Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Oh my GOD – the world’s running out of food!! (Ok, not really)

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear somebody hollering about how human beings face an imminent shortage of food. The screeching headlines about this issue generally ignore what this FAO-commissioned study thankfully reminds us – a third of the world's food goes to waste.

People flock to the Malthusian tales of human beings heading toward starvation as the population cruises toward a staggering 9 billion people. It’s usually the key underpinning of arguments for things like genetically modified crops and factory farming, and is the basis of furious insistence we need to greatly increase our production of food.

It probably shouldn’t be too surprising that developed nations waste as much food as all of Sub-Saharan Africa produces, or that the equivalent of half the world’s grains crops go to waste. The report also aptly points out that large quantities of food in the developing world are lost because of inadequate harvest and collection practices and weak logistics systems that leave grain rotting in ports or warehouses.

As of about seven years ago, Americans threw around 15 percent of the food they purchased, while Brazilians threw away about 20 percent. Both of these figures have probably changed since then, but I would guess not by much.

In the United States, a huge amount of waste happens in fast food restaurants or 7-11 type convenience stores that have Big Macs or rotisserie hot dogs sitting under heat lamps that must be thrown away every certain number of hours to meet health codes. This is not meant to make targets out of those businesses -- they do this because customers expect them to do it and would complain if they didn't.

I’m used to a lifestyle in which I can buy an entire roast chicken at just about any hour of the day on a moment’s notice. That’s often left me wondering what happens to all the chicken that’s left at the end of the day that by law cannot be sold and in some cases may not even be given to the homeless. It leaves me asking myself whether making food available in that abundance is really possible without wasting a significant quantity of it. The truth is I'm not an expert on this, but my guess is in many cases it’s cheaper to throw lots of food away than to tell customers that there’s nothing left for the day. How much food do groceries stores and restaurants throw away in my neighborhood? What would it look like if they really wanted to cut down on food waste? What would it take to educate consumers about food waste such that restaurants wouldn't face a backlash from people who are accustomed to getting nearly limitless quantities of food?

Unfortunately, these sorts of questions are no match for dramatic tales of nutritional doom that are usually accompanied by an incessant clock-ticking countdown until the day we all starve. The debate veers back toward GMO, the struggle for land around the world, the sagas of agricultural conglomerates breaking new boundaries in crop yields -- all relevant issues, but hardly more so than 1/3 of all food going down the drain.

In this context, the less sensationalist why-don’t-we-quit-doing-so-much-dumb-shit-with-food approach doesn’t stand a chance. Looking it this way would involve more prosaic day-to-day recommendations for dealing with the food problem: shop for what you need, eat what’s on your plate, do refrigerator sweeps to catch food before it rots, think systemically about how food systems around you are unintentionally wasteful.

I’m glad to see the FAO trying to get people to think along these lines, because the debate so far has reminded me more of Lenny Bruce’s “We’re all gonna die!!!!” routine.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Can consumers lead businesses to change? Yes … sometimes.

Americans are convinced that daily consumption decisions are the most powerful mechanism we have for leading businesses to reduce their impact on the environment.

Where we spend our money is a powerful influence for change, but day-to-day consumption is by no means an election in which each dollar is a vote for or against a set of business practices.

I thought this was one of the most interesting conclusions of a book I just read called Four Fish about the depletion of the world’s fishing stocks and what to do about it. The author Paul Greenberg gives a detailed account of how human consumption of fish is increasingly dominated by four species – tuna, salmon, sea bass and cod – as well as all an extensive discussion of the vices and virtues of farming these species.

Greenberg also points out that people concerned about the environmental impact of fish have been given a litany of don’t-eat-this-eat-that-instead instructions that generally leave consumers confused and appear to have little effect on overall production or consumption of those fish.

In contrast, he points to one such effort that did work – a boycott of swordfish that included a coalition of key chefs and well-known restaurants that had the explicit goal of pushing the government to halt fishing in Gulf of Mexico breeding grounds for part of the year. Two years into the campaign US authorities closed swordfish nurseries to fishing, and two years after that the swordfish population had jumped back to historic levels.

