Food for Thought

blackberry blossoms (Photo: Sue Chambers)Berries and Bees

What are your favourite summer foods? My weakness is for fresh, locally and sustainably grown fruits and berries. I’m especially fond of cherries, blueberries, raspberries, and the wild blackberries that grow within walking distance of my home.  Many of the berry crops had a late start this year, no thanks to a spring that was cooler, wetter, and grayer than usual.  The dismal weather also prevented the bees from getting out and pollinating the berry blossoms, so this year both the beekeepers and berry farmers are potentially looking at losses to their hives and crops and the income generated from them.

The extent to which farmers’ (and beekeepers’) livelihoods are ultimately dependent on something completely out of their control—the weather—started me thinking long and hard about food over the past month.  Well, more specifically, I’ve been thinking about food waste, the inequalities and power imbalances that characterize the global food system, and the catastrophic food crises currently unfolding in the Horn of Africa.  As I quickly discovered, it didn’t take much digging to realize there are some common threads running through these topics.

Growing a New Food System with Oxfam

In early July, I went to a local “share fair” in East Vancouver and I stopped by the Oxfam booth to learn more about their GROW campaign, launched in June of this year.  The purpose of the GROW campaign is to draw attention to the facts that (1) our global food system is broken, and (2) women and girls are disproportionately affected by the injustices and power imbalances that have contributed to our damaged food system.

The Broken System

To many of us living in developed, wealthy nations and still earning middle class incomes, it may not seem immediately obvious that our food system is broken. It’s a different story for people living at or below the poverty level.  According to a 2009 report, The Cost of Eating in BC, people living at or below the poverty line in BC too often find there is little or no money to buy any food, let alone nutritious food, after paying the rent each month.  For individuals and families in developing nations who are living on $2 a day (or less) and using over 60% of their budget for food, any type of food crisis that results in sharp increases in prices means they can no longer afford to buy even staple foods.

Food shortages and the inability to buy what little food is available have resulted in food riots in a number of countries since 2007. Raj Patel and Eric Holt-Giménez prefer to refer to them as food rebellions, as they were in fact political protests against the root causes of a global food crisis.  Unless we start dealing with the root causes of the global food crisis and transforming the structure of our food system, we are likely to see increasingly severe food crises throughout the world over the next 10 to 20 years—and not just in developing countries.

Robert Bailey, the author of Oxfam’s new report Growing a Better Future, asks the following question in the introduction to the report: “Why, in a world that produces more than enough food to feed everyone, do so many—one in seven of us—go hungry?” (2011, p. 6)  I would say that a big part of the reason is that we’ve forgotten Mohandas Gandhi’s admonishment that “[t]he earth provides enough for [everyone’s] need, not [everyone’s] greed.” Consequently, our food system is collapsing under the increasing pressure to produce food for nearly seven billion people on a planet with finite natural resources that are being stretched to their limits to benefit the financial interests of a small minority at the expense of the majority of humanity.

Let’s Stop Putting Women and Girls Last

Bailey contends that whether the reasons for food shortages blame the victims or defend the status quo, they reflect a deeper truth: “Power above all determines who eats and who does not.” (2011, p. 6) The more marginalized or discriminated against a given group is within a society, the less power (economic, political and personal) they will have at their disposal and the more likely they are to be the hardest hit by widespread food shortages.  Too often, that translates as poor, rural, less educated women and girls who are more likely to suffer from hunger and be denied any opportunities to improve their lot in life.

According to a 2010 report, Women and Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development, produced by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), females are consistently discriminated against when it comes to agricultural opportunities and access to land, despite the fact that women and girls comprise nearly 43% of the agricultural labour force in the developing nations (FAO, 2010, p. 23). Far too often, women are not allowed to own or control the farm land they work on, they are relegated to a smaller plot of land, and/or they are refused credit, extension services and irrigation that would help make their land more productive and profitable (Bailey, 2011, p. 32).  Furthermore, according to Bailey, when food is scarce, it is women and girls, rather than men and boys, who go hungry (2011, p. 32).

The international development community has long known that one of the best ways to help families and communities out of the poverty cycle is to educate girls and women and provide women with the resources and opportunities to become economically self-sufficient.  The same seems to hold true in the agricultural realm. Estimates calculated by the FAO suggest that if women were “given the same level of access to resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, in turn reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent.” (cited in Bailey, 2011, p. 32)  It may not seem like much, but that translates into providing enough extra food to prevent as many as 157 million people from going hungry.

