Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Down the Drains

Image: Ayan Ghosh at Gandhinagar and Paldi DCC2008 discussions

I feel a primary aspect to be understood while analyzing the role of food and its importance in its current context is to examine how humans consume food, which is after all what its main function is. This consumption pattern has never been constant, and has changed considerably depending on the way food has been cultivated, stored, transported, re-stored and eaten. These systems have been considerably modified by the various discoveries, innovations, improvisations and inventions which continued to evolve since humans settled as an agrarian society.

Some main events in the journey of food have been the discovery of fire and the plough, and a basic understanding of time and seasons, leading to agriculture. This new form of foraging, through cultivation, was helped substantiality by innovations in irrigation techniques (like the Archimedes’s screw and the Noria) and extensive canal building. Later, architectural innovations followed in the form of dams and later more sophisticated aqueducts built in ancient Rome.

However, the pattern of agriculture the world over remained unchanged for thousands of years, although techniques might have differed from civilization to civilization depending on the climate and topography. The most significant innovations that boosted the production capacities of fields to feed the increasing global populations happened in the post industrial revolution late 18th and 19th century, with development of fertilizers like Ammonium Nitrate, pesticides, and other mechanized innovations like the development of tractors, and threshers.

Limitations in preservation options reduced the transportability of food which being organic in nature starts putrefying in short time. The organic nature of most food either allowed it to be frozen or dried. Drying substantially altered the nature of the food, while freezing was expensive and exclusive. Food storage changed drastically since the 19th century, with Nicolas François Appert inventing canning in 1809, which contributed significantly to Napolean’s army’s mobility and Europe conquest. Appert himself didn't know how the process of heating canned food helped in its preservation worked, but was later explained by Louis Pasteur. This was followed by breakthroughs by scores of inventors contributing many small advances in cooling machinery leading to the perfection of the refrigerator. This allowed surplus food to be stored in its actual state for many days domestically, and also to be transported overseas on long journeys. Later innovations in packaging design also contributed hugely in optimizing trade.

Human Movement
Various events and inventions in other domains contributed greatly to the food industry, like globalization, colonialism, colonization, international trade and human migration. Globalization, which has its roots in the silk route trades across Asia and Europe, contributed in the spice economy, which thrived for hundreds of years. Colonization, starting with the Spanish conquests of the Americas, resulted in many new food items being introduced to Western countries. After colonization of the Americas, the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They also took it to the Philippines, whence it moved to southeast Asia and then the entire Asian continent. The Spanish also brought the potato and tobacco to Europe. Similarly the British Empire introduced tea from China to Sri Lanka, India and Britain and the USA.

Colonialism and the industrial revolution also catalyzed an unprecedented amount of human migration the world over, which gave rose to new consumption requirements and opened up endemic food cultures to new markets.

Image: Ayan Ghosh at Gandhinagar and Paldi DCC2008 discussions

Alternative power
Shift from traditional energy sources like animal, human, wind and water to steam, coal, fuel and electric also revolutionized the way the food industry expanded over the last century and a half. The industrial revolution triggered the concept of the factory and the mass production of food. It also led to the invention of the railways, automobiles and lastly the aircraft. The last three are of major consequence, as it allowed surplus food to be exchanged between countries through exports and it also allowed fast and networked system of food distribution, thereby preventing widespread famines.

As a result…
However all the above mentioned factors have also contributed in a serious fall out of food wastage which is a result of the ability to acquire surplus food. Since we can acquire much more than we consume, its inevitable that there is a great deal of surplus in the hands of the upper classes in the first world countries who can afford such benefits on the basis of a higher disposable income. Previously we cultivated only as much can be consumed immediately, but the option of preservation has made us uncertain to the consumption amounts, since there is always back up.

In the USA
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculates 20 percent of the country's food goes to waste, representing an annual value of about $31 billion in lost resources. Such wastage is not productive, sustainable, or ethical. While food is being squandered in rich countries, 800 million people around the world often do not know where their next meal is coming from, 166 million children are undernourished, and 1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

In Britain
Britons are throwing away £10bn worth of food that could be eaten each year. About £6bn of the wasted annual food budget is food that is bought but never touched - including 13m unopened yoghurt pots, 5,500 chickens and 440,000 ready meals dumped in home rubbish bins each day. The rest is food prepared or cooked for meals but never eaten because people have misjudged how much was needed and don't eat the leftovers. The complete £10bn consists of food that could have been eaten, not including peeling and bones, the researchers say. Tackling the waste could mean a huge reduction in CO2 emissions, equivalent to taking one in five cars off the road.

