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Global Food Policies

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, global food policy is depicted as focusing on the elimination of hunger and improvement of food security for all persons while simultaneously satisfying their dietary needs and food preferences. This chapter provides a brief history ranging from late-nineteenth-century practices to the current impact of economic globalization on food systems. This is followed by a review of the current state of hunger and malnutrition, including the persistence of these despite major increases in global food production. Emphasis is placed on the need to develop food policies, including the right to food, using an interdisciplinary approach in the context of global studies. Such an approach calls attention to ethical and legal principles that affirm the right to sufficient and nutritious food. This understanding of political, economic, ecological, social, and cultural conditions will ensure the development of critical thinking with respect to the agenda of global food politics.

Keywords: right to food, food security, sustainable development, hunger, malnutrition, smallholder farmers, pesticides, climate change, global food governance

Two of the major global challenges of our time are eliminating hunger and providing food security for all in times of climate change, natural resources scarcity, and increasing population in an economically highly unequal and culturally diverse world. These challenges are interconnected and variously embedded in global studies programs. They are best addressed by way of interdisciplinary approaches, enabling a better understanding of a group of distinct issue areas that had formerly been studied separately in traditional academic disciplines. Agricultural studies were long treated under the rubric of rural development policies, tending to focus only on the supply side of agricultural production at the national level. International trade was not viewed as a component of national policy, and the interdisciplinary approach was virtually unknown. Twenty-first-century global food policy is committed to such goals as the elimination of hunger and improvement of food security while at the same time protecting environmental resources and ecosystem services facing multiple threats from population growth, consumerism, industrial agriculture, climate change, and economic globalization.

The global studies approach, especially the stress on interdisciplinary understanding, is based on the study of the interplay of political, economic, ecological, social, and cultural factors. It evaluates policy from the perspective of critical thinking, seeking an integrated understanding of complex and multipolar food policy. The inclusion of a new generation of food policy studies within global studies programs will enhance the curriculum of global studies as well as bring to bear wider perspectives for the consideration of policymakers seeking to manage global food governance.

What Is Food Security?

Concepts of food security have evolved in the past thirty years to reflect changes in official policy thinking (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2006). A widely accepted definition of food security was adopted at the World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996, placing an emphasis on the multidimensional nature of the concept of food security. According to this definition, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and (p. 614) economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO 2006). The WFS also formally affirmed “the right to adequate food,” recognizing the ethical and human rights dimension of food security. Against this background, the analysis of food security as a social and political construct has gained increasing acceptance and influence.

A Short History of the Global Food Systems

Modern-day agricultural regimes date back to the late nineteenth century. According to Harriet Friedmann and Philip McMichael (1989), three distinct periods shaped food regimes: (1) from 1870 to 1914, during the period of British hegemony in the world economy; (2) from 1945 to 1973, under US hegemony in the post-World War II world economy; and (3) the corporate food regime in the 1980s, during the period of neoliberal globalization.

Today’s food system is the continuation of the second and third regimes, which started in the early twentieth century. The period after World War II gave rise to production-oriented agricultural policy in developed countries. During this period, with the establishment of the United Nations (UN) and the FAO (in 1945), nationally focused food policies shifted into an international platform with the goal of eliminating hunger and ensuring food security for all. This undertaking was a reaction by the liberal West to the massive suffering that arose from hunger and famine during World War II and an accompanying determination to avoid its recurrence in the future.

During this period, population and economic growth, as well as the transformation of technical and productive capacities from a war economy to peaceful development, had enormous impacts on the agricultural sector. Starting in the 1950s, global agricultural yield steadily increased, which resulted in the production of more food than was consumed. As a result, there was overproduction on the supply side. Economic prosperity, rapid urbanization, and a growing middle class triggered intensive consumption and demand. This was especially present in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in post-war Europe as a result of American economic assistance. In this manner, the world experienced an early stage of the growing power of the productionist food system to overcome aggregate food shortages.

As a result, global food production has increased by one-third since the early 1960s and has outpaced human population growth. However, the increasing mechanization of agriculture had a negative impact on the portion of the labor force dependent on agriculture. It also had dramatic detrimental effects on subsistence farming (Grada 2009). This was the beginning of the gradual change of rural America and its farming system. The US government supported large-scale farmers with large subsidies to keep them content, which also had the effect of encouraging mono-cropping for export. Global agricultural trade mainly benefitted the United States. Later, the European Union made inroads on the global market with the help of Common Agricultural Policy. At the same time, high tariffs and subsidies protected their own industrial agriculture from competition.

During this period, international food aid was viewed as the major remedy to solving the problems of hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. But this aid was given sporadically and in response to emergency situations, and it served somewhat geopolitical interests. As such, it treated symptoms rather than addressing root causes or seeking (p. 615) structural changes in global agricultural policy. It was during this period that overproduction in developed countries resulting in the saturation of developing markets with cheap available food that undermined the viability of smallholder farmers in many developing countries.

