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Food Security and Sustainable Action

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As climate change continues to wreak havoc throughout the world, food security becomes an inevitable topic of conversation. There are already many regions around the world in which food sources are insecure. With changing weather patterns, these regions will only see more food scarcity while food-secure areas may see rising food prices or, worse, food shortages. Climate change affects agriculture and food production in multifarious ways. It affects food production directly through changing environmental conditions and indirectly by affecting growth and the distribution of incomes. We are already past completely stopping global climate change; we can only slow it down. However, we are not past stopping global food shortages. Current studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100 percent more food by 2050.i There is a dire need to prepare for changing climatic patterns and to put sustainable food systems in place that not only guarantee perpetual crop safety but also guarantee and maintain habitat preservation and biodiversity.

Food Security Concerns

Scientists estimate that food access will only become less and less stable. As defined at the World Food Summit in 1996, food security exists "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life."ii Thus, to be food insecure means to not have consistent access to nutritious food needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Food security is measured by both physical and economic access to food that meets dietary needs as well as food preference.

Grappling with innovative ways to ensure food security in impoverished or infertile regions of the world is nothing new. There are many continuing factors adding to the food insecurity welter; rising human population and recent climate change are the most obvious. Another factor has to do with distribution: There is enough food in the world for everyone, but current distribution practices limit availability and people remain undernourished.iii Despite growth in food production over the last 50 years, one in seven people today still do not have access to adequate levels of protein and energy, and even more suffer from some form of malnourishment.iv However, simply producing massive quantities of food and distributing them more effectively around the world is not sustainable. Flying, driving or boating food all over the world only further diminishes our resources and exemplifies our dependence on unsustainable practices. This idea is especially important for food-insecure regions that lack agency in the global food market and, thus, are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of global instability. The ultimate solution would be for localized regions to be able to grow their own food. Often, this cannot be done because of depleted soil or ravished biodiversity hot spots. New ways of thinking should be implemented so both malnourished and well-fed populations can learn to feed themselves without relying on an inequitable global food distribution system.

Hand in hand with the problems of poor distribution systems are food preferences of middle and upper classes. As consumer wealth increases, more and more people prefer to eat meat or dairy, which is largely less sustainable than a vegetarian diet. According to a recent study, "the conversion efficiency of plant into animal matter is ~10%; thus, there is a prima facie case that more people could be supported from the same amount of land if they were vegetarians."v Although there are grass-fed or free range livestock that would undoubtedly make livestock production and consumption more sustainable and nutritious, these practices are few and far between. Additionally, in an inequitable food distribution system, wealthier people can afford to eat whatever they want from wherever they want, while people in poorer countries are at the whim of these consumer decisions. For example, with a higher demand for meat and dairy in richer countries, there is less access to arable farmland and affordable food products, such as grains, that could otherwise sustain poorer regions.

Unfortunately, there is often a tradeoff when it comes to current attempts to maintain or improve food security: loss of biodiversity. Many times, natural habitats are mowed down and replaced with mono-crops or large-scale farming. While large-scale farming can feed a large population, when biodiversity is lost we become more and more dependent on destructive modes of agriculture, thus becoming more vulnerable to food shortage via climate change and increased populations. Biodiversity is needed to maintain a sustainable food system as well as a sustainable ecosystem in general, but it is not always considered the most efficient way to get massive amounts of food to the widest population. Specialized and homogenous agriculture puts our natural ecosystems at risk: We degrade the soil, species go extinct, we are vulnerable to plight (such as the notorious Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s) and changing climate conditions, and we miss out on the diversified and vital nutrients needed to nourish our bodies. As we are now seeing, sustainable agricultural systems are far less susceptible to shocks and stresses than current agricultural systems. Though as populations continue to go hungry, more of an emphasis is put on feeding people in the here and now, not worrying about sustainable development for the future.

Through the Ears of Corn : Understanding the Effects of Climate Change

Humans have a long history with maize, or domesticated corn. There is no better crop for measuring the sustainability of food systems and ecosystems because humans depend so much on corn and corn would not survive without human intervention. Humans and corn have formed a mutual relationship, but with changes in climate, this relationship is strained, further exacerbating unaffordable food costs, starvation and biodiversity loss. Corn is a versatile and hearty crop that makes its way into every sector: biofuel, processed food and drink, liquors, grains, vegetables and animal feed. Corn is similar to a domesticated dog in the sense that for centuries humans have taken something that was once wild and modified it to fit human need or preference.

