Biting the Hand That Feeds You:
Recently, in an off-handed, short and very spontanous (how un-blog like of someone that was), way, I posted a small blurb about what I see as the next big crisis to face our species, that being a crisis of food. Immediately I was greeted with a comment from a reader whom blasted me for not providing “facts,”, and how my post was based on nothing and was basically ridiculous in nature (not a direct quote, just paraphrasing their general idea). While I usually never respond to comments, as I feel that the purpose for what I write here is to lay a forum for ideas and have all comment in any way they choose, this persons comment drove me to elaborate on my ideas of what I think is taking place in our world (as they were right in that reguard, I really had posted… nothing), and how we all need to wake up to the very real threat we ALL could face (and many of us already do) in terms of food sustainability.
Today’s world is a place of uneven development, unsustainable use of natural resources, worsening impact of climate change, and continued poverty and malnutrition. Poor food quality and diets are partly responsible for the increase of chronic diseases like obesity and heart disease. Large corporations have (like in many other areas of our world) taken over farming and turned it into a commodity to be bought and sold, like any other, with very little thought to the end customer (in terms of an overall sustainable, level and future thinking idea of health for the planet and our species not just their present day pocket books). Economic speculators have taken something that is a necessity to our very existence and commodmized it in a way that threatens the ability of some to even have food. These are things I think we need to really look at in much deeper detail and really understand that this is not just a problem of what we see as the “third world”. If the economic crash of recent times has shown us anything, it is that the world is a much more connected place than every before and that no one is immune anymore to something that may happen on the other side of the world and out of the sight (and mind) or ones own backyard.
For decades, agricultural science has focused on boosting production through the development of new technologies. In some ways this has worked very well. New strains of seeds allow for the production of crops in places never before imaged. It has opened up new areas of production and has allowed persons in far reaching places to access foods never before available to them. It has achieved enormous yield gains as well as lower costs for LARGE-SCALE farming, but on the flip side has all but wiped out the ability for small farmers to operate. This success (like so many other of our advancements as a species), has also come at a high environmental cost. Rainforests cleared, overuse of land to the point that it is no longer useable, mountainsides cleared for cultivation, precious ecosystems wiped out, all in the drive to produce more. What we fail to see is that many of the ecosystems we destroy actual serve to balance the ecosystems we need to sustain life on this planet… and ultimately ourselves.
Furthermore, all of these advances have not solved the social and economic problems of the poor in developing countries, which have generally benefited the least from this boost in production, because once again the initial infrastructure for these areas was not in place, and the fast-paced development needed to utilitze these new technologies are slow to filter down through the general worlds population (especially in certain areas of our world). Even in the areas of the world where there is “more, corporate takover of farming has made it impossible to make a decent living unless one is a supersized farm, as it is the bottom line that matters most. The food industry, not unlike all industries employs an army of lobbiest whose sole purpose is to forward the needs of their companies, that need being the bottom line profit. This has led to a decrease in the quality of many products (meat products come to mind immediately), and these also have a direct effect on the enviroments of those areas, which come full circle and effect our species as well. All these things are connected.
Study after study in numerous “western nations”have shown the increase in the size (I mean mass not amount of people) of populations is a direct result of the types of foods we eat. One only needs to enter many neighbourhoods to find the access to fresh fruit and vegetable products is limited, even in the most affluent of nations, but the amount of prepackaged food products is ever on the rise.
Agriculture is closely linked to these concerns and also to other things including the loss of biodiversity, global warming and water availability. Droughts in areas of the United States and Australia, as well as to a lesser extend in Canada and Russia, all emourmous producers of staple foods, have been on the increase and will only continue to do so, as well as more flooding for longer periods of times in areas of Asia that produce large amounts of rice for the world. Certain areas of our globe still believe that climate change is a hoax, and while they have a right to their opinion, it seems to me that looking in their own back yard and seeing the changes to our planet occuring right before their very eyes would lead them to open them… even just a little. Perhaps it is this idea that it is human-made that is the craw in their side. If so, okay, then say that it is a natural process of the planet, but wake up to the fact that (for whatever reasons) it is occurring and it IS having and will continue to have, in greater and greater amounts, a direct impact on everything in our lives, and most assuridly on our abilities to produce food. While not directly tackling the fundamentals of why it is occuring, looking at it in this way for those whom can’t bring themselves to see that humans have contributed to this in great amounts, is still a good start, as I see as it at the very least brings us all onto the same page of understanding that we must do something for our future generations if we want to sustain our species and our food availability. At this point it seems, many don’t even want to be on the page of understanding something needs to be done (reguardless of how we got ourselves to this point in the first place). When people think of climate change their first thought is, oil, and pollution and too many cars, and factories and the like, but what many seem to forget is that climate change means a change to our CLIMATE, and this has a direct effect on how we can grow anything we need to consume.
