Food. What in the world is wrong with the food supply?

Food is quite simple stuff. We grow it or we catch it or gather it, we might cook it, and then we eat it. For many of us, food is more about the choices available. What to eat? When to eat? How to eat less? How to eat humanely? How to eat ethically? Are food kilometres important? Paleo? Neo? Vego? Vegan? Ovo-Lacto? Or, perhaps most importantly, which of these questions are important for us and the planet, and which are irrelevant?

First, let me answer your question about the quantity of food. It’s a good question, and the answer isn’t obvious. Is there enough food in the world? The answer is ‘yes’. In fact, so much food is produced that there’s enough to give every person on earth more than twice as many calories as they need. (Each day there are 5,600 calories of food grown per person, whereas adults only need 2,600 calories). Few people are aware of the considerable excess in the food supply. Welcome to an exclusive club of people who know that the world is overloaded with food.

Today, the population is 100% more than it was in the mid 1960s, when the food excess was small. There are three and a half billion extra people now. But over the same period, food energy production has increased by more than 200% (from 24,000 PJ/year to 60,000 PJ/year).  Over the last 40 years,food production has increased at more than twice the rate of population increase. An amazing achievement, and has been achieved in most countries around the globe. Many poor countries have increased their food supply by more than the average.

Currently, there is no shortage of food on earth. In fact, the reverse is true; the food surplus is massive.

 

There’s heaps of food. So, why would I want to write this essay? I invite you to consider the following facts and figures concerning food production, and make up your own mind about the state of the global food supply.

Nobody should be starving, as explained above, but people are starving and people are undernourished – on every continent except Antarctica. In some regions, there are millions of people undernourished. Although we grow 100% more food than we need, about 15% of the population in poor countries don’t receive the food they need. Besides the diversion of food as part of warfare, there are some simple reasons why food does not reach the people who need it.

The map below shows the uneven distribution of food, based on the average daily calorie consumption by country (source: Wikipedia). Yellow is greater than 3000 calories per day (excess), while the dark grey colour is less than 2000 per day (insufficient for adults). Much of the world has either an excess or insufficient supply of calories. South America is the only continent without widespread excess or deficit. Of course, within many countries there are large regional and sociological differences.

Given that there are serious inequities, I want to know the reasons for such strong differences in the food supply. The obvious reason is the main reason – in poor countries food is too expensive to buy. The United Nations have a food price index that shows large increases in recent years (graph below). Conventional economic theory says that when a commodity is in excess supply, the price is very low. Especially if some of the commodity has low quality, in which case the price is expected to be very low. This hasn’t happened for food, because the economics of the food supply are subverted by wealthy consumers.

Food is now too expensive because food prices have been globalised. The prices have been maximised globally because food is sent to wealthy people if wealthy people will pay more for it. Whether they eat it or not. If the oil price goes up, corn can be cheaply converted to ethanol, and the corn will fuel a car instead of feeding hungry people. Undeniably, the “highest bidder eats” model has been the one that the world has increasingly adopted for several decades now. In recent years, the concept has expanded so that the highest bidder also gets the automotive fuel and oil, while the poor are undernourished. Unfortunately, governments around the world are opening up global markets rather than asking whether these open global markets cause harm to poor people.

Within countries there are also open markets working against a more equal distribution of food. With increasing urbanisation of traditionally agriculture-based populations in China, India and other countries, the connection between people and food growers has been getting weaker for several decades. More of the remaining farmers are growing and selling crops for cash rather than keeping crops for their own use. For some people, cash is more difficult to store for a bad season than food. The immediacy of cash puts farmers on a treadmill of producing bulk commodities instead of producing food for local consumption. The economics of food supplies are complex, and I don’t claim to be an expert, but long-distance transport of food, and the trend towards cash crops is having consequences for many people. 

While mentioning food kilometres, there is a lot of conflicting information out there, and it seems difficult to work out whether it is a big problem. Here’s your answer. Although all emissions are a problem, food kilometres are only about 4% of greenhouse emissions from the food industries. A high proportion of that 4% occurs from market to home, because only a small amount of food is moved in a typical car trip from the market to home. This is by far the least efficient part of the journey, emitting up to 100 times as much per food kilometer as long-distance transport by truck. Sea transport has exceptionally low emissions per kilometer and per kilo – so the food kilometres in sea-transported bulk commodities (such as grain, coffee, tinned veges) have very low emissions. And, of course, purchasing food from low-income countries, via a FairTrade system, may have preferred ethical connotations than purchasing from other sources.

Wasting food

Perhaps the most baffling and worrying aspect of food supply is food waste. The photo below shows good, but imperfect, oranges in California being dumped into landfill (photo from the USDA). Nothing unusual here – it happens to usable food by the thousands of tonnes every day, and in most countries.

