Food Security and Ethics

Food security is not easily and readily defined. Food security can be viewed from a variety of ethical, ecological and economic stances. And how one approaches food security philosophically effects what the goals are and has practical implications. It’s not necessarily as easy as saying ‘food security is about ensuring competitively priced food to all people’. We need to address questions like “how many people?” Should we use our current food systems to feed the 7 billion people that currently exist or should we be scaling up to the predicted 9 billion people there will be by 2050? In addressing that question, we touch on the topics of maximum sustainable capacity of food production, which makes us ask whether 7 billion is too many people.

So, perhaps it is worth engaging with a fundamental question first: what do we want from our ecology? The idea of population control has all but left the table of discussion when it comes to discussing resource management. But it is implicit in the somewhat pessimistic idea of Malthusianism. This is quite a simple idea: the Earth has a maximum carrying capacity and when the population exceeds that we will see an immediate need to reforming our practices while simultaneously having our population decrease by the relentlessness of Mother Nature. Population control now to avoid deep suffering later seems like a very real ethical consideration: we want our ecology to support comfortable life.

There is a technocentric rebuttal, called Boserupianism. Esther Boserup argued that human ingenuity and technology would always prevail and bring us the solutions to our problems. Optimistic induction would seem to support this theory, we have a history of mechanising and developing in a way that increases productivity. We could argue it is reasonable to want our ecology to support an indefinitely increasing global population. Alternatively, optimistic Boserupian ideas may be living on borrowed time and our increasingly unsustainable farming practices and energy demands are squeezing the productivity from our planet for future generations. But, technology may also be the solution to unsustainable practices! The answer is that the evidence simply isn’t in.

There is a yet deeper question about what we want from our ecology. The Malthusian/Boserupian discussion is anthropocentric and there exists argument that entirely transcend such a discussion. Arne Naess is considered the founder of an ethical position called “Deep Ecology”. The stance of Deep Ecology is nuanced and complex, but it wouldn’t be a complete disservice to the idea to summarise it thus: the position that accepts that all life has its own value and position in Nature and that humans have no special right to dominion over nature. It underpins a desire to have an ecology with minimal intervention. Under this context, the idea of Food Security ultimately becomes meaningless; we permits resources to be whatever they are and population size decreases in line with that. There would be no ‘Food Security’, it would be simple ecological function, with Homo sapiens being just another species that rises and falls at the whims of Nature. It assumes we have no special right to manage land for our own security.

I think there exists a spectrum of philosophies that underpin our efforts on Food Security. At one extreme that is the minimal interventionist Deep Ecology position. It is a position that assumes no right for humans to manage for food security and is open to the idea of human population decline. Somewhere in the middle there is Malthusianism, which relies more heavily on changes in practices and social ideas to secure a constant human population. At the extreme far end there is Extreme Boserupianism, which assumes the right to extensive management and intervention in the hope that technology will continue to solve global problems before they reach crisis level (which, entertainingly, includes solving problems caused by preceding Boserupian decision), which will continue to support an indefinitely growing population.

The ethical pitfalls aren’t always obvious. With Boserupian management, the risk is constantly that it could be wrong and that the next Boserup-inspired move could be the one that scorches the Earth. With Malthusianism, we necessarily enter into a crisis point which will lead to a great deal of suffering for many people, before we reform and stabilise population sizes. A change to Deep Ecology will mean massive starvation and human suffering for a generation.

As with all things of this nature, I find it unlikely the pragmatic answer falls directly into any camp; it is more nuanced than that. Not only do I think that an overall management system for addressing this issue will exist in neither extreme, I think it will include elements that are indicative of all the positions. I think relying on the power of ecology for maintaining eco-efficiency will be crucial, and implementing cultural change will be imperative, and that technology will be supporting element the whole way through.


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