Corn, wheat and rice are essential foods for us all. We grow, distribute, buy and eat those grains within a globalized food system. Adverse weather in Asia, Australia and Western Europe, increasing oil prices (which affect food production as well as transport costs) and subsidized, corn-based biofuel production have resulted in a world grain crisis that all of us can feel with varying degrees of severity and urgency.
The poorest people are most drastically affected, because many of them cannot now afford to buy staple food grains. There are calls for expanding grain production as well as investing more heavily in agricultural modernization and biotechnology.
But is expansion of industrial grain production the most ecologically and socially responsible way to address the shortages of key food grains? Isn't now the time to begin to rethink and rework the global food system so that corn, wheat and rice are available to all people -- not just those who can afford to buy them? The global food system is highly dependent upon oil and is dominated by the food grain production and the consumption demands of the richest and most powerful countries.
According to the recent International Assessment for Agricultural Science and Technology for Development -- the work of 400 scientists, endorsed by more than 60 nations -- the answer to international food security lies not in increasing productivity or employing biotechnology and genetically modified seeds, but in understanding that food access and distribution is deeply connected to poverty and increasing social and economic inequality between the haves and the have-nots among and between nations.
The study recommends rethinking how we grow food and urges moves to conserve fossil fuels in the production and transport of food as well as turning to local production systems and local knowledge of ecosystems.
Paradoxically, changes in international food security policy over the past 20 years have increased poor countries' dependency upon food grains produced for the world market and deepened their vulnerability to price increases. In the early 1980s, international organizations such as the World Bank encouraged national policies of grain self-sufficiency. Countries grew and stored grain for their citizens in case of shortfalls.
In the latter half of the 1990s, as free market policies gained increasing acceptance as ways to ensure international food security, the World Bank encouraged all countries, but especially those most dependent upon loans and food aid, to abandon this policy on the grounds that it was inefficient and expensive. International food security was redefined in market terms. Nations were encouraged to buy their food grain on the global market rather than growing or storing it themselves.
Countries were encouraged or compelled to sell their reserves on the global market, and the less powerful nations were actively discouraged from subsidizing or protecting national grain production, thereby eroding national and regional capabilities for self-sufficiency. International food security is linked to global grain markets.
Food is too important to left entirely to the market. To make international food security a reality, local, national and regional food systems encompassing food grain production and storage and dedicated to environmental conservation and social justice would go some way to making international food security inclusive, sustainable and increasing the diversity and sources of the world's grain supplies. Lucy Jarosz is associate professor of geography at the University of Washington.
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