In the 1970s, with the leadership of the United States and the World Bank, the production-oriented agricultural system was bestowed upon developing countries under the banner of the “Green Revolution” through high-yielding crop varieties and abundant use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. These chemicals were already widely available due to high rates of wartime production leading to post-war surpluses. In this period, the geopolitical impact of hunger, food security, and population increase in developing countries became a major preoccupation for the developed world. Modernization and productivity were believed to be the only way to eliminate world poverty and attendant hunger and famine.

In the 1980s, the impact of the Green Revolution—ecosystem degradation, excessive resource consumption, water scarcity, and dependence on fossil fuels—was experienced by many developing countries. In reality, increased production, which caused serious environmental degradation, brought neither prosperity that was equitably distributed to the whole society nor helped eliminate hunger. The first “world food crisis” emerged in several developing countries with the culmination of the El Nino weather impact, the oil crises, and early tensions surrounding globalization. Famine spread throughout the southern hemisphere, from West Africa to Bangladesh (Otter 2010).

In the 1990s, the “structural adjustments” required by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other agencies brought sweeping economic liberalization, privatization, and major cutback from social policies. Although these fiscal and monetary policies were not directed specifically at the agricultural sector, many negative impacts on smallholder farmers and rural communities occurred. Instead of land reform, these policies brought deregulation of land markets; drastic cuts in farm subsidies; expanded use of biotechnologies and commodification of seeds; growing dependence on fossil fuel inputs; expansion of cash crops for export, such as animal food, biofuel, and niche luxury fruit, vegetables, and flowers for the global centers of overconsumption (Araghi 2008: 133).

Current State of Global Hunger and Malnutrition

Despite overflow of food production at the global level and significant progress in recent decades, hunger and malnutrition are still major problems. In 1990, approximately one in four people in the world suffered from hunger. In 2017, approximately 800 million people in the world did not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life, and more than 3 billion people suffered from the triple burden of malnutrition—undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, as well as overweight and obesity. Although food insecurity and hunger are problems mostly for developing countries, malnutrition, especially overweight and obesity, is a universal problem.

The previously cited data on food insecurity do not capture the full story. The way in which calculations are made and how acute, chronic, and hidden hunger (malnutrition) is (p. 616) framed must be critically examined. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, chronic food insecurity has been increasing rather than decreasing, as one in every four people is currently undernourished (World Food Program 2016). Although catastrophic famine is no longer a twenty-first-century problem, when severe drought occurs, which is more frequent and persists longer due to climate change, it can quickly lead to a serious famine, especially in fragile societal settings such as national and international armed conflict. As recently as January 2017, a “Global Food Security Alert” report stated that 70 million people in forty-five countries needed immediate emergency food assistance due to stresses associated with drought. Especially countries that are also experiencing protracted crises, such as Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, currently suffer from famine or are facing a credible risk of famine.

Geographical variations are also a cause of concern. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s hungry people are in the Asia–Pacific region, where half of the world’s population lives. Overall, 65% of the world’s hungry people live in only seven countries: India, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, and Ethiopia. China is the only country in this group that has successfully reduced hunger in the past two decades.

The Most Vulnerable: Smallholders, Specifically Women Farmers

Hunger is predominantly a problem in developing countries, where the vast majority of the world’s hungry (95–98%) reside. Yet, hunger and food insecurity do not threaten everyone equally within these societies. It is ironic that the majority of those who are food-insecure are peasants and smallholder farmers, who live in rural areas where agriculture is the main source of income. Farmers are actually the backbone of global food production, constituting more than one-third of the world’s population and contributing two-thirds of the world’s food production (Bello 2009: 15).

The rural poor suffer from hunger because they lack access to resources such as water, land, seeds, and markets; do not hold secure land tenure; and are bound by unjust sharecropping contracts or have properties that are so small that they cannot grow enough food both to feed themselves and to sell it (Ziegler et al. 2011: 3).

Yearly statistics do not take short-term undernourishment into account, and they neglect the household distribution of food, which negatively affects women and girls. Yet, until very recently, the role of women was not treated as a policy issue in the food and agriculture sector. This is a startling oversight considering that although women make up just over half of the world’s population, they account for 60–70% of the world’s’ hungry. Moreover, in approximately the past decade, the ratio of women farmers has been steadily increasing in many developing countries. “Feminization of agriculture” is a new phenomenon because of male migration from rural areas to cities, and even abroad, to search for jobs. As a result, women are left behind to serve as primary caretakers, responsible for raising children, dealing with the elderly and sick, as well as being farmers and farmworkers. Numerous studies show that women spend a larger percentage of income on food for the family than do men. Moreover, women tend to prefer to cultivate food and vegetables to achieve better nutrition for family members, foregoing the appeal of cash crops that are more often the (p. 617) priority of men. Given these results, it is clear that empowering women with the resources they need to increase agricultural production and reshaping gender roles to give women more decision-making power are direct and effective ways to enhance global food security.

