Hunger is a growing pandemic. For decades, scientists, humanitarians and social activists have been looking for solutions to this complicated problem. In investigating how to get food to hungry people along with the burgeoning revolution in sustainable agriculture over the last few decades, there have been thoughts on the positive role sustainable agriculture can play in fighting global starvation.
[gibbonsorg]According to MSU Extension Specialist for Food and Farming Systems, Susan Smalley, there are three dimensions of sustainability. The first dimension is the environment, which would require that sustainable farms maintain practices that have little impact on or help the environment. The second is the economic aspect. Sustainable farms need to be profitable and use strategies to keep up profitability in the long run. The third dimension encompasses the social factors. Smalley described this dimension by saying, “For it to be sustainable socially, that’s where equity issues come in, we can’t use up all the resources we have.” Some important connections can be made between these aims and the crusade against the hunger and malnourishment that currently affects 963 million people worldwide.
When six million children under the age of 5 die every year from hunger, it’s clear it’s a pressing issue. Sustainable agriculture could make a difference because it develops long-term food security, which means ensuring a community has a safe and adequate food supply. In order to have food security, agriculture has to be managed so it has little negative impact on the environment. Some methods of doing that include crop rotation, which means the planned rotation of specific crops on the same field so as not to exhaust the land. This method provides soil arability for a longer time period. In the long-run, it would create more food resources and make food more readily available to people.
[bernsten]The second and third dimensions of sustainability are fairly simple in the way they relate to diminishing hunger. Professors Paul Thompson and Rick Bernsten agree that the root cause of hunger is poverty. Both Bernsten and Thompson are professors in the department of agriculture and food. “The long term problem is that people are hungry because they don’t have enough money to buy food on the market,” Bernsten said. Sustainability deals with providing farmers with efficient agricultural methods so that resources and money are not wasted. Moreover, using sustainable methods would provide impoverished farmers with more profit so that they would be able to better feed themselves and their families.
As far as the social aim is concerned, not using up all the earth’s resources would help prevent a catastrophic food crisis in the future caused by simply running out of food and depleting resources. The population of the earth currently lends to there being enough food for everyone, Thompson said. “We currently produce enough to provide everyone with a sufficient amount of calories, and we can do it for the next 60 to 100 years,” Thompson said. He also said that there is enough farm-able land, but producing enough food in the future could mean not preserving biodiversity or compromising huge protected areas.
Currently, the issue of hunger is less linked to population and more significantly connected with poverty. A term that is used often when talking about poverty is fair trade. Fair trade is a system that provides farmers in developing countries with a higher profit for their crops by taking out the middlemen between the farmer and the consumer. Consequentially, there is an increase in profit for the farmers. According to Bernsten, fair trade provides incentives for farmers in developing countries to grow crops more sustainably. In fact, part of the agreement in some fair trade business is that the farmer must abide by a certain set of sustainable rules.
[gibbonsorg2]Some of the advantages of fair trade products are that, along with eco-friendly certified products, they create a market for higher priced goods to be sold to people who are mindful of their environmental impact. With more profit, farmers who are impoverished could begin to lift themselves out of poverty and therefore out of hunger. MSU has taken several steps to get involved in the effort to alleviate world hunger through the fair trade initiative. Fair trade coffee is now a well-known commodity at Sparty’s coffeeshops on MSU’s campus.
There is also discussion regarding the sustainability of animal agriculture versus plant-only agriculture. This goes along with determining which practices are most sustainable. Once these are determined and used, they will be beneficial to aiding hunger.
In Bruce Friedrich’s article “Vegetarianism”, he argued that animal agriculture is not sustainable because of the thousands of pounds of edible grain that are cycled through cattle. By “cycled,” Friedrich implied that the grain was being wasted in beef production. According to some sources it takes more than three times the amount of grain to produce 1 lb of beef.
Consistent with Thompson’s views, if cattle are raised on an open range and the cattle industry is structured with some range-based production, the practice can be sustainable. Cattle can even be switched to a grain-based diet before slaughter to create better meat quality. However, he said that it is not ethical to cycle large amounts of grain and corn through cattle when it could be used to feed people. “The current agriculture system is not sustainable, but could provide sustainability and be consistent with animal welfare,” Thompson said.
[widders]Smalley and Bernsten went into further detail on the argument of plant-only agriculture. “[The argument for plant-only agricultural] assumes that if there was less meat consumption grain to feed cattle could feed people,” Bernsten said. The problem with this, Bernsten said, is that if agriculture was less dependent on corn, then the price would decrease, causing farmers to produce less. Smalley brought up that a shift toward a more plant-based agricultural diet would be beneficial to sustainability or relieving world hunger. The conclusion to the argument seems to be that moving toward more plant agriculture and a more plant-based diet would be beneficial to sustainability, but a complete switch is not necessary for our planet to survive.
When looking for solutions to world hunger, the issue of population comes up often, but perhaps in the future the discussion will shift instead to how our food is grown. MSU is already doing this with food research programs in developing countries, especially in Africa. The Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Program, which works in Rwanda, Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania, focuses on growing healthier types of beans in those countries. The goal is to work alongside African scientific institutions and provide them with the know-how to take over one day and to sustainably grow their own beans that can prevent diseases like type II diabetes and colon cancer. “We have a research capacity that these countries don’t have,” said Irv Widders, a professor of horticulture who leads the group. “The opportunity to receive collaborative work really helps those institutions to bring to bear the latest technology to address these challenges.”