What You Ought To Know

The Coming Crisis of Future Food Prices: “Food Interviews, Food Interviews, Food Interviews”

By Liam Hysjulien

In a new series, As It Ought To Be will be providing semimonthly updates on different topics ranging from literature to food policies. This week provided us with a number of interesting interviews with various food experts.

− Interviews –

The Coming Crisis of Op-Ed Food: What Class Says About Food (or the Poverty of Food Theory)

By Liam Hysjulien

It’s hard to get behind any food movement (if they can even be categorized as such) these days.   While I tend to eat healthy—spending roughly a third of my income (which as a graduate student isn’t very hard) on organic, local foodstuff (mostly bulk grains, vegetables, and fruit)—I can’t buy into any movement that freely throws around—without a hint of irony—terms like “locavore” or “foodie.”

Still, I feel lambasting a movement that I respect, albeit not always linguistically, so dearly is counterproductive to fostering a united front.  If we are going to recreate our food system, both locally and globally, it is imperative that both the food intelligentsia (Pollan, Allen, Patel, Berry) and rank-and-file, food-minded citizens are not cannibalizing each other during this very important moment in time.

Decades from now, the early 2000s may be seen as a watershed moment for the alternative-food movement.  Sociologically speaking, food consciousness, akin to the increase in human-rights consciousness during the 80s, has entered full-force into mainstream American society.

Evidence of this collective food consciousness is everywhere, and unless McDonald’s begins injecting a brain-altering serum into their McRibs, it is here to stay. We can look at the popularity of movies like Food Inc. (Oscar-nominated) and Fresh and Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as good indicators that mainstream America is awake and mobilized toward the problems of our incredibly destructive food system.

But being awake about an issue doesn’t always mean you truly understand it.  And this is not to say that there aren’t smart people spending serious amounts of time looking at the issue of food, but personal experience, no matter how scientific we try to be, invariably leads to some degree of bias.  The problem is not the bias, but the fact that we seem to be ignoring glaring contradictions in favor of a more comfortable narrative.  The food movements seems to be content with the idea that since poor food choices got us into this mess, changing these choices will in turn solve the problem.

When Michael Pollan says that “[e]ight dollars for a dozen eggs sounds outrageous, but when you think that you can make a delicious meal from two eggs, that’s $1.50. It’s really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives” (Worthen 2010), there seems to be some strange, out-of-touch daftness in his line of thinking.  Is the problem simply that we haven’t understood the message of the food vanguards?  Perhaps, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I’d like to propose something a little more critical—fully aware that it will be perceived as both polemic and hyperbolic.  The problem of food is just another example of a systemic assault that has been waged against the poor and working-class in this country over the last thirty-odd years.  As wages have remained stagnant, the price of foodstuffs—with the exception of soda—has steadily risen.  We have the saturation of commercials focused almost exclusively on promoting heavy, processed, food-cum-chemically-enhanced meals to children—with fruits and vegetables rarely making an appearance.

We have people with limited access to personal transportation, coupled with working multiple jobs and longer hours, living in food-dead zones, where the nearest grocery store might be miles away.  We have basically created an economy running so fast and unequally that the logic of this system is predicated on people also eating as quickly and cheaply as possible.  This isn’t about people just not wanting to eat healthy food.  Or not knowing some ridiculous cost-balance equation about how spending X amount of money on nutritious food today will save Y dollars on health bills in the future.  Or the platitudes that if people stopped wasting so much money on material junk they’d have more money left to buy $4.00 organic peaches.  It’s about a system in which food, which should be the most basic of rights, is now some repackaged, commodified afterthought.

The problem of consumer-based movements is that they tend to focus all the strategies on personal choice, disregarding structural inequalities that are at the root of our food problems.  And even when they acknowledge these structures, they think that civil-society-promoted social movements can somehow operate successfully within the system.  When thinking of food, the question should not be why people don’t eat well, but why we have created a system that reinforces—at a cost to mental health, financial security, and physical well-being—a food plutocracy where food has become increasingly fetishized at the top and placed out of the reach at the bottom.

As citizens we need to break the Ag Business-political accord.  This can be done by voting into office people who are not wedded to the interests of Big AG, supporting your local food movements, and pressuring at all levels of government a need for healthy and safe food alternatives.  But without widening government support toward locally grown food, current food solutions will remain largely on the periphery—eating around the edges instead of tackling the middle of our increasing food crisis.

If the 2050 food disasters narratives are even half true, it’s not a matter of making better personal food choices, following rules of eating, or becoming awakened to a foodie manifesto, it’s about addressing a coming global food disaster the world has never seen.  I think the food movement needs to push even further and leave no options off the table.   As Raj Patel once said, “why are there markets of food at all?”  If we are going to buy into the idea, as proposed by the likes of Graham Riches and Patricia Allen, that access to healthy and safe food is a fundamental human right, how then that right becomes realized is an essential question.

