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The Digest: Five Important Food Stories That Illustrate Major Issues

Bananas going extinct, seafood fraud, figuring out how to feed the world, and more


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Part of my daily work as a food writer is reading about the issues facing the industry. And most of my reads tend to be about the big issues. Much as I love reading about avocado toast and how it will revive your personal brand, it’s the issues—good and bad—facing the global food ecosystem that blow my mind. Here are summaries and links to some of the best stories that recently got me thinking: 

 

Bananas Are Going Extinct And the Ramifications Are Way More Serious Than Losing a Favorite Snack

Up until the '60s, we all ate delicious, awesome bananas called Gros Michel cultivar, CNN explains in this article. They lasted longer, tasted better, and then they went extinct. The Gros Michel banana was killed off by a Panama fungal disease that spread out to most of the world’s commercial plantations. It got so bad, they had to burn down the crops. That’s how we got the banana that most of the world eats today—the underwhelming Cavendish cultivar, which is largely seen as a pretty mediocre fruit, but is resistant to the disease. A majority of the globe’s banana farmers got rid of other types of bananas. Bad idea. Put all your eggs in one basket, and we’re in big trouble if that basket breaks. The Cavendish is now under attack from a new strain of the Panama disease, and could truly make the banana extinct if not properly addressed. The disease is called “Tropical Race 4,” started in Malaysia around 1990. “A single clump of contaminated dirt is enough to spread it like wildfire,” a researcher quoted in the article says. It’s spread to southeast Asia, then Australia, then Africa, the Middle East. In Africa, bananas are crucial for food security and income generation for over 100 million people. Up to one-fifth of the total calorie consumption of East and Central Africa. This isn’t about bananas fosters. It’s about survival. 

 

HARD TRUTH: If we all ate as healthy as science recommends, we’d hit a major food shortage

There simply wouldn’t be enough, according to this story in NPR's great food blog, The Salt. Not at the current rate of production, anyway. Right now, only about 55% of people on the planet live in countries with enough fruits and veggies to meet the WHO’s recommended 400 grams a day. By 2050, researchers project 1.5 billion more people will live in places with insufficient supply, unless we find solutions for food waste and increase productivity. This is bad news, because we all need to eat better. According to research presented in this article, diets are leading to more premature deaths than smoking. We’re producing enough calories for the world population. But we’re eating the wrong foods—we’re overweight and undernourished. 

 

INSPIRING READ: 24 Food and Farming Change-Makers

In 2018, the Sacramento restaurant industry lost a dozen people to suicide. Chef Patrick Mulvaney started working with chefs, entrepreneurs, healthcare providers to create a peer-to-peer program for counseling and support. Civil Eats is one of my favorite progressive food sites, and this story highlights 24 people who are making positive changes in the food world. A man recruiting and working with thousands of formerly incarcerated people, teaching them how to grow food, landscape, etc. People helping specific cultures (Native American, African American, etc.) reconnect with growing food and preserving cuisines. A Detroit man trying to start the city’s only black-owned grocery store. Farmers focusing on soil-health, animal welfare, food sovereignty. It’s not all bad news, no matter how much Twitter makes it feel like it is. 

 

Figuring Out How to Feed the World

The good news is that farm yields are high enough to feed everyone, says the NYT. Bad news is people are still hungry. We’re pretty horrible at managing the world’s water supply. Food production accounts for somewhere between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse emissions. We need to reduce emissions, remove carbon from the air and store it in trees and soil, change diets (especially for the wealthy). Malnutrition rates in sub-Saharan Africa are at almost 20 percent—but might be helped by limiting the use of fertilizers (which contribute to emissions) and planting crops that add carbon to the soil (hairy vetch, cereal rye, other cover crops). The Amazon, the world’s largest forest, is being razed. We need to balance our consumption of meat (beef and lamb, especially) with plant-eating (but not get rid of meat-eating altogether). Specifically, the biggest meat eaters (U.S. and Australia) need to chill out. And food waste. More than a quarter of the food produced rots in fields or is thrown away. That wasted food accounts for close to 10% of global emissions. 

 

People Are Lying About Their Seafood Again

In the recent deep feature on the future of San Diego’s fishermen, I explained in detail the problem with imported seafood (as opposed to U.S.-caught). Basically, cheap imported seafood is wrought with problems of health and sustainability. This story explores the other cog of this problem: seafood fraud documented by New Food Economy. A North Carolina seafood company admitted to intentionally mislabeling imported crab meat as U.S.-caught—180,000 pounds worth $4 million. Earlier this year, the environmental non-governmental organization Oceana published a study revealing 20 percent of the 449 fish they tested across the U.S. were incorrectly labeled. Why does this matter? It’s fraud in multiple ways. First, most countries do not have the strict sustainability or safety standards that the U.S. has. Many are treated with toxic chemicals. Many are caught in countries that have less than respectable track records of sustainability and caring much about bycatch (dolphins, sea turtles, etc.). Plus, seafood sellers are able to charge more by putting “U.S.-caught” on the label, which is economic fraud. 

 
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