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EAP Publication - 12

A Global Food and Agriculture Policy for Western Countries: Laying the Foundations

Stuart B. Hill, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Entomology
Faculty of Agriculture
McGill University
Quebec, Canada


The food system of industrialized countries is characterized as being deficient in the areas of nourishment, fulfillment and sustainability. Improvements will require that these areas be recognized as dominant goals, even where they conflict with the more common goals of productivity, profit and power. Policy implications and methods of implementation of such changes are examined.


Food, including water and air, is the most important requirement of humans. There is no substitute for it. Furthermore, food needs are quite specific for each individual, both in terms of quantity and quality. Consequently, it is important to examine the structure of food systems in industrialized countries to determine whether they are capable of meeting the food needs of present and future generations; my hypothesis is that they are not, and that fundamental change is required. In the absence of a cultural revolution, the adoption of new policy directives by governments is one of the most effective ways of implementing change. First, however, let us examine the present food system, which I maintain is unsustainable.

The food system of industrialized countries is characterized by an emphasis on maximizing production and/or profit. Some countries also use foods as a power tool in international relations. These goals presently dominate food policy in these countries and compromise the meeting of more fundamental goals such as nourishment, worker safety and environmental health.

Farming is increasingly dependent on cultivars (often hybrids) that have been selected for such characteristics as weight of produce, cosmetic appearance, shelf-life, machine pickability and ability to meet the needs of the food processing industry. Such features as nutritional value, ability to outcompete weeds and resist pests, and to maintain the fertility of the soil, tend to be neglected. Planting designs are usually monoculture or relatively simple rotations, and the soil is often left bare for much of the year. Consequently, the soil becomes depleted of certain components, especially trace elements and organic matter, and is exposed to wind and water erosion. In addition, monocultures promote the build-up of pests, weeds and diseases. Soil is manipulated by means of powerful machinery and synthetic soluble fertilizers. Both practices are damaging to the beneficial life in the soil. Weeds are controlled by cultivation and the use of herbicides, and pests primarily by the use of synthetic organic pesticides. This is invariably followed by resurgence of the pest' no longer controlled by its natural enemies, the appearance of secondary pests, and the 108 eventual development of resistance to the pesticides. The crop may be harvested before it is ripe. It is usually then transported, stored, processed, and packaged several times. These processes are accompanied by a loss of nutrients and the addition of toxins. Increasingly, it is eaten out of the home, overcooked and containing excessive amounts of sugar, salt, animal fats, carbohydrates, food additives and contaminants, and lacking in certain vitamins, trace minerals and fibre. Such diets have been linked to increases in the incidence of such degenerative diseases as diabetes, heart diseases, certain cancers and various behavioural problems.

While the food system described above may appear to be functioning well, closer examination reveals that it is more dependent than it has ever been on non-renewable resources (particularly petroleum), synthetic toxic chemicals, powerful machinery, an enormous and costly research base, and system of services, regulatory agencies, subsidies, internal markets manipulated by advertising, and external markets manipulated by international power politics. In addition, it is having a wide range of negative impacts on the health of both the environment (soil, air and water and the organisms therein! and humans. It should be noted that almost all of these disadvantages are ignored by current methods of cost benefit-analysis.

To any open mind, such a food system is clearly not sustainable. It is not simply a matter of certain adjustments being required to make it function; rather it is structurally unsustainable. This is a serious situation requiring a radical change in the policies of governments and the value systems of populations.

As Tofler has argued in his recent book, The Third Wave, the major struggle that will determine the future is not between the doctrines of the dominant political parties or special interest groups, but between, on the one hand, those who try to prop up, defend and preserve the core institutions of industrial mass society and, on the other hand, those who recognize that today's most urgent problems, including the unsustainability of our food system, cannot be solved within the existing framework. Central to this situation is the struggle between the pulls for centralization and decentralization and between those who strive to repress diversity and those who fight to accommodate and legitimize it".

Existing food policies in industrialized countries comprise a collection of activities that usually have been sanctioned at different times to solve immediate problems; and the overall goals, if any, are assumed to be the country's national priorities. They generally lack vision, and any long-range perspective, and there is no attempt made to coordinate and integrate. While definitions of policy usually refer to "wise plans for the management of public and private affairs", most existing policies are short-sighted, opportunistic, and relatively devoid of wisdom. That the food systems they support have persisted so long has only been made possible by their expanding resource base including both materials and human expertise: hence the emphasis placed by all industrialized countries on growth in economic development, resource development and research and development. Such growth has tended to conceal the unsustainability of our life-style from us and prevent us from undergoing the necessary psycho-social evolution to correct this situation. Increasingly, however, more and more people are recognizing that fundamental change is required. Unlike the great revolutions of the past, the cultural revolution that we are now witnessing is highly decentralized and diverse in its motivation. It is united, however, in the recognition that the highly centralized mass approaches of the past that emphasized growth in one form or another as the universal solution to our problems simply do not benefit many sectors of society in the short-term or any sectors in the long-term.