In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan goes into great detail about the history of the human-corn relationship. Hybrid corn was introduced in the 1930s, but it wasn't until the introduction of synthetic nitrogen as a fertilizer in the 1950s that corn production really exploded. Since life is dependent on nitrogen and since nitrogen is not expendable, the artificial fixing of nitrogen is one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. Without it, an estimated two of every five humans on earth would not be alive.vi Synthetic nitrogen has since propped up crop yields and allowed for plants and humans to flourish. More than half of synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn crops. However, nitrogen fixing is and will forever be a double-edged sword. While we may be able to superficially create a vital chemical element, we have inadvertently switched our soil fertility dependence from the sun, which is an abundantly renewable resource, to fossil fuel. Furthermore, "fixing nitrogen allowed the food chain to turn from the logic of biology and embrace the logic of industry. Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum."viii

In the United States and eventually throughout the world, from an economic and political standpoint, the trouble with corn has only worsened. In the 1930s, President Roosevelt's administration implemented New Deal policies, which helped keep corn prices and farmers afloat. New Deal farm programs attempted to store any commodities that were overabundant so as to keep market prices at a target price based on cost of production. If farmers produced too much corn in a year, they could elect to store the grains instead of putting them into an already weak market. The government would, in a sense, loan farmers money in exchange for their excess grain, which they would keep in what was called the National Granary. In other words, farmers could put their corn in a weak market or receive a loan from the government to avoid overproduction and to keep food prices equitable and profitable.

The shift away from these policies occurred somewhat swiftly during the Nixon administration, when more laissez-faire economic practices came into play. Earl Butz, Nixon's secretary of agriculture, dismantled the New Deal farm regime and the National Granary and replaced it with the 1973 farm bill that required farmers get direct payments from the government instead of loans. These new subsidies encouraged farmers to set the price of corn, since the government would give them a cut of their money regardless, and grow as much corn as possible. Since this new reorganization, corn prices have steadily dropped, and the amount of farmers going bankrupt has increased. By 2005, the typical Iowa farmer was selling corn one dollar below the cost to grow it.ix As the price of corn drops, farmers have no choice but to drop their own selling price to keep their heads above water. Each day more and more farmers are forced to plow through their land and degrade it in an effort to keep up with an unregulated market.

Corn has become so integrated into human lives in the United States that when a Berkeley biologist Todd Dawson did a study to measure the isotopes derived from corn in Mexicans versus Americans, Americans had far more corn-derived isotopes in their system than did Mexicans, who consume a steady diet of corn daily (some identify themselves as "the people of corn").x This is not because Americans eat a lot of corn; instead, most things they consume are made from corn, whereas in Mexico, most animals are still fed grass and products such as soda are still sweetened with cane sugar and not corn syrup. Americans have put all of their eggs in one basket, and as climate change leads to drought and corn prices go up, so do many other products made from corn (including livestock fed on corn-based feed, dairy and fuel). Additionally, since corn is tied into biofuel, it is being produced in lieu of other staple crops such as soy or wheat, which in turn causes those food prices to rise, as well.xi

Considering that the United States grows the majority of the world's grains, loss of corn crop and raised food prices doesn't just affect those in North America. However, instead of inventing sustainable ways to replace corn's ubiquitous role in human sustenance, there have been conversations about places like India exporting corn to the United States or moving corn production to Canada. Continuing to grow the world's corn supply may benefit exporting countries financially, but not in the long run. Shifting corn exports to other countries only serves as a Band-Aid for the perpetual problem of global food vulnerability. Corn serves as an important example of why more diversified crops and sustainable practices need to make their way into food production.

Sustainable Intensification: Solution or Dissolution?

The term sustainable intensification is a concept that has been used to describe recent efforts to come up with an alternative to current agricultural systems in the wake of unstable food systems. Essentially, the term implies "producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts and at the same time increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services."xii While some may use the term to refer to sustainable solutions for bettering the world's food and climate concerns, many agribusinesses and politicians are using the term (and the premise) as a guise to fool people into buying or promoting their products or political affiliations, for example, increased use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms. For those interested in true sustainability, it is important to distinguish this inherent manipulation from possibilities for real sustainable agriculture in an attempt to improve food security.