Yes, consumers were crucial. But they were not the cause of the improved fish stocks, they indirectly pressured the government to take measures that improved the lot of the swordfish.

Greenberg’s point here is that a focused consumer-backed campaign that pushes authorities to take decisive action cannot be confused with a barrage of isolated “Don’t eat this fish” campaigns. I agree with this, especially since there are so many warnings about every purchase that we make, ranging from where we buy gasoline to what soft-drinks we consume. “Don’t buy from them, they do business in Sudan.” “That place doesn’t serve fair-trade coffee.” “That restaurant serves factory-farmed chicken.”

It’s too easy for so many commandments to get lost in the swirl of “thou shalt nots” that leave even the most civic-minded types confused about what to buy and where. To have a lasting effect, the economic vote-with-your-feet mentality needs to be channeled into focused (and probably limited) campaigns with clear goals.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Arabic: My back-burnered hobby, my unrequited love

My passionate study of the Arabic language for a good two years is now officially on the back burner. The good news is it sure was fun. And from time to time still is.

It was not a very good idea to begin with, I admit. I like to tell people that I started studying Arabic for dumb reason (no, not a girl) – because I read Ghost Wars. If you’ve read it you know why this is a dumb reason (it’s about the non-Arabic speaking country Afghanistan). The truth is I was generally interested in the language because I was reading a lot about the Middle East at the time.

What I didn’t take into account was the biggest pitfall to studying Arabic – the language evolved over thousands of years across thousands of miles into more than a dozen different dialects that are often mutually incomprehensible. The formal or classical version of the language is supposed to unite the different branches of it, but in practice nobody in the Middle East actually speaks it. Arabs of different countries often communicate in English in French. If you’re doing business in the Middle East, being a Muslim will probably open as many doors as speaking some halting Arabic. Oops, wrong language?

Maybe, but I got hooked pretty quickly. My favorite part was and still is the fact that it looks cool. This must sound silly to someone who grew up with the language, maybe a bit like hearing some say “Wow, check out these letters, A,B,C – cool!” Learning a new alphabet seems like the most daunting part of learning a distant language, but I actually found it was the easiest (it’s much harder, for example, to learn words that have no relationship to anything you’ve ever heard before).

I started out spending a couple months with a book and a set of CDs practicing how to write the script and doing some dictations. It sometimes felt like being on drugs. Trying to think in totally different characters made my head pound. It made my heart race. And it was addicting like a narcotic. For another six months after that I practiced with Rosetta Stone, until its predictable repetitiveness and its cookie-cutter approach drove me insane. That’s when I found Mohamed.

A Tunisian language teacher who had gone to Venezuela to teach French, he found there was more demand for Arabic and became the only game in town. He taught at more universities than I could count and worked absurd hours. I’ve never had a professor that was so enthusiastic about what he was doing. He would spend an hour writing Arabic on a dry-erase board in three different colors of markers to differentiate the root letters, the normally unwritten vowels, and the grammatical endings. For a bit over a year, twice a week, Mohammed explained the structure of the language in penetrating detail. I’ll never forget the first class we had; he stood at the board writing, talking, pacing back and forth, getting really excited every time I could more or less answer a question. He was so busy he didn’t even touch the cup of coffee I had brought him until it had gotten cold.

When I left Venezuela I basically left my Arabic classes behind, but kept studying on my own. I had several amazing instruction books that Mohamed had written, but I needed something that would keep the language alive for me. I chose a method that would likely make most language teachers cringe, but has helped keep the language in my mind since then even in the absence of formal instruction.

I made lists of words with the Arabic on one side and the translation on the other (I’m sure somebody out there already wants to say “No, no, no, never do it that way, you have to learn intuitively and never, ever rely on translation” – I’ll stay away from this one for now). I would carry them in my pocket and stare at them on the metro, while standing in line, or when I couldn’t sleep, figuring out mnemonic devices that would link a word with a pronunciation like “ha-ja-ma” with the English word “attack.”

