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Food Security Vs. the Environment: Why is there a conflict?

So, I fell off the blogging bandwagon for a bit, but a recent conversation has prompted me to speak up.

The other day I interviewed a food security nonprofit working with subsistence farmers in Africa and they don’t have any measures for environmental impact.They insist that they are first and foremost an anti-hunger organization, but I think if your goal is to help farmers increase their yield, you have to ensure that their land is viable for the coming years.

Over and over again I’ve heard someone working in food security/international development minimize environmental goals. I’m always disturbed by this because both food security and environmental sustainability are incredibly important to me. I hate that there seems be a perceived conflict of interest. To me, environmental sustainability (erosion control, water conservation, building soil quality, etc.) fits hand-in-hand with food security.

There seems to be this impression that caring for the environment is a luxury that only the upper-class or rich countries can afford . But, in my opinion if you are a rural farmer or fisherman, you are even more dependent on your environment and you have an even greater incentive to adopt environmentally sustainable methods.

I don’t know why principles of agroecology are not more widely implemented in organizations helping small-scale farmers. Agroecology is all about minimizing inputs and labor. Numerous studies have shown they’re effective in increasing crop yields. Are food security folks not aware of its benefits? Or are they skeptical? Is big agro-business pawning their seeds and fertilizers to blame for this skepticism?

Give a man a fish…

If you give me a fish, you feed me for a day.

If you teach me to fish, you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development.

 But, if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenge, I can join together with my peers…

 And we will fashion our own solution.

~Barefoot Guide to Working with Organizations and Social Change, Vol 1

There is so much that I love about this quote that I discovered in class today. First, it cleverly plays with the all too common, and now cliché, expression “Give a man a fish, he’s fed for a day. Teach him how to fish…”

Second, it touches on sustainable development. Much of traditional development theory assumes that a developing nation simply needs….well… more development. More infrastructure, more roads, more business, more factories, more industrialized agriculture, more efficient use of its natural resources. This quote begins to touch on the idea that rampant development is not the answer. Development needs to be done sustainably or you end up with polluted waterways and a citizenry plagued by inequality.

We’re talking about creating change that will last not just this lifetime, but lifetimes to come. Ultimately, sustainable development needs to be about meeting the needs of this generation, without jeopardizing the needs of future generations. This is a concept that people working in the environmental field have internalized, but, after a week and half in DPMI, I’ve definitely noticed that environmental sustainability is all too often just an afterthought for those working in the field of international development.

This is a major problem because communities–all around the world, but most especially in developing countries—rely on their natural resources. People don’t live in a vacuum. I’m sure this will come up again, but simply put, in my opinion: in order for a project to be truly sustainable, it absolutely has to be environmentally sustainable.

Third, I like the above quote because it is focused on building human capital.

Fourth, it’s not only about teaching technical skills, but about fostering social change. I’ve met farming families in rural Honduras, indigenous political prisoners in Chile, and cattle ranchers on Lopez Island off the coast of Washington state. They know about farming and ranching and laws and policies with a depth that would take me a lifetime to understand. I’m not going to help them by coming up with new practices, because chances are they’ve already thought of them. This leads into the final reason why I like this quote.

This quote is about empowering people so that they can discover their own solutions. I’m reminded of a visit to Paicines Ranch with Professor Jeffrey Langholz a couple months ago. The owner described her frustration with government regulations. She described how regulations meant to protect rivers actually led to actions that did more harm. She summed up by saying, “Tell us how you want the river to look like and we’ll get it there.” That’s a message I wish policymakers took to heart: Work with people to set goals and then let them implement.