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How to Ignite Your Hunger for Food Security

Discomfort is a necessary ingredient on the path to a more just world. What industry advocates want you to know about the food system does not always align with reality. Prepare to be challenged.

Fertile patch contrasted against stark barrenness of the rocky Himalayas (field in Leh, ©2010)


(NOTE: This series explores the links between climate health and social justice. This piece presents a couple of lenses through which this discussion can be viewed, including power dynamics and how comfort creates a bias toward inaction.)


I’m not ready to claim victory just because I presented a not-so-modestly titled "3-Step Plan to Save the World" in a previous post. Firstly, as any competent operator will attest, building the plan is hardly implementation of the plan. Secondly – and this is where I really want to expand the conversation – fighting to save the world demands that we also fight to make the world a place worth living. And for the world to be deemed “worth living in” demands that the world be oriented toward justice. Here’s my measure of success for this series: if I plant the right seeds, the reader will walk away just as hungry for justice as for saving the world.


POWER, APPETITE AND COMFORT


Here in the middle of the U.S. “holiday season,” I have an acute appreciation of just what it means to feel “over-full.” Across a three-day period in November, I feasted on stories told and retold, the unconditional love of my family, and a seemingly bottomless supply of food. At the end of the Thanksgiving meal itself, my belly was content… yet I then decided to “go for seconds.” With the feeling of over-fullness still in my mind, this quote from Puerto Rican Carlos A Rodriguez, Founder and CEO of The Happy Givers, seems especially poignant: “When we’re not hungry for justice, it’s usually because we’re too full with privilege.”


Human beings seek comfort. That is our default status. I’m in the market for a new couch to plop in front of the TV. One of my wife’s criteria for the couch is that it have a built-in recliner. One of my key criteria is that it be “nappable.” My desire for comfort is so deep that it required the creation of a word. We want to be comfortable on movie night. And comfort is good—except when it isn’t. Because once comfort is achieved, it’s easy to forget our previous discomforts—much less recognize the discomfort of others. Igniting a hunger for justice requires that we sit with discomfort.


A man sits quietly in Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid mosque (suffering eased, ©2009).


Any failure of justice – social, climate, legal or otherwise – historically connects back to a powerful person or group protecting their own position. Power protects power, even if unawares. And I would generously offer that most are unawares. By “unawares,” think of the person in Carlos Rodriguez’s quote above who is “too full with privilege”—someone who is perfectly well-intentioned, though missing an opportunity to spot gaps in justice.


One challenge for us humans is that our bellies don’t reliably send us a clear signal of discomfort when we become too full with privilege. We simply don’t notice a lack of pain. Therefore, those of us showered by abundance must deliberately seek to recognize when our privilege is not shared by, or – worse yet – limits access to, those less fortunate. There’s an “abundance blind spot” that prevents many privileged people from noticing injustice. I’ve been that person—in fact, I’m positive that I’m operating with many blind spots today that I will only recognize after further reflection or the inputs of others… maybe years from now. I offer that statement not with pride, but with a continuous growth mindset, determined to identify and mitigate my blind spots.


A man readies fishing equipment against the backdrop of a tourist beach in Pattaya, Thailand (fisherman, ©2010).


With that power dynamic and the “abundance blind spot” both in mind, I return to my claim that fighting climate change – specifically by “eating a vegetable” – will increase social justice. For many Westerners, eating more vegetables means eating less comfort food. Meat is a luxury that has become an American cultural staple with a little help from dedicated lobbying efforts.


Despite the impacts to health, the standard U.S. diet – high in animal products and processed foods – has become a status symbol around the world. However, the planet cannot sustain an equivalent level of meat consumption if other countries adopt our habits. I suggest that we must recognize within our own homes that – just like processed foods – animal proteins are a comfort. And we must embrace the discomfort of a new diet in order to reset our assumptions about what our bellies and our communities truly need to be nourished.


A woman sits on a wall on a barren hillside in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas (Leh, ©2010).


Social Justice

The term “social justice” is nearly as old as the U.S., and was presented in The Federalist Papers to help inspire the signing of The U.S. Constitution. As highlighted by Human Rights Careers, social justice requires “equity.” “Equality” and “equity” are often confused.


(Credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change, used with permission, Artist: Angus Maguire)


In the “Equality” example, everyone receives the same thing. In the “Equity” example, everyone receives the same opportunity. Glance back at the “equality” section of the image and ask yourself, “Is the tall man hungry for justice?” I suspect not. He is comfortable. He’s just enjoying the game, unaware that the equal allocation of boxes has created inequity. Unaware that his own privilege is contributing to limited access for others.



