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Food Security in America and Beyond

October 30, 2013

fresh-vegetablesThe November issue of AJPM has an interesting paper on aspects of food security in the U.S. and its impact on health outcomes. An equally important article in the September issue discussed how agricultural subsidies are worsening obesity trends in America. My July blog discussed it.

October was an especially busy month in the world of food and public health. World Food Day was October 16, and during that week, Des Moines, Iowa, hosted the world’s premier conference on global food security. On the 17th, the World Food Prize was awarded for outstanding contributions in disciplines involved with the world food supply—food and agriculture science and technology, manufacturing, marketing, nutrition, economics, poverty alleviation, political leadership, and the social sciences. The conference also launched a yearlong centennial observance of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the founder of the prize.

Howard G. Buffett (yes, that family) participated in the World Food Prize event and introduced his book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World. Howard is the chairman and CEO of his private family foundation dedicated to improving the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished and marginalized populations. Check out the 40 Chances principles here.

Food security is one of the three core areas of the Foundation’s work, and within it is a focus on agricultural resource development for smallholder farmers. This is the topic of a paper recently published on the SciDev.Net website, an excellent source of information about science and technology for global development. The paper argues for small-scale farming, tapping into local practical knowledge systems, and promoting diverse food networks that are more connected to communities and people’s nutritional needs. The authors make many good points, but the words “obesity” and “food waste” leapt out at me.

As a first step, researchers, funders, and policymakers need to identify and then re-evaluate assumptions about science, innovation, and food supply and access. Second, they need to ask the right questions about sustainable global food security, which is more than a short-term production issue. Instead of asking almost exclusively how to increase short-term yields, we should ask why even existing global production is denied to many needy people, while generating mass obesity and enormous amounts of food waste elsewhere.

I spoke with a co-author of the article, Georgina Catacora-Vargas, and discovered her to be a Bolivian recently engaged at a biotechnology research institute in Norway. (Norman Borlaug was of Norwegian ancestry. Coincidence?) Her fields of work are agro-ecology and biosafety, and in addition to Norway, she has experience in Bolivia, Lebanon, Brazil, and Costa Rica. She has worked for more than 10 years in multi-actor developmental projects centered on the promotion and establishment of local healthy food systems through agro-ecology, local organic markets, and participatory guarantee systems for organic produce.

Remarkably, Ms. Catacora-Vargas voluntarily led the Healthy Communities Project, an initiative held for 3 years in two rural areas of Cochabamba, Bolivia. The aim is to strengthen the knowledge of healthy food production and consumption by establishing organic family gardens and enriching food with ingredients from the local agro-biodiversity. Hands-on sessions on healthy food and organic gardening involved over 100 participants, including women, children and elders, three vulnerable groups in rural areas. The project included a baseline study, the results of which are currently being consolidated and analyzed for publication in the near future. The preliminary findings suggest that one project farming community with agricultural systems relying on modern inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and geared to monetary markets, has higher levels of undernourishment (particularly among women) than  the other project community practicing subsistence and diverse agriculture.

What strikes me is the relevance of such research for the U.S., as illustrated by the AJPM articles cited above. The USDA report Household Food Security in the United States in 2012 reveals that 17.6 million households are food insecure, which means having difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all household members. Almost 4 million of these households were unable to reliably provide adequate, nutritious food for their children. Very low food security, characterized by disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake, was experienced by both children and adults in 463,000 households with children in 2012. To find those households in your region, go the Map the Meal Gap website. Find out what action you might take here.

Diet is central to better health in America, and food knowledge is basic to better eating habits. Americans, urban residents especially, are increasingly ignorant of where food comes from, have inadequate exposure to raw and unprocessed foods, are unfamiliar with local food sources and varieties, eat few raw and unpackaged foods, and are losing the skills of meal planning, cooking, and eating with friends and family. Denial of food insecurity or the health risks of poor diets is one thing, but to deny oneself the endless pleasures of cooking and eating is a real tragedy.

— Michael Lytton, AJPM Blog Editor

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