Food for Thought: Feeding the Multitudes in 2050

World Food Day Dinner Challenge, 2011Last Wednesday (October 16th) was World Food Day, and this year the theme chosen by the United Nations was “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition.” Over the past few months, I have been gathering various articles and attending diverse events that are connected to our local and global food systems. The insights and reflections from these experiences have been simmering away on the back burner and are finally ready to be served up as some reflections on the local and global food security and what we can do to help shape a healthier, more sustainable and equitable food system that will benefit all of us now and into the future.

Dinner for the Billions

Early last month (September, 2013), I came across an article by Shoma Chaudhury titled “How to Feed a Billion. And Why It Pays.” The article is a commentary on the new national food security bill that has recently been passed by the Central Indian government (i.e., federal government). The program, dubbed as “the largest welfare scheme in the history of the world,” is intended to ensure that 800 million people (roughly 66% of India’s population) are eating at least a minimal amount of food daily. The bill has also added specific provisions to reduce malnutrition among infants and children.

While rates of food insecurity among developed countries such as Canada are nowhere near as high as India or other developing nations in the world, more than 10% of Canadians also go hungry on a regular basis. The Global News website cited a recent study by Valerie Tarasuk (a researcher at the University of Toronto) who found that one in eight (roughly 12.5%) households (or approximately 3.9 million individuals) in Canada did not have access to enough nutritious food in 2011. The rate varied from as low as 10.6% of households in Newfoundland and Labrador, to as high as 36.4% in Nunavat.

Poverty—along with the social and systemic economic injustices that contribute to ongoing economic inequalities within and between countries—plays a key role in hunger and food insecurity, but so do factors such as climate change and a global food system that is in dire need of a major overhaul. We allegedly have more than enough food to feed all seven billion people on the planet, and yet we are consistently challenged to distribute the food in such a way that everyone has access to nutritious food.  If we are running into problems now, what are we going to do in another 30 or 40 years when we have nine billion people to feed?

What will happen if extreme weather due to climate change becomes the norm and regularly wreaks havoc on crops and food production across the globe? What happens when countries don’t have enough grains and other non-perishable staple foods stockpiled to meet their own needs, let alone  provide food-aid to other countries that are experiencing a famine? What happens when developing countries that rely on imported grains suddenly find their supply diminished because the exporting country had a poor harvest and decides to ban exports? When a commodity suddenly becomes scarce, the prices on the commodities markets skyrocket and food prices also rise astronomically. How do you suppose people who are already struggling to make ends meet might respond when they suddenly have to pay 30% or 50% more for staple foods such as grains, sugar, or cooking oil—and food already accounts for more than 30% of their household budget?[1]

These are not just hypothetical questions intended to elicit visions of a dystopian future. According to Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas (See their article, “How to Feed Nine Billion” in the December 2012 edition of The Walrus.), we are already in the midst of an ongoing crisis within our food system, courtesy of climate change, rising energy prices, and questionable economic and agricultural policies and practices. (I’ve written in more detail about the food system here and here.) As for how people react when they suddenly have to spend yet more of their hard-earned but meager income on food—in addition to contending with other pressures such as systemic economic woes and dysfunctional infrastructures—well, we’ve already seen what happens when people finally reach their limits: food riots or social unrest on a large scale.

Food shortages and astronomical spikes in the price of food in 2007-2008, and again in 2009,  triggered riots and unrest in numerous countries around the world, including Cameroon, Morocco, Egypt, Haiti, Mexico, and Bangladesh. (See this 2010 article by Ray Bush on “Food Riots: Poverty, Power and Protest.”) Like Fraser and Rimas, Nafeez Ahmed (“Why food riots are likely to become the new normal” in the March 6, 2013 edition of The Guardian), also contends that a major catalyst for the 2011 Arab Spring was the unprecedented spikes in food prices for staple items and food shortages that triggered food riots across North Africa and parts of the Middle East.

Fraser and Rimas point out that if we want to avoid a future where food becomes so expensive it provokes wars and mass migrations, we as a global community need to figure out how to sustainably grow 50 to 100 percent more food than we are now producing, and we need to create a more effective and efficient distribution system to ensure that everyone has access to affordable food. Other writers such as Eric Holt-Jimenez argue that we already have more than enough food to feed everyone; the problem is the equitable distribution of the food. I’d add that agricultural policies and trade agreements that are shaped by corporate rather than humanitarian interests are a big part of the problem.

Noting the similarities between the kinds of problems that have derailed both our food and our financial systems, Fraser and Rimas explain that just as adhering to sound financial practices and creating a balanced investment portfolio both contribute to growth and provide a buffer against financial crises, a balanced portfolio for our food system would contribute to growth and provide a buffer against food insecurity crises. According to Fraser and Rimas, a balanced food system portfolio would include: high-tech agricultural practices (e.g., developing new seeds, fertilizers and herbicides, and satellite navigation for tractors, etc) as the high risk, potentially fast growth stocks; bonds and GICs in the form of local agriculture as the slow growing, reliable mainstay of the portfolio; an adequate cash (food) reserve stashed away for lean times or emergencies; and a combination of better regulation of “Big Food” and more incentives to store food, promote local systems, and fund technology.

