Last week, I went to a food security and value-added agriculture workshop in Maputo. Since a large part of my work revolves around promoting conservation agriculture and addressing food security in Mozambique, I was interested to learn how others were approaching on the topic or using other techniques. The workshop had representatives and speakers from the commercial and business sector, fellow NGO workers, individual consultants, and academics from local and international universities.
We discussed various aspects of food insecurity in Mozambique, focusing mostly on the challenges and how to address them. I found it interesting that we defined food security as not only having consistent food sources, but having choices or varieties in food. Food security also means having sufficient quantity and quality food and nutrition sources, but an underlying measure of security is having choices in the food one consumes.
By the third day, my head was spinning from the new information the all-day workshops gave me. In my processing of how to move forward from our discussions, I realized that there’s a gap between freedom of choices and forcing of choices in relation to food security. And as a result, the freedom of choices often leads to forcing of other choices.
For many billions of us in the world, we have the freedom of many food-related choices in our lives. In my Mozambican kitchen, I stand looking in my fridge, produce basket or cupboard every day at 5 p.m. wondering what I could make for dinner. I can choose from various starches, proteins, and vegetables and multiple combinations. When living in the United States, I can choose virtually anything to eat or find some way of accessing obscure foods.
A Mozambican friend asked me a few months ago what the staple crop of the United States is. I replied that it’s probably corn, but even then corn is not considered a staple in the same way that cassava is a staple crop in Mozambique. This is because in the United States, we produce many other crops year-round and we have the freedom of choice to eat something other than corn. We can choose from supermarkets, small grocery stores, farmers markets, or CSAs for our produce. We can choose for our foods to be organic, low fat/calorie, or gluten free.
Because of these freedoms, we’re not bound to dependency on climate or the environment, and even have choices within each season. In the spring there are leafy greens such as lettuce or kale. In the summer there are berries, and we can pick between strawberries or blackberries. The fall has squashes like pumpkins or acorn squash. And in the winter there are tubers such as potatoes and parsnips.
But many other people in the world are forced when making their food choices. Mozambique is twice the size of California, but has a fraction of the number of paved roads, so transportation and lacking infrastructure are huge problems. While in North America there’s a push for people to choose to buy locally-grown foods, in Mozambique there’s often no choice BUT to eat locally grown foods. Many farmers cannot access markets to sell their products or bring in any new products. For some people, money is so tight that if someone only has 100 meticais (a little less than $4), they will choose whatever is cheapest or will go farthest, rather than what is healthiest.
Commercial farms come into the country and dictate to local farmers what they will produce, leaving the farmers no choice but to comply. Local and regional industries may buy local produce, but they’re the ones to decide how the raw materials will be processed, so the famers have no decision-making power in the end result. Also, local cultures may mandate what crops will be grown and the manner in which they are cultivated, so social pressures force farmers to choose doing things in the same way as before.
Sometimes, one person’s freedom of food choices exacerbates another person’s forced food choices. Have you ever noticed how all the sesame seeds on a hamburger bun look identical, or how every grain of rice you consume looks exactly like all the others surrounding it? This is not natural, but selected by only top grade produce that someone else chose. These choices are made based on food grades, stipulations, or regulations. To reach a certain grade, some farmers’ produce is turned away if their millet isn’t uniform or their sorghum is red with too many tannins, leaving them no choice but to receive little to no money for their work. Our individual choice between a hamburger and a hot dog represents dozens of other choices that have been made from industries, markets, supply chains, and manufacturers, which often are all out of the decision-making reach of rural farmers.
Other times, people are forced to surrender their food choice freedoms. If everyone had the freedom to eat whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, it would be chaos. For example, it’s unfeasible for Mozambicans to demand blueberries which are indigenous to my home region in Michigan, and it’s unreasonable for Michiganders to demand groundnuts indigenous to Mozambique. In the United States, many people have had excessive freedom of choosing food, which has led to sharp rises in obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and type II diabetes. In turn, these freedoms often lead to people being forced to limited lifestyles or dependency on medicine.
In order to move forward, there must be more equality and justice in food choices. Some people must choose to responsibly use American food freedoms. This means choosing to give away choices and freedoms like my brave friend did by joining Overeaters Anonymous or my family is doing by jointly adjusting their food lifestyles.
On one hand, farmers must choose to take risks such as educating their women instead of always sending them out to the fields, or in incorporating sustainable or conservation agriculture practices that may not be commonly used in their area. But on the other hand, systems must be altered allow these farmers to make new choices. Legislation must protect rural farmers and enhance their decision-making powers. Corporations must fairly compensate the suppliers of their raw materials. Governments, businesses, and civil society must choose to work together to create innovative solutions for addressing food insecurity. And collectively, we must choose to eat in ways that dignify the producer, such as buying fairly traded goods.
I believe that global food security is possible, as long as we all make a few different choices.