Exploring the future of food

By Ellen Teague
July 12, 2010

I’m always complaining about food bills. My family will testify how annoyed I get when they then waste the purchased food. “Do you know that people in England and Wales throw away 3.6 million tonnes of food each year?” I ask my three teenage boys, “and that 60 per cent of it is untouched, with salad, fruit and bread being the most commonly wasted?” I fail to engender outrage. But then we’re better off than most. At the weekend the charity, ‘Contact a Family’, warned that families in UK with disabled children are going without basics such as food after being left in financial "dire straits”.

There are so many issues with food in the UK to concern people with mindfulness of justice and peace. The rise in 'lazy' foods, for example, such as peeled potatoes, and diced onion, distorts our perception of food and where it comes from. The poor quality of food served to children in nurseries bothers parents. But in the global south, the issues surrounding food, particularly the cost, are matters of life and death.

Between 2007 and 2008 approximately 40 food riots occurred around the world. In Mexico, corn prices made tortilla, a staple of the country's diet, prohibitively expensive for the nation's poor. In Haiti, soaring food prices led people to the streets, and eventually to overthrow the Prime Minister. Even mud cakes, traditional fare for the poorest, were too expensive for them. Made from dried dirt mixed with salt, shortening and sugar, the cost of mud cakes tripled when the price for shortening rose. And in recent months, since Haiti’s devastating earthquake, a voucher system has been introduced for distributing food aid after a first-come-first-served policy caused fights in food lines.

But are we heading towards an international food crisis? The signs are worrying. The cost of oil, used for fertiliser, irrigation and transportation, is at a record high. The increasing demand for bio-fuels means that more land is dedicated to growing them and not food. Due to subsidies to US farmers to grow corn for bio-fuel, a quarter of US crop production is now devoted to the bio-fuel industry. This may help reduce fossil fuel use – a necessary move in the face of climate change - but food security is being undermined. The Vatican is just one of the religious bodies warning of the dangers of devoting significant tracts of land to bio-fuels. In some countries, such as Indonesia, irreplaceable rainforest is being chopped down to make way for palm oil plantations used to make bio-fuels. The bigger picture indicates that rainforest must be protected since it is a major absorber of carbon.

And better living standards in countries such as China and India have resulted in more consumption of meat - which means producing more grain to feed the animals that will be eaten. All this, along with reduced agricultural productivity due to climate change, is causing a global crisis, especially for the world’s poorest 800 million people, and especially in Africa. Niger currently has eight million people needing food aid – more than half the population – and Chad some two million.

Other reasons for agricultural crisis include the Common Agriculture Policy in Europe, which is due for revision in 2013. The National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales (NJPN), a liaison organisation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, is amongst those faith groups which have signed up to the European Food Declaration, noting that after more than a half-century of industrialisation of agriculture and food production, sustainable family farming and local food cultures have been substantially reduced in Europe (www.europeanfooddeclaration.org). Signatories suggest that domination of food and agriculture policy by transnational corporations and the World Trade Organisation should be replaced by food sovereignty. This would mean more support for small farmers, and guarantees that agriculture and food production remain free from genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified seeds are almost totally controlled by commercially-motivated northern transnational companies who aggressively protect their patents.

At NJPN’s annual conference next weekend, Our Daily Bread: Food Security, People and Planet, these issues will be explored. Many Christian-inspired and other faith-based organisations are indicating the need for the international community to act with urgency. Church agencies around the world are involved in supporting small scale agriculture very successfully. At NJPN’s conference, Ton Onyango, CAFOD’s Justice and Peace Officer for East Africa, will talk about his work promoting sustainable livelihoods in drought-stricken regions where a lack of food security due to the scarcity of pasture and water has led to conflict between communities. Here at home, Christian Ecology Link will continue to push for Christians to adopt its LOAF principles, of sourcing food that is Locally produced, Organically grown, Animal friendly and Fairly traded.

Although I frequently complain about my food shopping bill, the real cost of food is actually not reflected in the receipt that I and other northern consumers receive at the check-out counter. Agribusiness has managed to externalise many of the costs of food production to other sectors of the economy and the environment. According to Columban eco-theologian Sean McDonagh, the true cost of food can only be fully appreciated when we factor in all the hidden subsidies, and the huge toll that industrial agriculture is taking on human health and on the environment. “Very seldom is the transport and greenhouse gas cost of our food properly accounted for” he says. At the conference, Vandana Shiva, an award-winning Indian ecologist, will argue that “biodiverse, orqanic farms and localised food systems offer us security in times of climate insecurity, while producing more food, producing better food and creating more livelihoods”.

Further details of the conference 16-18 July 2010 are on website www.justice-and-peace.org.uk. A few places still available.


Ellen Teague is a freelance Catholic journalist who works regularly for The Tablet, JUSTICE magazine, Independent Catholic News, Redemptorist Publications and the Messenger of St. Anthony. She is also a member of the Columban Missionary Society Justice and Peace team, and chairs the Environment Working Group of the National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales.

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