Harvest and Hunger: Brainstorming the future of the world food system

Harvest and Hunger

The Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation is hosting an event in Saskatoon on November 10th called Harvest and Hunger. The event sets out to answer three questions:

  • Who controls the world’s food? Who has power in the global food system? Who doesn’t?
  • What are people doing – both in Saskatchewan and around the world – to create just and sustainable alternatives to the current food system?
  • What can we do in Saskatchewan today to contribute to a more equitable food system?

Mark Cazakoff

One of the Vision of Earth team members, Mark Cazakoff, will be attending the event, so if you are attending, feel free to say hi!

In preparation for the event, we have been doing a bit of legwork here at Vision of Earth. Our goal was to gather together some of the best resources we have found for understanding global agriculture. The purpose of this post will be to share some of those resources with all of you. At a later date, we hope to write a more substantial review that knits together a lot of the subject into a single read.

Before we dive into our favourite resources on the subject, let’s do a speed-dating version of answering the above questions.

Question 1

  • Who controls the world’s food?
    The majority is controlled by giant multinational corporations whose overriding objective is to deliver profit to their shareholders.
  • Who has power in the global food system?
    Everyone has some power.
    Food companies have concentrated political and monetary power that they use to improve their profit-making ability.
    “The People” have even more power, but since they rarely agree on anything, the full force of that power is never felt.
  • Who doesn’t?
    A tongue-in-cheek response that is also somewhat accurate is: CEOs of food companies. They have a fiduciary duty to their stakeholders to protect their profits. If they make decisions that put profits in question (or fail to maximize them), they will be sued and their careers likely ruined.

Question 2

What are people doing – both in Saskatchewan and around the world – to create just and sustainable alternatives to the current food system?

There is a lot going on in a world with ~7 billion people in it. There are countless local food producers sprouting up in the world and there are ‘buy local’ (or ‘locavorism’) movements to complement them. There is the organic movement, attempting to establish more stringent standards regarding the use of additive chemicals on food. There is the fast-growing SPIN movement (Small-Plot Intensive Farming), that uses urban plots to grow food for local sale, which was co-founded in Saskatoon. In developing countries, there are many efforts underway to break the poverty trap through improving agriculture outputs. There are many small efforts and trends that are building up to combat the increasing centralization of the world food supply.

Question 3

What can we do in Saskatchewan today to contribute to a more equitable food system?
Not in any particular order, here are some of the easiest and most effective things you can do:

  1. Buy local.
  2. Buy organic.
  3. Buy directly from producers (not middlemen).
  4. Grow your own food, it doesn’t take that much work, and there is tons of free knowledge on the web on this subject.
  5. Eat less meat (it uses roughly ten times the resources as plants do for the same amount of food).
  6. Eat only meat that does not come from factory farms. This is also a healthier choice, since grass-fed cows do not have the E-coli issue.
  7. Cook your own food. It is fun, and again the Internet can provide you with infinite recipes to try out. Get together with friends and do cooking parties.
  8. Send your charity dollars where they will have great effect. With some genuine and significant help, even the poorest places in Africa (and elsewhere) can be freed from the poverty trap so that they can begin to catch up on their own. (Read the ladder of economic development for more info).
  9. Compost all of your food waste.

tl;dr: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Michael Pollan

Recommended Readings

IAASTD

The IAASTD report (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development). The report was created through a massive international effort involving several hundred scientists and civil servants from all around the world. Their goal was:

The IAASTD is a three-year collaborative effort (2005 – 2007) that assessed Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology in relation to meeting development and sustainability goals of:

  • Reducing hunger and poverty
  • Improving nutrition, health and rural livelihoods
  • Facilitating social and environmental sustainability

Clearly, this will be an excellent resource for years to come, and we recommend taking look at some of the summaries of the findings. Since the document is 600+ pages long, it is a bit of an arduous read.

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has written two very successful books on the subject of the food system. They are “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”. We can highly recommend them both as a good, easy starting point for understanding some of the major issues with the food system in the developed world.

Jeffrey Sachs

We are big fans of Dr. Sachs and his fully-committed campaign to end world poverty and also forge a new path towards global sustainability. In fact, we have since been inspired to write about many of the same issues we read about in his books, including:

If you are looking for the most thorough treatment of the issue of extreme poverty in the world, we highly recommend Sach’s seminal work “The End of Poverty”. Much of the book deals with issues surrounding food and agriculture.

Expanding upon this perspective, we also recommend his more recent book, “Common Wealth” in which he ties together knowledge from a wide variety of fields (thanks to the fine people at the Earth Institute) to create an over-arching map of what the major world sustainability issues are and how we can begin to solve them. This is a bit more difficult read than The End of Poverty, but we think it is a highly worthwhile endeavor and a good reference for anyone dedicated to making the world a better place.

The Oil Drum

Energy plays a central role in everything we do. This becomes particularly clear when one digs deeply into the subject of agriculture in the past, present, and future. The Oil Drum is a website without equal, as far as we know. On there, you can read detailed analyses of world energy issues by some of the best scientists, engineers, and economists in the field. While we haven’t read even a significant fraction of these articles, we think that The Best of The Oil Drum 2005-2010 provides a very good reading list for anyone interested in large-scale energy issues in the world (and the consequences for every person’s life). Many of the articles in that list are in fact focused on the energy economics of agriculture, and thus would be very useful for furthering the discussion of the world food system.

Assorted blog posts

A short, excellent piece by George Monbiot about sustainable meat production.

Japan’s urban agriculture: cultivating sustainability and well-being is a post at Our World 2.0 which nicely summarizes some of the major issues in urban agriculture today.

Documentaries

Food Inc.

Now an icon of many of the local, organic food movements, the documentary Food, Inc. shows how the centralization and industrialization of the food system (in North America in particular) is leading to massive health, poverty, and food justice problems. This is a very worthwhile documentary with very high production quality.

Fresh

Touching upon many of the same issues as Food Inc., the documentary Fresh does so from a different perspective. While Food Inc. focused a lot on the politics and law of the industrialized food system, Fresh looks at the solutions that people are implementing on the ground today. Perhaps a more hopeful message than that of Food Inc., this is definitely another documentary worth watching.

That’s all for now! Hopefully with these resources people can feel more confident in joining in on this conversation. Stay tuned for further updates after the event.

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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