One third of food is wasted before it gets to the consumer. This is not a simply a problem of rich countries, where food choices concerning unnecessary standards and the demands of continuous access lead to waste. In India, with its hungry millions, about one third of food is wasted before reaching the consumer, according to a recent statement by India’s Minister for Agriculture and Food Manufacturing Industries. 

Grains are some of the most nutritious foods available, and produced in vast amounts, so anything that affects grain production and use has a huge influence on food supply. Unfortunately, a great deal of waste occurs during grain harvest, preparation for storage, and storage. For example, if grains aren’t dry when stored, they are prone to moulds and mildews and quickly become inedible. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granary explains some of the details. Recently, in Vietnam, I saw many people using concrete and bitumen and gravel roads to dry rice. The warmth of the road and the wind from the traffic was helping, but it was lightly raining, and it seemed that the produce would go to waste. Simple driers such as dark-coloured tarpaulins (solar powered!) would help so much in these situations.

 

Photo of grain stores in West Java, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The misuse of human food

Another major issue is that one third of grain production is used to feed livestock. That’s one third of what isn’t wasted in harvest and storage. Basically, animals are fed grains that are energy dense, and therefore grows more meat per kg, and low in fibre, so animals can eat more kg of feed. This creates more fat, less sinew and more favourable flavours in the meat. This is unheathy for consumers, but it is what the food supply chain and many consumers are currently demanding. 

Cows, goats, sheep and other herbivores used to be fed grass and clover and brush. Pigs and chickens were fed food scraps and some spoilt grain. Animal growth rates were slower. The meat might have been tougher, and the taste might have been stronger. The meat was from older animals that used their muscles for walking around to get food and water. Was it so bad? I don’t believe it was. Was it more efficient? In terms of the area used and time needed to produce meat, it IS inefficient. But in just about every other way that you can measure it, the grass and scrap-fed animal production systems are wonderfully efficient. Pastures grow from good soil, sun and rain. Food waste wasn’t wasted – and cmost of it is still valuable stock feed. That photo of Californian oranges? Mixed with a few other things, they could feed some very happy cows, chooks and pigs. Except for the chicken because they don’t have teeth. But they DO like an orange.

One of the main concerns over feeding food scaps to livestock is that diseases might be transferred around the food chain in a cycle, building to an epidemic in either the animals or in humans. However, some countries have legislated to allow food waste as a feed for livestock, choosing instead to treat feed or quarantine certain high risk feeds. Treatment of scraps, for example by pasteurization, may be sufficient to kill a wide range of pathogenic organisms. It works for humans who like milk.

The options needed for reducing the consumption of human food by animals are already available

 

A feedlot in Texas for fattening beef cattle. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Waste by consumers like you and I is a large problem, not a little one. Many consumers purchase their food at irregular intervals, and rely on storage in refrigerators and cupboards. A trend in some countries towards fresh food over canned and frozen food has increased the difficulties for many people in maintaining food quality in the time between purchase and consumption. Commercial food manufacturers and sellers are famous for their wastage – especially those who rely on high quality ingredients and a very high standard of food aesthetics. Restaurants in particular. Every restaurant is a food waste nightmare. It has been estimated that food wastage from western restaurants ranges from one quarter to one half of the food purchased.

Food loss and waste per person and year Total Production and retail  By consumers 
Europe 280 kg 190 kg    90 kg
North America and Oceania 295 kg 185 kg 110 kg
Industrialized Asia 240 kg 160 kg   80 kg
sub-Saharan Africa 160 kg 155 kg     5 kg
North Africa, West and Central Asia 215 kg 180 kg   35 kg
South and Southeast Asia 125 kg 110 kg   15 kg
Latin America 225 kg 200 kg   25 kg

Table courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_waste#Retail). 

So that’s the story of producing, but then wasting food. 

The environmental and ecological costs of food

The environmental cost of food production, distribution and consumption goes largely unnoticed. Why? I don’t know. Farming and grazing have been the main causes of plant and animal extinctions for a long time. Just in case you skimmed over it, and to make it clearer – Farming and grazing for the last few hundred years have been the largest causes of plant and animal extinctions in the last 64 million years on the Earth.

In this discussion of environment and ecology, I’m not focussing on genetic modification, or animal cruelty, or extreme examples of land contamination, or acute or chronic effects of pesticides on people. In my opinion, virtually 100% of the harm has been caused by the ‘normal’, uncomplicated farming of the land that has been going on for decades, using familiar technology, such as a tractor (or horses or a water buffalo), a plough (plow in the US), and something to harvest the crop. If you are wondering how growing a crop by ploughing the land and planting some seeds could destroy land and water and drive species to extinction, I have a whole lot of news for you.