How about a government program that tiers the prices of food—through EBT-type cards—by income bracket?  Or government refund checks to individuals who buy fruits and vegetables.   This isn’t about accepting a future of “eight-dollar eggs” which will only exacerbate the division—mostly along class lines— between the well fed haves and the well fed have-nots, but about realizing that gravity of our food future requires a range of solutions.

The Coming Crisis of Global Food: Hunger, Crisis and the Canary in the Coalmine

By Liam Hysjulien


In his seminal 1890 novel, Hunger, Knut Hamsun wrote, “I suffered no pain, my hunger had taken the edge off; instead I felt pleasantly empty, untouched by everything around me and happy to be unseen by all.”  In writing about issues of food, food prices, and hunger, I have become painfully aware that both hunger and the hungry remain largely on the edge of our social consciousness—a problem that seems at times to be untouched and unseen by all.  Occasionally we hear about the continuing increase in food stamps participants.  Or food banks like Second Harvest overwhelmed by longer and longer lines of America’s new poor.  Arizona, a state that pre-recession ranked second in national job growth, has now seen demand on food banks double in the last 18 months.  Throughout this entire recession, I have continued to return to the writings of Piven and Cloward and their utter condemnation for the hatred and blame that American society inflicts upon the poor.  You would think that a recession of this magnitude would have challenged this ideological narrative that the poor, largely facilitated by failed HUD policies during the late 90s, somehow created the mess that we’re in today.  Forget about 60 to 1 leverages, the Ponzi-like bundling of mortgage backed securities, or the one trillion dollar recapitalization of “too big to fail now too rich to lend” banks under TARP.  No, the fault of this complex economic crisis, as proposed by conservative and libertarian pundits, rests mostly at the feet of the poor, and the malice unleashed by these pundits toward them—I’ll also include immigrants in this category—remains quietly unchallenged and accepted.

Global hunger seems to be following a similar trajectory, and I fear new kinds of economic investments in food, coupled with an utter contempt for the hungry, will lead to an even more nightmarish future for food.   While I am largely a true believer, no matter how naive it might seem at times, in a sustainable food revolution, I have not fully bought into how this Schumpeterian process of creative destruction will be brought about.  Of all the future sustainable food projects, the one proposed by professor of microbiology and public health Dickson Despommier seems to be both the most promising and garnering the most national recognition.

Recently heard on the Dianne Rehm show, Despommier likens his vision to the stacking of greenhouses, one on top of the other, into vertical farms for densely populated urban locales.   In Despommier’s vision, “High-rise food-producing building will succeed only if they function by mimicking ecological process, namely by safely and efficiently re-cycling everything organic, and re-cycling water from human waste disposal plants, turning it back into drinking water” (Despommier 2010). The success of Despommier’s idea centers on the construction, to use cybernetic language, of an agro-closed system loop in which water would be purified and filtered throughout an entire vertical structure.  Abandoned skyscrapers could be retrofitted into these multi-level farms with food grown by using sustainable greenhouse and hydroponic techniques.  Despommier’s idea is brilliant, visionary, and absolutely necessary for our future.

Urbanization—the shift from the rural to the city— is not a fad of the 20th and 21st century but a permanent reality.  As Despommier cites, by 2050, nearly 80% of the world will be living in urban areas, and the necessity for cheaper, locally grown food will help to reduce Co2 admissions and control chaotic fluctuations in food prices.   However like any grand scheme, funding—how we go about creatively destroying a project into fruition—becomes the essential question.  Despommier is obviously aware of this reality and concludes that, “strong, government-supported economic incentives to the private sector, as well as to universities and local government to develop the concept” will be required to fund this project (Despommier 2010).

As unemployment continues to remain painfully high, especially in the construction field, the creation of vertical farm pilot projects could work to offset some of these numbers.  In cities ranging from Detroit to Miami, the different variables of each place (weather, population density, and temperature) could lead to the development of a myriad of vertical farm prototypes, and in the process link together start-up companies, universities, public research grants and private investors.  The technology developed out of these projects could be streamlined into cities as unique as Cairo, Mexico City, and Shanghai—America would be laying the foundation for the future of global food development. As a side note, I should add that I see this as one of many strategies for creating a new global food system paradigm. I would also include returning to local and traditional forms of agricultural practice, reducing meat consumption in highly-developed countries (HDCs), and reprioritizing, in the words of Graham Riches, the idea that access to healthy and safe food is a basic human right.

