provide all nutrients require for plants growth and is the home of an immense variety of microorganisms.
Composting is the natural process of rotting in which microorganisms recycle organic material
(e.g. leaves, leftovers from the kitchen) and
transform them into humus (high carbon containing organic matter that
plants uptake to live).9
process can take place in the presence (aerobic) or absence (anaerobic) of
oxygen. However, aerobic composting (in presence of air which contains ca. 21% oxygen)
is faster and more used.9
composting requires air, moisture, microorganisms, nutrients, soil, organic
matter and temperature to obtain humus. Under the right conditions, a certain
type of microorganisms start to grow and proliferate raising the temperature
from 20 to 45°C, initiating decomposition of organic matter. At this
temperature, a second type of heat active microorganisms start multiplying
increasing even more the temperature (60-70°C) which favors the killing of
pathogens and seed weeds. Then temperature will start dropping allowing the
activation of other organism such fungi that will continue the decomposing
process until the formation of humus (2-4 months for young compost up to a year
to obtain a mature one).9
is to become more sustainable and take the unused part of our food to return organic
matter (carbon) and nutrients back to the soil. Isn’t it great!
also very important to protect the soil.
You probably noticed that fertile soils are always covered by vegetation
(either leaves or other plants) in association with many living organisms. This
protection known as mulching, has
multiples advantages for the ecosystem (generates a microclima that keeps
moist, heat and allows aeration, provides nutrients to the microorganisms,
protects the soil from rain and wind and generates uniform conditions for
growing) and for the farmer (less
tillage as the soil is softer, less weeding as consequence of suffocation, less
watering as humidity is kept and less use of fertilizers thanks to the mulching
the principals of organic agriculture there are 3 ways to mulch: using rest
materials (such as hay, leaves, grass); applying superficial composting
(immature compost (e.g. peat) on the surface protected by leaves or grass) and;
the coverage with living plants (the more natural way of protection).4
Let’s protect and build a healthy soil and make our garden reflect
a precious natural resource. Without
water there is no life! However, this vital resource is not well
distributed in the planet. Water scarce in many parts of the world. In fact, “ensuring access to clean water and
sanitation for all” (sustainable development goal number 6 (SDG6)) is one of the 17 goals that the world aims to achieve by 2030.10
Plants require a lot of water to produce food!
rich in water resources, an obvious solution is to use municipal water.
However, this is not a sustainable or economical alternative. The amount of
energy use to treat water for human consumption is high and this level of
purity is not needed for agriculture.
according to FAO, 1 m2 garden requires 1000 liters (L) of clean
water a year (less than 3 L per day). To ensure a regular water supply, micro-gardeners can store and channel
rainwater via a system of gutters and pipes. Rainwater is virtually free (after
the investment in harvesting equipment) and usually of good quality. From a
roof of 20 m2, growers can collect 2 000 L of water for every 100 mm
of rainfall, enough for the year-round cultivation of a micro-garden of 2 m2.1
in mind that the amount of water needed will depend of course on your weather
talk in detail about water and other great initiatives/people that use this
vital resource in an intelligent way, so keep tune!
7. Maintain a healthy ecosystem
As mention before, to create a healthy soil (post 5) and therefore, healthy gardens and nutritious food, we need to take care of the ecosystem.
cities, this can be challenging. However, we can ask our governments for more
parks and to plant local trees, bushes and flowers in urban areas. Also, let’s
vote for politicians that propose and support green projects and initiatives.
Inside our gardens, we can do our share! Let’s cultivate
local perennial species that will support conserving the native ecosystem and
our food garden.
species (crops, forages, shrubs and trees) are those able to regrow and
continue to produce grains, seeds, fruits and biomass after a single harvest.
In fact, perennial systems could transform agriculture for smallholders and
family farmers because perennial crops (grains, oil seeds and legumes), are
more flexible and resilient to climate.11
oregano, nettle and salvia are examples of perennial plants that we can grow in
our balcony. Most, don’t require extensive care and can be used for flavoring
on where we live, we could to do more for conserving our ecosystem. For
example, bats help to control mosquitoes (in Italy people place bat houses in tall trees
so they can also live inside the cities). Isn’t it cool!
gardens productive should be “relatively” simple. Depending on what we crop, we
can fertilized regularly at low cost if using the compost produced from
household organic waste. Pests are controlled by non-chemical means,
intercropping aromatic herbs that naturally repel insects, such as basil,
parsley and mint and if necessaire we can use additional controls such as
colored sticky traps and insect proof nets.1
gardens in cities can help achieving SDG11(make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and
sustainable) and SDG13 (take urgent
action to combat climate change and its impacts)10 and at the
same time provides us with true food.
addition, cities can trigger a circular economy model for food, since they can source food grown in a regenerative and
local way (where appropriate), rethink
food waste by reducing avoidable waste and project the transformation of
this waste into new products that generate new sources of economy and; design and market healthier food products,
helping consumers to reorient their preferences and habits to support
regenerative food systems (healthy, sustainable diets with greater
Let’s all be part of the solution and plant a garden today!!
In post 2, we saw that to produce food we need energy, soil, water and biodiversity. So now, let’s talk about soil!
Soil is a very complex
It contains all naturally occurring chemical elements and simultaneously
combines solid, liquid and gaseous states. Soil
is also one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth.1
But, what is soil made of?
Around the world, soils are
very diverse. They
differentiate according to their physical, chemical and biological properties.1
There is a whole science behind soil and it is super interesting, especially if
you are thinking about making your own garden.
Here some basics:
Soil is made of mineral particles (originated
from the degradation of rocks), organic particles (originated from the
degradation of organic matter (plants and animals)) and biota (living
Soil particles leave tiny spaces between them
(pores) that can be filled with air and/or water. The amount of water (and as a
consequence the quantity of air) retained by the soil (infiltration) is
important for plant growth.2
Living organisms moving in the soil help to
aerate the soil favoring plant growing conditions.2 Soil is the home
of an enormous biodiversity (plants, macrofauna (e.g. ants, termites,
earthworms), mesofauna (mites, collembola), microfauna (protozoa, nematodes)
and microflora (bacteria, fungi), from which little is known (with the
exception of plants where ca. 90% species are known).3
Soil biodiversity plays a critical role in
sustaining long term soil health and providing soil-based ecosystem services
The soil and agriculture
Physical and chemical properties of the soil
(see figure above) together with factors influencing soil formation (CLORPT:
climate, organisms, relief, parent material and time) are largely responsible
for soil fertility and consequently agricultural productivity.3
To improve soil fertility,
external agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, are used. However, crop yields declined after several years
of intense soil use, despite the continuous use and increasing application of
these agricultural inputs.3
The strategy of improving
soil fertility by adding exhausted minerals and controlling pests is obviously
not the best solution!