However, female farmers and farmworkers face discrimination due to culturally and socially constructed stereotypes of gender roles, impeding their ability to farm as effectively and productively as their male counterparts. One of the greatest disparities between male and female farmers is land ownership. Data from the FAO (2011) indicate that women own, on average, only 15% of land in developing countries and only 5% in Oceania, North Africa, and West Asia. This significant inequality in property rights creates barriers for women not only in terms of agricultural production but also when attempting to obtain credit, training, and other instruments of empowerment. The FAO estimates that if women are given the same access to agricultural production resources as men, their yields would increase by 20–30%, in turn increasing agricultural output in developing countries by 2.4–4% and reducing the amount of hungry people in the world by 12–17%. (FAO 2011; see also United Nations 2015b).

Minorities are also often disproportionately impacted by hunger and malnutrition compared to the majority population. Indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable to discrimination because they generally live in remote and climatically challenging regions and lack political representation. According to the most accepted indicators, indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population yet comprise approximately 15% of the world’s poor (see the International Fund for Agricultural Development website at There is disagreement regarding who qualifies as “indigenous,” making statistical assertions controversial. Many governments try to understate the size and obscure the visibility of their indigenous populations. This reality further complicates the task of assessing the extent of hunger and malnutrition being experienced by indigenous peoples in various national settings.

Indigenous peoples are frequently victims of official policies of displacement, being pushed out to remote areas with the least fertile and most ecologically fragile lands. Furthermore, their land and their livelihoods are generally precarious, being subject to development projects and predatory policies, including land grabbing, mining, and opportunistic claims in the event valuable minerals or other land uses emerge. Their typical vocation is based on subsistence farming. This puts their lifestyle at great risk under current world conditions due to environmental degradation and climate change.

Globalization of Food Systems and Its Impact on Food Security

Current food systems illustrate the way in which our diet and food choices are subject to the influence of neoliberal globalization, financialization, corporatization, and industrialization (Leguizamon 2016). Consumers are increasingly dependent on decisions made by geographically remote agro-industrial business executives, as well as the politics of international trade, climate change, and energy systems.

The rise of neoliberal market forces brought a new dimension to global food policy. Transnational companies have become major players through globalization of food markets (p. 618) tied to supermarket chains that now often control the entire value chain of food production “from farm to fork.” Transnational agro-food global capitals disconnect production from consumption and then relink through the dynamics of buying and selling. (Friedmann 1994: 260).

The globalization of the food and agricultural sector became very strong and lucrative. This development has had an enormous influence on global diet, pushing consumers to eat increasingly more ready, frozen food as disseminated by fast-food companies. Changing diets are also the result of changing lifestyles—migrations from rural areas to urban centers that result in disconnecting the majority of the population from traditional forms of food production. Gradually, consumers have become addicted to the habits and tastes of the fast-food culture. Most developing countries are also becoming dependent on cheap food imports, abandoning self-sufficiency and nationally oriented agriculture and food policies.

As a result, smallholder farmers have been put under increasing pressure, and these small holdings have almost disappeared in some major markets, where local food systems frequently collapse, even though most of the world’s more than 570 million farms continue to remain small and family run. Smallholder farms (less than two hectares) operate approximately 12% of the world’s agricultural land but provide more than 70% of the food consumed in much of the developing world, contributing significantly to poverty reduction and food security. However, their contributions are under threat due to reduced investment support and marginalization of small farms in most national economic development plans. Instead of a direct connection with consumers, farmers have become contractors of the supermarket giants, with production that is driven by the market interests decided by supermarkets rather than the traditional tie between producers and consumers.

This is a global phenomenon, not just in developing countries. Even in Europe and the United States, smallholder and family farmers do not have power to compete with large-scale companies with respect to access to markets or independence to decide what they want to produce. Despite small farms currently being squeezed, now occupying less than one-fourth of the world’s farmland, they continue to be major food producers globally (GRAIN 2014).

The percentage of Americans who live on farms declined from nearly 25% in the 1940s to approximately 2% today, and only 0.1% of the US population works full-time on a farm. At the same time, farm subsidies have remained high, but they mostly benefit large farms and agro-businesses rather than medium and smallholder farmers. In the United States, the agro-business lobby currently spends approximately $60 million each year to influence policymakers. It is thus not surprising that transnational agro-business interests are influential in decision-making mechanisms in domestic and international policy arenas.

Oligopoly of the transnational food corporations also has important consequences. A small number of giant corporations are dominating the current global food system by their control over the production, distribution, and market—that is, entire production chains—as reinforced by their influence on regulatory systems and trade regimes.

Resource Scarcities and Depletion of Biodiversity

Intensive industrial agriculture, practiced mostly by transnational corporations, is using already exhausted farmlands and depleted water resources to produce large amounts of (p. 619) export-oriented cash crops, animal food, and biofuel throughout the world. Agricultural land is almost exhausted at the global level because 75–90% of the land suitable for agriculture is already in use (Global Land Outlook 2017). Moreover, water scarcity is a major challenge because 40% of the land mass is arid. According to the World Bank, in the near future, 6% of the global gross domestic product (GDP) will be required to meet the demand for water. At the same time, the world population is in the process of shifting its diet to consume more meat-based food, which is more water-intensive than plant-based food. For example, whereas 1,500 liters of water is required to produce 1 kg of wheat, 16,000 liters of water is needed to produce 1 kg of meat.

