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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Food Sustainability, Business and Earth Day

During Lent, my home parish, St. Ann & the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, New York, studied food sustainability.  Guest preachers, a book group[1], a tour of a museum exhibit[2] and even a cooking class conducted by two vestrymembers taught us about honoring creation, urban farming and serving locally produced foods.  One lasting feature of these events is Sandwich Sundays, for which parishioners make and contribute bunches of simple sandwiches for the benefit of a homeless drop-in center elsewhere in Brooklyn.

This year, then, these notions make a quite suitable theme for Ways of the World for Earth Day.  It was all new territory for this retired Wall Street economist, but as we googled and browsed, we made a connection: investing in nature.  Growing vegetables on the roof of an apartment building and shopping for organically produced foods are important for individuals.  But to feed the world's 7 billion people, we still need the mass-production efforts of big business and industrial agriculture.  What's important, we learned in our recent studying, is adapting mass production methods in ways that support nature, not erode it.  Business can indeed "invest in nature" and even build "green infrastructure" in the place of "gray infrastructure".

There is a brand new book (publication date: April 9) about all this, Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, by Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams[3].  Tercek is president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy[4], a major nonprofit that works on land and water issues.  He went there from Goldman Sachs, where he had been an investment banker for some 24 years.  The promotional endorsements on the dust jacket thus come from such diverse personalities as Bill Clinton; Henry Paulson, former chair of Goldman and Treasury Secretary in the Bush Administration; and Andrew Liveris, Chair of Dow Chemical; as well as noted biographer Walter Isaacson, who is also CEO of the Aspen Institute; and sociobiologist E.O. Wilson.  Co-author Adams is a science writer and conservation biologist.  The book's proceeds all go to The Nature Conservancy.

Nature's Fortune covers issues of water, agriculture and climate change.  Here are two topics concerning sustainable food production and big business.

Coke and the Water Supply in India
First, Ways of the World hasn't talked to you about water, and we need to do that more thoroughly.  For the moment, just one example.  It takes a lot more than 1 liter of water to make 1 liter of Coke.  A lot more.  In addition to the beverage, 1 liter is used in producing the Coke, 10 liters in making the plastic bottle and 200 liters of water in growing the sugar.  In 1999, a Coke bottling plant opened in the State of Kerala, India.  In just five years, the water wells there dried up and farmers were unable to irrigate their crops.  While there turned out to be several reasons for the water shortage, outcry from the local community forced the company to close the plant.  It later reopened, but Coke and other beverage companies in India and basically everywhere else came to understand their relations with water supplies.  Coke began efforts to restore the water it uses there and elsewhere; Coke began to "invest in nature".

Chicken McNuggets and Amazon Deforestation
Second, we also learned in Nature's Fortune about the global importance of the Amazon rainforest.  We'd heard this concern but hadn't understood how great the stakes are:  those trees pull water up from deep in the ground and pump it into the sky.  The forest contributes 8 trillion tons of water to the atmosphere every year and much of that water vapor circulates around the world (page 90).  So as farming has expanded in Brazil and farmers have cut trees down, the consequences are vast.  One key incident of deforestation also involves the global reach of the food supply chains.

Among other crops, Brazilian farmers grow soybeans and demand for them has increased greatly in recent years.  Grain dealer Cargill (an American company) built a deep-water shipping terminal on the Amazon River in 1999.  There hadn't been much farming in that specific region, but the installation of the transportation center spurred big growth.  Consequently, rates of deforestation doubled in just four years.  Cargill buys soybeans from the farmers and sells them in particular to farmers in the UK who raise chickens; those chickens in turn are used to produce the Chicken McNuggets sold by McDonald's in the UK.  In 2006, Greenpeace issued a report about this, and their publicity included Ronald McDonald with a chain saw, cutting down trees in Brazil.

McDonald's could have barked back, issuing some tirade about Greenpeace, and then tried to go on about their business.  But they realized both that the bad publicity would only get worse and also that they really should do something about the problem itself, in order to preserve the food supply for their own product.  So they began to work with Greenpeace and with Cargill.  McDonald's and Cargill announced they would not buy soybeans grown on land cleared after 2006 and Cargill installed a satellite monitoring system to keep track of the origin of the soybean shipments.  Deforestation continues, but rates have dropped back dramatically since this policy change by the companies.

The Role of Business in Environmental Progress
Tercek points out that business is a key link in policy chains like these.  Individual farmers or individual consumers  may be hard for policymakers and advocates to reach in sufficient numbers.  But businesses are the implementing agents in producing and distributing goods and services.  Working with them is the most effective way of effecting the desired change.  Further, it doesn't help at all to work against businesses.  "…what if, instead of saying no, environmentalists ask 'How?'" Tercek suggests (page 166).  We'll continue with more on all this in other sectors.  We have to share some of the story, for instance, of Dow Chemical building a wetland in Texas.  Yes, you read that sentence correctly.  Today we talked about food and there's more to that story too.  Tercek talks favorably about GMOs – genetically modified organisms – which many commentators love to hate.  But GMOs increase production at a time when millions more people need to be able to get more food; GMOs represent a technical answer to that issue and we have to figure out the most equitable way to foster their use.  Altogether, there is progress to report on Earth Day and the ways forward are multiplying.  Now, go have a Coke and some Chicken McNuggets and know they are produced with more care for the Earth than ever!
[1] Sara Miles.  Take This Bread.  New York: Random House Publishing Group. 2008.

[2]"Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture." New York: American Museum of Natural History.  Through August 11, 2013.

[3]Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams. Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.  New York: Basic Books. 2013.  Available from The Nature Conservancy as well as book stores and online.

[4]The Nature Conservancy:

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