Globalization: Impacts on Food Security, Environment, and Biodiversity

As a Global Environmental Health Sciences MPH candidate at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, I am interested in working in the field of nutritional environment and food security. During my studies, I have become interested in examining the effects globalization of food has on the human population (ie. decreased food security and nutrition) and on the environment (ie. decreased biodiversity and pollution).

DSCN1847Due to development, states and cities face strong pressure to enter the global market. Often one of the first products that is available for export is agricultural goods. The globalization of food production and transport lead to many negative externalities and other costs, on top of the economic costs of food production.

The media often states that the number of malnourished people in the world is increasing. The figure cited includes solely the number of malnourished individuals, and leaves out the more than two billion undernourished (due to nutrition deficiencies or dietary imbalances) people in the world today.

As a result of globalization, farmers are pressured to sacrifice the long-term sustainability of their crops for higher productivity. Farmers often opt to use modern industrial agriculture techniques. This higher productivity is associated with increased and heavy use of fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers, and harsh pesticides. Synthetic fertilizers are highly dependent on the use of fossil fuels and common pesticides kill many non-target organisms living in commensal symbiotic relationships with crops.

Modern agriculture techniques are associated with monocropping (growing a very narrow range of crop species over many seasons), overgrazing, and an increase in land cleared for agricultural use. For these reasons, modern agriculture is strongly associated with reduced biodiversity. The environmental impacts of modern agricultural techniques include soil erosion and increased soil salinity.

IMG_7892In order to transport agricultural products to distant markets, there is an increase in carbon emissions. Tthe amount of the increase depends on the type of transport used – truck, train, boat, airplane – and the distance traveled. Recall that farmers are facing strong pressure to enter the global market. These same farmers, before globalization, were mainly subsistence farmers and sold their excess crops (often the second harvest) in local marketplaces. This pressured to enter the global market increases food insecurity on the local level. Even if food is available locally after globalization, it is often unaffordable to local residents.

As 2014 approaches, it is important to address the biodiversity and food insecurity problems that were introduced by the globalization of food. These problems are directly associated with multiple Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): MDG 1 (eliminate extreme poverty and hunger), MDG 4 (reduce child mortality), MDG 4 (improve maternal health), and MDG 7 (ensure environmental sustainability) and are indirectly associated with many of the other MDGs.

There are some potential solutions to the problems introduced by globalization, but these solutions, like many solutions to others, usually work in theory, but not in practice. The solutions that will go the farthest in addressing these issues deal with distal factors, the hardest pieces to impact. These distal factors include introducing political change, increasing equity, decentralization, democratization, and implementing land reform.

Many farmers acknowledge that the use of modern agriculture is not sustainable, so this is not an issue of education, but rather an issue of a clash of knowledge and the political and economic pressures placed upon them by the local, national, regional, and global systems. The farmers know that they should increase the fallow periods of their land, use green manures and natural predators, and practice crop rotation. Without lifting the political and economic pressures placed on farmers, it will be extremely difficult for them to implement the necessary changes in their agricultural practice.

For more information on agriculture, health and food security, see the below links:
“The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013” Food and Agriculture Organization (http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/)
The World Health Organization definition of Food Security: http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/
WFP Global Food Security Updates: http://www.wfp.org/content/global-update-food-security-monitoring
international Food Policy Research Institute: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/globalization-food-and-agriculture-and-poor; http://www.ifpri.org/publication/subsistence-profit

meredith squareBy Merdith Knaak
Former CITYNET Intern
World Health Organization Intern 2013

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