As a result of a large and growing human population, the persistence of widespread malnutrition has a direct impact on the expanding agriculture that poses a threat to biodiversity. The goals of providing universal food security and protecting biodiversity are incompatible. The current agricultural system provides sufficient food on a worldwide basis, but in doing so it methodically undermines the capacity of agroecosystems to preserve biodiversity (Chappell and LaValle 2011).

The two problems of biodiversity loss and food insecurity are global in scope and cannot be viewed independently: In a world with limited resources, the methods used to address one necessarily involve choices affecting the other. Approximately 40% of the Earth’s land surface is being used for agriculture; an estimated 16–40% of this land is already lightly to severely degraded. Moreover, 40% of species have experienced severe population declines.

Current human use of surface water, groundwater, and soil is almost unsustainable, and these are essentially non-renewable resources.

Large-Scale Land Acquisitions

As farmlands have become scarce, the competition over land has increased. Remaining farmland and water resources are subject to competition between animal food, biofuel, commodities, and human consumption. Smallholders and subsistence farmers are in particular danger in developing countries because large-scale land acquisitions are a major threat, especially in countries in which property rights are not secure and farmlands are still not entirely cultivated, such as in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. Africa is the continent most affected by large land acquisitions. According to the World Bank, of 42 million hectares sold in less than a year, 75% of these sales took place in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly involving the production and export of food, animal feed, biofuel, timber, and minerals in Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia (Deininger et al. 2011).Of the investment-promotion agencies in Africa, 87% are actively promoting foreign agricultural investments, more than in any other region of the world. Transfer from customary to state land is also widespread as a precondition or means for transferring land to investors.

Industries such as mining and logging, agri-businesses, and infrastructure projects have major impacts on land acquisitions. Local communities are rarely consulted or compensated (De Schutter 2016). Although many of the deals remain secret, the Land Matrix documented more than 1,000 transnational land deals in recent years covering 38 million hectares of land that has been acquired in developing countries by large investors (“Act on It” 2015).

(p. 620) Unfortunately, governments of developing countries are willing to offer available lands to foreign investors in the hope of securing an economic miracle or, in some cases, simply because the governments are corrupt. These deals are generally concluded without considering long-term adverse impacts on ecosystems, sociopolitical consequences, and human rights violations. The majority of victims of land dispossession are peasants, pastoralists, indigenous and nomadic peoples, and transboundary communities, whose land management system is based on customary land tenure.

Although large-scale land acquisitions are defended as being helpful for economic development, they also increase poverty and food insecurity and displace people from rural areas to the peripheries of cities or barren lands. In many countries, peasants resist large land appropriations, sometimes with weapons; with outbreaks of violent conflict and political unrest, abused peasants are transformed into “criminals.”

From the perspective of the right to food and their impact on small-scale farmers and local peoples’ livelihoods, large-scale land investments should be carefully scrutinized. Often, locals either abandon or are forced to leave their lands, or they are forced to work for the foreign investors. Suddenly, their villages and their lands are turned into large-scale plantations with a high risk of human rights violations. If they do not directly lose their lands, subsistence farmers are often excluded from accessing vital resources such as water and are thus pushed further into poverty (Stephens 2011).

Excessive Use of Chemicals

Industrial agriculture heavily relies on the use of chemicals to increase production. Despite the harms associated with excessive and unsafe pesticide practices, it is commonly argued that intensive industrial agriculture, which is heavily reliant on pesticide inputs, is necessary to increase yields to feed a growing world population. This argument is reinforced by the effects of climate change and by the growing global scarcity of farmlands.

Pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, 99% of which occur in developing countries, where health, safety, and environmental regulations are weaker and less strictly applied. Although records on global pesticide use are incomplete, it is generally agreed that use rates have increased dramatically during the past few decades (United Nations 2016a).

Pesticides cause an array of harms. Hazardous pesticides impose substantial costs on governments and have catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health, and society as a whole, encroaching upon a number of human rights, with groups such as farmworkers, communities living near agricultural lands, pregnant women, and children at elevated risk from pesticides.

Run-off from treated crops frequently pollutes the surrounding ecosystem and beyond, with unpredictable ecological consequences. Furthermore, reductions in pest populations upset the complex and delicate balance between predator and prey species in the food chain, thereby destabilizing the ecosystem. Pesticides can also decrease biodiversity of soils and contribute to nitrogen fixation, which can cause large declines in crop yields.

Scientists contend that it is possible to produce healthier, nutrient-rich food, with higher yields in the longer term, without current reliance on pesticides that pollute and exhaust (p. 621) environmental resources (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development 2009: 3).

