Monday, March 23, 2009

Clear-headed, sobering words on food

Fantastic interview with UK food policy researcher Tim Lang here from GRAIN's 2008 issue of Seedling. He says the world is "sleepwalking" its way through the food crisis, expresses his belief/analysis that the present crisis is not a "blip" as others were but rather presages long-term change for the worse (though in the short-term food prices may again lower for some brief period), lays out the 8 interconnected features under threat with today's "productionist" food system and politics, and expresses hopeful cynicism about the ability of humanity to change the system for the better before a dire and harsh shock to the system comes about in the form of even worse crises.
I used to think, until about five years ago, that an orderly transition was possible. I now wonder if we’ve missed the moment. I hope not. But events are now determining the room for manoeuvre. It’s more likely now that shock will change things. As a rationalist, I want that least. Shocks are messy with dire consequences. But certainly, it looks likely that we might be sleep-walking into a world in which blood flows, metaphorically and at times actually, due to mistakes over food policy. All of us need to raise our voices and our game to prevent those mistakes going unnoticed. Ultimately we have to side with food democracy over food control.

Read the rest of the insightful interview here; and if you're in the upstate New York area in a couple weeks, come see him give the Plenary talk at Visible Warnings: The World Food Crisis in Perspective, April 3 & 4 at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.


Trail Blazer said...

It is difficult for someone like me, with no background in agricultural issues to understand the profound meaning of a "global food crisis". I mean, I can understand famine in this area or that, but the concept that somehow the entire food-economic system could collapse seems so far-fetched. No? In any event, you have hit on one of the worst things about attending a shitty university--we never get great speakers like UM and Cornell seem to get. Alas, I should have been richer or smarter.

J said...

Hmm... I kind of see what you mean, but kinda don't. On the one hand, there seems to me to be a clear global food crisis when 1/6 to 1/7 of all people in the world can't nourish themselves, and 2 billion people don't have access to all the micronutrients necessary for proper health and development. This includes around 30 million Americans, who at some point in the year, USDA research says, went hungry or had to sacrifice other basic necessities in order to feed themselves or their children -- in a country that consumes an average of around 3800 calories/person/day.

On the larger scale, in terms of wide-spread collapse... well, on the one hand, it's not hard to argue that a system depriving almost 1/3 of all people on earth of proper nutrition even when such nutrition is physically (though not economically) available in many if not most cases is socially unsustainable, or at the least, socially quite sub-optimal. One can question whether such a system is even designed with the purpose of feeding everyone; if the answer may be no, that is a form of crisis itself.

But truly, the crisis is the combination of the above factors, with the fact that agriculture is part of a larger unsustainable system. I mean, if petroleum prices skyrocket, so will hunger -- and petroleum and other energy prices seem likely to skyrocket. Not just transportation around our splayed food-processing system, but the generation of fertilizers and pesticides, not to mention fuel for mechanized methods (tractors, combines, etc. etc.) will be undermined as energy becomes scarcer and costlier. Plus the increasing negative environmental effects of the food system (dead zones et al.) and lax food safety standards with widespread distribution leaving us open to continued outbreaks and epidemics... yeah, it seems easy for me to imagine this Jenga tower of a food system collapsing, but maybe that's just me [g].

Trail Blazer said...

Ok, but the places on Earth suffering the greatest food crises (or famine as I define them) seem always to be those countries with governments that refuse to deliver humanitarian aid because the government is trying to break the will of the people. Or whatever their reasons are, they are punishing their own people by withholding food and clean water. There is a difference between a global food crisis and the politics of food.

Now, I will give you that it isn't implausible that there are hungry people in the US and that we have people, particularly the elderly and children, who are deprived of adequate nutrition and nutrients. However, we do have programs designed to alleviate such suffering and my question is why aren't these programs serving everyone in need? This again seems to be politics and government and gross inefficiency getting in the way of getting the job done. I mean, virtually every town everywhere has a soup kitchen, a church willing to feed the hungry or the Salvation Army. I don't get it.

I will also give you that the entire system is held hostage to oil production and oil prices. I can actually envision a world in which the US has food riots complete with national guard, idiot governors, and limp wristed Congresspeople unable to effect change.

J said...

Yikes! It is quite certainly not the case that the 925 million people suffering from malnutrition right now -- provoking millions of avoidable deaths in children every year -- and the 2 billion people suffering from micronutrient deficiencies -- which can lead to blindness and severe developmental stunting for children -- are primarily victims of their government trying to break the will of their own people. I'm rather frightened that that's the image you, a rather informed person, have of it. Poverty is recognized by every major international organization as a, if not *the* primary cause of hunger. And 80% of malnourished children live in countries with food surpluses -- but they're not being deprived to break their will, at least, not on average. On average, the problem is a lack of ability to BUY (or trade, or get gov'tal support to procure) food, and indeed this is often as a result of international trade policies where US (and to a lesser but still significant degree European) farmers/ag firms, with gov't subisides, can afford to sell crops at below their production price, undercutting markets in other countries, bankrupting their own farming class, and providing the reason why most of the hungry in the world are actual small family farmers.

I think I see what you're trying to say, in that political barriers aren't the same as technical barriers, but that's been a huge part of the point of my work. You'd have to see my whole schpiel, but basically, I asked at my thesis defense, to parallel Dobzhansky's famous quote, "Does ecology make any sense except in the light of politics?" By the same dint, I don't think the source of a crisis makes it less critical. It is a crisis, in my mind, that 1 billion people are hungry in the world. And a) I rather doubt your assertion that every town has a soup kitchen, b) information and access to soup kitchens and other charitable organizations is not universal -- do people know what's available? If you're poor or homeless and don't have the internet or contact with a social worker, how do you know where the soup kitchen is, perhaps you've only recently become homeless? And what if the kitchen's across town, not on a bus route, and you work on this side of town 12 hours a day, and the soup kitchen closes within your work hours?

But I digress. I think you're seeing the word "crisis" as being defined one way, when I think a broader read is warranted. Like I say, if 1 billion people are hungry, does the mechanism for which they become hungry stop it from being a crisis? What is it then? Political inefficiency on a massive scale? What do you call it when a politico-economic system provides for 1 billion hungry people? A crisis with the system, or, what? I can't think of a better word for it. I mean, would you agree we have a biodiversity crisis? A sustainability crisis? (Or at least, potential crises in these areas.) Does it matter that the reasons we're not sustainable or halting extinctions is lack of political will, rather than lack of technical ability? Does the fact that the whole world economic system is set up to generate and maintain inequality not constitute a growing crisis as the chickens come home to roost?

In short, I'm not sure I actually understand where you're coming from; it's too bad you missed my defense, I kind of explicitly came at it from this angle =] (and it was probably -- hopefully -- a lot more coherent)