Eat, but don’t waste
Let us all ponder over the theme of this year’s Environment Day
ER. MOHAMMAD ASHRAF FAZILI
Climate and environment are the world’s great chefs, giving Mexico its tortillas, Greece its goats milk, cheese; China its pork spareribs and Japan its seafood dishes. And it is regional variations in these two factors that strongly influence what is raised where.
The world’s three main cereals are wheat, corn and rice, each of which has its special needs. Wheat is a crop of the temperate prairies and will tolerate very cold winters. Corn is vulnerable to frost and is therefore confined to a warmer climate band. And rice favors the special combination of warmth and copious rainfall that is found especially in monsoon zones.
Grain constitutes about half of the world’s food production by weight, but similar factors associate other crops with particular environments: for example, grapes with Mediterranean climates and the potato with dull, cloudy skies and clammy soils.
There are vast expanses of desert and bleak uplands whose lean and rocky soils support little more than coarse grasses. Since the human stomach cannot digest grass, it is the livestock here in particular the sheep and the goats- that act as our food converters, yielding meat, milk and cheese.
Cattle can be raised in a temperate band stretching from the edge of the Sahara to the margins of the Arctic Circle. But cattle, like sheep are ruminant’s digestive system calls for a diet chiefly of grass and which require wide grazing area. These are an inefficient food resource for the world’s overpopulated regions and due to vulnerability to the tsetse fly, are especially scarce in the humid tropics. China is the main producer of pork yielding nearly 40 percent of the global total.
Fish like all other food-stuffs, display preferences for habitat. Cod favors the cold waters of the North Atlantic, while tuna prefer warmer seas; flatfish, such as halibut feed on the seabed, while herring cruise close to the surface. The principal fishing grounds are all in coastal zones where nutrients, leached from the land, mix with the rich sediment that is swept up from the sea floor by ocean currents and offshore winds. These waters comprise our teeming marine meadow lands, thick with tiny plankton supporting larger organisms that are, in turn, consumed by shoaling fish. In total the earth’s fishing fleets bring in some 68 million tons a year. Japan, with its intricate network of islands, has an ancient fishing tradition and remains the largest single harvester of the sea.
AVAILABILITY AND FAMINES
If the global harvests were shared out equally, each person could receive 5lbs. (2.3 kgs.) of food per day. Hunger need never be with us.
The reason why famines still take their terrible toll has more to do with the complexities of politics, economics, storage and distribution than with the physical capacity of the earth itself. The planet is fertile. Science has opened up new possibilities. And, in the opinion of many experts the age old scourge of hunger could with global cooperation, be eradicated in the near future.
To meet future needs, we can colonize the world’s inhabitable areas. The earth’s total cultivable land is some 7.9 billion acres, of which less than half is currently being farmed. Although the remainder may be harsh or inaccessible terrain, we have the means to drain swamps, plant hillsides and bring deserts into bloom.
One short term response to starvation in the third world is to transport surplus food from where it is stockpiled to where it is needed. The biggest grain exporters are USA, Canada, Australia and Argentina. Thanks to the green revolution, India, Thailand, Burma and Surinam can now be added to the list of smaller net exporters. Many others for example Mexico and the Soviet Republics would be the net grain exporters but for the demands of live stock, which now consume more grain than grass.
Lakhs of animals are slaughtered on Id-uz-zuha in Haj pilgrimage, only a small part of which would be distributed in earlier days and the rest bull-dozed into the ground, but now it has been made possible to dispatch the surplus meat to starving countries.
In the long term, however the transporting of surplus food does nothing to help farmers in poor countries to produce more. Indeed, pouring cheap food into third world can lower prices there so much that local farmers are put out of business. Except in emergencies, perhaps what poor countries need most is appropriate technology, transport facilities, education and better administration.
One global measure of food production is provided by the average number of calories supplied by the agriculture of different countries. How many calories an individual actually needs depend on his or her body weight, type of activity and the environmental temperature. Accounting for these variables, the FAO of UN estimates the average daily needs of a person in Finland, where a relatively old population lives in a tropical climate; the average is 2,160 calories per day. One must eat what he needs and overeating leads to obesity and other resultant diseases, besides wastage of food.
Wastage of food is prohibited by all. The Holy Quran says: “Kulu Washrabu Wala Tusrifu”- You may eat and drink but do not cross the limits. A Hakim from Syria stayed for six months in Madina at the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBH), but had to leave as no patient visited him. On enquiry, he was told that people fill a third of their stomach with solid food and a third with liquid and leave a third empty. The Hakim concluded that most of the diseases are stomach related, hence the result. Besides there are many instances, when people served the needy and themselves preferred to go hungry.
Here is a lesson for us not to serve excessive food with meat in wazwan resulting into waste that could feed many more starving people. In olden days, sharing food on a plate by four people served with just seven preparations of meat/vegetables with no wastage, but the today’s extravagance with over 20 preparations of meat and chicken has made it a curse in these hard times. The height of things is that we indulge and participate with great interest in these extravagant functions yet simultaneously lamenting while sharing the wazwan. In this behalf the procedure adopted by Arabs and South Indians is preferable, when they gather around a huge plate full of Biryani etc, and pour their desirable share in their respective plates causing zero wastage. Many people are shifting to buffet service now in Kashmir too which eliminates wastage.
Author is Retd. Chief Engineer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org