As November rolls closer, I am less than optimistic about this prospect. And while 2010 may be the beginning of the age of austerity — I thought that’s what the last thirty years were — 2050 will more than likely be seen as a demarcation line for global food production.  With the recent recessions pushing global hunger back to the 1 billion person mark, the UN has concluded that food production, in order to keep up with 3 billion additional people, will need to double in production capacity by 2050. The blueprint now being developed, largely by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), seems to be more line with Monsanto than Vertical Farms.  Let us take, for example, Dr. Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General, who says that while, “[organic agriculture] produces wholesome, nutritious food and represents a growing source of income for developed and developing countries. But you cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilizers” (FAO 2007).  Instead, the FAO reports—using the World Bank’s World Development numbers—that “low fertilizer use is one of the major constraints on increasing agricultural productivity in Sub-Sahara” (FAO 1997).  While this may be quantitatively true, it is indicative of an “agro-revolution” mindset that the green revolution of the future—the one which we will need to advance greatly over the next 15-30 years—will mimic the “green revolution” of the 1950/60s: i.e. high chemical inputs, genetically modified seeds, price fixed into a global market, heavy usage of pesticides, and all brought to you by an oligarchy of transnational corporations.

Nevertheless, a 2009 FAO’s article, How to Feed the World by 2050, articulates succinctly many of the problems and reality facing food production in the early 21st century.  The two most significant points raised in this article are as follows,

“Purchases and leasing of agricultural land in Africa by foreign investors for food production in support of their food security…This development involves complex and controversial issues –economic, political, institutional, legal and ethical – that need to be addressed by policy”

“[Less development countries] become more exposed to international market instability with the result that poor households are extremely vulnerable to the risk of short-term increases of prices of basic food stuffs” (FAO 2010).

The FAO’s first point is about the recent rise of foreign countries “landgrabbing” arable acreage throughout predominantly sub-Saharan Africa.  Critics of landgrabbing have likened the process to a new frontier in “agro-colonialism,” where foreign countries buy land leases for the purpose of exporting crops back to their own countries—largely seen for these countries as a preventive measure for hedging against fluctuating food prices.  Along with the process of landgrabbing, the investing in food may lead to further food price volatility—mostly in staples like corn, wheat, and soybeans—possibly making the post-recession period even worse for many developing countries.

Two years after the 2007/08 food crisis, wheat and rice prices have still not returned to anywhere near their pre-crisis levels.  The drought that has decimated wheat crops in Russia, the world’s third leading wheat exporter, and the Ukraine, is now being compounded with news of less than stellar harvest reports in the US corn industry, creating new spikes in the cost of wheat and corn.  And, since large quantities of meat produced in the world are fed these two grains, increases in cereal prices invariably raises the price of meat.

The next frontier of investing may soon be shifting away from gold, which is at an all-time high, toward grain, as increases in population and the expansion of food production create a lucrative environment for speculation and investing.  As one investor notes, “We’ve already seen trouble. There were food riots in some countries two years ago. Wheat, coffee and sugar prices have rocketed this summer. Canaries in the coal mine? ‘We expect to see a resource war around 2020’”(Arends 2010).  For Forbes financial contributor, Joshua Brown, “The food riots of 2008 were just the shot over the bow, in my estimation. The recent bullish action in ag commodities may be the start of the actual melee” (Joshua Brown 2010).  Is this where the future of food now rests?  A new bubble to speculate on?  A new war to fight over?  New profits to be made at the expense of health and human life— no matter the cost?  And the nightmarish reality of food should be even more self-evident: the financial world is betting on a more chaotic and unstable global food system future.  To quote global food reporter Jessica Leeder, “instead of a supply crisis, what has dawned is a new era of increased volatility.  Unpredictable spikes and tumbles in some of the world’s most vital food commodities, most of them grains, are becoming more frequent” (Leeder 2010).

In the end, the 2007/08 global food crisis may become emblematic of a larger shift, a geo-political repositioning of food as the next battlefront both internally and between nations.  In June of 2008, after more than a week of riots over the rising cost of food prices, the Haitian government ousted then Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.  As the world prepares for another potentially devastating food shock, it should come as no surprise that developing nations are beginning to hoard food surplus reserves.  As countries begin buying up arable tracts of land throughout Africa, the future of food appears to becoming increasingly more hostile than cooperative.  What many leaders in these countries seem to have learned from the 2007/08 food riots is how food shortages can so easily threaten a government’s legitimacy.  As the famed historian E.P Thompson once wrote, “It is notorious that the demand for corn, or bread, is highly inelastic. When bread is costly, the poor (as one highly-placed observer was once reminded) do not go over to cake” (Thompson 1971:91).  People can deal with all sorts of abuse, all sorts of traumas administrated by their own government, but everyone must eat, and this reality seems to be driving, even more than issues of hunger, the future of food development.

I fear a future that has become pleasantly empty to the plight of the hungry.  A future where divisions between people are no longer determined by class or geographical position but between the fed and the unfed.  A world where the obesity rate in certain countries pushes well past 50 and 60 percent mark (it is predicted that three fourths of Americans will be either overweight or obese by 2020), and it will be normal  to read about a 2 billion or even 4 billion people starving daily.  As we look toward 2050, we must continue to be both creative and simple in our approach to food, and strive for a future in which food is truly recognized as a basic human right.