Uprooting the Food System’s Myths and Redesigning the System

Although Fraser and Rimas acknowledge that science and technology alone won’t save us, they also seem to inadvertently imply that despite its shortcomings, the high tech approach to agriculture and other types of food production will most likely continue to shape agricultural practices for large scale farming.[2] I agree that science should have a role to play in improving our food system; however, I’m not convinced that investing time and resources into more of the same kinds of high tech agriculture is financially or environmentally sustainable over the long run. I’m also skeptical of the big agriculture and biotech corporations’ claims that their patented seeds and specialized products are the answer to increasing crop yields and feeding more people in the future.

Apart from the fact that such claims are just a wee bit self-serving[3], the outcomes and observations don’t seem to support the claims. According to Lucy Sharratt and Taarini Chopra of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), there is also plenty of evidence to show that not only are most of the GM crops (cotton, corn, soy, and canola) grown by large industrial food producers for use as livestock feed and biofuel, but that GM crops are not currently being used to feed poor people, nor are these seeds designed for use by small-scale farmers (Common Ground October 2013, p. 13).

In their Common Ground article, Sharratt and Chopra cite ETC Group’s 2009 calculations which show that while large, industrial food producers use 70% of the world’s agricultural resources, they only produce 30% of the global food supply. So, who produces the other 70% of food with the remaining 30% of agricultural resources? The answer, of course, is small-scale and peasant farmers, whose contributions to local food systems play a significant role in feeding people—especially in the Global South. It seems to me we’d be better to invest our scientific and technology resources into researching, developing, and sharing environmentally sustainable practices and solutions that will help small-scale farmers to secure better crop yields in the face of increasingly challenging growing conditions and climate change. (Check out this article on the value of agro-ecology on the ETC group’s website.)

Reweaving the Food Web and Strengthening Local Food Systems

If we really expect local food systems in both developed and developing countries to serve as the agricultural equivalent of GICs and bonds in a balanced portfolio, then we had better start putting our money where our collective mouth is and invest the time and resources into strengthening and growing this component of our food system portfolio.  What would it mean to translate this vision into measurable action steps? For starters, it might mean adopting strategies from the campesino a campesino (farmer to farmer) grassroots movement: fostering collaboration among farmers, teaching and sharing best practices for sustainable agriculture and tweaking those practices and ideas to suit each region rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all solution on those who best know the land they work with.

It would mean taking local food systems and farmers’ markets more seriously in the Global North, where, according to Evan Fraser, we’ve tended to see them as catering to an economically privileged market rather than playing a vital role in contributing to local food security. Within the metro Vancouver region, we are fortunate enough to have municipal governments, community foundations and various socially responsible businesses and restaurants that actively support local farmers and social enterprises such as Sole Food Street Farms. Sole Food Street Farms not only grows artisan quality produce on its urban farm locations (mostly in Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods) but also provides employment and training for individuals faced with significant employment barriers[4].

In places like South Central Lost Angeles, where municipal governments seem to have forgotten about (or given up on?) their inner city neighbourhoods and vacant lots, many individuals have taken up guerilla gardening: they take over abandoned lots and convert them into gardens that produce both vegetables and a sense of community. But it isn’t just in places like Vancouver and South Central Los Angeles that urban gardening is taking root—with or without the blessings of city officials. Seattle is currently experimenting with an urban food forest on public land that is open to foragers. Residents of Oakland, California and other cities in the San Francisco Bay area have also launched numerous initiatives intended to strengthen local food security and affordable access to sustainably grown local produce through urban farms, community-owned food co-ops, and school garden programs. To learn more about the local food movement in the East Bay area of San Francisco, check out Edible City, an inspiring documentary produced and directed by Carl Grether and Andrew Hasse, respectively.

If we really want locally produced food to play a more significant role in the larger system, it means actively advocating for policies and infrastructures that support local, sustainable agriculture and educating other members of our communities about the value of sustainable, local farming and food production. One of the best ways to get people curious and engaged is to provide opportunities to meet and talk to local food producers. I saw a brilliant example of this strategy earlier this year when the visionary women behind the Copia Conscious Business Network organized a series called Thought4Food, a three-evening series that brought together a variety of socially conscious/environmentally sustainable food producers, food retailers, restaurant owners, and foodies.

