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Title: The Ethics and Economics of Food Security
Date: 30-Mar-2010
Category: Opinion Essays
Source/Author: Stephen B. Young, Global Executive Director, Caux Round Table
Description: The Caux Round Table advocates responsible business practices resting upon three core values: human dignity, Kyosei or mutual dependencies, and stewardship. These values inform all aspects of a sustainably profitable capitalism. From the perspective of human dignity, each business has a duty to contribute to rising standards of living that give more effective scope to the moral virtues of individuals. From the perspective of Kyosei, each business depends on mutually beneficial relationships and other forces in its commercial environment such as customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. From the perspective of stewardship, each business has an office to perform to society in wealth creation for the common good, taking into account the needs and interests of its constituent stakeholders.

The Caux Round Table advocates responsible business practices resting upon three core values: human dignity, Kyosei or mutual dependencies, and stewardship. These values inform all aspects of a sustainably profitable capitalism. From the perspective of human dignity, each business has a duty to contribute to rising standards of living that give more effective scope to the moral virtues of individuals. From the perspective of Kyosei, each business depends on mutually beneficial relationships and other forces in its commercial environment such as customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. From the perspective of stewardship, each business has an office to perform to society in wealth creation for the common good, taking into account the needs and interests of its constituent stakeholders.

When the values of human dignity, Kyosei, and stewardship are used to illuminate business practices associated with food, a number of significant considerations immediately come into view.

Food, health, and ethics intersect at the foundation of our lives. Food with its irreplaceable contribution to our energy and stamina and to our health governs the quality of our lives. Our vitality and strength to become fully human depend on eating the right foods; good health and energetic wellness reduce our anxieties to give us greater happiness; our physical well-being in old age similarly depends very much on the foods we have eaten for so many years. Health and vitality of individuals are requirements of justice in any society, even ones where food is plentiful thanks to success in economic development.

Most people agree in principle that every human being has a right to enough food for a healthy, active life, but the world as a whole has proven unable to put in place economic policies and measures to achieve that goal. The availability of plentiful, cheap food, made possible by modern technologies and systems, points to a partial solution, but this approach has not been without its negative consequences. For instance, convincing research and physical evidence links the modern food system to increased obesity and a range of other, diet-related health concerns. Reducing risks of this kind is necessary, but at the same time, it is important to retain the advantages achieved by modern agricultural practices.

Improvements to our system should be accomplished in a manner consistent with freedom of choice and individual responsibility. In addition, the ethical imperative to conserve food-producing resources for future generations must be reconciled with the economics of efficient resource utilization.

In selecting global food security as a focus issue, the Caux Roundtable appreciates that food involves a delicate and complex mix of economics and ethics. It recognizes that progress in reducing food insecurity requires addressing both ethical and economic dimensions of the problem. Most importantly, it believes that the best solutions will be forged from an alignment of ethics and economics in service to food security.

Defining Food Security: Three challenges for business and the global community

Originally, food security was thought of simply as inadequate food supplies. Over time it has become clear that the problem is more complex. It has a hunger dimension, a food safety and wellness dimension, and a sustainability dimension.

1) Hunger.

There are three faces to hunger.

Chronic hunger is the lack of adequate calories on a regular, reliable basis. It affects roughly one billion people and is rooted in their poverty.

Crisis hunger arises when normal food supplies are disrupted. This can occur because of drought or disease, but it most often occurs today because of civil disorder or price shocks in global food markets. Even people of moderate incomes can be harmed from food crises.

Malnutrition—the lack of adequate nutrients for healthy development of mind and body – is the last face of hunger. It is an affliction that particularly strikes women and children. Improper nutrition, particularly in the early years of life, has irreversible effects. The quality of food, not just caloric amounts, enhances our brain capabilities. Malnourishment is connected to low performance, both physically and mentally. Since food consumption literally powers the individual, better diets would make us smarter and consequently better able to conduct our lives, care for our families, build our communities, strengthen our society and economy, compete with foreign nations and protect ourselves.

2) Food Safety and Wellness.

While most food is produced and consumed in the same country, some 10 to 15 percent of food supplies move across borders. Even within countries, food chains are becoming more complex as processing, preparation, packaging and presentation services develop between producers and consumers. This emergence of extended and sophisticated supply chains has made food more available while widening consumer choice at reasonable cost. But it also has increased the risks of food contamination and rapid transmission of plant or animal diseases.

Business skill has made availability of fresh foods year-round a reality, but it has also contributed to an increased consumption of over-processed, calorie-dense foods. An inappropriate diet of such foods is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart complications, malnutrition, and other dysfunctions that impose burdens on individual lives and higher costs on public health care systems.

3) Sustainability.

The developed world has roughly 26 percent of the world’s arable land, only 14 percent of global population and almost none of the anticipated growth in food demand. East and South Asia, by contrast, have roughly one-third of the world’s arable land but half of its population, and this already resource-stressed region will witness most of the doubling of global food demand expected by 2050 as both populations and incomes rise there. Developing countries also typically suffer from more degraded land and rapidly rising pressures on land and water resources as urbanization moves ahead at the highest rate in human history.

Meeting the Three Challenges of Food Security

Just as food security has three distinct faces, increasing global food security will require progress on all three fronts.

1) Hunger.

Chronic hunger is rooted in poverty. With 60-70 percent of the people in poor countries dependent on agriculture, two steps are critical. First, agricultural productivity must be raised in these countries, not just to increase food supplies but also to generate incomes and savings that can be re-invested in economic growth and diversification. The goal should be to ensure that both those who leave farming and those who remain are better off.

