Food Security and Agricultural Sustainability

Following a recent public presentation at the University of South Dakota, a student asked if I would be willing to provide some additional information to help her in a series of upcoming debates dealing with “food insecurity.” After she reviewed a paper I had written on The Economics of Hunger, she asked if I would be willing to answer some follow-up questions. She said she found my answers informative and beneficial and agreed to share her questions and my answers on my blog – hoping to be useful to others as well.

First a request: Describe your transition from being a supporter of the current agricultural model to advocating for sustainability.


All of my formal education was oriented toward increasing the economic efficiency of farming so we could bring down costs of production and make good food affordable and accessible to everyone – so we could provide food security. After I received my Ph.D. in agriculture economics, I focused my own research and educational programs on agricultural productivity and economic efficiency. I told farmers they needed to farm for the “economic bottom line” and be prepared to either “get big or get out” because only the most efficient farmers were going to be able to compete in providing food security. At first, I didn’t consider or appreciate the importance of the negative social impacts of economic competition, which essentially meant “driving” farmers out of business.


I became painfully aware of this oversight during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s. Farm foreclosures and bankruptcies were regular fare on network TV news shows during the ’80s, and farmers all across the country were committing suicide because they were losing their farms. Also, I saw it was mostly the so-called “good farmers” who had the greatest difficulties– the farmers who had followed our expert advice and had gotten big rather than getting out of farming. I realized there was something fundamentally wrong with simply focusing on the economic bottom line. I then began to realize the negative economic and social impacts on rural communities of losing family farms and farm families. Rural communities were withering and dying all across farming areas. I then begin to see that this industrial model of agriculture was polluting the environment with agricultural chemicals and destroying the productivity of the soil by farming fence-row-to-fence-row and even tearing out the fence rows and windbreaks.


I had always justified the negative impacts of industrial agriculture as being necessary to provide food security. Only later, did I realize that industrial agriculture had failed in this most fundamental purpose. A larger percentage of Americans are hungry or food insecure today than back in the 1960s before the latest phase of agricultural industrialization began. Since the late 1980s, I have been trying to help farmers who want to farm sustainably – which means providing food security for all in the present without diminishing opportunities for food security for those of future generations.


Question: How do we gain public recognition for the issue of food insecurity?

First, we need to challenge the current massive corporate propaganda campaign of the agricultural establishment which touts the fact that Americans spend a smaller percentage of their incomes on food than any other country in the world – and that we have the safest, most healthful food system in the world. The fact that the “average consumer” spends less of their income on food doesn’t mean that people with low incomes – the people who are food insecure – have enough money to meet their basic food needs.


People in the U.S. are hungry because there are poor and making food cheaper does not have enough effect on their spendable income to affect their food security. In other words, even if food is a bit cheaper, there are still other necessities – such as rent, fuel for heat, clothes, and school supplies – that compete for any dollars they might save at the grocery store. More important, leaving food security to the marketplace – to cheap food – means that many people in low-income areas do not have access to cheap food because supermarkets don’t find it profitable to locate in these so-called food deserts. Low-income people often end up buying highly processed foods at convenience stores because fresh foods aren’t accessible to them – which leads to health problems as well as higher food costs. In addition, even the cheapest foods in supermarkets are often foods that make people unhealthy rather than healthy and diminish their food security even further.

In summary, we need to make people aware that industrial agriculture has failed to provide food security – the statistics are readily available to document this fact. Then we need to start talking about alternative ways of actually providing food security for all, rather than continuing to promote the fallacy of “compassionate markets” by trying to make food cheaper.   


Question: Do stereotypes about hunger influence food security?

Yes! The subtle, and often not so subtle, message of the agri-corporate propaganda campaign – and the entire neo-conservative movement – is that if people are hungry it is their own fault. We can see this clearly in recent cuts in “food stamps” and other food assistance and welfare programs in the face of growing unemployment and poverty. We are led to believe that food assistance programs are disincentives for people to get a job so they could buy food for themselves and their children rather than rely on welfare. In other words, if people are hungry, it’s their own fault; and if kids are hungry, it’s their parent’s fault. In any case, it is not society’s responsibility to do anything more than give people an opportunity to work — if they can find a job.


Most people don’t have a clue regarding the circumstances that many poor people are in today, particularly the children that are born into dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities with little hope for escape. Most of the so-called “self-made men” who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps did so with the help of supportive families and communities during times when the whole of society was dedicated to helping these self-made men succeed. Under those circumstances, hard work was enough, but that is no longer the case for many today. I hope Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Care of our Common Home will awaken some people to the plight of the poor and hungry people of the U.S. and the world.


Question: How can sustainable food practices make greater food security?


It is not “sustainable food practices” but rather “sustainable food principles” that will lead to greater food security. The basic mission or purpose of a sustainable food system is “to meet the food needs of all, meaning everyone, of current generations without diminishing opportunities for those of future generations to meet the food needs of all as well.” At the most fundamental or philosophical level, sustainability does not rely on markets or economics to ensure sustainability or food security. A sustainable agriculture must be socially responsible as well as ecologically sound, and economically viable. Thus, a sustainable agriculture doesn’t depend on making organic, local, or sustainably produced foods cheap, but instead on making sure that everyone is able to meet their basic food needs with “good, sustainably produced food.” Organic, local, and other sustainably produced foods will be more affordable in the future than they are today, but food security is ultimately a “public responsibility” that must be met by people working together for the “common good” – including through government – to ensure food security for all.  


Question: Can you think of any successful illustrations of people using sustainable practices to ensure food security?


The best illustrations of using sustainable practices to ensure food security today are largely in urban areas – where the lack of food security is most concentrated if not most common. You can check out any number of websites for urban farming or urban agriculture and you will almost invariably find a stated commitment to the mission of providing food security. The best illustration of which I am personally aware is Growing Power in Milwaukee and Chicago. I suggest you also Google “images of urban agriculture” just to get an idea of all of the things that are going on in this area. If you click on many of the photos, they are linked to websites of organizations working for urban food security. Obviously, some of the images are of more gentrified areas but many if not most are of people working in low-income, food-insecure areas of cities.


I hope my answers will be of some help to you. I wish you the very best in your debate and in life. 


John Ikerd