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.”
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…