A Rumination on the Role of International Education in Creating a Sustainable Future of Food and Identity
“The lesson of ecology is that one cannot care for the future of the human race without caring for the future of its context… A land ethic, on this view, is the moral thread that links past, present, and future individuals in a common culture. That culture can be perpetuated only if it respects limits inherent in the land context—for continuity in that land context gives shared meaning to cultures as they unfold through time.” -- Bryan Norton in Toward a Unity Among Environmentalists (1991,219)“All education is environmental education,” writes environmental educator David Orr. “By what is included or excluded we teach the young that they are part or apart from the natural world.” Likewise could be said about an international education of food. While environmental and international education have grown more prominent in the 21st century, food has been relatively neglected as a subject within both international and ecological contexts in proportion to its role in environmental justice. Food ought to be among the highest priorities of all people concerned with the world’s one billion hungry people, the thousands of children who die daily of malnutrition, and the irreversible disappearance of Earth’s biocultural diversity. In the context of food, addressing sustainability requires a concern for not only economy and society, but culture and individual human life as well. Far from a private, domestic concern, eating fair and sustainable food is one aspect of becoming a global citizen.
“An international education that intends to catalyze global citizenship is incomplete without an inspection of global food systems. The failure to ensure no human goes hungry in a world abundant with food points to the superficiality of present “global citizenship.” The unsustainability and injustices of “conventional” agricultural systems are neither natural nor inevitable. Though hunger is predominately believed to be a result of an insufficient food supply, Francis Moore Lappé showed otherwise decades ago that the primary cause of world hunger is not scarcity of food, but scarcity of opportunities and money. There is plenty of food to feed everyone in the world, yet people starve because there is insufficient political willpower and too great of economic inequality. Take for instance, nearly half the food produced in the United States and Great Britain, enough to feed the one billion people afflicted with hunger, is wasted every year. Rather than treating food security as a matter of justice, the global political economy treats food as any other commodity, and thus even in countries stricken with famine, millions of tons of grains and fish are exported to a wealthier consumer base who outbid them for the very food they produced. That so many people in the global north do not recognize that hunger is facilitated by the global political economy and not a Malthusian equation of supply and demand is due to a politically inept and inadequate international education. A more comprehensive look at international relations within the context of food can correct such a misperception in addition to emphasizing one’s agency within the global food system.
An international education on food and the causes of hunger would require one to have an education in basic ecology since the fate of the world’s people, land, and food supply are all bound together. For instance, according to World Watch, only half the protein fed to chickens and a tenth of the protein fed to cows is retained as meat, yet nearly 70 per cent of grain grown in industrial and 20 per cent grown in developing nations is fed to livestock—a considerable loss in food availability. If one were to take into account the food, land, and water squandered on fattening cows, chickens, pigs, and farmed fish for the world’s wealthiest people, enough resources would be freed to feed hundreds of millions of more people. The consumption of meat and dairy, which already requires 70 per cent of all agricultural land and nearly 30 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, is predicted to double by 2050. This trend is primarily facilitated by a the construction of massive, corporately owned and contracted “factory farms,” as well as a rising middle-class in China and the industrial world, which on average consumes four times the livestock as developing nations. Thus, in the future, the majority of the Earth’s land surface will be dedicated to feeding animals who are disproportionately eaten by the rich, and whose land, water, and food consumption is often in direct competition with the poor who cannot afford to eat meat. Given the disproportionate amount of Earth’s resources dedicated for a meat-based diet, any possibility of feeding 9 billion people sustainably would require a substantial decrease in meat produced.
The unsustainable growth of the livestock and fishing sectors are not only ecologically inefficient, they threaten the world’s biological and cultural diversity. This is most true in the Amazon where forests are cleared for cattle ranching and soy that is exported to Europe as chicken feed. Through deforestation, indigenous people are often forced from their land or forced into slavery. Further, the burning of the forest releases enormous quantities of carbon and reduces the planet’s carbon sequestration. Combined with the methane emitted by belching cattle and lagoons filled with animal waste, the livestock industry contributes to at least 18 per cent of human-induced greenhouse gases. With global climate disruption, the livestock industry turns some world regions uninhabitable, disrupting and extinguishing indigenous food sources and ways of life in the arctic and sub-Saharan Africa. It’s no wonder that the FAO would consider the livestock sector as “one of the two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,” including but not limited to land erosion, climate change, water use, and the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. If eating meat is a matter of overconsumption, as Dawn Moncrief suggests, the doubling of meat and dairy consumption should be a concern in any international education that hopes to make global citizens committed to a sustainable future without hunger.
An international focus on food has never been more critical in a world in which not only a billion people’s lives are threatened by starvation and rapid global climate disruption, but also where foods that had once provided people with livelihoods, nourishment, and identity are being replaced by monocultures of high-tech strains of crops. Though it may seem a relatively insignificant issue to concern our attention in a world filled with famine and war, the threat to world food-cultures is a serious issue of sustainability, too. In the context of a world in which food production is becoming increasingly homogenized and mechanized, today’s “conventional” food production can be said to be a threat to the sustainability of multiculturalism. To paraphrase Vandana Shiva, with monocultures of crops come monocultures of mind and culture. Similar sentiments have been expressed by the founder of the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini: within the global market today, major food corporations have been weeding-out the remnants of heirloom seeds and breeds in addition to the centuries-old artisan craftsmanship of producing local foods, and with them, the very art, knowledge, culture, and identity of those people. As people throughout the world wish to preserve their ways of life and identities, it is not surprising that the Slow Food movement has gone international. An international education of food would highlight the links between the loss of the world’s cultural and biological diversity, both of which are significantly driven by astounding asymmetries in power and wealth whereby corporations, unaccountable to a global public, eat-out the (small, regional) food suppliers.
An international education of food is one means by which one can learn about the immanent threat to the world’s biocultural diversity, and perhaps feel a sense of solidarity with others struggling to determine their own cultures. Through this process, one may recognize one’s own interrelation with others through the seemingly domestic act of eating. In reality, most people are participating in the global food system every day just through purchasing food. Looking at food through this lens, one may better come to recognize oneself as a global citizen responsible for others. Ideally, one comes to realize that, as Wendell Berry wrote, “eating is an agricultural act”: one is not merely a global consumer, but an accountable global citizen. The act of eating, one realizes, not only has an economic and ecological context, but also a moral and political dimension in that people define and refine the future of food, the land, and each other’s identities. Through a comprehensive international education, food becomes not merely something for pleasure, but something also critical for thought and action as global citizens.
FAO.2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: FAO.
Greenpeace. 2006. Eating up the Amazon.
Lappé, Francis Moore et al. 1998. World Hunger: 12 Myths. Grove Press.
Moncrief, Dawn. “Plant-based Hunger Solutions: Feeding More with Less.” Change.org : Animal Rights. Source:
Norton, Bryan. 1991. Toward a Unity Among Environmentalists. New York: Oxford University Press.
Orr, David W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Post-Modern World. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Petrini, Carlo and William McCuaig. 2004. Slow Food: The Case for Taste. Columbia University Press.
Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. Palgrave Macmillan.
Vaughan, Adam. 2009. “Elimination of food waste could lift 1bin out of hunger, say campaigners.” Guardian September 8, 2009.
Wirzba, Norman, ed. 2002. The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Washington D. C.; Shoemaker & Hoard.
World Watch Institute. 1998. "United States Leads World Meat Stampede.”
*This is an essay I submitted for an International Education Week Essay Competition in November.