References

Arends, Brett. 2010. “Farmland: The Next Boom?” Wall Street Journal. September 24.

Brown, Joshua. 2010. “Grain over Gold.” Forbes. September 27.

Despommier, Dickson. 2010. “The Vertical Farm: Reducing the Impact of Agriculture on Ecosystem Functions and Services.” [Retrieved October 23, 2010] http://www.verticalfarm.com/more?essay1

FAO. 2007. “Organic Agriculture Can Contribute to Fighting Hunger: But Chemical Fertilizers Needed to Feed the World.” [Retrieved October 23, 2010]   http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/ 2007/1000726/index.html

—. 2010. “Feeding the World in 2050.”

Hamsun, Knut. 1890. Hunger. London, UK: Cannongate.

Leeder, Jessia. 2010. “Food Shock: Market Volatility a Bigger Threat than Grain Shortage.” The Globe and Mail. October 7.

Thompson. E.P. 1971.  “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50:76-136.

“What You Ought To Know”

The Coming Crisis of Weekly Food:  Hope and the Future of Food.   

By Liam Hysjulien  

   

   Credit:  http://www.adamzyglis.com/cartoon723.html

In a new series, As It Ought To Be will be providing semimonthly updates on different topics ranging from literature to food policies.   For today, I will be looking at the potential—no matter how small—for hope in our current food model.  Yes, obesity is reportedly costing the US $215 billion a year.  Yes, as a result of our current economic recession 1 and 6 Americans are now struggling to feed themselves (that’s roughly 49 million American suffering from food insecurity), but there are avenues of hope—no matter how small—that shouldn’t be ignored. At the federal, state and local level, policy-makers, community activists, and local citizens are attempting to reinvent our food system.   Here are some of the most recent examples.

 
Federal                           ______________________________

Thoughtful and brilliant commentary by Caleb R. Schultz  M.D. on our current school lunch  food system

Francis Thicke wants greener food production in Iowa.  In Thicke’s own words:  

“One of the things that I intend to do if elected is reactivate the Iowa Food Policy Council and give it a home in the Department of Agriculture. I’ll ask the Council to come up with a set of food policy proposals that we can take to the legislature. For example, how we can connect farmers to high school and university cafeterias.”  

US Food Sovereignty Alliance wants to end poverty by encouraging local food production.

  

State                           ______________________________

More scientific support for Alice Waters and healthy school lunch food.  As Waters says,

“We knew validation of the work was important in order to reach a wider public. This is one of our first steps in reaching new audiences—particularly the scientific and academic community—and of course we hope it has implications for public policy.”

Stellar website on food, hunger and desertification by Professor of Botany, Willem Van Cothem.

 

Local                        ______________________________

Chicago receives $6 million to combat childhood obesity

Read more about the Community Food Security Coalition and the work they do to support low-income groups and local agriculture projects

Community Gardens in Detroit. WATCH:

 

The Coming Crisis of Global Food: High Costs, High Fats, and the Age of Globesity

By Liam Hysjulien

I’d like to begin today’s essay by venturing forth into the not-so-distant future and mulling over this prediction:  by 2050, the global population could surpass 9 billion people.  As it currently stands, the world’s population is sitting at around 6.8 billion, with one sixth of those people going to sleep hungry every night.  So far in my research, I have mostly focused on national and local food issues—the Food Stamp Program (or SNAP, as it is now called), the history of the United States welfare system (yes, it still exists), and various anti-hunger and community food security movements and frameworks—but I’m now stepping outside my academic comfort zone to view the global landscape of hunger, food prices, and obesity.   One of my professors, a brilliant political economists and critic of both neo-liberalism and civil society, once remarked, and I’m paraphrasing, that there is no beast quite like the beast of poverty in the developing world.   And while I would never downplay the devastating effect of food insecurities and hunger in the US, it is almost unfathomable to wrap one’s mind around the reality of global hunger.  In an article in last week’s New York Times, Shawn Baker, Regional Director for Africa of Helen Keller International, wrote “[in Niger] 2010 is actually worse than 2005, with recent surveys showing acute malnutrition rates of 17%” (Baker 2010).   Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in children under five cannot be understood simply in terms of nightly hunger pangs, but a daily lack of nutrients so severe and prolonged that it results in physical stunting and increased susceptibility to preventable diseases.

