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Healthy Food, Healthy Ecosystems: Access, Sustainability, and Livability
Feeding 7 billion people seems like a clearly defined problem with a straightforward solution, certainly technically and logistically complex, but nonetheless solvable. Yet with 805 million global citizens chronically underfed (according to the FAO) and 15 percent of all US households with children younger than six considered food insecure (according to the USDA), a simple solution here at home or across the globe remains elusive. Moreover, with terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems degraded from agricultural practices (land- or marine-based) and with growing disease from consuming too much unhealthy food, the problems and solutions to feeding people go beyond getting enough calories to the underfed and food-insecure. Choosing whether such systems improve or degrade the environment, whether the health and well-being of the individuals and families that grow, harvest, process, distribute and prepare our food are considered, and whether all communities (high-income or low-income, urban or rural) have access to healthy food at affordable prices are decisions societies make about the food system. That such choices are part of addressing the problem of feeding the world--and that issues of equity, trade-offs with ecosystem health, and who benefits have different values depending on where in the food system one sits--reveals the wickedness of the problem.
Too often food insecurity solutions (like those for other wicked problems) reduce the problems of feeding the world to single factors. For example, in the April 26 New York Times, Mark Lynas spoke to the importance of GMOs to feed a hungry world, health concerns of genetically modified crops, and the environmental community's inconsistent application of science to its public policy positions. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his assertions is not important here. What stands out is the singular reductionist focus on one aspect of the GMO debate. Lynas failed to acknowledge other contentious scientific issues with GMOs (e.g. GMO impacts on non-GMO species and ecosystems, or feasibility of alternative cropping systems that avoid GMOs) or a host of other social and economic issues (e.g. issues of ownership of seed and outputs, and control and costs of inputs) that are part of the GMO conversation. This oversight only reinforces linear, first-order problem solving. It may be much easier and less messy to think that way, but it does not serve the millions of hungry people, global ecosystems, or human health. Nor does it further citizens', policy makers', or philanthropists' understanding of the complexity of food issues.
A food justice meeting I attended last week offers a pointed contrast to this one-dimensional New York Times opinion piece. Food justice advocates, public health experts, scientists, politicians, and others together explored what it takes to create equitable, just, and healthy food systems. No mega-solutions were proffered, but community-sized efforts to address food security needs were discussed. Failures were acknowledged, successes were celebrated, and processes were explored about how issues of food access and insecurity should be engaged, and who should be at the table. GMOs were not mentioned once; organic foods were noted only in passing. The heart of the discussion focused on the challenges and trade-offs in building an equitable food system, and the complexity of ensuring fairness to people and maintaining, if not enhancing, ecosystems. A young activist summarized the complexity of the issue by quoting the poet Audre Lorde: "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives." This activist got it; she saw, as we do, the complexity of issues and that they operate in larger systems of our lives, natural ecosystems and social-economic-political systems. Reductionist thinking will not take us where we need to go.