Conventional tillage in preparation for planting (source: Wikipedia). Note the lack of forest cover in general, and minimal plant and animal biodiversity in the cultivated field. The purpose of ploughing is to kill all plant life.

I’ll start the next bit with a story. A BIG story. From space, astronauts can only see really big things. The Sahara desert. The Great Barrier Reef. The River Nile. But astronauts can see the rabbit proof fence. Not the fence itself, but the difference between the land on each side of the fence. If you’re not from Australia, you probably haven’t heard of the fence, despite the fact it’s easily the biggest fence in the world. It was built in the middle of Australia to stop rabbits spreading from the east to the west. Rabbits were grazing out land and reaching plague proportions in the south-east. To protect the southwest, a fence was built and maintained, and it kept out the rabbits. Free from the destruction of rabbits, farmers brought in more grazing animals, and in some places cultivated right up to the western side of the fence. The sheep and cattle grew fat, and many bags were filled with wheat.

Photo of the rabbit-proof fence. It is the longest fence in the world.

From space, astronauts report big differences between the eastern (rabbit ridden) side of the fence and the western side (grazed). The western side is brown and bare. In some places there are saline seeps where there were none before. Fencing the pastoralists and agriculturists out of the east side of the fence has protected the environment on the eastern side of the fence. 

In Eastern Australia, in New South Wales, the Soil Conservation Service estimate that 25% of previously farmed land is now unusable. That’s a few million hectares of damage. How much land has gone from productive cropping land to uncropable in Australia? More land than is is presently cropped in England. We’ve lost more than England has. Worldwide, this is a huge problem. Farming is by far the greatest cause of land degradation and future losses of food production. 

Global, regional and local environments are affected by agriculture and food production. Many of the problems arise from the simple fact that increased plant and animal production comes mainly from land clearing, the conversion of pasture land to cropping land, and increased intensity of operations on farms. These three things share something besides producing extra food. They produce serious amounts of pollution. In the discussion below, I’ll concentrate only on the few problems that are in my area of expertise (as a scientist).

1. When pasture and forests are cleared for farming, much of their stored carbon is converted to carbondioxide, and contributes to greenhouse warming and ocean acidification. Farming usually begins on fertile soils, covered in forest or woodland (trees and grass), which is cleared and cropped. In some cases the organic matter in the vegetation is burnt, with a dramatic release of thousands of tonnes of carbondioxide per square kilometre. However, the end result is generally the same as for burning when the soil is cultivated and cropped. The carbon is still converted to carbondioxide, but the process involved is microbial respiration instead of fire, and takes months or a few years instead of hours or days in the case of a fire. 

After just a few years, regardless of the farming system adopted, a large proportion of the carbon stored in the natural environment will be released into the atmosphere as carbondioxide and act as a greenhouse warming gas. Per square kilometre, typically they will be 1,000 tonnes of carbon converted to 3,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide (based on 1% soil carbon). A typical Australian car emits just 14 tonnes of carbondioxide per year, so this small area emits as much as 260 cars. It a forest was cleared before cultivation, there would be an extra 100 to 500 car-equivalents of carbondioxide released per square kilometre (depending on whether it was a woodland or rainforest that was destroyed).

In Australia, we sometimes hear about the potential for soils to store carbon, and paying farmers for the carbon storage they can achieve. This has been true, to some extent, in southern Australia, and in the past. This is because many of the sandy soils were very low in organic matter, and with fertiliser and farming, the organic matter content increased. However, in many cases there was a large carbon store in the vegetation before it was cleared, so the net storage isn’t much, if anything at all. Many years of research show that only pastures can return significant amounts of carbon to farmed soils. And only forests can return carbon to pastures. Messing about with different crop, pasture and tree species is inconsequential. 

It’s a fact that cropping releases very large amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

2. Conversion of forests and pastures to crops destroys biodiversity. Forests are valuable as habitat to a vast array of animals. But pastures, too have some diversity, and are important for many plants and animals. It’s not often that I’ve gone into a permanent pasture and not seen dozens of different plant species. Often, there will be fifty, and sometimes a hundred species in one field. In a crop, it is common to find just the crop and a fhalf dozen weed species. These don’t provide very much habitat for the animal community, other than some ants and moths and the like. There just isn’t the complexity of plant height, shape, food type or other attributes that would support a range of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals like forests.

This graph shows how even a simple pasture is a mix of many species.

Graph courtesy of http://www.evergraze.com.au

It’s a fact that cropping reduces biodiversity.

