Food for the Future: A conversation with environmental historian Bryan McDonald

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“When we talk about globalization,” Bryan McDonald says, “people tend to think about computers or airplanes. But the way most people interact with the world on a daily basis is through what they eat.” That’s why McDonald, an environmental historian and assistant professor of Science Technology and Society at Penn State, chose food as the focus of his most recent book. Food Security, published by Polity Press, examines the interlocking challenges of developing a sustainable global food system for the 21st century.

book cover of Food Security

The term “food security” seems abstract. Aren’t we talking about feeding the world?

The term started as a concern for hunger, and about the need to increase agricultural production because there are more and more people in the world. Part of what I do in the book is trace how by the time we get into the 21st century, it’s being recognized as a much more complex problem.

Complex in what ways?

The book looks at malnutrition, food safety, and environmental change. These are the three big challenges that are now part of food security as it’s been expanded from just focusing on food supply.

Between 1970 and 1990 the world was making progress in reducing the number of hungry people. There was this sense that this was kind of a solved problem. But there are still hungry people in the world: In 2009 the estimates were that 1 of 6 to 1 of 7 people on the planet didn’t have enough to eat. So it’s clear that the old solutions aren’t enough. Food security is complex. It involves a lot of difficult challenges that are related but in many cases have very different solutions.

Can you give examples of how globalization has complexified things?

Bryan McDonald

Bryan McDonald

Sure. Look at food safety. In the U.S., a significant proportion of our fruits and vegetables now come from outside the U.S. That’s also true of the seafood we consume. And because the volume is so high, the government agencies charged with protecting things can only inspect a small percentage of that food. So one of the things that’s challenging us to do is to change how we think about food safety, and the procedures we go through to make sure our food is safe.

One of the things that came out of the Second World War was an attempt to knit countries together into an international trading system, a global market. The broad idea was that if the U.S., say, was really good at producing a commodity like corn, and it produced a lot of it, that would lower the cost of corn for poor people around the world.

The result is specialization. Which is good—you get a lot of good coffee, for example, coming out of countries that can compete in a global marketplace for that product—but the difficulty is we see a lot of agriculture shifting away from domestic markets to produce things for export. It becomes harder and harder under such a system for the small farmer to make a living wage.

A lot of the current conversation in international development is about trying to help small farmers to improve domestic production, increasing the variety of foods locally available for people to consume, which has gone down in many cases. This is happening even in the U.S., with things like farmers markets and community supported agriculture.

You’re referring to what’s been called the “local food movement.” Yet that movement is regarded by some as inefficient and elitist. Critics say, “That’s not going to feed the world.” How do you respond?

line graph depicting prevalence of food insecurity and very low food security in U.S. households increasing by approximately three percent from 2000 until 2009USDA Economic Research Service

In the book I talk about “strategic decoupling” from the global food market. In certain places it may make sense to return to local markets.

When we fall into these dichotomies—we’re going to have either large-scale industrial agriculture or we’re going to have local sustainable agriculture—we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Each system does some things well. And ideally, unless people are going to radically change the way they eat, you need both.

And yet you note that policy discussions seem to be dominated by large-scale producers, while local growers are shut out. It seems like they are antagonists.

I think we in the U.S. have been pretty successful at developing agricultural policies that improve production efficiency—supporting farmers who are efficient at producing a lot. What we haven’t been as good at is thinking about policies that nurture communities, that make sure farmers are earning a living wage, getting enough return on their investment to encourage them to stay in farming.

apples on conveyor

"By and large the food that people eat is safe and healthy."

That local vs. global debate shows up in food safety discussions as well. Do you make food safer by centralizing and regulating production, or by localizing and being less dependent on forces you can’t see?

That’s a tough question, especially in a period when it seems every couple of months we have another of these big food-safety scares. But one of the things I always try to stress is that by and large the food that people eat is safe and healthy.

It’s important not to fall into the notion that small food is necessarily safer than big food. There are cases of problems with both. Some of what’s driving the local food movement is that people feel like if they have a personal relationship with someone, they’re maybe reducing those risks. But big or small, the focus needs to be on safe food.

In your book, you set all this into the larger context of “human security.” Can you explain?

Starting after World War II, there was an emerging focus on national and international security. The nature of threats in the global environment with the emergence of things like nuclear weapons meant that security depended on cooperation and interdependence among nations.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, there’s a renewed focus on the things that make families and communities insecure. On a day-to-day basis, more people are impacted by threats to their health, their job, their food supply, for example, than by war. That’s the broad idea of human security.

How does it help to set food security into this context?

"In 2009 the estimates were that 1 of 6 to 1 of 7 people on the planet didn't have enough to eat."

It opens up a fuller range of possibilities to address the problems we face. When you’re talking about international conflict and war, we focus a lot on defense and diplomacy. When you broaden out and think of human security, development becomes an essential tool.

Take a famine that causes large-scale human migration, like we’re seeing in Somalia right now. Once you have that kind of disaster, it’s very difficult to go in and intervene. It’s very expensive, time-consuming, and takes a lot of resources. The underlying problems need to be dealt with much earlier, and over a long period of time.

A human security perspective also provides roles for individuals, communities, and non-state groups—not just states—in solving these problems. There’s a shifting of authority.

Another framework that you use is sustainability.

The number one global pressure on deforestation is food production. Agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of our fresh water use around the world. A majority of our energy use is centered on the production and transportation of food. We have to test all possible solutions in terms of sustainability.

When you look over the last 50 years or so, there is this sense—and I think you see it in the popularity of Michael Pollan’s books or a movie like Food, Inc.—that our global food system may be doing a good job of addressing certain ideas of economic efficiency, but that the environmental and social aspects of sustainability have been largely ignored.

What’s in the future?

One of the core challenges is figuring out ways to maximize the good that our global networks are doing and minimize the bad. The benefits of globalization have thus far been uneven. What we need is to figure out the best ways to spread those benefits around.

Last Updated January 11, 2012