It became necessary to
think about the quality of the soil.
Soil quality considers the importance of the
soil as a living system, with a wider role including not only biological
productivity but also environmental quality (impacts on air and water) and the
effects on plant and animal health.3
In recent years, the discussion of sustainable
development has increased and the paradigms of “soil health” and “soil
security” have emerged.3
According to FAO, a healthy soil has the continuous
capacity to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use
boundaries, to sustain biological productivity and to promote the quality of
air and water environments, and maintain plant, animal, and human health.1
For a sustainable and resilient production
system, maintaining soil stock nutrients is essential. However, soil stocks are
linked to ecosystem functions via the soil biota (i.e. living organisms).
Living organisms adapt to environmental change through natural selection (while
the physical and chemical components do not) hence they play a central role in
sustainable productivity and the provision of other ecosystem services (see
It is difficult to think
that the conventional practice of adding missing nutrients (e.g. nitrogen,
phosphorus, potassium) can be applied to living organisms. There are so many living organisms in a healthy
soil and probably many of them are endemic of a specific ecosystem. It will be
very hard to achieve!
Ok, so what do we do?
It is more efficient to let
the ecosystem take care of life within the soil and we take care of conserving
A healthier soil
Soil security is a broader, multidimensional and
integrative concept. Soil security is concerned with global
environmental sustainability issues such as the maintenance and improvement of
the global soil resource to produce food, fiber and fresh water, contribute to
energy and climate sustainability and to maintain biodiversity and the overall
protection of the ecosystem.3
To clarify the interactions between agroecology and
a healthy soil, let’s use the example of agroforestry.
Agroforestry is an agricultural system in which
trees and shrubs grow around or among crops or pasturelands.
Studies performed mostly in Africa (in tropical
maize-based agroforestry systems) have shown that soil biota abundance (the
number of living organisms) is higher in cultivations with trees than in the
ones without them. Additionally, the biological activity (e.g. earthworm’s
activity) is increased near trees producing larger quantities of fast
decomposing biomass that is rich in nutrients (e.g. nitrogen).3
The benefits of agro-ecosystem synergies, such
as those generated by tree-crop-soil-livestock interaction, are the reduction
of external trade-offs (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides). Additional alternatives
to reduce trade-offs favoring ecological synergies include crop rotation,
intercropping and the pruning of trees to reduce competition for sunlight that
at the same time generate biomass for mulching (or the coverage of the soil
surface) helping to conserve soil, water, to improve fertility and to control
Living in symbiosis with
nature is challenging but possible! Small innovative farmers around the world
are already doing it!3
Now, it becomes clear that a healthy soil does
not only take care of food production, and is the home of an exuberant
biodiversity but also, it also provides ecosystem services. But, what exactly
Soil-based ecosystem services are processes
delivered by the soil (e.g. nutrient capture and cycling) that supply a service
to the ecosystem (e.g. food production).
There are two types of services: agricultural
and non-agricultural. The following text box explains them:
A healthy soil sustains life, protects the soil, cleans the air, conserves biodiversity and keeps, stores and supplies water. But not only this, as we also saw on the previous post, soil has the potential to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change by conserving the forest while producing our food through agroecology.
In post 4, we also talked about nitrous oxide (N2O), an important greenhouse gas (GHG), remember? Well, N2O production is connected to agriculture and soil as well! Let’s see how.
Nitrogen and the soil
Nitrogen (N) is critical
for plant growth.4 But even if there is a lot of N in the air, it cannot be directly taken
in by plants. It needs to be transformed by the biological processes (e.g.
bacterial) of mineralization, nitrification, immobilization and
denitrification.2 At the end of the cycle, N goes back into the
atmosphere.4 Importantly, there are certain bacteria capable of
fixing N directly from the atmosphere forming the N-containing organic
substance that plants can use.1 The following figure shows the
Importantly, only a certain amount of nitrogen can be stored in the soil. The surplus (caused by the addition of
nitrogen containing fertilizers), is
lost in the atmosphere, in runoff and leaked resulting in contamination of the
air, surface and groundwaters.4 This is how agriculture, due to
an excess quantity of nitrogen containing fertilizers, produces N2O,
a powerful GHG!
This is ecologically and economically
if we understand the needs and the dynamics of a healthy soil, we can make
these processes more efficient, avoid soil degradation (i.e. removal of
nutrients and erosion) and reduce GHG emissions.
The challenge of climate
change, soil security and food security, requires a more productive and
resilient agriculturewith a better management of natural
resources. It requires
The international initiative 4 per 1000 aims to demonstrate that agriculture and specifically agricultural soils play a crucial role in achieving food security and reversing climate change (see post 4). Really worth checking it out!
Agroecology, “the ecology of the food system”, is a science, a global movement for
food security and sovereignty and also an agricultural practice. It is an
evolving concept that can also be referred as permaculture, organic agriculture, eco-agriculture, conservation
agriculture and minimum or no-tillage. Its main goal is to transform the food systems towards sustainability,
supporting the balance between ecological soundness, economic viability and
But, what is wrong with the conventional
agriculture besides its unsustainable relationship to a healthy soil from which
we just talked about?
Well, conventional agriculture over-emphasizes
high yields (monoculture production) and short-term profit, that results in
remarkable economic profits for some, at the cost of ecological degradation
(e.g. soil erosion, loss of agrodiversity, pest outbreak) and social side
effects (e.g. poverty, malnutrition, dependency, loss of livelihood diversity).3
Fortunately, these problems can be tackled with
agroecology. Agroecology is a holistic
strategy to produce food approaching ecological, economic and social
Even though there are some general guidelines
associated with target systems, regions and major soil groups, agroecology
requires fine tunings to meet farmers’ needs and adapt to climate, edaphic
(soil) and biological parameters of a specific local context.3
soil is central to agriculture and therefore sustainable agriculture is
essentially dependent on soil health.3
is not a natural process. Humans domesticate nature and disturb the natural
soil processes to produce food. How can it be sustainable?
Well, the key to use the ecosystem in favor of
agriculture and that agriculture respects and protects the ecosystem. The
following examples show four important aspects of agroecology and the
The cases above are just a few examples of the
outreach of agroecology and demonstrate that it is possible to feed the world population with food that is good,
healthy and fair.
This can be done with smart innovative practices
coming from small farmers that have adapted farming to the ecosystem.
Let’s support farmers
practicing sustainable agriculture!!
In this regard, there is a very nice
that advocates for agroecological innovations coming from farmers. It is really
worth checking it out!
Are you still not convinced as why it is so important
to support farmers?
