GOOD EARTH: Food insecurity a global as well as local issue

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CHRIS COULTER, Agriculture Columnist

A couple of weeks ago we discussed food safety, and today we’ll consider food security. Simply stated, food security is the availability of a food supply and an individual’s ability to access it. Tomes of public policy papers have been written to define food security, and lots of factors come into play. Food may be available, but an individual might not have the financial means to obtain it. That individual would be considered food insecure. War, natural disaster, or political conflict may also prevent food from reaching those who need it. The war that is currently raging in Yemen is a good example.

According to the United Nations, 14 million people are food insecure in Yemen, with two million needing emergency food-aid just to survive. The BBC is reporting that 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished and 500,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The average under-five (years old) mortality rate at this stage of malnutrition ranges from 30 to 50 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Just to put that into perspective, Kentucky has a population of about 523,000 children under the age of 17. So imagine every child in the state of Kentucky starving to death.

That is Yemen today. But that could never happen here, right?

Since we are used to full pantries and stocked grocery shelves we rarely stop to consider food security in the United States. Most people have more than enough to eat, and in fact obesity has become a major heath concern. There are cases of children in the U.S. not getting proper nutrition, but oftentimes they are suffering the consequences of bad choices by bad parents, and acute malnutrition is rare.

To evaluate how secure one’s food supply is, you must look at the details of how and where your food is produced, and how it makes it your table.

The United States is a huge country. It is third largest in population and second in land area. Food production is not necessarily evenly distributed across the country, and there exists a vast and complicated supply system that harvests, processes and distributes food from where it is grown to where the population centers are.

This whole system is dependent on the free flow of fossil fuels and electricity, and a whole lot of trucks moving food on a daily basis. This distribution system has changed over time. Grocery stores have abandoned the fully stocked storeroom for the just-in-time model that depends on daily arrival of delivery trucks. Instead of a storeroom of goods being readily available to restock shelves, most of the food is in transit from the farm to the factory to the grocery store at any given time. Any disruption in that food distribution stream can result in empty shelves at the grocery store.

Since every step of the industrial food model is dependent on fossil fuels, it has often been said that we are essentially eating oil. As long as there is the free flow of cheap fossil fuels, we’ll be OK. Without them, the whole food system comes to a grinding halt and our food security is in peril.

The next time you are in the grocery store take a look at all of the food that is refrigerated or frozen. That will include the entire meat and dairy department and much of the produce department. The frozen food section just keeps getting bigger, with most groceries having multiple aisles of prepared frozen food. All of this food is available only because we have the fossil fuels to create the electricity to keep it frozen or refrigerated.

Without the ability to keep food cool, much of our eating would be strictly a local affair. Meat, dairy and much of our fresh produce would only stay fresh for a day or two, and therefore would have to be grown locally, delivered and consumed within that time frame.

Also consider that raw foodstuffs are not the same as processed and packaged food. In our area we have plenty of commodity crops like soybeans and corn and lots of cattle on the hoof. But without the ability to process these commodities into prepared foods, we are still at a disadvantage. A disruption in fuel or electricity would also shut down the factories and mills that process food.

We had friends who live in an urban area come and visit the farm recently and they assumed everyone around us raised a garden because most every house has a huge yard and plenty of space. We explained that sadly, those that actually grew anything at all were a pretty small percentage and the days of the huge half-acre garden helping to feed the family went away with our grandparent’s generation.

Food security may be a global issue, but in reality it is a local affair. We alone are responsible for feeding our families. Placing all of our food dependence in one basket is a risky proposition.

Last week, supermarkets in the United Kingdom placed limits on sales of several types of fresh vegetables. This measure was due to a shortage caused by bad weather in Spain and Italy, where many of their vegetables are grown. In a world of global agriculture, international problems can lead to empty shelves.

Food security is just one more reason to promote locally grown food and locally produced goods. We need more backyard gardeners and more local farmers. As we look to the upcoming growing season, I encourage you to start taking a look at your own food security and make your plans to buy local, and grow local.