Food Security

Sound Consumer | April 2001

by Carol Estes, Associate Editor Yes! Magazine, A Journal of Positive Futures

farmers & field

In honor of Earth Day, April 22, this cover story is not an easy story, but it's a real story and one with bearing on food, farming and community. It addresses many issues raised by members in letters and calls.

Remember when we thought we could end world hunger? We were a younger people then — idealistic, confident. Fresh from victories in back-to-back world wars, we talked seriously about making the world a better place. By 1974, even Henry Kissinger was promising the world that within a decade, no one — man, woman, or child — would go to bed hungry.

We spent billions industrializing our agricultural system, breeding new miracle seeds and miracle animals, concocting herbicides and pesticides, designing bigger and better farm machinery and irrigation equipment.

In some ways, we were successful. We increased yields at home and abroad, outdistanced population increases in some places, and we nearly tripled food production worldwide in a span of 30 years — the largest increase in history.

We failed, however, to make a dent in hunger. The more we learned, the more complicated the project got.

The problem of hunger, which we believed was simply a matter of growing enough food to go around, grew into the mega-question of "food security," a tangle of complicated issues, including climate change, politics, economics, trade, genetic engineering, chemicals, intellectual property rights, loss of species diversity, loss of pollinators, desertification, depletion and pollution of groundwater, consolidation of control of food industry, feminism, antibiotics, and even AIDS in Africa.

While the solution eludes us, victory over hunger is becoming more urgent. As the US Department of Agriculture puts it, "Our humanitarian interests, our economic interests, and our national security are at stake." The 1.6 billion hungry people, for whom much more than "interests" is at stake, are growing increasingly desperate to reshuffle the deck that's stacked against them.

So we begin again, with the question, "is there enough for all of us?" The answer — both yes and no — is a frustrating contradiction.

Part I: Things run out
I recall a meeting in Chicago on a blistering hot day in an old nunnery. A few Americans drank coffee and talked, preparing to be UN-certified election observers in East Timor. We trade stories of food and culture shock. Patrick, who'd spent a year in Sri Lanka, talks about the local grocery store there, a tiny, one-room affair with mostly empty shelves. "You'd come in to buy something," he said, "and the owner would shrug and say, 'Sorry, no food today.' Or 'Sorry, no water today.'" That, he said, was the lesson of Sri Lanka. Things run out.

The lesson is both simple and profound. Things do run out. Clean water runs out. Food runs out. Species are lost. Whole ecosystems are lost. It's the most painful maxim of the environmental movement: we live on a finite planet, a place where things run out.

This fact is emphasized by some of those who think most deeply about hunger, including Lester Brown, executive director of the World Watch Institute. "It will be food scarcity that rouses us from our sleepwalk through history," he warns. The evidence he offers is a ringing wake-up call.

During the last half of the 20th century, he writes, all three of our food systems — croplands, fisheries, and rangelands — expanded dramatically. Now that's changed. Grain production is stagnating across the board. Wheat yields in the US have increased little since 1983. Rice yields in Japan have gone up hardly at all since 1984. Grain importing countries, now the vast majority, are dangerously dependent on the five countries responsible for 88 percent of wheat exports. Seventy percent of fisheries are depleted. Beef production is stagnant or declining. "For the first time since civilization began," Brown says, "farmers must carry the burden alone."

It's a heavy burden, since most experts believe we'll have to double food output in the next 30 years to feed a population projected to increase by 2.4 billion (the total world population in 1950).

Can't biotechnology feed us?
The consensus among experts is, no, not this time. The reason, according to Brown, is that "conventional plant breeders have already done most of the things they could think of to raise grain yields." The data shows none of the genetically engineered (GE) seeds significantly increase crop yields; some surveys show yields are noticeably less, apparently caused by the process of gene insertion. Furthermore, most of the research with GE organisms has focused on pest management not increasing yields, and the dangers of genetic engineering are significant and well publicized.

So is Lester Brown right to predict scarcity of a magnitude that could send us all spiraling downward?

There's good evidence that he is right. Already we're running out of options. For example, we can't get the new miracle varieties to produce heavy yields without enough water, and in many parts of the world, clean water supplies are being contaminated by surface runoff or mined from aquifers faster than they're replaced. We can't just put more land into cultivation, because in most places, all the land that should be cultivated already is being cultivated; adding more would destroy habitat and create erosion and soil loss. We can't simply eat more fish, because the fisheries already are depleted, and fish farmers typically use more protein in feed that they produce in marketable fish. Common sense also tells us that the limits we haven't already reached lie dead ahead.

But there is another side to the story.

