The geopolitics of food: food safety,globalization and sustainability at the heart of the challenges

Conference

Conference “Geopolitics of food”

I have always been interested in geopolitics: to know what is behind the international policy, to understand the political, economic, or military strategies adopted by the different countries to respond to challenges and create alliances. In short: to know the different realities which makes our world a global network.

That is why I decided on friday May 16th to go to a conference about “the geopolitics of food” organized by the italian Istituto di Alti Studi in Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliarie. It made me understand once again that when we speak about geopolitics it does cover only the States political decisions but in a such global world the food also becomes an interconnected reality which has significant consequences on the global population and on what we eat.

Thus, the theme of food safety has been raised once again as a crucial issue for the world’s global balances. Moreover, speaking about Expo 2015 and its main theme “Feeding the planet, energy for life”, the issue of food globalization will certainly be one of the focus of the event. This issue will for instance be at the heart of the UN participation, which official theme for the Expo is “The Zero hunger challenge: United for a sustainable world”.

Enjoy the reading!

Laura

The geopolitical impact of food safety

Even if, over the past few years the number of people suffering from hunger has significantly decreased, there are still 840/900 million people who have not enough food to lead an healthy and active life (Source: FAO).

Food safety is nowaday an issue which deals with strong socio-economic impacts and has become one of the main stakes of the new international system. If we think about China, this is a country currently facing strong economic and social changes, particularly the affirmation of a middle class, and this will have strong consequences on the way to consume food. The same phenomenon is happening in Russia. These changes will modify the habits of people, and will lead both countries to adopt more and more industrialized products to be able to face the increasing demand of food, at affordable prices.

The globalization of food and its related risks

The globalization has always had consequences in terms of economy and on society. And over the past few years, the food chain globalized more and more. This globalization also covers the migration of communities from one country to another leadin to spreading their food culture. For instance a lot of ethnic restaurants have been created (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Ethiopian), and eating foreign food became normal. As for the Managing Director of the Ministry of Health, Borrello Silvio, that phenomenon changes our eating habits: we eat more exotic fruits, raw fish, soy bean. And we are importing and exporting food with countries having different culinary traditions.

According to him, even if there are many positive aspect in discovering foreign food, this globalization also exposes us to significant risks:  

  • Introduction of communicable disease to the animals (avian flu, mad cows)
  • Introduction of communicable disease to plants.
  • Introduction of chemical, biological dangers for human health related to the imported food.

As consequences, the need for controlling imported food is becoming more and more essential.

Also food is becoming global: the UE example

Food safety diagram

Food safety diagram

The big food crises that occurred in the past as the “mad cow” or the avian flu, have shown that the free circulation of food can have some dangerous effects. As a consequence to these crisis, a “White Paper on Food Safety” has been written by the European Commission in 2000, which aimed at developing a strategy to ensure a maximum level of food safety. This paper included more than 80 measures and actions to complete or modernize the European law regarding food, in order to guarantee more transparency to the consumers and increase the level of safety standards.

How to improve the food safety in a global system?

The participants pointed the fact that food safety should not be viewed as a constraint but as a value added and a guarantee of the product’s quality. In this prospect, it should be necessary to encourage the implementation of measures to reassure the consumers on the product they eat, particularly:

  • Communicate information about food safety
  • Approach the authorities to face the food emergencies
  • Make food system fairer and accessible for everyone

The Italian minister of Health stressed his key role in the promotion of food chain sustainability to convey a message about the issue of food safety  and allow contacts with exporting countries.

Sustainability and competitiveness in the agri-food sector 

Massimo Iannetta, Responsible of the technical unit « Sustainable development and innovation in the agri-food sector » within the ENEA  (Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development) showed how the problem of food resources scarcity has increased internationally.

He mentioned the case of marine resources that are used far beyond their capacity for renewal. Thus, according to him, the consumption patterns are changing from the use of vegetable proteins to the use of animal proteins which need more resources. The cultivable area has constantly been decreasing. China is currently buying fields in Africa to secure its own agricultural production. Moreover, according to him we are assisting to the “financialization” of agricultural commodities: prices are increasing in an unsustainable way and speculation is becoming a growing phenomenom.

Graphic showing the price increase of wheat, maize, rice and soya from 1960 with a forecast until 2050

Graphic showing the price increase of wheat, maize, rice and soya from 1960 with a forecast until 2050

For Iannetta we need to rethink our way to produce and consume food if we want the food chain to be sustainable in terms of:

  • Natural resources
  • Food choices (consumer choice: healthy food, sustainable diet…)
  • Energy resources

Proposals and suggestions to optimize the use of agricultural resources

Pyramid of sustainable consumption - ENEA

Pyramid of sustainable consumption – ENEA

For M.Iannetta, the increasing limitation of resources should lead us to adopt production techniques and consumption patterns more sustainable and less harmful to the environment. The main challenge is to product enough without exhausting the limited resources.

Massimo Lanneta presented a non-exhausting list of initiatives to pursue that goal :

  • Maintain the agricultural areas that we have instead of deforesting or looking for new land to cultivate.
  • Increase the production ensuring quality and safety, reducing competing use for non-food market, particularly the energy one (the energy production should not come from dedicated agricultural areas)
  • Manage the limited resources in an eco-friendly way, for instance adopting sustainable irrigation and drainage techniques (for example, the drop-by-drop irrigation technique), developing biotechnologies, using, reusing and/recycling waste, using renewable energies…
  • Adopt consumption patterns having less negative impacts on the environement and the health 
  • Reduce losses and wasting through cooperation (international agreement, partnerships…), research, innovation. For instance we should think to consume more not made up products.

In conclusion, he insited on the fact that according to him the fight against food waste is certainly the one that could be the more efficient solution.

Conclusion

There are so many solutions and alternatives existing for reducing food shortages and make the food geopolitics a proper tool to minimize negative impacts on society. Italy, by organizing the Expo 2015 on the theme : Feeding the world, energy for life and by having a strong experience on food issues could become one model country which offer innovating solutions to face those many challenges.

But, from my point of view we should first start to rethink our food habits at our personal level, this could be the first step to see how we can impact positively on the society!

Laura

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