Food justice and sustainability

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On March 20th, we had the pleasure of a guest presentation by Elsadig Elsheikh, a researcher and project director at the Haas Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. Elsadig presented on the global food crisis, ethical and policy questions around food sustainability, and challenges and opportunities for the global South (and particularly Africa) within that context.

The quantitative facts related the global food crisis were striking to me: hunger kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined; 1 in 8 people worldwide are hungry (that’s more than the total combined population of the US + EU); 1 in 4 children in the global South are underweight; girls and women are disproportionately affected. Between hungry, stunted and malnourished people, over 3 billion people suffer from inadequate access to food.

The good news is that we actually produce more than enough food to feed everyone adequately. So how is it that this food doesn’t make it to hungry people? In a nutshell, this is due partly to underdevelopment of agriculture in former colonies that were managed as extractive economies; partly due to the overarching valuation of money over people and the planet; and partly due to the (related) creation of a ‘foodopoly’ that has monopolized the global seeds trade and driven increases in food prices. (On the ‘foodopoly’, note that 10 agrochemical companies control over 75% of the global seed market.)

At the same time, the rise of large-scale land deals (LSLDs) has resulted in the accumulation of agricultural lands by mostly-wealthy investor countries, to the detriment of the economic, social and environmental fabrics of the target countries. Yet despite this trend, and the broader the march of neoliberal capitalism, industrial supply chains feed only 30% of the world’s population, with 50% relying on peasant farming and the remaining 20% on hunting, gathering, and urban gardening. The more agricultural land that is absorbed into the corporate food system, the less equitable and more wasteful the distribution of that food is; and the more negative the local and global environmental impacts.

All that is rather depressing. So what are the opportunities or grounds for optimism? One is the ‘food sovereignty’ movement, which is founded on a conceptual reframing of food: food is for people, not for profit; we should localize food systems and control; we should value food providers and nurture their knowledge and skills; we should work with nature, not destroy it. Another opportunity is reflected in ‘agroecology’ initiatives, which promote agricultural practices that are ecologically sound, for example intercropping, composting, biodiversity, and locally-appropriate crops. These result in social, public health, economic and environmental benefits.

Real policy reforms in the global North and the global South could address food injustices. Elsadig suggested a number of specific reforms, which I present below in near verbatim from his presentation. 

In the North:

  1. Discourage industrial-scale meat and dairy production and encourage diets high in grain, vegetable and fruits. This could liberate 40% of the world’s grain production, reduce energy consumption through transportation saving and reduce GHG emissions while improving human nutrition and lowering health costs.
  2. Reject agrofuels/biomass crops except for locally-produced, community-based consumption.
  3. Prohibit land speculation and land grabs.
  4. Eliminate industrial farming and fishing subsidies, and adopt regulatory regimes that encourage genetic diversity among plant, animal, and aquatic food species.
  5. Eliminate intellectual property regimes and unnecessary phytosanitary regulations that privilege genetic uniformity.
  6. Expand public research on the beneficial use of microbes for soil fertility and as bio-control agents.
  7. Ensure that food retailers do not exploit agricultural workers through labor contracts and procurement standards. 

In the South:

  1. Revise the colonial nature of customary laws that tend to increase land concentration and marginalize small farmers and poor, rural communities.
  2. Reverse existing legal frameworks and institutions that manage land allocation and land use to better serve the interests of the people who suffer most from the impact of large-scale land deals.
  3. Promote targeted access to land and resources for rural women and small farmers.
  4. Halt all LSLDs and renegotiate these deals on the basis of social, political and economic national interests that strive toward food security, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection.
  5. Strengthen customary use-of-land and -resource rights, while taking special measures to protect women’s rights to productive assets.
  6. Encourage urban and semi-urban food production, which will support women producers.
  7. Support the conservation of endangered genetic diversity for small farmers through conservation programs in gene banks.
  8. Avoid excessive reliance on trade, and ensure resilient local food production systems.
  9. Reject industry-based food safety and phytosanitary standards that discriminate against peasant farmers and small-scale businesses.
  10. Prohibit any measures—public or private—that constrain the right of peasants to save or exchange food genetic resources.
  11. Encourage and support peasant-based food production and facilitate direct peasant-based consumer marketing arrangements with special attention to the role of women.
  12. Incorporate the UN’s Right to Food in binding law, nationally and internationally.

Please share your thoughts on what was most striking to you about the presentation, and where you think the greatest opportunities lie for improving food justice and sustainability. If helping people to see food as something for people and not for profit is a requisite part of the change, how should we try to promote that?

