Presentations and Discussion in the Food Resilience Sessions at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences Annual Conference (2013)

  • Edited by: Gerald Marten
  • Transcription from session voice recordings: Regina Gregory
  • Posted: December 2013

A year ago a "food resilience" working group was organized in the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) to explore and frame food resilience – the capacity to prevent or deal with possible crises in food supply – in a way that points to what environmental scientists and teachers can do through research, education, community action, or other means to help make the North American food system more resilient. The working group’s first "product" was three sessions on food resilience at the annual AESS conference in Pittsburgh last June. The document below is a complete record of the presentations and discussions in those sessions. A downloadable pdf file provides the full presentations along with the PowerPoint slides for every presentation and a record of discussion.

This webpage provides:

Presentation Panel: American food security – Improving the resilience of our food supply

Panel description. The resilience of our food system is declining as global demand for food approaches limits for sustainable production. The risk of collapse – whether due to failure in production or failure in distribution, whether on a local scale or a larger (possibly global) scale, and whether for a short period or a long period – is of genuine concern. Cities are particularly dependent and vulnerable. Decline in food storage throughout the system has eroded the capacity to buffer perturbations such as large-scale crop failure or an influenza pandemic. It’s difficult to get a clear grip on this topic because the food system is so complex, and failure could take forms never seen before. It’s easy for wishful thinking to prevail, but the stakes are high. This session will address the following questions:

Session one: Conceptual framework and historical perspective

Session two: Specific lines of risk and case studies of risk amelioration

Session three: Where do we go from here?

This discussion symposium session is a follow-up on the two Presentation Panels on food security during the previous days. The focus for this session is on planning for an AESS working group whose mission is defined by the questions listed above. Working group products will include contributions to the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences and proposals for action to address the food resilience issue.

The last part of this session features a question-and-answer period with agroecologist
Steve Gliessman (University of California, Santa Cruz), who attended the conference to receive an AESS Lifetime Achievement Award.

Gerry Marten – An overview of American food resilience

ABSTRACT. Unexpected failures in food production or distribution could conceivably be so severe or long-lasting that they disrupt the food supply. What are the risks and how serious are they? What can be done to reduce the risks or cope with failures if they occur? This presentation will offer a preliminary examination of these questions, along with a resilience perspective that could help to explore the questions in greater depth. It will explore briefly what is already happening in government, civil society, and the private sector and what environmental professionals can do to help deal with this issue.

Late last year a working group of AESS members was formed to address the food resilience issue. Difficult-to-predict disturbances such as large-scale crop failure, influenza pandemic, or energy crisis could conceivably disrupt food production or distribution severely enough to set in motion a breakdown in food supply leading to hunger or even starvation. Cities are particularly dependent and vulnerable. It’s difficult to get a clear grip on the risks, because the food system is overwhelmingly massive and complex, and failure could take forms never seen before, but the stakes are high. The working group chose to place its initial focus on the United States because the prospect of food crisis in the United States has received relatively little attention. The bounty of food in America could be deceptive.

Food resilience is related to food security, but the two are not identical. Food security is broader. Food security is about everyone’s access to adequate food for a healthy life. Social justice is important. Food resilience is about one aspect of food security – the ability to withstand disturbances that could lead to a failure in food supply.

I think of food resilience from an "EcoTipping Points" perspective. The website features success stories from around the world about turning environmental and social decline to a course of restoration. It shows how vicious cycles drive decline and offers lessons from the stories about what it takes to leverage a turnabout from decline to restoration. America’s capacity to withstand disturbances that could disrupt its food supply may have declined substantially in recent decades. The challenge is to restore that capacity.

I want to use the story of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina to show what I mean by resilience. In August 2005, Katrina transformed half the city of New Orleans into a ghost town in a single day. I lived in New Orleans before Katrina. The house in which I lived is still an empty shell eight years after the hurricane, and so are most of the houses for miles around it. There is still not a single supermarket, shopping mall, or other substantial retail outlet in an area extending for miles. I know that right up until Katrina, the main thing that hurricanes meant to people in New Orleans was hurricane parties. How could they be so mistaken about the risks? What went wrong? The New Orleans story is about gradual decline in resilience that led to sudden disaster.

New Orleans was able to withstand numerous hurricanes during its earlier history because until the middle of the Twentieth Century houses were built only on high ground where flooding was unlikely. If there was any risk of flooding, the houses were built well above the ground so flood water would pass underneath. New Orleans was also protected from storm surges by miles of wetland between the ocean and the city. There had been powerful hurricanes every ten to twenty years, but no lasting damage. The city always recovered quickly. [Demonstration by tilting a cereal box to show that it tips over (i.e., "collapses’) only when pushed past a threshold. If the disturbance is relaxed short of that threshold, the box returns to its original position (i.e., "recovers"). This is resilience.]

