An educational response to the food crisis in the global North and South

Frans Verhagen - November, 2008

Creating Sustainable Communities

Frans C. Verhagen, M. Div., M.I.A., Ph.D. is a sustainability sociologist, co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE), and director of its sustainability education and research program. He is also the founder and president of the International Institute of Monetary Transformation.

There are close to one billion persons who suffer from hunger. That is about 20% of our fellow citizens. If we consider the millions more who are subjected to malnutrition, the numbers are even higher, and given the most recent global financial developments, this number will drastically increase in the months ahead. And while it can be expected that food prices may come down on account of the deflation of economies in the global North and South, the ever deepening poverty of our hungry fellow citizens will prevent them from having access to these cheaper food staples. In fact, the poorer a society, the more the malnutrition, hunger and even starvation its citizens will suffer, with the poorest and most vulnerable groups in those societies suffering the most.

Indeed, this is a crisis situation, and its causes, with its wide ranging social and ecological consequences, are multiple and interconnected.

   One of the main causes is the overall global economic system that enriches the few, impoverishes the many and endangers the planet. It reflects the assumption that more economic growth is better, an illusion which pursues the creation of a larger pie without considering the manner in which it is distributed. This process of economic concentration is played out in national, regional and local communities. It disregards the need and the challenge to strive for equitable development, which balances growth with equity.

  There are many other factors that aggravate this food crisis. A major one is human-induced climate change. Extreme weather conditions, such as floods and droughts, endanger or even destroy the food security system in a community. Another factor is the dilemma of food versus fuel whereby dominant nations and groups are able to use biofuels in a kind of zero-sum game with those who need the biomass for food: when corn is used for biofuel it cannot be used for food or feed ! A third factor is the land tenure system that leads to the acquisition of fertile land by wealthy local elites or transnational corporations, driving hapless share croppers to overburdened cities. Rather than producing local staples, the land now owned by these corporations is used for exports of beef for fast-food outlets in the North and, as a result, the farmers drift to overcrowded urban areas where they eke out an existence, if they are lucky enough to find work.

How should educators in the global North and South respond to the food crisis?

The most profound challenge is raising awareness of the politico-economic, ethical and ecological dimensions of the global economic system. However, awareness is only a first step; more difficult is the need to motivate oneself and one’s audience to shoulder responsibility for the situation. We are reminded by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that “action does not spring from information, but a readiness for responsibility.”

   Educators must also bring education about the food crisis into their classrooms. In the North they can develop an integrated curriculum showing how lifestyles and waste are connected to the food crisis in the South. They may organize a fast or Hunger Banquet where the world’s food pizza is divided in such a way that 80% of the world’s population has to do with 20% of available food, while the other 20% luxuriate with the 80%, again stressing the need for equitable distribution. Educators in the South can develop school projects that foster self-reliant, equitable food production on the local level.

   In both the North and South educators can contribute to an understanding and use of the sustainable communities development paradigm, which builds upon the economic, ecological, social, architectural, and educational strengths of a community through a process of community visioning, planning and implementing. This systemic approach deals with a community’s long-term social, ecological and economic future and reduces the need for food and other assistance from outside the community. Indeed, a sustainable communities approach to the food crises requires a fundamental social change that must come from a grassroots that is inspired and informed by teachers in a vibrant educational system. The vision and ethical guidelines of the Earth Charter can be a great help in this effort as can the very practical approach outlined at