Food Security and Sustainability

Vegetables lined up in the supermarket

Photo from stock.xchng

by Ross Smillie

Last week, I went to a local meeting on Food Security. The meeting was a gathering of diverse people: farmers, restaurateurs, retailers, and community leaders. We ate a wonderful lunch prepared by a local restaurant which emphasizes locally grown food, and we talked about how we might contribute to greater food security in our community.

Food security means “all people at all times can acquire safe, nutritionally adequate and personally acceptable foods in a manner that maintains human dignity and preserves the environment” (Growing Food Security Alberta).

Personally, knowing some of the people who grow my food helps me feel secure. Although we buy most of our food from a supermarket, we get our eggs from a friend who keeps a few chickens on her dairy farm, and our meat from a farmers’ market, and our summer vegetables from a community garden we belong to. In the past, we belonged to a Community Supported Agriculture farm, and someday we may need to visit the local food bank. It is good to know that there is more than one place to go for my food.

Food security also means that the food we buy is produced ethically and sustainably. I have greater confidence about that when I buy food from someone I know. As Michael Pollan points out, “the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 10).

What we eat and how it is produced have an enormous impact on our health and the health of the natural systems in which we live and on which we depend. What we eat is also a sacred issue, as we are reminded when we gather around the Lord’s table.

Even so, I and most of the people I know, including farmers, get most of their food from supermarkets, which seem to be getting bigger and bigger. The Safeway we shopped at when I was a child seemed enormous to me then. Today, it would comfortably fit inside the produce section of the supermarket that replaced it.

Bigness has some environmental benefits: the economic principle known as “economies of scale” means that it takes less money, energy, and environmental cost to produce on a large scale than a small one. It takes less gasoline, for example, to take a truckload of eggs to a grocery store than it would for each of us to drive to the farm to buy our eggs directly from the farmer.

If everyone made their own orange juice, most of the peels would go into landfill, while companies that make orange juice use their large amounts of orange rind to produce such useful products as orange oil, candied peel, pectin, citric acid, and dehydrated livestock feed.

Our industrial food system means that more people are being fed more cheaply and more diversely by a smaller percentage of the population than ever before. Much of that progress, however, is dependent on abundant and cheap sources of oil, and if concerns about peak oil prove well founded, our current food system may face some tremendous stress in the next few years.

Even if we dodge that bullet, bigness carries some dangers. A small farmer is better at adapting to microclimates and variations in terrain. As a result, even though large farms produce more food per farm worker, small farms produce more food per acre, and often with fewer inputs. As well, when large scale meat packing factories are contaminated, they can spread illness over a whole nation.

That illustrates a principle Thomas Homer-Dixon has articulated: that large and complex systems are extremely vulnerable to stress. And the global food system is always under stress. We always need more food because the number of people needing to eat continues to grow. In 2011 there were seven billion people on the earth, and at current rates, that number will double in about 65 years.

More people, especially in rapidly developing countries like China and India, are also eating more meat, and every calorie of meat requires between two and seven calories of feed. Feeding more people who are eating more meat will require the production of more grain: wheat, corn, rice, barley.

Some of that increase in grain will need to be met through scientific advances, irrigation, more fertilizer and better pest control. But relentless population growth will also demand more land be devoted to agricultural production. That means more forest, more wetland, more natural areas, and more marginal and fragile lands will be converted to crops and pasture. The use of agricultural land to grow biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel will only add to that trend.

Ensuring food security for ourselves, future generations and ensuring that our growing demand for food does not overwhelm the rest of creation requires careful thought and planning about how to balance economic efficiency with an emphasis on the resilience of our food system, and the preservation of natural systems.

It is not just a matter of what we eat and what we buy, although those things are important. Our consumer choices need to be complemented by our political choices – we need to use our votes and our voices to advocate for policies that will encourage the production of food that is not just cheap, but also safe, nutritious, and sustainably produced.

Ross Smillie is a minister with The United Church of Canada and teaches environmental ethics and theology through St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton, Alberta. His most recent book is Practicing Reverence: An Ethic for Sustainable Earth Communities (CopperHouse, 2011).

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Categories: Ecology and Environmental Issues, Food, Ross L. Smillie, World


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