Relying on Technology (Biotechnology)

In current food systems, technological tools and scientific advancements are being relied on as the best way to deliver more food, improve health, and prevent negative consequences. It is believed that ever more sophisticated science and technology will result in increased productive capacity to feed ever more mouths better and with fewer costly and damaging consequences (Lang and Heasman 2015). These tools are also under the control of powerful countries and large-scale oligopoly agri-businesses.

One of the major controversies in relation to biotechnology concerns genetically engineered (GE) seeds, which are featured as the way to overcome food insecurity for our overcrowded and overheated world. Although there is no consensus regarding the harmful effects of GE foods on human health and the environment, the majority of scientists are in agreement that GE foods should be dealt with cautiously, and labeling is necessary to protect consumers’ right to know what they eat.

Despite the fact that the harmful effects of uncontrolled biotechnology and chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive agriculture to the environment, human health, and livelihoods of people are well documented, most research and development funding continues to be channeled to technologically driven large-scale projects. In contrast, alternative food systems, especially those in the domain of agroecology, are denied adequate funding. Due to the large profit margins of monoculture soy, corn, biofuel plants, and other commodity crops that heavily rely on GE, it is almost impossible to make the case for agroecology.

Nutrition, a New Universal Problem

Although hunger is a problem in developing countries, nutrition is a universal problem. Whereas more than 2 billion people suffer from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, more than 1.6 billion people are overweight or obese. This means that one in three people worldwide suffers from malnutrition. It is widely recognized that different manifestations of malnutrition often coexist, and many countries are confronted not only with malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies but also with rising rates of overweight and obesity (Elver 2016a, 2016b).

The underlying causes of malnutrition are complex and multidimensional. Women and children are particularly susceptible to malnutrition, whereas poverty, gender inequality, and lack of access to adequate sanitation, health, and education services are aggravating factors. Poor nutrition among women and children threatens a “vicious cycle of malnutrition.” One out of six children, roughly 161 million, is suffering from malnutrition. Each year, nearly 3.1 million children younger than age five years die because of malnutrition-related diseases. Malnourished children, even if they survive, are unable to grow properly and develop their full potential, which means they are usually not able to contribute much to the social well-being of their country.

(p. 622) Unfortunately, 66 million primary school-age children in developing countries are hungry when attending classes, including 23 million in Africa alone (World Food Program 2016). This statistic underlies the belief that hunger and malnutrition will have a strong generational impact on the future of the world. It is scientifically documented that even a short period of food insecurity during the first 1,000 days of life does irreparable damage to children’s mental and physical capacity. The World Food Program calculates that $3.2 billion is needed per year to ensure that these 66 million hungry school-age children are provided with adequate food.

Women who are lactating and pregnant require more than the normal nutrient-rich diet. Malnourished mothers are more likely to give birth to underweight infants, which in turn are 20% more likely to die before the age of five years (World Food Program 2016). Diets that consist of less than 6% protein in utero have been linked with many deficits, including decreased brain weight, obesity, and impaired brain communication.

Nevertheless, half of women of reproductive age in West Africa are anemic. Not only does anemia contribute to almost one-fifth of global maternal deaths but also infants born to anemic mothers are more likely to be underweight (“Global Nutrition Report” 2015). Rural women are among those most victimized by malnutrition. Patriarchal norms and systemic discrimination in accessing land and other natural resources impede the ability of these women to provide appropriate nutritious food for themselves and their families, a pattern that produces intergenerational cycles of malnutrition.

Unhealthy Eating Habits and Noncommunicable Diseases

Today’s food systems, which are dominated by industrial production and processing, as well as affected by trade liberalization and aggressive marketing strategies, are fostering unhealthy eating habits and creating a dependence on highly processed, nutrient-poor foods. Urban living conditions and changing lifestyles are also creating a dependence on highly processed, energy-dense yet nutrient-poor foods that are widely available to consumers. As a result, unhealthy eating habits are on the rise globally, especially in middle-income and developing countries.

The impact of industrial food systems on nutrition and public health is alarming. Ultra-processed foods contain high levels of sodium, sugar, trans fats, and saturated fats so that they are energy-dense yet lack nutritional value. Highly processed “junk food” is widely available in supermarkets throughout the world, and it is much cheaper than local fruit and vegetables of local farmers’ markets. In addition to unhealthy ingredients, the food processing industry uses preservatives, artificial colorants, additives, and other chemicals in order to enhance the appearance, flavor, and shelf life of food products, and animals grown on factory farms are given growth hormones and antibiotics (Nestle 2013)

Consumption of unhealthy foods has been determined to be an important cause of several noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which shorten life expectancy. According to the World Health Organization (WHO; 2015), four NCDs—heart failure, diabetes, cancers, and chronic respiratory diseases—are collectively responsible for almost 70% of all deaths worldwide, which is an alarming figure that is expected to increase to 75% by 2020. The WHO report indicates that an unhealthy diet is one of the major causes of NCDs and early mortality. Considering that 2 billion people are overweight or obese and 2 billion additional people (p. 623) are suffering from hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiencies), combatting malnutrition in all its forms and ensuring healthy diets for growing populations are major universal health challenges. These three forms of malnutrition can be found in the same country, the same family, and sometimes even the same person.

