What does it mean?

Today’s post is all about confusion, contradiction and perspective. At times like this I think of a dear friend and colleague of mine. When we are in meetings and things stop making sense, we look at each other and quote Yosemitebear’s viral youtube video about a  double rainbow: “what does it mean?”. To be fair, by this point we are 6 espressos in and working on very little sleep.
This morning I read Prof. Pablo A. Tittonell’s  inaugural lecture upon taking up the position of Chair in Farming Systems Ecology at Wageningen University. The lecture was called “Towards ecological intensification of world agriculture” and argues that models of intensification promoted since the green revolution generation are obsolete.

” Agriculture needs knowledge-intensive management systems to improve food security and incomes in the South, and to reduce the dependence on external (fossil fuel) inputs in the North. The design of landscapes that support an ecologically intensive agriculture creates opportunities for synergies between food production and ecosystem services. Most importantly, this can contribute to detoxify our food and the environment.”

While the discourse of intensification in an ecological context is problematic, the ideas he presents seem sound. We need to put ecology at the core of agriculture and food policies. This is a big part of what people over at the Centre for Food Policy are working on with respect to Sustainable Diets (look out for Prof. Tim Lang’s new article in the Grocer this week).

Professor Tittonell refers to the generally accepted calculation that between now and 2050 the world-wide demand for food will increase by 70%. He is firmly convinced that conventional agricultural production will be unable to meet the needs created by that increase, one reason being that the growth in use of nitrogen-containing fertilisers is gradually reaching its limits. However, Tittonell regards the exploitation of fossil energy as even more discouraging. His calculations demonstrate that feeding nine billion people solely from conventional agricultural production will cause the world’s oil reserves to be totally exhausted within about twelve years.

For Tittonell, the problem is not distribution but production. He argues the West needs to lower production and the global south should be supported to increase their production, acknowledging that the majority of food production and food producers live in these regions.
After reading that I headed over to Global Journal to read an article  on The Future of Food that completely contradicted the previous piece:

Based on FAO data, the world produces enough food to feed the entire global population. The problem is this food does not reach everyone in the same way. According to prominent author, professor and activist, Raj Patel, the ratio of chronically hungry to overweight individuals is currently one billion to nearly two billion – a substantial increase from the figures of 800 million to one billion cited in the first edition of his influential book Stuffed and Starved upon its release in 2007.
The problem of distribution then, is critical. It is also fundamentally rooted in the logic of market capitalism: food is treated like any other commodity and is sold to the highest bidder.

Here the problem is cited as one of distribution and the commodification of food. Yes, this is a serious problem but I am leaning towards a re-visioning and focus on production. This is tricky as it will certainly affect food prices and farmers but the ecological imperative seems to win out in the long run.
This all links to the post I put up yesterday about a call to remove ourselves from the “fight against hunger” as it has become an effort to feed corporate interest. Chatting about this with one of my Professors, he noted that this was the argument made by Susan George in her 1976 book How the Other Half Die which was written in response to the 1974 World Food Summit. The book can now be downloaded for free from the Transnational Institute website.
In the book, George argues:

The reason why hunger exists on such a vast scale is because world food supplies are controlled by the rich and powerful for the wealthy consumer. The multinational agribusiness corporations, Western governments with their food ‘aid’ policies and supposedly neutral multilateral development organizations share responsibility for the fate of the undeveloped countries. Working with local elites, protected by the powerful West, the United States paves the way and is gradually imposing its control over the whole planet.

George paints a bleak picture, but things are arguably more extreme today than they were in 1974 in terms of corporate engagement and concentration of power (albeit with shifting geopolitics).
As David Cameron gears up to “unleash the power of the private sector” at the 2013 G8 Summit in  Lough Erne, the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is focussing on private sector engagement in Africa as a means for improving food security. The focus on Africa is interesting in so far as the continent holds the majority of arable land left in the world.
We are back to square one.

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