UBC Reports
November 28, 1996


"Food for all" -- Food for thought

by Ivan Head
The following excerpts are from remarks made by Prof. Ivan Head on Oct. 25 at United Nations headquarters in New York City. Head, UBC law professor and chair in South-North Studies, gave the keynote address at the UN's1996 World Food Day ceremony.

Worldwide, no other single factor so reveals the commonality, yet so emphasizes the disparities, of the human family as does food. The daily consumption of food is so natural and so necessary as to be an instinctive human act. Each one of the almost six billion of us, whatever our means, wherever we dwell, is driven by this need. Yet no other single act so demonstrates our differences. The joy, the satisfaction, and the well-being that those of us in this council chamber experience as we share a meal with family and friends -- often in delightful circumstances and with ample portions -- simply cannot be compared with the privations and the limitations of those 800 million, or the many others worldwide who exist on the margins of hunger.

These contrasts are not simply of an economic or social dimension. They cannot be described adequately in terms of calories or fibre content or protein/carbohydrate balance. These contrasts are much more. They represent a deep moral dilemma. How does one begin to reconcile a world in which 20 per cent of the population of the developing countries is constantly hungry while obesity represents a major health problem in so many of the industrialized countries? How does one understand that our species can probe the far reaches of the solar system, can synthesize the most complex of biological structures, can create the most luxurious of households and public buildings in all history, yet fails to demonstrate its willingness to provide all humans with a threshold diet. The issue, of course, is one of willingness, not one of ability, and it is that distinction that lends to this circumstance the stark element of tragedy. Tragedy for the 800 million who are deprived of health and hope and opportunity. Tragedy as well for those who live in comfort and excess in the knowledge that deprivation suffered by others is deep and widespread.

Three weeks from today heads of government will gather in Rome to address the kaleidoscope of elements that combine and conflict to maintain the appalling distance still separating so many from the food security the rest of us take for granted. None of these elements is novel; not those of production, of distribution, nor of purchasing power of the poor. None has escaped the attention of dedicated plant breeders, agricultural economists, soil scientists, transportation analysts, sociologists, or legions of other disciplinary experts; none is beyond the scope of current knowledge or the reach of current technology. Nevertheless, as if to taunt the basic genius of humankind, the correct formula for the effective blend of knowledge, wisdom, compassion and dedication continues to be elusive. The brilliance of Dr. Jacques Diouf's (Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) concept of a World Food Summit is his insistence that past triumphs not be overemphasized nor failures be forgotten, that technical proposals not be mistaken for solutions any more than familiar challenges be accepted as intractable. Most important, he has designed a summit to emphasize that hunger is not an abstract notion, but is a distressing human condition that will be overcome globally not by lofty language in carefully crafted communiqués but by human resolve, comprehensive policies, and ethical conduct.

The value of the summit as a precedent extends far beyond food. Since time immemorial, natural climatic forces have been so powerful and so resilient, the earth's natural resources so abundant, and the impact of human activity so incidental by comparison that little regard was paid to the possibility of cumulative damage. We now know better. Evidence accumulates that humans are influencing negatively and persistently the wholesomeness and the natural balances of the planet and its environment. In our quest for food, therefore, our species faces a challenge unknown to previous generations. In addition to the vicissitudes of the natural environment -- the age-old unpredictability of yields as a result of drought, pestilence, and tempests -- food producers today suffer from the deleterious global effects of unsustainable human practices.

Human activity, of course, has not all been destructive. In this century, for example, considerable knowledge has been generated about agricultural practices, leading to much more sustainable cultivation techniques. More dramatically, scientists worldwide have gained important insights into a range of natural phenomena. No longer need food producers be hapless dependents upon forces beyond their influence or their understanding. In many respects, ancient scourges can now be limited, even contained, as biological species are bred to emphasize nutritional quality, enhanced yield, drought tolerance, and disease or pest resistance; age-old irrigation systems have been refined to protect water supply and soil quality; conservation techniques have been improved to reduce topographical and ocean degradation; harvesting, storage and processing have all in many respects enjoyed revolutionary advances. In those countries able to utilize this knowledge, employ these practices, and pursue economic policies attractive to farmers, production has soared. But not all countries are so able. Thus, as agricultural research efforts on a global scale have been responsible for much of the extraordinary increase of 13 per cent in per capita food production in the 1980s, two-thirds of all developing countries simultaneously witnessed stagnant or reduced agricultural production. Worldwide, as we know, yields have more than kept pace with population increases. Nevertheless, as we also know, food security remains an unattainable goal in many regions: 800 million human beings are chronically undernourished; of the 14 million annual deaths of children, malnutrition is a contributing cause in two-thirds of the cases.

This is the mixed, often ugly, scene which this 1996 Food Day is asked to record and recite.

Not one of the great agricultural accomplishments of the past half-century could have been achieved without intensive and extensive international co-operation. Nor could massive food shipments and distribution programs have been organized in the wake of natural or other disasters. The lessons are clear: whether one speaks of food sufficiency, food science, food technology, or food marketing, no single state is able successfully to stand aloof from the international community, able to disregard the rules established by that community, able to flourish in the absence of co-operation and support from international structures, institutions and processes.

Nor is that lesson confined to the food sector. Interdependence in terms of knowledge, of investment capital, of goods, commodities and services, of human security, is now so widespread and so intense that the very definition of sovereignty has changed considerably in recent years.

The World Food Summit will offer an immensely important message, one of understanding of the interdependent circumstances in which humankind now finds itself. In this sort of world, a world of dependencies and multiple actors, a world of regimes and rules, the attributes of sovereignty assume different forms than in the past even though the goals remain constant. Independence, recognition, and consequence are as significant to governments and to publics today as at any time in the past. The means of attaining those goals, however, are far different. No longer is a state, no matter how small or apparently self-contained, able to prosper while withdrawing from the international community. No longer can a state, no matter how powerful militarily or economically, remain indifferent to the integrity of the international system. The current triangular confluence of powerful global circumstances -- size of population, scale of human activity, and availability of remarkable new technologies -- allows no state to be oblivious to the activities of others, nor to assume self-reliance in meeting its own needs.

Hunger thus is much more than an agricultural issue. It is an economic issue, it is a political issue, it is a moral issue. It goes to the root of human existence. It challenges the concept of a human community. It reflects upon the reputation of governments and leaders who have repeatedly pledged to eradicate it yet have so far failed to do so. On World Food Day 1996, on the eve of the World Food Summit, evidence is overwhelming that we live in a new era, one consisting of a planetary environment, a global economy, and, increasingly, a cosmopolitan world society. Those circumstances combine to insist that "Food for All" be transformed from slogan to fact.