Please have a look to the following figure that
shows the world urbanization patterns of the population:
It is evident that more and more people move
from the countryside to the cities. Nothing wrong with that, right? But if the
main reason is to escape from poverty and to have a “better life,” then,
something is really wrong with our society…
Did you know that of the ca. 770 million people
living in extreme poverty (or 11% of the words population living with less than
1.90 US dollar a day) 80% live in rural areas and are mostly farmers (two
Food is mandatory for
living! Which make it incomprehensive that the people producing this essential good
are among the poorest! And no wonder only few young people are interested in
How can farmers be motivated to produce good
quality food if we do not pay a fair price?
Importantly, prices not only include the cost of
food production, but also a range of other factors not captured in the price of
conventional food (e.g. environmental enhancement protection, higher standards
for animal wellbeing, avoidance of health risks to farmers, rural development).
We need to support farmers,
especially agroecologial producers, so that they keep feeding the world with
good, delicious, healthy, fair food – with true food!
But, who are these farmers?
Worldwide, there are more than 570 million
farms, from which more than 475 million farms are smaller than 2 hectares (ca.
84% operating in 12% of the worlds agricultural land), and more than 500
million are family farms (about 90% operating in ca. 75% of the farm land). Family
farms are constantly distributed in almost all countries in the world and,
therefore, are likely to be responsible for most of the world’s food and
Also, in low income countries, small farms
operate more farmland that do small farms in higher income countries.6
So, we know now more about who is producing our
food but how do we support them?
Probably, the only way of really doing it, is to
find out who is our farmer. Shops are in the obligation of informing us and, if
they cannot do so or we do not trust the information obtained, it may be a good
time to change provider.
But, you might think that the so-called
biological shops selling organic food are just too expensive and products are
unaffordable…and you are probably right. A new economic system is now using the
word organic frequently and labels food with lots of certificates.
And yes, we agree that organic products are
limited, typically they have greater production and logistics costs due to the
smaller quantities of produce (e.g. transportation, marketing, distribution)
and farmers need to pay to be “certified organic”.7
When did it become normal that the food needed
to be certified to be organic? Isn’t food organic by definition? Shouldn’t the
food that uses chemical inputs be labeled chemically produce? Our food system
is upside down!
Actually, there are a lot of agricultural
systems that fully meet the requirements for organic agriculture that are not-certified organic. Especially in
developing countries, these products are sold locally (e.g. village markets)
directly to the consumer who benefit from knowing the origin of the food at
normal market price.7Let’s
support their work!
But what does the “organic label”
mean? Foods labeled as organic certify that the product does not contain
synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, right? However, should we not care about what is inside our
food and where it comes from instead? It might be the only way to start
living in a sustainable way!
To achieve a transformation in the food system, changes
are needed. From the production to the table. From those who grow food, to
those who eat it, and all those who move the food in between.3
Some really outstanding projects that are making
the difference by using agroecological principles are:
Nagenahiru, in Siri Lanka, is a foundation that focuses on
the capacity of building disadvantaged rural communities addressing local needs
through economically viable, culturally feasible, socially just and
ecologically sustainable activities. They are achieving amazing things!
Eca-Amarakaeri, in Peru, is a Communal and Natural Reserve
co-managed by 10 indigenous communities and representatives of the Peruvian State,
covering an area of more than 400,000 hectares of forest. The financing comes
from the sustainable harvesting of Brazilian nut which generates a stable
income avoiding illegal logging, mining and other activities that threaten the
la Palma, in
southern Spain, is a farm within the National Park de Doñana that has managed
an integrated intervention of artificial wetland habitat for fish farming (29%
of the land), the ecoagricultural practices of rice cultivation and foraging
crops for cattle and horses growing (29% of the land) with the preservation of
the ecosystem (42% of the land), generating
new economic activities based on principals of sustainability.
in one of the last islands of the Veracruz Cloud Forest in Mexico, is a
sustainable agroecologiacal farm as well as a green enterprise sharing
knowledge through courses, seeds, plants and books helping others to implement
practical and integrated solutions to live in a more sustainable way.
But probably one of the best ways to start is
simple and can be started at home, in our community: let’s start a sustainable garden! There are a lot of benefits in
creating gardens in cities (urban gardening):8
Economically, it helps low-income households to grow food for consumption and the surpluses for selling (income generation). Additionally, it provides employment opportunities.
Socially, it can provide a sense of community, promote rural-urban connections. It offers recreational opportunities improving life quality for urban residents (particularly young and elderly people). The production and consumption of fresh and nutritious vegetables improves child nutrition.
Ecologically, it reuses wastewater and organic soil waste, reduces the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and helps cites to become more resilient to climate change by reducing vulnerability of urban residents (particularly poor), diversifying urban food sources and income opportunities, keeping green open spaces and enhancing vegetative cover reducing urban heat-island effect.
Cities have a vital role to play in shaping the food system of the future, they can offer valuable contributions for regenerative practices with the potential of creating a new sustainable economy.9
Let’s be an active part of the solution; buy local, sustainable, seasonal, Fairtrade items, support agroecological farmers and make your own garden.
Stay tuned – we are starting our own urban garden! You can be part of it here by sharing your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.
By M. S. Gachetet N. Zanuto Full story of the cover photo can be found here.
As you saw on the previous posts (put link to post2 and 3), all agricultural activities need air, water, soil and biodiversity, and therefore have an impact on the planet. This impact can be positive if agriculture respects the ecosystem or negative if natural resources are exploited excessively. Agriculture, climate change and food security are interconnected.1Let’s see how!
The Earth’s climate changes constantly
due to small variations in the planet’s orbit. However, since the end of the
19th century the surface temperature has increased by 0.85 °C (0.65 to 1.06 °C)
and the sea level has risen, as shown in the figures below (figure taken from
the IPCC 2014 report):2
activity and the impact on climate change
This increase is driven in large part by human activities. Humans have
altered the delicate balance of the planet by polluting air, water, soil and
destroying biodiversity. The figure below (figure taken from the IPCC 2014
report)2 helps us to understand the human impact (anthropogenic) on
the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG):
In fact, atmospheric concentrations of
carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased by more than 1/3 since the
beginning of the 19th century.2
As we mentioned in post 3: Carbon footprint of food = Greenhouse gases (GHG) expressed in Kg of CO2 that a product emits throughout its lifetime.
In fact, GHG capture the
heat radiated by the sun and heat the earth.3
Just to mention, water vapor (H2O) is an abundant GHG as well.3
However, due to its impact on the climate (through the formation of clouds and
precipitation), and its low human impact, we are not going into details about
The following figure shows
the sources and concentration of GHG in the atmosphere.
Believe me, this is really
warming is happening due to an increased emission of GHG, especially caused by
human activity (fossil fuels, industrial processes, increased use of natural
resources, intensive agriculture, livestock farming and deforestation).
