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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2015

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The Precarious Nature of Food

For many residents in the northeast of the United States and Canada, this has been a brutally cold winter. Record low temperatures coupled with recurring snowstorms and blizzards defy thinking about spring gardens, especially with more than 6 feet of snow on the ground in some communities. Despite disruptions in transportation and government and school closings, hardy New Englanders and Canadians maintained an ample supply of food and weathered the inconvenience of being snowbound for days on end with relatively few adverse effects. The food security of the region was never in doubt.

Food disruptions due to weather, climate, conflict, or distribution difficulties create food security concerns throughout the globe. The three articles in this issue highlight some of the drivers of food insecurity at local, regional, and global scales. In “Food in the Last Frontier,” Hodges Snyder and Meter tell the story of food security in Alaska. The summer of 2013 was extremely warm and as Alaskans tried to cool down, increased power demands led to power shortages and blackouts. Many residents who subsist on their own hunting and fishing lost refrigeration, spoiling the meat and fish. This led to food shortages in urban and rural regions throughout the state. Two-thirds of the Alaskan fisheries haul is exported, so the loss of this local protein was significant. Unlike other states, only 10% of the Alaskan produce is locally produced, and the rest must be imported from the lower 48 states, making it much more expensive. A short growing season (100 days) limits the volume and variety of fresh produce, even with supplemental greenhouse technology. The heat wave highlighted some of the food security issues for the state and some of the positive steps toward addressing it.

The Munang and Mgendi article, “Is the Africa Rising Cliché Sustainable?,” describes how strong economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa has reversed the pattern of low economic development and the political instability of previous decades. However, they explain that economic development and its role in poverty reduction could be reversed in the future because of a number of environmental and social transformations currently underway. One of the most striking of these is climate change—in particular, the role of climate variability and its likely negative impact on regional food production. Reductions in food production could fuel increasing political instability and conflict over scarce resources. Building capacity and infrastructure for Africa to feed itself by enhancing the region's agricultural sector and making more investments in ecosystem services is one path toward a sustainable future described by Munang and Mgendi.

In many regions, meat consumption is a sign of prosperity and wealth. As incomes rise across the globe, meat consumption has increased and with it industrial meat production. As Stoll-Kleemann and O'Riordan point out (“The Sustainability Challenges of Our Meat and Dairy Diets”), the increasing consumption of livestock-based foods in transitioning economies and the continued consumption in developed nations create a paradox. Large-scale industrialized livestock production coupled with the globalization of food conglomerates can make the meat less expensive, but this comes with increased environmental degradation through biodiversity loss, water stress, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The production and consumption regions are geographically dispersed, with the detrimental environmental impacts seldom felt in consumption regions. The moral and ethical choices of conversion from traditional diets to those high in meat and dairy have profound social effects ranging from personal health to food security of households, communities, and regions.

The sustainability of the global food system and the importance of locally sourced food will come under increasing scrutiny as the climate changes, nations become more urbanized, and wealth disparities widen. As I ready my vegetable garden for spring planting, I am reminded of the precarious nature of food security from local to global scales and the need for more locally sourced food products.

—Susan L. Cutter

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