Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Ignoring the Debate to Generate Real Solutions!

For the context of this post see: Metamorphosis!

In doing an evaluation of the literature on food security and food systems I’m wondering if the actual focus of the questions being asked should be local vs. global, or alternative vs. mainstream. It would appear to me that such reification could seriously constrain the research. And while I’m not going to fault those who have taken this stance in the past, but there is so much overlap that by creating such a dichotomy between these paradigms one runs the risk of presenting an oversimplification. Now, I do agree that there are clear differences, but is this research really about the debate between the mainstream industrial system versus local eco based food system(s) or is it about optimal solutions to support food access, sustainability and stability? I mean, what are we after here?

The real goal is to address food insecurity, and simultaneously identify patterns of sustainable and resilient food systems in the wake of climate change. This means our food systems need to be environmentally sustainable in the sense that they lessen the negative environmental impacts of agricultural production, processing, distribution and consumption. This includes reducing the carbon waste that is generated and pumped into the atmosphere, this means addressing the usage of and over-dependence upon inorganic fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate water ways and strip soils of essential nutrients. This also means addressing the global reach of food distribution and fossil fuels used to ship these products world-wide as well as the energy consumption and creation of waste products associated with the processing and subsequent consumption of these food goods. With these issues in mind it is hoped that we as a society can drastically cut these impacts and thereby minimize the potential for catastrophic climate change.

However, most scientists are in agreement that climate change is upon us and that the damage has been done. Right now, our job is to avert an all out biotic collapse. So if we are constructing food systems to minimize the effects of food production (etc) on our climate, then we will also need to understand how these methods fair when confronted with the types of climatic shifts that most are warning us of. With the types of shifts expected our way in the next 50 to 100 years, it is necessary for us to assess whether the types of solutions we decide to implement within the food systems of the world will be able to withstand the shock of regional adverse weather, soil degradation, rising sea levels and subsequent massive population migrations away from coastal cities. According to most scientists the effects of climate change will be more severe depending upon the region, which would suggest that regional variations in the configuration of food systems would be most appropriate. This means certain regions will be more dependent upon global imports of food and it might be necessary for these regions to begin identifying alternative means for generating the type of capital needed to feed themselves in a volatile world.

Yet, coupled with these issues is the persistent need to maintain our work to eradicate food insecurity and chronic hunger. Forget climate change for a second, we still have nearly 2 billion people who are food insecure at any given time throughout the year and according to the Food and Agricultural Organization we have roughly 10 million people dying annually from hunger. That kind of death toll is more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined! So we have a tripartite problem to address. One, we need to minimize the carbon leak (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, our practice of food production need to become more ecologically aware, meaning we need a global adoption of agro-ecological principles for food production. Second, we need to construct systems that include practices, trade and networks that support adaptive and flexible systems that can withstand shocks and disturbances brought on by climate shifts (which are already happening). And third, we need a system that is configured in such a way that it provides a level of food equity that ensures that ALL people have their nutritional needs met, in a healthy and just way. This doesn’t mean tons of canned vegetable that processed with massive amounts of sodium and calcium chloride for preservatives, or access to a McDonalds on every street corner, but rather healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate foods.

Now the hypothesis is that a mixture of global and local food system configurations is going to be needed to address these issues in the future, but with an emphasis upon the local eco based system. But what is that ratio for say the Sahel or the Negev, meaning what percentage of food consumption could take place within the region of origin compared to the percentage of food imported from around the world and still minimize the greenhouse gases, ensure food access for all and provide a stable and resilient food system?

To accomplish this task and fully engage this question I still think it will be appropriate to include the discussion on mainstream versus alternative, but this discussion is more of a means to provide a basis for understanding the impacts of climate change on food security, or the environmental impacts of food production (eg the climate) and each opposing side could be assessed in relation to either one’s ability to provide healthy access to food. This would suggest the need to generate two generic models indicative of each of these two paradigms followed by place-based models that allow for mix-up of these different paradigms in order to identify the optimal configuration for each region in the study.


Joal said...

Thanks for putting so much thought into these important issues. You are furthering the discussion.

justingriffis said...

Thanks Joal, I hope so!