Feed­ing a flawed so­ci­ety

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity agrees that en­sur­ing suf­fi­cient food sup­plies for a surg­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion, which is set to grow by 2.4 bln by mid-cen­tury, will re­quire se­ri­ous work. In­deed, we have not even suc­ceeded at pro­vid­ing enough food for to­day’s pop­u­la­tion of 7.3 bln: Nearly 800 mln peo­ple cur­rently are starv­ing or hun­gry, and an­other couple bil­lion do not get enough mi­cronu­tri­ents. But there is no such con­sen­sus about how to ad­dress the food-se­cu­rity prob­lem.

The sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is split be­tween two main ap­proaches: “tin­ker with agri­cul­tural de­tails” (TAD) and “mend so­ci­etal fun­da­men­tals” (MSF). While the for­mer ap­proach has sup­port from a clear ma­jor­ity, the lat­ter is more con­vinc­ing.

To be sure, the TAD camp has iden­ti­fied many im­por­tant prob­lems with cur­rent food pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems, and ad­dress­ing them could in­deed im­prove food se­cu­rity. Yields could be in­creased by de­vel­op­ing bet­ter crop va­ri­eties. Wa­ter, fer­tiliser, and pes­ti­cides should be used more ef­fi­ciently. Main­tain­ing trop­i­cal forests and other rel­a­tively nat­u­ral ecosys­tems would pre­serve crit­i­cal ecosys­tem ser­vices, es­pe­cially soil fer­til­ity, pol­li­na­tion, pest con­trol, and cli­mate ame­lio­ra­tion. The trend to­ward ris­ing meat consumption should be re­versed. Stricter reg­u­la­tion of fish­eries and ocean pol­lu­tion would main­tain the sup­ply of marine pro­tein es­sen­tial to many peo­ple. Waste in food pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion should be re­duced. And peo­ple should be ed­u­cated to choose more sus­tain­able and nu­tri­tious foods.

Achiev­ing th­ese goals, TAD supporters recog­nise, would re­quire pol­i­cy­mak­ers to give food se­cu­rity high po­lit­i­cal and fis­cal pri­or­ity, in or­der to sup­port the needed re­search and ac­tion. Re­spon­si­bil­ity for launch­ing pro­grammes to dis­trib­ute food more eq­ui­tably would also fall to gov­ern­ments.

But the TAD ap­proach is in­com­plete. Not only would its short-term goals be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to achieve with­out more fun­da­men­tal so­ci­etal changes; even if they were at­tained, they would prob­a­bly prove in­ad­e­quate in the medium term, and cer­tainly in the long term.

To see why, let us sup­pose that, in 2050, the TAD goals have all been reached. More food is avail­able, thanks to higher agri­cul­tural yields and waste-re­duc­ing im­prove­ments in stor­age and dis­tri­bu­tion. Im­proved en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies mean that most of to­day’s forests are still stand­ing and nofish­ing zones are widely es­tab­lished and en­forced. Ecosys­tems are be­com­ing stronger, with many corals and plank­ton evolv­ing to sur­vive in warmer, more acidic wa­ter. Add an uptick in vege­tar­i­an­ism, and it ap­pears that the global tem­per­a­ture rise could be lim­ited to 3 de­grees Cel­sius.

As a re­sult, the world could avoid famines by mid-cen­tury. But, in a hu­man pop­u­la­tion of 9.7 bln, hunger and mal­nu­tri­tion would be pro­por­tion­ately the same as they are in to­day’s pop­u­la­tion of 7.3 bln. In other words, even with such an ex­tra­or­di­nary and un­likely com­bi­na­tion of ac­com­plish­ments and good luck, our food-se­cu­rity predica­ment would still be with us.

The rea­son is sim­ple: Our so­ci­eties and economies are based on the flawed as­sump­tion that per­pet­ual growth is pos­si­ble on a fi­nite planet. To en­sure global food se­cu­rity – not to men­tion other fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights – for all, we need to recog­nise our lim­i­ta­tions, in terms of both so­cial and bio­phys­i­cal fac­tors, and do what­ever it takes to en­sure that we do not ex­ceed them.

Based on this con­vic­tion, the MSF ap­proach de­mands that gov­ern­ments take steps to em­power women in all ar­eas of so­ci­ety, and en­sure that all sex­u­ally ac­tive peo­ple have ac­cess to mod­ern birth con­trol, with women free to have an abor­tion, if they so choose. At the same time, gov­ern­ments must ad­dress in­equal­ity of wealth, and thus of food, not least by curb­ing cor­po­rate dom­i­nance.

Short of bring­ing the global pop­u­la­tion down to sus­tain­able lev­els, MSF re­forms are the world’s only hope. But, as it stands, im­ple­ment­ing them seems un­likely. The United States, the coun­try that con­sumes the most, is mov­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion: women are strug­gling to hold onto their re­pro­duc­tive rights, wealth dis­tri­bu­tion is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly skewed, and cor­po­ra­tions are be­com­ing even more pow­er­ful.

Just as so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems can be mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing, so can ac­tions aimed at strength­en­ing our so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal fun­da­men­tals. Only by fo­cus­ing on th­ese fun­da­men­tals, rather than merely tin­ker­ing with the de­tails of food pro­duc­tion, can in­trin­sic sys­temic link­ages work to the ad­van­tage of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

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