A different kind of cooking show

For those of you (including me) who enjoy watching TV cooking contests, we know that the worst that can happen is that an aspiring winner is perspiring, or the presentation was chaotic, or the judges made nasty comments about the taste of one of the dishes.

For millions of women who cook family meals, especially in developing countries, the challenges are quite different. There is no panel of judges and no “time’s up” called out to arrest the work of the contestants in their well-equipped stainless-steely kitchen.

Rob Bailis speaks at the Elliott School of International Affairs, Nov 3, 2011.

Instead, there is a “killer in the kitchen” which calls time’s up for mothers and children who spend a lot of time inhaling cook stove fumes.

On November 3, Rob Bailis, assistant professor of environmental social science in the department of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, gave a CIGA seminar entitled, “Arresting the Killer in the Kitchen: The Promises and Pitfalls of Commercializing Improved Cookstoves.”

Bailis took the audience on a rich and insightful tour of how improved cook stoves could have a major positive impact on women, children, and the environment. His talk drew on knowledge about the effects of various types of fuel for daily cooking on the cooks and the wider environment.

His slides included maps of types of household fuel in various regions of the world. He brought together data from the fields of environmental studies, public health, and local surveys.

He discussed the “energy ladder hypothesis” which says that as people get wealthier, they use cleaner fuels. As I was listening, I was thinking: okay, this doesn’t sound good for the earth, given the way the economy is going.

Another point to share is this: Bailis said that Western development experts have been pushing improved cook stoves for three decades but there is very little evidence about their effectiveness in terms of reducing health risks for cooks/children and reducing deforestation and other environmental problems.

China is the country to watch on improved cook stoves. Of the 200 million improved cook stoves in the world, 80 percent are in China. Let’s hear about the “best practices” there and how they might be replicated elsewhere.

Thirty years is a long time, especially without much to say in terms of what works. Time to switch channels and get back to the cooking throw-down.

Maybe we need a TV show about what works in development?

Update from Professor Rob Bailis:
In fact, there is evidence that some improved stoves certainly improve quality and, based on that, we can justifiably hypothesize that if families adopt such stoves and use them regularly, then their air quality will improve and their health risk will be reduced. More importantly, there is evidence of this – just last week (about a week after my presentation) a paper was published in the Lancet by Kirk Smith and his team. This reports the results of the first randomized control trial based on improved cookstove adoption. They found that the stoves they promoted reduced the incidence of severe forms of respiratory infection by around 30%. So the evidence exists. What is lacking is program-specific follow-up to understand whether a given intervention is resulting in effective and long-term stove adoption. But, like I hinted at in my talk, the carbon markets are having an interesting influence on project monitoring by creating elaborate protocols to make sure stoves are actually used.

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