Monday, February 14, 2011

Food security

OK, what is food security – a lock on the fridge door? Oh, if only it were that simple. Because keeping food safe is not what food security is about – it’s about the very real potential that this planet will not have enough food to feed all the people that live on it.

It's not just about population numbers, it's about where most of the food we produce is being consumed. Although overall global food production is sufficient to meet the needs of the world’s 6 billion people, about 1 billion do not consume daily minimal requirements for protein and calories. And if everyone in the world ate food at the same rate that we do in the developed west, we would need six planets to feed us all.

The problem isn’t just the ‘greedy west’ (although it may be cited as a contributary cause); the point is, we are eating the wrong things and producing them in a way that is unsustainable.

Without getting too scientific and technical, I can explain briefly just why we need to eat less meat, less processed foods and reduce our reliance on mass production.

Firstly – meat! Did you know that pigs eat more fish than any other animal? Not a good idea when our seas are under threat. Do you realise it takes ten times more ‘energy’ to produce one unit of meat than it does one unit of vegetables? That means you could feed ten people instead of just one by reducing meat intake. PETA has a rather good article on this.

“According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.”

Secondly – processed food. This is direct experience, not something I learned out of a book or on the internet. I used to travel to work with a guy from MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fisheries as was). He would tell me not to eat lettuce, because its shape made a great ‘bowl’ for capturing all the chemicals in the rain and the pesticides used on them. He advised me to always cut at least two centimetres off the top of carrots, because that’s where all the chemicals collected. And, finally, how they had discovered that flour packed on wooden pallets had absorbed the wood preservative chemicals through the paper wrappings. We eat tons of chemicals - whether we want to or not.

Finally, mass production. To make meat cheap, it gets mass produced. And that involves some pretty inhumane practices, but more than that it involves unbalancing nature in a damaging way. There’s lots on this subject, but here’s just a taste of why monoculture (just one crop) has dangers and having all our animals together also increases public health risks.

So what is the answer? Can we revert to subsistence farming, can we convert the world’s production to organic farming? And can we change the eating habits of the whole of the western world? Oh my there’s a challenge, but actually, we do have to try.

The world is slowly becoming more and more aware that we are facing a real threat to our wildlife and habitats that will seriously deplete our biodiversity. But we are still largely ignorant of the role played by food production.

Do you know your favourite chocolate spread is full of palm oil? Do you know that the cheap bacon you buy in the supermarket means that certain species of fish are becoming extinct? It’s hard to expect everyone to suddenly become knowledgeable about how food is produced and the effect of various production techniques on the environment, but some very simple dietary habit changes could make the world of difference.

I’d love to give you the ‘answer’ right here – what to buy, what to grow, what to eat. But the truth is the responsibility is yours. Two very simple steps are to eat less meat and look for sustainability and eco-friendly logos on the food you buy.

This is a subject that should conern us all - whether we approach it from a species preservation aspect or personal health. It's important for us, the planet, and the future for every living thing.

Recommended reading:

The Meat Crisis
Crop diversity
Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Food Security
End of the Line
CABI Blog - dangers of high yeild crops
Fruit and Nut forests of Central Asia

Photo credit: Inhabitat
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