Foreign Policy Blogs

Food and international folly

I had the pleasure of gorging a bit (no pun intended, but please read on) on TED talks a few days ago, and in the process, spent a couple hours listening to several talks in their “Food Matters” theme.  One talk in particular by Carolyn Steel captured my interest: How Food Shapes our Cities.  Carolyn is an architect who has focused her work on how food networks shape cities.  Her book, Hungry City, is definitely on my reading list.

Carolyn talks about the entire cycle of food and consumption from the perspective of the city.  This starts with food and its origins outside the city, transport into the city, selling and preparation, and wastage.  Here are a few interesting facts:

  • Cities currently consume 75% of the world’s resources and comprise 50% of the world’s population (as of May 23, 2007 when the balance tipped in favour of urban living)
  • Until trains and canning/freezing allowed for longer transport routes, cities were built on waterways primarily to facilitate the transport of perishable foods.  Interestingly, Americans eat more packaged foods than any other country, 31% more than fresh.  Take a look at this New York Times fantastic infographic.
  • One-third of all food globally is thrown away.  Developed countries are the worst offenders, with wastage reaching 40% of all food in the US.

Tracing food from its rural roots to its urban consumption is interesting, but the picture becomes even more complex when we consider the global marketplace.  Some of the statistics are simply bizarre.  Why, for example, does the UK simultaneously import and export 15,000 tons of waffles?

The inefficiencies in food production, transport and wastage are not only hazardous from a financial and environmental perspective; they are equally tragic on a moral level.  The UN World Food Program estimates that 925 million people worldwide are undernourished (download their Hunger Map for a regional analysis). 

But hunger is not a simple mathematics of supply and demand.  Clearly, if 1/3 of the world’s food resources are being discarded while 1/6 of the world’s population is hungry, the system is failing.  But moving food or even cash for food from one part of the world to another, while important for crisis intervention, is not a sustainable solution.  Too often, hunger is the result of political maneuvering, economic strife, or marginalization of population groups.  Amartya Sen gives an excellent analysis of the roots of famine in his seminal work “Development as Freedom” in which he argues that hunger is caused by lack of freedom rather than absolute scarcity of food.  For another interesting look at the complexity of famine, read David Rieff’s 2005 article about Live Aid and the Ethiopian famine.

As I write all of this, the G20 is gearing up for its first Agriculture Ministers’ meeting next week, June 22-23 in Paris.  The focus is likely to be on price volatility of food, but I hope the larger picture is not ignored.  The world’s food system – controlled as it is by subsidies and inefficiencies – is failing nearly 1 billion people.  A policy document released by 10 international organizations has some interesting and promising proposals.  Let’s hope the ministers will not fail to act.



Cynthia Schweer Rayner
Cynthia Schweer Rayner

Cynthia Schweer Rayner is an independent consultant and philanthropy advisor specializing in public health, social entrepreneurship and scalable business models for positive social change. As a recovering management consultant, she spent several months living in South Africa, and later co-founded the US branch of an organization providing support to orphaned and vulnerable children. In 2009, she was an LGT Venture Philanthropy Fellow, working with mothers2mothers (m2m), a multinational non-profit organization employing mothers living with HIV as peer educators to positive pregnant women. She currently works with individuals, companies and nonprofits to finance and develop models for positive change. Cynthia has an MBA from INSEAD and a BA in English Literature from Georgetown University. She currently lives in Cape Town and visits New York frequently, where she co-owns a Manhattan-based yoga studio, mang'Oh yoga (