Vulnerability to hurricanes gradually increased during the last half of the Twentieth Century because people had a false sense of security from the flood-control levees. Like so much of America, New Orleans embarked on rapid suburban expansion. Subdivisions were built on low-lying, floodable ground, and houses were built right on the ground. Even a few feet of floodwater could make it necessary to rip out all the walls, ruined by mold. At the same time, the levees were gradually deteriorating, no longer providing the absolute protection that everyone assumed was there. And most important was deterioration of the wetlands that protected the city from coastal storm surges. In fact, as a consequence of changes in wetland ecology brought on by levees, Louisiana has been losing a football field of coastal wetland every ten minutes for the past fifty years. [Demonstration using a cereal box with a much narrower base than the first box, showing that it’s much easier to tip over the box. The second box represents greater vulnerability to the same disturbance as before (i.e., a loss of resilience).]

The working group is framing the food resilience issue by addressing four key questions:

With regard to the first question above, it’s easy to list sources of risk:

The food crisis of 2007-2008 provides an example of how food supply can fail under contemporary conditions. The prices of food commodities (e.g., wheat, rice, corn, and soy) doubled during 2007-2008, causing food riots in approximately 60 nations. The prices have stayed high since then. How did this happen? The initial price increase in 2007 was triggered by (1) poor harvests in Europe and Australia (due to drought) and (2) diversion of grains to biofuel production. At the same time, an increase in the price of petroleum added to transport costs and ultimately the cost of food. In response to international food price increases, some of the key grain-exporting nations restricted exports to protect their domestic food prices and food supplies. The diminishing food supply on the international market drove up international food prices even more, creating a vicious cycle that caused food-exporting nations to further restrict exports. Additionally, the increase in food price was accelerated by a low "stock-flow ratio" (i.e., low wholesale food storage). On top of this, the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007, and recession that followed, reduced international credit, reducing the ability of nations with food shortages to buy food from abroad. The recession also created unemployment that undermined the ability of consumers to purchase food. Then commodity futures trading came into the picture. The recession led to a decline in the U.S. dollar, which led investors to shift from conventional investments (e.g., stocks) to commodities (including food commodities), leading to a stimulation of higher food prices, and a vicious cycle in which investors were further attracted to food futures, driving food prices even higher.

Turning to the second working-group question above, here are some very preliminary takes on leverage points for improving resilience. While it makes sense to address identifiable sources of risk, reducing those risks wherever possible, this strategy also has some conspicuous limitations. Many sources of risk (e.g., multinational corporations controlling food supply chains and food commodity markets) are too massive, complicated, and powerful to realistically expect much scope for leveraging change. Moreover, because failure could occur for reasons that we haven’t even thought of, it’s important to think of strategies that can apply across a broad spectrum, regardless of the source of breakdown. Food storage is a prime candidate for improving resilience because it can fill the gap for just about any failure in food supply. While far from easy, food storage may be more amenable to change than many other interventions that come to mind. Social safety nets could also have a role, and reduction in dysfunctional social complexity may be absolutely essential for improving resilience. While substantial changes in social safety nets and social complexity could be impossibly difficult in many ways, there may be some possibilities at the local level. In general, local autonomy and self sufficiency seem to offer the most promise for improving resilience because a relatively small number of people can do what makes sense regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Turning to the third question above, what’s currently happening? The attention of academics and nonprofit organizations such as the United Nations, WorldWatch Institute, and Earth Policy Institute is directed primarily toward chronic food problems in poor countries. In the U.S., the focus is also on chronic problems such as social justice, nutritional quality, and health consequences such as obesity. While this is not the central focus of food resilience, the misfortunes of disadvantaged people can be relevant as "canaries in a coal mine" for what could someday happen to the rest of us.

I’ve begun to survey perceptions and activities of government agencies. The U.S. government has been concerned primarily with natural disasters and threats of terrorism rather than intrinsic vulnerabilities in the food system. So far, my progress in discovering further-reaching connections of government to food resilience has been limited. It has been difficult to get through to people who are both knowledgeable and willing to speak about it candidly. The common reaction is "Somebody else may be dealing with it."