A young mother prepares to bathe her son in a Delhi alleyway where they live (prepping the battlefield, ©2009).


Climate Justice

Achieving “climate justice” first requires acknowledgement that “climate change can have differing social, economic, public health, and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations.” Daisy Simmons’s piece on “climate justice” in Yale Climate Connections is a useful introduction to the concept of climate justice. In the piece, she offers highlights including how air pollution, wildfires, and rising seas impact the poor at a disproportionate level. The lack of climate justice suggests that the world’s poor will continue to bear an undue burden as the climate warms based primarily on the actions of the rich. One example of the undue burden created by climate injustice is the continued hunger and food insecurity around the world.


A carefully groomed field of tea near Jorhat, India, with trees interspersed to create the optimum levels of shade (sea of tea, ©2010).


Climate justice enables social justice, so any improvement in climate outcomes can lay claim to increasing social justice. At current and forecast levels of climate change, climate justice and social justice cannot exist separate from one another.



A young girl pauses her crying in Old Delhi. This girl has haunted me for over a decade. If society demanded equal opportunity to access nutrition and healthcare, how would she fare? (what hope is there, ©2009).


Hunger and Food Insecurity

I have long been haunted by the small girl in the photo above who appears so deeply malnourished. It brings me discomfort. And the discomfort I feel from the image helps to fuel my hunger for justice. She deserves access to proper nutrition, and there are steps we can collectively take to help make that goal a reality. One of the largest and most tangible contributors to social injustice is hunger and food insecurity. Solving “world hunger” may be an intimidating charge, though I suggest we can take very simple steps to help reduce hunger in the long term.


There is widespread agreement within the scientific and agricultural communities that the rising temperatures and unpredictable precipitation brought by climate change have already hurt food security around the world. In 2015, the USDA – in conjunction with UCAR and NCAR – produced a report that examines how climate change can be expected to impact food security moving forward.


The report identifies four key components that must be attained before food security can exist: availability; access; utilization; and stability.



First, the report’s good news: undernourishment levels have trended downward in the past few decades. The rates dropped from 19% of the global population in the early 1990s down to 11% in 2015. A rate of 11% still represents 800 million undernourished people, so it’s not quite time to declare victory. Especially since the report notes that the food-security challenge is “particularly acute for the very young, because early life undernutrition results in measurably detrimental and lifelong health and economic consequences.” That quote alone makes me think of the image above of the hungry girl in Delhi, and wonder how we might better stabilize the food supply for those most in need.


Additionally, the report notes that “adaptation can reduce food-system vulnerability,” though presents the caveat that less wealthy populations might not be able to afford the necessary technical adaptations. That’s a perfect illustration of climate injustice, and describes why poorer populations can be expected to struggle more against the food insecurity and hunger brought by climate change.


One of the remarkable takeaways of the report is that hunger is having such a significant impact on the economy. “Collectively, food insecurity diminishes global economic productivity by 2%–3% annually (USD 1.4–2.1 trillion), with individual country costs estimated at up to 10% of country GDP.”



The report forecasts that the “number of food-insecure people could be reduced by 50% or more by 2040” without climate change, using scenarios of sustained economic growth and moderate population growth. By stopping climate change, the vicious cycle above could become a virtuous cycle that increases food security and boosts economic performance.


Interestingly, none of the above facts about the intersection of climate change and hunger cause acute discomfort for me in the short term… except for maybe the increase in costs of groceries, or occasional lack of availability. I don’t feel real hunger because 11% of the world is malnourished. If I’m paying attention, though, the above facts begin to increase my discomfort, because this is a solvable problem that we’re potentially missing the opportunity to solve.


Animal Agriculture

With the shared assumption that climate change and hunger are connected at the hip, let’s dig a little further into the complexity of the food system itself so that we can more effectively explore solutions.


Animal agriculture is the world’s leading cause of deforestation, whether for grazing or feed crops. And deforestation for this purpose greatly impacts food insecurity. According to Greenpeace, “80% of global deforestation is a result of agricultural production, which is also the leading cause of habitat destruction.” Broken down further, “Beef” is the #1 cause, and “Soy” comes in as #2 (70-75% of which is used for animal feed). This places the animal protein industry as the top two drivers of deforestation.


