Since food is one of the most basic human needs, it is among the first requirements of an abundant world that everyone's need for food be met. Although sufficient food is grown to feed all people alive today, a large percentage of the world population is under- or malnourished, or even die of starvation. Even people involved in growing food may suffer from lack of food, because they have no rights to the land or its produce; by means of inequitable property rights, they are denied the fruits of their own labor. Numerous other socially created forms of scarcity affect urban or other non-agricultural populations. Modes of food provisioning that help generate abundance for all are the focus of this section of NORA.
Context within NORA
Relationships to other Needs
Having the food one is accustomed to is a key aspect of being at home in the place where one lives.
Inadequate mobility can create “food deserts” where people have inadequate access to grocery stores due to lack of affordable public transport and sparsity of grocery stores. In cases of famine, rural people may not be able to physically get to the places where food is available.
Food security is a key component of security.
Appropriate shelter/housing includes a kitchen or hearth at which food can be prepared.
Adequate food is essential to health.
Supportive relationships often involve the giving or sharing of food; this is essential for children, the sick and the elderly. Food is equally important to self-expression, as in one's food choices, in cooking, and in one's hospitality involving food.
Sustainable agriculture, food processing and handling, cooking and nutrition all require knowledge, and thus opportunities to learn.
At minimum, a meaningful livelihood must support the household's food needs.
People with grossly inadequate nutrition may be disabled from participating in decision-making, even while their voices need to be heard in order for their needs to be met. More generally, collective economic and political decision-making can easily access people's access to food, and is thus essential for widespread food security.
As Bertolt Brecht said, “erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral” – first grub, then morals (and the higher things in life generally). Hence, time to relax, to think, to imagine, to enjoy life, to play, to be alone, and spiritual connection with one’s deeper self and with a transcendent unity, depend on access to food.
Relationships to Organizational Forms
Househollds with access to at least a small plot of land (a garden or fields) or even a rooftop, can grow at least some of their food as a form of self-provisioning. The vast majority of households in the world also cook their own food, which is another form of self-provisioning.
Since households rarely can supply for all of their diverse food needs themselves, people in communities have provided for each other through community solidarity throughout history, and continue to do so today.
Growing food involves the management of natural resources through agriculture in all its forms, fishing, hunting, and gathering.
From harvest through transport and further processing to consumption, agricultural and food products can be handled by businesses in either the individual sales or the committed sales or services clusters. This tends to happen within commodity chains in the context of currencies and markets.
The equipment needed to grow or process food can be shared or rented, while the knowledge can be freely shared. Sharing food itself is an important way of establishing and strengthening human relationships.
Relationships to Resources
Agricultural land is needed to grow crops and raise livestock; it needs to be managed sustainably so that future generations will also have sufficient food and so that habitat remains for other animals and plants; it needs to be distributed equitably so that the people who devote their labor to growing crops are adequately rewarded for their work.
The reliance on agrochemicals, especially pesticides, can have adverse effects on air quality. Air that is polluted, for example by ozone, yields lower harvests. Energy-intensive agriculture, wet rice cultivation and ruminant (primarily cattle) raising add to greenhouse gases, while climate change may have adverse effects on agriculture in many places. The transport of food results in additional carbon dioxide emissions.
Water is needed for crops and livestock to grow; where water becomes scarce agriculture is impacted. Agricultural water use can reduce river water flows directly (e.g., Colorado River, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers that feed the Aral Sea), overuse groundwater, or impact seasonal water cycles indirectly, because dams are built for irrigation purposes.
Industrial agriculture requires large amounts of energy for agricultural machinery and production of fertilizers (especially nitrogen). More energy is required to transport food over large distances to consumers, to process food, and to keep it refrigerated or frozen. Energy crops, such as maize and sugar cane to produce ethanol, are being touted as alternatives to fossil fuels, even though the carbon balance is hardly favorable because so many fossil fuels are used to grow, process, and transport the crops, and energy crops displace food crops or natural ecosystems that serve as carbon sinks.
Living things: crop plants and livestock
Crop plants and livestock have been domesticated for the last 10,000 years or so, and farmers have bred countless varieties of crop plants and livestock since then. A lot of this wealth is being eroded by the advance of a very small number of commercialized varieties with very specific ecological and nutritional requirements (some of them developed through genetic engineering), which is putting agricultural resilience at risk if those ecological conditions change.