Highly productive industrialized agriculture yields abundant low priced food. Commercial fishing provides great ocean harvests, and allows greater consumption of many species of fish. Such advances in food production bring the promise of better diets and higher standards of living, especially to the poor and the middle classes, than was the case in pre-industrial societies. Improved methods of industrialized agriculture have significant positive effects on those populations experiencing chronic hunger. Improved methods adopted for other forms of agricultural production also improve hunger conditions.

Crisis hunger arises when normal supplies are disrupted. The traditional responses from developed countries have been in-kind food aid and calls for grain reserves. In-kind food aid, however, undermines local production in affected regions, and food reserves are expensive to accumulate and maintain. More effective would be cash assistance to affected countries and targeted purchasing power assistance to communities and individuals to ensure that they are not priced out of buying their needs. Support for farmers and agricultural enterprises would also improve longer term prospects. In addition, all countries should forswear price or export controls; such self-protective initiatives merely amplify the problem by protecting marginal with essential consumption and dampening internal price signals to expand output while shifting adjustment burdens, typically onto those least able to cope with them.

Malnutrition would be reduced by progress on chronic and crisis hunger. But it also can be addressed more directly through food fortification with essential vitamins and minerals. And it can be greatly reduced through more effective feeding and food education programs such as initiatives for expectant and nursing mothers and school feeding programs for children.

The technology that gives us such abundance at such low cost depends on cheap oil, plentiful water, healthy soils and a constant weather pattern. Those capital inputs to agriculture are now each at risk. In addition, in most advanced industrial nations food production is subsidized. Should consumers pay a more realistic price for their foods, a price that would cover the full systemic costs of production and perhaps one that would pay for the costs of environmental remediation of certain farming practices? Or is low cost food an important social good to be valued and protected?

The social and wealth advantages to be gained by global society from modernization of agricultural production with its immense gains in productivity and lowering of food costs for the ordinary consumer need to be secured from negative consequences arising from the same evolution of production systems. Employment opportunities for those leaving lives formerly dependent on subsistence agriculture, access to the capital value of land and other assets deserve the attention of business and government.

2) Food Safety and Wellness.

A mixed system of production from industrial to small production farming and a mix of distribution channels from large supermarket and megastore chains to local grocers, farmers’ markets and co-ops can meet a wide range of consumer preferences. Based on a growing body of research, such a shift would not only improve consumer health, but ameliorate some of the problems associated with large scale production and distribution of food. Such concerns include creation of vulnerable monocultures, intensive use of increasingly scarce water supplies, and ownership concentration in seeds and of agricultural land.

A key to addressing both food safety and dietary health is greater reliance on research, development and science in all phases of the food chain. More scientific food production systems can prevent the introduction and spread of plant and animal diseases. More science-based inspection and remediation systems will lead to earlier detection, more effective containment and more reliable return to normal food supply flows. Harmonization of standards and collaboration among regulators and researchers are additional goals to pursue.

Second, the public health sciences around the roles of fitness and diet in preventing chronic diseases and promoting healthier lives need research support, and their findings need to be communicated more effectively and understandably to food producers, processors, handlers and consumers.

The consumption of food raises issues of health and wellness as well as of consumer and worker rights. Those who are custodians over the diets and health of others – families, schools, hospitals – carry the burden of providing responsible nutrition. Those who are quasi-custodians of the diets and health of others – food producers, manufacturers, advertisers, distributors, purveyors and preparers– may also carry a burden not to impose unreasonable risks on their customers and consumers.

3) Sustainability

Sustainable development was defined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” If the global challenge is to double food production by 2050 while using no more land (to avoid destroying sensitive habitats and releasing carbon from land conversion), less water (because of rising personal and industrial needs for fresh water), fewer residues (to protect human health and to reduce environmental pollution) and less reliance on fossil fuels (to hold down costs and carbon emissions), then the best tools for this task include technology and trade.

The technological dimension of this food security challenge means exploring optimal agricultural models and their suitability for localities, regions, nations and the planet. The reappraisal involved may consider moving farmers out of subsistence agriculture (which is low in both productivity and resource preservation); and moving farmers out of conventional agriculture (which is highly productive but often harmful to the environment..Sustainable agricultural and food systems must optimize both productivity and resource preservation while considering cultural, spiritual and other forms of wealth and bases of personal well being.

Because of the imbalance between natural resource endowments, population distribution and prospects for future demand growth, trade in agricultural commodities and foodstuffs must be re-oriented around relative resource endowments. This may mean that land-intensive products (grains, oilseeds, livestock and dairy products) will move more freely from land- and water-rich regions to regions where those resources are more scarce, and labor-intensive products (fruits, vegetables, poultry and fish) will move to countries that have scarce or high-priced labor.

Climate Change

A special word should be said about agriculture’s role with respect to climate change. Agriculture is a source of greenhouse gases (directly accounting for about one-seventh of global emissions but contributing to as much as another one-seventh through pressures to convert forests, wetlands and grasslands to cropping). Agriculture also is a potential means of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient, environmentally-sensitive cultivation and animal husbandry practices. And agriculture faces significant adaptation challenges as the effects of climate change alter precipitation, temperature, pest incidence and other factors affecting production. Issues to consider are increased and concentrated air, land and water pollution from industrial scale food production facilities such as cattle ranches and chicken farms; environmental and other costs associated with the entire food distribution and packaging system; and intensive use of increasingly expensive petroleum based products, such as fertilizers.

The most effective steps in strengthening agriculture’s role in mitigating climate change may be found in avoiding further land conversion by intensifying output on existing good croplands, improving the soil quality of degraded lands and improving management of rice paddies and animal feed conversion. The most effective steps in helping agriculture adapt to climate change may be agronomic research (including biotechnology), better technology-sharing and expanded agricultural and food trade. Properly structured, with sustainability, safety, and human values guiding the effort, scientific advances, trade and technological development can combine to expand global food security for all.


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