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To fix the food system, fix our democracy

People go hungry not from lack of food but from lack of political power.

Photo from the OECD

Originally Published in the Boston Globe, July 20, 2020

Today’s multiplying threats are truly scary — a deadly pandemic with vast economic losses, police murders reflecting endemic racism, a president trashing constitutional protections, and . . . oh yes, a pending climate catastrophe.

So fear is inevitable, and, of course, it can ignite action that saves lives. But fear can also do the opposite.

Fifty years ago, our world was also gripped by fear. Paul Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb” predicted “mass starvation” on a “dying planet.” The ensuing scarcity scare triggered a fixation on ever-greater production of food.

Along the way, agribusinesses have warned that only their seeds and agricultural chemicals could save us. “Worrying about starving future generations won’t feed them. Food biotechnology will,” declared a 1998 Monsanto ad.

As our fear-driven vision narrowed, we continued to perceive lack — even when our more-than-ample food supply has kept well ahead of population growth. We remain blind to how our food system, answering first to the demands of the wealthiest, generates vast waste — as the 83 percent of agricultural land used for livestock worldwide provides just 18 percent of our calories. Plus, there’s literal waste: A third of food produced never reaches our mouths.

And has fear of scarcity ended hunger?

Globally, almost 2,900 calories a day are produced for each of us. Yet, a quarter of humanity suffers from food insecurity, and a fifth of the world’s children are stunted, bringing life-long harms. Simultaneously, the fixation on production has brought the massive degradation of soil, water, biodiversity, and the climate — all needed to ensure healthy food for future generations.

How could this happen? Why are we together creating a world that none of us as individuals would ever choose?

Here is my theory: Fear has blocked us from taking the proverbial deep breath, then probing: Why are we here?

As creatures of the mind, we see the world through frames of meaning that determine what we can see and what we cannot. With a frame fixed on production, we’ve not seen how our global, corporate-driven food system has turned our food supply into a health hazard. Today, noncommunicable diseases account for almost 70 percent of deaths — and diet is implicated in most of them.

But we are not doomed. We humans are also learning creatures. Once aware of this vulnerability of our species, we can intentionally widen our lens.

How? By asking why, then why again.

It soon becomes clear that, as was true a half century ago, today people go hungry not from lack of food but from lack of power — the power to access food and the land to grow it.

That lack of power arises from our brutal, extractive capitalism that celebrates the market as “free” when it is in fact driven by one rule: Do what brings highest return to existing wealth.

Little wonder that the United States leads the world in daily calorie supply per person — almost 3,700 — and yet 40 million Americans worry about getting enough to eat. Or that economic inequality has become more extreme in America than in over 100 countries.

Again, why? Why have we allowed ourselves to remain in this deadly trap?

Part of the answer is that such profoundly skewed economic power corrupts political life. With a wider lens, we can see that hunger is not caused by scarcity of food but scarcity of democracy. In this process, fear is also used deliberately by those who benefit from economic injustice. It diverts the eyes of those harmed. Low-income white people, for example, don’t see the common ground they share with people of color who suffer even greater harm.

Here is the good news. Fear can also provoke curiosity, pushing us to explore, and that requires courage.

Getting curious about why our society has gone so far off track might lead us to examine fear of another kind of scarcity — fear that we citizens lack what it takes to create a democracy that answers to us instead of private wealth.

We have been duly warned about what can happen if “we the people” lose confidence — and no one said this more starkly than Franklin Roosevelt. In 1938, he told Congress: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”

Note these four words: “if the people tolerate.”

Roosevelt reminds us that there is nothing inevitable here. If fear of our own powerlessness is blocking us, we can prove ourselves wrong. We can choose to no longer tolerate the ongoing assault on democracy.

We can discover that fear is not a stop sign. It can be a source of energy that we can use as we choose. (When fear sends my heart pounding, I reframe it as “inner applause” cheering me on . . . and sometimes it works!)

This is a lot easier when we team up — just as millions of courageous Americans are discovering, as today they step out together to demand deep, systemic reforms. With democracy itself — necessary to tackle all of today’s threats — at stake, many are saying no to 40 years of denigrating the role of government and instead are demanding it become a tool to “promote the general welfare,” as our Constitution’s preamble defines the very purpose of our nation.

Perhaps for the first time in our history, Americans motivated by a range of passions — from race to climate to food — are joining in a “movement of movements” for democracy itself. Its goal? Reforms ranging from protection of voting rights to removing the corrupting influence of money in politics. A sign of this awakening is the Democracy Initiative, which was founded in 2013 and now has 72 member organizations representing 45 million Americans. On board is Food and Water Watch, challenging our increasingly monopolized food system that threatens the health of our land and its people.

In this moment of multiple threats, our future depends on everyday Americans moving from fear to empowerment, ensuring what FDR called “the liberty of democracy.”

The Future of Food was produced by Globe Opinion. The advertiser had no role in the editorial content.

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