Living things: Bees and other agriculturally beneficial insects
Industrial agricultural practices, especially the use of pesticides, are endangering bees (which are needed in order to pollinate most fruit and many vegetable crops) and a host of predatory insects (which keep the populations of herbivorous insects that eat crops in check).
Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity
Currently, enough food is produced to feed everyone on the planet. However, not everyone is well-fed, primarily because huge numbers of people have no productive assets and therefore little income. Furthermore, much of the food is produced in unsustainable ways, because the environmental costs of production are not borne by the farmers or landowners.
The most important cause for widespread poverty and lack of access to food among rural populations is the unequal ownership of land. Ideologically, the ownership of land has been justified as a reward of the labor put into that land, but all too often, the people who have actually put in the labor (peasants, sharecroppers, landless laborers, tenants, women) have no share in the ownership. Instead, it is men (and sometimes women) who have inherited the land who own it, regardless of whether they have invested any of their own labor into growing crops or raising livestock. This creates a rural class structure with many poor people without land rights and with very meager incomes, who cannot control what crops are grown, and do not constitute a significant market for food crops. On the other hand, there are wealthy landowners, who decide to grow crops for export markets (which is where the profits are to be made), and thus serve the needs, or wants, of the affluent for coffee, tea, cotton clothing, meat, etc., rather than the food needs of their own populations.
It should be noted that smaller farms typically produce more per hectare than do large ones, because small farmers tend to be more creative in using every piece of their land, and because they often intercrop several different crop plants on the same piece of land. National statistics often do not catch a large part of this production because it never enters markets. More and smaller farms would thus lead to greater food production, more food security, and less rural unemployment (which translates into less rural-urban migration and less urban unemployment or underemployment).
It is often argued that large farms allow economies of scale, as well as better marketing conditions for farmers (by buying agricultural inputs and selling their produce in larger lots). These economies of scale can, however, be achieved by means other than concentrated land ownership, either by operating large farms as cooperatives, or by establishing marketing coops in which independent landowners join forces to buy inputs or to sell their produce. Small farms can also be made more productive relative to large farms if technologies geared to their needs are developed; some such technologies exist and have always existed, but many new technologies (such as large combines) have been developed specifically with the needs of large farms in mind.
In order for future generations to continue to have sufficient food, for animals and plants to have sufficient habitats, and for ecosystems to remain intact, it is of vital importance that agriculture be conducted in sustainable ways. However, unsustainable practices are widespread, leading to severe soil erosion or degradation, to toxic substances (especially pesticides) polluting the environment, to the overburdening of lakes, rivers, estuaries, and even whole seas with nutrients (which promote the growth of algae, which decompose near the bottom of those water-bodies, leading to zones without oxygen in which very few living things can survive), among other impacts. Such practices impose huge costs on society at large, but because the farmers do not pay those costs, they enjoy an advantage over those farmers who do farm their land carefully. Providing sustainable farmers with a price premium through organic labeling of food does provide them with a market, but only those consumers who are sufficiently concerned about environmental issues and have enough income will pay those price premiums. Therefore, organically produced food will only have a niche market unless industrial, destructive agriculture becomes more costly than agriculture that takes care of the earth. This would happen if farmers would have to pay for their use or abuse of common resources such as the air, water, and the soils (which belong to future generations as much as to the present landowner), and the revenues from those payments were used to maintain environmental quality, and/or were used in such a way as to ensure that all people have access to food.
The food distribution system tends to be dominated by a few large players, beginning with the wholesalers who buy from the farmers, through the corporations that control international trade in agricultural commodities, to food processors and retailers. Likewise, agricultural inputs such as agrochemicals and agricultural machinery are produced by a handful of large companies. These companies leverage their monopolistic control over markets to ensure that the great majority of profits from food sales end up in their hands. Their profit considerations drive many of the technologies that are used by farmers, and the design of the food they sell to consumers. Although supposedly sovereign, consumers can only choose among the items on offer, and are often kept in the dark about the processes by which those foods were produced – without adequate knowledge, one cannot make meaningful choices. What is most profitable for the large food companies is not necessarily what is the most healthy for consumers however. For example, the choices of the food industry have helped propel people toward diets heavy in sugar and in fats, often hidden in places where no-one would suspect them.
