Food Security in the Global System

By Justin Kohls
(May 2012)

Within the context of a broader food paradigm within sustainable development, this essay addresses research on the global food system, issues of insecurity within it, and how they influence environmental processes. While not inherently apparent, failures within the global food supply have a direct correlation to climate change, energy usage, and the preservation of the global ecosystem. Conceptualizing these processes as one macro system is essential in this analysis and due to these failures, both local and global communities run the risk of droughts, famines, and other ecosystem imbalances. Below I describe the deep connections between what appear as separate processes, and uncover some on-the-ground initiatives at alleviating the negative consequences of an unsustainable and inadequate global food system.

This unsustainable system is best viewed conceptually as a grand case of environmental justice. Usually seen on a local level, environmental justice states that all people and communities should receive equal protection from environmental, health, employment, housing, transportation and civil rights laws (Bullard, 1990, p. 184). However, if we bring this to the worldwide scale, we see a Global North and South and can firmly and adequately apply the tenets of the environmental justice movement to the North/South paradigm. The consequence of an insecure and unsustainable system necessitates a deeper understanding of who is impacted and to what extent, as a means to working towards a sustainable future.

Global food production and supply impact and, in turn, is impacted by the global ecological system. Processes that are seen on the local level are interconnected to the global and vice versa. Alternately, preservation, restoration and global climate change factor prominently in this picture.

The interplay of food vulnerability and Global Environmental Change (Polly Erickson)

Polly Ericksen points to the interplay between a vulnerable food system and climate change.  Figure 1 points out the vulnerability of food systems to environmental change in the form of a circular flow diagram.  In it, food system reliance/vulnerability influences Global Environmental Change (GEC), which influences capacity and exposure to GEC.  Alternately, a change in societal resource allocation and economic conditions exacerbates a community’s capacity to respond to GECs.  In this article, Ericksen explains that while gains in food systems have reduced insecurities and increased development, these same systems have directly and indirectly GECs, with some highly negative outcomes (Ericksen, 2008).  In this analysis, we can see how developing a more secure local and global food system has the potential to positively impact the ecosystem as a whole.

Another component to this picture is the relationship between food production and energy outputs.  Energy output in food production, compared to energy received per unit of food, is a highly unsustainable reality. {Insert Kohls Image 2}  For instance, a recent study conducted by Oxfam (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief) shows how increased economic development translates to increased energy outputs.  As shown in Figure 2, the ecological footprint of 1 kg of beef is more than double the same amount of rice.  Alternately, increased urbanization and economic development is seen to correlate with increased meat, dairy, fish and fruit consumption, while this level of production requires increasing levels of scarce resources (water, land and space).  Additionally this study points out to the higher rates of obesity and food waste in the “West,” which further exacerbates the instability of the system (“The Sustainable Production Challenge,” n.d.). With some estimates of the world’s population to reach 8.9 billion by [year?] (United Nations, 2004), a nearly 47 percent increase, clearly new modes of food production and delivery are warranted.

Diagram from Oxfam International that details the energy usage for various food groups

Given these alarming statistics, it is essential to assess tangible developmental paths to decreasing food insecurity gaps and combat the negative impacts of food production on the ecosystem. Along this track, M.E. Webber has advocated a multi-faceted approach; namely, converting agricultural waste into power, reimagining ethanol production, converting coal plant carbon dioxide emissions into human food/animal feed and influencing personal behaviors on consumption and waste. Systematically speaking, these prescriptions can be seen as a public policy/personal behavior joint venture to achieve these goals (Webber, 2012). In his analysis, Webber points out to the relatively swift gains made in the “green revolution” and believes that these can be achieved in the food system. Through behavioral choices, the negative consequences that include global hunger, climate change, energy dependency and obesity have the potential of all being eradicated, or at least modified to a more sustainable level.

While the negative outcomes of this system are quite dark and may be headed towards a stage of no return, action is far from futile. As Webber states, personal behavior and public policy can come together to curtail the damages being done to our people and planet. From the research uncovered here, however, the first step in this process is changing people’s reasoning. One of the basic relationships to examine is that of increasing food needs and economies and how these lead to increased energy usage and carbon emissions. Methods of production, as well as the types of food being consumed, need to be changed. Re-conceptualizing the entire food supply is a daunting task to be sure; however, the predictions in maintaining the status quo should be enough to spark serious thinking and debate over how we can make this and other systems of equal importance more sustainable for current and future generations.

Next page: Locally Grown Food