Investigating ongoing preparedness for natural disasters (including "mass feeding") could be a way to learn about the existing role of government, nonprofit organizations, and private-sector food providers in food resilience. However, disaster preparedness plans are often official documents not available for public distribution, and the plans that I’ve managed to see contain little concrete detail about what will actually happen. They mainly list what agency will be responsible for what, without describing concretely how it will be done or requiring designated agencies to actually make the preparations to do it.

I’ve learned the most from several people in Hawaii State Civil Defense, who have told me about disaster preparation from their perspective. Hawaii is an extreme case because of its isolation, but the isolation and dependence of cities everywhere may in fact be similar. During a disaster, government in Hawaii is responsible for transporting food from wherever it’s available (e.g., grocery stores, warehouses, harbor, or airport) to places such as shelters if conventional transport breaks down. However, government is not responsible for the supply of food, whether the mass-feeding requirement is relatively short-term (e.g., after a hurricane) or long-term (e.g., during an influenza pandemic). The supply of food in any disaster will be whatever the private sector provides.

How about food storage in Hawaii? Assuming a worst case such as a direct hit by a severe hurricane, most of Oahu’s one million inhabitants could be homeless and in need of food for a month. Assuming just one meal per person per day, as many as 30 million meals could be needed for the entire period. FEMA has 35,000 MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) in warehouse storage on Oahu – a token quantity. The quantity of "on the shelf" storage in grocery stores and their warehouses is estimated to be enough for five days, though much of it may not be in a form that is easily consumed and much of it may be lost because warehouses are located near the harbor and are therefore subject to storm-surge damage. Food will also be lost due to lack of refrigeration. (Electrical power could take 6-12 months to restore fully.) Military food storage is not for civilians, though the airport and harbor should be functioning within a week after a hurricane, when the military could fly in a limited quantity of food. Military food assistance by sea could be forthcoming in about two weeks.

Turning to the last question above, what can environmental professionals do? One approach is to ask practitioners what they need. I asked Hawaii Civil Defense, and they told me that for anyone asking this question their most important need is to get more people to store more food for emergencies. Civil Defense advises the public to store a week’s supply of food and water that they can take with them to a shelter on very short notice, but it’s not really happening.

There are myriad other ways that environmental professionals can help. For example, they can help to make sense of the food system’s overwhelming complexity. Network analysis could help to provide some insights. How does the spread of failure through a system depend on system structure? Is a modular structure more resilient than the highly connected structure so characteristic of our national and globalized food system? Environmental professionals can also help to put food resilience issues into relief by showing how apparently separate issues are connected through the food system and how they connect to drivers of vulnerability. Consider, for example, the issue of expanding export of dairy products from California to China, which is expected to multiply it’s consumption of dairy products as much as 20-fold during the next fifteen years. California dairy farmers want to respond to this expanding market. However, they will no longer be feeding soy meal to their cows because the price of soy has tripled in the past few years, so they are turning to locally grown alfalfa, which requires a lot of irrigation water. This raises the issue of whether so much of California’s precious water should be passed to China in the form of dairy exports, or used in some other way to serve local needs.

These are only a few examples. There are hundreds of ways that environmental professionals can help to clarify issues and step into key domains of the action arena to enhance American food resilience. Presentations in the food resilience sessions at this conference will begin to lay a foundation for sketching out some of those possibilities.

Alesia Maltz – The Dismantling and Reconstruction of the Food System: Lessons of Food Resilience from Two World Wars

ABSTRACT. "Plant a Victory Garden: Our Food is Fighting" is a well-known slogan from the Victory Garden posters of World War I. That slogan was taken quite literally by the US, German and British military, who developed strategic plans to win the war by restricting access to food and destroying the civilian food system. The British government organized a naval blockade to import food for its citizens and restrict food and supplies to German and Austria Hungary. People barely survived on less than 1,000 calories a day, and by the end of the war, there was widespread famine in Germany and Austria. The food blockade was maintained for eight months after the war. It is estimated that three quarters of a million German people died from malnutrition and starvation. Germany’s vulnerability lead to long-term fears of food insecurity had dramatic implications for the German people and the rest of the world. Historians are radically reinterpreting the cause of the Second World War in terms of the collapse of the food system in WWI, focusing on the role that the German famine of WWI played in Hitler's plans to invade rural area in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The urgency of feeding urban populations in war led to invasion of agricultural populations around the world. The food policies emerging after World War II established a food system that has long-term influence today. This paper investigates food justice in the World Wars to examine how food systems are destroyed or maintained under threat of collapse and how they are reconstructed.