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations) estimates that between the years of 2003 and 2013,
natural disasters triggered by natural hazards caused economiclosses valued in
1.5 trillion US dollars. In developing countries, during the same time
period, these disasters cost about 550 billion US dollars, affecting 2 billion
people. About 22% of these damages
belong to agriculture and its subsectors (crops, livestock, fisheries and
change and the agriculture
Climate change not only causes
economic losses, but also has direct and indirect effects on agricultural
productivity, such as variations in rainfall regimes, droughts, floods, geographic
redistribution of biodiversity (including pests)5 and diseases.1
The large amounts of CO2 absorbed by the oceans also cause
acidification which results in deteriorating marine ecosystems.6
One of the
biggest consequences of climate change are the natural disasters that are
responsible for agricultural losses which have alarming effects on food
So what happens to the earth?
the Earth, is overweight (403 ppm CO2 eq. (average value of year
2016)) and increasing.7 Depending on the actions
we take, scientists predict that the temperature will rise up to 4 °C by the
year 2100 (450 ppm CO2 eq. will increase the planet’s temperature 2
°C and 1000 ppm CO2 eq. 4 °C).2This means not only an increase in the number of natural disasters
but, as the planet gets hotter, it will be very difficult to produce food in
the tropics, which will cause biodiversity to migrate (including people) to
more peripheral regions in the planet, and as a consequence will result in a
tremendous impact on human well-being.5
It is evident that the impact of
climate change on food and agriculture is interconnected with environmental,
social and economic fields (i.e. food security, nutrition, health, and human
This is a very serious problem! So,
what can we do, and how does it relate to food? To answer these questions,
let’s have a close look at the human contribution (our contribution) to the GHG
The following figure shows the
anthropogenic sources of GHG:
We can see that “Energy Production” is
by far the biggest source of GHG, but let’s have a look at the second one,
“Agricultural Processes” which accounts for 21% of the GHG emitted.1
The following figure shows the share
of agricultural emissions in CO2 eq. in year 2014 by source and at a
The main cause of agricultural GHG
emissions is by far enteric fermentation
(the digestion processes of ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo,
deer, giraffes and camels).
Enteric fermentation is the main
source in Latin America and the Caribbean with 58% (followed by manure left on
pasture with 23% and synthetic fertilizers with 6%), in Southern Asia with 46%,
in Sub-Saharan Africa with 40%, in Northern Africa and Western Asia with 39%
and in developed countries with 37%. Only in Oceania (excluding Australia and
New Zealand) and in Eastern and Southeastern Asia is the main source of
agricultural GHG derived from the cultivation of organic soils with 59%
(followed by enteric fermentation with 14% and manure management with 14%) and
rice cultivation with 26% (followed by enteric fermentation with 24% and synthetic
fertilizer with 17%), respectively.1
But let’s not mistake the problem. Because cows alone are not. They
actually contribute to soil fertility inside an healthy ecosystem. The problem
is the number cows being raised to meet human demand.
A recent scientific study has quantified the mass of life on earth
(biomass) and has shown that within the animal kingdom (2% of the entire
biomass), there are more than 10x more humans than wild animals and that there are
about 40% more livestock than humans.8 This is crazy!
producing meat and to satisfy the world’s food and energy demand of the growing
population, the most important forests and savannas will need to be destroyed!1And if
deforestation takes place, what will happen? What is already happening?
Climate Change and the Carbon Cycle
To understand the important role of forests in the weather, we need to talk about the carbon cycle. But let’s start by linking some concepts. Remember CO2 and CH4, our very important GHG, both contain one atom of carbon (C).
However, C is not only found in the atmosphere. Actually, there are five global C pools (as shown in the following figure too):9
the oceanic pool;
the geological pool
(which includes the fossil fuels);
the soil pool
(comprising the soil organic C and the soil inorganic C);
the atmospheric pool
the biotic pool
(comprising live biomass and detritus material)
There is a strong interaction between the terrestrial and atmospheric C pools through photosynthesis, respiration and soil metabolism. The potential of a healthy soil becomes evident in sequestering atmospheric CO2 in both the biotic and pedologic C pools (620 and 2500 Pg, respectively). Additionally, deforestation impoverishes the soil releasing ca. 1.6 Pg C/Year.9
forests are very important, not only because they produce oxygen, but
especially because of their capacity to keep a healthy soil which allows the
capture of atmospheric CO2.
But we need food, right? Luckily, we can also have a healthy soil
through ecofriendly agriculture. Many scientists, farmers and international
organizations believe that the understanding of the soil’s role in climate
stability and agricultural productivity will trigger the abandonment of
conventional practices (i.e. tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping,
excessive grazing and excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) and
adoption of organic agriculture.
The Potential of Carbon Sequestration
through Organic Agriculture
According to FAO: “Organic Agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.”10
Also referred as Agroecology, it is based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimize interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.11
sustainable form of agriculture takes care of the whole ecosystem! Isn’t it
Some sustainable agricultural practices (management practices) that contribute to CO2 sequestration are:9
of mechanical tillage;
of cover crops into the rotation cycle;
soil fertility through biological means (i.e. compost, animal manures and
nitrogen fixation plants that also contribute to mitigate N2O);
of conservation-effective measures to minimize soil and water losses (e.g. soil
water storage, drip irrigation);
better use of the complex farming systems including complex rotations, mixed
farming (i.e. crop-livestock) and agroforestry techniques that efficiently use
resources, enhance biodiversity and mimic natural ecosystems.
So much information… What can we do
Climate change is a big problem which concerns all of us. Choose walking, riding a bike or public transportation instead of driving; heat and cool only the necessary; reevaluate, reconceptualize, restructure, redistribute, relocate, reduce, reuse and recycle.
Regarding food, let’s start by making
connections. Food is directly linked
with the farmers, the land, the watersheds and the climate. And our health is a
reflection of the quality and quantity of the food we consume. At the end,
it is all interconnected!
If we reduce
waste, change our diet to eat less meat and dairy, support agroecology, local
markets and sustainable intensification to increase yields on underperforming
crops, and protect the forest, we may be able stop global warming and feed more
than nine billion people a healthy diet.
the forest, promote and support Organic Agriculture and local markets!
Some great initiatives out there are
making a huge difference to help spread good agricultural practices.
Organizations like A Growing Culture are promoting and facilitating
collective learning between farmers, empowering smaller farmers, supporting
agroecological innovations and a sustainable food system.
Another great one is the Godan
that shares agricultural and nutritional data globally encouraging
collaboration and cooperation that will bring together stakeholders to solve
long-standing global problems.
The Equator Initiative on the other hand, recognizes
outstanding local sustainable development solutions supporting the formation of
resilient communities. The projects being awarded are doing amazing things, it
is really worth getting to know them!
An interesting website with more
information about food and climate change is the Food Climate Research Network who is raising awareness and
connecting stakeholders with the common interest of understanding and building
sustainable food systems.
