Waging Peace On Hunger
Author: Frederick Livingston
Translated into Spanish by Gilma Cristina Sánchez Cossio
There has always been enough. Therein lies the tragedy of a world where almost 1 billion people go hungry, while twice that number suffer the health consequences of over-nutrition (Popkin, 2017). Despite centuries of famine predictions, food production has continued to outpace population growth, but the gap between those who have access and those who do not has only grown wider. Merely increasing food production further will not heal this wound. Only a fundamental shift in the way we see the world will produce the necessary depth of change to avoid social and environmental catastrophe (Dragon-Smith 2020). We must let go of much of what we do not need, while holding on more tightly to what we truly do.
Feeding the 2050 global population is often posed as the quintessential problem facing the future of food security. This is when the UN predicts the global population will peak at around 10 billion humans (UN, 2017), raising alarms in a world already failing to feed itself amidst social inequality, widespread soil degradation, water scarcity and mounting pressure from climate instability.
Modern industrial agricultural practices are the source of some of the most damaging impacts humans have on the planet, accounting for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 80% of all deforestation, and 70% of global freshwater consumption (Fanzo & Herrero, 2019). Climate change is already making crop yields less reliable and even less nutritious (Shield, 2018), with only greater impacts anticipated in the foreseeable future. What is more, we have actually been losing ground towards the United Nation’s goal of ending world hunger (FAO et al. 2019), despite the common assumption of progress.
In the coming decades, we can only expect more extreme weather events, pandemics, social upheavals, and new problems that will doubtlessly emerge over time. In this light, the task of feeding even more people on an increasingly degraded landscape can seem impossible. Before losing hope, however, it is important to remember the path that led us to this moment in history.
Green and Red Revolutions
In response to forecasts of global famine, the traditional response from Western powers, primarily Europe and the United States, has been to increase production. Today this seems intuitively correct: rising demand must be met with increasing supply. And yet this paradigm is relatively new.
In the wake of World War II, victorious Western powers were faced with a sudden excess of industrial capacity. Factories that produced chemical weapons for the war effort now stood empty. Up to this point, the dominant paradigm farmers in Europe used to describe their role was that of a doctor: promoting the health of their farms through attention and care (Perfecto et al., 2009).
After two world wars, this metaphor began to shift towards seeing challenges like nutrient deficiencies and pests as “enemies” to be conquered. Armed with the confidence of military supremacy and enormous technological resources, Western powers repurposed the nitrogen used in bomb-making as a fertilizer and chemical weapons as pesticides. Scientists eventually bundled these technologies as an interdependent package: crops capable of incredible yields under conditions of high inputs and irrigation. Thus the green revolution was born.
Simultaneous to this revolution in agriculture, communist powers were growing across the world. While the green revolution is usually associated with the color of plants or money, the name largely grew out of a response to the threat of the emerging “red revolution” (Perfecto et al., 2009). This competing ideology saw hunger not primarily as one of production, but one of access.
Chairman Mao and Lenin are notorious for their forced reorganization of labor into romanticized peasant cooperatives that ultimately decreased the productivity of the land. In desperate efforts to keep up appearances and demonstrate the superiority of their political system, large portions of Russia and China’s agricultural production were exported to other countries while the people inside the countries starved (Standage, 2010). This is typical of how hunger occurs in the modern world: even during the famous Irish potato famine, Ireland maintained a surplus of food that is exported to its colonial master, England (Lappe, 1998).
The economic model of the communist “Second World” was not merely a philosophical disagreement with the capitalist “First World,” they were in direct competition for resources and market access in the unclaimed countries of the “Third world”. In order for these industrial economies to sustain themselves, they must grow, and growth requires continual access to new markets.
While the “cold war” is generally described as a bloodless standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States, physical wars for the ideological allegiances necessary to ensure trade access were fought throughout the Third World from Southeast Asia to Latin America, the Middle East, and beyond (Galeano, 1971). For this reason, the “green revolution” was not seen as complementary to the land reforms organized by peasants in communist-leaning countries, but as an advertisement for the capitalist answer to food security.