Worldwide data suggest that average sodium and sugar consumption is well above minimal physiological needs. Processed food consumers unknowingly consume three to five times more sodium than required, which is particularly troubling because such foods are mainly developed for consumption by children. For example, a global study conducted in 2015 reviewed 387 popular children’s meals and found sodium levels to be dangerously high (World Action on Salt and Health 2015). Similarly, during the past 50 years, global sugar consumption has more than tripled, particularly in the form of sweetened beverages (Dylan 2012).

The overall picture is not beneficial for human health and also not ecologically sustainable from the perspective of planetary viability. In order to produce massive amounts of cheap, ultra-processed food, the current food system focuses on monoculture agriculture, excessive use of chemicals from farm to supermarket to ensure long shelf life, and the distribution of food through reliance on global supermarket chains.

The economic costs of malnutrition and its adverse impact on development are huge. During the next 20 years, NCDs will cost more than $30 trillion, representing 48% of the global GDP and pushing millions of people below the poverty line. By contrast, mounting evidence highlights how millions of deaths can be averted and economic losses reduced by billions of dollars if added focus is put on prevention (“The Global Economic Burden of NDC” 2011).

Global Food Governance: Efforts of the United Nations Organizations

Recognizing the growing threat of malnutrition in all its forms and its negative impacts on economic development, universal health, and efforts to reduce food insecurity, the international community has taken major initiatives to ensure global policy action.

Fighting against malnutrition requires multiple sectors to support each other, including agriculture, trade, investment, health, education, social policies, as well as human rights. The 2014 Second International Conference on Nutrition (United Nations, 2014), organized by the UN’s WHO and FAO, acknowledged that

current food systems are being increasingly challenged to provide adequate, safe and diversified and nutrient rich food for all that contribute to healthy diets due to, inter alia, constraints posed by resource scarcity and environmental degradation, as well as by unsustainable production and consumption patterns, food losses and waste, and unbalanced distribution.

It is also recognized that nutrition plays a crucial role in fulfilling the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In April 2016, the UN proclaimed the “Decade of Action on Nutrition,” which presents a unique opportunity for the next ten years to ensure a coherent, inclusive, and transparent response to malnutrition, embedded within human rights (United Nations 2016b).

(p. 624) The right of everyone to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food is an encouraging policy initiative. Yet the world is not on track to reach this global target. It is essential to translate commitments into action. Unless global food systems move away from agro-industrial production methods, which are responsible for dietary unity and an abundance of ultra-processed food and beverages, it is highly improbable that the malnutrition challenge can be met. The current system is neither sustainable nor healthy. We need to transform today’s dominant food system to a system that implements the principles and practices of agroecology, protects biological diversity, and respects human rights and food sovereignty. Only such a regime will be able to protect small-scale producers, traditional practices, and local food production and markets; eliminate discriminatory practices; and prioritize vulnerable groups to eliminate hunger and enhance food security while upholding sustainable food systems for future generations. Sustainable and healthy food solutions already exist at the micro level, and it must be remembered that the majority of the world’s food is still produced by smallholder farmers. Yet what is lacking is the political will and scale of investment required to ensure that small-scale farmers receive the support they need to flourish economically and serve consumers instead of serving global food companies.

What Is the Future of Global Food Policy?

According to FAO projections, in order to feed the projected 9.7 billion global population by 2050, food production must increase by 60%. This is a formidable challenge. The majority of global food players and the agro-industrial lobby start any policy debate with this alarming sentence so as to divert the future of the global food problem in ways that make industrial agriculture the only solution.

Many believe that future food policy must be based on the capacity to produce more food using advances in technology. It is true that the world produces 17% more food per person today than it did thirty years ago. For the past two decades, due to mechanization and excessive use of chemicals, pesticides, and fossil fuels, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. Global GDPs continue to increase, with food production at a historic high. Currently, the world produces more than one and a half times the amount of food required to feed everyone on the planet, and yet chronic hunger remains widespread and 40% of available food is wasted or lost during various stages of the production chain.

A fundamental question is how the global community will solve hunger and food security challenges despite overproduction. Despite the earlier success of increased production, the FAO’s future scenarios are not very optimistic about following that same path. Productivity cannot be sustained as was the case during the 1960s. The current conditions of the Earth’s ecosystem will not tolerate production-based scenarios to increase food supply. While population has increased on every continent, most rapidly in Africa (from 1 billion to 2 billions), growing wealth and excessive consumption due to lifestyle changes and increased incomes of middle-class families are pushing food demand higher against planetary limits in times of climate change (United Nations 2015a).

(p. 625) At the same time, most of the root causes of hunger and malnutrition continue to exist. Poverty and inequality are the most crucial and persistent problems facing humanity, and they are not addresses effectively by mere increases in agricultural production. People making less than $2 a day—many of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating very small plots of land—still cannot afford to buy food.

