WHAT DOES FOOD SECURITY MEAN?
Why are we talking about food security? Isn't that only an issue for developing nations? Aren't we living in the richest country in the world? Why would we be worried about food security?
The best way to answer these questions is to view food security from several perspectives and apply those views to the world, our nation, Oregon in general–and the Willamette Valley specifically.
Food security's first concern is for the less fortunate, the impoverished, the homeless, the incapacitated. This again conjures thoughts of developing nations, the poorest countries of Africa or Asia, the twenty-five percent of the world that lives on less than $1.50 a day or the 30,000 children in the world that die of starvation daily. For most of us, this is not new information.
Closer to home the Population Reference Bureau estimated that 2.5 percent of the American population was undernourished in 2008. However, Oregon ranked in the ten worst states with four percent of its resident listed as undernourished. Even closer to home, a report published by Food for Lane County stated that a fifth of all families in Lane County sought food assistance in 2008 and almost a third of the children in Lane County ate from an emergency food box at least once during the year. Similar statistics apply to all the counties in the south Willamette Valley, and with our current economic woes and fears for an extended recession and growing unemployment, these numbers are only likely to increase in the near term. This is the first meaning of food security–having enough food for everyone.
Another aspect of food security is food safety. In recent years, we have seen articles in the newspaper about E. coli outbreaks from spinach, salmonella in tomatoes, and the presence of melanine in a variety of products from pet food to baby formula. These are clear and present health issues. The definition of food security includes knowing what you are eating, where it came from, and even how it was grown. The move to organic produce and locally grown foods is directly related. Do we want to eat things that have been sprayed with pesticides or grown with chemical fertilizers? Do we want to eat things that have been genetically modified? Knowing the farm and our farmer is one way to help each of us address these questions for ourselves. This is a second part of food security.
Food security is also measured by the availability of food during emergency situations. As we saw in New Orleans after Katrina or during last year's fires in Southern California, a catastrophic event can seriously disrupt food supplies and pathways. Generally, there are only about three days of food on the shelves of our grocery stores. Should weather or a runaway forest fire or some other kind of emergency stop the delivery of food to our region, we would struggle badly if that disruption lasted more than a week. This is another part of food security, having emergency supplies on hand and being prepared to feed ourselves for an extended period of time. In an age where there is serious discussion of climate changes, torrential weather or drought, we should be thinking ahead. An emergency food plan is part of food security and a common sense response to these changing times.
Related to this concern for emergency food shortages are peaking oil production and the cost of petroleum products. We rarely think about it, but our food supply is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels and petrochemical inputs. Conventional farm production includes fertilizers made from natural gas, petrochemical herbicides, and petrochemical pesticides; nearly all farms need diesel for their machinery. And once the food is grown–conventional or organic, there is again a need for diesel to transport it to processors or distributors, who then must secure their product in petroleum-based packaging before trucking it to grocery stores. The buyer must then drive to the store to get it and bring it home to cook on his or her gas range or electric stove. Fifteen percent of the cost of food today is energy related–energy to produce, energy to process, energy to transport, and energy to prepare.
During the winter of 2008, we saw the price of oil reach $145 a barrel. It is currently down to about $65 a barrel, but the price seems to hop and skip in response to just about anything. This volatility in the market effects food security in two obvious ways. The first is affordability; the higher the cost of petroleum, the higher the cost of the food we buy–and thus all the more people who will gradually lose the capacity to buy what they need. The second is reliable delivery. It is generally accepted that we are approximately halfway through the world’s reserves of oil–meaning the price of petroleum will be on a steady incline for the long term. The dearer that petroleum becomes, the more tenuous is our line of supply. Whether because of geopolitical turmoil, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, or simply steady depletion, we can no longer rely on an uninterrupted supply of petroleum. We saw this in the southeast United States last summer. There were times when people couldn't get gasoline or there were long lines to get what was available. Breaks in the line of supply, something that we might again associate with developing nations, are conceivably part of our future. Petroleum prices and reserves must be considered in any discussion of food security.
It is well documented that conventional industrial agriculture, that is, large-scale monoculture combined with chemical fertilizers and extensive irrigation systems, is not sustainable. Over the long term, it wears out the soil and introduces chemicals to our ground water. There is no security in this. Secure food production would involve transitioning from conventional cultivation to sustainable practices that care for the soil, minimize chemical inputs, and maintain diversity in what we grow and in the ways we grow it. Sustainable agricultural and regional environmental management are also critical parts of food security.
Above and beyond the ground level management of the farmland and the soil, food security requires maintaining the local food system–that is, all of the parts and pieces required to get food from the farm to the dinner table–production, processing, distribution, storage, packaging, and marketing.
In the last twenty-five years, we have seen our local food systems gradually give way to a vast and complex global system. It is a system managed and run by large multinational food distributors and processors and is based on long range transportation. This remarkable global system has brought us many new products from all over the world and created new markets to sell what we produce, but it has two critical flaws. It came into being during an age of cheap oil–which is rapidly drawing to a close, and it tends to the gradual dismantling of local food systems, because American consumers have come to rely so heavily on distant markets and long-range freight.
The Willamette Valley has not been immune to this dynamic. A region that was almost entirely food self-reliant forty years ago is now dominated by grass seed production and valley residents eat less than five percent locally grown food. Some of the products grown in the Willamette Valley are actually shipped somewhere else to be processed and then shipped back here to be sold. The valley’s once complete and self-reliant food system is now but a skeleton. We have very few local food processors. Almost all the big canneries are gone. We have very little dry storage capacity in the valley and there are only a few local distributors. Little by little we have given over control of our food sources to the global system–at the cost of local food security.
When taken all together, it is obvious that there are many aspects of food security that we need to address, here in the United States, here in Oregon, and here in the Willamette Valley. With a forecast of unsteady economic times, uncertainties in the climate, and rising fuel prices, the single most encompassing way to address food security is through the rebuilding of our local food system. It is to our advantage to grow more food and more diverse varieties of foods in this valley. It is to our advantage to also do some larger quantity of the processing of that food right here, and to store and sell more of that food locally. In this way we can rebuild our once vibrant agricultural economy to the point that we are not entirely reliant on the global system, so we are not importing ninety-five percent of what we eat. So that we do know where some of our food came from. So that we do have food stored close by if there is a catastrophe or if fuel prices start to dominate the price. So that we do have an excess of local food on hand so it can spill over to the less fortunate.
Food security should not be thought of as radical thought or fear-based paranoia or doomsday thinking. The concerns for climate change, economic recession, and petroleum supplies are real. The idea of rebuilding our local food system as a way to enhance food security is simply common sense. A precautionary approach to managing our region, our valley, and our lives. Katrina blew through New Orleans like nothing we've ever seen before. The wildfires in California appear to be an annual event. The presence of dangerous bacteria or toxins in our food is a potential danger to every one of us. The volatility in the oil market is here to stay. It would only be smart to be prepared for all eventualities. Evaluating and rebuilding our local food system is no more than a common sense response and a way to greater food security.