The result has been fabulous increases in total food production, the likes of which was never imagined by Thomas Malthus who famously predicted in the eighteenth century that the linear growth of agriculture would lead to widespread famine in the future. Despite this unprecedented productivity, the world currently fails to provide adequate nutrition for over 1 billion people (Friel & Ford, 2015), close to the total global population at the time of Malthus’s writings. This is because producing food for markets is not the same as feeding people.
About one-third of global food production is simply wasted. In the United States, this number is as high as 40%, primarily from food thrown away after it reaches the consumer. In most of the global south, this waste comes from insufficient storage or a lack of transportation infrastructure.
A significant amount of food grown in the world is not even harvested, whether because an oversupply has made the crop unprofitable to pay laborers to pick it or because the imperfect appearance of a vegetable does not meet strict grocery store cosmetic standards (Wozniacka, 2019).
At least another third of global food production is fed to livestock (Fry, 2016), which lose at least 90% of the energy they consume through their metabolism. In addition, the global production of ethanol, having risen to over 29 billion gallons in 2019, would be enough to feed over one billion additional people if those crops were used as food rather than fuel (Albino et al., 2012).
Rectifying just one of these three factors would be enough to feed every hungry person today. Changing all three would allow us to feed the global population in 2050 with no expansion of farmland or technological advancement necessary.
Although the dominant model of industrial agriculture is widely recognized to have reached its limit (FAO, 2018) and has been repeatedly shown to promote food security less effectively than diversified organic farming (Altieri, 2012), many still assume it is our only viable option.
Most proponents of industrial agriculture propose a doubling down with new technologies such as increasing automation of farms, engineering new “climate-smart” crops resistant to drought (Taylor, 2018), or simply encouraging more countries in the global south to produce more of the commodities we require by increasing petrochemical inputs further. While Western discourse often equates efficiency with progress, it is crucial to understand that making a destructive system more efficient only increases the harm (Jackson, 2009).
When the chainsaw was invented, loggers were able to fell a tree much faster than ever before. This time-saving technology did not result in more leisure time for lumberjacks. On the contrary, it has resulted in the rapid expansion of the logging industry throughout previously inaccessible forests. This is equally true of industrial agriculture. Increasing the efficiency of a system that is designed to mine the land’s vitality will only reduce the number of years until our planet can no longer produce food. Waging war on hunger can never produce peace.
Indeed, current industrial farming practices can only remain competitive through a precarious balance of global forces including agricultural subsidies that allow first-world farmers to sell crops at a loss, the unpaid price of soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and the vast externalities of the fossil fuels consumed in the fertilization, pest control, farm machinery, transportation, refrigeration and packaging of food, not to mention direct subsidies on fossil fuels.
The military budgets of first-world nations can also be seen as an indirect subsidy to industrial agriculture, which could not exist without the political leverage to force neoliberal policies onto third-world countries in order to ensure a stable supply of resources and market access (Rosset, 2006). With all these costs accounted for, industrial agriculture can be more accurately seen as one of the most costly means of food production ever invented.
Fortunately, many alternatives exist. Across the world and for thousands of years, cultures have found ways of growing food that does not destroy the land they depend on. The exact models a community utilizes will arise from a conversation with the land they inhabit, but some of the most promising modern examples include agroecology, permaculture, and biointensive farming.
The fundamental shift that these approaches embody, upon which our success as a species hinges, is from a battle for the single global answer towards a proliferation of locally appropriate solutions. Even though the first and second worlds saw each other as opposite extremes, it is ultimately their shared vision of ideological supremacy that put them in conflict.
What does “no one solution” look like?
Before we can feed the future, we must first recognize the modern ills of agriculture not as a swarm of unfortunate coincidences, but symptoms of a sick world view. By centering food as a human right, we start from a place that a market economy will never get to through extraction and trade.
When we recognize the abundant resources in the world as precious gifts, we can start to understand the responsibility inseparable from that generosity. Putting gratitude as the foundation for a new food system is not wooly sentimentality, but a time-tested adaptive strategy that has allowed indigenous cultures across the world to sustain themselves for the vast majority of human history (Kimmerer, 2013). This requires no magical thinking, it is simply true that cultures living out of balance with their environments failed to endure (Diamond, 2004).
