World Environment Day 2013

May 22, 2013

Bismillah – hey – Rahman – ur – Rehim,

Salaam va Sobhe be kheyr.

Dr. Nabi, Chair of the Environmental Department of the University of Tehran,

Distinguished Faculty Members

Students and Leaders of the future

Members of the NGO community who serve the cause of environmental protection so well,

Our colleagues from the Media,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to be here in one of the oldest universities of Iran.  And thank you for the opportunity to speak with senior academics and students – for whom the environmental challenges to our planet are of uppermost concern.

I will come straight to the point.  The pressures on our planet are enormous.  Ever larger numbers of people are consuming the earth’s resources.  As we consume, we produce more and more carbon emissions.  As our planet warms, we face more extreme weather – more water shortages – more acidified oceans – more deforestation – and more desertification. 

Solutions to our global challenge will be found in action – yes.  But inspired, insightful and evidence-based action must first be based on deliberate, far-sighted reflection and thinking.  This is where academia is crucial. 

And for this reason, I am grateful to have the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you this morning.  Yours will be the voices and the minds which will help fix what we have broken.

Today we celebrate World Environment Day – albeit a few days in advance of its formal observance.  On this day – each year – we commemorate the fact that we are alive because our planet is supporting us.  This year’s theme is: Think.  Eat.  Save.  Reduce Your Foodprint.”

So most of the rest of what I have to say today will be about how we feed ourselves.

According to some estimates, our resource drain today on Planet Earth is almost 1.5 times more than its carrying capacity.  As we are all well aware, this footprint has been growing rapidly because of two main factors.  The first is population pressure.  The second is our lifestyle.

The world’s population stands today at 7 billion.  By the year 2050 it may rise to more than 9 billion.  This means greater pressure on already crowded cities – cities where more than half of all people now live.  It means greater pressure on natural resources, because demand for food, water and energy is rising.

We live in a world of plenty, where food production outstrips demand, yet some 870 million people are undernourished.  Childhood stunting is a silent pandemic.  Therefore, to create the future we want, we must correct this injustice.

One way to narrow the hunger-gap – one way to improve the well-being of the most vulnerable is to address the massive loss and waste in today’s food systems.  Currently at least one third of all food produced fails to make it from farm to table.  And what makes it to the table is not always eaten.  This is an affront to those who go to bed every night hungry.  But it is also a massive environmental cost in terms of energy, land and water.

We should remember that the global food production accounts for 25% of all habitable land.  It is responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption, 80% of deforestation, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.  It is the largest single driver of biodiversity loss.  So, reducing food waste would not only cut world hunger.  It will also contribute to environmental conservation.

So food loss and waste is something we all need to address.  Infrastructure and technology can reduce the amount of food that perishes after it is harvested and before it reaches the market.  Developing country governments can work to improve essential infrastructure and maximize trade opportunities with their neighbours.  Developed nations can support fair trade and rationalize sell-by dates and other labeling.  Businesses can revise their criteria for rejecting produce.  And consumers can minimize waste by buying only what they need and re-using left-over food. 

We must change our lifestyles.  All actors in the global food chain must take responsibility for environmentally-sustainable and socially-equitable food systems.  As I have said, the current global population of 7 billion is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050.  But the number of hungry people need not increase.  If we reduce food waste, we can save money.  And we can minimize impact on the environment.  Most importantly, we can move towards a world where everyone has enough to eat.

I was listening a few moments ago to Mr. Elhami’s description of how to protect our environment by citing words from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.  Mr. Elhami is indeed an expert in reciting great works of poetry including those which celebrate biodiversity – such epics as the Golestaneh and Bustaneh of Sa’adi.  Although I am only 6 weeks in your beautiful country and do not know well your poetic language – Farsi – I would like to offer an imaginary perspective from another one of your heroes.  This is someone whom I read about as a boy – Kourosh [Cyrus the Great].  To me he is a great hero, a great leader, and a great human being.

In the story, Kourosh is at the end of his life.  He is looking back.  He has unified his great empire.  He has taken Babylon.  He is seen as a just and honourable ruler.  And now he reflects on what is good in life and what matters.  He speaks of the need for moderation.  For never succumbing to gluttony.  For exercising restraint so that one can savour – fully – what life has to offer.  Including food.

I somehow think that if he were alive today – and if he was seeing what our eyes are  seeing – he might utter the words of our theme:

Think.  Eat.  Save.  Reduce Your Foodprint.”

Moteshakeram – and thank you all.

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