Just to give an idea of the scale, forests were reduced by a land area the size of Portugal each year during the 1990s. As the numbers above would indicate, this deforestation occurred principally for the purpose of grazing and animal feed production. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “overgrazing and nutrient loss turn the rainforest land that was once a storehouse of biological diversity into an eroded wasteland” within a decade. Long-term erosion of the farmer’s ability to earn a living is the cost of the short-term gain achieved by deforestation—in addition to lasting ecological damage. Nobody wins in this approach.


And while the annual rate of new deforestation is slowing down, significant deforestation is happening now. According to the UN, deforestation continued at a rate of 38K square miles per year between 2015-2020, down from 46K square miles per year between 2010-2015. The fact that the UN presents these numbers as a pseudo-success story concerns me. The ship is still sinking—just not as fast as it was 10 or 30 years ago. If we don’t feel moved by the connections between hunger and deforestation, then I submit that we’re “too full with privilege.” We must hunger for rewilding of the lands if justice is to be served.


If there is a bright spot in the current picture, it’s that the total protected area of forest has reached 2.8M square miles—700K square miles more than in 1990. This positive shift should be considered a feather in the cap of the environmental organizations focused on conservation, e.g., The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Conservation International, Rare, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to name a few.


Regarding deforestation, some may wonder: won’t less people go hungry if more land is cleared for crops? The answer might surprise you.



A cow masks its gaze behind the shadow of its own ear (cow in Virginia pasture, ©2020)


Land is principally being cleared to support the animal protein industry. Meat can be thought of as a form of “processed food.” Plant protein gets “processed” through an animal’s systems before being delivered to the dinner table. Unfortunately, those processes are highly inefficient, and both the world’s poor and the environment are paying the price for this inefficiency. Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich point out in “Clean Protein: The Revolution that Will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy – And Save Our Planet” that the animal agriculture industry feeds a chicken about 9 calories to get one calorie of chicken to your plate.


In practical terms, “to sustain yourself on 2,000 calories of plant‑based foods, you simply eat 2,000 calories … to sustain yourself on 2,000 calories of chicken,” you must first feed 18,000 calories to the chicken.” Other animals – pigs, cows and turkeys – are even more inefficient. And this math doesn’t even include the methane emissions, the carbon capture opportunity cost of deforestation, the fossil fuel used producing and transporting the chicken feed, the water necessary to grow all of the additional feed, or the impacts to the water system from animal waste/fertilizer/pesticides. The climate effects of the animal agriculture industry reverberate well beyond food security.



In my mind, the fact that the rich eat burgers while the poor hunger can be attributed both to the power differential and the “abundance blind spot.” Those two lenses help bring the issue into clear focus. The affluent are merely pursuing what’s most comfortable.


With so many calories dedicated to animal feed, it becomes feasible that a poor family could hunger so that a cow can be fed the plants necessary to grow a steak for a rich person. The consumption of meat in the U.S. is over 200 lbs/year per person. That translates to roughly a ton of food that is potentially diverted away from those in need… per American… per year. This makes me feel like our culture of consuming lots of meat is an example of capitalism and consumerism gone awry, because we’re not accounting for the full costs of our actions. I first assessed this overconsumption relationship with meat as an example of us losing our values, then I remembered that we each value comfort.


So What?

Power protects power, and we humans are biased toward inaction on social justice issues due to an “abundance blind spot.” Climate change and social justice are inexorably linked by hunger and food insecurity. Unfortunately, we don’t have to feel full to be “too full with privilege.” That means each of us must actively consider the impact of our choices. Some level of discomfort for you and me will be required for us to solve the wickedly complex challenge of global hunger.


Think back to the tall person in our “equality” example who wasn’t thinking anything but “This is a great game!” Likewise, when a person is eating a burger, they’re not thinking anything but “This is delicious!” Neither of these individuals seeks to harm, though both are helping prevent their neighbor from living a full life. Both our tall man and meat eater deserve to enjoy their lives—and so does everyone else. To solve the enduring challenge of hunger, I suggest that Americans have to figure out how to do with less. We must be the “tall man” willing to give our box to the kid. We must be willing to add vegetables to our plates so that the poor can become more food secure.


Broad Actions

How can we maximize food security in vulnerable populations? I submit that more disruptive approaches will be necessary to get our food system back in line with what the Earth can sustain.


In order to challenge long-term hunger, conservation organizations, government coalitions, private industry – in fact, each one of us – must continue to remain engaged to further slow and ultimately reverse habitat loss. The WWF offers a broad three-pronged approach to reduce deforestation that includes engaging the private sector, ensuring transparency, and creating financial incentives. I would love if that transparency would allow for farmers, suppliers, and the end consumer to better understand the overall environmental impacts of purchases.


