Eva Maria Bille

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on 13 Dec, 09:14

Where do Bananas come from?

Where do Bananas come from?
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Alright, alright, before you get started, I am aware that the website I am about to show you is an obvious marketing ploy.

It is, however, a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking marketing ploy – showing the consumer where their bananas come from.

Dole Earth was brought to my attention by a tiny sticker with a farm code on my newly purchased bananas. 10332, visit my farm! I could not say no to this offer, and entered the website with rather low expectations.

What I found on the website was a lot of information about the farm where these bananas grew, as well as a lovely video tour through the entire process of growing bananas. Throughout the process they tell us how they are trying to be sustainable, and while the use of plastic bags as well as tons of water for the growth of bananas does not seem very sustainable, they do explain what they are trying to do about it.

The most fascinating aspect of my visit to this website was the thoughts that appeared – why is it not possible to see where everything I consume comes from? Bananas are one of the most simple things that I consume, and yet the banana goes through so many processes that I had no idea about. How many processes did my water glass go through? My table plant? The paper for my books? The computer that I am using to type this at?

It is fascinating how little we consider these things in our daily lives, and I think that the Dole website does a nice job in bringing the consumer a tiny bit closer to the product.

on 30 Nov, 15:31

Food waste – unbelievably wasteful

Food waste – unbelievably wasteful
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According to a recent FAO report the current level of global food wastage is responsible for emissions of CO2 only surpassed in magnitude by those of the US and China.

This usage of land and water – essentially for nothing – has a high opportunity cost on a planet with scarce resources. With the earth’s population reaching 9 billion in 2050, arable land in hectare per person rapidly decreasing, food wastage an unnecessary cost to the environment and people, and it has an impact on all three aspects of sustainability (people, planet and profit).

By now, you might be wondering why I am using the word “wastage”. Wastage is referred to in the report as the total amount of food wasted, and further splits food wastage into two categories – food loss and food waste.

Food loss: A decrease in food matter or quality, to the extent when it can no longer be consumed. Most frequently food loss occurs because of inefficient food supply chains. Examples range from natural disasters to inadequate infrastructure and limited access to markets, as well as insufficient or primitive technologies.

Food waste: Wastage of food suitable for consumption. Examples are oversupply, expiry dates and spoilt food. It therefore includes but is not limited to eating habits and overstocking by supermarkets.

In general, food loss mainly occurs in developing countries due to inefficiencies in production. Food waste mainly occurs in developed countries, due to consumer preferences and oversupply.

Here are some facts from the report – I highly recommend reading the full report:

  1. Food wastage occupies 28% of global agricultural landmass. The only country with a landmass larger than “food waste” is Russia.
  2. Crops are responsible for 72% and 44% of species threats in developing and developed countries respectively .
  3. The monetary value on food wasted was estimated to be 750 billion USD in 2007 – the same as the GDP of Turkey or Switzerland.
  4. Meat makes up 11% of total food wastage – but 78% of food wastage land occupation.
  5. High-income regions and Latin America account for 80% of meat waste

 

So, what can we do about it all?

Food loss seems to be remedied relatively easily, by upgrading processes in developing countries (if it can be done in a way that is both sustainable and feasible). Infrastructure and vulnerability to natural disasters are circumstances which are hard to remedy, but it is nevertheless in everyone’s best interest.

Food waste on the other hand requires an attitude shift in the minds of consumers. Start respecting food. Stop overloading your plate at a buffet. Stop following “best before” dates like they were holy. Encourage composting. Think about where things come from before buying them. Think before you throw away, and encourage others to do the same!

on 14 Sep, 10:21

Sustainable meat – is there such a thing?

Sustainable meat – is there such a thing?
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Interesting research is happening at the moment, in alternative sources for protein. The need for food is ever increasing – the world’s population is not going to stop growing any time soon – the UN projects that the earth’s population of mouths to feed will reach 9.2 billion in 2050.

The World Population Data Sheet shows alarming statistics of the distribution of population growth – most of the growth will happen in the countries where people have the least.

Simultaneously, food preferences are changing globally as China’s protein consumption skyrockets with a 100% growth in protein consumption in the past 15 years, and other countries with large populations developing a taste for meat and dairy as well. Malaysia’s consumption of meat is steadily rising alongside the rest of Asia. With these projections, who knows how long our planet will be able to sustain us?

Sustainability is often described as the balance between social, economic and environmental interests.

