What Is Food Security?
"Food security is when all people, at all times,
have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs
and food preferences for an active and healthy life"
- United Nations Food and Agriculture Association
Why Should We Care About Our Food System?
Food security affects us all and relates to social,
political and environmental issues. Understanding the nature of food and how it
is produced both traditionally and industrially helps us to take an active role
in ensuring we will always have nutritious food to eat.
Here is some food for thought on food security issues
1. Food is part of our carbon footprint.
The processing of food takes many forms of energy including:
- The physical running of farm machinery and pesticide
planes (used for fertilizing, spraying, weeding, and harvesting)
- The transportation of food from farms to processing
plants, from plants to grocers, and from grocers to your home
- The running of machinery at processing plants
- The creation of packaging for foods (plastic bags,
containers, cans, bottles)
- The transportation that packaging from a production plant
to a food processing plant
- The creation and distribution of pesticides
- The creation and distribution of chemical fertilizers
- The storage of certain foods (refrigerated and frozen
- The energy used in each of the above listed stops in the
food creation plant increases as:
- A food is more highly processed - including more ingredients,
from more places, and more energy to produce it (and likely more packaging)
- The food comes from a more distant place.
No amount of no-emission biking to work can cancel out
dinners traveling to your table from Brazil.
2. The supply and distribution system is based on the
premise of cheap oil.
As you see above, much of the food system involves
processing and distributing foods. Often, this is across large expanses of land
- such as Bananas from Jamaica, Grapes from Chile, and Mangos from Southeast
One study has estimated that food destined for Toronto
traveled an average of 3,333 miles or 5,364 km. That's roughly the distance of
a road trip across Canada, starting at Vancouver and stopping at every major
city along the way, even Edmonton and Saskatoon - and still nearly making it to
Keep in mind, that's the average distance
traveled. Meaning a lot of food comes from a lot farther away. But why do we care that our food gets to see more of the
world than we do?
- While oil is cheap now, prices may rise and raise havoc on
our current food distribution system, leaving many people without the ability
to access food due to financial constraints
- Oil is a finite resource, and will eventually run out
(predictions say sooner rather than later). This will leave people who depend
on long-distance food with no way to transport food to their cities.
In order to address these issues cities around the world are
adopting urban agricultural practices and attempting to save what agricultural
land they have left - to ensure food can be produced nearby.
3. The status quo threatens biodiversity.
Industrial production threatens biodiversity in a few key
- By selecting to grow certain foods over others and
covering large expanses of land with them (thereby disallowing other plants to
grow in that area)
- By spraying pesticides which kill bugs regardless of
whether they are dangerous to crops
- Through the threat of increase of the use of genetically
Types of food that grow the fastest, are easiest to harvest,
and travel the best is preferred by food companies. The result is that we are
increasingly losing diversity within foods (how often do you see purple cauliflower?).
Loss of diversity is a problem because it weakens the food
system. For example, if all we grow is one type of corn, and that corn becomes susceptible
to a disease, we lose all the food. In a field with diverse crops, by contrast,
one type of food may be affected by the disease while other crops survive.
4. There are significant public health concerns.
Because the processes of the
industrial production of food is not held up to scrutiny it is difficult to
hold anyone accountable.
5. It only appears to be efficient.
The existing food system may be efficient on a short-term
market standpoint, but it is extremely inefficient on an environmental and
social health standpoint.
6. The food system is strongly linked to global hunger.
Food prices are determined on a global level, but labour
wages are determined on local demand and supply. Many developing countries with
open markets have many people subjected to an unfair pricing system, the result
of which is a mismatch in people? Salary and how much food they can purchase,
they can work very hard and have a good local salary, but be ultimately unable
to adequately feed their families.
This globalized food system can have a negative effect on
food security by discouraging developing countries with open international
markets from developing their own local agriculture. Arable land is often used
for the production of 'cash crops' like cotton or expensive fruits. This was
even the case during the Irish Potato Famine, where despite the intensity of
need for food, grain grown in Ireland was being shipped to England where people
had the money to pay for it.
For more on how the food system is linked to global hunger,
visit the Oxfam
Comparing Food Systems
It is interesting to compare a traditional food system with an industrial food system.
Traditional food systems are light on resources and
therefore have little or no negative environmental impact. These are reflected
in organic agriculture, backyard and rooftop gardening, and community gardens.
It is a system in which you know exactly where your food came with, how it was
prepared and by whom, and where the waste goes.
The industrial food system has developed primarily over the
last 100 years. In this system, the food you eat is likely grown thousands of
miles from where you eat it - perhaps they are grapes grown in Chile, pineapple
from Jamaica, or soy from Brazil. Sometimes, even if a food is grown in Canada
or the US it will travel hundreds of miles from where it is grown to where it
is processed. It is pre-cut, bagged, and 'value added' (made microwavable,
quick-fixable, or eatable with one hand while in the car). The processing puts
many foods together and often involves adding preservatives, extra sugars or
extra salts (Twinkies, anyone?).