What’s the most important aspect of agriculture?
Calorie production? Nutrition? Environmental preservation?
These three stand out to me as critical components. I would also suggest farmer incomes are crucially important – after all, if farmers can’t make a living, who will do it? There are other key priorities as well, such as rural development, contribution to the economy, and I’m sure many more. For today, though, let’s focus on the big ones above, which really boil down to food security and environmental preservation. Let’s take a minute to define what they mean.
Food security, as defined by the World Bank at the 1996 World Food Summit, addresses four main dimensions:
- Physical availability of food: Food availability addresses the “supply side” of food security and is determined by the level of food production, stock levels and net trade.
- Economic and physical access to food (affordability and access).
- Food utilization: Utilization is commonly understood as the way the body makes the most of various nutrients in the food. This determines the nutritional status of individuals.
- Stability of the other three dimensions over time: Even if your food intake is adequate today, you are still considered to be food insecure if you have inadequate access to food on a periodic basis.
This definition of food security covers the bases pretty well. Not only does it cover availability and economic access to food, but it also covers nutrition. Having access to starchy calories and nothing else does not equal food security: we all need a variety of nutrients to be healthy.
Environmental preservation is a little murkier – it depends who you ask. If it’s an environmental NGO, they might define it as the elimination of all pesticides and fertilizers. The average person might think of it as maintaining habitat, green spaces, protecting endangered species, and so on. This one is in the eye of the beholder.
What do you think is most important?
Environmental Policy Over Food Security
Whatever your opinion is, these days, it seems like our governments really don’t care about anything other than the environment. Policies restricting fertilizer use, elimination of key crop protection products, the loss of high-quality farmland to urban sprawl, the disastrous Farm to Fork strategy in the European Union: all of these changes, and more, are restricting the capacity of agricultural production in key exporting countries, such as the Netherlands and most other EU countries, Canada, and many others. We hear our governments give lip service to improving food exports, to increasing production, to improving logistical access, but little improvements seem to take place.
For example, in 2017, a comprehensive set of recommendations came forward from a document nicknamed “The Barton Report”. In it, agriculture was identified as a sector where Canada has the potential for substantial growth and export improvement. The document set an ambitious target to grow Canada’s agri-food exports from $55 billion in 2015 to at least $75 billion in 2025. Since then, our federal government has paid little attention to the report, focusing instead on aggressive environmental targets.
Frustratingly, our largest port located in Vancouver recently was ranked 347th out of 348 container ports worldwide. Even if we did focus on growing agri-food exports, rankings like this are a clear example of our myriad logistical problems. We are an enormous country – having a port run smoothly should be one of our nation’s highest priorities.
In other countries, like the Netherlands, their federal government is tearing their own agricultural system apart, eliminating access to fertilizers and outright closing down farms. In Sri Lanka, astonishingly, the government set out to annihilate their own modernizing agricultural system, unintentionally or not.
In the last century, we have grown agricultural production by leaps and bounds, increasing the production of food to such a degree we actually started burning it for fuel – it became that cheap. In doing so, our grocery store shelves are full of everything we could dream of, always, without fail. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, our stores remained stocked, running low on only a few items here and there. Today, despite rampant food inflation, we still spend less on our food than most of the world, by a long shot, and have never really had to consider what it would be like to see empty shelves.
We have become complacent.
Whether climate change is a factor or not, agriculture has always had to rely on Mother Nature to succeed. This year on our farm, we are harvesting one of our smallest crops in decades, thanks to a summer drought. Is it unusual? Not at all.
Droughts, floods, hailstorms, frosts – this is farming. We are always challenged by difficult weather from time to time. We can’t control it, can’t predict it. Despite billions of dollars of investment, our weather forecasts are still hopelessly unreliable. Maybe they always will be. Weather, and climate, is a chaotic system influenced by billions of variables we just can’t foresee.
As food has become cheaper and cheaper, food security has been forgotten by most of us. We assume the shelves will always be full. We assume there will always be enough.
But what if there wasn’t? Is this even possible in the world of modern agriculture?
We are not prepared.
There is no guarantee the weather will cooperate tomorrow. It didn’t for us this year. In fact, just ask farmers in areas of southwest Saskatchewan or southern Alberta finding themselves in year 7 of drought.
Regional droughts on our planet are not a recent phenomenon. Some years are worse than others, like 2007-08, when a series of severe droughts enveloped parts of North America, eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, and parts of South America. We mostly scraped through that period without impacting the lives of the average North American citizen. In the last few years, we’ve seen that pattern strike once again, but again, so far, most people are unaware of it.
Meteorologist Drew Learner of World Weather Inc, in a recent article, called this a game of Russian Roulette. This very year, the United States was oh-so-close to a severe drought that could have decimated production to levels not seen in a decade; while Canada, Kazakhstan, and parts of India are coping with dry conditions. As Learner puts it, the roulette wheel is still spinning. One of these years, enough regions of the world will develop drought at the same time, and a true food crisis will emerge.
We are not prepared for this possibility.
Our myopic focus on environmental targets and attempting to stem a fraction of a degree of temperature increases from climate change are blinding us to the very real threat of true food shortages. My grandfather, when he was a boy in the 1930’s, waited for food to arrive on trains. Pray that never happens again – but hope is not a strategy.
Not only are we making dangerous assumptions about food production, but we also pay very little heed to nutritional content of our products. We aren’t incentivized in any way whatsoever to produce nutritionally-dense grains. Any improvements in this are simply a by-product of better crop varieties and better fertility management.
Call me biased, but I consider it more important for my children to have enough to eat than the health of my local environment, or the environment at large. I put the value of a human life ahead of the environment. You may think you don’t. But when the shelves are empty and your family is hungry, you, just like any other food-insecure person around the world, will not care about the environment anymore. Rich societies care about the environment. Poor ones don’t.
It’s time to change our priorities. Improving and protecting the environment is a worthy goal worth pursuing, but not at the expense of food security. Food security must trump environmental goals. A food insecure world will forego the health of the planet in a heartbeat. If you really care about our world, you’d focus first on lifting as many people as possible out of poverty. That means affordable, nutritious food (and cheap, reliable energy, which is not wind and solar – but that’s a subject for another day).
What can you do? Start asking your politicians tougher questions on their agricultural policy. Remind them that preventing hunger and malnutrition need to come first.
Let’s redefine our food production priorities. Before Mother Nature hands us a true food crisis that we are woefully unprepared for.