Probably more so than anywhere, Africa struggles with food insecurity and thus is at the forefront of many conversations surrounding sustainable intensification. In a report on small-holder agriculture and sustainability in Africa, Syngenta, one of the world's leading pesticide producers, commented that "the low level and stagnation of productivity growth in Africa can be attributed to limited use of irrigation, fertilizer and improved crop varieties – the absence of an African 'Green Revolution'."xiv While it is true that farmers in Africa suffer from low production yields and devastated land, a high-cost, high-input and high-tech solution is not sustainable. This conclusion only proposes further environmental and economic degradation as well as worsening social inequality.

However dismal the agribusiness guise of sustainability may be, there are various innovations and impacts made globally on a genuinely sustainable level. In recent years, Bhutan is probably the most noteworthy example of sustainable action on behalf of farmers and government. The country began a program in 2007 that aimed to converting 100 percent of the country's farmland into organic farmland. The country consists of roughly 700,000 people, and most farmers are organic by default, as most don't have access to affordable chemical treatments. Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley said they started the program because they are convinced that "by working in harmony with nature, they can help sustain the flow of nature's bounties." The belief is that not only will these practices be safer for the environment but also that farmers will be able to become more self-sufficient.

While the Bhutanese may be harbingers for the success of future widespread organic movements, many other countries may not find an organic conversion all that easy. This is partly due to the ambiguous nature of the term organic. Essentially, it is a term that only addresses health and sustainability or the use of pesticides or genetically modified organisms (though not always), leaving out intensification practices aimed at producing larger crop yields. An article published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability outlines various practices and responsibilities farmers, consumers, and government and non-government organizations need to take move toward sustainable intensification:xv

  • Utilize crop varieties and livestock breeds with a high ratio of productivity
  • Avoid the unnecessary use of external inputs (pesticides, etc.)
  • Harness agro-ecological processes, such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen fixation, allelopathy, predation and parasitism
  • Minimize the use of technologies or practices that have adverse impacts on the environment and human health
  • Make productive use of human capital in the form of knowledge and capacity to adapt and innovate and social capital to resolve common landscape scale problems
  • Quantify and minimize the impacts of system management on externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions, clean water availability, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and dispersal of pests, pathogens and weeds

These practices are being observed and utilized all over the world in different ways. Effective practices have included: crop rotation, pest management, the use of cover crops, increased crop diversity and rotational grazing for livestock. These practices secure soil fertility without additional harm to the environment, and they also maintain biodiversity.

In Australia, for example, Norm Smith was named 2011's farmer of the year. He and his wife own a sheep farm and have recently made adjustments to practice planned grazing management. To do this involves rotational grazing: short graze periods with long rest periods, on average 120 days of rest.xvi Their aim is to divide their farm into 40 paddocks to allow for the full days of rest, which gives the soil and grass time to replenish.

The Argentinean Pampas has also been of interest to many agronomists. Considering its agricultural significance, much the land is protected from development, both urban and agricultural, and much of the farmland is not cultivated to the fullest extent. Studies, however, indicate several minor adjustments in soil care and crop variety, such as the use of cover crops to guard against wind and water erosion, crop diversity for more nourished soil, and the utilization of the winter months for planting and harvesting.xvii

Many African nations have implemented similar sustainable intensification practices such as integrated pest management, diversification of crops, and the utilization of orphan crops, those crops not usually traded in large quantities on the global market. The latter are somewhat neglected but can play a major role in regional food security. Crops such as the orange sweet potato are currently being bred more rapidly than in the past. The orange sweet potato, while not as common as the white and yellow varieties in Africa, supplies much more beta-carotene, which helps combat malnutrition more effectively. In Mali, parasitic wasps have been introduced to control millet head miners, caterpillars that mine into the heads of the millet plant, one of the region's staple crops. Additionally, pest management has been upheld in various parts of Africa by use of legumes and grasses – instead of pesticides – that either attract beneficial parasites and pests or repel the bad ones. Greater tree and crop diversity has helped reduce runoff and soil erosion, which has in turn increased groundwater reserves.xix In East Africa, the adoption of fodder shrubs has become a less expensive and more reliable source of protein for improved milk production in livestock.xx