Beginning in the 1960s with the uniquely titled “War on Hunger” agenda,  the US government decided that the only way to win the hearts and minds of various food crops in the developing world was to use a direct approach: A) massive amounts of pesticides; B) massive amounts of fertilizers; C) monocropping; D) importing genetically modified foods and seeds; E) repeat steps A through E; F) this step is on the horizon, but I’ll return to it  in next month’s article.   All political agenda aside—and I am positive, and hoping, that readers will hardily disagree with me—there is a compelling argument to be made for the necessary advantages that modern science and business offer in increasing global food production.  While I am a food purist at heart, I cannot, at least from the studies that I have read, believe that without some reliance—the degree of reliance being certainly debatable—on scientific (unlike McWilliams, I don’t see GMO and Roundup Ready seeds in this future) and industrial agricultural practices, we’ll be able to increase food production to the predicted 70% yield required to match population growth.  Again, I want to stress the importance of balance over what we have now—which is one of the most unbalanced, out-of-control systems ever created.  So instead of striking a harmonious cord between sustainable, no-till farming practices and modern logistical and scientific advancements, we have decided instead to be as reckless as possible with our global food supply and see where that takes us–for a current example see: half a billion eggs recalled for possible salmonella exposure.

So where has this reckless behavior taken us? I would posit that we are in all likelihood entering, or have always been in, a state of food plutocracy, by which the gap between average caloric intake for developed and developing nations is going to widen, while caloric intake –which had been rising for decades— will continue to remain stagnant and rates of hunger will begin to increase in many less economically developed countries.

The financial and food crisis beginning in 2007 is at the center of this increase in both global food prices and levels of hunger.  In a 2010 report by the United Nations Millennium Development Goal, the number of undernourished people between 2005-2007 rose to levels not seen since the early 1990s (Dhawan 2010).   It should come as no surprise that during this same period, “the international prices of wheat and maize (corn) tripled, and that of rice grew fivefold” (Braun 2008).  To put these numbers in real terms, the global price of rice in 2006 was $216.65 per ton and by 2008 that number had risen to $507.65 (FAO 2010).   As Paul Collier, the Director for the Center for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford, writes,

“The unambiguous losers when it comes to high food prices are the urban poor. Most of the developing world’s large cities are ports, and, barring government controls, the price of their food is set on the global market. Crowded in slums, the urban poor cannot grow their own food; they have no choice but to buy it” (Collier 2008: 68).

In the aftermath of these rapid increases in food prices, the food riots of 2007-2008 swept through the developing world, with Mexico, Haiti, and Egypt gaining the most international attention.  By the end of 2008 in Egypt, the price of food and beverages had risen by 27 percent (Salama 2008).

Where were the food riots in the United States?  As an estimated 200 millions people in the world starved, the American food plutocracy remained largely stable.  But why?  First, Americans spend on average ten percent of their income on food and of that merely seven percent of their income eating at home (Department of Labor 2010).  In many countries where people live on less than $1 per day, roughly one sixth of the world population, 50 to 60 percent of their income goes toward food (USAID 2010).  This is not to say that food prices didn’t fluctuate in the US.  As one fifth of the nation’s corn crops were funneled toward biofuel production, grocery prices in the United States increased by five percent during the summer of 2008 (Martin 2008).  As the US entered what is now known as the Great Recession, increase in costs of food were not equally distributed throughout the market.  As eggs went up by 25 percent and milk by 17 percent (Stevenson 2008), the price of junk food—high sugar, high fat foods with little nutritional value—decreased by 1.8 percent (Parker-Pope 2008).  Instead of food riots in the US, consumers were faced with having the to decide between buying cheaper, low-nutritional junk food or buying less, and increasingly more expensive, fruits and vegetables. Not surprisingly, we see during this time rates of obesity increase in 37 states (Washington Post 2008).   But food plutocracy is not simply about what types of food we consume, but the sheer number of calories that Americans intake on a daily basis.  This global bifurcation between daily caloric intakes is at the heart of the future of food debate.

In looking at 2004-2006 data from the Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO), Americans, on average, consume 3840 calories per day (FAO 2010).  To place this in the global context: Mozambique – 2090; Kenya – 2060; Sudan – 2300 (FAO 2010). While none of these numbers are startlingly low, it is important to remember that the data was collected two years before the beginning of the global economic recession—when food prices were relativity low and stable.

It is also important to note that Americans weren’t always like this.  If you look at any graph on obesity rates in the US, starting around the early 1980s—hello, Reagan—is when that line begins to slowly move upwards.  Beginning in the 1970s, Americans consumption of caloric sweeteners increased on average from 123.7 pounds to 152.4 pounds in 2000. Not only do we have a serious sweet tooth, but in the same year, we also consumed on average 74.5 pounds of total added fats and oil as opposed to 53.4 in the 1970s.  We like our fat and oils too.