The UN offers some suggestions on how to mitigate impact, such as incentivizing small farmers to conduct regenerative agriculture practices. This would include planting trees on pasture land and creating natural fences with trees and bushes. I submit that regenerative agricultural practices must be widely incentivized—not just at small scale for farmers disadvantaged by deforestation.


Even with the wide scientific and agricultural understanding of the links between climate and hunger, the investments that governments and corporations are considering to adapt to climate change are principally reactive in nature. Adaptation is so much more costly to implement than preventative measures. Pursuing “climate adaptation” as the only path forward will put society in a race that we’ll never win.


I had a diabetic colleague with a “sweet tooth” that ate and drank whatever he liked with the theory that the medication would control his condition. Sweets were his comfort food, even though sweets wrought long-term harm on his body. We treat the Earth like that diabetic treated himself when we focus solely on climate mitigation and adaptation measures at the expense of prevention. The agricultural industry and individuals alike find short-term comfort in continuing business as usual. My friend would have been better-served to give up his comfort foods. He should have eaten a vegetable. Likewise, humankind must give up some comforts to allow the Earth to heal. We should each eat more vegetables.



Market negotiations in full swing (6 v. 1, ©2009).



Individual Actions

One option to tackle climate and hunger is to change what’s on our dinner plates, and how we expect it to be produced. Regenerative agriculture will potentially protect the option for sustainably grown meat to be produced and eaten.


In the meantime, “eating a vegetable” might be one of the most important steps we can collectively take to reduce world hunger. Animal agriculture is decimating forests, pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and reducing food security. In addition to whole veggies, the alternative protein market has incredible choices that can help societies maintain our comfort-oriented culture.


By sitting with the discomfort brought by understanding the impact of our actions, we can realign our values. Armed with our clarified values, we can create the culture that we want with our own actions. As we sharpen our hunger for justice, we must sharpen our hunger for sustainable foods. When in doubt, eat a vegetable.





Children playfully crowd the camera in Old Delhi (vive le moment!, ©2009)


I photographed the children in the photo above the same day as the malnourished little girl I showed earlier, just a stone’s throw away. Their expressions are those of playfulness, resilience and even mischief. Their apparent resilience gives me hope that there is a path forward to provide greater food security to those in need—as long as I’m willing to do the work to ignite my hunger for justice.


Here’s what that work might look like. Igniting a hunger for justice requires that a person be educated on the issues, proactively observe the world, and practice empathy. Absent any of those three, it’s quite comfortable to remain “too full with privilege.” Hunger – whether for food or justice – will not be comfortable. In order to embrace the discomfort, the process must be intentional. Therefore, I must deliberately consume less than I desire in order to feel discomfort in a way that ignites the fire.


Last Sunday morning, I heard a knock on the door while I was reading the Washington Post at the breakfast table. I opened the door to a person with a bleeding hand. Fast-forward five minutes and my wife and I were patching that person up at the same breakfast table, my son keeping watch with a fistful of blueberries. That felt like being visited by an angel, in part because it offered the opportunity to help a person in need. It was an easy call to decide to help out, and it was easy to help.


Climate change and hunger aren’t so angelic. Neither challenge is going to knock on your or my door on a Sunday morning so that we can offer an easy remedy. In fact, we have to get out of the comfort of our homes and glance away from the comfort of our cellphones to even identify the problems worth solving.


We should expect no physiological indication when we become “too full with privilege.” We must therefore seek that which makes us uncomfortable so that we may sit with discomfort and find our hunger for justice. While world hunger is often referred to as an unsolvable riddle, please know that we can solve it. It’s only solvable, though, if we challenge the practices – and menu items – that make us most comfortable.


If change will not occur without discomfort, what social justice issue are you willing to suffer for?


(special thanks to my editor, Michelle Johnson, who sharpens my thinking, and challenges me to make my writing more personal and therefore less boring)

(Images by Jared Johnson, unless noted)

(field in Leh, ©2010)

(suffering eased, ©2009)

(fisherman, ©2010)

(Leh, ©2010)

(sea of tea, ©2010)

(what hope is there, ©2009)

(cow in Virginia pasture, ©2020)

(components of food security, credit: USDA, NCAR, UCAR study, 2021)

(privilege for dinner, 2021)

(climate-hunger-earning cycle, 2021)

(6 v. 1, ©2009)

(vive le moment, ©2009)






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