If you have been keeping up with current global news, particularly when it comes to poorer countries and countries in conflict, then you may have learned that food security is part of the conversation, whether it is a factor driving conflict or migration, or a result of them.
But what is food security? At first glance, it seems to be a fairly straight forward phrase – “food”, calories you need to stay alive; and “security”, one’s food supply being safe from danger or threat. At a basic level, this understanding is correct, but in policy and program discussions between development practitioners and bodies like the United Nations, Red Cross and within national governments, food security is a little more complex. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security exists when people are able to access enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy life. This food can be produced domestically, imported, or arrive through food assistance programs. Food security is comprised of four major components. First is the availability, or overall abundance of food. Understandably, if food is unavailable, people are not food secure. The second component is whether people are able to access available food. The availability of food does not matter unless people can physically access markets and have the resources to access food. Third is the utilization of food, which means that to be food-secure, food consumed should provide people with the nutrients they need to live healthy lives. Lastly, people need to have stable and reliable access to a supply of food. To be considered food-secure, these four requirements must be met. Based on this criteria, it is estimated that 795 million people in the world presently experience chronic hunger. This is about one in nine people.
Food Security and the Developing World
Unsurprisingly, the highest prevalence of food insecurity exists in developing countries. This is not the result of an inability to grow food. In fact, agriculture is the main economic activity in most developing nations, from East Asia to Latin America to Africa. Rather, global economics prompt farmers, the majority of which are small-scale producers, to sell most of their products to markets in exchange for cash, which they believe will raise their standards of living. Yet, the value of primary products like agricultural commodities is steadily declining in global markets. As a result, entire families will work for subsistence wages in order to survive, drawing children away from education and reinforcing the cyclical nature of poverty. Despite agriculture being the main economic activity, high costs of producing food and transporting food to markets contribute to developing countries’ reduced food security and competitiveness in global markets. For example, high production costs due to a lack of modern agricultural techniques and technologies tend to cause low productivity, as well as lower quality products. Due to the higher cost of production and lower quality products, developing countries tend to struggle in selling their products on global markets and cannot compete with more cheaply-produced and higher quality goods from countries such as the United States or China. This leaves small-scaled farmers with little cash and little food for their work.
Is Canada Food Secure? Don’t be so certain. Canada is an advanced industrialized country that ranks 9th on the Human Development Index, which combines measurements of life expectancy, education, and Gross National Income per capita to determine how well-developed a country is. Despite our relatively comfortable standard of living, this is not uniform across the country.
Numerous reports and studies, including those conducted by UN Special Rapporteurs, show that there are significant gaps in wealth and inequality, and pockets of Canada reflect conditions that would seem more characteristic of a developing country. Non-profit organization Canada Without Poverty estimates that 4.9 million (one in seven) people in Canada live in poverty, and food insecurity is a threat to stability for many of them. In many rural and northern regions of Canada, food costs are exorbitantly high owing to their remote locations and the high cost of transporting food from more populated areas. Residents in Nunavut spend $14,800 on average each year on food – more than twice as much as the rest of the country ($7,300).
Responses to Food Insecurity
By 2050, it is estimated that global food production will have to increase by 70% in order to keep up with growing population levels and food needs. Governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are undertaking various approaches to combat food insecurity and climate change across the globe. Canada’s federal foreign affairs, trade, and development body, Global Affairs Canada, pursues a food security strategy geared towards the reduction of food insecurity in developing countries, and in particular, targets the most vulnerable countries and populations, including a focus on women and girls. A major component of Canada’s strategy involves the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and reduced pesticide use. Agriculture is the main economic activity for many developing countries and the main income source for poor households, meaning that improving food security goes hand-in-hand with reducing poverty. However, agriculture poses significant challenges, too. The agricultural sector is a major contributor to, and a major victim of, climate change. The agriculture, forestry, and other land-use sectors produced 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 2001 and 2011, global emissions from crop and livestock production rose by 14%.
At the same time, climate change in the form of extreme weather events like droughts and floods negatively impacts agriculture. In addition to creating unfavourable conditions for growing staple crops, climate change also contributes to manifesting favourable conditions for new crop diseases. Through Canadian and international partner organizations, activities like farmer education courses on sustainable agricultural practices, such as climate-smart agriculture, and the introduction and subsequent adoption of more modern agricultural technologies contribute to increasing food security. This also prepares farmers against negative effects of climate change on their livelihoods, and mitigates the agricultural sector’s impact on the environment. Combined with significant investment in agricultural research and development, promoting sustainable agriculture will aid the global population in increasing food supply to meet growing demand in a way that does not place more stress on an already resource-strained planet. This work must continue if we hope to keep up with population growth and preserve the planet’s resources.
What else can we do?
As concerned global citizens, how can we contribute to the conversation and action our governments and civil societies are taking against food insecurity? We can take localized action. The BC Centre for Disease Control and Food Secure Vancouver are great resources for learning about local food security. Food Secure Vancouver’s website contains information about local food markets, farmer training programs, school gardens, and community food resources. By educating ourselves and getting involved in initiatives like community gardening and food banks, we can participate in improving our own food security and that of others around us.
We can participate in our democracy. Canada is set to release a new international assistance strategy, which takes into consideration over 10,000 public submissions. We can educate ourselves on Canada’s new strategy and call or write to local Members of Parliament or the Minister for International Development to express concerns and suggestions for how Canada interacts with our developing country partners. Domestically, we should let our representatives know that Canada should give more support to our own food security efforts. The Northern Farm Training Institute in the Northwest Territories is an experiential school that aims to empower northern residents, strengthen communities, and create sustainability through local food production. By supporting efforts as such, we can contribute to closing the inequality gap in this country.