What is food plutocracy going to look like by 2050?  As scientist predict that global food production will need to become more mechanized, industrialized and genetically modified (the MIG), we are already beginning to see how drastic swings in food prices are causing ripples of misery and hunger throughout the developing world.   In this new age of population growth and food speculation, we could begin to see the world increasingly more divided between the globally obese and the marginally food insecure.   A couple month ago, PBS commentator Ray Suarez, in a report on the increasing rate of obesity in China, wrote “[in China] portion sizes are getting bigger, Western-style food is widely available in urban areas, and people are eating out more often”(Suarez 2010).  In looking at the FAO’s diet composition numbers, daily percentage of fat consumption in China has increased from 19.5 percent in 1990 to 28.2 percent in 28.2 in 2006.  Additionally, fat consumption per individual in China has increased from 57.9 grams per day to 93.6 grams per day in 2006.  As rates of severe acute malnutrition continue to rise in many African countries, the rest of the developing world seems to be following the United States down the path of a high sugar, high fat, and high empty calorie lifestyle.  Next month, I will continue this theme on global food inequalities, and tackle the rising, and largely under reported, trend of “land grabbing” in Africa. 

References

Baker, Shawn. 2010. “A Famine Looms In Niger”. New York Times. August 9.

Collier, Paul. 2008. “The Politics of Hunger: How Illusion and Greed Fan the Food Crisis.” Foreign Affairs 87(6):67-80.

Dhawan, Himanshi. 2010. “Hunger back to 1990 levels in South Asia: Un report.” The Times of India. June 23.

FAO.2010. World Food Situation.

—. 2010. International Commodity Prices.

Martin, Andrew. 2008. “Biofuels Getting Blame for High Food Prices.” New York Times. April 15.

Parker-Pope, Tara. 2008. “Money is Tight, and Junk Food Beckons.” New York Times. November 3.

Suarez, Ray. 2010. “Reporter’s Notebook: Obesity on the Rise in China.” PBS Newshour. June 1.

Salama, Vivian. 2008. UAE in Farm Talks with Egypt for Food Supply.” The National. July 7.

Stevenson, Kim. 2008. “Some Good News on Food Prices.” New York Times. April 2.

USAID. 2010.  “USAID Responds to Global Food Crisis.”

USDA. 2010. Agricultural Factbook 2001-2002.

von Braun, Joachim. 2008. “The Food Crisis Isn’t Over: Although the Credit Crunch has Lowered the Price of Food, a Global Recession Now Raises the Hunger Pains of the Most Vulnerable. The Stage is Set For the Next International Food Crisis.” Nature 456(7223): 701.

Washington Post. 2008. “Obesity Rates Up in 37 States: Report.”  Washington Post. August 19.

The Coming Crisis of Western Food: Critical Theory, Social Problems, and Food

By Liam Hysjulien

Credit: Bill Sanders http://www.wku.edu/library/onlinexh/sanders/pages/imagery/hunger_us.html

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once wrote, “[a]‘social problem’ (juvenile delinquency, drugs, AIDS)…constituted as such by the fact that it is hotly disputed and fought over, passes lock, stock and barrel into science” (Bourdieu 1992: 42).  For Bourdieu, the hasty “constitution of social problems¹” places these problems in the same arena as “sociological problems”—something that Bourdieu feels limits our ability to understand the complexity and historical development of these problems.  Bourdieu finishes this passage by stating, “social problems draw attention to critical sociological questions, but they must be approached with a redoubled epistemological vigilance, with a sharp realization that they must be demolished in order to be reconstructed” (Bourdieu 1992: 42).

While I agree with Bourdieu’s position, I put forth this question in response:  what happens if a problem isn’t really seen as a sociological problem to begin with? How do we reconstruct something that rests in a political, theoretical, and scientific nexus of “not really, but kind of a problem, or maybe more of a serious concern.” As a sociologist interested in food, I have a memory of discussing with a friend my interest in community gardens as a means of providing access to local fresh fruits and vegetables.  Halfway through our conversation, my friend—a compassionate and intelligent liberal if there ever was one—interjected with the statement, “well, access to food isn’t really a problem. I mean everyone can get enough food to eat these days. So what do you really see is the point of these community gardens?” At that time, my acquired knowledge had not equaled my passion for food systems and food securities, so I shrugged my shoulders and went on about the aesthetic contribution of bringing food and gardens into low-income neighborhoods—a position I hold to this day.  If I had, as the saying goes, known then what I know now, I would have rattled off statistics about how in 2008 over 50 million Americans, or nearly one in six, struggled to feed themselves and their children (Debusmann 2009).  And that a recent report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), one of the oldest anti-hunger social movements in the country, cited that over 17.3 million people in the United States currently live in very low food security households (FRAC 2010).