Part II: Simply too much
We're back in that hot room in Chicago. As others speak, they tell of a different kind of culture shock — not scarcity, but shocking abundance. Michael, a former track star, said that he and his girlfriend pushed their shopping cart through the bright lights of their local supermarket, past endless rows of food piled high. "I was anxious, but I did okay," he said, "until I came to the cereal aisle, brand after brand, flavor after flavor." He fled, abandoning his cart and his girlfriend, leaping the turnstile like a high hurdle. It was, he said, "simply too much."

In the U.S., we're awash in a sea of food (which is not to say there's no hunger here). The average American adult has 20 contacts with food a day and about 50,000 food products to choose from — regardless of the season — with 43 new products introduced every day.

Here, things don't run out. When the salmon fisheries are exhausted, we find farm-raised salmon on our store shelves and unless we've read the papers, we hardly notice the change. When the coffee crop in Central America fails, coffee prices go up, but there's still coffee. When the oranges freeze in Florida, the price of juice rises, but we still have orange juice on our breakfast table.

Why do real shortages seldom occur here? According to Peter Rossett, executive director of Food First, there is no shortage of food. The world produces enough food right now to provide 4.3 pounds per person every day — two-and-a-half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk, and eggs, and another of fruits and vegetables — more than anyone could ever eat. We can count on having enough food to go around for the next 25 years.

"Hunger is not caused by a shortage of food," he argues, "and cannot be eliminated by producing more." He says there's no correlation between an abundant food supply and lack of hunger: "Increased food production can — and often does — go hand in hand with greater hunger."

If an abundant food supply prevented hunger, there wouldn't be a single hungry individual in the United States, one of the world's largest producers and exporters of food. Yet the USDA reports that one out of 10 US households is "food insecure." Seventy-eight percent of countries reporting child malnourishment are food exporters.

The cause of hunger is not lack of food, Rossett says, it's lack of access to the food supply. It doesn't matter how safe or plentiful the food supply is, if people are too poor to buy it.

Our broken food system
Different as they are, scarcity and superabundance are two halves of the same whole: a broken food system whose object is not feeding the world's people but scoring a profit for its owners. In this system, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the food follows the money.

The globalization of the food system, a tide that was supposed to lift all boats, has left the poor high and dry. Transnational corporations are rapidly integrating vertically and horizontally to control food production, from seed to shelf.

The result of globalization is a world more polarized than ever before in human history. The poorest 20 percent of the world's people watched their share of global income decline from 2.4 percent to 1.4 percent in the past 30 years, while the share of the richest 20 percent rose from 70 percent to 85 percent. In a world where money rules, the food follows the money. Globalization through such institutions as the World Bank, the WTO, bilateral "aid," and the large food corporations has succeeded in moving people from food production for local consumption to production for export.

Walk through the fertile valleys of Guatemala and you'll find plantations growing high-priced coffee for export to the rich countries of the world. Look up on the rocky hillsides and you'll find farmers — those who haven't given up and gone to work as day laborers in the coffee plantations — tilling fields at seemingly impossible angles. The production of cash crops displaces farming for local consumption, displacing farmers, and leads to hunger. The price paid to those commodity farmers is kept low by corporations that control distribution and marketing channels.

For Peter Rossett and Lester Brown, the solution to eradicating hunger lies in eradicating poverty.Yet, eliminating poverty sounds like an even bigger problem than eliminating hunger. How do we eliminate poverty? That's something small farms are good at.

Small is beautiful
We're accustomed to thinking big. So it seems implausible, when we confront the giant, many-headed monster of world hunger, that the solution could be local, small scale and old-fashioned. But all the signposts point the same direction: toward small and medium-sized farms, low input farming based on agro-ecology, and producing for local consumption.

Why local? First, agriculture supplies 60 to 80 percent of employment in developing countries. It's logistically impossible for food exporters to supply the projected food needs of the developing countries' four billion city dwellers. Besides, the poorest countries don't have the foreign exchange necessary to buy their food from abroad. Their export crops, usually raw commodities like sugar or coffee, bring low returns compared to purchasing processed products from global corporations.

Why small? Small farms are more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to economic development than large farms. Lester Brown suggests raising productivity by increasing the number of crops per hectare through multiple cropping. Intercropping is a method for doing just that — too labor intensive for big farms, but commonly practiced on small farms and showing tremendous results in China. Small farms, too, have proven to be better stewards of the soil and water.

What about the economies of scale that work in favor of large, industrial agriculture? Research at Food First and elsewhere reveals that small farmers using sustainable agricultural practices — without genetically altered crops — obtain five to 10 times greater productivity per acre than do large, industrial farmers worldwide. But when small farmers talk about productivity, they're not talking about yield per acre of a particular monoculture. They're talking about total output of food, fiber, fodder, and fuel needed to supply local needs.

