Food Justice
Monday, February 2, 2015 -- 4:00 PM
Laura Maguire

An astounding one in eight people on the planet are undernourished, over three million children die every year from hunger or malnutrition, and two billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies (Caritas). And as the world’s population continues to grow, with estimates putting it at ten billion by 2050, we can only expect the situation to get worse. Unless, of course, we do something about it. But for that to happen, we need to recognize that food insecurity on this level is not simply unfortunate, but it is deeply unjust. We need to reframe the global hunger problem in terms of food justice.

So, why are so many people on the planet malnourished or starving? It’s not because there isn’t enough food being produced in the world. People are hungry and malnourished because they either can’t afford the food that’s available, or the food that’s available is just not healthy and nutritious. Yet about a third of all the food that’s produced in the world doesn’t even make it onto the table, and of the food that we actually put in front of us, a lot of that ends up in the trash too. There’s obviously something wrong with a system that allows so many to go hungry, while at the same time, all this food is being grown simply to be thrown away. As Pope Francis put it, "We are in front of a global scandal of around one billion people who still suffer from hunger. We cannot look the other way.”

If we already produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, then can’t we just figure out a better way to distribute that food to the most needy? It sounds like a simple, obvious solution, but the reality is a little more complicated. First, in order to transport food, certain infrastructure needs to be in place, and that’s often not the case in places where there’s a lot of food insecurity. Second, transporting all this food has costs—not just monetary costs, but climate costs. Most of our transportation system is still reliant on fossil fuels, which contributes to carbon in the atmosphere, so distributing food around the world cannot be the complete answer to the problem. And even if we figure out a more sustainable way to distribute all this food, it doesn’t mean that those who are most in need of healthy food will suddenly be able to afford to buy it.

Another solution would be for more people to grow their own food so they can be self-sufficient, but again, while this might sound simple enough, there are many factors preventing this from happening on the ground. Growing food requires resources—land, water, seeds, time, and so on. And as the global temperature increases, bringing with it more erratic weather patterns, such as extreme drought or flooding, in many places where there is already food insecurity, it is getting harder and harder to grow food on any consistent basis.

To understand why this depressing situation should be thought of as an injustice, we need to understand the role that we play in creating the problem. For example, lots of forests are cleared to raise livestock due to the high demand for meat. As forests are cut down, more carbon is released into the atmosphere, then there’s all this flatulent livestock, which has to be fed. So, in addition to the land used to house the cattle, there’s also land (and, of course, water) being used to grow food for livestock instead of for people.

And it’s not just meat. There’s also tropical fruit and vegetables, tea, coffee, chocolate, and many other foods that we in the west want to be able to buy cheaply. A lot of this food is grown far away in places that suffer from food and water insecurity. So again, all these local resources that could be used to grow food for the poor are used to grow cash crops for export, to satisfy our consumer demands. So, while millions are starving or malnourished around the globe, we are enjoying our coffee, quinoa, and coconut milk, which contributes to the global poor’s inability to become food secure. Our consumer choices have hidden costs, and it’s the poor who end up paying, both directly, by us hijacking their local resources, and indirectly, by contributing to global warming, which disproportionately affects the ability of those in poor regions to grow food. For a cogent and persuasive treatment of the relationship between food justice and climate change, see this article by Lori Gruen (recent guest on our show on the ethics of captivity) and Clement Loo.

Now, I don’t want to come across as lecturing anybody for their consumer choices. I include myself in the problem, and I understand that we can all be morally weak to some degree. We suffer from what the Greeks called akrasia, or weakness of will. We might know that something is the right thing to do, but it’s another thing to actually do that thing. This is part of the reason why many people still drive cars, knowing full well how the resulting carbon emissions contribute to climate change. So, while you might feel guilty about eating meat and drinking coffee, it’s another thing to stop.

But acknowledging that many of us suffer from weakness of will does not let us off the hook, morally speaking. In order to solve both the climate change problem and the related food insecurity problem, we need more than individuals changing their consumer choices, though obviously that has to be part of the solution. We also need major structural changes and to get those, we need individuals to put political pressure on governments and corporations to make the appropriate changes.

We also need to shift away from the idea that solving the food insecurity problem is a matter of personal choice, or charity. Charitable contributions can obviously help people, but if we think about it as just a matter of charity, we miss something important. Why? Because charity is what philosophers call a supererogatory act—it’s a good thing to do, but it’s not morally required. Instead of thinking about it as a personal choice, we need to shift our framework toward a view that considers solving the food insecurity problem as a matter of moral duty—something we are obligated to do, whether we want to or not. Another way to frame the issue is by thinking of access to healthy, nutritional food as a basic human right, something that every person on this planet is entitled to. We need to create a just food system to protect those rights for everyone. And if we’re serious about that, and about ensuring that future generations will be able to produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, we simply cannot continue with our rampant consumerism.

Our guest on this week's show is Tim Benton, the UK's 'Champion' for Global Food Security.