In order to address the diverse needs and interests that shape human life, we need a shared approach to sustainability that begins with a local awareness but goes hand in hand with a cross-national collaboration. We cannot escape our predicament by simply continuing to rely on the aggregation of individual choices, to achieve sustainable and equitable collective outcomes. This “libertarian” idea of freedom and everyone will follow along for the greater good of the whole, is unrealistic in a species that puts monitary gains ahead of all else more and more and more. When libertarians (as they call themselves) connect their ideas with a free market ideology, it seems we are doomed. We are not a level playing field, as a species, and in some ways, we may never be, but to simply follow this psudo-libertarian idea would get us no further along the path to a solution than we are now. It would, it seems to me, maintain what we have now… pockets of haves and have nots and some whom want the best for everyone, and some whom want something for themselves… and everyone chasing the almight dollar.
Incentives are needed to influence the choices individuals make. Issues such as poverty and climate change require collective agreements on concerted action and governance across scales that go beyond an appeal to individual benefit. In short, humans need to start thinking more collectively. At the global, regional, national and local levels, decision makers must be acutely conscious of the fact that there are diverse challenges, multiple theoretical frameworks and development models and a wide range of options to meet development and sustainability goals. They need to start educating themselves and the general population to the fact that YES what one does DOES effect others, we DON’T live in our own little worlds. Our perception of the challenges and the choices we make at this juncture in history will determine how we protect our planet and secure our future. We need to understand that the planet is not just ours for the span of our own existence, it is, actually for future generations. Beginning to understand we are more caretakers than risktakers in terms of the planet, seems the way to go.
And so, if I were to look at what needs to be done, and taking into consideration all the data from all the agencies the world-over on the multitude of complex issues that are connected to food and its production and distribution, I would say that development and sustainability goals should be placed in the context of:
(i) current social and economic inequities and political uncertainties about war and conflicts;
(ii) uncertainties about the ability to sustainably produce and access sufficient food;
(iii) uncertainties about the future of world food prices;
(iv) changes in the economics of fossil based energy use;
(v) the emergence of new competitors for natural resources;
(vi) increasing chronic diseases that are partially a consequence of poor nutrition and poor food quality as well as food safety;
(vii) and changing environmental conditions and the growing awareness of human responsibility for the maintenance of global ecosystem services
Lastly, I think a very big concern would be the way in which our species has turned everything into a commodity. Banks and hedge funds are speculating on the prices of food. This needs to stop. Speculators are what caused in part (I would not say all, as I do believe we ALL play a part in all things), the internet bubble, the housing bust the collaps of banks and they are what will also cause a food crisis (in part)
Futures contracts’ have been used and were created as a way for farmers to deal with the uncertainty of growing crops (drought, floods, other natural disaters and the like are some examples of this uncertainty). With a futures contract, a farmer can sell his or her crops at a future date at a guaranteed price. However, these contracts can also be bought and sold by speculators who have no interest in the actual food being traded. Instead, by buying and selling the contracts they could profit from the prices changing over time – betting on the price of food.
These markets for futures contracts worked well until the late 1990s, when aggressive lobbying by bankers led to regulations being rolled back (as we know in the case of all the economic stumbles we are experiecing the world over now). New and complicated financial products created more ways to make money from betting on food. Corporations began to amalgimate, creating more demand for a greater profit for their shareholders and their bottom line. All the while, the fact that this was food… one of the few REAL needs of our species, seemed to be an afterthought.
Since the late ninties, the share of the markets for basic foods like wheat held by speculators – who have no connection to food – has increased from 12 per cent to 61 per cent. (source: the World Development Form). Deregulation has led to many of the problems we have in the world today (and anyone whom tells me… show me the facts on that… only need to look at any television news channel or even just walk the streets of their own city… especially in the west…to see the state of the ENTIRE world), and this same deregulation is the same thing that will lead to catastropic problems with food as we continue to move forward.
It is time to fundamentally rethink the role of agricultural knowledge, big business, corporate ownership, science and technology in achieving equitable development and sustainability. The focus must turn to the needs of small farms in diverse ecosystems and to areas with the greatest needs as well as improving and regulating the existing avenues we have in the developed world and beyond. This means improving rural livelihoods, empowering marginalized stakeholders, sustaining natural resources, enhancing multiple benefits provided by ecosystems, considering diverse forms of knowledge, regulating food resources better, changing our attitudes about food as a commodity and providing fair market access for farm products.
A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one. The Greeks understood this all those thousands of years ago, and it seems today, in our world where we are becoming more connected in many ways, we need to understand that connection is just not talking, just not selling and just not consuming, connection is in all things, at all times, and the most abvious of connects will almost most assuridely lead to a multiutde of others as well… If only we would take the time to really look.