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Food Security, Law and Globalization: Part One

JURIST Columnist Volha Samasiuk holds an LL.M. from the University of Arkansas School of Law and she was formerly a legal consultant for the Belarus Food Safety Improvement Project. In the first entry of a two-part series, Samasiuk discusses the importance of food sustainability with the ever-increasing world population...

Statisticians project [PDF] that the world's population will grow from almost 7 billion to over 9 billion in 2050. Accordingly, food production will have to increase between 70 and 100 percent by 2050 to feed this growing population.

While concern about the prospects of feeding the future population is rising, it seems that the world cannot even manage to feed its current population; there are still one billion hungry worldwide. Almost all of the world's undernourished live below the poverty level of $1 a day in developing countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region and sub-Saharan Africa.

But surprisingly — given these statistics — humanity already produces enough food to feed itself. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that the world can provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day, several hundred more than the 2,100 calories that most adults are thought to need. Farmers are already producing much more than required — twice as much as the minimum nutritional needs. So, why worry about producing more food in the next four decades?

There are three main reasons for concern. One is food prices. The increase in prices during the 2007 and 2008 food crisis, and the recent food price spikes in 2011, have exposed the existence of serious threats to the sustainability of the global food system and its capacity to provide adequate and affordable access to food. The sudden price fluctuation harms farmers because they are left not knowing how and where to invest and, undoubtedly, consumers, especially the poor, risk suddenly being unable to afford basic food.

The second reason for concern is food distribution. There is enough food, but it is not where it needs to be. And pushing up supplies may be easier than solving the distribution problems. An increasing proportion of the population is living in cities, and they tend to eat more food, especially processed foods, than their country cousins. They also tend to be richer and able to afford more expensive food, such as meat. Thus, the food production and distribution systems are concentrated around urban centers rather than rural areas.

The last — but hardly least — reason to worry about producing more food in the future is climate change, of which agriculture is both the cause and the victim. Climate change is threatening farmers' ability to produce enough food to meet the growing demands. Adverse weather conditions in 2005 and 2006, including drought in Australia, resulted in poor harvests. Similarly, harmful climatic phenomena in the Russian Federation and Ukraine, particularly last year's heat waves, are thought to be the main drivers behind the most recent international price spikes.

Recent developments call for sustainable food security for us and our children. The connection between these terms — food security and sustainability — is evident.

Food security means the availability of and access to adequate amounts of foods by all people at all times. Sustainability, in simple terms, is the capacity to endure. This concept has emerged as a result of significant concerns about the unintended social, environmental and economic consequences of rapid population and economic growth and increased consumption of natural resources. Thus, sustainable food security means the availability of and access to food in the present and in the future, and, at the same time, it requires us to sustain food systems that are healthy and renewable in social, environmental and economic terms.

In regards to food security, where does the law emanate from? It seems that the law of food security is everywhere. First of all, it is in the basic right to food as vested under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Moreover, all three dimensions, or "three pillars," of sustainability in general, and sustainable food security in particular, cannot function properly without law.

For instance, environmental policy objectives are achieved primarily through environmental laws; they would otherwise not be achieved given the absence or poor functioning of markets. Social issues also can be solved through the law (birth control regulations, etc.). And, finally, economic relations, classically formed under the influence of the market, need legal regulation to achieve the aims of sustainability (e.g., free trade effectiveness for developing countries).

Because food is so important, agriculture, more than any other form of economic activity, is expected to achieve a series of competing and overlapping goals. Land, water and fertilizer are three basic components of farming and all three are impacted by land degradation, which is one of the greatest environmental challenges worldwide. It not only endangers global food security, but it can also destabilize societies and increase poverty. Land degradation has negative effects on climate, biodiversity, water ecosystems, landscape and other ecosystem services.

For example, Africa has some of the most exhausted soils in the world with less than one percent of organic matter present in them — half the level required for good fertility. However, global land potential is not yet exhausted. World Bank experts say the world has 500 million hectares of land with fewer than 25 people per square kilometer living on them (this excludes deserts, forests, rainforests and the Antarctic). If all that land could be exploited for agricultural purposes, it would represent an increase of one-third.

At the moment, water is probably agriculture's critical limiting factor. Water problems will worsen both because irrigated areas will suffer from the effects of climate change and because diets are shifting towards meat, which is "thirsty". Roughly one-third of the water used in fields is considered to be "wasted." But, overall efficiency gains in the use of water could be large. For example, Israel wastes only approximately one-tenth of its water — if everyone was equally efficient the world's water problem would be much less pressing .

Agriculture's third basic input is fertilizer. Its invention paved the way for the huge increase in food production in the twentieth century. Increased use of fertilizer has improved yields in some countries, but it also can be counterproductive in others (e.g., the "dead zone" in the northern Gulf of Mexico is largely caused through the overuse of fertilizer in the fields of the American Midwest). Additionally, fertilizer prices spiked even more dramatically than food prices in 2007 and 2008. So, globally there is little prospect of a big rise in yields because of its expense.

Volha Samasiuk holds a Diploma and a Doctor of Philosophy in Law from the Belarusian State University. She was an Associate Professor of law at the Belarusian State University, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law and a Curriculum Research Fellow at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

Suggested citation: Volha Samasiuk, Food Security, Law and Globalization: Part One, JURIST - Dateline, July 4, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/07/volha-samasiuk-food-security-one.php.

This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Hand, an associate editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at studentcommentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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