But again how do we begin to understand food as a social problem?  Is it in the fact that we are destroying valuable topsoil to increase larger  crop yields—and not only that, but we are completely dependent upon a finite petroleum-based resource to keep the system humming along (Hellwinckel and De La Torre Ugarte 2009; Roberts 2008)?  Probably.   Or how about the reality that over 200 million people in the world starved in 2006 because investors, seeing food securities as less financially risky than the housing market, drove up the cost of grains by 80% (Hari 2010)?  Yeah, that’s actually pretty depressing. Or is it simply the reality that rates of obesity have increased to the point where nearly one-third of adults are currently obese in this country (Flegal et al. 2010)?   While this list is far from exhaustive, I’m sure you’re getting the point—it doesn’t take much unpeeling to see problems embedded in all aspects of our current food system. Understanding how something becomes a social problem, at least from a critical theory perspective, is an attempt to recognize the contradictions inherent in the totally administrated world—to use Adornian language—of modern society.  Similar to Bourdieu’s charge that we must demolish in order to reconstruct, and in doing so, understand the complexity of a problem, a critical understanding of food as a social problem requires that we push beyond the noise of ideological divisions and polemics, and see the seams of contradictions splitting the edges of our society.

Let us take hunger, for example.As Paul Roberts writes in his incredibly well-researched and thought-provoking book The End of Food, hunger, being an almost daily reality through much of Western civilization’s history, tended to ebb and flow, like the cycles of economic recessions, during periods of plague, war, mass famine, or invasions. If we use the decline of the Roman Empire as an example, we see how the collapse of the Roman’s extensive outsourced food system resulted in the fact that “in fourth A.D., the Western food economy collapsed so completely that for the next six centuries, global population rose from 300 million to just 310 million”(Roberts 2008: 12).

Even today, American public policy discourse often falls short in its framing of hunger as a problem.   Looking at the lack of attention among policy officials toward food securities in urban areas—where the problem of food deserts are reality in many communities— Pothukuchi and Kaufman argue that, “food is not perceived as an urban issue in the same magnitude as…housing, crime, or transportation”(Pothukuchi and Kaufman 1998: 214). Nowhere is this point better articulated than in Patricia Allen’s article, “The Disappearance of Hunger in America.”  Allen, one of the most significant voices in food policy and food securities research, describes the effect of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) decision to change their terminology from hunger to food insecurities.  Unless you study the linguistic decisions of the USDA, this change probably went unnoticed by you, but it has the potential to have a resounding impact on how hunger is understood in this country.  As Allen writes, “If hunger is no longer an analytical category, how does one talk about it or advocate for its elimination…the discursive shift from hunger to very low food security…takes away the sharp edge of the word hunger” (Allen 2007: 22).    While the word food security—a word that has its own complex history within anti-hunger movements— may offer a more nuanced way of conceptualizing a person’s inability to access nutritional food, it doesn’t pack any sort of political punch.   The word hunger evokes images of people physically emaciated and ravaged by a lack of access to food. There is a dimension of humanness in a word like hunger, and as the late philosopher Richard Rorty would have said, it helps in manipulating our sentimentality toward other fellow featherless bipeds (Rorty 1999).

Through social movements, policy reforms, and food-based theories, we must challenge these issues surrounding food as a social problem.  When I consider the attention, or lack thereof, placed on hunger in American politics, I immediately think of the statement made by South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer comparing providing people with food stamps to feeding “stray animals”(Barr 2010).    It is these Sorelian myths that epistemological vigilance can help to negate.   The longer this crisis of food is marginalized, the more we will face ideological narratives that fit comfortably within a neo-liberal framework—a linkage that food experts are only now beginning to connect: new technologies will solve our food problems; obesity is the fault of the individual; everything is fine; healthy food is elitist propaganda.  We’ll continue to do nothing with the knowledge that we have gained, and the system that we’ve created— the totally administrated world of food—will go on unraveling.

Notes
¹ The critical theorist, Harry Dahms, delineates the difference between social and sociological theory as being the way in which “social theorists endeavor to understand the logic of social and/or political historical transformations” while “sociological theorists strive to set up a suprahistorical frame of reference for theoretical and empirical research” (Dahms 1995:2).

References

Allen, Patricia. 2007. “The Disappearance of Hunger in America.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 7(2):19-23.

Barr, Andy. 2010. “S.C Lt. Gov.: Poor Like ‘Stray Animals.‘” Politico.  January 25.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1992. “Thinking About Limits” Theory Culture and Society 9:37-49.

Dahms, Harry. 1995. “From Creative Action to the Social Rationalization of the Economy: Joesph A. Schumpter’s Social Theory.” Sociological Theory 13(1):1.13.

Debusmann, Bernd. 2009. “A Paradox of Plenty-hunger in America.” Reuters. Nov 24.

Flegel, Katherine, Margaret Carroll, Cynthia Ogden, and Lester Curtin. “Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2008.” The Journal of the American Medical Association 303(3):235-241.

Food Research Action Center. 2010. “Nutrition Programs and Refundable Tax Credits in President Obama’s FY 2011 Budget.” Retrieved April 24, 2010 (http://www.frac.org /Legislative/budget_FY2011.htm).