One of the major issues in the twenty-first century is the increasing concentration of global wealth and the gap between rich and poor. According to Oxfam (2015), in 2015, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving 52% to be shared among the other 99% on the planet. In December 2016, Oxfam’s report to the World Economic Forum dramatically announced that the eight richest individuals on Earth owned as much wealth as that owned by half the human race. This reality is very unnerving considering such social and political consequences to world peace, and it has definite relevance to the humane framing of food policy.

Political Unrest

The 2007–2008 worldwide food crisis caused by shortages and price spikes gave the world community a wake-up call with respect to the urgency of addressing food policy on a global scale. Subsequently, prices remained volatile, and they spiked again in 2011. These crises resulted partly from the manipulation of commodity prices for rice, wheat, corn, and soy and were partly due to the excessive subsidized production of biofuel at the expense of crops for food supply. As a result, the number of undernourished people in the developing world skyrocketed. Several countries experienced serious food riots and political unrests (FAO 2009). Yet, no comprehensive policy changes occurred at the global level despite significant international attention.

Although the world has been spared historical catastrophic famines and the numbers of violent conflicts and conflict-related deaths are less than in the past, it would be a grave mistake to suppose that war and hunger are no longer matters for concern. There are continuing expectations that many people will die in this century from starvation. Famines continue to occur, although with less regularity than in the past and only in places that have become economically severely stressed and in war-torn regions.

Armed conflict is one of the key reasons for lack of food and starvation. At the same time, food insecurity is one of the major underlying causes of armed conflict and displacement. It is important for countries not to become trapped in such vicious cycles. Increasing numbers of people are being caught in a “conflict trap” that keeps them in poverty and hunger. For instance, in 2014, more than 13 million people were uprooted by violence, mostly by conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. An average of 42,500 people per day were forced to flee their homes. Approximately 60 million people are being displaced by conflict and persecution worldwide, the highest level ever recorded (von Grebmer et al. 2015: 3).

During situations of armed conflict, more people die directly from starvation and malnutrition than from weapons. Victims are disproportionately women and young children, who are extremely susceptible to malnutrition. Often in conflict zones, starvation is used as a political weapon, crops are destroyed or poisoned, and relief supplies are blocked (Ziegler et al. 2011).

(p. 626) Protracted conflicts disrupt livelihoods, limit trade, and restrict humanitarian access. Today’s wars involve not only government military forces and insurgents but also paramilitaries and ethnic militia, criminal gangs, mercenaries, and international forces. Most “new wars” are civil wars, which increasingly spill over borders and disrupt livelihoods and food systems, forcing people to flee (de Waal 2015: 23). According to a January 2017 “Global Food Security Alert” report, 70 million people living in forty-five countries needed immediate emergency food assistance. In these countries, protracted political/armed conflict combined with drought conditions due to a variety of aggravating weather events.

Climate Change: A Threat Multiplier

Climate change, sustainable resource management, and food security are now widely considered to mount complex, interdependent, and urgent global policy challenges. The scientific community estimates that the average Earth temperature will rise 2–4°C by the end of the century, posing multiple threats to availability, accessibility, adequacy, and sustainability of food. It is expected that these developments will increase hunger between 10% and 20% by 2050 and that 65% of those affected will be in sub-Saharan Africa (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014). In many areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the adverse impacts of climate change, especially water scarcity, drought, and flood-related disasters, are already happening.

Although climate change has enormous negative impacts on agriculture and food production, agriculture occupies roughly half of the planet’s habitable surface, uses globally 70% of fresh water, and together with the food system is responsible for 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, growing demand for agriculture and pastureland is the primary driver of tropical deforestation and soil degradation. The direct and indirect impacts of intensive food production have contributed to the depletion of biodiversity. Marine resources are in increasing danger of becoming exhausted due to the activities of industrial fishing fleets. The search for foods with higher nutritious value and increasing demand have led to the exploitation of more than 90% of the world’s marine fisheries (“The Global Food System” 2016: 2).

Understanding the specific impacts of climate change on food security is challenging because vulnerabilities are unevenly spread throughout the world and mitigation of and adaptation to climate change depend ultimately on the ability of diverse communities to manage risks and develop resilience. Moreover, climate change is perversely exerting its most severe negative impacts on those societies that have contributed least to global warming.

Manifestations of climate change, such as an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, drought, flooding, heatwaves, a rise in sea levels, and a decrease in the availability of water, diminish food security. Crop failure and a variety of harms to livestock, fisheries, and aquaculture will have negative effects on people’s livelihoods, causing climate-induced food price volatility, nutritional deficiencies, and diminishing quality of land and soil suitable for agricultural production. The failure to enact appropriate policies will pose threats to global peace and security.

