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Less hype,more hope

The prospects for Lebanese food security in contexts of time and species

by Thomas Schellen

It was a sequence of electrifying experiences for a kid from the German provinces. It began with
looking in awe around the grand movie theater in no less than Leicester Square, London, and soon went on to being captivated by the cinematic depiction of abject misery of children in a workhouse, and then to being shaken by the hymnal intensity of one of the first English songs that this youngster heard and actually understood – at least the words “food” and “glorious.” Ergo, the imprinting of memes from seeing the musical “Oliver!” while on vacation around the time of having had the first English lessons in high school, for yours truly, still makes for one very strong chain of associations when the word “food” comes to mind and food security is on the table.

This year, food has surged to the top of international concerns. Political and civil society agendas have been filled with statements on food security, respectable magazines are putting the topic on their covers, and the International Monetary Fund at the beginning of October added a one-year “Food Shock Window” to its emergency response toolkit. The first disbursement from $1.3 billion worth of Special Drawing Rights was made to Ukraine in response to imperilment of the country’s balance of payments due to wheat export revenue losses.

One has to note with both surprise and conviction that what the simple word food, and even more so the inconspicuous word combination “food security” means and stands for in 2022, is actually as laden with contradictions as it was some fifty years ago. And that was at a time when the modern narrative of food security was empowered by the development of high-yielding, corporate involvement supporting crops.

Moreover, the perils of food insecurity are in many parts of the developing, and even the developed, world today as present as they were in Europe almost 200 years ago when Charles Dickens wrote his stirring novel “Oliver Twist”, adapted for film in 1968, about the dichotomous social realities that existed at the time of Britain’s adoption of the poor law amendments. It serves today to remind us of two things: that food is vital for social peace and coexistence and that food crises keep haunting the world to the point that calling
food security both a great need and a contentious issue, is an understatement.

Existential contradictions

Food is full of contradictions. Nutrition is vital for human bodily sustenance and mental health but food is also sensual, emotive and cultural. This is the first contradiction. We cannot hope to cover the cultural value of food by addressing the – indispensable – issue of improving nutrition and lowering food insecurity.

The second contradiction is that the economy of food has been expanding tremendously and that this economic cosmos of food, which includes food expenditures of households as well as the aggregate GDP contributions of agriculture, agro-industry, and industries that are food related, such as beverages, hospitality and restaurants, are riddled with economic dichotomies. For example, whereas in 2022 food insecurity has globally been rising for four years and still is rising precipitously for millions under the specter of future climate trouble and global recession, the world’s largest food com pany and the largest restaurant multinational, are doing very well. Nestle and MacDonald’s, have recently reported better than projected results for the first nine months of the year, with nine-month organic revenue gains of 8.5 percent in the case of Nestle and third-quarter 10 percent improvements in global comparable sales for MacDonald’s.

A third, enduring food contradiction relates to fair and principled access. More wheat is being harvested around the world than ever before, and there is more than enough food to feed all – but the amount of food that goes to waste around the world each year in our highly educated, highly networked, and supposedly efficient global economic system, is staggering. The United Nations World Food Programme says that almost one third of food produced each year does not get eaten. The 1.3 billion tons of unconsumed food, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) website, entails loss ratios of estimated 14 percent between harvest and retail and 17 percent at the retail and consumer level, whereby an 11 percent household-level wastage of food is the primary culprit of the estimated 17 percent of total global food production that goes to waste each year. “Food that is lost and wasted accounts for 38 percent of total energy usage in the global food system,” the FAO laments.

Zero hunger, responsible consumption and production goals

In this emerging third decade of the century, the obscene historic inability to match food needs and supplies is newly exacerbated by humankind’s oldest enemies: ourselves and the forces of nature. Climate and war and diseases – of plant and animal and people – seem in the last few years to have been threatening our planetary food security to degrees that policy makers and activists may not have not been thought imaginable 22 years ago, and again only 7 years ago when they debated and devised the declarations of Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) and their successors, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

In the first and second decade of the century, hopeful aspirations for the eradication of poverty and “zero hunger” were adopted as global targets by the UN, first in the Millennium Declaration of 2000 and reiterated and expanded as SDG 1 and 2 in the Sustainable Development Goals of 2015, with SDG 2 calling upon nations to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” This year’s worries over short-term and longer-term increases in acute food insecurity, which have been triggered by the Ukraine conflict but are in the long run interrelated with deep climate fears, are departures from this previous SDG optimism.