While some regions can rely on traditional ecological knowledge or local traditional knowledge, most places have already lost much of the traditional knowledge about the environment. Farmers may desire to change their practices but are subject to the market food system or their governments. Fortunately, there are many initiatives that help garner support for farmers and sustainability. The Nature Conservancy, among other non-profits, works around the globe to make sustainable transitions easier for small and big time farmers. For example, the Conservancy is working with farmers in the Amazon to help curb destruction of biodiversity by ensuring that soy crops are cultivated in an environmentally beneficial way. Another example is the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a diverse initiative that joins producers, agribusinesses, food companies, and conservation organizations to create sustainable outcomes for agriculture. They have created a fieldprint calculator on their website that shows growers how decisions made on their farms can affect soil quality and levels of water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity habitat, which can, in turn, affect their bottom line.

Avoiding the Inevitable

Unfortunately, it seems food insecurity, food and water shortages, and a higher demand for food are inevitable, especially with continued climatic changes. Drought, natural disasters and raised temperatures make it more difficult to protect land, animals and resources. In many places around the world, there is a great divide between where and how food is produced and where and how it is consumed. On the one hand there is a need to feed large and vulnerable populations of people now. The quickest way to do this involves mono-cropping and genetically modifying foods to grow faster and larger and resist common pests. This solution not only allows for large corporations to monopolize agribusiness, but it also makes populations, even wealthy ones in the developed world, more vulnerable to continual climatic shifts. On the other hand, there is the need to promote truly sustainable practices to ensure food security in the future. This type of sustainable development, however, requires time, and time is an obstacle when millions of people are going hungry. And without room for massive profits, many companies are disinterested in sustainable development, and without corporate resources, it is difficult to get large projects underway. The conflict is deep rooted and comes down to a continual disconnect between modern culture and corporate mentality and the environment. Our momentum shifts away from earth-driven practices and toward profit driven ones; with this model our future is bleak. We are caught up in a process where many fear naturally grown fruits and vegetables are a thing of the past and where our sustenance is dependent on big business interests.

With widespread neglect and ignorance of international food systems and ecology, we are only more vulnerable to malnutrition and starvation. Paying mind to political and social recourse, consumer decisions, and economic and environmental restraints is our best bet to ensure food security, biodiversity and general well-being. Food production is often viewed as simply a cog in the global machine when really it connects to a much larger picture and serves a very importance purpose. After all, food sustains us and allows us to energize our thoughts and actions, but like much on the global scale, food distribution is inequitable and unsustainable. Within foodways, you find a microcosm of global socio-economics. Giving more social, political and cultural significance to food and its production can empower us as consumers and can elicit a paradigm shift toward a greater reverence for the health of the Earth and its inhabitants.

All images are copyright protected and may not be used without permission. All images are courtesy of Jim O’Donnell. View his Izilwane photo gallery Food, Culture and Conservation and visit his website for more information.

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iGodfay, Charles, H. et. al. “Food Security: the Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People”. Science: 327:5967 pp. 812-818. February 2010

ii “Food Security”. World Health Organization. August 2012. http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/

iii “Food Security”. World Health Organization.

iv Godfay, Charles, H. et. al.

v Godfay, Charles, H. et. al.

vi Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) pgs 43-53.

vii Pollan, Michael.

viii Pollan, Michael.

ix Pollan, Michael.

x Pollan, Michael.

xi Strom, Stephanie. “Clinate Change to Effect Corn Price, Study Says”. The New York Times. April 22, 2012.

xii Pretty, Jules. et. al. “Sustainable intensification of African agriculture”. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability: 9:1, 5-24.

xiii Oram, Julian, Dr. “Sustainable intensification in Africa feeds greedy agribusiness, not people”. Greenpeace International. May 4 2012.

xiv Barclay, Eliza. “Bhutan Bets Organic Agriculture is Road to Happiness”. NPR. July 31, 2012.

xv Pretty, et. al.

xvi“Top Farmer Leads Way Forward”. The Wellington Times. March 12, 2012

xvii Andrade, Fernando and Octavio Caviglia. “Sustainable Intesification of Agirculture in the Argentinean Pamps: Capture and Use Efficiency of Environmental Resources”. The American Journal of Plant Science and Biotechnology: 3:1, 1-8.

xviii Pretty, et.al.

xix Pretty, et.al.

xx Pretty, et.al.