Perspective: The future of food: balancing the local and global

In June this year, global food prices climbed to an all-time high, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

While consumers in developed countries have been forced to look a bit harder for discounts at their local grocer, the effect on those living in poverty has verged on the catastrophic. In some countries, among them Egypt, Haiti, and even Mexico, the rapidly escalating price of basic cereals and edible oils led to riots.

Although prices have declined since June, the crisis nevertheless highlighted an important fact: our global food supply is under pressure from multiple avenues, and the need for a coordinated global approach to food and agriculture is greater than ever.

Various factors are responsible for the immediate rise in food prices. They include the rising cost of petroleum, unseasonable droughts over the last several years, and an increasing demand for a more varied diet in newly prospering nations.

These factors are likely to be compounded by other trends, such as the impact of climate change on agricultural conditions in many parts of the world, increasing soil erosion worldwide, and the continuing growth in world population, now projected to rise from 6.7 billion people to 9.2 billion by 2050.

Other factors are connected to the problem. The global food system mirrors economic inequalities. While some starve, developed nations face an epidemic of obesity. The industrialization of food processes is contributing to rural-to-urban migration. And many worry about the safety of our food supply because of the increasing use of questionable hormones or additives to boost yields, storage time or palatability.

Food is, of course, among the most basic of necessities. But survival aside, lack of access to proper food affects health, intelligence, educational attainment, and a whole host of other development issues.

As well, the manner in which we produce food - whether by methods that will ultimately exhaust the earth or by processes that can be sustained in the long term - stands at the foundation of sustainable development.

Policy makers are increasingly looking to religious communities for help in achieving sustainable development. Faith communities and faith-based organizations not only have extensive networks at the grass roots but also sacred writings that have proven to be a powerful source of motivation for change and transformation.

Like most issues related to sustainable development, the challenges brought by the food crisis are cross-cutting and multifaceted, touching on virtually every dimension of human existence: social, technical, economic, educational, moral and spiritual.

Any integrated approach to the food crisis, then, must take religion into consideration, given its influence on the attitudes, behaviors, and social practices of individuals and communities. Many religions, for example, have dietary laws that affect what is eaten and how it is produced. And, as with sustainable development generally, faith-based organizations have much to offer, from strong membership at the local level to moral and ethical principles that can promote positive change.

As policy makers attempt to formulate a comprehensive and integrated long-term policy on food, they will find that the holistic and global-minded principles found in the Bahá'í sacred writings offer a number of important insights.

First and foremost is the principle of justice. Writing 80 years ago, 'Abdu'l-Bahá specifically mentioned the importance of food in discussing social justice: "We see amongst us men who are overburdened with riches on the one hand, and on the other those unfortunate ones who starve with nothing; those who possess several stately palaces, and those who have [no place] to lay their head. Some we find with numerous courses of costly and dainty food; whilst others can scarce find sufficient crusts to keep them alive.... This condition of affairs is wrong, and must be remedied."

The Bahá'í writings offer a number of specific ideas about how to promote economic justice. These include concrete principles for balancing taxation and wealth re-distribution, the promotion of corporate profit-sharing as a means to improve the worker's share in productivity, and underlying spiritual concepts that promote individual responsibility, such as the notion that work performed in the spirit of service to humanity is equivalent to worship.

A critically important feature of today's food crisis is the interplay between local and global forces.

No approach can succeed without a deep exploration of how to better address trade, agricultural subsidies, development, climate change, and energy policy at the global level. At the same time, food and agriculture remain intensely dependent on local conditions. Soil, climate, the availability of water and labor, and even the educational level of farmers - all have their impact.

Further, even as international agriculture has become increasingly commoditized, making it possible for consumers in one region to enjoy out-of-season fruits and vegetables nearly around the year, many today are calling for a return to "local food." This is spurred by concerns over food quality and safety and by the realization that the packaging and transportation of food produced elsewhere sometimes adds greatly to the carbon footprint.

Significantly, the Bahá'í writings, which emphasize the oneness and interconnectedness of humanity, also address the small-scale side of life on this planet. They emphasize the importance of individual initiative, ethical behavior, local control, and community participation - all elements needed to ensure the proper balance between the global and the local dynamic in any solution to the food crisis. Specifically, the Bahá'í writings offer:

  • An understanding of the fundamental role agriculture plays in community life. The Bahá'í writings uniquely emphasize the importance of agriculture, placing it in the first rank among social concerns and emphasizing its significance as an honorable profession. "The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture, tillage of the soil," said 'Abdu'l-Bahá. "All must be producers." Food production and agriculture is the world's single largest source of employment; nearly 70% of the poor in developing countries live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. The farmer must be accorded his or her rightful place in the processes of development and civilization building.
  • A model for community administration that balances the local and the global. Unique among religious communities, the Bahá'í writings establish a clear hierarchy between locally elected governing councils, national-level administration, and international coordination. This bottom-up/top-down administrative system is already functioning around the world, and it encourages sensitivity to local conditions with a unified global perspective.
  • An explicit call for equality between women and men. Equality is something that is unmistakably necessary for progress in food and agriculture. According to the FAO, women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world's food production. The Bahá'í view that women and men are fundamentally equal creates new possibilities for change and transformation at the grass roots.
  • Teachings on health and consumerism that recommend a moderate and simple diet. Although Bahá'í dietary laws allow the eating of meat, vegetarianism is encouraged. "The food of the future will be fruit and grains," wrote 'Abdu'l-Bahá. "The time will come when meat is no longer eaten." Such a prescription, research shows, contributes not only to individual health but also to planetary well-being, by reducing the disproportionate demand for land and resources needed for intensive animal rearing.
  • An emphasis on the importance of science and technology, moderated by moral values. As the world seeks to boost food output, questions over genetically modified food, petroleum-based fertilizer, and bio-fuels - among other issues - highlight the need for scientific progress governed by social concern. The Bahá'í writings encourage a reliance on science but also stress the need for consultation about its impact and direction.

Taken altogether, these principles - along with other aspects of the Bahá'í teachings on the environment, ethics, social justice, community participation, and the importance of diversity - offer a vision for human-scale living with deep roots at the local level that is nevertheless guided by a keen understanding of the trends and conditions at the global level. It is precisely such a balance that can help to solve the food crisis in the long run.