Food security is often thought of as a question of diversifying supply and being able to move food through areas plagued by local scarcity, relying on the global economic system – including trade and transport – as the basis for operations.
But there is a growing current of opinion that the answer lies much closer to home, by creating locally resilient food supplies which are less dependent on global systems and therefore on the political and economic crises that afflict these systems.
While both approaches have their place, one issue that they have in common is the goal of improving diets and raising levels of nutrition.
At the global level, this goal will take centre stage at the international conference on nutrition that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) are jointly organising in Rome from November 19 to 21 this year.
The organisers will be seeking political commitment for funding improved nutrition programmes as well as including nutrition-enhancing food systems in national development policies. They are also likely to attempt to give the Zero Hunger Challenge in the post-2015 United Nations development agenda fresh momentum.
In the meantime, one task that many say still remains is how to address nutrition in a holistic way, ranging from soil health to plant and animal health as well as to education about food storage and preparation methods that maximise nutrition.
While both have their place, one remaining task is how to address nutrition in a holistic way, ranging from soil health to plant and animal health as well as to education about food storage and preparation methods that maximize nutrition.
Proper academic research into alternative approaches has been slow to get going, but is now being taken more seriously. Just recently an international team of experts led by Newcastle University, UK, has shown that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally grown crops.
According to Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the study, “the organic versus non-organic debate has rumbled on for decades now but the evidence from this study is overwhelming – that organic food is high in antioxidants and lower in toxic metals and pesticides.”
Canadian food security expert Bruce Darrell believes that there are currently few examples of holistic approaches to nutrient management that incorporate strategies for nutrient levels and develop efficient nutrient cycling. “Perhaps this is not surprising when dealing with something that is essentially invisible and which has no generally recognised name as a concept,” he argues.
In his daily work, Darrell examines the role of mineral nutrients in soil, how they are depleted by farming practices, and their implications for healthy food.
According to Darrell’s accumulated knowledge, a single carrot can be more than twice as high in nutrients as that of another carrot grown in poor quality soil, which contains less than half the amount of sugars, vitamins and minerals.
A lack of knowledge about these things needs to be overcome, says Darrell: “Farmers and nutritionists rarely discuss the nutritional quality of a carrot and how it could be improved through farming practices. Farmers are more concerned with yield and appearance while nutritionists typically assume that all carrots are created equal.”
While the carrot is only one example of a whole range of food and nutrition issues, it is becoming clearer that the knowledge gap can be and is gradually being overcome.
Increasingly, individuals and small grassroots organisations are getting together to develop whole-systems approaches to nutrition. There are also more and more networks emerging globally to understand food.
“Not all of us have the luxury to decide exactly how we feed ourselves,” Ágnes Repka, a raw food expert from Hungary and one of the coordinators of the Future of Food European Learning Partnership, told IPS. “But many of us can make a choice on how to prepare the ingredients we have. Keeping as much of our food in their natural, raw form is one of the best ways to maintain its nutrients.”
The Partnership aims to bring sustainable food initiatives from different parts of Europe to one place and learn from each other, bringing the insights regarding sustainable agriculture and healthy food to a new level of understanding.
Repka stressed that when the members of the Partnership think about the healthiest possible food, “we mean what is healthy for our body, for our mind, for our communities and our planet.”
In order to communicate the new-found gains in the world of nutrition and to promote awareness in food education, Ireland’s Truefood Academy comes just at the right time.
Colette McMahon and Casandra Cosgrove of the Academy explain their reasons for putting an educational component in their nutrition-related work: “As nutritional therapists we have found that the practical skills and understanding of basic nutrition is poor and so began to develop and implement an outreach programme in a workshop format.”
The approach has proved successful and beneficial, deepening the understanding of the nutritional impact of traditional food preparation skills, which has demonstrated positive measurable results in the quality of life of the participants.
Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea in southern Scotland, Graham Bell grows over a metric ton of food on less than a 0.1 hectare garden and envisions permaculture as an apt and wise approach to sustainable and nutritious food harvesting.
“The great opportunity is for people to grow as much of their own food as possible,” says Bell. “The first need is to ensure access to land but a lot can be done on very little as we are proving. The next step is to ensure people have the skills to grow what they need.”
“Good change takes time,” adds Bell. “It is incremental. Permaculture is not a missionary activity. It is about modelling better ways of behaving. Better for ourselves, our families, our friends and neighbours – and better for people we don’t know.”
Building durable, sustainable systems is a “one day at a time” approach, according to Bell – not an overnight solution. It involves a lot of sweat, toil and trial, but it is worthwhile, he and other practitioners say.
This summer, a permaculture gathering is taking place in Bulgaria, with the next gathering already scheduled at the Sieben Linden eco-village in Germany. Repka is an avid fan of such meetings and enjoys visiting and learning new things as well as sharing her knowledge.
“Learning how to get the most out of our food is a simple way that we can improve our health,” explained Repka. Uncooked plant based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds in their raw form give our body more vitality, energy and health is Repka’s message.
“These are the simple choices we can make every day,” she added.