November 11, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Scanlan Presents ‘What Kind of Scarcity and for Whom? Justice, Sustainability and the Global Dynamics of Food Insecurity’

Dr. Stephen J. Scanlan, Associate Professor of Sociology, presents “What Kind of Scarcity and for Whom? Justice, Sustainability and the Global Dynamics of Food Insecurity” in November.

Scanlan is presenting at the conference “Coping with Scarcity: Energy Shortages, Food Crises, Drought and Critical Materials in the Modern World (c. 1800 to the present)” at Caltech University, Nov. 14 and 15.

Hunger is as old as human history,” Scanlan writes in his introduction. “Human socio-cultural evolution has been driven by survival with food acquisition at the center of this. First through foraging and hunting and then horticulture, the domestication of animals and eventually large-scale agriculture, human societies evolved, developing new technologies to meet food demands, ultimately leading to the industrial revolution, the post-industrial era, and the modern food system we know today (Beardsworth and Keil 1997). Modernity transformed production to create a contemporary world that is food-rich and better able to meet the needs of the global citizenry regarding nutrition. Hunger persists, however, with roots tied to poverty both within and between countries and with never before seen implications for the climate.”

In his paper, Scanlan examines contemporary considerations pertaining to long-running debates on the connections between scarcity and food insecurity in light of the recent global food crisis. “This discussion has been couched historically in the context of crop failures, drought, famine, and overpopulation among other concerns that disrupt or threaten food availability. The food shortage thesis thus claims that hunger is the result of food scarcity caused from disruptions in or threats to food supply. Hunger from this point of view is best addressed by reducing the population (and therefore demand) and/or increasing supply with increased production and predicting and managing crises and shocks. The food poverty thesis, on the other hand, counters this notion arguing instead that hunger is better explained by pointing to problems of food access. From this perspective the amount of food available is not the issue, but instead it is how that food is distributed or acquired that matters. Scarcity may still be relevant from this approach, but it reflects scarcity of affordable food or a breakdown in entitlements to that food because of cultural, economic, or political reasons and other forms of social stratification and inequality.

“This is not a new debate,” Scanlan continues, “but with the passage of time comes new considerations that contribute to the difficulty of finding the right answers to its many unresolved questions and how the challenges of food insecurity play out in connection to other factors shaping development. In the present era, globalization has created both barriers to and opportunities for addressing food security. Global markets are connected in an interdependent world food system more so now than ever with important implications for addressing scarcity. Technological advances have made it possible to produce more food, grow it in new environs, store it more efficiently, transport it to more places, and do so while keeping food relatively cheap. But the limits of such advances have come into question with a growing ecological footprint from agriculture and increasingly pressing concerns such as land degradation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and climate change presenting great challenges. Food supply per capita is likely greater than any point in human history, but the ecological consequences of how this came to be are becoming more and more important to untangle, demanding that stresses from an industrialized global food system be addressed. Finally, ever-present inequalities linger that not only limit access to food but extend to health and nutrition, food sovereignty, and vulnerability to global food prices and other shocks. Stemming from this comes growing potential for conflict both across and within borders, adding additional complexity to food shortage versus food poverty debates. It is conflict in the form of food riots as studied by the World Bank and the reaction to food security threat and general well-being that provides the launching point for this analysis (Cuesta 2014).

Scanlan addresses the following research questions in his analysis:

  • How should scarcity be conceptualized? What are its connections to food insecurity in contemporary world societies?
  • In what ways does hunger and global inequality make scarcity matter more to certain segments of the population versus others?
  • In what ways are more vulnerable populations around the world likely to respond to scarcity, food insecurity, and the associated challenges of poverty and underdevelopment?

“In addressing these questions I examine scarcity and food insecurity in light of concerns with justice and sustainability that includes environmental, economic, and social considerations and outcomes. It is only through the use of multiple lenses that the complexities of scarcity and its forms and consequences can be understood and addressed with regard to the most pressing issues of the times,” he writes.



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