Local food producers also need our financial support to help them become vital contributors to our local food system and economy. We can do this through shopping at farmers’ markets, buying shares in CSA (community supported agriculture) programs, or through larger scale investments/donations that provide capital to local food producers and enterprises through peer-to-peer investing and the slow money movement[5]. Located in Berkeley, California, Vital Systems California is committed to growing healthy, resilient local food systems and economies, and has developed a curriculum for the Northern California slow money movement that brings local food producers, community representative and investors to work together to create those systems. Vital Systems has also recently launched the Good Food Web : a major new initiative intended to connect farmers, foodies, food entrepreneurs, investors and advocates to each other and to the resources that can support them–educational resources, best practices and knowledgeable professionals.

How You Can Help Change the Food System—Locally and Globally

As with many of the big issues we are faced with today, the challenges we are faced with in fixing the food system are complex and tangled together with a myriad of other related and equally pressing concerns. Just trying to decide where to start learning about all the issues, let alone picking an area to start advocating for change, is enough to leave even the most enthusiastic activists feeling overwhelmed before they get started. So, then, where to start?

I’ve focused mostly on local food systems in this post because I came away from Fraser and Rimas’ article in The Walrus with a hunger for more details about how to bolster the ability of small-scale, sustainable farming to effectively contribute to local food systems. I also wanted some inspiring examples of local food production and organizations or businesses that support local food producers and food entrepreneurs. Based on what I’ve learned, here are some actions you can take to support your local food producers and food entrepreneurs:

  • Get to know your local food producers and entrepreneurs at your local farmers’ market, and find out about their agricultural practices.
  • Consider supporting a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in your area.
  • If you are a socially responsible business and have a “give back” program where customers get to choose a local cause to support, consider including a CSA program as one of the options.
  • Check out Vital Systems California’s Good Food Web. If you like what you read there, join the community or share the link with your social media networks.
  • Ask  your city what it is doing to support local food producers—both professional farmers and community gardening projects.
  • Find out which of your favourite restaurants and cafes support local food producers by participating in farm to table programs and/or otherwise support local food growers. Ask them to consider supporting local food producers by incorporating more local, fresh food into their menus.
  • If you own a restaurant or food-related business, take the time to cultivate relationships with local, sustainable food producers and buy your ingredients from them. Joseph Hodgkinson, owner of Foda Catering in Mountain View California (and featured as a case study in Small Business, Big Change: A Microentrepreneur’s Guide to Social Responsibility), chooses to align his values with his purchasing decisions and makes a point of buying ingredients from local, sustainable food producers. Joseph has also included a list of resources and information on local and sustainable food on his website, which you can find here.
  • Check out the online version of Yes! Magazine’s February 2009 article “8 Ways to Join the Local Food Movement.”

Local agriculture plays a significant role in food security in many developing countries, so it’s also important to understand the social and economic injustices experienced by small-scale farmers in the developing world as a result of political and economic policies that benefit big food corporations. Here are some actions you can take to advocate for fairness in the global food system:

  • Educate yourself about the global food system. One of my favourite sites for providing a great overview of why the food system is broken and how we can fix it is the GROW campaign on Oxfam Canada’s website. (Oxfam America is also involved with the GROW campaign.) You might also want to check out Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved (2008) and his website, where he often posts articles about the economic inequalities and injustices of our global food system.
  • Share your knowledge with a group of friends over a potluck dinner made from locally produced, organic, or fair trade foods. Download the World Food Day Dinner discussion guide from the Oxfam America website as a starting point for your discussion. (You can choose to have a food system-friendly dinner party and discussion any day, not just on World Food Day.)
  • Be a savvy consumer and find out what your favourite food brands are up to behind the scenes. Check out Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign to see how various big food companies fared on Oxfam’s scorecard. Another good resource to check out is the online site Ethical Consumer.
  • If some of your preferred brands engage in practices that leave a bitter taste in your mouth, write to them and ask them to reconsider their practices. On the other side of the coin, make sure that companies with ethical practices and genuinely socially conscious values are praised and recommended and get your repeat business.

I’d love to hear what steps you might take (or already take) either (or both) to support your local food system and advocate for a more sustainable, socially just global food system, so add your comments below. (Just remember that the spam filter is really finicky and you have to type the code exactly as you see it.)


[1] Data from the USDA indicate that in 2011 food accounted for nearly 45% of household spending in Egypt and nearly 50% of household spending in Cameroon. Check out this “Daily Chart” published by The Economist, March 12, 2013.

[2] For a more complete picture of Fraser’s view on these issues, check out his website, feedingninebillion.com.

[3] To learn more about these claims and other myths, check out the food myths website.

[4] I first learned about Sole Food Street Farms while interviewing Saul Brown of Saul Good Gifts Co. for my book, Small Business, Big Change: A Microentrepreneur’s Guide to Social Responsibility (2012, Night Owls Press)

[5] You can learn more about how this works by checking out the tools and resources link on the website for Vital Systems California (http://vitalsystemsca.com/resources-tools/curriculum-development).

October 22, 2013   Posted in: Food System  No Comments