Editorial: Food – A Basic Human Right, Both Abroad and At Home

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.

Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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%.

Projected impact of climate change on agricultural yields by the 2080s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Davie Village Community Garden in Vancouver, BC. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.  

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Editorial: Is our love for “superfoods” more destructive than we think?

In Western countries, it has become commonplace or even trendy to consume so-called “superfoods” that developing countries produce and export. They sit on shelves in nearly every grocery store and their health benefits are well known to consumers. In particular, Western demand for grains such as quinoa and teff have exploded in recent years. But why? Superfoods are food products that are relatively high in nutrients. What drives Western demand for them? If you live in a developed country, it’s likely you’re well versed in, or at least conscious of the superfood conversation. They tend to be popular with vegans and vegetarians, lifestyle choices that have become more prevalent in Western culture, as superfoods are nutritious alternatives for meat products. As we become more preoccupied with making healthy food decisions, foods deemed “superfoods” are front and center. But there’s more to the equation than just demand – somebody has to meet those demands, and this responsibility falls upon the superfoods’ countries of origin.

Background on quinoa and teff and its impacts on countries of origin

Image courtesy of: www.morguefile.com

Quinoa and teff are highly nutritious, gluten-free grains. Quinoa traditionally grows in Peru and Bolivia and is low fat, high in protein, and full of amino acids. Teff, which has 50% more protein, five times more fiber and 25 times more calcium than brown rice, hails from the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. With these stats, it’s no wonder that health-conscious Westerners covet them – consuming foods with these nutrient levels likely impacts our own health in positive ways (which is why demand is so high), but the impacts of our consumption on producing countries is another story altogether. While consuming superfoods like quinoa and teff may have positive health effects for Westerners, we can’t say the same for the health of the countries that produce them. In fact, the “Columbusing” of superfoods, or the “discovery” of these crops in developing countries, tends to benefit global consumers more than producers.

Quinoa industry damaging Bolivian development

Increased global demand – how much people desire a good as a whole – for quinoa spurred Bolivia to export higher volumes of the grain. While this increases Bolivia’s revenue and incomes of local farmers, it also causes the domestic price of quinoa to soar. In other words, while individual living standards of farmers have improved, it has become more difficult for the general population to afford quinoa, a staple in their diets. In 2011, a kilogram of quinoa cost $4.85 USD in contrast to $1 for the same weight of rice. The problems don’t stop there. In attempting to meet global demand, Bolivia faces pressure to allocate more land for quinoa production. If it follows through, Bolivia will in effect transform its agricultural portfolio into a monocrop of only quinoa. Without diverse agricultural production, Bolivia will become subject to volatile food prices and limited food security. If the price of quinoa plummets, its agriculture industry won’t bring in revenue; if it only produces one crop, Bolivia risks pest or disease infestation that can wipe out its only source of food, potentially resulting in famine.


Image: Bolivian city. Courtesy of: www.morguefile.com

Ethiopia’s teff dilemma

In recent years, Westerners have lauded teff for its nutritional value, so much so that the Ethiopian government decided to lift its ban on teff export with tight controls in place. Previously, there was a complete ban on raw teff export, with only processed teff in the form of injera allowed to leave the country. While this prevented the re-entry of teff into the Ethiopian market at inflated prices, the government and manufacturers were involved in the economic process, leaving farmers with little of their deserved revenue. Lifting the ban means Ethiopia needs to control price fluctuations. It hopes to do so by licensing commercial farms to produce teff for export to avoid flooding the market and bringing teff prices down. According to CEO of Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency Khalid Bomba, licensed producers will supply exports first, and then extend to small-scale farmers who comprise most of Ethiopia’s working population. The Ethiopian government’s hopes to meet both domestic and global demand will be tricky business. If it wants to engage in export, Ethiopia should first satisfy its own population’s demand. This involves increasing production levels by introducing modern farming techniques. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of agricultural research on teff production, so Ethiopia must first figure out which modern farming techniques are best suited to teff. Another issue is other countries have successfully planted teff crops. In the United States, 25 states produce the superfood. Al Jazeera reports that because of such successful transplantation, Ethiopia is losing out on its staple crop. Perhaps the best way for Ethiopia to combat this loss is to capitalize on the fact that the quality and taste of foreign-produced teff can’t hold a flame to its own. If it manages to brand Ethiopian teff as a premium product, Ethiopia may be able to overtake its competitors.

Image: Agricultural farm. Courtesy of: www.morguefile.com

Consequences of superfoods on health in developing countries

Let’s now consider the impact of Western demand for quinoa and teff on the health of Bolivian and Ethiopian populations. When goods become too expensive, consumers substitute their consumption of that good with cheaper alternatives. In Bolivia, people substitute less nutritious rice and noodles for quinoa. In Ethiopia, teff farmers are selling the bulk of their harvests instead of eating it to take advantage of high global prices. The consequence of these actions is rising malnutrition, especially in rural communities. In both Bolivia and Ethiopia, consuming more quinoa and teff can alleviate malnutrition, but this task competes with Western cravings.