Community food systems
Why community food systems instead of global markets? Local communities can pay higher farm prices and foster direct sales through community supported agriculture and farmers' markets. Instead of farmers getting pennies out of every consumer dollar spent on food, they can start getting living pay. In return, small farms create a strong economic base and healthy communities.

A now classic study of California's San Joaquin Valley in the 1940s compared communities surrounded by large farms to similar towns surrounded by small farms. Where family farms dominated, there were more local businesses, paved streets and sidewalks, schools, parks, churches, newspapers, clubs, better services, and higher civic participation.

If it seems impossible to turn back, since we've come so far down the path of industrial agriculture, Peter Rossett points to the case of Cuba.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and ended the subsidized import of petroleum products in 1989, the Cubans, used to industrial-style agriculture, faced collapse. Faced with the impossibility of importing either food or agrochemicals, Cuba turned inward to create a more self-reliant agriculture based on higher crop prices to farmers, agro-ecological technology, smaller production units, and urban agriculture.

Farmers began to receive much better prices for their products. Given this incentive to produce, they did so, even in the absence of industrial-style inputs. They were given a huge boost by the reorientation of government education, research, and extension toward alternative methods, as well as the rediscovery of traditional farming techniques. They also undertook land reform, parceling out state farms to their former employees. The result is that ten years after the worst food crisis in their history, the Cuban people are eating very well. Politics aside, it's a remarkable success story in food security.

The lesson of Cuba is a crucial one for us all: it's not too late to turn back from industrialized, factory farming. In fact, we've already begun. Throughout the developed countries, organic farming, urban pea patches and farmers markets are gaining ground — to name a few of the sustainable changes afoot. We have a lot of work to do, but now we have a pretty good idea where we should be heading. It turns out that Henry Kissinger was right all along: we can wipe out hunger. There's still time.

What you can do for food security
April can be "the cruelest month," as T.S. Eliot put it; Earth Day rolls around again and we reflect on the state of the planet after a year of seasons. The best tonic for hope, the best antidote for grief, is action.

Historian Donald Worster calls it "Living successfully in nature — living for the long term at the highest possible level of moral development. The marketplace is an institution that teaches self-advancement, private acquisition, and the domination of nature. Ecological harmony is a nonmarket value that takes a collective will to achieve."

Here are the changes we can make in daily meals that will do the most for our health and the health of the Earth's living systems:

1. Reduce average household consumption of meat by one-half in favor of plant-based protein.
This would cut water pollution by one-quarter and food-related land use by one-third.

  • Substitute dairy products. Only ten percent of US cattle are dairy cows, but their production of milk is 3.5 times greater than the production of beef and beef products.
  • Buy certified organic dairy products.

2. Buy certified organic produce.
This simple choice connects to a web of effects, starting with you and your family and embracing the whole Earth:

  • Children: By the average child's first birthday, the combined cancer risk from only eight pesticides on 20 foods exceeds the EPA's lifetime level of acceptable risk.
  • Farmworkers: Workers exposed to herbicides have a six times greater risk of contracting cancer.
  • Food safety: Organic food standards also prohibit genetically modified ingredients, irradiation, and fertilizing crops with sewage sludge.
  • Water quality: Organic farming reduces toxic runoff into rivers, lakes, and ground water.
  • Living soil: Soil rich in microbial life resists erosion and retains moisture; it requires less irrigation.
  • Energy conservation: More energy is used to produce synthetic fertilizers than to till, cultivate and harvest all the crops in the US.
  • Honest exchange: Conventional food prices don't reflect the hidden costs of pesticide regulation and testing, hazardous waste disposal, and effects on our health.
  • Biodiversity and habitat: Organic farms can support 57 percent more wild plant species, three times more butterflies, and 44 percent more birds than conventional agriculture.

3. Buy locally.
The average distance between food in the field and on the table is 1,500 miles; refrigerating, transporting, and storing it uses eight times more energy than the value of the food itself.

4. Support small farmers:
Small farms are more productive, more efficient, and contribute to local economies.

5. Demand labels on genetically-engineered food.
See www.thecampaign.org or call 425-771-4049 for help on writing lawmakers.

6. Participate in ethical economics by supporting farmers' markets, CSA farms, and consumer-owned co-ops such as PCC Natural Markets.

7. Support the PCC Farmland Fund!
Click here for more information.

8. Share. Donate to the Cash for the Hungry program, benefiting local food banks, at any PCC cash register.

Sources: Institute for Food and Development Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Cancer Institute, Soil Association, Soil Conservation Service, Union of Concerned Scientists, US Department of Agriculture, US Environmental Protection Agency.

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