Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My Munchable Soapbox: BAD and Les Droits Humains

Source: Oxfam International
It is early in the morning here, but I'm already thinking about the dual observance of Blog Action Day and World Food Day. The former brings together over a thousand bloggers every year around a particularly timely topic, and this just happens to be my fifth year participating! At the same time, today marks the 33rd observance of World Food Day, which at least for me is an annual reminder that there are still close to one billion people going to bed with an empty belly (and yet another billion suffering consequences on the other end of the spectrum). Yet in looking BAD's theme of 'human rights' and WFD's of 'sustainable food systems for food security and nutrition', the two are inherently linked - it is a basic human right to eat, and in order for that to happen now and into the future, an agricultural system that doesn't undermine nature's functioning is essential.

Let's take a quick retrospective. For most of human history, access to food has not been a given. The irony is, that up until very recently, the majority of the global population has played a direct role in the provisioning of food, either as part of hunter-gatherer societies or as farmers after the advent of agriculture. As hunter-gatherers we were very much dependent on the presence of game and wild foods, yearly environmental variability had resounding consequences, and as such populations were small and mobile. About 10,000 years ago, agriculture came about, and fundamentally changed how people interact with their landscape, with each other, and with their food (A good read - Empires of Food - goes more in humanity's turbulent food history). Ironically, there is also a decline in health around that time, as people's diets become less diverse and poorer in the array of macro and micronutrients we need. Even with the ability to grow our food rather than track it down, the majority of manpower was dedicated to this back-breaking work, and still periods of poor weather, disease, pestilence (ok, I just wanted to write pestilence...), and yes even human conflict, left the appeasement of hunger very much uncertain.
Today we are in the unique situation where, on the planet as a whole, we produce more food than is necessary to support the current population. And what's more, the areas where civilization has existed longest, the origins of the agrarian revolution, are those still that most accutely feel food insecurity. Many argue that distribution and access are obviously the problems, that the system is inequitable, that the underlying infrastructure of the global food economy is undermining this universal human right to food. There is a growing recognition that globally we waste between 30-50% of food, and in developing countries in particular, improved storage and transportation would help reduce this number substantially.

And finally, there are people who say, 'Well, we just need to grow more food." I don't want to belittle the importance of actual agricultural production, particularly as I believe our current approach is fundamentally flawed and very much unsustainable in the long-term. But the production side of things is a little more nuanced when discussing a human's right to food. It's about what we grow and how we grow it. For example, urban agriculture, such as efforts popping up in Kenya, contribute to diet diversification and local food and nutrition security by growing vegetables that may not otherwise be available. We see agriculture that incorportates fish ponds, livestock, and crops in Asia, building resilience to variability of growing conditions and once again providing diversity in people's diets.

So, in my view, while there is often a tendency toward bigger, more technically-savvy, high-yielding, and calorically "efficient" agriculture to feed the world, the question remains as to whether this model is truly delivering the nutrition and the long-term sustainability that are also central to food security and the right to food.

Read Previous BAD Posts:
Climate Change - 2009
Water - 2010
BAD at What Cost? - 2011
A Collective Vote With Our Forks - 2012

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