In Drawdown and ZERI, you can find sustainable practices that are already being implemented and; the Ellen Macarthur Report circular solutions that can change the food system within cities. Worth knowing them!
Importantly, children are also
actively involved. Fridays for
future, the movement started by Greta
Thunberg, a Swedish high school student who in August 2018, started school
strikes on Fridays asking her government (and later the world), to take
political actions to reduce emissions caused by climate change in accordance
with the Paris
Agreement. The movement has expand and is now present in 101 countries
around the world.
USA, is a lawsuit filed in 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs asserting that the
federal government violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and prosperity
(only possible inside a clean environment) by causing dangerous carbon dioxide
concentrations. Let’s stay tuned and see how this demand develops.
Another very interesting case is the
lawsuit known as “The Huaraz Case”.
In 2015, Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a mountain guide living in Huaraz, Peru, filed a
lawsuit against the German energy company RWE
to be responsible for its carbon emissions. The global increase in carbon in
the atmosphere is causing the melting of the Peruvian glacial risking to destroy
the home of his community. He asks for the construction of a dam to protect his
home for the future effects of climate change.
A proposal worth mentioning is the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in which the government of Ecuador proposed to the world in 2010, to maintain the oil reserves that are located below one of the regions with the greatest biodiversity in the world, Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, in exchange for the potential oil revenues (3.6 billion US dollars). The objective of the initiative was to conserve biodiversity, protect indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation and avoid CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, fundraising was insufficient and oil has been extracted since 2016.
Ecuador has also been a pioneer in the protection of nature at the political level, being the first country in the world where “Nature is a subject of law”, meaning that the Ecuadorian Constitution (or Montecristi Constitution) recognizes since 2008 the right to life of species beyond utility or affectation for humans. It protects life reproduction, both in the ecological and evolutionary sense claiming the right to integral restoration. It also recognizes that the rights of people and nature complement and enhance each other, and that in nature there are no geographical barriers. The constitutions, however, does not oblige to have an untouched nature or animal welfare, allowing large-scale mining even in fragile areas among other economic activities that destroy nature. Undoubtedly, a lot of work still needs to be done…
Recently, an important philosophical
claim to respect nature has also come from the Vatican with the encyclical
Laudato si’ written by Pope Francis. The document emphasizes the fact that
the human being is not the owner of nature, but only a part of it, which
depends on it to exist and exalts the human duty to preserve it. It is worth
Supporting existing and outstanding initiatives that are working to solve the problem is of course important. However, each one of us can be part of the solution by properly choosing our food, what and where we are buying, from whom we are buying and at what price. These little gestures can really start changing the world!
the greatest feats of our time is to guarantee the food security on the planet.
According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations):
“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical,
social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets
their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.1“
The growing population
Human population continues to grow, especially in developing countries, and in 2050 9 billion people will populate the earth. How to feed 9 billion people is generating commotion not only regarding the need of producing more and “better” but also when addressing awareness about food waste and unequal food distribution.2
figure below shows how the population increased during the past 65 years and
the projections for 2050.3
can see in the figure, in proportion, the European population seems to decrease
(but in truth it remains steady from 2000 to 2050) while the population in
Africa is increasing more than 10x when comparing 1950 to 2050.
rest of the continents do not show drastic variations in proportion. However,
the population in Latin America and Oceania will increase more than 4x, Asia
almost 4x and North America more than 2x (global increase almost 4x) by 2050.3
China and India have grown from 554 and 376 million in 1950 to 1.4 and 1.3
billion in 2015, respectively.3
huge numbers! So, how are we going to feed all those people? And what does it
following videos (available in English with
subtitles in many languages) by Denis van Waerebeke and the organization Feeding9billion
clearly show the difficulties of feeding the growing population and how we can
be part of the solution. Really worth watching!
But how do people eat?
Human diet is as diverse as are people and cultures around the world. There is no “ideal diet”, but there are ideal diets depending on the geographical location and the conditions of each region that provide the energy required to enjoy a healthy life.
There is an overall knowledge that a regular person should consume 2000 dietary calories or kilocalories per day (energy requirement). However, we did not find scientific proof explaining the calculation. If you find any, please let us know on the comments.
accurate value for daily energy requirements should consider gender, age, body
size, body composition and lifestyle and therefore, cannot be standardized to
accommodate every person`s needs.4
Food provides us the right mixture of nutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals). Most foods are a mixture of nutrients; cereals for example are an important source of energy (carbohydrates and fats) but are also a source of vitamins and minerals.5
Gregg Segal shows nicely in his project Daily Bread, what kids around the
world are eating allowing us to see not only how diverse food culture around
the world is, but also the health value of home cooked meals in contrast to
junk/processed food. Great pictures indeed!
It is very important to maintain cultural diversity (and diversity in general)! Imagine if we all eat the same things. It would be disturbing and also unsustainable! On this regard, the organization Slow Food, promotes the preservation of culinary traditions and the farming of local plants, seeds and animals. They are a global movement which acts locally. This is a great one to support!
How does human diet influence food security?
National Geographic6, using FAO information7, shows in simple illustrative graphics the consumption patterns of 22 countries around the world and how these have changed over a span of 50 years. On a global scale, between 1961 and 2011, the consumption of produce (roots with high starch content, vegetable and fruits), meat products and sugars/fats have increased. The figure below shows the world`s average daily consumption in both calories (cal) and grams (g).6
evident that a small portion of grain (e.g. 351 g) generates a lot of energy
(1085 cal) and that a large amount of produce (488 g) generates little energy
(270 cal).6 Please keep in mind that energy, in this case referred to
as calories, does not mean “weight gain”. Energy is vital! You should be more
concerned about the quality of the
calories and to have a balanced diet
rather than worrying about the number of calories itself. In the figure, we
show the relation between calories and grams consumed daily per person6
in order to associate them later on with the food itself.
so you know: energy is measured in units of kilocalories (kcal) or kilojoules
(kJ). A kilocalorie (1 kcal) equals 4.18 kilojoules (4.18 kJ). The numbers
shown here in calories (cal) actually refer to kilocalories (kcal).
figure bellow presents a better view of the impact of food consumption in
China, India, USA, Brazil, Japan and Somalia in years 1961 and 2011.6
China not only increased almost 4x the amount of food consumption between 1961
and 2011, but also increased more than 10x the amount of meat consumption.6
If we think about this and the increase in population, we can imagine the
impact on food security (China is just one example).
evident that the complexity of food security increases with increasing
prosperity in the world. China and India, which are driving an increased demand
for food, especially meat, eggs and dairy products,6 subsequently
increasing the pressure to produce more maize and soybeans to feed cattle, pigs
change in habits (specially the increased demand for animal derived products)
is also evident in emerging economies all around the world. If we think about
it, Brazil, for example, has more than tripled (3x) this meat production in 50
years. Other examples can be found in the National Geographic study.6
these trends continue, the impact of population growth and diets with a greater
animal component will require doubling
agricultural production by 2050.