3. Conversion of land to cropping causes soil erosion. Sometimes the extra erosion is just 10 or 20% more than before, especially if the land was overgrazed pasture. But often there is 100% or 200% or 500% more erosion when land is cropped. Erosion depletes the land of productive soil, it is an expensive problem if the soil is deposited on roads or in drains or in houses, and it eventually winds up in rivers and oceans, where it causes severe environmental problems.

On steep land or in tropical areas, farming may increase the rate of soil erosion from 100 tonnes a year per square kilometre, to TEN THOUSAND tonnes of soil per year for every square kilometre. In some farming systems the rates of soil erosion are much higher than this. Is that affordable or sustainable? No. In many areas of the world, soils are running down faster than the world is running of of fossil fuels. You might want to read that again. We are losing soils fast. How fast?

Where I live, a hectare of farm can produce 5,000 loaves of bread. The soil erosion per crop is 10,000 kg, which is considered a good, low level by almost everyone (not me). That’s 2 kg of soil erosion for every loaf of bread, and 1000 times faster than the rate of soil development.

It’s a fact that cropping causes severe and damaging soil erosion.

4. Plant nutrients are good when they are in the soil feeding crops, but the same nutrients cause environmental damage in waterways, estuaries and the ocean. Coral reefs only occur in clear, low-nutrient water. It is no surprise then, that the Great Barrier Reef is affected by farming on the nearby mainland of Australia. The pre-European rate or soil erosion flowing to the reef was 3 million tonnes per year, but farming has increased that to 17 million tonnes per year.

One type of nutrient, phosphorus, is usually attached to soil particles, and travels with them to the ocean. The saltiness of the ocean then releases some of that phosphorus, and it fertilises algae in the water. Unfortunately, these algae are the enemy of sea grasses and corals. In many parts of the world, the marine ecosystems have become slimy and green due to excess growth of algae. A visit to an inland lake often shows the same effect.

It’s a fact that cropping pollutes the land, waterways and oceans with nutrients.

5. Converting forest and pasture to cropping land introduces a diverse and problematic range of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

Forests and pastures receive much fewer types, and much less quantity, and less environmentally damaging pesticides than cropping land. Tebuthiruron is an example of a chemical that has severe environmental consequences when it is used. It kills the forests to which it is applied. Because that destroys the habitat of a wide range of animals, it effectively kills them, too. The chemical is used in Northern Australia specifically to kill forest trees so that grazing and farming can go on. The simple fact is that dead forests and destroyed ecosystem are being exchanged for food. 

There are many more cases of chemicals that last for long periods in the soil and waterways being used around the world. Atrazine is the most commonly used herbicide in the USA, and is very widely used in Australia (but banned in the EU). It persists in the environment and is readily transported. It is the subject of on-going debate about the levels that are harmful in the environment and harmful to human health (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atrazine). Atrazine is being used in close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. In order to grow sugarcane. A completely unnecessary food. A food that is harmful to most of the people who consume it. Does this make sense? Harm the reef to make sugary drinks?

It’s a fact that large amounts of environmentally hazardous chemicals are used in cropping. The fate and environmental effects of many chemicals are not well known. 

How to solve these things?

Food wastage must be treated seriously.

Food storage must be a higher priority for engineers, particularly in low income countries.

Converting pasture and forests to farms for grain production must stop.

Converting forests to pasture for animal production must stop.

Soil erosion must be reduced. The current rates are unsustainable in many of the cropping lands of the world. Soil erosion is a silent killer of future undernourished generations.

The source and fate of nutrients and pesticides must be better monitored and regulated.

Wealthy people must not be allowed to buy and waste food that is needed by undernourished people. 

Poor people must not be encouraged to sell their household food supplies to rich people.

High income countries must help regulate the global food supply. An unregulated food supply isn’t working for people in low-income countries.

It’s food for thought.

All comments are welcome.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. The Lan Ahn hotel, MuongLay.

It’s a bit strange. Something is Fishy In Denmark, as they say. Not quite right 

The Lan Ahn sits on a bit of a hill overlooking the lake. And it’s a big hotel. Maybe 40 rooms? A restaurant that seats 100. Tonight it had some serious karaoke equipment in there. My room is excellent – air con, marble-ish bathroom that’s big, like the room. 

So why am I the only person here? I’m “it”. The entire clientele is “moi”. The whole guest list reads “Brett Robinson”. Total number of children staying here: none. Women: none. Vietnamese: none. Australians: 1. Men: 1. Cyclists: 1. Not the stats I would expect.

And where are the staff? Is the guy in a singlet and board-shots who said he would hose the mud off my bike for $2 in charge of this prestigious establishment? Yes. Is that the sound of his motor scooter driving off in the night? Am I in charge? 

