What we Eat vs. How we Cook it: A Report from the Field

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Climate Healers‘ mission is to facilitate reforestation around the world so that carbon cycle imbalances due to human activities can be reversed.  The ultimate objective is to draw down the Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere to levels conducive to the well-being of ecosystems and therefore, human beings, around the world. Reforestation is the primary means available to achieve this carbon draw down, as it is estimated that even if humans stopped deforesting today, half the anthropogenic carbon emissions would be soaked up by recovering forests. However, after nearly five years of field work and research, we have to reluctantly conclude that the primary method by which we planned to achieve this objective is inadequate.

The primary method that Climate Healers chose was to intervene and change how people cook in low income neighborhoods throughout the world. We wanted to provide them with solar cook stoves so that they wouldn’t have to burn firewood for cooking their meals. However, it turns out that it is far more important to change what people eat than how they cook their food. And the trends in what people eat on a world-wide basis are very high in terms of CO2 emissions and these trends are dwarfing any benefits that could have been achieved by changing how people cook their food, even if we had been wildly successful, which we weren’t.

Two years ago, we deployed the Namaste solar cook stove in the villages of Karech in Rajasthan, India and Hadagori in Orissa, India, on a pilot basis. After the initial enthusiasm and wonder over the ability of concentrated solar energy to cook the thick corn rotis in Rajasthan and to boil rice in Orissa, the villagers essentially reverted to their traditional three-stone wood fires mainly because the Namaste cook stove was unable to operate when the villagers wanted to cook, at night and early in the morning. Since then, we have worked with universities around the world, especially with three batches of incredibly hard-working and amazing senior Mechanical Engineering students at the University of Iowa under the guidance of Prof. H-S. Udaykumar, on a Stored Energy Solar Cook stove solution that is more in tune with the requirements of the villagers. Despite their best efforts at engineering a viable solution, it is our assessment that the deployment of stored energy solar cook stoves, even on a pilot basis, is at least a year out. Meanwhile, it is becoming apparent that the impact of our cook stove intervention will most certainly be overshadowed by the world wide trend towards the increased consumption of animal foods such as dairy, eggs, fish and meat.

Cultural shifts are difficult to accomplish and this is proving to be the case in terms of changing how people cook. Facilitating a shift from the traditional three-stone wood fires to efficient wood-burning cook stoves is proving to be difficult, even when the advantages of such a shift is spelled out to the users. Such a shift saves half the firewood while reducing the inhalation of unwanted noxious industrial chemicals that are now deeply embedded in most firewood around the world and yet, the experience of such interventions has been mixed at best. The cost, convenience and inherent robustness of the traditional three-stone wood fire seems to win out among the users over such  advantages. A case in point is described in the Stanford Woods Institute intervention in Bangladesh which showed uptakes in the single digit percentage range even when the cook stoves were subsidized and priced at $10. Likewise, the efficient cook stove uptake is languishing in the single digit percentages in the early stages of an intervention in Gujarat, India. In conjunction with Indians for Collective Action (ICA), Climate Healers has been assisting a grassroots organization with implementing a Quality Assurance process for their solar light and cook stove project and we hope that the cook stove uptake rate does improve over time. Judging from the Stanford experience, perhaps, cook stove subsidies need to be greater than the cost of the stove so that the user essentially gets paid a small stipend for using the stove, but it probably doesn’t matter much if the present worldwide trend towards the increased consumption of animal foods persists.

No doubt, cultural shifts are just as difficult to accomplish in terms of changing what people eat. While plant based foods are becoming increasingly popular in affluent communities in the developed world, more and more people are climbing up the economic ladder and increasing their consumption of animal based foods in the developing world. The giant fast food conglomerates that glamorize the consumption of animal foods are naturally encouraging this burgeoning trend, to compensate for the decline in their markets in the increasingly health-conscious, obesity ridden, developed world. Overall, the world wide consumption of animal based foods has increased in tonnage by over 50% in the past 15 years alone with a doubling rate that is twice as fast as human population growth. Between 1960 to 2000, while human population doubled, the consumption of beef kept pace and doubled, the consumption of milk tripled, that of eggs quadrupled, while chicken consumption shot up eight-fold. This is a very disturbing trend that needs to be arrested if there is any hope of accomplishing our objective of reversing deforestation any time soon.

There are many ways to compare the impact of the two interventions, what we eat vs. how we cook it, to assess their relative efficacies. For instance, the energy required for cooking is a fraction of the total energy utilized by humans for all purposes, and this total is estimated to be around 15 TeraWatts (TW). The solar energy falling on just 0.17% of the land area of the planet suffices to provide that much energy for human consumption, assuming that the energy is collected at a photo-voltaic efficiency of 10%. At a photosynthetic efficiency of 1%, just 1.7% of the land area of the planet would suffice to supply all the energy needs of humanity.

In contrast, approximately 50% of the ice-free land area of the planet[1] is used to grow the food required for human consumption. While 5% of the earth’s ice-free land area is used to grow plant-based foods such as grains, nuts, vegetables and fruits that are consumed directly by humans, 45% of the ice-free land area is used to grow animal based foods such as dairy, eggs and meat. In terms of food calories, the 5% of the land used to grow plant-based foods supplies 80% of the calories, while the 45% of the land used to grow animal-based foods supplies a mere 20% of the calories consumed by humans. Yet, with the relentless growth in the consumption of animal foods, at present, a Florida (Karnataka) sized area of tropical forests is being destroyed every two years, mainly to feed that demand. Half the forests in the world have been destroyed and three-quarters of the marine fisheries around the world have been overfished and destroyed as well, with half this destruction occurring over the past 50 years alone, mainly to support this growing trend. As such, animal-based foods constitute a colossal waste of solar energy as well as the ecological resources of the planet. Reorienting the human diet away from animal foods constitutes the largest opportunity for reforestation efforts to heal the climate and the planet.

In summary, the solar energy falling on 45% of the earth’s ice-free land area is being harnessed to supply a mere 20% of the food calories needed for human consumption in the form of animal foods. If those calories were to be supplied with plant-based foods, over 40% of the ice-free land area of the planet could be returned to Nature, regenerating forests and thus, reversing the carbon cycle imbalances. In contrast, the solar energy falling on just 0.17% (1.7%) of the land area of the planet is sufficient to drive the energy needs, including the cooking energy needs, of the human enterprise, assuming a collection efficiency of 10% (1%). Therefore, it is far more important to use our time and effort to intervene to reduce the consumption of animal foods that is impacting 45% of the land area of the planet than it is to intervene to save on a fraction of the tiny land area of the planet that represents the energy needs of humanity. In both cases, we are seeking cultural changes among a large number of people, but there is much more to be gained in persuading people to change what they cook than in persuading people to change how they cook it.

[1] proportionately extrapolated from Wirsenius’ thesis using International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) land use figures for 2010.


Respectfully Submitted,

Sailesh Rao

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