Specific means of waging peace on hunger exist along a continuum of commitment. Small personal actions, such as eating fewer animal products or buying from local farmers’ markets will not be sufficient to create the system-level change necessary by themselves. However, these small contributions can play important roles in increasing awareness and momentum for larger movements.
One of the best ways for communities to build more environmentally and socially just food systems is to produce more of their food locally. The closer we bring our circle of trade, the more power we have to align our choices with our values (Raynolds, 2000).
For some people, this may mean giving up luxuries grown by exploited labor and shipped from across the world or learning more about local plants that serve similar nutritional, medicinal, and cultural functions. Communities and educational institutions can do a great deal to relearn many of the skills that have eroded over the past century. Gardening is already part of the curriculum in many schools, but this could be greatly expanded to the point that food is no longer a mysterious thing that comes in packages from the store. Empowering more people to grow food locally is as much about internalizing the costs of production as it is about addressing the root issues of our alienation with the very source of our sustenance.
Food is just as much about nutrition as it is ecology and culture, and so the most durable reforms to our food systems will be those that support the human desire for peace and prosperity with as many different branches as possible.
On a national level, trade policies can be reshaped to strengthen local economies and ecosystems, rather than selling our security to the highest bidder. Subsidies currently used to prop up industrial agriculture can be directed towards more sustainable methods to the point that low-impact farming becomes the only economically sensible option. This is a much more progressive means of changing consumer habits than blaming each individual for voting poorly with their dollars, given the deliberately obscure nature of food supply chains (Jaffe, 2006) and very real barriers to access healthful foods in low-income communities.
Currently, farmers wishing to transition to organic methods are penalized with certification fees that often prove cost-prohibitive. Reversing this so that farmers are penalized for degrading land would be a fairly straightforward set of regulatory reforms, albeit enormously threatening to industrial food producers. With carbon emissions adequately accounted for, farmers will naturally shift towards techniques that capture carbon and earn them credits, rather than continue current polluting practices that would incur high penalties.
On a global scale, food systems can be reshaped to grow resilience over profit. Military budgets of wealthy countries can be invested in peace by distributing those funds to countries from which labor and resources have been expropriated in recent centuries. This will help much of the global south grow food sovereignty movements that will mitigate future crises caused by hunger, mass migration, conflict, and other symptoms of scarcity.
These reforms are not separable or in competition for political will, they are concentric rings of change that will all be necessary to scale reforms from individual, local and global levels. As the collapse of communism has shown us, distribution cannot solve hunger if there is not enough to go around. The parallel failure of capitalism has similarly demonstrated that production cannot be equated to nourishment when it is not shared. Overlay these shades of red and green and you get brown: the color of the soil beneath us. That is where the answers begin, where just and resilient food systems will grow.
Surely new discoveries will prove useful along our path of transition, but if we ground ourselves in the truth of abundance we needn’t wait for the next breakthrough to take our next steps. Either we choose to continue along a war path that has already shown itself to be destructive and cruel, or we face the uncomfortable reality of a world in which scarcity and excess have grown in unison.
Then we can start to ask different questions about what we truly cannot live without and what we merely have become accustomed to. We have all the information and tools necessary to deconstruct globalized food systems and build something that looks more like the world we want our children to inhabit. The difference between continued global hunger or the possibility of abundance will simply be a matter of our appetite for change.
List of References
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Author’s short bio
Frederick Livingston studied Environmental Science as an undergraduate at Huxley College of the Environment in Washington State. He recently graduated from the University for Peace with a Master’s in Environment, Development, and Peace, specializing in Sustainable Food Systems. His international work in community development and experiential education has shown him how interconnected all of our lives and challenges are. He has found regenerative agriculture as a bridge between his passions for environmental and social justice, by cultivating healthy relationships between human and ecological communities. Presently, he works in Northern California as a teacher and researcher for the Biointensive method of farming, growing global agricultural reform by supporting food sovereignty in communities across the world.