Innovation and Investment Needed to Change How the Developing World Cooks

06/04/2015 02:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016


As some of the world's top chefs and leading innovators converge in Silicon Valley to explore the nexus of food and technology at the inaugural BITE Conference, millions of people in developing countries will be cooking their families' food just as our ancestors did thousands of years ago -- over an open fire, burning dung, coal and wood for fuel.

Cooking this way is a silent killer. The toxic pollution from these fires kills 10,000 people every day, according to the World Health Organization. Beyond the enormous health toll, this method of meal preparation carries a large ecological burden; related deforestation is vast, and the emissions from the combustion of unsustainably harvested wood fuel alone accounts for roughly 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 25% of the world's black carbon emissions. There's also a massive gender burden, with girls and women spending a significant portion of their day gathering fuel, not to mention breathing in damaging amounts of carcinogenic smoke as they cook.

Fortunately, a clean cooking movement is gaining ground led by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, its 1,200 diverse partners, and its Chef Corps, who are all working to raise the visibility of and develop solutions to this global scourge. Thanks to technological advances in stove design, increased efforts to boost access to clean fuels, development of standards and testing, and greater investment in market-based approaches, the Alliance has helped more than 20 million households adopt cleaner, more efficient cookstoves and fuels in the past four years alone.

Yet, while momentum is building, diseases caused by smoke from rudimentary cookstoves still claim 4.3 million lives every year - a toll much larger than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. More must be done to spur innovation, increase investment, build awareness, and change dangerous behaviors that have been part of too many cultures for millennia.

A number of organizations from the San Francisco Bay area are helping to address the issue. Pollution monitoring equipment from Oakland-based Berkeley Air is allowing scientists to better measure the benefits of clean cookstoves on newborns in Nepal. Potential Energy is working to bring market-based clean cooking solutions to humanitarian settings in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda. UC Berkeley's School of Public Health is one of the leading academic institutions in the world for the study of the serious health impacts caused by smoke from inefficient cookstoves and solid fuels. And Santa Clara University's Global Social Benefit Institute is working with the Alliance to train promising cookstove entrepreneurs to better serve local markets in developing countries for their life-saving products.

The BITE Conference brings together experts from the culinary and technology worlds to identify solutions for how to feed the nine billion people projected to be living on this planet by 2050. World Central Kitchen and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves are teaming up at this year's BITE to focus on ways to improve how the world cooks with educational sessions and keynote addresses on the benefits of clean cooking. We will also be showcasing -- and cooking food on -- a selection of innovative cookstoves being used in the developing world, such as: a parabolic solar cooker that reaches grilling and baking temperatures in five minutes; a wood-burning "rocket stove" that reduces smoke emissions by up to 95%, while producing enough electricity to power a light or charge a phone; a low-cost charcoal stove that uses far less fuel than traditional models; and a stove that burns ethanol produced from sugar cane and corn.

New technological advancements are helping to drive innovation in the clean cooking movement. And new investments from the private sector are raising awareness and helping to catalyze a thriving global market. But much more must be done if we are to realize a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world. It is time that we harness the innovation from the Bay area to create disruptive and transformation change. Enhanced technology coupled with seed investment, venture capital and marketing expertise are critical and necessary ingredients for success.

Cooking shouldn't kill. Where better than the Bay area to assemble the necessary resources to help ensure that it no longer will?

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