Environmental, Social and Economical concerns

Environmental, Social and Economical concerns

Economic interests of the current system serve those who know how to use it, but the distribution of wealth is a whole other chapter. The environment cannot sustain meat production for everyone. It is in the global social interest that everyone has enough to eat – but should it also be in the global social interest for people to eat what they want?

Meat is a preference, and though it provides a large amount of calories, the water footprint is high, the contribution to global warming of methane and other gases contributes 14 to 22 percent of man-made global warming, and using crops for fodder instead of human consumption is logically less efficient.

Imke de Boer, a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands has written many interesting articles about sustainable production of animal sources food. This article brings up many interesting points concerning the balance between feeding the world’s population and protecting the environment. Interestingly, feeding cows with maize instead of grass brings down methane emissions, though there are other disadvantages. Anyone who has seen Food, Inc. will remember the threat of e-koli and the weakened immune system of the cow due to PH balance changes in its stomach, leading to use of more antibiotics. Grass fed beef also presents less of an opportunity cost because humans cannot eat or run their cars on grass.

This leads to another interesting point in the article – the comparison of the amount of energy or protein in animal feed that is potentially edible for humans over the amount of energy or protein that is edible in the animal product. Chickens and pork are a lot less efficient than grass-fed beef in this light.

One animal that does take up a very small amount of space and water to produce – and is not responsible for a huge amount of omissions is the mealworm. De Boer argues that it is a viable source of animal protein, and would be a healthy alternative to current meat production.

I have never tried it, but it sounds like it is not an unpleasant experience – though it might need some seasoning.

Once you have access to the basics in terms of food, it becomes more relevant to start thinking about sustainability in food consumption. But looking at the current projections of world population growth, it doesn’t seem likely that the majority of the global population will demand sustainable production and alternative meat sources – they are simply more concerned with hunger. There is, however no reason why those of us who have access to more than the basics should not try to make a difference.

Image source: ABC News.

on 15 Aug, 08:27

How bad is air pollution?

How bad is air pollution?
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Tiananmen Square from March 4th to March 17th this year. Source: Wei Yao at Beijing Review

With the haze getting out of control again recently, we all want to know how what air pollution really means for our health. Anyone who was in Malaysia and Singapore during the haze would be aware that breathing the air was not akin to a herbal bath or a spring meadow, but what about the long term effects?

Indonesia has apologised for the smoke, caused by forest fires in the country. According to the Air Quality Index, which measures the five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, anything above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and anything above 300 is hazardous. See details on how it is calculated here. During the days of haze, the air quality index surpassed 700 in some areas of Johor.

Source: Airnow Air Quality Index

Source: Airnow Air Quality Index

Air pollution is nothing new. All industrialised nations have experienced some degree or other of air pollution on the path to industrialisation. If we want to observe the long term effects of air pollution, China is a very interesting example, not because the phenomenon of air pollution is unique to China, but because the mobility in China has been low for many years, because of the so-called “Hukou“-system, which has effectively bound Chinese citizens to the same place their entire life.

According to this article in National Geographic, a study comparing total suspended particulates in northern and southern China has found evidence that air pollutants and coal in particular shorten life expectancies. The below numbers are staggering:

“The air concentration of total suspended particulates (TSP) in the north was 55 percent higher than in the south, and life expectancies were 5.52 years lower, between 1981 and 2000″

“Long-term exposure to each additional 100 micrograms per cubic meter of TSP is associated with reduction in life expectancy at birth of about three years”.

The article hypothesises that the higher numbers in northern China could be due to an old policy of giving free coal to citizens above the Huai river, and subsequently subsidising it – causing more coal to be burned in the colder cities up north.

Shijiazhuang in China, where I lived for over 2 years, has repeatedly been ranked as one of the cities with the worst air pollution in China. While I did feel the soot in my snot and my breathing getting worse despite exercising more, I had the option to move. The people who live there are bound to stay there, if not by Hukou regulations, then by family ties.

Source: Bobak, Wikipedia

Source: Bobak, Wikipedia

The many pictures of Beijing’s sky with and without pollution speak for themselves. Particularly in the featured image (of 14 days at Tiananmen Square), we can see the staggering contrast.

Be it because of coal, forest fires or other particle matter, the long term effects of air pollution are ostensibly not negligible. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it is hard to compare the long-term effects of pollution elsewhere, because people in other countries have not been limited by Hukou-like systems.