And why is fried rice with chicken the only meal available in the restaurant? (plus Viet-style chicken spring rolls, but only if you bypass the bike-cleaning waiter and talk directly with the housecleaning cook) Why is there no fruit or fruit juice available? More disconcerting is that there is no green tea available. It may be the national drink, but no, you can’t get it here. Strong similarities to Monty Python’s cheese shop that doesn’t have any cheese.

It IS expensive, but there are usually some well-healed tourists around enjoying a place like this. Especially this close to affluent China (a couple of km away).

A couple of days later I find out that there is a bustling Viet town across the bridge and 3km down the road. The hotel is on the wrong side of a long bridge across the river. I’m also fairly confident that there are cheaper guesthouses in the town, where the locals stay. Curse the Lonely Planet Guide for saying the Lan Ahn is the only hotel in town. The Thanh Binh, also on the wrong side of the river, is MUCH better, and cheaper – if you want a fancy-pants hotel up the river and not a guesthouse in town.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. SaPa to LaiChau. Beyond the bucket list.

The title is a bit of a give-away. Today’s ride isn’t on anyone’s bucket list. Stuff on bucket lists are never as good as this because it is impossible to imagine an experience like this before you have done it. 

Apologies for the long blog. Today took about 2 weeks to get through (mentally, physically, emotionally). 

Riding out of SaPa is hilly, but not impossible. Some steep parts are marked “10%”, which for me usually means “give up all hope you fool”. But today I have very low, tough gears. Other steep parts don’t have the 10% sign, perhaps by way of encouragement.

Like SaPa, the views are amazing. Today the rain and mist is hiding a lot of what sometimes might be on offer. Some big waterfalls are rumbling away and the odd crack of thunder keeps me on my toes. Figuratively. The traffic is sparse. Mostly scooters. 

I stop outside the Love Waterfall tourist park (about 15km out of SaPa) to catch my breath and look for coffee. A couple of minivans are there, and the tourists stare at me without saying anything. I’m thinking “who in their right mind would be jammed in a minivan going out to see foggy waterfalls on a rainy day like this?”. Some people are nuts.

It’s getting cold and my legs are tired. I walk a bit. Mostly ride. Near the top of the mountain pass known locally as “not rideable today” I stop at a cafe and have some hot green tea. Sensational. Very warming. And a fake orange drink for a sugar hit. I ask a fellow for a towel, and he looks for one, but his mate says I’m filthy and don’t dare give me a towel. They proceed to check out my bike, which peeves me a bit after being classed as “below towel standard”. 

After nearly 3 hours I’ve ridden a mere 25km, but gained about 500 metres in height. Totally worth every minute – the scenery wouldn’t be out of place in a fairy story. 

Over the top, and it is SO good to be descending. Descending for miles and miles. At first the descent is steep and wet, so I go slow. The photos give just a bit of an idea how good it was. 

Towards the bottom it is less steep and it’s warm because the road dropped a thousand vertical metres (worth about 12 degrees). 5 km from TamDuong and the descent is done and dusted. It is tempting to stay here, in quite a good town, but recklessly I ride forward. And upward. Mostly upwards. The upward gets steep. And not always riding. There is a considerable amount of walking ahead.

The views are still mind-bogglingly good, but the sun has come out and it’s 30+ degrees in the shade. There’s little shade, and in the sun, it’s mind-bogglingly hot. About half way up this rise, I am pooped. 

It takes a good long sit on a rock under a tree to regain composure. (Unknown to me, I’m only half way up the hill). The scenery and people and just everything is so good that I’m reluctant to feel anything but joy. Shut up body – I’m confident that you have 10% more to give. (See above comment regarding the remaining climb being 50%)

No matter how busted I feel, I’m putting this ride up there with the very best of them. And that’s from a guy who hates hills. Did I mention that it’s hot and this is a big hill? About 4 times the Toowoomba range. Or 8 Mt Coothas. And I’m FAT. And riding a FAT bike. Thankfully the sun goes behind some clouds and the temperature drops to about 30. The scenery remains stunning. The people are saying “hello” (because it’s an opportunity to use ALL of their English), and scooter riders are beeping their horns in encouragement. Most of the people are from the hill tribes and wear beautiful costumes.

Over the top and It seems impossible, but this descent is better than the last. LaiChau isn’t far. I find a coffee shop then a little hotel. 

Clothes are drying, I’m stuffed. It has been one of the most amazing days ever. Cold. Freezing. Tough. Nail-through-your-hand tough. Hot. Dripping, soaked, salty steaming hot. Raging rivers, waterfalls, corn, chokos, peanuts, tiny little pigs and chooks. A hundred water buffallo, when only one is sufficient to cause a big hairy accident.

Beyond the bucket list, there are days like these. A few. Maybe. If you look and you’re lucky.

