Food security is generally understood as the repossession of decision-making powers in the food production system, along with the ability to influence the way food is grown and where it comes from. In other words, it’s about restructuring the relationship between people and the land; between those who grow it and those who consume it. This reflects a growing sense of urgency being observed in today’s society directed at promoting social justice and environmentalism, all the while rejecting large-scale plantations and the expansion of wasteful and unsustainable food production techniques.
More is not always better
Traditional recipes for relieving hunger have always depicted the problem as being one of production. This view is generally responsible for advocating the use of genetically modified organisms and industrialized agricultural practices (i.e. monoculture) and serves as the basis for the majority of hunger relief initiatives today. In fact the granddaughter of Norman Borlaug (Nobel laureate commonly referred to as the father of the green revolution), Julie Borlaug, acknowledged production as being the primary problem in hunger alleviation, while also expressing her support for the use of GMOs:“My grandfather thought that the only way we will feed all the people in 2050 is through technology, specifically GMOs.” Other GMO supporters like Margaret Wente also routinely cite Norman Borlaug and Jimmy Carter in claiming that the “misguided environmental enthusiasts of the West” have contributed to the problem of food security in Africa. According to Wente, “enviro-romanticism’s” role in persuading African governments to ban genetically engineered products, which have the potential of boosting drought resistance and ward off harmful pests, is putting countless of lives at risk. This sort of rhetoric promotes the idea of food shortage as being at the root of the problem, and is behind most governmental and non-governmental initiatives aimed at dealing with issues related to hunger.
There are, however, those that insist that global food supplies are not subject to scarcity and that the hunger problem is not necessarily a mathematical dilemma, but rather that of politics. In effect, those that dismiss production as the root of the predicament point to large numbers of undernourished in countries that have an excess of food: According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it’s estimated that the vast majority of all malnourished children live in countries with food surpluses. Consequently, it’s fair to say that hunger has increased not as a result of lack of food supplies, but because of skyrocketing food prices, lower wages and increasing unemployment resulting from the global economic system. Exasperating the problem is the general consensus held by governments and international institutions to support mass production policies. This often translates into an increased production of expensive export foods rather than staple foods. In other words, a large portion of the poor simply cannot afford to feed themselves and their families adequately. The dilemma, therefore, seems not to be one of production but more of access and distribution.
It is widely argued that the growth of international agriculture over the past decades has had negative consequences for global food security. For starters, the current dominant schemes of food production and distribution not only ignore potential solutions on the local level, they also create obstacles for sustainable local food systems. It is not unusual for in-season locally grown foods to be more expensive or more difficult to access than those imported from thousands of kilometres away.
There’s also an abundance of data illustrating how overconsumption in Western countries is contributing to increased food insecurity in “Third-World” countries. It’s estimated that an individual born in the United States will consume twenty times as much of the world’s resources as an African or an Indian. Such statistics well reflect the problematic and disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources, which roughly translates into the top (in terms of wealth) 20 percent of the world’s population consuming 80 percent of the global production of goods and services. Even more distressing, food grown locally is most often exported while large segments of the local population are left to suffer from hunger and malnutrition: India went from a food grain surplus of 10 million tons in 1999 to 44 million tons in 2000. However, instead of distributing the surplus among the disadvantaged, the government was more interested in either finding an export market or releasing it in the open market.
The commoditization of food has had severe implications for food security. This transformation has resulted in food becoming a commodity, rendering it just another item to be traded in the free market. Those who do not possess the necessary economic means simply do not have access to the food supply network. This system of haves conomic status is the determining factor in whether people have food on their tables or not.
In response to the industrialized nature of the current system and its trade-driven approach to hunger relief, emerging social movements are countering current agricultural structures with the aim of promoting food sovereignty. One such advocate is the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), a global network comprised of various NGOs and CSOs concerned with food sovereignty issues. With its ability to focus attention of its members on issues of importance, the IPC serves as an instrument for the propagation of information and training on issues relevant to food sovereignty. Moreover, the IPC considers itself as the only platform representing hundreds of millions of food producers globally through the union of various organizations, brought together by the collective will to influence global governance and accountability. The emergence of the IPC highlights the need for an organized global network aimed at delivering maximum impact on food-related policies, which are formulated both on the national and international level. Keeping this notion of collectivism and common interest in mind, the IPC’s mandate revolves around the expansion of political power for the people, organizations and movements that it encompasses. The IPC’s mission is not simply to introduce new social actors to the decision making process, but more importantly, to incorporate their contents, working methods and militancy into the equation. As far as the IPC is concerned, food sovereignty should constitute a fundamental element when approaching and formulating policies regarding food security.
There’s a growing sense of urgency in establishing an effective and democratic agricultural system, which has in turn slowly given way to the emergence of various social movements and initiatives (such as the IPC) that highlight the importance of creating self-reliant local food systems. Food sovereignty is widely recognized as the right of all individuals to define their own agricultural policies, policies that are socially and economically appropriate in ensuring people’s physical and emotional well-being. This includes the right to food and the right to produce the food that’s necessary to sustain a society. The old ways of pouring financing into formulating solutions that emphasize practices such as industrialization of agriculture, the expansion of land for monoculture and the promotion of unfair trade practices have proved inadequate in solving the world’s hunger problems. Therefore, questions should be raised about the long-term economic, environmental and political sustainability of the current system, which seems to largely favour western agricultural input suppliers and consumers in western export markets. Thus, drawing up an effective framework for food security is fundamental in improving the dire situation of millions of people around the world who suffer from constant hunger and malnutrition, with countless others at risk of a similar fate. Achieving the latter is no easy task, but is possible with the incorporation of three fundamental dimensions to food security we need:
1. to ensure adequate food supplies both at the national and local level
2. to create a reasonable degree of stability in the supply food network
3. to ensure the ability of households to physically and economically access the food that is required
For food security to be existent, it is paramount to ensure physical and economic access to a variety of food products that meet the dietary needs for a healthy living. I don’t consider myself overly optimistic or naïve when stating that the eradication of widespread hunger and malnutrition is within the reach of humankind. It’s the lack of political will and of well-formulated policies that are impeding our ability to solve the planet’s hunger problems.
by Philippe Daniel Markarian