Bryan McDonald – Growing a Global Food System: Agriculture, Environment and Power in America, 1945-1995

ABSTRACT. The American food system––a complex network that links farm to fork––underwent substantial changes in the latter half of the twentieth century. The years after 1945 saw unprecedented increases in the productivity of American agriculture and the amount of food available to Americans. These gains helped strengthen the economy and improve health at home while also solidifying America’s power and prominence in global trade and world affairs. But there were also downsides to the strategy. For example, productivity gains led to increased dependence on synthetic chemical inputs and non-renewable resources like fossil fuels as well as not easily renewable resources like topsoil and fossil water. While a cluster of developments in science and technology––from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to new breeds of plants and animals––were crucial preconditions for changes, equally as important were the efforts by American politicians, scientists and philanthropists to examine how they might explicitly shape the politics of peace and security by linking the nations of the world into a global food system that would promote prosperity and stability. Using changes in the ways food was grown, processed and sold, this paper explores how food was strategically deployed by the U.S. to promote peace and stability at home and around the world. Conversely, food also became a central element of alternative modernization strategies that arose in response to intensification efforts, as Americans sought to craft food systems they felt were more sensitive to goals including social and environmental aims. This paper examines the 20th century origins of the increasingly complex global network of food systems and argues that efforts to achieve key 21st century food security goals, including maintaining productivity and improving environmental sustainability, will be enhanced through better understanding of the key people and moments in the origins of the global food system.

Peter Jacques – Global Fishery Collapse: Theory and Potential Variables

ABSTRACT. Around the world fisheries are being stressed through a host of disturbances, not least of which is fishing, which substantially increased in the post-war period compared to prior human experience through history. Single-species stocks have collapsed in the past, but is it possible, even if improbable, that there could be a systematic collapse of global fisheries?  The first part of this paper asks whether or not global fisheries could be described accurately as a panarchy of subsidiary adaptive systems in which global fisheries the highest level and scale, or if fisheries are disparate populations that cannot accurately be described as making up a coherent system through a series of tele-connections and interdependencies.   If global fisheries can be described as the highest scale in fishery systems, then we should be able to analyze the potential of global collapse according to the adaptive cycle.  If we cannot show the mechanisms and relationships that would indicate a global system, what would be highest level in fishery systems and what are the conditions of these varied levels?  To advance thinking in these terms, the paper analyzes relevant variables, such as habitat changes in the World Ocean System, important to global fisheries to get an indication of directions, as well as historical collapses to understand and potentially build a social-ecological model of global fishery collapse. While US food security does not hinge on the health of global fisheries, fisheries are additive to the portfolio of foods that US consumers rely upon, particularly for protein and micro-nutrients.

Mohammed F. Rabbi – Perspectives on Global Climate Change and Food Security

ABSTRACT. Global climate change has the potential to negatively impact the resilience of world food supplies during the next several decades. There are numerous uncertainties on the impact of climate change at local and regional levels. For example drier conditions will prevail in Southern Africa, Australia, the Mediterranean, and Western North America. Climate change will also affect glacial and snow melt in the water towers of the Himalayan region with potential effects on downstream hydrology. Dramatic changes can be expected in water supplies, agricultural productivity, and access to food in many regions. The poor and other vulnerable groups in both rural and urban areas are likely to be at high risk to food insecurity in the affected regions. While 650 million of the most vulnerable people live in the arid and semi-arid regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, no region of the world, including North America, is free of the risk of disruption in its food supply. Lack of sustainability in food production is a key threat to food resilience. In this presentation, the linkages between potential impacts of global climate changes on food systems will be examined, and broader agricultural and adaptive strategies for food security will be addressed.

Krystyna Stave – Thinking in Systems Terms about Food Security

ABSTRACT. Food security, sustained access to sufficient and safe nutrition for all people, depends on a complex web of interconnections.  What we eat is a product of the sun, water, and soil, mediated by social and economic systems and moved around by energy, via transportation infrastructure.  Disturbances in any part of the system can affect all the rest.  Fundamental systems concepts such as stocks, flows, and feedback help us organize what we know about the food system and identify points of vulnerability and leverage within the system.  This talk presents a conceptual system dynamics model of the food system and uses it to examine risks in the face of uncertainty in different parts of the system.  The model helps identify important reinforcing and balancing feedback loops that push the system toward or away from security, as well as key stocks that help the system buffer unexpected shocks.  How can a systems approach help us understand the issue of food resilience? How can we understand in a complex system where the vulnerabilities are, where the risks are, and where the leverage points for making it less vulnerable and more stable, where those might be. My training is in systems dynamics thinking. So what I am presenting here is a methodological overview of how we might use a systems approach to help us think about food resilience.

