A week ago, I proudly resolved to abstain from sugary drinks for a month in an attempt to lead a healthier lifestyle. At the counter during lunch, the cashier asked which soft drink I’d like with my sandwich meal to which I naturally declined with the half-sad smile of the disciplined dieter. In return, however, I received awkward explanations of how the drink in fact came with the meal and nods that suggested they thought it was my first time here, in my neighbourhood café. Eventually, after nervously checking with myself that I was, in fact, entitled to decline the drink, I made payment and beetled away.
The rational consumer finds the deal that offers the most food for the least amount of money. No one in the right mind would decline a free drink, unless one was sure it would go to waste. This then begs the bigger question: In a system where food is sold as a cheap commodity, does economically rational thinking invariably oppose the socially sensitive decisions we should be making for world hunger and environmental sustainability? Are there compelling reasons for us to claim the high ground of social conscience?
Today, 795 million people suffer from food insecurity. Despite significant increases in food production over the last 50 years, food insecurity today is still a pressing global issue, with the ambitious Sustainable Development Goal to achieve Zero Hunger by 2040.
Food insecurity today seems to be primarily a consequence of two major factors: unsustainable methods of food production and the ruthlessly hegemonic agri-food system. 20th Century post war re-construction efforts have established a high capital food system reliant on chemical and fossil fuels. This type of industrial farming is highly unsustainable, with widespread deforestation and burning of fossil fuels contributing to climate change, leading to more erratic weather, crop failures and famines, or with the use of large amounts of water for large scale agriculture, resulting in soil erosion and land degradation.
Consequently, the capacity for highly intensive food production has led to the formation of agricultural hegemonies, entrenching winners: a handful of corporations that control food from seed to table and losers: small holder farming households which house ½ of the world’s hungry. The top 4 agro-corporations alone make up 75% of the market trade of grains and soya and 99% of livestock breeding.
When examined deeper still, these two causes of food insecurity can be found to bear a similar thread: the flawed use of end output as the most rational decision making tool. It is interesting to note that the American industrialist Henry Ford himself once said “If money is your hope for independence, you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience and ability.” Replace Independence with Food Security and you get, very simply, the root of today’s food woes.
As food activist Brian Halweil points out, the majority of government incentives given to farmers are based production output, not the quality of production or environmental impact. When farmers are forced to increase production to secure land ownership, they resort to unsustainable farming practices. When governments grab at financial returns, they lease land out to large transnational companies or foreign governments, displacing existing small holder farmers and undermining their food security.
The end output mentality is a dangerous thing. A number that unequivocally represented our success story in food production over the last 50 years is no longer representative today when environmental and health costs begin to show. The lack of a measurement to quantify the trickle down effects of food production on the final output does not make it acceptable to ignore it. It is precisely because of this misrepresentation that we have so unthinkingly invested in industrial farming, set blindly on the aim of increasing food production. As author and organic farmer Eliot Coleman points out, when farming went large scale, some agriculturists argued "that the thinking behind industrial agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems” and “by virtue of that mistake, industrial agriculture has to continually devise new crutches to solve the problems it creates”.
How then, should we make decisions about food? I believe the answer is simple. It’s about being a truly rational producer and an intentional consumer.
It is easy to forget that producers are consumers themselves. Producers not only produce food for others but also need food to sustain themselves. The truly rational producer is self-sufficient. The authors of the US-based institute's annual State of the World report suggest that instead of producing more food, a more effective way to address food security would be to encourage self-sufficiency and waste reduction since Food Security today is more a problem of inequity than shortage.
Being intentional in the way we consume food means eating consciously and making sure not to over or under satisfy our needs. On the mention of organic food, many people instinctively picture the yogi with a juice bottle in hand living his or her pretentiously perfect health conscious life. We are so accustomed to the high amounts of sugar, salt and fat in our food that we think organic food is bland and even disgusting but in actual fact, we short-change ourselves when we consider the health costs associated with buying cheap but processed and unhealthy food. The price of organic food in fact, reflects the true cost of production and the freshest, purest form of the product, not one that is “ridden with health benefits”. Our consumption habits have a huge impact in determining what producers will and will not produce.
Douglas Horton once remarked, the “first Rule of Economics: desires are insatiable. Second Rule: we can only stomach three Big Macs in one sitting”.
Want to solve world hunger? Watch your own plate.
We as consumers have the power to reverse the current agricultural system and support truly rational food decisions