“The right to food is one of the most basic rights of humankind. However, hunger remains unacceptably widespread, while many systems of food production in use are simply unsustainable” – UNFCCC, 2012
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the Arab Spring, climate change, food and energy shocks. These are just some of the major issues that have been prevalent during the onset of the 21st century. Every day the news highlights a new crisis; whether it’s the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, further violence in the Middle East, or the melting of glaciers, icesheets and permafrost in Greenland and the Artic, the world seems to be heading in an increasingly grim direction.
Foremost among these issues is the dilemma of food security which is being exacerbated by climate change and controlled by large agribusiness corporations who seek to purport their own interests onto the food market. Despite this, the majority of people appear to be more and more desensitised to the current state of their food and consumption as they shop for the newest iPhone and debate whether they want McDonalds, Red Rooster or KFC for dinner. Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, there has been an increasing demand for the standardisation of food and other consumer goods. This can potentially be attributed to the influence of mainstream media on the thoughts and actions of citizens, a lack of education, as well as a failure of the political process in addressing the major concerns of its citizens.
This article will broadly focus on problems regarding climate change, food production and agriculture in the 21st century and additionally aims to explore some of the responses and solutions that are being developed both locally and globally to combat these issues. Essentially, we are changing and exploiting the climate and food supplies at such an alarming rate that a dramatic change is needed to ensure the continued survival of our species.
Climate Change and Food Scarcity
Since the dawn of humanity, food security has always depended on the climate. As Hanjra and Qureshi (2010, p. 367) outline, the emergence of anthropogenic climate change ‘…poses significant threats to global food security’ due to rising temperatures, impacts on water availability, agriculture and crop productivity. As the climate warms as a result of the greenhouse effect, nations will become increasingly vulnerable to issues of food security with the worst impacts predicted to occur in already resource stressed parts of the globe such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East (Hanjra and Qureshi, 2010, p. 367). In addition, it will be the poorest nations with low adaptive capacities which will be the hardest hit by food security issues. The term adaptive capacity has been defined by Armitage (2010, p. 199) as the ability of ‘…a social – ecological system to cope with disturbances and changes while retaining critical functions, structures and feedback systems’. Countries with low adaptive capacities include Sudan, North Korea and many low lying atoll nations in the South Pacific Ocean. These nations simply do not have the resources and political stability to adequately deal with increasing food scarcity issue in the face of climate change.
As of 2010, 1 in every 7 people in the world did not have access to a sufficient diet and consequently suffered from hunger and malnourishment (Charles et al, 2010, p. 812). This alarming statistic is set to greatly increase in the wake of projected population rise and the global effects of climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (2002), food security is defined as a situation in which ‘…all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’.
Clearly, human beings are not currently experiencing global food security given the significant amount of people who either do not have physical access to food or do not have the social and economic means to attain it. Regarding food security, climate change is set to create a vicious cycle in which poverty and disease results in a ‘…substantial decline in labor productivity’ thus perpetuating the amount of poverty and malnourishment (Schmidhuber and Tubiello, 2007, p. 19705). Known as a ‘threat multiplier’, climate change exacerbates existing issues including food security and resource scarcity making it increasingly difficult for societies to implement successful adaptation measures (Mazo, 2010, p. 10). According to environmental activist and revolutionary thinker Vandana Shiva (2008, p. 2) food scarcity along with energy security (peak oil) and climate change have converged to form a triple crises which presents an existential threat to humanity. It is therefore crucial to recognise the interconnectedness of these problems in order to develop holistic methods of adaptation.
The Changing Nature of Agriculture and Food Production
In addition to the threat that climate change poses to food security in the 21st century is the frightening domination of large agribusiness corporations such as Cargill-Monsanto, ConAgra and DuPont over food production and the agriculture industry (Goodman, D, 2002, p. 275). Furthermore, the use of Genetically Modified (GM) foods and the patenting of seeds and grains is becoming increasingly prevalent in modern societies. This poses significant risks to agricultural biodiversity, small scale farming and international food security. At this stage, corn, soy, cottonseed oil, and canola make up the bulk of available GM foods. However new research and technology is increasingly being developed to expand this market to include almost all available food sources (Lang and Hallman, 2005, p. 1242).
