Eating the world

Guest post by Robert Arcidiacono from Made Forward – reward tomorrow with better designs today

The food on your plate boasts a remarkable story. Starting as a tiny seed, gathering nutrients from the ground it has been tendered to, watered and harvested by someone you have probably never even met. On top of this, some of the food has travelled far and wide, been touched by many different hands and ultimately, in one way or another fits within a food system that spans the entire globe. A system that is influenced by commodity prices, the environment, world trade, politics, human-rights, social justice, energy and water availability and so, so much more. It is in this ever increasingly connected world that the pressures on our food system have never been so great.

Currently, this system is able to produce more food than at any other time in our history. At present we grow enough food for approximately 10 billion people, almost 1.5 times the existing population. Our rate of food production has increased over the last two decades faster than our population rate. This begs the question, with all this increase in food production, why has the price of food increased?

I’m sure you, and your wallets have certainly noticed the increasing price of food at the checkout in the last few years. Some reports estimate the price of food has risen more than 40% between 2000 and 2009. In Australia we are fortunate that any increase in the price of food has been complemented by our growing economy and rising dollar. In other parts of the world however the situation does not look so good.

In 2009-2010 a spate of food riot’s took place in cities all around the world as communities voiced their discontent to the rising food and fuel prices. For those in the developing world, even the smallest increase in the price of food affects the price of living and can have dire consequences. Similarreactions to the food-price hike have been continuing in cities all over the globe, in both developed and developing countries as prices continue to rise.

In a time and age where we are producing more food than ever before why too is it that more than 1 in 10 people cannot access low-cost, nutritious food. Why do we still have tens of millions of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition every day?

There is no one factor that has influenced the rising price of food around the globe. Instead there are a range of different, interconnected issues that need to be taken into consideration. Firstly, an increase in the overall cost of food production, transportation and processing as a result of rising global fuel prices has affected the rising food price. Similarly the use of food crops as ingredients for bio-fuel in the US and Europe is taking valuable edible crops and fertile farming land away from food production for people. These valuable lands and watercourses are instead being used to feed our growing energy demands. Not only is fuel competing with food for viable land space but farmable land is also being used to grow food crops for animal consumption. The increasing demand for meat in the emerging middle class across India and China is a multibillion dollar business.

“If you’re using first-class land for biofuels, then you’re competing with the growing of food. And so you’re actually spiking food prices by moving energy production into agriculture.”

Bill Gates

 Using food for fuel and animal fodder in part answers the question as to why the surplus of food isn’t reaching the people who need it the most and can also help explain the continuing rise in food prices. Another contributing factor however is found in  the trading of agricultural commodities (rice, beans and grains) on international markets. This, coupled with trading in futures contracts (where agreements are struck to buy at a set a price in the future as opposed to buying the actual food stocks) is seeing colossal amounts of money being exchanged at the macro-economic level. In such an interconnected global food system, the implications from buying and selling of agricultural commodities in a speculative fashion on Wall street and the London Stock Exchange can have huge implications for the price paid at the checkout for the average consumer.

 Though this all paints a very ominous picture of our food system there is still much room for optimism. The food riots sparked a global revolt from those who were unsatisfied with how the global food system was addressing their needs. In opposition, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have mobilised to form a range of social movements and civil actions. These civil society groups are seeking to rebalance the inequalities in the food system by bringing it back into the hands of the people. Once such movement is La Via Campesina, a global community made up of large, small and subsistence farmers, activists, NGO’s, scientists, community organisations, environmental, human rights and governmental groups. They advocate ‘food sovereignty’ (not to be confused with food security) where food is seen as a human right and should be controlled by those growing and consuming it, as opposed to having it controlled by larger, external market forces.  

 In Australia you will have noticed in recent years the rise of farmers market, community gardens and organic grocers in your city. More and more gardening and cooking programs advocating quality produce are being aired on TV. The foodie movement is taking off and there is an increased consumer consciousness around where and how our food is grown and where it comes from. This shift is a desire from the Australian public to claw back some control over their food system and be able to make healthy, local food choices for themselves and their families.

