The Casual Blog

Tag: Jane Goodall

Growing plants, and hopefully, fixing our food system

It’s been hot here in Raleigh, though we haven’t been having massive fires, storms, droughts, or floods, unlike some others.  For this I’m grateful, but the heat and humidity have kept me inside more than usual.  I did get up to Raulston Arboretum one afternoon, and was happy to see these flowers and insects. 

Happily, it’s peach season here, and I got some peaches at the State Farmer’s Market.  It was good seeing the farmers and their good looking fruits and vegetables.  The peaches were juicy and quite delicious.

Getting satisfying, nourishing food doesn’t have to be complicated, but in fact, for many, it’s not happening.  Eating well is surely the most important thing we as individuals can do for our health, and irresponsible food production is among the worst things we as a society do to the planet.  But with so many other problems to worry about, food usually doesn’t get much attention.

So I was pleased this week to see a major new report from the Rockefeller Foundation titled True Cost of Food:  Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System.  The Rockefeller report takes a wide-angle view of the costs and benefits of the food system as it stands, and how it could be improved.  

The report makes clear that the existing system does a poor job in providing healthy and affordable food, but also fails in other key respects — providing unlivable wages, unsafe working conditions, inequitable treatment of minority communities, wasting natural resources, hastening climate change, and hurting biodiversity.

The Rockefeller researchers found that the out-of-pocket cost Americans pay for food is about a third of the true cost.  That is, we spend $1.1 trillion a year directly on food.  But the true cost of our food comes to at least $3.2 trillion, once we take account of rising health care costs caused by our food, low wages and lack of benefits, the system’s contribution to climate change and pollution, water and land degradation, and other losses.  

The total costs just from diet-related conditions and diseases, including health care for obesity, hypertension, cancer, and diabetes, cost us $1.145 trillion — that is, considerably more than the out-of-pocket cost of our food. 

The Rockefeller report effectively brings into view some of the worst problems of our food system, but, as it acknowledges, it does not account for a number of other costs, like impaired military readiness, poor mental health, and lower educational achievement.  It also leaves out the cost of animal suffering, which, it says, could not be monetized.  

This is worth discussing more.  According to the report, more than 10 billion farm animals are killed each year for food.  It’s possible to think about this suffering not just in ethical terms, but in monetary terms.  For example, for governmental purposes, officials calculate the value of human lives at around $10 million a piece.  

If we valued animal suffering at much less — say, .001 percent of a human life for the suffering of a cow, pig, or chicken — the total yearly cost of suffering for each executed animal would be $100.  By this measure, the total annual cost of all the animal suffering caused by our food system would be an additional $1 trillion.  

However you decide to do the math, our food system causes enormous animal suffering.  Faced with the scale of such a horror, it’s easy to lose heart, but the Rockefeller report also reminds us that there are viable ways to start remediation.  One is, as it politely puts it, “decreasing animal protein consumption.”    

On another hopeful note, there were a couple of worthwhile interviews last week with one of my heroes, Jane Goodall. Goodall, now 87, started her career as a primatologist, making pioneering discoveries about the intellectual abilities and social organizations of chimps which ran contrary to what most scientists then believed.  She helped change the boundaries of our thinking about the intelligence and emotional lives of these and other animals, helping us understand that they are not as different from us as we’d thought. There’s a Vox interview in which she talks about some of this here, and a NY Times interview here. I

In recent years her work has focused on conservation efforts.  As much as anyone, she understands the dire environmental situation that all living beings now face as a result of human activity.  Yet she refuses to give up hope.  That’s now a big part of her message: we’re running out of time, but there’s still time for us to make a difference. She has a new book coming out in the fall, and has no plans to retire.  

Our 36th anniversary, Jane, nature photography, and a hopeful suicide

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At Grandfather Mountain last week, with wind and rain

This week Sally and I had our 36th wedding anniversary.  It seems not so long ago that we were feeding each other wedding cake and dancing that first dance, but there it is, a large set of years.  I feel extremely grateful for our happy marriage. We had a celebratory dinner at Vidrio, a wonderful restaurant in our neighborhood, where we shared the delicious burrata, green chickpea hummus, mushroom polenta, black rice risotto, and roasted cauliflower socca.

On Saturday night we had Sally’s spaghetti with red pepper sauce and watched Jane, a new documentary about Jane Goodall, on Amazon Prime.  Goodall is most famous for her groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. Until I saw the documentary, I hadn’t appreciated how remarkable her achievement was:  being the first known human to closely observe our closest primate cousins in the wild, and then overturn much of the conventional wisdom about them. It took amazing courage, originality, and empathy.   The documentary was really beautiful and moving, with video of the young Jane almost alone in the jungle with the chimpanzees who could easily have killed her, but accepted her. I highly recommend it.

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Speaking of nature photography, last weekend I went to western North Carolina for the Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend.  The weather was  very windy and rainy at times, and so I didn’t do as much hiking about and photographing as I’d hoped.  But the program included lectures by some very accomplished photographers, who had inspiring images and intriguing ideas. I photographed some raptors that had been injured and taken into an education program, and saw the bears and other animals at the relatively benign zoo.  

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This was my second year at the conference.  I got a lot out of it last year, but kept mostly to myself.  I don’t mind making small talk, which can sometimes lead to larger talk, but I don’t find it easy to start a conversation with a stranger, and I also don’t particularly mind not talking.  But this year I made a point to speak to those who sat next to me, and was glad I made an effort. I had several enjoyable chats about cameras, lenses, processing software, good spots for shooting wildflowers, and other matters of interest to fellow photog nerds.  

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A red tailed hawk

I enjoy the gear-head aspects of nature photography, but the more fundamental and rewarding part of the experience is nature.  The camera gets me outdoors and looking hard at the non-human world. There are times I just take the gear out in the woods and walk, and end up not taking any pictures, without feeling disappointed.  The natural world is rewarding in and of itself.  It is also in many places and ways at risk of destruction by humans.  It needs our support and attention.  

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A screech owl

A few weeks ago, a non-famous guy of about my age named David Buckel burned himself to death in Brooklyn as an environmental protest, like the Buddhist monks who opposed the Vietnam war.  Buckel was deeply worried about the harm that humans are doing to the planet, and his disturbing act was apparently intended to communicate that.  

Annie Correal wrote a long piece in the New York Times about Buckel that referred to a lengthy suicide letter that he sent to the Times.  I sent her an email of appreciation, and also asked if she could let me have access to his entire message. She said the Times had a policy against that, and I didn’t manage to persuade her to make an exception.

So, except for the few journalists who got to see Buckel’s letter, we don’t know the details of what he intended to express. But it seems clear that he felt a sense of desperation at our heedlessness in the face of climate change and other environmental misdeeds, and wanted to make us address those issues.  He must have also had a sense of hope, or he wouldn’t have bothered to raise the environmental issues as he sacrificed his life.  It’s a sad and shocking thing that he did, but perhaps his death will have resonance.

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