In Malaysia, the haze season has been a recurring event since the ’90s. If constant exposure to pollution in China is proven to have tangible effects on life expectancy, we have reason to extend that the same results would apply to Malaysia, at a lesser degree. At the end of the day, it still boils down to the question of how much quality of life (or indeed, life itself) we are willing to sacrifice, in exchange for unsustainable growth and resource exploitation.

on 29 Jul, 19:52

Who is more scientific? Climate change number crunching time..

Who is more scientific? Climate change number crunching time..
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Here, in the days when news are out that the North Pole has turned into a lake, it is hard to argue that the climate has not changed. Yet, there is still a myriad of books and articles being published, claiming the opposite – or when acknowledging that the climate has changed, denying the human influence on the matter.

When pitted one against the other, it can be difficult to ascertain who is more or less right. Glossy front pages, powerful argumentation and resourceful backing all serve to confuse and confound.

This article, published in the peer reviewed journal American Behavioural Scientist, is written by two sociology professors at Oklahoma State University and University of Central Florida. It is titled “Climate Change denial books and Conservative Think Tanks – Exploring the connection”, and among other things, reaches the staggering conclusion that 90% of climate change denial books do not undergo peer review. Now, considering that 97% of peer reviewed climate science papers argue that Climate Change is man made, it would appear that climate change deniers are not overwhelmingly scientific. Now, this is quite scary, when, as mentioned in the article: “authors of successful books critiquing climate science often come to be viewed as “climate experts,” regardless of their academic backgrounds or scientific credentials, and despite the fact that their books are seldom peer reviewed”.

Furthermore, as the title reveals, the article examines the relationship between Climate Change denial books and Conservative Think Tanks (CTT’s). It also looks at the author(s)’ educational credentials and national backgrounds. It does so by reviewing 108 English-language ISBN-coded books, published between 1982 and 2010, which in some form or other “reject evidence that global warming is occurring, that human actions are the predominant cause of global warming, and/or that global warming will have negative impacts on human and natural systems”. The authors conclude that the connection to CTT’s is strong, with 72% of all books being connected either via the publisher or easily verifiable links to the author.

Source: The Guardian via Greenpeace

Source: The Guardian via Greenpeace

The above figure shows how vast sums of money is being channeled from big fossil fuel corporations into climate denial groups. According to the article, the fossil fuel industry as well as other industries and conservative groups have a vested interest in keeping the public confused: “Their major tactic was and continues to be manufacturing uncertainty (…), constantly asserting that the evidence is not sufficient to warrant regulatory action”.

James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren raises similar concerns. This book describes climate science in great detail, presented in a straightforward manner, facilitating a deeper understanding for those without a scientific background. The book portrays the personal struggle of a climate scientist, to be heard by the government administration and general public. When heard, he expresses concern about the uncertainty/confusion tactics employed by the climate change deniers – while research is clear that action needs to be taken, climate change deniers focus on creating uncertainty around what actions need to be taken and what the exact impact of Co2 and other gases are, thereby muddling policy efforts enough to maintain status quo.

It does appear that those denying the impacts of climate change are less scientific overall than those who advocate policy changes – but because they are backed by huge corporations (even “green” Google“) and think tanks, they still take up a lot of media space. Read the article mentioned above if you’re interested in exploring the connections further 🙂

Image source: RTCC, Paul Chappatte (First Published: World Meteorological Organisation Calendar)

on 14 Jun, 10:41

Shout out to the Climate Sceptics

Shout out to the Climate Sceptics
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We all know them. That one guy at the office who thinks it’s all a conspiracy. The uncle who thinks it is something hippies came up with to bug him. The acquaintance who insists that we can’t do anything about it anyway. And even the well educated roommate who refuses to listen to scientific evidence.

Even though, according to NASA, 97% of scientists agree that the human population has had a hand in climate warming activities over the past century. Even though the United Nations recognises climate change to be the most important environmental problem facing the globe. Even though the World Trade Organisation has incorporated committees working solely with climate change into its main operations. Even despite all these facts, some people still do not believe that climate change exists or is caused by human actions.

You know, I can understand if you’re heavily invested in the fossil fuels industry. If you’re a Saudi Prince, if you’ve spent your entire life researching how to mine coal in the most cost efficient way possible, if you just happen to have bought a few billion barrels of oil. I can understand that you’d be a bit miffed, that you’d try to fight for what you hold dear. Not that I wouldn’t still try to stop you, but I’d understand. What I don’t understand is why normal people feel the need to stand on their soap box and pretend to be smarter than the vast, vast majority of humans on the globe who want to ensure that all future generations have a planet to enjoy (and that’s not even counting the opinions of dolphins or mice).