In India
Its a matter of concern even in India where it was announced in the Rajya Sabha in March 2008 by the Minister of State for Food Processing Industries (FPI) that wastage of harvested food items is estimated to be around Rs 58,000 crore at various stages of handling due to lack of adequate post-harvest infrastructure, cold chains, transportation and proper storage facilities.

Food = water
A new report by the Stockholm International Water Institute has determined that the wastage of food means wastage of a large amount of water. According to a report in Discovery News, given that crop production uses about 1,800 trillion gallons (1,700 cubic miles) of water a year, almost 40 per cent of which comes from irrigation rather than rainwater, that loss represents a lot of water. The report says that in the United States itself, up to 30 per cent of food is tossed out each year, worth about 48.8 billion US dollars, which is equivalent to flushing 10 trillion gallons of water down the drain.

Why so?
There are many reasons for the humongous quantities of food wastage. They vary culture to culture. Economy, social status, cultural habits all play a part, and many solutions have also been suggested in the past and continue to be done. Rationing food had been a popular concept in socialist countries. It is however an economic control, aimed to provide food to those who cannot afford it. Denying people who can afford to do so the right to food is never going to be accepted universally in a democratic political ideology.

However, I personally feel that the problem hasn’t been understood yet, and all solutions are working at a preventive level rather than a curative level. Waste food management is happening because waste "is happening". It is broadly accepted that completely eradicating food wastage is not possible and every effort should be taken in minimizing it. One possible source of finding the root cause of why we waste food I feel lies in our evolutionary past, and how it has shaped human psychology. Maybe somewhere within our subconscious the million years old hunter-gatherer psyche is winning over the thousand years old settler-cultivator psyche. One aspect of study that has been undertaken in this direction deals with how humans and all other animals behave with food, and is called optimal foraging theory.

Optimal Foraging Theory?
A central concern of ecology has traditionally been foraging behavior. In its most basic form, optimal foraging theory states that organisms forage in such a way as to maximize their energy intake per unit time. In other words, they behave in such a way as to find, capture and consume food containing the calories while expending the least amount of time possible in doing so. The understanding of many ecological concepts such adaptation, energy flow, competition hinges on the ability to comprehend what food items animals select, and why.

Furthermore, the absolute limits of the range of food types eaten by a consumer in a given habitat are defined by morphological constraints, but very few animals actually eat all of the different food types they are capable of consuming. Optimal foraging theory helps biologists understand the factors determining a consumer’s operational range of food types, or diet width.

At the one extreme, animals employing a generalist strategy tend to have broad diets; they chase and eat many of the prey/food items with which they come into contact. At the other extreme, those with a specialist strategy have narrow diets and ignore many of the prey items they come across, searching preferentially for a few specific types of food. In general, animals exhibit strategies ranging across a continuum between these two extremes. Recently, scholars have connected optimal foraging theory to prospect theory, noting that survival thresholds might be responsible for human attitudes towards risk.

I am personally still trying to understand the full implications of the optimal foraging theory and how it is directly linked with global food wastage but I sincerely believe in its existence. Somewhere down the line, through a protracted history like I mentioned, the process of accessing food has got distorted too fast, which has contributed to this current phenomenon of over-consumption. Wastage happens not only in food, but in almost every other form of consumerist products, which is a thematic redundancy phenomenon in modernist and postmodernist society at large.

A huge shift has occurred at the options level and the time level, which has led to the disparity in the intake and outtake proportions. The handling time and search times required for access to food in the current urban set up is minimal, which means we gather up much more than what we can consume. The energy requirement levels have stayed the same, since humans have been more or less engaged in the same energy expedient tasks since cultivation started. What might have altered is the energy supplementary levels, which is a result of the consumption disparity. Our dietary patterns have changed so drastically since the dawn of agriculture (at least in the urban areas), that the amount of food required to meet the necessary energy levels have also been distorted. In most cases we consume more, to bridge this gap.

We fear that we might not be able to meet this shortfall,be there a crisis or not, and so the ones who can, they consume more than what they need. They are not to be blamed entirely, because the surplus they are consuming is being made available to them in the first place. Its a huge and complicated cycle of economics and ecology, but very little research has actually been done into the subject, or maybe I haven't myself delved into the subject in depth as yet.

Maybe this in itself is a design research subject which can be expanded on for addressing the cure rather than the prevention part. Maybe an apple a week can keep the doctor away, as well as one a day.

Ayan Ghosh

"The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think."

~ Gregory Bateson

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