Moreover, SDG 12, which postulates a shift towards responsible production and consumption patterns, listing food first among the areas where production and consumption are far behind a responsible and productive equilibrium. Available data on food waste and loss are inconclusive with regard to measurable reduction of the numbers such as the billions of tons of unconsumed food. A 2018 report on progress toward SDG 12 from the year 2000 up to that point, notes that there has been progress in the development of policies and in research but admitted that “the application and implementation of these to foster concrete and tangible changes in practices and impacts remains limited.”

The impressive agreements on the MDGs and SDGs shine as peak expressions of optimism during a long cycle of political calm and economic peace after the end of the Cold War, a period when faith in human capacities and good will were burgeoning. But the current immersion of SDG optimism into deep water suggests some of the SDG enthusiasm towards the later 2010s fed into a wave of cornucopian beliefs which celebrated themselves under disregard of serious warnings over the longterm shameful fiasco of humanity in managing our own species, and the planet that it inhibits.

This is to say that in the global risk aggregation of the past few years, humanity could have witnessed the epitome of divergence between a pious wish for no poverty and zero hunger and a reality of a world being treated to willful and continued denials of environmental and climate costs. These costs have throughout the capitalist era and into the present time been externalized by industries, ignored by policy makers, and underrepresented in modeling by economists who were more interested in coming up with theories that would accelerate or preserve growth than with developing models that showed the risks of human economic activity.

An underappreciated report

Perhaps the purest expression of this culture conflict between dogmas of growth and warnings of human risk was the debate over the population bomb, and the modeling of global resources exhaustion detailed in the “Limits to Growth” book lead-authored by American scientist Donella Meadows. The 1972 original study famously endeavored to warn of unencumbered growth in industrialization, resource depletion, pollution, food production and population, auguring on the basis of a novel computer model that on unchanged trajectories of those factors, “limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years” – a maximum deadline that passed to 50 percent at the advent of this year.

If one continues along this logic of a dialectic of growth and risk, the part desperate and part overoptimistic bent of UN debates at the time when the MDGs were designed and announced as achievable in the year 2000 could be read as antithetical positions to what Meadows and her co-authors concluded in their revised edition, “Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update” (NLTG). But this dialectic is lessened at first glance by the fact that in some of the ten scenarios that Meadows – shortly before her death due to cerebral meningitis – and her team explored under an adaptation of the World3 computer modeling framework used in Limits to Growth, there is a spark of sustainability.

Diverging from the greed-as-usual and consumption-as-usual presuppositions that rule more than half of the NLTG scenarios, in only one scenario, (and from timing perspective nonimplementable) key sustainability policies are introduced already in the 1980s. Meadows et al conclude that their World3 model’s assumed goals or industrial goods per capita cannot be reached for a world population greater than 7 billion people – an amount which has been passed in the last decade – and that delays in introducing fundamental change to human behavior “reduces the options for humanity’s long-term future.” In full cognition of this dilemma, the NLTG authors still see open pathways for a global transition to a sustainable society, which to them is a society that sustains “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The first “future generation” envisioned in NLTG, has already been born and is presently aspiring to shape society to their needs. It is a digital-native generation of more-educated and more-connected-than-ever youngsters who have experienced immense exposure to ahistorical and absolutist ideologies, fake news, and virtual pressures disseminated through faulty social networks. They are confronted by the climate risk mitigation failures of the two preceding generations, plus have to grapple with their unexpected and mentally unshielded vulnerabilities to pandemics, wars, and extremist and populist leaders of all ideological colors and non-compromise persuasions.

