By Kelly J. Hodgins, MA Candidate and the University of Guelph and 2015 Next Generation Delegation.
Understanding today’s enormous, globalized food system can be overwhelming. As a student of food systems who has spent her entire life in agriculture, I cannot claim to know half of these complex systems: my comprehension of the global food system is an ongoing, intentional, and iterative endeavour.
Grasping the food system at its global level is arduous, but I have found a useful framework: “global food regimes,” conceptualized by Phillip McMichael and Harriett Friedman. These scholars boldly offer a comprehensive account of the evolution of food systems globally and historically, which helps us to understand American agriculture and the hegemonic role the US and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) play today. McMichael and Friedman’s insights on agriculture, food, trade, and aid, along with my experience as a Next Generation Delegate at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Food Security Symposium have convinced me that this “food regime” theory provides the best way of understanding where American agriculture has come from and where it is going.
Where We’ve Come from:
Knowing the characteristics of the first food regime helps us understand that American agriculture has always been on a large-scale and primarily driven by capitalism. Since colonization in the early 1800s, farmers in America have been commercial, growing as an extension of the European agriculture system. This gives American agriculture an entirely different historical context than that of Europe and other native agriculture systems that existed for centuries outside the bounds of capitalism.
After World War II, global food and agriculture systems organized into a new, second food regime. The US became the dominant exporter worldwide and earned its status as the “breadbasket” of the world. The US also dramatically increased exports of food aid, helping “underdeveloped” countries as they emerged from colonial rule. This strategy, however, has sometimes been criticized for undercutting the development of local agricultural economies in those countries.
At present, food aid from the US and USAID is far more strategic than it was in the years following World War II. The US is more intentional about creating aid programs that promote—not undercut—local agricultural economic development, and that truly do deliver good. The newly released Chicago Council report, Healthy Food for a Healthy World, also provides recommendations for a more positive future, in which the US continues to harness its power and resources to help other nations build capacity and food security.
Where We Are Going
Today we enter a third major food regime, which is characterized by a coupling of environmental concerns with food. We see manifestations of this new regime blossoming in the rising popularity of organic food, farmers’ markets, debates around nutrition guidelines, and demands for high-level attention to these issues, such as campaigns lobbying the United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention to incorporate agriculture.
Like the regimes which preceded it, however, this third regime is developing unevenly. The ways in which “environmental sustainability” are understood vary enormously—a fact highlighted by the numerous perspectives at The Chicago Council’s Symposium. What allows us to grow nutritious food under climatic-stress: family farms choosing to grow using agro-ecological methods, or globally-oriented technologies? Such is the new climate-smart agriculture paradigm.
The key to a food-secure future is determining how to harmonize these different ideas—which all, ultimately, work toward the same end-goal. The next big challenge for the US is to figure out how to best take account of environmental concerns which can no longer be decoupled from food systems, in order to move toward a food-secure globe.
- “Food Security.” Cargill. Accessed July 28, 2015.
- Friedmann, Harriet. "The Political Economy of Food: A Global Crisis." New Left Review 197 (1993): 29-57.
- Greene, Richard. “5 Questions with USAID's Richard Greene on Nutrition and Food Security.” Global Food for Thought, April 24, 2015.
- “International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed July 28, 2015.
- Lee-Gammage, Samuel. “Who Will Win in the Battle over Sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Science or Special Interests?” Food Climate Research Network. Last modified April 3, 2015.
- McMichael, Philip. “A Food Regime Genealogy.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36, no. 1 (2009): 139-169.
- Zvomuya, Fidelis. “No Agriculture, No Deal.” Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, November 30, 2011.
Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:
- Biotechnology and Global Nutrition: Progress and Headwinds, Martin Erzinger, MBA Candidate, University of Virginia
- Shame in the City? How the Urban Poor Experience Social Exclusion and Food Insecurity in Kampala Slums, Diana Caley, PhD Candidate, New York University
- Scalable, Repeatable, and Sustainable: The Need for Private Sector Investment to Achieve Lasting Food Security, Erin Lenhardt, MBA Candidate, University of Chicago
- Food Security from a Micro Perspective: Why Bigger Isn't Always Better, Elise Ellinger, MPP Candidate, University of Minnesota
- Nutrition Education as a Multisectoral Response, Matthew Graziose, PhD Candidate, Columbia University
- Africa's Great Potential for Increased Food Production and Improved Nutrition, Esther Nampeera Lugwana, PhD in Horticulture, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
- Leveraging Women's Empowerment in Agriculture, Soumya Gupta, PhD Candidate in Applied Economics, Cornell University
- Healthy Soils, Healthy People: Integrating Soil Science into Nutrition Security, Andrew Margenot, PhD Candidate in Soil Science & Biogeochemistry, University of California, Davis
- The Importance of Understanding Urban Food Flows, Dana Boyer, PhD candidate in Science, Technology and Public Policy, University of Minnesota
- Genetic Engineering: A Tool to Strengthen Global Food Security, Megan Fenton, PhD Student in Agronomy - Plant Breeding and Genetics, Purdue University
- Edible Insects as an Integrated Component of Sustainable Food Systems, Afton Halloran, GREEiNSECT and Social Science and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellow, University of Copenhagen