What can we do?

This paints a fairly bleak picture of guilt. Evidently, Western eating habits are directly related to economic conditions and poverty levels in developing countries. How can we reconcile our health-conscious love for quinoa, teff and other superfoods with the adverse affects it creates for countries that produce them? One way is to practice ethical consumerism. Movements like Fairtrade aim to ensure local farmers receive fair payment for their work; purchasing Fairtrade products means more of your money goes to the producer rather than distributors or manufacturers. But this only solves half of the equation – how can we ensure that our consumption of superfoods doesn’t come with the price of malnourished communities who can’t afford the same product? This is a question of social and economic policy. We have seen how Ethiopia is taking measures to ensure domestic prices (the current price for teff in the economy) of teff don’t skyrocket. To see lower domestic quinoa prices, Bolivia may restrict exports or increase production (both of which will bolster domestic supply and push down price) or introduce some kind of policy that balances its exports with domestic concerns. It’s unlikely that Western demands for superfoods will cease or even plateau any time soon. Indeed, such demand can produce incentives for more people or countries to become involved in superfood industries and drive more efficient production. Taking this into consideration, the key lies in how, rather than what, we consume, and the ways in which we can all improve our consumer behaviour.

The digitalization of South Korea’s education

Digital textbooks and e-learning resources have been steadily on the rise and becoming increasingly widespread, despite the heavy debates surrounding its implementation into traditional education. As conventional learning materials are replaced by tablets and other smart devices, the future of digitalization and educational technology becomes prevalent and fast-approaching.

One country that is demonstrating the all-pervasiveness of digitalized education is Asia’s leading tech hub – South Korea. Its high-achieving, accomplishment-pursuing attitudes towards youth education has earned its rightful place as one of the top achieving nations in various educational and IQ tests carried out worldwide.

Republic of Korea @ Flickr.com

High school students cheering on peers at the ‘Suneung’ exam (Courtesy of flickr.com)

South Korea’s e-learning culture and its players

 In 2013, the South Korean government had announced its plans to implement an “educational paradigm shift”, known as ‘SMART education’. Rather than a blatant proclamation of loyalty towards digitalized resources for learning, the concept revolves around an acronymic slogan promoting a self-disciplined, motivated, and adaptive outlook on nationwide schooling.

South Korea’s ‘SMART education’ bears the ambitious mission of digitalizing education completely and wholly by 2015. Today, in 2016, the nation’s e-learning goals are evident. As high school students prepare for the College Scholastic Ability Test, or Suneung that takes place in November annually, it is clear that the vision to digitalize is well on track. Students diligently attend school during the day, and log in to their online classrooms as nighttime dawns.

Judy Suh’s 2012 award-winning short documentary ‘ExamiNation’ portrays the South Korean attitude towards education. Through the capturing of the average high school student’s hardworking, nose-in-book lifestyle, youth education is exposed as a cultural phenomenon in itself. The documentary follows final-year high school student Bitna Hwang and her repetitive musings at school, private cram centers, and dimly-lit studying cubicles where she spends hours doing practice exams and memorizing content. The average South Korean high school student spends 16 hours a day studying.

Amidst this nationwide emphasis on lengthy hours of study, where does technology fit in? Private tutoring expenditure in South Korea tops $20 billion annually, and is a thriving industry feeding off the rigorous lifestyles of diligent young students (and their parents). Online cram schools are a new, budding form of e-learning, allowing subject-specific content to be even more accessible than ever. A package membership allows full access to lecture videos, past papers, and online streaming schedules, encouraging the importance of self-directed study patterns that extend school hours.

Journeyman Pictures’ documentary on South Korea’s academic scene and sky-high teen suicide rates exposes the masterminds behind these online academies. They are profit-driven entrepreneurs who sport wacky costumes to make their lectures interesting in order to prevent students from falling asleep due to strenuous hours of studying with devices in hand. Students typically spend more than 2 hours a day reviewing merely from online lectures. During the live streaming, up to 300,000 students nationwide are logged on and ready to learn.

The key is to “keep costs low and provide kids with good-quality online content”. It is clear that education has become a corporatized business tool with its elevated demand. The people’s attitudes towards youth education, paired with the culture of online and after school tutoring reflects not only the competitive, dog-eat-dog nature of the local education system, but also the fast-advancing pervasiveness of digital learning outside the classroom.

North America’s Khan Academy – where does digitalized education stand?

Similarly, e-learning and digital education in North America are widespread. Cloud-based learning and information storage tools, as well as multimedia materials are becoming increasingly popularized. Online tutorial videos teaching various subjects such as science, mathematics, and economics are an example of the shifting education scene – from traditional paperbacks to digital learning.

