Food Security: We Need Different Experts in Charge

Food security is about a basic human right, our right to nutritious, sustainably produced and affordable food. It has, however, become a tremendously complex problem with many of the stakeholders seeing the issues only from their own narrow perspectives. Here, Jane Dixon pleads for a more holistic approach.

Since the global food crisis of 2007-2008, when prices soared for staple commodities, there has been renewed interest in global and national food security. In Australia the debates continue, fuelled by speculation as to diminishing food productivity as a result of a decade-long drought followed by successive natural disasters affecting the country’s major food bowls in Southern Queensland and Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.

Sandwiched between these events, the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council recommended a national food security agency be established. Meanwhile, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry established a National Food Policy Working Group to advise him on issues affecting the food supply chain.

Both initiatives approach food security as the inevitable outcome of a growth in sustainable food production, ignoring or downplaying issues like household capacity to pay and cook food, retailer strategies in marketing and promotions, and the rise in unhealthy foods.

Over the years, both the agriculture and health portfolios have claimed food security and food safety, with jostling between the two areas for ‘their representative’ to head up any new regulatory or advisory body. However no single portfolio area has sufficient capacity to effectively deal with the range of determinants of food security described below. Thus a more creative leadership model has to be considered.

From an ever-growing list of academic papers and government and non-government organisation reports we learn that food insecurity is underpinned by numerous factors, operating at different levels. Indeed, the list is daunting and features a lot of ‘peaks’, indicating downward trajectories in key resources from hereon.

On the food supply side, we can identify the following present and future drivers of food yields, food quality (both its safety and nutrient content) and food distribution:

  • Degradation of agricultural lands and marine environment through climate change and unsustainable exploitation, with implications for growing conditions like top soil, soil nutrients (peak phosphorous has been declared) and water quality.
  • Peak agricultural land, which relates to the point above as well as growing urbanisation that, in turn, is due to growing population and a decline of employment in producer communities.
  • Compounding the last point, farmers are leaving the land because they are older and often in poor health. They have twin inducements to sell-up: first, the non-export farmers (especially fruit and vegetables) receive very poor terms of trade; second, State government support for gas and mineral company exploration and for housing development on agricultural lands can be both demoralising and raise the value of farm land adding to existing incentives to exit the sector.
  • The dominance of supermarket supply chains: their constant search for the cheapest products makes livelihood opportunities tenuous and unrewarding. If farmers cannot secure alternative markets, for example city and farmers markets, they have few options but to sell their operations either to bigger players or to alternative uses as described above.
  • Peak oil has implications for volumes and cost of fertilisers, food transport, and the cost of running farm machinery.
  • The incremental erosion in agricultural R&D means that farmers cannot offset poor growing conditions or health-related restrictions on chemical use by introducing technological innovation.
  • The regulatory burden imposed on small and medium size famers is not commensurate with their capacity to meet the burdens (and some would say benefits). Successive Australian governments support in numerous ways export commodity sectors and ignore the conditions under which the majority of domestic market suppliers operate.
  • Commodity speculation by global hedge funds contributes to price fluctuation, leaving farmers even more vulnerable to conditions over which they have little control.

These supply side factors interact to mean less productive capacity and greater volatility in the national food system, with imported produce used to ‘even out supply’ at times of shortfall and across all seasons. And the list is not exhaustive, with its main purpose being to show the complex inter-linkages between the processes that make up a food supply.

What do the reports mention about demand side factors?

  • Population growth will require more food in the food supply; although by some estimates we may not need to produce more food if all households waste 50% less food than they do now.
  • We have a bifurcated food system so it is hard to reach consensus as to what is going on. On the one hand, food price and access are paramount concerns for poorer and rural populations; but with greater affluence comes demand for more expensive meat and fish protein, designer or exotic fruits and vegetables, and foods with multiple ethical attributes attached to them: environmentally sustainable, fair-trade, organic, etc. Demand for healthy foods, novel foods and ethical eating constitute cultural trends which influence the investment decisions and practices of food producers and retailers.
  • The food and nutrition marketing and education undertaken by food chain actors shapes demand. Company and quality standard logos (including health claims) can influence consumer purchases, as can cooking shows and high profile diets (the Atkins Diet was reported as putting some potato growing regions out of business).
  • Household food dynamics, including income, education and time allocations, shape demand for convenience and high processed foods. People feeling ‘time poor’ are more likely to buy ready meals, which may not be the most nutritious choice.

When there are so many supply and demand–side determinants (some economic and political, others cultural and environmental) which operate at many levels (global, national, sub-national, household, individual) where are the food security policy levers?

And, who should be put in charge of any national Food Security Agency?

Well they should not be drawn from those in charge of the current industrial food supply: the large producer boards, food processing companies, technology companies, retailers and government departments. They are major contributors to the supply side problems listed earlier.

Any CEO or board member must have experience of managing complex systems: they must bring an appreciation of the interlocking nature of the food security puzzle. Maybe its time to consider a joint leadership model with, at the very least, a food environmental historian, a social ecologist, a social policy expert in labour market and social security dynamics, and a household cook working together to advise government on food security.

Yes, agricultural, environmental services, trade and nutrition policy areas should be consulted but we need people who appreciate that food is more than a profitable commodity which is under threat due to environmental depletion. We need people who feel that addressing problems in the food system is not analogous to approaches required for defence or transport systems.

Food is a basic human right, which can only be protected through human ingenuity, the rule of law and a deep eco-humanism.

Jane Dixon is a Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University. Her most recent book is a co-edited collection looking at the environmental drivers of obesity, The Seven Deadly Sins of Obesity: how the modern world is making us fat and she is finalising a co-authored book on how different generations experience those drivers, The Weight of Modernity. Her research takes place at the intersection of sociology and public health, with a focus on the cultural dynamics lying behind ways of living. She is particularly interested in how corporate strategy, government policy and civil society influence cultural transitions, and in the resulting social and health inequalities.