Six inch high pig sets new world record for being the fastest and cutest thing combined.

Footnote: Top of the hill, stuffed, and wearing the internationally-admired “David O’Loughlin” pink and black jersey of the 2011 Cairns to Karumba charity bike ride. David passed away a few months ago, and is greatly missed.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. SaPa to MaiChau. A journey begins with a single step. Except for cyclists.

Today’s bike ride feels like it might never have happened. 

At 7am I’m wondering why I would leave a perfectly good hotel in SaPa – quite the cosmopolitan centre – to go cycling in north Vietnam. Nearby I can get a coffee, and maybe a bun. I am confusing myself now. Today was the day to leave. Now I don’t want to. Fortunately, getting ready for a bicycle ride is a pleasant and routine task, so I just have to tell my brain to shut up until I get out the door.

It has been raining hard overnight. There are flood warnings. The streets are awash. The weather forecast said 2 more days of heavy rain. Hmmm….Two more days of luxury? So I say to myself; WHAT SORT OF PATHETIC, OLD-GUY SITTING IN GOD’S WAITING ROOM OPTION IS THAT??? 

Out the door, pedal up the hill….and stop and put my rain jacket on. I get going then get lost. And have to keep asking people which road goes to LaiChau. For some reason, such as many Viet towns sounding similar, I also ask people for the directions to LauChai and ChauLai. My phone (and therefore GPS) is sitting on my handlebars, refusing to tell me anything. That’s because it’s in a waterproof case, and is covered in water. I’m wondering if touch screens are built to detect the water in your finger? Probably, because my phone thinks that I’m doing some sort of finger puppet theatre, with dozens of characters running all over the screen. I give up on it. 

Is this trip worth the trouble?

Then the road opens up into forest and farmland and mountains and valleys. The rain slashes down, the sign says “silver waterfall”, and it’s on. It is SO happening today. Willpower and legpower appear out of nowhere. 

I wouldn’t be dead for quids. WooHoo!

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. SaPa

Quote from WikiTravel about the roads around SaPa; Mountain Dirt is not delicious. Doctor is none. Emergency support is none. And if accident occurs while you’re in nowhere, no one’ll know where you’re. Drive slowly. Downhill at 15-20 km/hr is the safest bet. Horning every corner.

Funny and scary.

25 km from SaPa, I stopped at this site where there had been an accident a couple of days ago. The drop off the edge here is about 50 metres and not survivable. Crossing from the right hand side ot the road, it was a big hit to the Armco and they punched through. Especially bad luck considering there is almost no Armco in Vietnam and if they hadn’t hit it quite so hard, they might not have gone through.

Please…..Ride safe. Wear a helmet. Use a flashing rear light in fog and rain. 

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. It’s a low CO2 emissions country.

You might not associate Vietnam, or Asian countries in general, with environmental and conservation ideologies. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are many factors involved.

Perhaps the most environmentally friendly things I see in Asia are the motor scooters. Whereas Australians and most westerners drive a car with one or two people in it, here you see lots of motor scooters with one, two and sometimes three people on them. Cars are about as common in Vietnam as scooters are in Australia (about 1 % of the traffic) and vice versa. 

A lot of the cars are taxis (maybe 50%?), so it’s all really efficient.

The motor scooters have small engines – usually under 110cc. Compare that with a small car (1600cc) or a medium car (2400cc) or a 4WD (3500cc). In fact, the govt bans more than 175cc, and a great outcome of this is that almost everyone on the road has similar ‘oomph’, which works really well in busy areas and on hills. There are seriously good things that a centralist communist government can do. 

Another factor affecting the use of fossil fuels and the emission of CO2 is the price of petrol. It is about US $1.40 per litre in a country where the middle class earn $6 per day. Poor people earn $2 (or less) per day. So almost everyone is very aware of fuel use.

One of the more surprising aspects of this is that Vietnam is a major oil-producing country. Australia sources about 30% of its oil needs from Vietnam – more than any other country. Matching world prices for petrol and oil is an unpopular, but very environmentally sensitive thing to do.

And where is all of this headed in the future? More cars? Less public transport? 

The answer is that young people are buying electric scooters and electric bikes. They are considered expensive – almost the same cost as a good second-hand scooter ($500). But after that they cost hardly anything to run. Less than one quarter of the cost of a scooter. And with no emissions in the street, electric vehicles are seen as a way of reducing the amount of petrol fumes on city streets. 

I find all of this very impressive. It’s probably the environmental and sociological way of the future for cities. Meanwhile, western societies are still gulping oil as if there is no end to it. But there is. Cities are still choked with cars. As if they aren’t. Public transport is on the agenda, then off the agenda. Greenhouse gases are spewed into the air, as if we don’t know they are dangerous.

