Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Food for Thought: Eating Local in the Face of a Global Food Crisis

Last weekend the leaders representing the 19 biggest economies in the world and the European Union met in Washington D.C. at the G20 Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy. Although the meeting was groundbreaking for its inclusion of leaders from developing countries, it has been criticized by Oxfam for not representing the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries.

The meeting’s resulting action plan was also negatively received by some because it lacks specifics, and simply reinforces established principles and goals. The G20 members emphasized their belief in the importance of free market principles to the global economy and reconfirmed their commitment to reach the Millennium Development Goals, though they did not offer specific plans on how to do so.

Leaders of the Group of 20 meet for a financial summit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., last Saturday. AP/IMFThe first of the Millennium Development Goals is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, specifically to halve the percent of people who suffer from hunger by 2015 (from 1990 levels). Yet in 2008, for the first time in decades, the number of undernourished people actually increased. More discouraging news was reported earlier this month by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, in a report that said this year’s financial crisis is likely to cause a decrease in food production and could result in a devastating food crisis as early as 2009.

There are many factors that contribute to a lack of food security, including a worldwide increased demand for food, as well as declining agricultural production in some regions. Small scale farmers may choose to plant less when faced with increased costs of production largely stemming from the use of nitrogen-based fertilizer, an outdated and environmentally degrading technology, that depletes the soil, pollutes nearby bodies of water with its runoff, and increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Farmers have seen the price of chemical fertilizer triple since its use first became popularized about 50 years ago alongside other industrial agricultural techniques, in the so-called Green Revolution. At the time it was a remarkable success for increasing yields throughout the world in countries like Mexico and India, and was hailed as a victory of science in the battle against hunger. Nowadays, when it comes to farmers’ expenses, the cost to fertilize a farm is second only to the price of the land.

If we are to avoid a global food crisis, a multidimensional solution is necessary. One part of the solution is combining sustainable practices with modern technology. For example, the GeenSeeker, a computerized sensor that scans a plant’s leaves to evaluate the amount of nitrogen it needs, could stop overfertilization, saving farmers thousands and minimizing harmful byproducts of fertilizer. There must also be large scale policy measures taken, at the national and international level, to remove subsidies for industrialized agriculture and increase sharing of technologies between countries.

While governments can certainly play a role in fostering an environment for a shift to smaller scale, non-environmentally degrading production of food to occur, individuals can also have a lot of power. By choosing organic and locally produced food, people can grow their communities and local economies, and at the same time help the environment.

“Eating local” means eating the food that grows near you and is in season. Doing so decreases carbon emissions by cutting down on the miles food has to travel to get to the consumer, increases diversity of seeds grown, and because local farms are smaller, they are usually tended to by people rather than by chemicals, meaning they do not cause air and water pollution like larger-scale agricultural plots.

Locally produced and consumed goods also help build a sense of community, as families get to know the farmers of their food and build a connection to the land they live on. Farmers benefit because they do not have to lose part of their profits to a middle man. Organic food can also help increase the general health of societies because various studies have shown it is more nutritious than its industrially produced counterpart. A presumed better taste of those products would, moreover, make it more appealing to kids and adults alike.

However, since organic food is more labor intensive than conventionally produced food, it is usually more expensive. This difference in price is also partially due to the fact that the demand for organic food is outpacing its production, (supply is low and demand is high). Outdated subsidies for large scale chemical-reliant production which distort the real cost of foods produced in this way, as well as regulations that do not internalize the environmental costs of such large scale production also contribute to the relatively higher price of organic food.

While price will always be an important factor for consumers, there are also social, environmental and health issues at stake. According to Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”, eating is now a political act. What we choose to buy and eat or not buy and not eat is how we cast our vote for the future of the agricultural industry.

As a part of the local food movement, schools and households are being encouraged to grow their own food in small gardens plots using cheap and environmentally sound fertilizers like homemade compost. There are many online resources being developed to promote local eating. One example is the EatWellGuide, a website that allows people to search for organic bakeries, restaurants, farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) farms, etc. by location in the USA and Canada, thereby increasing accessibility and awareness of these initiatives.

The local food movement achieves a level of participation unattainable in bureaucratic meetings like that of the G20 this past weekend. Alongside efforts from government and the private sector, and improvements in technology and communication, the local food movement promises to be a key part of the new Green Revolution to secure food availability, quality and sustainability for generations to come.

by Mallika Nair, Planet2025 Network

Sources: AlterNet.org, BBC.com, FAO.org, EatWellGuide.org

Source: Planet2025 Network