The catch, as always, is educating an entire society to recognize and undo long held traditions and beliefs that drive the discriminatory attitudes and behaviours to women.  I explored this issue a few months ago when I wrote about women’s equality (or lack thereof) for International Women’s Day, in March of this year.  Suffice it to say that all of the same strategies that we need to apply to convince some cultures of the value of educating women apply equally to pointing out the value of women’s contributions to the development of agriculture over the course of human history and ensuring that women are also granted the right to control land as well as the services and resources to maintain their farm land.

Three Challenges, Three Shifts, and a New Ethic to Drive the Process

According to Bailey (2011, p. 13), our ability to continue producing enough food to feed as many as nine billion people by 2050 is contingent on how well we resolve three significant challenges, sooner rather than later. These challenges relate to (1) the sustainability of our food system; (2) the equitableness of the food system; and (3) increasing the resilience of the system to better cope with both the effects of climate change and volatility in food prices.

Bailey explains that in order to rebuild a more equitable, resilient and sustainable system, we—as a global community—must restructure our policies and practices in three main areas (2011, p. 8).  First, we need to create a new global governance system with a mandate of effectively tackling hunger and reducing our vulnerability to food crises as its top priorities. Second, we need to build a new agricultural future that gives priority to small-scale food producers in developing countries and reallocates resources to these small-scale farmers. Third, we need to shape a new ecological future that includes investing more in sustainable agricultural practices and technologies, distributing scarce resources more equitably, and modifying the behaviours of businesses and consumers.

Bailey notes that our willingness to make these shifts seems to be dependent on our willingness to embark on a major shift from a competitive to a cooperative approach to sharing resources and solving problems. I would argue that we also need to remember that all life is sacred and we must find ways to meet our needs in ways that cause the least amount of harm to others and the planet.

Rural Uttar Pradesh (Photo: Sue Chambers)

The System with an Hourglass Figure: It All Goes to the Waist

After reading Oxfam’s report Growing a Better Future, I decided to re-read Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved (2007). Patel (2007, pp. 11-12) describes the food system as having an hourglass figure.  The wider end at the top of the hourglass represents the food producers.  The narrow “waistline” in the hourglass represents the corporate buyers, sellers and distribution companies, seed-sellers and agrochemical companies that harvest annual revenues in the billions and trillions of dollars, often at the expense of the small-scale farmers and agricultural labourers. The wider part at the bottom of the hourglass represents the consumers who have less control than they think over the food—and the quality of that food—available to them in the supermarkets where they shop, but do at least have the option of expressing their displeasure at being at the mercy of the food industry giants with their wallet.

Patel explains in great detail what is wrong with the food system and why.  He identifies the power imbalances and injustices in the system and supports his contentions with both statistics and examples of the far reaching, sometimes tragic consequences of those power imbalances.  As Patel notes in the introduction to his book, “the current food system isn’t an arrangement dropped from the sky.” (2007, p. 14). He also recognizes that many individuals don’t know the historical political and economic contexts which shaped our current food system and walks the reader through the historical events, decisions, and policies that created or contributed to the current structure of the food system as well as the imbalances and injustices along the way.

And what of the title of the book, Stuffed and Starved? It refers to a number of contradictions that have emerged out of the dysfunctions of our global food system.  According to Patel, these contradictions are rapidly turning our understanding of the relationships between poverty, hunger, wealth and obesity on its head.

We are now seeing people going hungry or experiencing malnutrition in wealthy countries with a surplus of food at the same time we are seeing impoverished families battling obesity and diet related health concerns largely thanks to the fact that the only food they can afford is often highly processed and high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, salt and wrong the kind of dietary fat. We also have food going to waste, albeit at different points in the system, in both wealthy and developing countries, alike.

Overconsumption and Wasting Away

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that much of the food waste in wealthy countries occurs once consumers have brought the food home from the supermarket.  According to a recent study released by the George Morris Centre earlier this year, Canadians waste 183 kg (402 lbs) of food per year—after we bring it home from the supermarket. While some of the waste is unavoidable (e.g., eggshells, coffee grounds, vegetable parings, cores and seeds that we don’t eat, etc.), apparently a much larger quantity of food is wasted because we buy too much and can’t finish it before it goes bad, or we cook too much food at one time and don’t want to deal with the leftovers.

About two weeks ago, I heard that the City of Vancouver will be launching a pilot program that allows residents to include certain kinds of food waste with their yard trimmings in order to reduce the amount of solid waste that ends up in the landfill. I think it’s a great idea. It would be even better if it were paired with an educational campaign that encourages people to rethink their food buying habits and find ways to reduce the amount of food wasted in the first place.