Sometime, somehow, things went very wrong in the west.

That’s another 2c from me.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. SaPa town is all you could want.

Hi again. 

I’m thinking of giving each day a rating out of five as an experience: 1=ok, 3=excellent, 5=mind-blowing.

Today’s rating: 4 stars. Here’s why it was so good….

After an overnight train ride from HaNoi to LaoCai (at the head of the 300km long and amazingly straight Hong River Valley), it’s a 30 km minibus ride to SaPa. At the half-way mark, there is a magnificent hill-climb that would be right at home in a mountain stage of the Tour de France. The road is the best of the trip, too. For a few km.

Picking up my bicycle from the bus station (yay!) and wandering/riding around asking directions to my hotel, it becomes clear that SaPa is really special.

These are views from my room. The pictures speak for themselves. 

SaPa accomodation: Rooms here are quite expensive (for Vietnam). But life is for living and in  Australian terms it is cheap as chips at $36 per day for a deluxe room (rooms in Vietnam are usually Standard, Superior, Deluxe and Premium). 

SaPa sights: besides just looking out over the mountains and valleys, there is a lot to do here. In winter it is very cold, so bring your thermals. But it’s summer and quite reasonable for me now (maybe 25C maximum today?). There’s trekking, mountain climbing, adventure sport, village tours. 

Looking up a hill along a typical street. There are mini-marts, restaurants, guesthouses, massage shops, and a lot of street vendors like this woman, who will try to sell me some bags or purses or scarves. I buy a tiny, embroidered cushion in the shape of a butterfly, and get some bells tied on. To make a pleasant tinkling sound as I ride.

These women helped me improve my Viet. The women on the right are H’mong (black H’mong?). Their costumes are beautifully embroidered. The woman in the red hat might be Red Thai.

A couple of travel experiences today:

1. At the train station in LaoCai I wandered out and followed a crowd toward the minivans going to SaPa. A guy offer to help, but wants me to pay 500,000 Dong. I am only half-awake, but it seems way too much. It’s only $20, so I pay him. He puts me in a van full of Chinese people, pays the driver and leaves. It is a $3 or $4 fare and I’ve been scammed.

1b. Later I give a modest tip to a woman in a shop who helps me. As I leave, she says to her friends that I was a poor haggler ang gave her an unnecessary tip. Everyone is happy! That’s the way it should be!

2. The minibus was full of Chinese people who got motion sick on the winding and twisting and winding road. One, two, and after that the floodgates opened. Thankfully I don’t have to cycle back along this road.

Continue reading

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Losing weight.

Friday 22 August 2014.

It’s an overnight sleeper, then minibus trip to SaPa to start riding. SaPa has hills. Big bastards of hills. I’m way, way too overloaded. Not by a kilogram here or there- no, that would be ok. I am 5 kg too fat and my luggage is 5 kg too heavy. The math isn’t hard to do. But to imagine it, try carrying two 5 kg bags of potatoes around all day. And by “carry around” I mean walking around most of the time, but for an hour or two, try a brisk walk up a really steep hill.

Here are two photos that I prepared earlier…

My thought was to abandon the big American toothbrush, and use the small Vietnamese one.

Big American toothpaste and small Vietnamese toothpaste. Hmmm…..

Then I think: Have I lost it? To such an extent that I was considering replacing high quality dental products with low grade stuff?

Yes. Probably.

I kept the big toothbrush and dumped the big toothpaste. :-)

Bicycle Diaries, Vietnam. Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Went there yesterday to have some down time from the bustling Old Quarter. More than I expected, it’s a slow and tranquil place that doesn’t exist in the same universe as Hanoi.

It’s quite big, but there are maps like his one to guide you around. None are in English, but it doesn’t matter.

It’s not just a quiet place, it is from a bygone era. The amusements are in the 1950s Disneyland style and need a lick of paint and some TLC. The entry fee is $0.40, but there’s hardly anyone here. The park workers are asleep. Maybe parents take kids to the mall these days? Or maybe it’s the 32 degree and 90% or more humidity that makes the monsoon less attractive than winter?  In any case, there was a fair amount of rust and ruin in the concrete and steel structures, which was a big contrast to the glory of the trees and lake. The trees are worth the trip alone. It was a welcome surprise to see quite a lot of river red gums from Australia. And one or two other eucalypts with scented leaves. Coo-ee.

A highlight of my visit was a cruise on Swan Lake. Nobody else was doing this, so I had a whole flock to choose from. It didn’t help.

This photo on the shows my swan gliding under some overhanging trees. I’m there because a storm is approaching and I need to get back to that barely-visible building at the far end of the lake. The wind is blowing in the opposite direction and I am in a sail-like vessel with tiny pedals, designed for 10 year olds. My knees are besides my ears and every pedal is a contortion. I’m thinking bad words.