This does not bode well for utopian optimism. Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors of the original “Limits to Growth” and its 20- and 30-year follow-up publications: “Beyond Limits to Growth” and “Limits to Growth – The 30-Year Update”, has commented discouragingly on the worldwide outlook on the 50th anniversary of the original study’s publishing date of March 1972.

“Fifty years later, we know that the world has followed the scenario predicted in the book – broadly speaking,” Randers opined, and prophesied that over the coming decades, human wellbeing will decline with a “too- little, too-late” scenario continuing in response to a dual threat of overshooting nature’s support capacity and of rising social tensions. “In effect, I believe that regional social collapse will precede global environmental
collapse,” he lectured darkly.

Perpetual oscillation between misery and happiness

But even if the propositions of SDG 1 and 2 have been losing momentum to the point of reversing, learned pessimism is not necessarily the view that prevails in the end. The Malthusian trap is not inescapable and what Thomas Robert Malthus believed to be an obvious truth, that “population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence,” has been dismissed by human progress in terms of population and food supply in the past two centuries since the insightful parson and economic thinker published his speculative work, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”.

The disproving of Malthusian population risk dynamics notwithstanding, the correlated polar juxtaposition of Malthusian and Cornucopian views on the fate of society, of which the latter belief stipulates that the future will always be saved by economic means or technological innovation, and which has been clashing throughout the modern ages with the former’s skepticism on human superiority, cannot be disregarded. It should rather be acknowledged that this dialectical contest of wits in what Malthus described as debate between those who claim that “man shall henceforth start forward with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement” and those who see the fate of the species as “condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery” in their chase after an unattainable perfect society, lately seems to have again been moving towards the Malthusian corner.

But it is exactly this point where lies the best Lebanese move in the worldwide mental tournament on food security: the country may be best advised in taking a contrarian, anti-cyclical route that steers clear of Malthusian philosophy. Whereas the global route of SDG over-enthusiasm has been curtailed by climate concerns and widening social fault lines, and whereas the threat of food insecurity is escalating in many developing countries, it stands to reason that Lebanon can still be elevated into a comparably comfortable situation with regard to food security – if it only applies the food security insights, SDG wisdoms and rational agrosector development strategies that have not been implemented in this country during the 20 years between 2001 to 2020.

There are certainly limits to the national food security potential if considered in a narrow sense; Lebanon will not be able to create large-scale agriculture that produces millions of tons of commodity crops. In terms of food safety – an important and currently weak pillar of Lebanese food security – the presence of cholera is urgent but only the latest warning shot signaling that the combination of crowding people into deprivation zones with substandard infrastructure creates kill zones for epidemics.

However, Lebanon to this day has an uppermiddle-income country’s capacity for healthcare and could have a clear path to food safety if it were to improve critical infrastructure and implement, supervise, and enforce regulations more thoroughly. On the side of securing the nutrition needs of the population, much has been theorized about the creation of social safety nets that even the filing cabinets in the concerned public sector institutions must be able to answer all questions about their essentials.

Finally, as a country with excellent food production potential but efficiency deficits in food production – such as shortfalls in advanced harvesting equipment, good testing, storage, and packing infrastructure – Lebanon can do much to lower food loss. The economic conditions of widespread poverty bring with them a chance to educate consumers on avoidance of food waste and on healthy, inexpensive nutrition. In economic terms, with all appreciation of the increase in food security that by local standards large processors and branches of multinationals bring to Lebanon, the best path to food security is indirect and based on small but sophisticated and institutionally incentivized agriculture and agro-processing.

This indirect path should be trodden by implementing the applicable global standards, developing the identities and brands that appeal in foreign markets, and moving out of ethnic niches. But at the same time strengthening food sovereignty – in sum, by producing more for export markets and by modernizing the amazing native food culture. Then, by contributing to constructive global food interdependence – which conceptually negates the contradiction between food as physical sustenance and food as a cultural asset and trove of sensual treasures – food security might cease to be a concern in the sense that zero hunger can be achieved in Lebanon.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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