green policy

Food Security apparently optional for the Children of Aotearoa

Last night the government (National and ACT) voted down two bills that sought to provide food to children particularly in low decile schools. That is, children who live in the most economically deprived areas of the country. The bills essentially dealt with the issue of food security, or alternatively stated, food insecurity.[1]

Food security is considered as existing ‘when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life’.[2] It involves four essential elements: availability, access, stability and utilisation.[3] According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, availability is measured in terms of the quantity, quality and diversity of food available to consumers, while access is measured by both physical and economic access to food.[4] Access and availability are largely guaranteed through national level policy although there is no requirement for a country to ‘achieve food production self-sufficiency’.[5] Importantly, measuring the extent of food security at the national level (that is, that a country has sufficient levels of food to distribute to meet domestic demand) does not necessarily reflect the extent of security at the household or individual levels. A nation can be food secure at the national level while still food insecure at the individual level due to ‘unequal distribution of food within the country’ which may result from food prices and the issue of affordability.[6] Stability is measured through exposure to food security risk, as well as incidences of shocks such as price spikes, fluctuations in domestic food supply and political instability,[7] while utilisation measures the ‘variables that determine the ability to utilise food’ together with ‘outcomes of poor food utilisation’.[8]

Food insecurity has often been considered an issue of  inadequate food supply at the national level. But this is not the case in New Zealand, nor in most developed countries. Instead, it is often the lack of purchasing power on behalf of households.[9] In his entitlements theory, Amartya Sen emphasised similar issues of consumption, demand and access to food by vulnerable people.[10] Sen argued that a person will starve if their entitlement set is absent ‘any commodity bundle with enough food’.[11] Also, that starvation was imminent if there were a change in their factor endowment, such as, loss of land or labour power, or their exchange entitlement mapping, such as food price spikes or loss of employment.[12] He maintained that these changes would restrict a persons ability to acquire any commodity bundle with enough food.[13]

A problem that arises in respect of the Feed the Kids bill, is that critics imply the problem of food insecurity in New Zealand is not one of a chronic nature (as is often found in developing or least developed regions). Therefore, studies that suggest marginal improvements (and perhaps arguments such as Sen’s) which were largely responding to food insecurity in developing countries should not be used to defend policies that attempt to address transitory food insecurity in children in New Zealand through school lunch or breakfast programmes. The reason being that there is little evidence to show that outcomes will provide any significant benefit for the cost of such policies.  For instance, Dr Eric Crampton writes:[15]

[I]t’s hard to make a case for that we’d get any great benefit from the [school breakfast] programmes. Rather, we often find that they don’t even increase the odds that kids eat breakfast at all.

And:

To the extent that they improve outcomes in some studies, we really can’t tell:

whether the effect is from changing the timing of breakfast, in which case we should instead have a morning tea break;

whether the effect is any better than just giving those families an equivalent cash transfer.

However, the cash transfer option doesn’t ensure that children will become food secure. By that I mean it doesn’t ensure that there will be food available or that they will have access to food.  I appreciate that a cash transfer gives the parent more freedom to choose the kinds of food that the child has available to them. However, a cash transfer may also incentivise food producers to increase the price of their foods to exact a benefit for themselves through the increased purchasing power made available at the household level. This could in effect neutralise any benefit that might have otherwise accrued to food insecure households due to affordability issues. Arguably, this problem could be overcome by adjusting for any inflationary effects. But that pattern is hardly desirable and contributes to the cost of government administration. Additionally, a cash transfer may not increase what the parent spends on food at all. Parents who find themselves without work, paying rent and utilities, school costs, and servicing other debts incurred while employed or those parents that simply don’t have enough money to cover the basic bills each month may not be able to increase their food spend, it may mean they’re able to cover costs that they had been unable to cover – car licensing, dentist, school costs, sports fees etc.

However, there are also issues for advocates of the Feed the Kids bill, such as, who supplies the food to the school? Can a government get value for money if entering into a supply agreement with a corporate (who would likely create terms more favourable to itself), or is contracting with a charity necessarily the best option since they may for example, source food products from corporations? There just seems to be a contradiction in fighting capitalism from the left – who are the main advocates of this bill, to partnering with corporations either directly or indirectly.

In principle, I support the Feed the Kids bill. But like many others have suggested, it needs some work. That would have been the benefit of getting it to the Select Committee where the public could make submissions and where robust research was carried out to attempt to construct an effective policy.

An area where I’d like to see research directed, is where food is targeted at the source. That is, where the government invest in local food production. It might be that there is room to incentivise food producers to produce surpluses that are supplied to their local schools. Sure, this is an un-worked idea but we shouldn’t just limit our imagination to cash transfers or supply by food corporations. There is a human right to food and in my mind that means it is a resource first. If the government can improve local food production by investing more in the sector to deal with issues of household and individual food insecurity then perhaps we can tackle a number of issues (such as employment, health, education) while also ensuring children are not subjected to food insecurity whether it be chronic or transitory.

The right to adequate food is recognised and protected in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).[16] The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food defines this right as:[17]

…the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear…

The government also has obligations to meet food security goals as set out in the Millennium Development Declaration[18] and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security. [19] I haven’t even touched on issues of undernourishment, nutrition, food sovereignty, the role of agribusiness, deforestation, land grabs, climate issues, infrastructure issues, armed conflict, GMO’s. The topic of food security is vast, and is a priority at the international level. Pity the New Zealand government see it as optional. Perhaps, the next development in the feed the kids campaign, then might be to focus on the wider issue of food security at the household and individual level and find ways to address it that aren’t merely palliative, but involve addressing the network of challenges that cause food insecurity.