Large corporations have also taken control over aspects of production that used to be firmly in the hands of farmers, such as the breeding of new varieties. The large investments in genetic engineering are motivated largely by the ability to patent the seeds that result from these efforts – crops with desirable characteristics can also be bred by conventional methods. Meanwhile, thousands of old crop varieties are dieing out as a result of the buying power of food marketers that is focused on a few new varieties. It is claimed that only large companies can finance heavy expenditures in agricultural research, but here again other models of financing research exist, including research by public institutions, or by private companies or non-profits financed by grower organizations. Neither does research necessarily have to be very expensive if it is geared closely to farmers' practical concerns and involves farmers in crop trials. The claimed advantages of size can be counteracted through better networking among small players.
Corporate producers have also driven down the cost of meat by producing it in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and paying few of the environmental costs associated with this mode of production. This has helped fuel the demand for meat in the affluent countries. These animals have to be fed, however; the majority of the maize and soybeans grown in many countries are devoted to feeding livestock. The land that is used for these crops is no longer available for growing food for direct human consumption. In this way, the production of superfluous meat for the rich (which actually has negative impacts on their health) takes precedence over the production of vitally needed food for the poor.
Once food has been grown, huge quantities are wasted after harvest. Some of this occurs through spoilage, but huge quantities are thrown away either on its way to the consumer, or by consumers themselves. Often it is a concern for cosmetic qualities of the food that leads to it being thrown away, even if it could still be used. Large amounts of food could be saved if spoilage was prevented more effectively, and if food that would otherwise be thrown away would be sold for useful purposes (e.g., apples with cosmetic defects can still be used to make juice), or if it was donated. In affluent countries, some people can obtain food by “dumpster diving” for food that has exceeded its sell-by date but is still good, but grocery stores try to prevent this and in many places it is illegal. Giving away this food in ways compatible with the dignity of the recipients would be a much better option.
In affluent countries, the United States prominent among them, “food deserts” have emerged in many places, where the urban poor have excessive distances to travel to the nearest grocery stores. They instead buy processed foods at convenience stores or at fast food outlets, leading to nutritional imbalance. These food deserts are a result of a combination of factors, including that grocery chains consider the returns on investment in inner city locations to be too low, that cities are unwalkable and unbikeable, and that many people no longer know how to cook. Numerous initiatives address these issues, with varying degrees of success.
Finally, a recent trend with serious implications for food security is the drive to replace fossil fuels with biofuels, especially ethanol produced from maize or sugarcane. It is highly questionable that such efforts will do anything to reduce global warming because of the energy used to grow those crops, and because often these crops replace forests or other ecosystems that are much better sinks for carbon than are agricultural fields. However, the diversion of land from food production to fuel production means that less food is available on the market, which tends to push up food prices, especially in years of production shortfalls. This adds to the food insecurity of poor people. The development of biofuels makes sense primarily where biomass that would otherwise be wasted is used to produce fuel, as in using discarded cooking oil to produce biodiesel.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the reasons why food is so often scarce for large numbers of people even though enough food is produced to feed everyone in rich and poor countries alike. However, if these issues were addressed, the problem of hunger would be vastly diminished.
Approaches to creating greater abundance
- agrarian (land) reform
- family farming
- farmers marketing and buying cooperatives
- agricultural cooperatives
- technology appropriate for small farms
- efforts to preserve heirloom crop or livestock varieties, to preserve crop diversity
- seed saving
- organic farming methods
- agroecology or agroecological methods
- organic certifications
- landless workers movements (in Brazil and other countries)
- reducing food waste
- community gardening
- urban farming
- rooftop gardening
- food coops
- community supported agriculture
- food education initiatives
- local food systems (integrating many of the above items)
- fair trade in agricultural commodities
- public agricultural research
- agricultural research supported by growers associations
- “commons trusts” or a “citizen’s income.”
Useful Links and Stories
Beyond Factory Farming. Canadian organization promoting socially and environmentally responsible livestock production.
FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This site informs about the activities of the FAO, and also includes statistics and other information about issues of food security and agriculture around the world.
Food First, Institute for Food and Development Policy. Institute founded by Frances Moore Lappé that promotes food abundance throughout the world.
FIAN International (Food First Information and Action Network)
The Humanitarian Water and Food Award If you are involved in an initative that seeks to ensure abundance of food and/or water in a community, you may want to apply for this award! The site also informs about the organizations that have received the award in the past, or are finalists for upcoming awards.
Nyeleni (International movement for food sovereignty)
Open Food Foundation: Listing of wikis of open source food projects
More links to be added!
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