 This local approach is also gaining momentum in the greater global food system. Buying from a local grocer who sources produce from the surrounding region (or country) supports local enterprises and has flow-on benefits to the communities where the produce is grown. Similarly, an increasing trend for people to grow food in their own backwards is taking locally sourced to a whole new level. Wall gardens, raised beds, aquaponics systems, balcony herb-planters, urban bee-hives and backward chicken coops are allowing people with limited space to reconnect to their food and bring the food system literally into their backyard.

 For me, the act of growing and producing your own food is one of the most rewarding and valuable processes you can possibly undertake. By understanding what is involved in growing a simple herb plant or going through the (very rewarding) action of picking a tomato that you have grown yourself you are heightening your understanding and connection to the greater food system.  The food that ends up on your plate is in your hands, literally. As a consumer you have the power to choose what food system you support. Choose wisely. As Pam Warhurst, the inspirational community leader and activist once said, if you eat… you’re in…

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3 Responses to “Eating the world”

  1. Sambojam May 21, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Rob Armstrong hits many nails on the head in this broad sweep of global (and re-emerging local) food systems. One question missing but that will become increasingly important to respond to is the ‘straw man’ concern about how we can possibly feed the estimated 9 billion who’ll be around by mid-century. That concern (which would be more legitimate if – as Rob points out – we weren’t already producing enough for that many!) will only come thicker and faster as time goes on, and what is problematic about it is how it is being used to pre-determine the values embodied by our future food system; namely, by advancing the interests of big agribusinesses at the expense of farmers in developing and developed countries, by accepting GM crops as a ‘necessity’, and by locking in the modern agro-industrial farming model as the only way to go, just because it can deliver short-term surpluses of product (with high chemical and fossil fuel inputs, and high environmental impacts). So I put that out there as a missing piece of the puzzle; no surprises that it also points us towards exactly the types that Rob describes in the last couple of paras.

    The other thing that is already worth thinking about are the ‘structural inefficiencies’ built into our food systems. I’m thinking particularly of meat production and biofuels (which Rob dealt with). But I think it’s worth introducing this term – structural inefficiencies – to the lexicon to drive home the point that the choices we currently make within our food systems are not ‘problems’ that can be ‘solved’: cattle will always produce drastically less nutrition per unit area, and per unit input, than agricultural crops. There’s a clear parallel with vehicles: you might be able to design more efficient engines (and we have) but as long as you’re still hauling one tonne of metal up hills for only 75kg of person, you’re gonna be burning a sh*tload of fuel. So I think we need to get real about how to live with less (meat, cars etc.), ideally through clever design of our food choices, as well as our cities, houses, lives, lifestyles and livelihoods. The food system is an awesome place to start. Great job guys.

    • Rob May 21, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

      I whole-heartedly agree with the introduction of the term ‘structural inefficiencies,’ and as you pointed out Sam this applies to a range of contexts far wider than the food system. Any shift from these inefficient systems and models however requires a change, a commitment to step away from the existing models we are using (models based on industrial revolution principles) and be prepared to back in and try new alternatives (often however these alternatives aren’t ‘new’ per-se, but based on traditional knowledge that has been around for centuries . . . but thats another conversation!). For me, this must happen from the individual level (in this instance, people making better food choices at the check-out; buying locally, buying organic, etc) and supported at the macro level by governments (advocating for healthier food initiatives, supporting community and small scale agriculture ventures) and the private sector (where CSR has an important role to play).

      This same argument can be said for renewable energies industries and public transportation systems. There is great potential for both of these industries to deliver positive returns (both socially, economically and environmentally) should we be prepared to accept the structural inefficiencies with existing power generation technologies and people in private cars. What I’d do to see an Australian government be bold and be prepared to try the alternatives: alternatives which have been proven to be successful in a vast number of countries around the world.

  2. Rich May 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Rob Arc,

    This is a beautiful article, you have touched on some very important global sustainable development issues;

    Some random and topical comments that I would like to make. I would love to see the following on the global-national-local food procurement/marketing/governance etc etc

    – Eating only seasonal fruit and veg. etc.
    – Using local resources, one of Australia ‘s biggest sources of protein is literally hoping right by us. The ‘first world’ yes I will use this phrase to describe the arrogance of developed world consumers not eating certain protein sources and instead electing protein sources with much higher ecological footprints especially when you start feeding them human grade food!
    – Selectiveness of consumers. Wow an apple has a grub, shock me nature. Cut the disturbed portion out and mung on the rest.

    We at the top are eating a hole out of the bottom.

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