Here are a few rebuffs for those folks, taken from these guys here, who have a very detailed argument-for-argument rebuttal section.

 

1. Oh, but some places are actually getting colder! Then it is not global warming, ha!

Well, when we talk about global warming, we talk about an overall long run increase in global temperatures. During this process, the weather in different areas changes drastically – some Northern places may suddenly not get access to the gulf stream, thus making temperatures colder. Some places may suddenly get flooded. Climate change is a more accurate way of describing the phenomenon, but there is no denying the rise in overall temperatures on the planet.

 

2. Alright, well it has all happened before! Greenland was once green, we have had really warm periods before, think about the temperature change between ice ages! That’s nothing compared to now.

Well, actually, the Vikings were a bit stupid – or attempting an early marketing ploy. They told everyone that their newly captured land was nice and green, so that people would be encouraged to settle there. In fact, it wasn’t all that great – and the ice caps covering 80% of Greenland’s surface clearly show signs of having been around for a while (read: hundreds of thousands of years).

Yes, there have been warm periods, yes, there have been ice ages, but if you look at the trends, the earth should actually be cooling at the moment, something that it is in fact not doing at all.

 

3. Well, who says CO2 has anything to do with that rise, really? The sun is changing and going through stages too!

Well, a lot of evidence most certainly points in that direction. Sophisticated models have proven the link between rising temperatures and CO2, and no, we cannot accurately predict everything. Prediction is not an accurate science. But when a lot of evidence points in that direction, would it then not be wise to listen to it?

 

And no, the sun did not cause the increase in global warmth. No significant increase in solar radiation has been observed since the 1940ies. This does not explain the increase in global warming after that decade. This chart shows climate change attributed to the sun, the ozone, volcanic activity and greenhouse gases respectively. Here is also an interesting discussion on water vapour and how climate sceptics use it as an argument against conclusions of climate change.

 

4. Fine, it’s happening, but it has nothing to do with humans! What we emit is nothing in the big picture.

Yes, it is true that nature emits carbon too. But nature also takes carbon away. We may not produce that much carbon and other greenhouse gases in the big picture, but we have destroyed the balance between emitting and taking away.

So if you only look at numbers, then yes – it doesn’t look like that much – but it is significantly more than what the earth can absorb. We are severely disrupting the natural balance of the planet, not only through what we emit but through deforestation and actively destroying the planet’s ability to compensate for the CO2 emitted. So really, we are destroying both sides of the equation. Added to that argument, carbon trends (even in the most volcanic areas) are steadily rising, and not showing any signs of spiking after volcanic eruptions.

 

5. No matter what you say, there’s nothing we can do about it. Mitigating climate change could lead to an economic disaster for the planet, and besides, you and I can’t control what India, China and the US are doing.

Let’s leave aside for a minute the fact that hunger, loss of costal cities, extinction of species, drying waterways, melting polar caps, flooding and other consequences don’t exactly sound like fun. If we did consider this dreary scenario, we could ask “can we really afford not to?”. But let’s stick to pure economics for a bit.

Any economics textbook for beginners would tell you that economic conflict arises because human wants are infinite but resources are scarce. The science of economics therefore works with ways to optimise scarce resources and get the most out of our planet. Alright, so not using fossil fuels would destroy our current economic system of consume and throw away? Let’s again leave aside the fact that the consumerist product cycle is unsustainable in itself. Oil, Coal and all the other resources that we are taking out of the ground are finite resources. They are not always going to be there. Will it cause problems in our societies to change to sustainable power sources and a system based on recycling? Some people would certainly have to change positions, some industries would most definitely lose a lot of money and their livelihood, no doubt about that. But what will these people do when the finite resources run out anyway? Switching early prevents the same economic disaster from happening in the future.

And no, there is no way for you and I to control what the governments of large nations are doing. But if we keep silent on climate change, if we keep pretending like it doesn’t exist, if we keep letting our uncles and acquaintances lull us into the assurance that it is all a hoax and our descendants and future generations will take care of it with new fancy innovations, then we certainly will not make a difference at all. Only if we, the global masses who want the best for our planet, stand together and ask for change, only then will it happen.

Welcome to MESYM!
Connecting the green dots

MESYM.com is a crowd-sourced platform and a living database for environmental movements in Malaysia. There are many good actions being done out there. Our goal is to bring them together. We connect the green dots.