This man wants me to take his girlfriend for a ride on the boat. She refuses because of the obvious danger. He offers no help to me and generally seems to be a bad man.

The photo showing my return to the flock was taken in celebration of making it to the leeward side of the trees, and feeling confident of making it he rest of the way. My knees, however, were left for dead out on the lake.

By this stage, quite a few people were laughing, and the others just thought it might be culturally inappropriate to do so. The expression on my face scares a 6 year-old. Eventually I got back and the man who gave me the leaky swan suggests I climb up over some rusty pipes to the office. It is high. So I throw myself onto the bank of the lake, trading the dangers of altitude, cuts and tetanus for the dangers of slime, staph and typhoid.

All of this made walking, just walking, through the trees more enjoyable than it was before the whole Swan Lake experience. I saw a dodge-em car thing, but this looked more dangerous than a pedal-powered swan. And there isn’t much “dodge-em” when you are the only car.

That was nearly the end of my trip to Lenin Park. I’m not sure what the famous economist and philosopher would say.

Perhaps it’s better that he’s dead and doesn’t know.

Then, one last hong caught my eye just before the gate. A strange building with a spiral staircase to nowhere. There was a sign which I have chosen not to translate. It seems to be a sign for a puppet show. 

(The  post-Dada-ist style is just what critics of modern art adore, so I included it to demonstrate my deep understanding of all things artistic).

That’s your diary entry done. Stay happy. Tam biet.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam: 21 August 2014 – A twisted and ruined tale of war.

It was oppressive weather. I was tired of the apprehension. Apprehension when crossing the street. Apprehension when ordering food (clean veg? ice from tap water? I saw the cook pick his nose!). Apprehension when using my shitty Viet language skills. Apprehension about getting lost during the day and walking in dark lanes at night. Apprehension about being an Australian – on the wrong side of the American war. At least they call it the American War, not the American-Australian War.

This morning I went to the War Museum. It is fascinating. If you enjoy history even a fraction as much as I do, you’ll be horrified. 

It’s the place with the turret and big flag.

They start way in the 11th century with various bits of biff and bash on a local scale. Then, in no time, we are at Dien Benh Phiu, near the NW border (of Vietnam and Laos), and HoChiMinh and his followers kick the collective arses of the Froggy overlords in the first big win of the local revolutionary team. They are armed with little more than sticks. One of the exhibits shows a “shovel” the size of my hand, that was used to dig trenches to hide from French machine-guns. The Viet army took a while to get going, because first they had to steal enough weapons from the Frenchies. One machine gun on display was taken (at an unknown cost in Viet lives) then used to kill 60 French. Both sides were furiously accounting for lives and weaponry and declaring success if the numbers fell their way. 

The revolutionaries had a plan. Slow, clever, methodical. There is no enemy like those you have oppressed, and the French were in for a lesson.

As the history buffs will know, the Viet north and French/American south worked out a sort of treaty and separated across a demilitarised zone about half way up Vietnam (the DMZ, as it is still known). Kinda like N and S Korea.

It’s the late 1950s (dramatic license) and the US decides to send a buzzillion troops to Khe Sanh, just a few km from the DMZ, which is pretty much like having the Hell’s Angels move in next door, an it upsets the North a LOT, and starts a war. It was Might vs Right from the start. And as you know, Right won in the end. There is a plaque in the war museum saying that a militia of old people shot down 6 American planes (of more than 4,000 shot down). Not bad for a group with only a few of their original teeth. In fact….It would be funny if it wasn’t so reflective of an awful war. The North were horrendously under-equipped, inexperienced, underfed and underestimated. It is unknown to many with western educations that the US congress and generals went completely mad. It barely seems possible that there was funding for operations from opium and heroin sales (the so-called ‘AirAmerica’ business), attempted genocide – the bombing of Cambodia with millions of cluster bombs (365 kg per Cambodian), and land-mining half of Laos (and just leaving them there, where people are still dying from them).

Maybe that’s not proper history. It’s definitely not what I learned in school. Something about Australian and American freedom-fighters being killed by the Viet Cong in “gorilla” warfare. Apparently, if it weren’t for the damned gorillas, the US and Australia would have it in the bag. Inexplicably, we lost.

In 1973, as the last American left, the newspapers in Vietnam said nothing about winning a war. Nothing about beating the American Imperialist invaders. They simply said that it was the day when America had come to respect the heroism and humanity of the Vietnamese people. You can’t beat an attitude like that.

“and 6 by militia aged people.”

Just another US$0.02 / 500VND worth from me.