Brian Thomas – The Social Distribution of Risk in Conventional and Alternative Food Systems

ABSTRACT. Over two decades ago, Ulrich Beck suggested that modern society is defined by the distribution and allocation of risk.  In this presentation I will discuss the differential distribution of risk in conventional and alternative food systems in the United States.  In particular, I will highlight how conventional food systems often concentrate risk in small number of places and often place disproportionate amounts of risk upon disadvantaged populations.  This is evident in the allocation of control in production, such as the case with chicken production in the United States, where chicken farmers must take on the risk of environmental problems and disease.  This is also the case with consumption where risks associated with both acute and chronic disease are often disproportionately impacting low-income and minority populations.  Alternative food systems, such as Community Supported Agriculture and Fair Trade, while relatively small in terms of impact on the food system, offer an alternative way of distributing risk.  In the case of Community Supported Agriculture, in particular, we see a system that shifts the distribution of risk from crop failure from individual farmers to larger communities.  The implications of risk distribution are significant for food system resilience since it highlights the differential vulnerabilities within the food system.  Put simply, food systems disturbances, whether acute or chronic, are likely to have very differential and unequal impacts on different populations.

Kip Curtis – Food System Counter-Interventions: Addressing the Impacts of Poverty in Inner City St. Petersburg

ABSTRACT. The Edible Peace Patch Project (EPPP) seeks to address the impacts of racism and poverty in the south side community by undertaking food system interventions in south St. Petersburg, Florida. The USDA has diagnosed several food deserts in some of the south side neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods that have grocery stores do not get the quality produce and healthy food offerings that more affluent neighborhoods receive. There are high levels of obesity and diabetes in this area. Good food is not available and the people who live in these areas suffer from it. In the midst of a national conversation about these food crises, it was just announced that Sweetbay, the only full service grocery store to serve the south side has announced that it is closing. The south side of St. Petersburg, the black part of town during segregation during Jim Crow segregation, suffers from the segregation of race and poverty. The schools in this part of Pinellas County reflect the condition of their community; the childhood poverty and the dropout rates are the most visible symptoms. Race continues to play a role in shaping oppression in St. Petersburg, Florida, shifting from the overt segregation of the Jim Crow era, to the spatial segregation of poverty and structural racism. Teen pregnancy is up, student test scores are down, and school dropout rates reflect a public system that is not succeeding at retaining its most at-risk youth.  This is unsustainable by any measure. The Edible Peace Patch Project builds edible educational schoolyard gardens in Title I schools in this neighborhood to address some of the impacts of these conditions.

Todd LeVasseur – Hubs of Resilience? Cultivating Food Sheds via Food Hubs: A Case Study of GrowFood Carolina

ABSTRACT. This presentation investigates GrowFood Carolina, a food distribution hub that opened two years ago in Charleston, SC. GrowFood states that they are, "revitalizing the local food system by providing essential aggregation, marketing, distribution, and logistical support to local growers. This support connects growers to local grocers, restaurants, community organizations and institutions, to make local and healthy food more accessible to the entire community." I examine and analyze these claims, while relating them to the larger theme of food resiliency, given the brittleness of our industrial and global food system. My research includes participant observation at GrowFood events, as well as interviews with those who began and currently run GrowFood, and with local farmers and businesses that network with GrowFood. GrowFood provides an emerging example of the leading edge of changing our food systems, as their goal is to revitalize and sustain a 150-mile radius foodshed that links the rural with urban. Understanding their mission, values, goals, strategies, and the business and environmental practices utilized by GrowFood and their partners, can help us better understand and theorize about food hubs and their ability to help generate food system resiliency.

Teddie Phillipson-Mower, "Food Resilience and Community Building"

ABSTRACT. An increasing interest in the role of food resources within society and as a vehicle for understanding sustainability leads me to think that college curriculum should include at least one course focusing on Food, Society and Sustainability for broad consumption at the undergraduate level.  Within Western society – and American academia, particularly – we have become passionate about the discourse of food in society, and have become intellectually concerned about its role involving human sustainability.  The discussion for this presentation is intended to raise ideas about developing curricula that draws on this growing interest and discusses the necessary background research that it should entail.  I explore ideas that I have developed so far and will elicit input from conference participants to incorporate into application for my further scholarship.  My purpose is to develop scholarly research in the field of Food, Society, and Sustainability, but my hope is to develop a full curriculum proposal for a new course aimed at a wide range of mid-level undergraduate students and to supplement the offerings in a new minor in Sustainability.

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