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Having our cake and eating it too - the big picture on food security

When we’re thinking about food security, it’s not enough to just think about subsistence; we also need creativity and participation. Alicia Rosello Gene

Although Australia is a food exporting country, about 5% of Australian families suffer food insecurity - inadequate access to or supply of food, or inadequate food preparation. Many suffer diet-related health problems, such as obesity, because of inadequate food, and things are getting worse. But our current single-issue approach - tackling either obesity, climate change or water security, for example - is unlikely to solve things.

The growing public interest in food security and sovereignty (control of production) isn’t spawned by a single issue. Australians are worried about vulnerability to climate change, population growth, foreign ownership of land and water resources, oil price rises, social inequities, food waste, diet-related health problems, early deaths in Indigenous Australians, fertiliser price rises and availability, land degradation, river health, biodiversity loss, declining growth in agricultural productivity, ageing population, urbanisation, and globalisation (with the increasing influence of international markets and the increasing power of multinational agribusinesses).

The diversity of these concerns reflects the reality of humans’ principal interaction with the environment of the planet: production of food. The diversity of concerns also ensures the public’s interest in food security will grow as these concerns grow.

While most food related research is aimed at improving profits in agribusinesses - including supermarkets - the wide scope of people’s concerns ought to be addressed in publicly funded research. Much of this public-funded research will be spent on individual concerns, such as “climate change and food security”, “population growth and food security” or “GM and food security”. While such focused research may answer specific problems it will fail to address the many interacting factors that are bearing down on our ability to feed ourselves adequately and maintain things we value such as native habitat and animals.

To get a multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach we need to frame food security and sovereignty using two ideas: systems and securities.

First, systems. The food system is part of larger social-ecological systems where people interact with the world’s biophysical landscapes and processes. So research into food security should be undertaken within the frame of social-ecological systems.

The ‘food system’ is part of a larger ‘ecological system’. buiversonian/flickr

People do not want the food system to “fail”, so resilience may be a useful approach for food security research. Agribusinesses improve their profitability by increasing the efficiency of the operation of the food supply chains. This reduces the resilience of the food systems to keep delivering when circumstances change. The notion in resilience is that system failure (losing the things we value that the system produces) might be avoided if we can transform the system, or parts of it, to keep the benefits coming and the failure point somewhere in the future.

Second, securities. Bread might be the staff of life but life is more than just “bread”. Food is not the only thing people want to “secure” for their current and future well-being and welfare. Food security is only one “security” among other “securities” we have to have to live full lives. In obtaining a satisfactory diet we shouldn’t deny ourselves or future generations the ability to fulfil all of our (or their) needs.

So what are these other “securities”? I think they relate to the full range of “needs” we all have.

Manfred Max-Neef lists nine fundamental human needs as follows:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity and
  • freedom.

Max-Neef’s notion is that people or societies are “poor” when one or more of these needs are not met. “Security” is about ensuring each of these needs will always be fulfilled in the future.

We need a new, more integrated approach to get us on the track to food security. martin_vmorris/Flickr

Most of these needs are psychological, but to achieve them we have to use materials and establish social arrangements and processes. For example, leisure requires places for recreation as well as the social acceptance of free time.

Instead of trade-offs between needs, the needs approach asks us to seek synergies so that one action can secure as many human needs as possible. For example, welfare payments may provide relief but when used as a permanent solution (as is government policy), such payments prevent the recipients from satisfying important psychological needs; welfare swaps “food poverty” for “participation poverty”.

The production of food is quite rapidly becoming a black box; very few Australians understand the operation of any of the numerous food supply chains. This lack of understanding makes it hard for us weigh up our competing needs. We have an inability to participate effectively in decisions about what we eat (really eat) and hence an inability to protect our families’ welfare and protect things that as a nation we are supposed to cherish, like equity (a fair go), native biodiversity and our ability to choose our futures.

A systems approach for food security research provides a way of studying social-ecological systems so that changes can be made to reduce food insecurity in ways that maintain the full range of securities that families need for a healthy and productive life. The current modest level of food insecurity in Australia provides an opportunity to experiment, at minimal social and economic cost, to find new ways of improving food security in preparation for future problems.

A fuller description of these ideas is available in Food Security in Australia: Challenges and Prospects for the Future.

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