ustainability has often been called a “systemic” issue that requires “holistic” thinking to address. Wrapping one’s head around the complexities of climate, energy, and a range of other topics can be challenging to say the least. But making those connections is a key part to understanding how to approach sustainability as an ecological, economic, and social concept.
There is perhaps no better way to illustrate the systemic impacts of sustainability than to look at the food system. Food security is of real concern for a large part of the global population. For many, simply getting enough to eat dominates their daily priorities. In Africa for example, the African Union has designated 2014 as the year of agriculture and food security.
Here in the U.S. and in other developed countries, most of the population doesn’t share that basic concern. Nevertheless, so-called rich economies still have real cause to be concerned about food security. The challenge isn’t only about having enough food. It includes the way that food is produced and how wisely we use it.
To help us get a grip on food security and why it’s an issue for both developed and emerging economies, we spoke with Dr. Tim Fox. Dr. Fox is Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London.
GreenLeaders DC: When most people hear the term food security, they think the issue is having enough food. Is there more to this issue?
Tim Fox: Food security is partly about having enough food to avoid hunger, but there’s much more to it than that. There’s also aspects of politics, economics, social science, engineering, agricultural science, and increasingly climate science. It also depends on whether you look at it from a local community, national or an international level. From an individual and community level, it’s really about a route out of poverty. Historically, no group of people has ever successfully moved along the development path without connecting farmers to markets. Moving from subsistence farming to some sort of agricultural production system is a key vehicle for development. At the national level, food security is about guaranteeing the stability of the state and supporting development through things like infrastructure, transportation for food distribution, communications, and global participation. Internationally, it’s about reducing geopolitical tensions. If we have sustainable local food production and food imports, that leads to a more stable international system centered on global trade in food.
GreenLeaders DC: Food security is a very interdisciplinary issue. What are some of the other economic activities impacted by food production and distribution?
Tim Fox: Absolutely, food impacts many economic sectors. If you think beyond the direct need for food, there’s a much broader relationship between food, water, energy, and the land that have gone into food production. On top of that, because of this food-water-energy-land nexus, food wastage has a particular bearing. When food is wasted or lost in the food system, not only is the food not reducing hunger directly, but the water, energy and land – the natural capital that went into producing that food – is also wasted. So there are very strong connections between food security and water, energy, and land security.
GreenLeaders DC: You approach food security from the engineering perspective. What kind of challenges does this water-energy-land nexus pose for you?
Tim Fox: As engineers we’re consistently called upon to deliver ever-increasing amounts of water and energy in a sustainable way and to improve our land stewardship capabilities in a world of increased competition for natural resources. So as natural capital comes under increasing pressure and tensions emerge around that, engineering is under extreme pressure to deliver solutions not only for food, but also for other human endeavors.
GreenLeaders DC: We live in a globalized world where much of the food we buy is shipped from far away. To what extent does food security depend on transportation networks?
Tim Fox: What we’re talking about here is really the issue of resilience from the local all the way to the global scale. I think its important to recognize the reality that in the 21st Century we’re in a world that’s highly interconnected and we have globalized food production and distribution systems that are deeply embedded. These systems represent significant past and current investments in assets and transportation is a key component of that. Plus, connecting local farmers with market options both locally and internationally is very important to move communities along the development path, especially in emerging economies. The challenge is to do that without recreating a fossil fuel based infrastructure in the developing world. I think it’s crucial to do two things. First, there needs to be a transition in the developed world from the current fossil fuel hungry infrastructure. Second, we need to establish a sustainable and resilient infrastructure based on clean technologies in emerging markets from the beginning. With a clean tech approach those markets can “leap-frog” over the fossil fuel dependence stage.
GreenLeaders DC: Resilience is a hot topic in many developed country policy circles these days mainly due to impacts of severe weather. How does resilience play a role in emerging markets?
Tim Fox: Yes, and we really have a unique opportunity to improve global resilience at this point in time. The bulk of 21st Century population growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa and to some extent in Southeast Asia. Right now, many of those African countries do not have a fossil fuel based infrastructure in place. The opportunity exists to access clean technology, particularly in energy, in a way that achieves resilience by taking advantage of cost parity in an off-grid scenario. There is a need to retrofit some of the existing infrastructure, but the important thing is to ensure that future development is based on clean technologies. All of the technologies that would allow these economies to move forward on what I call a clean tech “leap frog” are in existence today. From a manufacturing and deployment perspective, many of these technologies have already reached cost parity with a fossil fuel based infrastructure, especially when you factor in issues like future competitive tensions around sources of diesel for example, translating into a risk of diesel shortages and higher costs. If you’re sitting right now in a sub-Saharan African village several hundred miles from the nearest energy infrastructure, and you need reliable energy for development, applying clean technologies around solar power makes a lot of sense. Putting that in place relative to bringing a centralized energy infrastructure to that location is much less of an environmental and commercial risk. The outcome is more resilience to power cuts and fuel shortages that are a severe burden on development.
GreenLeaders DC: In the United States, there’s a significant organic and local farming movement underway. What impact does small-scale farming have on issues like community resilience?
Tim Fox: To begin, it’s important to realize that a balance needs to be struck between building resilient communities around small-scale farms and enabling those farms to connect to trading opportunities in the global marketplace. What we really need is a holistic system that includes both dimensions. Ideally we’d have an efficient global system with many opportunities for trade along with resilient communities that can function independently when there are failures at the global trading level. So in the developed world, where communities can make a transition and make use of local food and energy sources, that helps build greater resilience through the system as a whole. It’s crucial to transition older communities and build new communities on the latest clean technologies. And it’s not just clean tech; social connectivity and communications technologies are also a large part of achieving that resilience.
GreenLeaders DC: You say that the technologies to establish a resilient, sustainable infrastructure already exist. What are the challenges to actually putting it in place?
Tim Fox: There are two things that are absolutely crucial. One is access to appropriate finance mechanisms. The second is empowering communities through land tenure. Ensuring that farmers have title to their land means that they have a stake in caring for it. They are incentivized to put sustainable stewardship practices in place. It basically means they have a long-term commitment. On the finance side, it’s crucial to put in place the financial and investment system that will enable communities to put a clean tech based physical infrastructure in place. The aid donors, development institutions, NGOs, and others have an important role to play here as intermediaries to help communities access and use these finance facilities. If we can successfully address those two challenges, it will have a very positive impact for all.
Head of Energy and Environment, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London, United Kingdom
Dr. Tim Fox is responsible for developing the Institution’s thinking on energy, environment and sustainability issues. His role also includes communicating this through thought-leadership reports, public speaking engagements, national and international press and broadcast media appearances and by providing input to government policy making both nationally and internationally. He was lead author on the Institution’s recent groundbreaking report “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not” which galvanized world attention on the issue of food waste and food loss across the supply chain from field to stomach. Tim has a wide range of research and engineering practice experience gained in many industrial sectors and has worked for commercial enterprises, government agencies and educational institutions in the UK, Australia, Canada and The Netherlands. He is a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Environmentalist as well as a Fellow of both the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Society of Arts.