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8 thoughts on “Food justice and sustainability

  1. It is very striking how the production and supply of food is broken down to understand the complexity it has and the manipulation of corporate interests fostering world-wide hunger. Food is a commodity, and now with the trend of organic food products and health fads, it is becoming more and more an exclusive commodity for those with the means to buy it. When thinking about the food we consume in this country, it is saddening to realize that most of it is wasted. Restaurants, grocery stores, cafeterias, etc. prepare so much food, yet, it is not fully consumed. In my experience working in a restaurant, you witness how much of it is thrown to the trash, whole meals at times, when a few blocks down there are people who are going hungry that evening. I think it is essential to change society’s mentality and framework on food for people rather than profit. However, in this capitalist market, agribusiness and the food industry in general would be powerful interests groups obstructing any attempt for reform or policy change. For this nation , it is not only an issue of our market driven economy, but also lifestyle and habits. We are dependent on our privilege to food access, convenience, variety, and abundance. To change our practice on how we get are food and what kinds, entails a systems change. So in order to accomplish this, must it be a top-down approach imposed by the federal government? Is this even politically feasible? Or is it a bottom-up approach, where local communities set the policy model and practice? How long will this transcend to the national scale? Will it need to be a global social movement where parallel policy initiatives take place in strategic parts of the world?

    In this country, we take our access to food for granted and therefore, the sense of urgency to address world hunger, and even local hunger, is not prominent among people. To change this, there is a need for a strong political movement within local, state, and federal government that promotes and implements powerful policy changes to support local food production that is complimentary to geographical and climate context of regions, eliminates the use of GMOs and other chemicals in the production of food, and privileges better income generation for farmers and peasants.

  2. ewolfson2014

    The most shocking of statistics provided was the fact that 10 companies control 75% of the seed production. This is frankly disgusting and terrifying. This Oligarchy has implications on the global price of food and can very easily decide what food costs and what food is produced, or not produced.

    The question is of course, how do we change the system? A large push has been towards local food production; however, only a small percentage of food is produced in these small cooperations. The takedown of large corporations would need to involve a heavy hand backed by policy change to make it illegal or highly regulated, or taxed.

    • skonala254

      The statistic that 10 companies control 75% of the seed production stood out most to me as well. I agree that this has great implications on the global price of food. In recent years, I’ve read articles on an increase in farmer suicides in India. While there are many probable causes, one often cited reason for the increase in suicides is that farmers borrow money to buy expensive pesticide resistant GM seeds. If their crops fail, they are stuck with an unpayable debt.

      Even in the US, over the last decade there has been a sharp increase in the price of seeds. A 2010 New Times Article stated that “Agriculture Department figures show that corn seed prices have risen 135 percent since 2001. Soybean prices went up 108 percent over that period. By contrast, the Consumer Price Index rose only 20 percent in that period.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/12/business/12seed.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1396937322-m9sYuHLM9DWYv6z+7cDcFg).

      Another implication of the fact that such few companies control seed production is that seed biodiversity decreases. This results in making our food system more vulnerable to climate change as crops will lack the genetic diversity to face droughts, floods, and pests.

  3. aritakatavasquez

    Spurring change is a tricky problem (or shall we say wicked). I think when it comes to something as deterministic as food/sustenance, change needs to come from a place of ethics. Given that we have enough food to feed our world’s population, it is not a question of ‘us versus them’ but rather a choice to allow other humans to die because of the capitalistic system we live in. Because this problem is with our supply system, I think the only real way to approach this is from the top down. I as an individual would have a hard time figuring out precisely where my food comes from and how it is adversely affecting others.

    One of the points Elsadig made that I found particularly interesting was the idea of non-profits being problematic in perpetuating food injustice. We would all like to think the money we donate goes to helping the globally poor. It goes back to the scale of regulation. This is one of the reasons I think change needs to be from a top down perspective. I as an individual am not capable of fully understanding/researching the effects of my actions on a larger system (ie. money I donate going to further harm communities without access to food).

    • ewolfson2014

      The issue of ethics is an interesting one. It was shocking to hear that despite the fact that so many people go hungry every day, there is more then enough food to go around. I agree that the solution should be top down, and I think this needs to happen with the large corporations who control seed production. There should be less of a monopoly on seed production, and a major push should be for local cooperatives to exist especially in the global south.

    • Your point about change coming from a top-down perspective, given the extreme concentration of power at the top (and the incredible effort and resolve it takes the destabilize that power), is well taken. I agree that applying pressure to change regulation is key. Still, I think the recurring discussion we’ve been having in this class about innovation at the grassroots level informing what can happen “at the top” is useful in this context. Yes, we should of course try to change regulation to shift our food systems out of the control of mega-corporations like Monsanto, but simultaneously investing in grassroots efforts can provide an model for macro-scale policies to build upon.

  4. Thanks for an amazing summary for such a great talk.

    To me, Elsheikh presented a very important dilemma when he discussed all the vulnerability of the people in Africa and how very little change/improvements are being done to change the challenges they face daily. And of course the numbers and indicators he provided are frightening.

    I believe that Africa has wealth that can fulfill allot more than its people needs however African cities seem to be subject to two important problems (corruption + bad administration).
    He also touched on the geo-political forces that orchestrate the resources and the relationships between African countries and the rest of the world and here he referred to these as (i) global north and (ii) global south.

    Despite his understanding of the geopolitical forces, his solutions and recommendations for the food problem are based on collaboration between both the global north and the global south. I enjoyed hearing these steps (mentioned above in the original blog post) that can be categorized into: (i) measures taken by the global south to reduce land exploitation and protect the resources, (ii) measures taken by the global north such as reduce the consumption pattern, reduce foot print sand maintain best practices for food production, and (iii) measures related on both ends by increasing means of cooperation and collaboration and exchange of products, knowledge and experience

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