Ethical Eats

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Food Security: Not Just About Food

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Coming from an environmental science and global development studies background, I try and bring to Ethical Eats an integrated, multifaceted interpretation of contemporary issues.  I hope that it is clear to the majority of us that food security is tied into topics of poverty, power differentials, ownership/governance, labour trends, technological intensification, and ultimately, profit.  However, I would like to share an interesting concept associated with food security, which to me, has not been given adequate attention by developmental, agricultural, or private-corporate associations: water security.  I wish to touch on this subject briefly, while I greatly encourage that you (the reader) look into the topic further.  Water security is tied into a web of dynamic issues and relationships, and the solutions are equally complex.

Topics of water security are tied into topics of food on multiple levels.  Local abilities to subsist have been challenged since the industrial revolution and colonial era; not only has this progressive Euro-American process of acculturation led to the corporate concentration of water resources, but (arguably more importantly), it has also led to a broad-scale shift in attitudes toward the environment.  I suppose that I have created a sense of nostalgia for a time and place in history that I haven’t actually experienced.  Nonetheless, I can’t help but appreciate a time when local knowledge, human interactions, and innovations, allowed for basic needs to be met with utmost respect for the health of the environment.  One example that comes to mind is an area in the high-altitude region of the Tibetan plateau, called Ladakh.  The population, being faced with huge ecological pressures (hypoxia, isolation, extreme cold etc.), found creative ways to channel glacial meltwater to support the local population in a highly organized, cooperative manner.  Wheat, barley, vegetables, and fruit were plentiful, but the process was shaken with colonialism, war, and internal interventions.  There had once existed unwritten codes (derived from Buddhist religious norms) to never taint the quality of the water.  However, the community gradually began to face issues of degraded water quality and water-borne disease.  Ladakh’s experiences with the outer world is descriptive of the future world order that we as a global society are bound to face.

To place the case study of Ladakh into the context of current concerns for food security, I urge the Queen’s community to consider the relationship that now exists between humans and the environment.  Alexander Zhender, writing for the Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology, brings light to the extent to which water is used in agriculture, in a 2003 water policy article.  According to the FAO, on average, only 45 percent of irrigation water is used by the crop itself (although efficiency can vary, depending on the plant type and how water is brought to the plant).  Thus, one image to consider with regard to the relationship between water and food is inefficiency, and the subsequent degradation of water resources in food production.

Further, “virtual water” is an important topic in defining the intersection between water issues and food security, and they are weaved together by issues of international trade.  Water is not traded internationally as a consequence of transport issues, and from a philosophy standpoint.  So, what does this mean for water-poor countries?  Well, mostly this implies that there are very limited mechanisms to deal with both water and food needs.  Developing nations typically end up importing food to reduce internal water demands for agriculture, and herein is the meaning of “virtual water”.  Food acts as “virtual water” as a result of a non-uniform distribution of water, and also as a result of changing resource ownership.  The image of water insecurity and food insecurity is thus hugely complex, but one thing for certain is that local self-sufficiency has sufficiently been undermined.

Well, what does this mean for the future?  Water efficiency has been investigated quite thoroughly (consider drip irrigation systems, waste reduction, reallocation/reorganization etc.), along with topics of securing international food agreements.  But, is the technological, management, or policy solution enough?  My view: if we hope not to saturate the resources on which we live and thrive, then the exemptionalist paradigm that humans possess, relative to the environment, must ultimately be changed.


Alexander Zhender: Water Issues: The Need for Action at Different Levels
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh


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