also alarming to think about the excessive and indiscriminate exploitation of
the oceans to meet the needs of emerging economies. China, for example, has recently
been involved in massive, non-selective and illegal fishing events in Senegal8, Ecuador9and other Pacific countries10.
recent study in West Africa shows that illegal fishing accounts for 65% of
reported catches which puts food security and the region’s economy at risk.11
But what exactly does this mean for the local people?
interesting approach to fight against intensive fishing is the European project
Forward. The project aims to raise awareness about
the social and environmental impact of fish consumption. It targets consumers
and their willingness to contribute in changing this situation by choosing to
buy sustainable fish.
way we consume food is endangering biodiversity and human health. A new
regenerative food system model it is required, a circular one.12
The problem of the food in the world is complex, it affects all the inhabitants of the earth. It does not require a single hero or a magic formula, it requires the work and creativity of each one of us. Together we can solve it and build a healthy and fair world with food for all.
If you want to be part of this movement, stay tuned! We are going to talk a lot about the food problems in the world, how we can be part of the solution and the initiatives that are contributing to a better world.
By M. S. Gachetet N. Zanuto Link to initiative here.
One third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted
every year (FAOs estimation (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations)). This is approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, an average of 265
Kg/person/year and 750 billion US dollars per year (equivalent to the GDP of
With the food produced and not consumed
(wastage) today, we could eradicate hunger!3
How does this happen?
To understand how and why food is wasted and what we can do to help change this situation what, let’s first understand how our food is produced.
As mentioned in post 2, to produce food we need: essential elements that form all living organisms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen), water, soil and biodiversity.
If we think about it, the food
production itself is consuming a lot of natural resources, right?
Food production not only requires
natural resources, but also energy for postharvest handling and storage,
processing and distribution up to consumption. Now imagine if we do not consume
this food, how big would the wastage be? How can this impact, this footprint,
The Environmental Footprint of Wastage
Just to make it clear, the famous “environmental food footprint” is the energy and resources required to produce food and is evaluated using four indicators: the carbon footprint, the blue water footprint, land occupation and the impact on biodiversity.1,2
Now, in the picture below, you can see some really impactful numbers
which demonstrate how large the food
footprint of wastage is. To highlight some of these numbers, imagine a
person riding in a car for 2.300 Km every year (almost the distance between New
York and Las Vegas). This is the approximate carbon footprint of one person; or
3x the volume of water of Lake Geneva. This is the water consumed to produce
food wastage in the world (the blue water footprint) per year; or in terms of
land use, we can attribute it an area that corresponds to the size between
Russia and Canada, approximately 28% of the total world area!1,2
The equivalent of 6 garbage trucks of edible
food is lost or wasted every second!4
Food with the Highest Environmental Impact on Food Wastage
To identify the impacts of food wastage on natural resources and where and why these impacts occur, FAO has grouped food in eight food commodities:
1. Cereals (excluding beer), 2. Starchy Roots, 3. Oilcrops and Pulses, 4. Fruits (excluding wine), 5. Meat, 6. Fish & Seafood, 7. Milk (excluding butter) & Eggs and 8. Vegetables.
The study shows that cereals and vegetables have the greatest
environmental impact for the carbon footprint, the blue water indicator and the
land occupation accounting for around 50% in all cases.1,2
Regions with the Highest Environmental Impact on Food Wastage
As already mentioned in post 2, farming (conversion of wild lands and intensification) is the major threat to biodiversity globally. It is important to note that this occurs mostly in developing regions (72% and 34% of species are threatened by crops and livestock production, respectively, versus 44% and 21% occurring in developed countries). Deforestation due to agricultural expansion occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa (62%), Latin America (25%) and Asia (13%)1,2 and has destroyed 5.2 million Ha/year between 2000 and 2010 (the net annual loss of forest equivalent to an area about the size of Costa Rica)5.
In financial terms, the food wastage with greater economic impact are
vegetables and meat accounting for around 170 and 160 billion US dollars per
year, respectively. 1,2
In order to compare the impact by region, FAO has also divided the world
into seven regions with similar food cultural behavior, economic and social
backgrounds, which are shown in the figure bellow1,2:
Remarkably, the regions of North America & Oceania, Industrialized
Asia and Europe have the highest per capita carbon footprint of food wastage
(903, 741 and 686 Kg of CO2 eq./person/year, respectively).1,2
The wastage of cereals in Asia (especially rice and wheat) emerges as a
significant environmental hotspot showing high impacts on the carbon footprint
(Industrialized Asia with 14% and South & Southeast Asia with 11%), blue
water footprint (13% and 24%) and arable land occupation (5% and 9%). Fruits
wastage emerges as a blue water hotspot in Asia (Industrialized Asia with 3% and
South & Southeast Asia 4%), Latin America (3%) and Europe (3%). While the
carbon footprint of vegetables emerges as a hotspot in Asia (Industrialized
Asia 10% and South & Southeast Asia (3%) and Europe (4%).1,2
As you can see, wastage of cereals and vegetables
have the most significant environmental impact resulting in the highest global
footprint of carbon, water and land occupation.
The Food Life Cycle
So, why do we let all of these important natural resources get lost? To answer this question, let’s have a look the following graphic that explains the life cycle of food and the sources of food wastage.
As you can see, food is lost along the entire food supply (agricultural
production + postharvest handling and storage = 54% and processing + distribution
+ consumption = 46%). The later the phase of the life cycle, the greater the
impact due to its unnecessary production and transformation.1,2
If we throw away an apple pie, its environmental footprint will be
higher than to waste the apples collected at the field, right?
How and Why Food is Being Lost
The food losses are mainly caused by inefficiencies in the food supply chains (such as poor infrastructure and logistics, absence of technology, insufficient skills, knowledge and management capacity and lack of access to markets) and natural disasters. 1,2
Within the food life cycle, food
losses refer to agricultural production (stage 1 of the food life cycle)
and postharvest handling and storage (stage 2 of the food life cycle). 1,2
Individuals alone hardly have the power to contribute to improve food losses, but together, we can have an impact!
On the other hand, food waste
is caused by spoilage of food (food kept beyond its expiry date or left to
spoil) and oversupply due to markets, or individual consumer shopping or eating
habits. The food waste is the food appropriate for human consumption that is
being discarded. Within the food life cycle, food waste refers to processing
(stage 3), distribution (stage 4) and consumption (stage 5).1,2Each one of us can do something to improve
English there is a word to define total food waste (food wastage) which refers
to food losses in the stages 1 and 2 and food waste in the stages 3, 4 and 5 of
the food life cycle.