The construction of GM foods usually requires an extensive chain of production. Essentially, large agricultural biotechnology firms such as Monsanto sell their patented seeds to farmers who in turn sell their crops to grain handlers including Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill. Following this the food is sold to grain processors (such as ConAgra Foods and Nabisco) who transform it into products ranging from bread to baby food to cooking oil (Lang and Hallman, 2005, p. 1243). This process is incredibly resource intensive and is detrimental to the livelihood of small scale farmers. Goodman (2002, p. 272) sums up the control held by large agribusinesses with the statement that ‘Power is located unequivocally in the sphere of production, politics are circumscribed by class struggle over surplus value extraction, and consumers, wreathed in commodity fetishism, are without agency’.
Although GM foods have some potential benefits such as the ability to feed large populations and grow in previously hostile environments, these benefits are only tangible if the market is well regulated and operated in a healthy, ethical and environmentally sustainably manner. This isn’t the case with most GM foods owned by large agribusinesses that hold little regard for anything but profit.
This lack of concern for the health and wellbeing of consumers is evidenced by GM foods such as Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready Soybeans’ which have received US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval and are widely distributed across America (Lang and Hallman, 2005, p. 1242). These products may be engineered to resist harmful chemicals and pesticides, yet the damage they are doing to our bodies and to the earth’s precious ecosystems is horrendous. Rachel Carson outlined these pressing issues in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring over 50 years ago and yet these destructive practices are still being perpetrated. According to Carson (1962, p. 13), from the mid-20th century we have been living in an era ‘…dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged’.
In addition to the widespread use of GM foods and pesticides, the increasing use of biofuels and the export of food products around the globe is warming the planet and increasing the cycle of food insecurity for the 21st century (Altieri and Toledo, 2011, p. 587). Biofuels are essentially crops including corn and sugarcane that are turned into fuel and energy sources such as ethanol. Crops meant for biofuels which are generally owned by large international corporations are increasingly being grown in parts of South America and Africa causing various local food security issues within in those nations which have lost sovereignly over their food production.
Agribusiness monocultures are threating indigenous civilisations across the world particularly in the Brazilian Amazon where deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate (Shiva, 2008, p. 122). Meanwhile thousands of South Americans are forced into eating an increasingly manufactured diet due to the global export of companies such as Coca Cola and McDonalds. Shiva (2008, p. 123) outlines that in order to create a more sustainable connection between human societies and the natural environment, it is essential that the local autonomy over food systems is regained and supply chains reduced .
The Media, Unhealthy Eating Habits and Green Washing
Despite the growing food security issues that humanity is faced with in the 21st century, there is a widespread sense of apathy amongst the mainstream population. In part, this stems from a lack of education regarding the sources of food and methods of production.
Along with widespread food scarcity and malnutrition in parts of the globe, recent trends have shown an increase in obesity and unhealthy eating patterns in many developed nations such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom (McMichael et al, 2007, p. 1253). Many of these problems are a result of the excessive consumption of meat as well as highly packaged and processed foods. Not only do these eating habits cause a detrimental impact on human health, they also contribute greatly to the emission of greenhouse gasses via the farming and transport of livestock as well as the process of creating plastic packaging. Additionally, the grain that is used to feed cattle could feed over 8.7 Billion people worldwide and fundamentally address the global food crisis (Roberts, 2008, p. 232).
The scary part is that the majority of people are entirely unaware of the impact that their eating patterns are having on other species and the natural environment. Essentially, from the point of view of large food corporations and meat processors, it is best that consumers do not know where their food is coming from or what the implications are for animal rights or climate change. If people knew the extent to which their actions were responsible for the misery and suffering of other beings, they may be morally inclined to stop buying such products and change their eating and consumer habits. Therefore, there is a myriad of marketing strategies that are employed to make shoppers feel as though they are ‘doing their bit’ for the environment.