SRI International’s study on the use of Khan Academy in North American schools showed that its role satisfied a “blended learning model”. Khan Academy is a popular academic website providing students with free instructional and tutorial videos on subjects such as mathematics, science, economics, and more. Its resources are used mainly in K-12 education within North America. The “blended learning model” is the combination of self-directed online study with instructor-led school-based learning, allowing students to enhance their knowledge on particular areas of study.

Khan Academy’s steady rise stipulates a shift of emphasis onto self-paced and self-directed learning that can prepare students for independent knowledge acquisition and research in university. During online study, students can practice newly-acquired skills from classroom-based instructed learning, and obtain a better grasp on areas in which they have trouble with. Thus, the “blended learning model” acts as not only a tool for teachers and instructors to track students’ learning curves, but also for students to monitor and pace their own learning progress.

As digitalized learning becomes an academic trend, it is important to evaluate the implications behind its popularization in order to utilize it to full potential. South Korea’s academic paradigm shift clarifies the connection between readily-available online education, and diligent attitudes that will lead to success. The use of technology as learning tools and why they are used is ultimately what constitutes as the culture of digital education.

Editorial: “Conflict mineral” only the tip of the iceberg in DR Congo conflict

In recent decades, the world has become increasingly interconnected not only through the trade of goods across borders, but also the migrations of people, technologies and ideas.

Today, billions of people own cell phones, from teenagers in rich industrialized countries to farmers in rural Africa. In fact, the mobile phone has become so commonplace that we don’t think twice about what we hold in our hands or where it comes from. In response, some movements have emerged to urge consumers to buy local and develop an understanding of where their food, clothing and other goods originate.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are coltan reserves, a mineral which is found in almost all electronics. Mass media has sensationalized the use of coltan in such manufactured goods, reporting that industries buying the mineral are funding violence in the DRC, where civil wars have been ongoing since 1996.

Polinares, a European project researching the effects of conflict on peace and economic development, released a report in 2013 entitled Coltan, Congo, and Conflict, addressing concerns about common misconceptions of coltan and violence in the DRC.

Initiatives seeking to limit the revenues of armed rebel groups assume that mineral revenues from trading coltan are responsible for continued fighting in the DRC. In response, Polinares argues that little convincing evidence exists suggesting these initiatives will significantly reduce violence in the region.

In reality, the underlying causes of conflict are much more complex, and unless these risks for conflict are addressed and resolved, rebels will simply shift from trading minerals to other sources of revenue.

History of the DRC

The Democratic Republic of Congo is an incredibly diverse country in central Africa with more than 200 distinct ethnic groups. Since its independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1960, the DRC has suffered repeated outbreaks of violence and lingering conflict between numerous parties, from the national army to various ethnic groups and neighbouring countries.


Image courtesy of: USAID 

The most recent conflicts include the First Congo War (1996-97), ignited by the cross-border impact of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the Second Congo War (1998-2003), considered the deadliest war in modern African history.

What’s causing such staggering amounts violence?

According to Polinares, there are many contributing factors, not the least of which was the 32-year dictatorial reign of Joseph Mobutu, a leader more concerned with personal gain rather than his country’s welfare. Associated with his rule are the degradation of infrastructure, an increasingly incapable government, and persisting absence of national cohesion. Together, these factors have rendered the DRC a “failed state”.

What is coltan?

Short for columbite-tantalite, coltan derives most of its value by the percentage of tantalum contained in it. Because the mineral is light and durable, electronics producers extensively use it in products such as cell phones, computers, and automotive electronics.


Piece of coltan ore. Courtesy of: www.creativecommons.org

In Africa, the DRC is the largest producer of coltan, with 14 mining sites in the North Kivu province and nine in the South Kivu in the east. While some assert that the DRC accounts for 60% of the world’s production of coltan, the reality is much closer to 8%, meaning the DRC is nowhere near the top global producer.

The real impact of coltan on violence in the DRC

With the DRC’s complicated history of violence, explaining the role of coltan is similarly complex. The media and initiatives seeking to stop the purchasing of coltan from the DRC believe the mineral to be a key motivator of armed groups to fight in the region, characterizing it as a conflict mineral.

In reality, the relationship between coltan and the conflict isn’t so straightforward.

Statistical analyses indicate that some mineral resources may lengthen pre-existing wars, suggesting that coltan and other minerals may be responsible for prolonging recent conflicts in the Congo.

But while an abundance of natural resources, like coltan, may be an additional factor that increases the likelihood of conflict, it is by no means the only driver of violence.

According to Polinares, many factors that substantially increase the risk of civil war or violence are present in the DRC. These include a large territory, ethnic diversity and declining living standards. Another factor relevant to the DRC is conflict in neighbouring countries, which includes the civil war and genocide in Rwanda and civil war in Angola.

It seems, then, that unless these structural and political causes are appropriately confronted, conflict will persist, and lobbying for the end of purchasing coltan from conflict regions is just the tip of the iceberg of a very large, very complex issue.