Now, we should know that the food wastage is different depending on the
region. Developing countries suffer more food losses during agricultural
production. However, food losses during agricultural production (stage 1) and
postharvest handling and storage (stage 2) are similar in all regions in the
world accounting for approximately one third of the food wastage of each
region. Meanwhile, in mid- and high-income regions, the food wasted tends to be
greater at consumption level. In fact, food wasted during processing (stage 3),
distribution (stage 4) and consumption (stage 5) represents 31-39% in mid- and
high-income regions while in low-income regions accounts only 4-16%.1,2
Another important point to consider when talking about food wastage is the so-called “ugly food” mostly referring to fruits and vegetables, but also animal parts. Only for aesthetic reason, markets and people prefer consuming “beautiful and impeccable” produce and as a consequence, huge amounts of “perfect food” is being thrown away!
Food Wastage Volume per Region
Each region of the world has its own profile in terms of food wastage (quantities and type of product). In the figure below we can see some numbers:1,2
The world region with the biggest impact regarding wastage volumes is
Asia with the highest wastage of vegetables (Industrialized Asia with 11% and
South & Southeast Asia with 4%) and cereals (16% in total). Sub-Saharan
Africa, Industrialized Asia and Europe wastage volume is high regarding starchy
roots (5%, 4.5% and 4%, respectively) and South & Southeast Asia and Latin
America regarding fruits (4% and 3%, respectively).
Interestingly, Industrialized Asia food wastage is lower in percentage
than other high-income regions. The high wastage volume is because this region
dominates the world vegetables production and consumption, with more than 50%
Also keep in mind that in Asia today is where 60% of the population lives!
In Sub-Saharan Africa region, the high wastage of starchy roots at a global level is because of high volumes of losses in the agricultural and post-harvest phases (stages 1 and 2).1,2
In terms of food wastage per person, in the top 5, we find
Industrialized Asia for vegetables (~115 Kg/person/year), Sub-Saharan Africa
for starchy roots (~110 Kg/person/year) North Africa, Western Asia &
Central Asia for vegetables (~95 Kg/person/year), Latin America for fruits (~90
Kg/person/year) and Europe for starchy roots (~85 Kg/person/year).
Interestingly, when comparing with total food wastage volumes, South &
Southeast Asia region is no longer on the top of the list. In fact, it has the
lowest food wastage volumes per capita.1,2
These big numbers in South & Southeast Asia and Africa, also
represent the food that is being wasted due to the lack of proper storage
possibilities. To address this needs,Evaptainers andWakati are building innovative cooling systems. It’s worth checking them
As we can see, in each region of the world the problem of wastage
considers many factors and is different for each region!
Food wastage is a serious problem for which we are all responsible. Our consumer footprint has an impact. Our food is connected with the earth, the watersheds, the climate and the people who produce the food we eat. Only by becoming aware of our contribution will we have the right tools to make decisions that will allow us to build a sustainable world.
Around the world there are local movements using different strategies to fight food waste. Here there are several examples:
Food for Soul, born in Italy, is one we love. Their approach involves chefs and their knowledge to transform ordinary ingredients (surpluses of food that otherwise will be wasted) into extraordinary dishes that will be served to the poorest, fighting like this against food waste while promoting social inclusion. You will probably think that this kind of strategy would only work in developed countries however, one of these centers Gastromotiva, is running in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Stop Wasting Food is a
Danish movement, that started by raising consumer awareness and in 5 years it
has become the largest non-profit consumer movement against food waste in the
world. They teamed up with the country’s biggest low-cost supermarket chain to
replace all quantity discounts with single item discounts to minimize food
waste, promote the opening of food surplus supermarkets, outreach programs to
the homeless, and with a greater focus is involving the industry, retailers,
canteens, restaurants and foodservices in the fight against food waste. Many
practical tips to reduce food waste can be found on their website. It is really
worth checking them out!
France is taking action at a political level and has passed a law forbidding supermarkets’ food waste. Food needs
to be redistributed/donated before it goes bad, otherwise supermarkets will get
Costa Rica is also taking action at a political level with a well-structured
plan of action; have a look here.
Involving the community, the movement Re-food in Portugal, is collecting the surpluses from restaurants and with the
help of volunteers, taking them to people in need.
Involved supermarket Chowberry in
Nigeria has created a new sustainable food chain out of products approaching
end of shelf-life allowing consumers to see their availability and discounted
prices in real-time. This discounted food is obtained by charities and NGOs
helping tackle food poverty.
In most countries of Latin America, non-profit organizations known as Banco de Alimentos are collecting food
that, for various reasons, would be discarded. Just type on google: banco de alimentos + “country name” to
If we think about it, in Latin America and the Caribbean for example,
with the food that is being lost only in terms of retailing (supermarkets,
street markets, shops and small retail) more than 30 million people, that
represents 64% of people suffering from hunger in the region, could be fed.6
Let’s stop food waste!
We do have the power as consumers!
We can buy only what we can eat, store and eat our leftovers, think that more is not always better by preferring quality over quantity, share surplus food and at restaurants, order only what you can eat and if you can’t finish your meal, take the leftovers home.
We can also choose to buy that apple that does not have the nicest
color, that broccoli that has a weird shape, and by doing this you will be,
nice and slowly, pressuring the system to change this rule that tells what kind
of vegetables and fruits can be sold at the market, otherwise it goes to the
trash (wastage). Also keep in mind also that the fruit with the little holes
from the worms might be the most delicious. Nature recognizes food quality much
better than we do. And that the perfect shape pear might have been treated so
that it remains as perfect as you want it…
To help decrease the numbers from food wastage relating to
non-consumption, you can use all of the parts of the produce you buy, the
leaves of the carrots and the stem of the broccoli can help to make a rich
vegetable broth for example. By doing so, you can always eat everything you
buy! It is that simple.
And remember that “nature does not waste anything”. Let’s start thinking about waste as resources and build a new economy, a circular one. Take a look at Ellen Macarthur Report, Drawdown and ZERI and get inspired.
By M. S. Gachetet N. Zanuto Full story of the cover photo can be found here.
Food is what we put on our plates to eat, to
maintain life and much more! Food is love, passion, cultural and personal
identity, natural resources, nutrients, work, sweat, trade, economy,
transformation and experimentation; but with the world’s environmental, social
and economic differences in addition to the continuous increase of the
population, good, clean, fair and
healthy food for all at all times is the greatest challenge of humanity.
