By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Contributing Writer
Despite current issues with drought on the West Coast and historic water rationing in states like New Mexico, much of the USA and other developing countries take the safety, sustainability, and availability of water and food for granted. This is, however, a global issue of increasing importance and interest in all areas of academia, science, and development.
Three recent books on this topic provide a wide range of perspectives on the issues – informative, frightening, practical, historical, political, inspiring, personal, dispassionate, religious, and more.
For Vendana Shiva, food security and agricultural sustainability are a life’s work and mission. She takes an almost evangelical approach in Stolen Harvest – The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (University Press of Kentucky), saying that “[w]e have an ecological and social duty to ensure that the food that nourishes us is not a stolen harvest.” She went from physicist to activist, received the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize (Right Livelihood Award) in 1993, and is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy.
Shiva shows that concerns about food and water security are not new. Her commitment is grounded in the 1987 Dag Hammarskjold Foundation’s “Laws of Life” meeting on biotechnology, a “watershed event (that) identified the emerging issues of genetic engineering and patenting” and “made it clear that the giant chemical companies were repositioning themselves as ‘life sciences’ companies, whose goal was to control agriculture through patents, genetic engineering, and mergers.” That event inspired Shiva to “dedicate the next decade of my life to finding ways to prevent monopolies on life and living resources, both through resistance and by building creative alternatives.”
The result is Navdanya, which Shiva founded as “a movement for saving seed, to protect biodiversity, and to keep seed and agriculture free of monopoly control.” The organization’s mission pits it against corporate patent laws.
Shiva traces the food security movement onward to the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle in 1999 and the present. Her view of the WTO might seem a tad extreme “… it enforces tyrannical, anti-people, anti-nature decisions to enable corporations to steal the world’s harvests through secretive, undemocratic structures and processes.”
Shiva’s perspective on food security is deeply personal – and somewhat surprisingly optimistic: “We have a real possibility to shape our own futures,” she says. Stolen Harvest shows that “against all odds, millions of people from across the world have been putting the principles of ecological agriculture into practice” and provides insights into how – and why – readers might do likewise.
In Water Sensitive Cities (Wiley Blackwell), Gary Grant, a Chartered Environmentalist; Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management; thesis tutor at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London; and director of the Green Infrastructure Consultancy (formerly the Green Roof Consultancy), takes an integrated approach that includes reduction, collection, and recycling. His focus on cities is of interest since many takes on the issue tend to look more at rural and farming areas than urban environments.
Grant sees irony in the very scope of water availability. “Water, whether seen by astronauts, or viewed by the earthbound, may appear to be abundant[;] however[,] it constitutes, in effect, a thin film on the surface of the planet,” he says. “Only about 2.5% of the [E]arth’s water is suitable for human consumption without some kind of treatment. Water is ubiquitous in the biosphere; yet clean, safe, drinkable, freshwater is a relatively scarce resource.”
Grant targets modifications to water systems by people over the years and “poor management practices” as factors that cry out for better practices aimed at sustainability and availability worldwide. “Integrated catchment (river basin) management is frequently and quite rightly promoted as best practice but is usually applied in an inadequate and unsatisfactory way because of administrative and political divisions, conflicting private and public interests[,] or just plain ignorance,” he says.
Calling cities “a plentiful source of wastewater,” Grant suggests using that resource to grow food through “urban farming” and changing diets to eat foods that need less water in production, including meat. He also would like to see less consumption and production of soft drinks, which he calls “particularly wasteful of water.” His suggestions of ways that cities can save water, and encourage residents to reduce use of and recycle this resource, are practical, somewhat obvious, and perhaps over-optimistic, but well worth considering.
In Food Security in the Developing World (Academic Press/Elsevier Science & Technology Books; Resources for Professors: Global and Country Food Security Case Studies), John Ashley provides, essentially, an advanced primer on the issue that clearly connects food and water in terms of sustainability. Unusually among authors in this field, Ashley is actively involved in water and food security matters—he helps manage a family farm with crop, livestock, and forest components. He became involved in the issue when he saw a child die of malnutrition in Uganda “a lesson … on how poverty is a more silent stalker of life than the gun, and how closely poverty, conflict, hunger, and undernutrition are conjoined.”
Ashley issues an urgent call for cooperation: “With scientists telling us that the world has embarked on the sixth phase of mass extinction of species … we must shake off any feeling that we can continue in a business-as-usual modality, to expect our food, water and energy supplies to be assured ad infinitum. Never has a more urgent call to action been warranted than now. We all need to work together … with wiser political leadership than currently we often have, marshaling all the technical, economic and anthropological expertise in a multisectoral and coherent way, to ensure sustainable food security for us and our descendants in perpetuity.”
Prevention also is key to providing global food security, according to Ashley.
Ashley recognizes that “[t]here is enough food produced in the world to ensure that each of us is well[-]nourished” but notes that “a common mismatch between its availability on the one hand and the ability to access it on the other” affects many people, especially in developing countries.
Combining the insights and ideas in these works could create a blueprint for water and food sustainability and security that would work throughout the world. They provide wide-ranging perspectives, insights, and recommendations that should respond to the needs of scholars in equally wide-ranging areas of research.
The three publications mentioned in this story are available in both print and digital formats. Learn more.