We need new food ethics | Globalization | DW | 21.11.2011

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We need new food ethics

Consumerism in northern nations is partly to blame for hunger in the world. Bärbel Dieckmann, president of Germany's Welthungerhilfe relief organization, urges a more responsible use of food products.

A map of the world made of rice

There's enough food to go around, but not everyone can afford it

Ethics is all about morality and a moral course of action. In the case of food ethics, that means responsibly handling the food that is available to us. But food ethics also entail using global resources in such a way that no one in the world goes hungry.

Bärbel Dieckmann

Bärbel Dieckmann heads the Welthungerhilfe relief organization

Recently, the film "Taste the Waste" shocked us with the realization that about half of our food - up to 20 million tons in Germany alone - is thrown away, most of it even before it reaches stores. Huge amounts of food are thrown away in industrialized nations because of expired sell-by-dates, insufficient storage capacities or superficial blemishes.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that worldwide, a third of all foodstuffs are thrown out and never land on a dinner plate. That in itself is a scandal. Add to that the fact that the industrialized north isn't detached from the rest of the world but is part of a global village where others suffer if it uses more resources than it legitimately should. Wasting food is a waste of water, too, and of fertile fields and the energy needed to produce food. To make things worse, high consumer demand in the north leads to price hikes, which makes food too expensive for poor people.

Food is a human right

A steadily growing global population puts additional pressure on agricultural production and thus the products available. In October 2011, the world population hit seven billion. That figure increases by 2.6 people per second. All the same, experts estimate that sufficient amounts of food are produced across the globe to feed the entire world population - in theory.

Midwives hold Danica Camacho, the Philippines' symbolic seven billionth baby

The UN's celebrates the seven billionth world citizen

No one should suffer from hunger due to a lack of resources. But it is a fact that almost one in seven people go to bed hungry at night. Poorer households in developing countries have less buying power and thus more limited access to food, and that is a major problem. Many people may not be aware of the fact that every single one of the 7,000,000,000 people on earth has a chartered right to access to sufficient, healthy and appropriate food. This right to food is a basic, indivisible human right that turns poor people in developing nations from aid recipients into people with rights.

Missed millenium goal

In 2000, the international community agreed on aiming to halve the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. But as matters stand now, this hardly ambitious goal will not be achieved.

We should all be aware of the fact that global food security is closely linked to our eating habits, lifestyles and consumer behavior. In a global society dominated by market laws, the buying power of European consumers - who can for the most part afford to buy the food on offer without a second thought - is clearly more important than the voices of the hungry and the poor.

A gasoline hose with a plate and spoon

Oil for people or biofuel for your car?

It is a paradox that people go hungry where food is produced: 80 percent of the hungry worldwide live in rural areas. While most of them work as small farmers, they cannot sufficiently feed their families.

Fuel for cars or food for animals and people?

The situation is aggravated by the fact that many agricultural products, like wheat, corn or soy beans, are not necessarily grown for human consumption anymore. Instead, farmers increasingly grow plants for animal feed or biofuels on the scarce space available. In addition to using valuable agricultural land, such production also binds large amounts of water, creating additional problems in regions where supplying water is a cause for concern.

The industrialized nations contribute to this development: On the one hand, people in industrialized and emerging markets increasingly eat more meat, thus increasing demand for the production of animal feed. On the other hand, governments in northern countries are trying to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels by introducing quotas for biofuels - a policy that has significantly increased the use of land and water practically all over the world. Sustainable biofuel production could help develop rural areas, but political incentives from the north lead to a situation where the industrialized nations' energy needs are given precedence over the needs of the local population.

Speculation boosts prices

Speculators also use food for purposes other than intended: They have discovered foodstuffs as objects of speculation. Betting on the future price development of food has already surpassed what could be regarded as "ordinary" hedging between producers and buyers and has recently contributed to drastic price hikes in food products. The 2011 World Hunger Index names food speculation as one of the key reasons for price increases in recent years.

split picture: women with shopping bags and African woman on field

Extravagance in the north aggravates hunger in the south

Higher prices affect developing nations more than others and pose a direct threat to the poorest of the poor: While households in Germany on average spend 10-15 percent of their income on food, people in developing countries spend about 70 percent. All they can afford is less food - of a poorer quality. In addition, small farmers rarely reap sufficient profit from price increases as they are often forced to sell their produce right after harvest, when prices are at their lowest. By changing our buying habits, we could contribute to farmers in developing countries receiving fair prices for the produce they grow to feed their families.

If price relations here were similar to those in developing countries, and if we were forced to shell out the same percentage of our monthly income for food, a loaf of bread would cost 30 euros ($41) and a sack of potatoes would sell for 50 euros.

With that scenario in mind, it is questionable whether supermarket chains and consumers can afford to simply throw away amounts of food like they have been doing. Our consumer habits threaten the livelihoods of people in developing countries.

The only way to prevent others from coming to harm because of the way we live is for society and politicians to take a long, hard look at the current production and use of food.

Author: Bärbel Dieckmann / db
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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