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Piece of Mind: Recourse for a stricken world

Posted: Thursday, Feb 7th, 2013

Over two years ago when I was writing for the Del Norte Prospector, I spent quite a bit of time reading Rio Grande County regulations. Since I was covering the early stages of oil and gas development in San Francisco Creek, the preamble to the regulations on water quality became my go-to text and reminder for what was at stake.

“The value of both surface and ground water and the life and land that depend on them is immeasurable, by any method of assessment, and more valuable than all currently known or projected oil and gas reserve that may lie beneath the county’s surface. Therefore, the county finds that the protection of water resources is of primary importance, and must be adequately ensured by any oil and gas company.”

Obviously, as time has passed, it has become clear that like all written rules and regulations the preamble is up for interpretation.

What stands out is that there was and is the recognition of intrinsic value. That for once, something that is by the county’s assertion “immeasurable” is of greater value than something that can be measured.

In the United States and across much of the developed world there is a movement to attribute intrinsic and immeasurable value to the food that we eat. Vote with your dollar. Vote with your fork. Eat mindfully. Slogans abound. The goal of most of these movements is to communicate the value of local economies, of quality food, and of the way both enrich the health of individuals and families and the health of communities in general.

In the United States, we spend on average 9.4 percent of our disposable income on food. Broken down, we spend 5.5 percent at home and 3.9 percent eating out. If that seems like a lot, it’s important to know that as a nation, we spend far less of a percentage on our food than we ever have before. In 1929, Americans spent 23.4 percent of their disposable income on food. That’s 14 percent less than now.

This is not the case elsewhere. According to the USDA, the Russians spend 28 percent on food; the Chinese spend 32.9 percent; the Algerians spend 43.8 percent... just to name a few.

At a time when all health advocates are urging Americans to change their diet by substituting fish for red meat or fruit and oatmeal for the morning’s sausage croissant, the era of world food abundance has come to an end. Lester Brown, an environmental analyst and founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute writes, “Over the last decade, world grain reserves have fallen by one third. World food prices have more than doubled, triggering a worldwide land rush and ushering in a new geopolitics of food. Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold.”

Even if the realities of global food scarcity aren’t visible locally, in other countries such as India 48 percent of all children are stunted physically and mentally because of chronic hunger. Lester writes that “they are undersized, underweight, and likely to have IQs that are on average 10-15 points lower than those of well-nourished children.”

In order to protect (if you can call it that) their populations from the realities of food scarcity, many affluent countries including Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea, have purchased or leased land in other countries with the intention of future food production. Most of these land acquisitions have been in Africa, including large swaths of land in Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Ironically, millions of people in these countries are currently being sustained with food donations from the UN World Food Programme.

A 2011 World Bank analysis reports that at least 140 million acres of land (an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat production in the United States) are in the hands of foreign governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors.

With 219,000 new people joining in every day at tables across the globe it’s time that, like water in Rio Grande County, food be declared of necessary, intrinsic, and immeasurable value. Only when this is recognized by all governmental and regulatory agencies will the work of world food programs and local foods groups no longer seem so disparate. Only then will a world that is simultaneously dying of obesity and hunger unite to understand the true value and meaning of life.

Gena Akers can be contacted at gena.leneigh@gmail.com.

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