We might be able to save food scraps from going into the landfill and creating greenhouse gases as it biodegrades, but we can’t reclaim the lives of the chickens or other animals that we didn’t eat, nor can we reclaim the energy and natural resources that were used to produce the food in the first place. I admit that the energy that went into producing the food we purchased and then wasted is not something I’d given much conscious thought to before I read this blog on green living in the process of researching this article. I also recall reading that between 25 and 40% of produce is rejected by supermarkets for aesthetic reasons; the produce is perfectly fine, but it isn’t “perfect looking”.

It’s almost too ridiculous—and tragic—to contemplate: We’re busy throwing out food before it even gets to the supermarket because it isn’t perfect looking. Meanwhile, nearly half-way around the world in the Horn of Africa and the neighbouring countries, people who are wasting away from starvation are walking hundreds of miles to refugee camps in search of any food and water. A combination of factors—including droughts, agricultural policies, political conflicts and instabilities, skyrocketing food and fuel prices, and global apathy—have combined to produce a food shortage crisis of staggering proportions. It is a truly catastrophic situation that highlights everything that has gone wrong in our global food system and all the reasons we need to build a more resilient food system administered through a more compassionate and proactive system of global governance.

What are your thoughts about our global food system?  What would you do to make it more equitable and more effective? I’ll look forward to reading and posting your comments.

© Susan Chambers, August 2011.

If you liked this post and want to learn more about these topics, you might also like these posts:

Reflections on International Women’s Day: What Have We Really Gained over the Past Century?

Vision, Intention, Action! Planting the Seeds for a Healthier Food System

Is Beauty Truth, or Truth Beauty?

August 8, 2011 · Susan · 6 Comments
Posted in: Environment, Social Justice

6 Responses

  1. Shoshana Allice - August 8, 2011

    Powerful thoughts and questions, Sue. Timely, also. I just watched a TED talk by Josette Sheeran that I found relevant and resonant on this same topic:

  2. Susan - August 9, 2011

    Hi Shoshana,

    Thanks for your feedback and the link. I haven’t yet seen the TED talk you’re referring to, but it also came to my attention via one of the blogs that
    I follow on a regular basis: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green (He’s the Head of Research at Oxfam GB). I’ll go and check out the video while I’m taking a break. Oxfam International just included a new interactive map on their website. It shows how rising food prices are affecting people in various parts of the world. You can find the map here.

  3. Pam Sourelis - August 12, 2011

    This is an outstanding article, Sue. I live in the States. I’m fairly certain that the leadership on this issue is not going to come from us. Our food policies are disgraceful. I’m wondering where the leadership will come from.

    I’m sharing your article with my Facebook Friends.

  4. Susan - August 12, 2011

    Hi Pam,

    Thanks for your comment and for generously sharing the article with your friends on Facebook.

    I’m not sure where we’re going to find the kind of enlightened and courageous leadership we need to start rebuilding a food system that aligns with the vision set out in the Oxfam report. I don’t think I would hold my breath waiting for most of the current political leaders in the world to make such bold moves. Maybe we are just going to have to start taking the initiative as concerned citizens, be the leaders we wish to see, and create the changes that must occur in order to get back on track for a sustainable–or any–future.

  5. Kate - August 14, 2011

    Hi Sue,
    This is a great article, wonderfully weaving global, local and global.
    I think those of us who are aware of these issues need to act locally, civically, provincially, federally and more. And a great way is to both be informed about the bigger picture, and to find the parts of the picture that we have most passion for. In your case I think it is writing accessible pieces and getting them out into the world (Submit this to Common Ground???)

    For me, I’ve written letters re saving wild salmon and have been supporting others to grow more of their own food — the latter because it reduces food miles, and especially because it changes how you see food, farmers, bees, etc. etc.
    You inspire me to hold the food system in my heart and thoughts, and to pay more attention to flirts calling me to act.

  6. Susan - August 14, 2011

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for your feedback and insights. I think we’ve come to the same conclusions; namely, those of us who are aware of the issues need to step up and take leadership rather than waiting for our leaders to take action and implement change.

    I’m smiling at the mutual inspiration going on here: I was originally inspired to start paying more attention to the food system as a result of learning about your involvement with the Two Block Diet and other projects related to local food and food security in Vancouver. And now you’ve been re-inspired to put more attention on the food system by setting the intention to hold it in your heart and thoughts.

    Bright blessings for never-ending inspirational thinking and action!


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