Food Security

I wonder how many readers ever give much thought to food security. Many developing countries suffer from acute shortages of food for a myriad of reasons from civil conflicts and economic stress to extreme weather anomalies that have a direct impact on agricultural production. In direct contrast to countries with food security issues, the United States has an obesity problem. Recent studies indicate that there will be an increase in early deaths not because of insufficient food supplies but from too much food. To exacerbate this problem further, the excess food being consumed is also of much lower nutritional value.

An interesting profile of the American consumer after World War II was presented in an excerpt from THE TASTE OF WAR by Lizzie Collingham: How World War II Changed The Way Americans Ate that appeared last year in the Huffington Post Book review section.

“The new-found prosperity of American workers [after the war] allowed them to buy goods which had previously been out of their reach. The privations Americans had put up with during the Depression and now during the war shaped their post-war desires…The advertising images generated during the war created an image of the meaning of victory as the freedom to indulge in all those luxuries which Americans had been denied during the war. In 1943 Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post illustrated the four freedoms which Roosevelt stated that he hoped the war would achieve for the world in his State of the Union address to Congress on 6 January 1941. Rockwell depicted the freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from want…”

Given the definition of food security as defined by the UNFAO, I offer that there is a food security issue in the United States.

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

If you look back a few decades, you see how the presidents were encouraging Americans to buy more to support the economy. I thought this was a rather recent sentiment, meant to restart our economies following the recession in the 70s, the economic impact of the Internet collapse in early 2000 and the devastation caused by the financial collapse several years later – consumption in spite of excessive consumer debt. It seems that this idea of consumerism goes back to the Depression.

Americans have been very fortunate to have an abundance of food which provided not just a stable nutritional foundation but also contributed to raising our standard of living.

“During the Depression years the idea emerged of the consumer as the saviour of the American economy. The working man who bought himself goods such as radios and refrigerators by means of hire purchase was the key to generating industrial production. Not only was he improving his standard of living but the demand for consumables would increase productivity and keep working men in jobs. At the end of the war, the government returned to this argument and encouraged purchasing without restraint as a way of preventing the expected post-war economic slump.

This success came a cost. As our standard of living rose so did our expectations. Our improved wealth enabled greater consumption which created greater demand. Our lives got faster from cars to food. Time seemed to get shorter as we tried to squeeze more and more activities into a finite but seemingly insufficient 24 hour day. We may have fancy kitchens with all of the latest appliances but seem to find it necessary and more enjoyable to eat out more often while on the run.

The Executive Summary of the UNFAO Report – The State of Food Insecurity in the World provides the perspective for global hunger:

“About 870 million people are estimated to have been undernourished in the period 2010–12. This represents 12.5% of the global population, or one in eight people. The vast majority of these – 852 million – live in developing countries, where the prevalence of undernourishment is now estimated at 14.9% of the population. Undernourishment in the world is unacceptably high.”

This discussion of food security is less about the developing world than it is about the emerging trends in health in the United States – in spite of food abundance. From a recent study that was published in Health Affairs – Obesity Costs U.S. About $147 Billion Annually:

“Annual medical expenditures attributable to obesity have doubled in less than a decade, and may be as high as $147 billion per year, according to a new study by researchers at RTI International, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

The study reports that, between 1998 and 2006, the prevalence of obesity (body mass index greater than 30) increased by 37%. This increase is responsible for 89% of the increase in obesity costs that occurred during this time period. The results reveal that obesity is now responsible for 9.1% of annual medical expenditures, compared with 6.5% in 1998.”

Even more troubling are the statistics for childhood obesity.

“Obesity in childhood continues to grow in prevalence among adolescents in the United States. In some states, obesity is found in nearly 40% of children. Childhood obesity causes liver, lung, heart and musculoskeletal complications as well as psychological ones.”

In spite of this emerging trend, the prescription for combating obesity is almost always medical.

The cost of food production will continue to rise as the environment becomes more stressed from climate change and extreme weather occurrences. The added costs of transportation needed to move food throughout the global network will continue to rise as global petroleum supplies become more scarce. Another hidden contribution to the cost of food will be the related expenses of medical interventions needed to combat the impact of poor dietary habits.

Awareness of these issues is the easy part. Taking action and personal responsibility to change is quite a different and more complicated part of any solution.

As global security issues continue to rise around the globe and the cost of food production rises to meet a growing demand, it is likely that the number of people suffering from food security will only worsen. By eating better and refocusing global food efforts on the development of higher-nutritional value food, the quantity of food being produced today should be able to support a growing global population as well as improve the nutritional health of the most in need.

As an example. When grain is diverted from the food supply, it is no longer available for food production. When corn is being promoted for the development of biofuel, it is taken out of the food chain, no longer available for basic food production and becomes a higher priced commodity competing in the global energy market. As the global demand for corn rises, so does its value and cost. Countries that were more dependent on corn for food production are now competing against wealthier countries that can afford to pay higher commodity prices for corn to be used as a biofuel.

ALL countries must take action and personal responsibility in managing present food consumption needs. There really is plenty to go around. And, with improved global food management, there just might be improved health and lower medical costs for all.

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