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Passionist Life Why are we failing to feed the world?

Why are we failing to feed the world?

Passionists UK Why are we failing to feed the world?

Jan 26 2023, 10:31 AM

Read this article in the limited edition print version: order a copy here.

Photography by Saikiran Kesari

The world is facing its most devastating food crisis in decades; a crisis bound up with climate disruption and the corruption of our food systems. Passionists’ media coordinator Chris Donald explores the roots of the crisis, and why the Passionists are proud to support CAFOD’s ongoing work to resolve it.

With the noisy political tumult going on in the UK, you could be forgiven for missing the fact that the world is in its most devastating food crisis in 40 years. Over 800 million people globally are facing extreme hunger; the millions of children among that population are suffering from stunted development as a direct result. Twenty million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan are fighting for their very lives in severe drought. 

This is something far broader than our own ‘cost of living’ crisis at home. To attempt to understand it is to pick at the dense fabric of interwoven systems that comprise global, modern life — only to reveal a rather bare and unsettling picture underneath. This latest disaster is the culmination of at least two interconnected crises that have grown unchecked for far too long: the now all-pervasive climate crisis, and a corrupt global food system unfit for purpose.

The impact of the climate crisis

Make no mistake, this is a crisis that goes hand-in-hand with climate change. It is the climate crisis that has made rain unreliable in East Africa, leaving farmers with four years of failed rainy seasons. It is the resultant, unprecedented drought that has resulted in vast livestock deaths, mass crop failure and—simply, but devastatingly—a lack of water. Lurking beneath this is the fact that the industrial agriculture system causes about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the first place, and contributes hugely to deforestation, soil erosion, and the use of chemicals that damage ecosystems.

This is the sharp-end of climate injustice, soon to be the defining political and ethical issue of our times. As has been predicted, the populations contributing the least to the problems of global warming, are already suffering the most from its effects.

Why do the wicked prosper? Perhaps their indifference to their effect on others is exactly what allows them, for now, to prosper unfettered.

While we wonder what to make of it all, I often think of Jeremiah’s question: Why do the wicked prosper? It often seems like sin — “the breaking of friendship with God and with other human beings”, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it — has no consequences for the perpetrator; only for the world around them. Those prepared to shamelessly exploit others seem to “get away with it”, while we all suffer the lessening of life, a worsening of the world for everyone. Perhaps their indifference to their effect on others is exactly what allows them, for now, to prosper unfettered.

The eternal picture is different, as the Psalmist saw. But here we are, in this ever-escalating reckoning with reality. The sin of those who break friendship with the earth and its inhabitants, who pursue unfettered extraction against the limits of our ecosystem’s natural processes, threatens to swallow us all whole. The sins, for example, of the Exxon executives who—as we recently heard—predicted the climate roadmap of the last 50 years, and then forcefully stymied any move away from fossil fuels. The sins of the deluded Silicon Valley types preaching that we can profit our way out of the crisis by some new, untested technology. How do we escape this doom loop?

This is not to diminish our own culpability, by the way; although that guilt, too, is a narrative which is too often weaponised to obscure the very real intentionality, selfishness and foreknowledge of the powerful. We do share our part in it. But the point is, the consequences of this sin are being borne by the marginalised; we are all being diminished by it, and in fact the poorest find their very lives threatened. This is the critical failure of a corrupted system.

The corruption of industrial agriculture

You may well have heard the rising global population used as a scapegoat for our food system problems – but it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone – in fact, enough to feed the global population 1.5 times over. Where does it go?

Only a quarter of the calories produced by industrial agriculture go towards feeding people directly. The other 76% is either thrown into biofuels and livestock feed (incredibly inefficient processes in themselves), or simply wasted in the supply chain, lost during transportation, processing, or retail waste. And the one-quarter that actually reaches us only serves to feed 30% of the world’s population.

The rest of the world – 70% of it – is fed by small-scale farmers, peasants, and indigenous peoples. Despite having a fraction of the resources and investment, they outproduce industrial agriculture, safeguard the world’s biodiversity, and actually make good use of what they create. Small-scale agroecological farming and indigenous food systems, as IPES-Food states, are the most “comprehensive pathway towards food system sustainability”, giving off significantly less greenhouse gas emissions, and even working to sequester carbon in healthy ecosystems.

Despite having a fraction of the resources, small-scale farmers, peasants, and indigenous peoples outproduce industrial agriculture.

Yet the small-scale producers face a constant struggle that beggars belief: regularly harassed or arrested by agribusiness giants and governments, for asserting their right to the land—the right to grow food for their families. They are sued by corporations who take out patents on local seed varieties that communities have cultivated for millennia. They are coerced into selling land at unfair prices, or else pressured into unsustainable practices themselves.

Many, perhaps most farmers—at any level of the supply chain—don’t want to use practices like monocropping, or using toxic chemicals. They end up forced into these systems because industrial agriculture sells the inputs, and controls the trade, processing, manufacture, and retail. These systems ‘work’ for the corporations, because they are profitable in the short-term. They don’t ‘work’ for just about anyone else: not the farmers, not those in hunger, not the land itself.

The food system is not broken; it is built this way, to prioritise profit above—well, feeding people. It’s a story that is sounding all-too-familiar nowadays, isn’t it?

Supporting the communities who need it

We can’t avoid the fact that international aid is a thorny approach at best, carrying the danger of reinforcing existing power dynamics. As Christ-followers, we must honour the human dignity of the communities at the forefront of this struggle. As Passionists, we must act out God’s preferential option for those suffering food poverty and injustice. But they are not passive beneficiaries; they are the agents of change, the carriers of wisdom (who perhaps appear like fools to the agribusiness barons). 

Food sovereignty is the right goal; but right now, the food crisis is wreaking havoc. The number of people suffering acute food insecurity has more than doubled in the last two years: from 135 million in 53 countries, to 345 million in 82 countries. Free, no-strings, emergency relief for severely food insecure regions is a must for those of us who can remotely afford it.

Our Congregation’s position is that we share God’s ‘option for the poor’—for the ‘crucified of today’—and that we must use the resources we have for the common good, especially those who are suffering the most. And we also cannot hoard what we have for fear of imperfect results. Short-term work will save lives; medium-term work will help equip communities; but the long-term work will take a collective, participatory political will to change the system itself. 

It will require letting go of our own power, and learning how to use our privilege to transfer that power to others. That is part of the ‘vow of poverty’ Passionists take, modeling ourselves after Christ who “emptied Himself”—and we by no means embody that faultlessly. But we are glad to join with CAFOD as all of us learn (and unlearn) how to truly be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at the heart of the global food crisis—and we pray for the wisdom and humility to go even further.

To join us in supporting the CAFOD World Food Crisis Appeal, find out more here. To read more about understanding and changing the world food systems, we recommend @agrowingculture on Instagram, whose research helped in writing this piece.

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