One of the current era’s most pressing political, economic and public health issues is food security and safety. Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness in Canada have brought this home in a powerful and highly resonant way, yet there is much more to the issue than the increased potential for infection and disease. Costs are also rising sharply and this is going to make the issue of food scarcity a matter of personal decision-making and public policy for the first time in decades.
The global integration of food markets has given us a world in which decisions about how we produce and consume food are creating new problems that threaten to spread in rhizomatic fashion, touching not only policies relating to food production, but also energy, urban planning, health care and the environment. LSE sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that we live now in the age of side-effects. Society is no longer defined as a closed and self-equilibriating system of linear processes that can be more or less controlled, predicted and rationalized (i.e., through science and statistical reasoning). For Beck, instrumental reason has been replaced by reflexivity as the motor of social change. It is not the crises or failures of the industrial period but the side effects of its success that now pose for us in the period of reflexive modernity different challenges and demand new ways of thinking.
The issue of food security and safety illustrate Beck’s argument about reflexivity and side-effects very well. As Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times this past weekend, a reform to our national food systems (he focuses on the U.S., but the lessons have wide application) is arguably the most important policy issue facing modern governments not just because of rising prices and concerns about scarcity, but because how we make and consume food has implications for nearly everything else we do. In other words, just as a rhizome works with horizontal and trans-species connections, food policy also extends evermore into new and varied directions. In a bygone era, Pollan argues, politicians resolved to find new ways of increasing production as a way of addressing concerns about access: implement policies that will encourage increased production in order to flood the market with more commodities that will tilt the ratio of supply and demand so that prices eventually drop. But if this strategy ‘worked’ in the past it’s because this was a time when energy was relatively cheap and we had a collective perception that the resources on which we depend for cheap energy were in abundance. It was also based on a linear model of cause and effect.
Those days are over.
We now face a global environmental crisis which demands new strategies and solutions because the decisions and actions we make about X have implications for the risks we will face about Y, Z, V, S and so on. The food system uses more fossil fuels than any other industry, save for the auto sector. And “the way we feed ourselves,” Pollan writes, “contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do.” As he argues, unless reforms are made to national food policies first, we won’t possibly make any headway toward resolving the global environmental crisis or the myriad public health problems that are associated with it, let alone the directly observable rise in the prices of yogurt, meat and vegetables we see every day.
Pollan’s article is published as a letter to the President Elect of the United States. He decries the lack of attention by senators McCain and Obama to food issues, although he cleverly links them to other policy areas where the presidential hopefuls have been making their case (i.e., healthcare, environment, etc.). Canadians are going to the polls today to elect a new federal government, but there is just as much concern here about the place of food issues on the political radar as Pollan suggests of the U.S. The only time food safety and security became an election issue was in relation to insensitive comments by the Conservative agriculture minister early in the campaign regarding the listeriosis outbreak. Regrettably, neither the opposition parties nor the media did much to connect the comments to policies relating to food production or safety in this country. Let’s hope that this changes (here and in the U.S.) once the electoral dust has settled.