I learned enough of these words that I could enter my training grounds – BBC Arabic. At first I could only get through the headline, but over time beefed up my news vocabulary by memorizing the Arabic translations for terms like “election” or “president” or “arrest.” For months I would stare at the words on the screen, parsing every letter and scrounging through the depths of my memory for the meaning. After a while I could get through the lede and first few paragraphs of a story, usually with the benefit of having already read the same story on the wire in English. It was a closed and controlled environment that gave me exciting experience of reading things in Arabic that had to do with current events in the Arab world. But what was even more exciting was when I got to the point that I didn’t have to pick through each letter because I had started to recognize words, which meant something truly amazing to me: I was reading in Arabic. It was a thrilling learning-to-ride-a-bike sensation, one I still enjoy every time I glance at an Arabic text (OK, an Arabic text related to a news story that I can relatively easily follow, but you get my point).

I spent months following the Yemen civil war at a time when the country was pretty well off the radar screen of Western news agencies – ironic because these days it’s headline news. Even back in 2009 when the world didn’t care, it was a pretty dramatic saga. The government of Yemen launched weeks of air strikes against the Shiite Houthi rebels in the north while simultaneously battling Sunni separatists in South. The Houthis at one point even killed a Saudi security officer in a cross-border raid, leading the Saudis to bomb Houthi positions in Yemen. In a bizarre twist, BBC Arabic reported the Houthis were recruiting Somali refugees to fight the Yemeni government.

When a Yemen-trained Nigerian militant tried to blow up a plane landing in Detroit on Christmas Eve 2009, the world suddenly discovered this nation existed.

In my halting Arabic, I followed stories in late 2009 and early 2010 that have long since been overshadowed by events in the region: the brewing Lebanon political crisis, the partition of Sudan, the Israeli siege of Gaza and bombardment of smuggling tunnels, Iraq’s almost year-long struggle to build a unity government.

I did have an ace in the sleeve: VerbAce, an incredibly thorough digital English-Arabic dictionary. It also helped that the stories were written in simple BBC style that made it easy for me grasp their meaning even if I missed some of the words.

But it had the perverse consequence that I always flocked towards stories that I knew would be easiest to understand, which were generally the ones about suicide bombings and predator drone attacks. They were always written in terse just-the-facts-ma’am phrasing with a structure that was almost always identical. I from time to time would stray into Reuters’ Arabic service, and when I was feeling really bold would explore the wilds of Google News Arabic, at which point I was pretty quickly drowning in local Gulf politics and inside baseball about Lebanese political coalitions.

The trouble was and still is that I can’t speak much Arabic. Without that element there’s very little social interaction, which turns the experience into a solitary exercise with little obvious social outlet. Actually learning to speak it is of course complicated by the multiple dialect problem – you don’t know which one you want to learn until you have an idea of who you want to speak with. Some cursory searches for an Arabic teacher in Rio didn’t turn up a lot of obvious leads (the main Middle Eastern community in Brazil is in Sao Paulo), and at the same time it didn’t feel right to be really studying Arabic while I was living in Brazil. The adventure started to feel like a path that I would never get too far along. Or, as I put it in one Facebook status update, Arabic started to feel like one of those women that always smiles but never gives her number.

I still flip through some BBC stories from time to time. I get some tweets in Arabic from an Al Jazeera correspondent that are fun because they’re short, they’re informative, they relate to current events, and I can sometimes understand them without the help of translation software. I’m not a likely candidate to get sent off to cover the Middle East turmoil, but it’s nice to be able to watch video footage of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen and be able to understand some of the slogans painted on signs.

So until there’s some obvious change of course, it stays where it is. It reminds me a bit of my decision in 2001, just after moving to Venezuela, to start studying Portuguese, for no apparent reason. I even spent a month in Rio in 2005 taking a Portuguese course and getting to know Brazil. There was no obvious upside for doing that at the time, but it ended up working out like gangbusters once I got a job in Rio. Arabic is so much further from any language I know that it seems less likely it will come in handy. But you really never know.