Furthermore, agricultural production continues to employ half of the global workforce. If the agricultural sector is adversely affected by climate change, so too will be (p. 627) the livelihoods of significant numbers of farmworkers and rural communities (High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition 2012). Farm and food workers already lack comprehensive social protection, suitable labor conditions, and often receive impoverishing compensation. Climate change will exacerbate problems of the agricultural sector even further. Climate change is already significantly impacting approximately 2 billion of the world’s poor. If the “business as usual” continues without implementation of a series measures to combat climate change, this figure could rise 20% by 2050 (IPCC 2014).

Is There an Alternative Path?

A strong “agro pessimism” has emerged, partly as a result of the significant adverse effects of agricultural activities responsible for triggering climate change and degrading natural resources and partly as a result of the difficulty of the task of feeding a growing global population in the face of substantial challenges. As a result, the view has emerged that humankind will not be able to feed itself unless current industrial modes of agriculture are expanded and intensified, which is not only misleading if put forward as a solution but also ecologically extremely dangerous.

In the face of these facts, we need a paradigm shift as a prelude to a comprehensive policy reform that must include ethical, social, economic, and technological efforts to protect vulnerable sectors of society as a first priority. It will also be necessary to use every available tool to conserve natural resources and reduce adverse impacts of climate change while providing food security for all.

We need a new set of policies that will better deliver us to the future. First, we have to invest in alternative food production systems that use ecosystems in a balanced manner rather than exhausting natural resources and relying on the excessive use of chemicals and fossil fuels. There is a need to encourage a major shift from the current emphasis on industrial agriculture to transformative activities such as conservation agriculture (agroecology) that support local food movements, protect smallholder farmers, empower women, respect food democracy and related cultural traditions, maintain environmental sustainability, and facilitate a healthy diet. To achieve such a goal, there must be a new willingness to promote agroecology and to abandon the idea that all we need to do about food policy is continue expanding the output of industrial agriculture.

Second, the food system must be restructured so that quantity should not be the only goal. Although malnutrition is a formidable universal challenge, a commitment to “adequate and healthy food” should be highlighted. The quality of the food we consume must become as important as the quantity. This is the only way to reduce current levels of malnutrition in all its forms.

Third, the food system should make greater efforts to support the livelihoods and well-being of smallholder farmers, women, fisherfolk, and farmworkers. They are the backbone of the whole system, and globally the world continues to lose and demoralize its farmers instead of empowering them. Supporting smallholder farmers actually addresses the other two challenges. A resilient system cannot be built without smallholder farmer’s and local peoples’ increasing and meaningful participation. Sustainability requires mutually reinforcing economic, ecological, and social balance.

(p. 628) What Role for Global Studies?

In the current world order, ecologic, economic, demographic, and social problems, as well as the inequality gap between rich and poor, make the human future highly uncertain. The impact of globalization further exacerbates such problems in the wider setting of interconnected geographic relations. Problems such as food security, once treated as a local issue, are now strongly affected by economic globalization. Balancing the local against the regional and global is very helpful when seeking to grasp the complexity of food systems. Also, balancing the rules of global economic order with ethical principles and human rights standards contributes to the development of a normative understanding of food policy. Such efforts strengthen the legal entitlement of people, which is more necessary than ever, considering the enormous economic power exercised by corporations. Protecting the human interest while diminishing food insecurity should operate as a high priority in any democratic and humane world order. If we adopt this outlook, we need principles of human rights that embody universally endorsed ethical values. Global studies can contribute to attaining this kind of enlightened understanding by prioritizing human rights in the context of global food policy.

During this time of globalization, greater attention than in the past needs to be given to the role and contribution of women and their special vulnerabilities, including the distorting effects of cultural and legal discrimination; demographic pressures and the lack of employment opportunities in rural areas; growing inequality and the absence of an adequate social safety net; marginalization and discrimination of minorities and indigenous peoples that threatens social peace; and the increasing numbers of internally displaced peoples and refugees generated by severe armed conflicts and climate-related disasters. To tackle these issues properly, we need to think and act with far greater imagination and higher quality comprehension than in the past. Global studies not only provides the intellectual tools but also offers such vulnerable groups an ethical orientation.

We need effective global governance for food security to encourage governments as duty bearers to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights of their citizens by making available and accessible adequate and healthy food for all at all times. Prioritizing a human rights approach during this time of predatory economic globalization seeks a protective edge and helps governments solve many problems that currently challenge states and that, if left unsolved, are likely to initiate political unrest. A human rights approach can provide citizens with various tools, such as accountability, justiciability, monitoring, transparency, participation in decision-making processes, and promotion of non-discrimination. Such initiatives will strengthen governments and increase the effectiveness of international organizations, thereby weakening reliance on market-based policies. It should be apparent that it is not possible to overcome the various dimensions of global food insecurity by investing false hopes in production-oriented, market-based policies. On the basis of extensive experience, it is naive to believe that an economistic approach will by itself produce humane and sustainable policies that ensure all people throughout the world, as a matter of right, will have access to sufficient and healthy food to meet their needs. Even if a human rights approach were adopted worldwide, which is almost impossible to imagine given current political realities, it would still be difficult to achieve the lofty goal of universal food security.


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