LOCALISM & FOOD SECURITY
“Did you know that four years ago some scientists announced that their model
was predicting how “society will collapse by 2040 due to catastrophic food shortages -
unless humanity suddenly changed course?”
No, me neither. And I'm a Professor of Sustainability Leadership.”
Jem Bendell 2019 1
I have only recently become involved with our Wirksworth Transition Town group. Until the ecological and climate crisis began to very deeply concern me earlier this year, just about all of my energy was taken by the ordinary challenges of a busy working and family life. Since this rather seismic shift of awareness, I have been on a steep learning curve to try and reorientate myself and to find a manageable sized something that I can do to respond constructively to this time of crisis. After months of exploring, researching, reflection and soul-searching, I have arrived at what feels like an urgent and tangible action that I can take and this is to put my energies into working towards a restoration of localised structures and particularly campaigning for improved food security.
For most of our time on this planet, humans have been closely bonded to the land and have worked locally to create human-scale initiatives. Our current dependence on distant anonymous corporations is a relatively new development that, as far as I can see, fails to meet our deep need for community and connection with the living world. This dependence also makes us more insecure and less resilient against the growing capriciousness of global markets and corruptible leaders. I'm interested to think more about how we can act together locally to make the 2011 Localism Act work for us in its scope for growing community resilience through initiatives like scaling up our community growing, ethical food hubs, creative use of land, all of which would help with cutting down the supply chains that make us so vulnerable.
As I am sure many of you do, I have vivid memories as a young person in the 1970's and 1980's of harrowing news reports of famine in far away parts of the world like Cambodia, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. As distressing as these images were, for me then in my relatively secure world, the idea of that level of scarcity on my doorstep was inconceivable. Why would it be? For decades the majority of us in the UK have enjoyed an abundance of varied, safe and nutritious foods. During each visit to the supermarket or shop, with the huge array of food choices on offer, our senses can only register a sense of plenty. We continue to hear the periodic reports of scarcity abroad, and over the past decade we have become accustomed to the growing existence of foodbanks here in the UK. Some of us might be acutely aware that somewhere on the planet there is always hunger and starvation. While we might feel anger and distress at the outrageous unfairness of this and while we might take various actions to help the situation, it seems to me that as a nation confidence in our own food security is generally high.
I am certainly not an expert on food security but I have read and listened enough to those who are experts in this area to believe that we should perhaps now be feeling some sense of urgency about becoming more resilient in this respect. Here is a brief overview of why I think we should look again at any complacency we might have about the security of our food sources:
As many of us are aware, a large body of climate science tells us that we are moving into a period of unprecedented and non-linear disruptions to climate conditions. This of course means that it is very hard to assess and predict what scenarios we are likely to be dealing with as the future unfolds, but here are some recent observations.
• Last year the Food and Agriculture Organisation produced these estimates: In 2015, 80 million people were facing crisis levels of food insecurity, this figure increased to 108 million people in 2016 and in 2017 increased again to 124 million people. While economic and political factors are part of this, climate change is identified by the FAO as one of the main causes of growing global hunger. 2
• 2018 - Many Northern and Central European countries reported climate related declines in grain and vegetable harvest, some declines being as high as 50%. 3
• 2018 - Germany, the largest European producer of potatoes, experienced a climate related 25-30% reduction in harvest. 4
• 2018 - Latvia, Lithuania and France all declared either state of emergency or natural disaster due to large scale climate related crop failures. 5
• Although abrupt impacts such as drought, flooding and extreme temperatures are the most direct causes of crop failure, it is predicted that crops are likely to become more vulnerable to pests and pathogen during times of rapid climate change. 6
• As many of us are also aware, another unprecedented level of challenge that we now face is the collapse of biodiversity. A severe warning was issued earlier this year by the FAO about the threat that this poses to agriculture. 7
• There is now an acronym for this growing threat to food security - MBBF - Multi-breadbasket failure. This is a new narrative about declining crop yields and decreasing nutrient and protein levels. Just last week the UN issued a warning about food production that urges urgent and substantial action by governments, businesses, consumers, local communities, and land managers is needed. “It says they need flexible strategies, strong ties with the public sector, and to sort out their priorities.” 8
• Our global buffer against disaster is not something to feel reassured by. We have enough food in reserve to feed humans for 103 days, 249 days if we fed humans the grain that we currently feed to livestock. 9
I'll begin to bring this overview to a close with a direct quote from Jem Bendell, to whom I am deeply grateful for producing his 'Notes on Hunger and Collapse' earlier this year.
• “Today’s global food production largely exceeds what is needed to feed the entire world population; hunger is caused by an unequal distribution of food and artificial scarcity (Holt-Giménez et al, 2012). So our current food system that leaves 120m people in acute hunger is already dysfunctional, even murderous. A persistent decline in yields of staple foods would exacerbate those flaws, starving ever greater numbers in countries with weak economies. The global food system is dangerously and increasingly optimized for efficiency and profit rather than ensuring everyone has food. With the political will and time, we could have a much more resilient food system and thus slow down the onset of societal collapse due to widespread hunger. Our problem is that to adapt we will need a paradigm shift in policies on global food supply and distribution, complemented by a revolution in community-level food production. The latter can be developed now but the former is unlikely.”
In the West we have been largely sheltered from the harsh realities of how fragile the long global supply chains that we depend on are. In the UK few of us have ever had to stop to think about how precarious our food security is given that we rely on imports for around 50% of the food on our tables. There is of course a lot that we can read and hear these days that is almost too worrying to engage with, but I recently decided that I wasn't going to spend any more time on worry. Instead I am, as Rob Hopkins founder of the Transition movement cautions us, learning to guard my imagination and use it to build a vision of the far better world that I think we're capable of. In writing this I'm hoping to inspire more people who are interested in growing community-based localism to join our Transition Wirksworth group. I'm also hoping that a small group will join me in a special interest group focussing on on food security.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
2 FAO (2018a) Building Climate Resilience For Food Security And Nutrition, The State Of Food Security And Nutrition In The World. FAO, Rome. Available at: http://www.fao.org/state-of-food-security-nutrition/en/
3 Feednavigator.com (2018) “Reduction in EU grains and oilseed output forecast”. September 20, 2018. Available at: https://www.feednavigator.com/Article/2018/09/20/Reduction-in-EU-grains-and-oilseed-output-forecast (accessed 2.7.19).
4 Pieterse, L. (2018) “Germany: Historic low potato harvest seriously impacts seed, processing sectors until 2020.” Potato News Today, November 14, 2018. Available at: https://potatonewstoday.com/2018/11/14/germany-historic-low-potato-harvest-seriously-impacts-
retail-seed-and-processing-sectors-until-2020/ (accessed 2.7.19).
5 Foodingredientsfirst.com (2018) “European drought: Starch supplier Avebe braces for ‘historically low potato harvest’” Available at: https://www.foodingredientsfirst.com/news/european-drought-starch-supplier-avebe-braces-for-historically-low-potato-harvest.html (accessed 2.7.19).
6. Climate Change Effects on Insects and Pathogens Available at: https://www.panna.org/sites/default/files/CC insects&pests.pdf
7. FAO (2019) THE STATE OF THE WORLD’s BIODIVERSITY FOR FOOD AND AGRICULTURE, FAO, Rome. Available at: http://www.fao.org/state-of-biodiversity-for-food-agriculture/en
9. FAO (2018b) Food Outlook: Biannual Report on Global Food Markets, July 2018. FAO, Rome. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/ca0239en/CA0239EN.pdf
12 September 2019