Friday, October 28, 2011

A dose of common sense about food from an agribusiness nation

The future bread-basket of the world. It’s a phrase that Brazilians say with pride, and one that big agricultural conglomerates like to repeat, particularly when faced by criticism of environmental types worried about the degradation of land or the excessive use of chemicals in food production. Factory farming and large-scale agribusiness are increasingly seen as the only ways to feed a global population approaching 7 billion.

I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to get people to think differently about this, particularly the idea that the solution to hunger is more food. I’ve gotten approximately nowhere, with alarming Malthusian tales of the world running out of food getting a considerably greater amount of attention than basic common sense.

Which is why I’m glad to see a Brazilian government official involved in the country’s food planning coming out to make similar arguments. Brazil is preparing a food security plan that is supposed to be signed by President Dilma Rousseff in the coming weeks. That plan is focused on many of the same problems we suffer today in the United States – a growing trend of obesity in a country that produce enormous amounts of the food that make people sick and not enough of the food that makes people healthy. Brazil is also struggling to control obesity at the same time as it grapples with reducing hunger (a contradiction still quite prevalent in the United States, though to a lesser degree).

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Rentao Maluf, President of Brazil’s Council of Food Security, by Amelia Gonzalez of O Globo, published in the supplement Razao Social:

O Globo: What is the greatest challenge relating to hunger, which now affects 1 billion people globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Association?

Renato Maluf: It’s quite clear that the problem of hunger today is not a problem of insufficient food production. The world is capable of producing food, the question is what model it is based on. If we’re planning to feed 7 billion people with the current model, the world is not going to do it. Because this is a model that over-exploits natural resources, has an enormous amount of waste, produce low quality food, and makes absurd use of agrochemicals.

O Globo: How can the world escape this trend?
Renato Maluf: The world food system separated consumption from production. Specialized production and monoculture only make sense when they are integrated into local systems, it does not make sense to take those products to the other side of the country or the other side of the world. Local food is the opposite; it involves using small-scale diversified production and promoting regional distribution. The concept of a decentralized food supply is crucial. It’s laid out in the Food Security Plan that will be signed in by President Dilma (Rousseff).

O Globo: Does that mean Brazil is doing its homework?
Renato Maluf: We’ve had a growing role in the world since the government of Lula (da Silva). But at the same time we’re a large exporter, so we’ve had a commercial role. We’ve put this issue on the forefront of our agenda, we’ve taken it to international forums, we’ve been recognized by international agencies. And as a large exporter, we’ve reproduced some of the problems of that the world food system has.

O Globo: What are some of those problems?
Renato Maluf: Part of our exported production comes from monoculture, with high levels of agro-toxins. We are the largest consumer of agro-toxins in Latin America; we have a high level of mechanization, we are causing deterioration of biodiversity and concentration of land, which is one of the causes of inequality in Brazil. And we have a model of consumption that is leading us – and the rest of the world – toward serious illnesses linked to nutrition. The current pattern of food consumption is leading to levels of obesity that are alarming.

O Globo: What does the Food Security Plan say?
Renato Maluf: The plan identifies ten challenges including health and eating habits for different communities. For example, the government created a program of acquiring food that links the need for food among the poorest with the need of family farmers to find a market. The National Program of School Nutrition recently created a law which requires that 30 percent of school lunches be purchased locally from family farmers. That’s a powerful tool to confront the challenges of food security.

I wish them luck – they’ll need it. Brazil’s food industry is not any more interested in moving toward local production than its American counterpart. But it’s hard to find any high level agricultural official in the United States willing to say these sorts of things.

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