Sustainable development goals
The United Nations countries (193 in total), together with 150 leaders around the world, have adopted a set of 17sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be met by year 2030 that aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. Not surprisingly, most of the goals are related with food or could be achieved with a fare and sustainable food system, the goals aim for:1
1. No poverty; 2. Zero hunger (achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture); 3. Good health and well-being for all at all ages; 4. Ensuring inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning; 5. Achieving gender equality; 6. Access to clean water and sanitation for all; 7. Access to affordable and clean energy for all; 8. Promoting decent work and economic growth; 9. Promoting sustainable industry, innovation and infrastructure; 10. Reducing inequalities within and among countries; 11. Making cities and communities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; 12. Ensuring responsible consumption and production; 13. Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; 14. Conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources; 15. Promoting sustainable management of forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss; 16. Promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies; and 17. Revitalizing and creating global partnerships to achieve the goals.
dictionary defines food as any substance (usually of plant or animal origin)
consumed to provide nutritional support (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, proteins,
vitamins and minerals) by an organism. In fact, carbohydrates, fats and
proteins, are building blocks of all living organisms on earth. Nutrients are
assimilated by the organism to provide energy and maintain life.
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates that the total agricultural production worldwide is about 6 billion tonnes per year.2So in order to better understand food production and its footprint on natural resources (environmental footprint), food has been grouped into eight commodites2:
Interestingly, cereals represent the biggest agricultural commodity (34%
of the world’s production) followed by animal products (20% (meat, milk &
eggs and fish & seafood))2 as shown in the figure below:
But let’s go back to the beginning…
Food production requires essential elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (which form all living organisms)), water, soil and biodiversity.
To produce food we need a lot of natural resources as well as energy for postharvest handling and storage, processing, distribution and
consumption2… and therefore, food has an impact on the planet.
The Environmental Footprint of Food
The “environmental food footprint” refers to the energy and resources required for its production and is measured through four indicators: the carbon footprint, the blue water footprint, land occupation and the impact on biodiversity.2
regard to the carbon footprint, the foods with the highest impact are cereals
and animal products, accounting for 34% and 33%, respectively. For the blue
water footprint, the foods with the greatest impact are cereals, fruits and
animal products, accounting for 52%, 18% and 16%, respectively. However, animal
products have a larger water footprint per tonne of product than any crop. As
for land occupation, animal products represent by far the biggest impact
occupying 85% (78% meat alone) of the total surface area of the soil used to
biodiversity, farming (conversion of wild lands and intensification) is the
major global threat. This occurs especially in developing regions where 72% and
34% of species are threatened by crops and livestock production, respectively,
versus 44% and 21% in developed countries. Also noteworthy, deforestation due
to agricultural expansion occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical regions of
Africa (62%), Latin America (25%) and Asia (13%)2 and has destroyed 5.2
million Ha/year between 2000 and 2010 (the net annual loss of forest equivalent
to an area about the size of Costa Rica)3.
Meat and dairy products have the highest global food print of
carbon, raw materials and water per kilogram of any food, not to mention its
impact on land occupation and biodiversity.2
regard, the global movements Reducetarian and Meatless Monday are
generating awareness on the health and environmental benefits of reducing the
portions of meat derived products on our diets. Take the challenge and try it
If you are interested on the environmental footprint, check out the Global Footprint Network website which shows in detail the information about the environmental footprint of more than 180 countries and also based on your energy consumption calculates your personal environmental footprint. We will talk about the topic soon. Keep tuned!
But, why should we think about this? Why is this so important?
Humanity is facing an important problem: How will we feed the growing world population in a fair way, without overexploiting nature, without excluding people and without tormenting animals?
is not a natural process. Humans have domesticated nature to produce food.
However, before the Industrial Revolution, people respected the environment and
natural cycles more than they do today maybe because of the lack of technology
and/or they were less concerned with the financial system.
with the development of technologies and the understanding of processes, the
overexploitation of natural resources started: monocultures (and to allow them
the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) and intensive animal farming
consequently vitiated societies with an excess of food at consistent low prices
which makes it possible to waste. In truth, the low cost of food is paid at a
high price by the environment, animals, farmers, and the society.
Additionally, from the 250-300 thousand known edible plant species existing in the planet only 4% (150-200 species) are used by humans. And from these, 3 (rice, maize and wheat) contribute to 60% of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants. In the world, 75% of the food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animals.4
losing local knowledge and agrodiversity is disappearing (ca. 75% of plant
genetic diversity has been lost since 1900).4
addition to being environmentally unsustainable, our food system is
economically inefficient. For every dollar spent on food, the society pays two
in health, environmental, social and economic costs.5
these costs are related to consumption (obesity, malnutrition and micronutrient
deficiency) and the other half is associated with the way food is produced
(waste, pollution (intensive production uses large quantities of pesticides,
fertilizers and antibiotics) and depletion of natural capital (water pollution,
Things need to change urgently!! We are destroying our planet and losing food diversity due to our obsession for uniformity food (size, color, shape, taste) and high yield… We need to start valorizing diversity and living in a sustainable way!
means ensuring human rights and well-being without depleting or diminishing the
capacity of the earth’s ecosystems to support life, or at the expense of others’
well-being. It is a multi-dimensional concept encompassing environmental
integrity (nature), social well-being (people), economic resilience and good
It all seems very complicated… so what can we do? A lot!!!
We can choose to eat differently, to select better, to buy at a fair price, locally, seasonally and only that which we are going to eat all the while supporting good agricultural practices. There are great initiatives around the world. Join us in this journey to discover them and start supporting them!!
Lexicon of Food has created a dictionary of themes and terms explaining the current food
system that will change the way you look at food. Great graphic art and videos
that are really worth checking.!
Food Tank focuses on spreading the knowledge about environmental, social and
economically sustainable initiatives to eradicate hunger, obesity and poverty.
Believe Earth is another one where inspiring people tell what they are doing to make
the world a better place.
example regarding the power of consumers to improve the food system is the
French company C’est qui le Patron (Who is the boss). Consumers were asked the characteristics of the milk
they wanted to consume (remuneration for farmers, origin, grazing time, no
genetic modified organisms) and the price they were willing to pay for it (0.99
euro instead of 0.69 euro). The milk was very successful and the company is now
also selling other food products.
are also many local movements such as the Ecuadorian citizen initiative Que rico es where smart consumers organize local markets and get involved with
local problems regarding their food system (labels, nutrition, seeds, etc.).
respect to the new sustainable business models that exist today, take a look at
the solutions shown in Drawdown and ZERI. It’s really worth seeing!
Macarthur Report proposes innovations that can be implemented in cities
using the circular economy model with the potential to regenerate the food
system. Get inspired and participate in the change!
recommend you check out Slow Food, a
movement born in Italy and spread all over the world. The movement focuses on
the protection of biodiversity and the importance of building a sustainable
food system. Together we share the idea that diversity (biological, cultural,
linguistic, generational, sexual and religious) is the greatest treasure that
we have as individuals and as society and that the importance of good, clean, fair and healthy food for all is a
Let’s become critical consumers!!
Only by becoming aware of our contribution can we take decisions that will allow us to build a sustainable world. Our consumer footprint has an impact… Let’s start making some changes!!