Let’s appreciate food for the sacred necessity it is

Published Tuesday, October 27, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

With all attention in this country focussed on October 19, another date – arguably even more important – slipped by us earlier this month.

October 16 was World Food Day.  The fact that it passed entirely without notice reaffirms just how lucky we are to live in this blessed land of plenty.  But perhaps it’s a good occasion to reflect upon the importance of food in our tumultuous, changing world.

Lucky

If you an interplanetary visitor looking to touch down and settle, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place than Canada.  So much land, so much water and so much food; few of us truly go hungry.

It’s not like that everywhere.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, globally, about 795 million people are chronically undernourished – most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.  That’s equal to 20 Canadas.

We actually produce enough food to feed our entire population of 7.3 billion.  But two barriers prevent that food from making it to every mouth.

Wasted food

First, according to the UN, about one third of the food we produce is lost or wasted.  One third!

In the developing world, most loss occurs pre-consumer, due mainly to challenges like lack of roads and lack of proper storage facilities.  

In the developed world, much food waste occurs at the consumer level: we trim excessively in the kitchen; we overfill our plates; we’re too busy to deal with leftovers; and we let food spoil in our refrigerators.  As well, a lot of food is wasted because it’s ‘imperfect’: too big, too small, bruised, misshapen or otherwise lacking in eye appeal.  I know of a New Brunswick farmer who leaves masses of oversized but otherwise perfect turnips to rot in his field only because he can’t sell them.  (Thankfully, many of those are now being ‘rescued’ for a local food bank.)

Unaffordable food

Second, some people simply can’t afford the food they need.  The problem is especially serious in developing nations where food costs comprise a high percentage of income, and support systems like food banks do not exist.  For example, residents of three of the most populous countries in the world – Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan – spend over 40 per cent of their incomes on food.  That makes them especially vulnerable to spikes in global commodity prices like the one that happened in 2010 after a massive drought reduced global grain production.

And when people’s food security is threatened, larger issues tend to emerge – like civil unrest, terrorism and mass migration.  There is little doubt that Syria’s current strife has been made worse by the recent drought that has gripped that country.

Security agencies around the world are well aware of the link between climate change, food security and global stability.  Just last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “The horrific refugee situation we’re facing today will pale in comparison to the mass migrations that intense droughts, sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change are likely to bring about.”

Solutions

In anticipation of climate changes and a still-growing population, scientists are developing crop varieties that are more tolerant of heat, drought and salinity.  We’ll likely find ourselves eating unconventional foods like cricket burgers and algae, too.

In the meantime, what are some good strategies for the New Brunswick global citizen?

Appreciate food for the sacred necessity it is; contemplate how lucky we are to have lots of it, and strive to reduce waste in every way possible.  

Protect every gram of our topsoil, the vital non-renewable resource that provides 99.7% of the world’s food.  

Grow a garden.  Choose local and/or organic options when possible.  

And perhaps above all, hug a farmer: they’re the people who feed us all.