Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation http://www.harmonyfdn.ca/
It is a paradox of proportions that there are more than one billion overweight individuals in the world and almost the same number of undernourished people. We currently produce enough food to feed every citizen of the world. However, the production and distribution of this food is extremely unbalanced. On one end of the scale, there is serious over-production and over-consumption. On the other end, millions of people are living in conditions of food insecurity, scarcity and hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations informs us that increasing hunger is not the outcome of poor harvests. Instead, it is the result of high domestic food prices, low incomes and increasing unemployment. In many cases people cannot even afford the food that they grow.
Modern day industrial agriculture is a major sinner in the global food crisis. This has to do on the one hand with the inequitable trading and consumption patterns. On the other hand, it has to do with the global health problems and epidemics that result from large scale industrial farming.
Industrial farming methods generally disrupt eco-systems and produce unhealthy foods. The use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers contaminants soil and water and pollutes the natural environment. Soil degradation, through topsoil erosion, salinization, and soil compaction result in reduced soil fertility. The inefficient use of freshwater resources is another major concern. With most irrigation, only a portion of the fresh water withdrawn is returned to its source and much water is lost to inefficiency. Consequently ground and surface water depletes, which can cause sinking land, salt water intrusion, groundwater salinization and lowered water levels in lakes and streams.
Declining biodiversity is another important consideration. Growing a wide variety of crops is essential to agricultural production and overall food security. It has been shown that crop diversity contributes to resilience in farming systems and nutrient enhancement. In addition, it can benefit pollination, soil fertility, insect and disease management and water retention. Despite this array of advantages, industrial farming has tended toward a dependency on an increasingly smaller number of high-yielding crop varieties. For example, by the year 2000 in the United States, more than 6000 of the 7000 varieties of apples that were grown one hundred years earlier had gone extinct. In that same year, 73 percent of all lettuce grown was one variety: iceberg. Mono crop systems are not sustainable. They are far more vulnerable to pest outbreaks, reduce soil nutrients and, to be maintained, require heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides fertilizers and irrigation.
Industrial agriculture’s ways of keeping livestock is not only torturous to the animals being kept under horrid conditions, but poses health risks to humans. Since the mid-2000s the world has seen various outbreaks of H5N1, also known as bird flu. The pandemic has claimed hundreds of human lives, and has caused massive economic losses for farmers in South East Asia especially who have been forced to cull their birds by the millions.
Another pandemic that is rarely talked about as a result of modern day industrial agriculture is obesity. Industrial farming’s preference for crop varieties that produce large amounts of cheap food has resulted in an emphasis on appearance, storability and transportability. The benefit is ease of shipment over long distances where foods are out-of-season or not grown. However, we often overlook the lower nutritional content of these foods. Studies have shown that the vitamin and mineral content of fruits and vegetables has been declining over the past six decades. For example, the modern tomato contains approximately 31 percent less vitamin A, and 17 percent less vitamin C than its 1963 counterpart. Comparing nutrient tables from the 1930s and 1980s, a British study showed several marked declines in minerals essential to the human diet in fruits and vegetables. These minerals (can we name them?) are necessary for energy efficiency, fertility, mental stability and immunity. The connections between unhealthy, low nutrient food and obesity are obvious.
We need to make the connection to the political and economic decisions behind industrial agriculture’s rise as well. Industrial agriculture is favoured over small scale family farming through subsidies and preferential policies. Industrial agriculture produces cheap food. When healthy, organic alternatives are so expensive and small scale farming is economically unviable for individual farmers, it is no wonder that many opt for the cheaper albeit less healthy industrial alternatives. Some are forced to by poverty and some choose to out of convenience or ignorance. However, what society is left with is an enormous bill in trying to deal with the many health and social issues arising from obesity or malnourishment.
Food security is realized when “all people at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” This has yet to be achieved on a global scale.
The current global food situation is not acceptable. Access to adequate food should be considered a basic human right. While I recognize that solving the inequality of the existing system will take time it must be a priority. The issue is complex and there is no single solution. However, ownership-based agriculture – which allows individuals access to food grown in their own local regions – is one way to achieve positive change.
This is not a matter of local food being “good” and global food being “bad.” It should, however, be clear that more sustainable and ecologically responsible food practices are critical to the health and survival of us and the natural environment. Sustainability means producing food that is healthy for consumers, does not deplete natural resources or damage the environment, respects animals, provides fair wages and supports local communities.
The issue of healthy and sustainable food requires us to be conscientious, ecologically and socially responsible consumers. We have choices. We can choose to purchase local, organic and ethically produced food. We can choose to grow some of our own food. And we can choose to create communities, whose key values are caring for the planet, caring for each other and being responsible stewards of land and resources for future generations.