Our Food System Is Broken and Unjust - We Need a Paradigm Shift That Values Nutrition as a Human Right

The following is an excerpt from Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City by Dr. Robert Biel (UCL Press, 2017), which is available as a free download.

There is a sense that the world food system has reached an impasse. Hunger afflicts at least an eighth of the world population, mostly in the global South, but also in the North where austerity policies—which respond to crisis by prioritizing the interests of the wealthy—leave working people hungry. What is even more serious is that even this damaged 'food security' cannot be guaranteed into the future. International institutions now recognize that something fundamental must change, a realization embodied in the notion of paradigm shift and further concretized in the form of sustainable intensification.

Such recognition is all the more significant since, for most of its history, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tended to be somewhat unwilling to offend corporate interests. Within the UN system it was mostly the two successive Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler and Olivier de Schutter, who pushed for a more radical and systemic critique. The latter notably placed his authority behind agroecology, a term that implies bringing farming back to an understanding of natural systems, and that forms an important point of reference for this book.

A landmark in official critiques of the ruling food paradigm was the publication of Save and Grow, A New Paradigm of Agriculture—A policymaker's guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production, which argued specifically for a revitalization of small farms and a recognition of their dignity and essential contribution. Expanding on this, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) further stated: "The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a 'green revolution' to an ecological intensification' approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agroecological system..."

This and similar statements embody a welcome reflection on what the shift may entail: terms like 'mosaics' and 'regenerative' imply a change in how we think, moving away from linear and reductionist approaches and towards a systems perspective.

These ideas are stimulating. Nevertheless, we should ask whether the new paradigm is correctly framed. Not everyone, even among those critical of the old paradigm, would accept that it is, particularly the assumption that the answer is 'intensification,' which could imply a merely quantitative solution and contradict the more qualitative issues raised. Indeed, the notion of a 'new paradigm' entered the debate quite some time ago, precisely in relation to quality issues. The emphasis on quality arose as a critique of earlier mainstream policies, targeting mainly quantity, which often were critically labelled 'productivist' and were typified by the now-discredited Green Revolution in which hybrid crop strains were bred only for quantity of yield.

The question therefore arises as to whether sustainable intensification is merely a cosmetic updating of productivism. Could the problem of feeding the planet be solved in another way?

It might for example be argued that the issue is not insufficient production, but rather cutting waste; indeed, food waste is a crucial issue, commonly estimated to represent between 30% and 50% of food produced.

Distributive justice as a critique of social ills

Another, complementary, critique would see the problem as one of distribution, rather than production. Plenty of food is produced, but fails to reach those in need.

The issue of access to food is by no means just a matter of technical logistics; it is, ultimately, about distributive justice: decent nutrition should be addressed not through hand-outs or largesse, but as a right.

Distributive issues are, in fact, central to political ecology, which critically questions issues like the distribution of risk...of which food insecurity is an integral part.

One way in which the distributive issue can be framed is in the terminology introduced by Amartya Sen, according to which malnutrition is caused not by deficient production per se, but by a deficit of 'entitlements' (the means which enable you to access food). And, in the urban context, food justice has an important spatial angle, expressed in the phenomenon of 'food deserts.'

More radically still, we could frame distributive justice in the form addressed by Marx: there is no absolute law saying working people must only be paid the minimum cost of subsistence: we have a right to struggle for a larger share in the value we produce; and the struggle for improved access to food would obviously be central to this.

For all the above reasons, we might ask if the ruling bodies have an interest in presenting the problem as one of food production, simply to distract attention away from the awkward structural issues raised by distribution.

Nevertheless, in the author's view, there are reasons why we might be more favorable to 'sustainable intensification' than the argument so far seems to imply.

The key point is that, although it may at the moment be true that there's enough food 'around' (provided we stop wasting it and distribute it fairly), the system which currently produces that food is not ecologically sustainable into the future. It's not just that this system is failing but, more fundamentally, it is actually its successes which are eroding our future. This is a point where we can again draw from Marx, who predicted such a sustainability crisis, inasmuch as, under capitalism, 'all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.' We could demonstrate this practically using the case of chemical fertilizer where, with regard to input, there is clear evidence of diminishing returns—between the beginning of the 1960s and the mid-2000s, global fertilizer inputs per hectare increased 5.5 times for a 2.5 times increase in cereal yield per hectare. With regard to output, nitrogen runoff is a major ecological disaster in terms of ecosystem depletion, which (as revealed by recent research) will retain a persistent effect over several decades, while a very similar point can be made about the long-term persistence of fertilizer-derived phosphorus (Powers, et al., 2016). Marx' point about the long-lasting sources of fertility is further illustrated by research showing how chemical nitrogen application disrupts the natural symbiotic relationship between plant roots and nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobia).

This is why we need a paradigm-shift in the way food is produced and why it is not sufficient merely to address issues of distribution/waste.

To view the original version of this excerpt, with inline citations, click here.


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