 

[1]  Some of the content of this post comprises parts of a dissertation I wrote for my LLM.

[2]  Rome Declaration on World Food Security.

[3]  FAO State of Food Insecurity in the World (2014), at 13.

[4]  Ibid

[5]  Christopher Stevens, Romilly Greenhill, Jane Kennan and Stephen Devereux “The WTO Agreement on Agriculture and Food Security” (paper prepared for the Commonwealth Secretariat, Economic Series No. 42, London, 2000), at 3.

[6]  At 2-3.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  World Bank Poverty and Hunger (1986)

[10]  FAO “Chapter 2. Food security: concepts and measurement” in Trade Reforms and Food Security: Conceptualising the Linkages (FAO, Rome, 2003), at 28.

[11]  Amartya Sen Food, Economics and Entitlements (World Institute for Developmental Economics Research, United Nations University, 1986) at 8-9. For Sen, an entitlement is ‘the set of different alternative commodity bundles that the person can acquire through the use of the various legal channels of acquirement open to someone in [their] position’.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Stevens et al, at 5.

[15]   Eric Crampton “Breakfast” Offsetting Behaviour (15 May 2013)

[16]  Universal Declaration of Human Rights GA Res 217 A, III (1948); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights GA Res2200A XXI 993 UNTS 3 (1966).

[17]  “The Human Right to Food” UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

[18] Millennium Development Declaration

[19]  Rome Declaration on World Food Security

The Greens and the implication of exponential growth

So I was reading one of the Greens newsletters this week which left me feeling extremely confused about their economics. My criticism is not because I think Dr Norman is incompetent but rather that I think his commentary is in conflict with what I understood to be ‘sustainability’, an ethic that the Green’s advocate and that in fact the party was founded on.
 
Dr Norman this week criticised the government for a decline of 0.6% GDP in the tradable sector of the economy. He also stated:

 “A shrinking tradable sector combined with a strongly growing non-tradable sector means only one thing – increased borrowing and a ballooning current account deficit”.

I’m curious, wouldn’t a reduction in the tradable economy sit well with Green politics. For instance, he mentions that ‘manufacturing is a key sector for driving high, value-added exports and creating well-paid jobs’ yet the reduction in this sector would surely be an environmental advantage? I mean, less carbon emissions, smaller ecological footprint, ability to restore the now unused land to forest or other environmentally friendly business that would contribute to reducing carbon emissions e.g. industrial hemp farms for various products such as paper, building products, fabric and so on?
 
My question is: Shouldn’t the Green’s be advocating for reductions in exports and imports and promoting wider support for local trading – which could also create well paid jobs by enabling local business owners to employ local workers as well as minimise environmental impact? I’m not saying here that there is no room for exports in a sustainability framework, only that continued steady growth of our tradable sector is unsustainable and therefore the outcome will be no different to that of the neo-liberalism the Green’s have openly advocated against.
 
Dr Albert A.Bartlett states that ‘the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function’. The exponential function is a tool used to measure steady growth patterns, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The benefit of understanding exponential growth is to inform ourselves of how long it will take for steady growth to double; using a simple calculation and this gives us the ability to interpret what that level of growth will mean for our society. Dr Bartlett focuses on the use of exponential growth in relation to population as this is where he sees the function as being most important due to its understatement at both the local and global level. My purpose is to show why the Greens focus on economic growth is not in line with their principles of sustainability – the very value that gave birth to the party.
 
GDP is often used to indicate the standard of living in a country and so it follows that the more economic growth the better the standard of living. But the exponential function can dispel this myth.
 
Exponential growth is measured by a constant (fixed fraction) over a fixed period of time. In 2012, NZ’s GDP was recorded as 2.5%. Dr Bartlett indicates that if it takes a fixed length of time to grow, in NZ’s case 2.5% then it follows that it takes a longer fixed period of time to grow 100%. This longer fixed period of time is called the doubling time. The doubling time (T2) is calculated  as follows: T2 = 70/(% growth per unit) = time.
 
What we can say is that if NZ’s economy continues to grow at 2.5% then in 28 years our GDP will double to 5% (Calculation: T2 = 70/2.5 = 28). This may not seem so bad, but consider the growth rates for the 28 years following each of the preceding periods:
  •          2012 = 2.5%
  •          2040 = 5%
  •          2068 = 10%
  •          2096 = 20%
As Dr Bartlett points out, we need to understand that “the growth in any doubling time is greater than the total of all the preceding growth and that modest growth rates give us enormous growth in modest periods of time”.
 
My conclusion is that if Dr Norman is concerned about sustainability then criticising the government for the decline in growth in the tradable sector is not particularly consistent with the principle of sustainability. If modest amounts of growth in that sector will give us enormous growth in a modest period of time then this will require major depletion of natural resources and massive increases in waste to sustain growth at those levels. I wonder if perhaps Dr Norman should instead be encouraging local trading (within NZ) to improve job prospects and the prospects of local business owners and support the reduction in exports rather than advocating a position that has an apparent conflict with Green Party values.