Hari, Johann. 2010. “How Goldman Sachs Gambled on Starving the Poor – And Won“.Huffington Post. July 2.

Hellwinckel, Chard and Daniel De La Torre Ugarte. 2009. “Peak Oil and the Necessity of Transitioning to Regenerative Agriculture.” Farm Foundation.  October 6.

Pothukuch, Kameshwari and Jerome L. Kaufman. 1999. Placing the Food System on the Urban Agenda: The Role of Municipal Institutions in Food Systems Planning. Agriculture and Human Values 16:213-224.

Roberts,  Paul. 2008. The End of Food. Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Rorty, Richard. 1999. “Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality.” Pp. 67-83 in The Politics of Human Rights, edited by the Belgrade Circle London UK: Verso.

Practical Food for a Practical Future: A Review of Michael M. Bell’s “Farming For Us All.”

by Liam Hysjulien

Last year Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry—two eminent figures within the environmental and sustainable agricultural movement—wrote that “our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable.” If these authors’ predictions are even remotely correct, the future of food systems in this country is dire. In its current state, the usage of Big Ag practices—heavy reliance on petroleum-based machines, usage of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), accruement of large debt, and the declining median-age of farmers—puts our food systems in a dangerous position. It is easy, when talking to people about a possible future food crisis, to sound overly dramatic about the situation. Still, the weight of current evidence—the continuous erosion of topsoil (a resource as valuable and scarce as potable water), the declining incomes of small farms, and the ever-increasing global population—makes it hard to ignore the warning signs. With a growing awareness towards food production in this country, it seems as if many people are no longer ascribing to a dated Green Revolution adage:  Whatever you want to eat will be available always.

In Michael M. Bell’s book “Farming For Us All”, themes of big agriculture, loss of land, and costs of farming are not merely explored, but seamlessly woven into a story of dedication, community, and the love of farming and the land. Bell orients his book around a series of interviews of members of the sustainable farming organization, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). In using the stories and responses of the PFI members, Bell explores how changes in farming practices have moved agriculture away from the romantic (often by people who don’t farm themselves) image of pastoral, green landscapes into a new frontier of monitoring price commodities, heavy machinery, and aggressive undercutting of your neighbor’s acres. It is through the usage of personal narratives that Bell arrives at the crux of his argument: the importance and uniqueness of sustainable farming lies in its dedication towards community and dialogue. The reality of contemporary farming is that community relationships have largely been replaced by the avaricious nature of “treadmill of production” farming.  It is within Bell’s book that we see how members of the PFI use the organization as a means of engaging in dialogues with others and strengthening a sense of self.   Instead of strictly seeing farming within economic terms, PFI members have a more holistic approach towards the idea and practice of farming. For these farmers, being a member of PFI is a process of opening oneself up to feedback, advice and self-reflection. It is through this process that new practices emerge, entrenched ideas become challenged, and cultural ties become forged. It is this need for community that seems to resonate so strongly with our—to use the Weberian term—Protestant Work Ethic. If we are, as some political polls would lead you to believe, moving towards a Libertarian temperament in this country, farming would seem to epitomize those values.  Even so, there is something woefully misleading in idolizing the isolated, rugged individual. We, as a nation, are more than a collection of fearful and jealous capitalists. No money, or land, or crops can fully compete with the need for fellowship, for community, for the importance of dialogue with each other.

It is in this way that Bell sees farming as being a practice that we all can understand. As we seem to be transitioning into a new era of farming, it will become increasingly likely that sustainable farming, community supported agriculture (CSA), and buying direct from the farmer, will become more prevalent.  Unless all predictions are incorrect, the sun seems to be setting on the industrial farming model.  While the future of food and farming in America is impossible to fully predict, it seems that our understanding of food will continue to grow.  In the future, people won’t wander aimlessly through the grocery aisles, being blissfully unaware of where this food came from, how it was grown, and the person who grew it.

Michael Bell’s book offers us insight into both the world and future of sustainable farming. We see how sustainable farming has helped farmers traverse the difficult path from industrial farming into new identities, relationships and perspectives.  Hopefully the seemingly endless year of 2009 will turn out to have helped usher in a new era of reflection in this country.  Instead of valuing individuals who cut tracts of derivatives into complex, meaningless formulas, our support will shift towards the individuals who engage in tangibles—the cutting of wheat, feeding of cattle, the rising of the sun, the feeding of people, the tending of the earth, the growing of knowledge, identities and food. There is a naiveté in this thinking, but sometimes that’s what all of us need.

To learn more about the Practical Farmers of Iowa, visit their website at: http://www.practicalfarmers.org/


Liam Hysjulien is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  His areas of study are Food Systems Theory, food sustainability, food policies, and urban agricultural projects.