In the 21st century, the media has a huge role in informing the thoughts and actions of citizens. Therefore, these ‘green washing’ market and advertising strategies are often very effective in keeping populations sedentary and unaware of the gross breaches of animal rights and food safety standards. Green washing has been described by Delmas and Burbano (2011, p. 3) as the promotion of products using an environmental slant so as to profit from the growing demand for a green market.
Essentially, green washing is the use of positive environmental messages to disguise poor environmental performances and practices. As outlined by Guy Pearse in the book Greenwash (2012, p. 2) businesses from banking corporations to electrical retailers employ strategies intended to highlight their commitment to sustainability whilst disguising the real Co2 emissions produced by their company and its investments. Green washing is particularly widespread amongst food corporations who seek to advertise their products as organic or environmentally conscious. It is therefore crucial that people are made aware of these marketing strategies so as to enable them to make choices that are truly based on sustainability.
Sustainable Solutions for the 21st Century
Although there is a general lack of education regarding sustainability and food security, hope and inspiration can be taken from the thousands of individuals across the world currently chipping away at the foundations of the status quo and working towards a fairer, more sustainable, environmentally and socially conscious world. This is evidenced by the emergence of small scale community and roof top gardens springing up across the globe as a method of protecting food security and ‘getting back to nature’. Like the emergence of Hip Hop music in the 1970’s as a response to the continuation of racism and poverty in the United States, the growing number of permaculture collectives and urban market gardens can be seen as a form of counterculture challenging the rise of large agribusiness corporations, food processing and excessive unsustainable packaging.
From urban bee keeping in New York to incredible rooftop gardens in Egypt, it is evident that people are starting to yearn for a sustainable connection to the natural environment which has been almost eradicated in modern western societies. As well as being healthy and good for the earth, growing your own produce is a highly rewarding process that involves minimal waste and damage to the environment. According to Linda Corkery (2004, p. 1) community gardens provide many benefits to society including the renovation and reclamation of public space, network building and sociocultural expression. Additionally, community gardens provide avenues for sustainable education and reduce society’s reliance on large corporations through encouraging people to live healthier, simpler lifestyles.
As Paul Roberts (2008, p. xxii) states, ‘…small farms are the fastest – growing sector in US agriculture’ and attending farmers markets is the new trendy Sunday past time. This shows that there is a demand for sustainable alternatives to the high volume, low cost modern food economy. People are gradually becoming aware that the food system upon which we all rely is flawed and that changes are needed to ensure the food security of a growing population.
Conclusions: Food for Thought
Essentially, this article has demonstrated that food security is set to be a pressing issue for the 21st century. With climate change projected to have severe impacts on the ability to grow and produce food on a large scale, the importance of localised community gardens and food autonomy has been highlighted. It is clear that our current food system which is dominated by large agribusiness corporations is thoroughly unsustainable and will not meet the needs of humanity for the 21st century. Therefore, the human relationship with the food system needs to be reconsidered to accommodate a growing population and an insecure climate. As a society, we need to become mindful our eating habits and develop the ability to see through green washing scams so as to appreciate the real value of having food on the plate.
The sanctity of food has been outlined Carolyn Baker (2013) who argues that it has been derived from a form of sacrifice and is thus not to be taken for granted. Essentially, all food can be seen as sacred as it has involved taking the life of one plant or animal to feed another. This is the view that was taken by hunter gathers, indigenous and early sedentary societies which relied on the ‘…kindness of nature to provide the rain and sunshine necessary for growing food’ (Baker, 2013).
Following the emergence of large agribusiness corporations and supermarket chains, it can be said that the fundamental sanctity of food was lost amongst the general public who no longer had to expend great amounts of energy to obtain it (Baker, 2013). However, a spiritual movement is now slowly occurring in which people are attempting to bring back the sanctity of food and appreciate the sacrifices that are being made to feed the ever growing human population. Although this movement is not yet in the mainstream, it is gradually gaining traction across the world as a response to unsustainable food systems and the challenges posed by climate change.
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