Food Policy: Making a Place at the Table for Information

In recent months readers of Poking Around have quietly endured my efforts to grasp the anomaly of hunger in a world of plenty – the struggle to connect the dots between world hunger and overproduction, to get a grip on the politics that tolerate hungry families in our community, to comprehend what it means to embrace the right to food as a human right.  Because my predisposition is to view every issue through the prism of open government, my mind wants to create a holistic approach to thinking about hunger in lay terms.   Flailing in an unfamiliar world of ambiguity and complexity, my only tool is a structured approach to gathering and organizing information till it makes sense.

As usual, help is at hand.  Next week’s appearance of Anna Lappe at the Westminster Town Hall Forum offers a start.  The straightforward presentation of issues that she and her mother, Frances Moore Lappe,  offer on their Small Planet Institute website are digestible

The documentary film, A Place at the Table, is also getting the conversation started with some good information and the star quality that grabs the public attention and positions the issues at the micro level.

The information imperative leaves me to the work of scholars and policy analysts at the University of Minnesota Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who study food issues from the macro level.   An article by Allen Levine, published in the Star Tribune some months ago, gave me a template for understanding “Global hunger – the Minnesota Connection” – not so much the answers but a frame of reference and a sense of relevance.

Levine writes that “as Minnesotans, it’s easy to dismiss global hunger as a problem that doesn’t directly affect us. And with a quarter of our state’s residents now considered obese, not having enough food may seem like the least of our worries.  But we should worry.  Demographers predict that by 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion; a high percentage of those people will live in cities or climate- challenged areas where they can’t grow their own food….As their incomes increase, people will expect not just food, but more nutritious (and thus, more expensive) food….Our farmers, our agribusiness, our nonprofits and, yes, our universities, all play key roles in global hunger prevention.…We have no choice: Minnesota must be part of the solution.”

Levine’s cogent proposal has five steps to reaching the goal of sustainably feeding everyone – five steps that I can count on one hand if not fully comprehend.  His construct refines my mental prism for assessing macro steps from a micro perspective – a handy guide for the lay person. The steps are straightforward and plausible:

  1. Support funding of agricultural research and development.
  2. Be vigilant about the effects of climate change, disease and drought.
  3. Accelerate the shift toward second- and third-generation biofuels such as algae and cellulosic material.
  4. Concentrate efforts on small-scale farmers, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, where many of the world’s poorest people reside and where much of the population growth will happen.
  5. Recognize that simply having enough food isn’t enough.

Another paper published just this week by the IATP has helped me get to the next plateau.  Karen Hansen-Kuhn of IATP asks the question “Who’s at the Table? Demanding Answers on Agriculture in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”  Trust me, I would not have paid attention to the TPP discussions until I read this paper where I learned that “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has the potential to become the biggest regional free-trade agreement (FTA) in history, both because of the size of the economics participating in the negotiations and because it holds open the possibility for other countries to quietly ‘dock in’ to the existing agreement at some point in the future.”  In other words, it’s a Big Deal.  And the U.S. and other countries are just getting on the food wagon.

This is where the transparency issue really comes into play.  Hansen-Kuhn’s work caught my attention when she writes that “it may be that governments, particularly the U.S. government, think they’ve been burned by transparency in the past.”  She goes on to ask the question, “Is it that the trade deals can’t withstand the light of day?”  Trade policy, she writes “should start from such goals as ending global hunger, enhancing rural and urban incomes and employment, and encouraging a transition to climate friendly agriculture.  The burden of proof should be on governments to demonstrate that the commitments being negotiated in the TPP will advance the human rights to food and development.  Given the stakes for agriculture and food systems in all of the countries involved, they should include all sectors in a frank discussion of the trade rules that are needed to ensure that food sovereignty, rural livelihoods and sustainable development take precedence over misguided efforts to expand exports at any cost.”

March is Minnesota FoodShare Month, a time to think about and act on the issue of hunger in our midst..  My hope is that we take time as individuals, organizations, faith groups and families to think about the root causes and the long-term solutions to what is, after all, a solvable problem.

Open access to good information wisely wielded by informed people of conscience can make a difference.  We must make a place at the table for good information, sound judgment, and justice.

 

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