In order to design a rational and responsible food policy, it is first necessary to set aside all considerations about the present situation. Similarly, over concern at this stage for the feasibility of implementing any alternative systems will only interfere with the necessity for creativity and clear thinking.

While the productive capacity of ecosystems are limited, the dominant systems of food production used today are barely tapping the potential. Hence, the scope for developing food systems that can meet the food needs of the people of the world is enormous. Similarly, strategies to ensure sustainability have hardly been investigated. Efforts to recycle wastes, use renewable rather than non-renewable resources, and substitute big-ecological for physio-chemical solutions to our problems, still remain relatively primitive. Again, the potential for making improvements in this area is enormous. The other major area where important developments can be realized relates to quality of life factors, fulfillment and the realization of one's full human potential. By taking such considerations into account when designing food systems, we will secure access to our greatest untapped resource, our ingenuity and cooperative capacity.

Thus, the three central goals that I would propose for designing rational food policies are optimal nourishment and fulfillment for all the peoples of the world, and the sustainability of the means used to achieve these goals. These, in very different ways, play major roles in determining the nature of the human condition (Figure la). In a similar manner, sustainability is determined by the interrelationships between ' the human condition, resources and the environment (Figure 1b), these latter two areas being the other major components requiring policy directives when designing a rational food system.


Figure 1. Interrelationships between major areas of concern with-respect to designing a . rational food policy


I will now examine nourishment, the first of the goals mentioned above, to demonstrate that radical changes in policy will be required to achieve optimal nourishment within industrialized countries.

While I recognize that the problems of the less developed countries are far more serious, these will not be considered directly in this paper. However, as many of the problems in these countries are caused by inappropriate interventions by industrialized countries, I believe that establishing a nourishing, fulfilling, sustainable food system in these latter countries is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that future relationships with less developed countries will be-truly mutually beneficial.

Each individual has unique nutritional needs and sensitivities. Requirements for a particular vitamin by one individual, for example, may be many times that of another individual. Thus, mass approaches to solving problems of nourishment are unlikely to be very successful.

Allergy to common foods and their contaminants is widespread in industrialized countries. It is probable that many of these have their origin in early childhood through exposures to chemicals, to the various foods substituted for 110 breast milk, and to those products present in the breast milk of mothers who are themselves exposed to their allergens. Ironically, the widespread habit of overeating does not usually involve all foods, but only those foods or food groups to which the individual exhibits an allergic response, however mild it may be. This is because the corticoids produced when the body is exposed to allergens are stimulants.

Milk is the most important allergen in industrialized countries, possibly having measurable negative effects on as much as half their populations. This is not surprising, as we are the only animal to consume milk beyond the infant stage. The problem is particularly accentuated by the common practice of exposing infants to cow's milk at a time when their bodies are adapted to receiving only human milk. Milk is one of the foods that should probably only be consumed in a processed form, i.e., as yogurt, keifer, cheese, butter, etc. l he problem of allergy is one that has been widely ignored and misunderstood by the general public and the majority of the medical profession alike. It has great bearing on the form that a nourishing food system must take and must therefore be seriously considered.

Our requirement for refined sugar, food additives and stimulants, such as tea and coffee, is zero.

Most fruits and vegetables are most nutritious when consumed whole or minimally processed, in season, as soon es possible after picking, and in compatible combinations. Grains are also best consumed whole and not made into flour until just before cooking and consuming. Most grains are currently consumed in highly processed forms and usually mixed with large amounts of 'sugar and/or salt, and a vast array of food additives. Most diets in industrialized countries are deficient in fruits, vegetables and whole grains (needed particularly for their vitamins, minerals and fibre).

The meat, dairy products and eggs from range-fed and free-range animals are generally superior to that from animals kept in intensive production systems. Of particular importance is the lower fat content of the meat. Excessive consumption of saturated fats is a major problem in most industrialized societies.

While some governments have initiated programs to confront certain of these problems, such as the need to reduce consumption of saturated fats, conflicts of interest between the departments or ministries of health and agriculture have prevented them from being effective. Thus, livestock is still deliberately fattened for-slaughter and then graded according to its fat class. Labelling laws, despite their educational potential, so far have only had limited effects on the buying habits of consumers who, lacking the necessary information, are not in a position to fully exercise their freedom of choice.

Clearly, much needs to be done to confront the situation outlined here. It is not, however, an impossible task. What has been lacking is not primarily information, as is often assumed, but merely the will to make the necessary changes. It is not a situation in which endless studies need to be carried out before action is taken; rather leadership is required to initiate the necessary changes at whatever level is most accessible, particularly at the level of the individual.


Humans are naturally spontaneous, joyful, intelligent, completely aware of and responsive to their environment and capable of fully expressing their feelings. In this state, they will tend to integrate into the natural ecosystem and function with other humans in a cooperative and responsible way. Humans continue to develop and grow in wisdom, knowledge and skills throughout their lives. -I his is our potential and it must be considered carefully when establishing pulley. Policies must not sanction actions that diminish this potential, but rather promote its realization. It seems obvious to me that employment or involvement (even as a consumer) in a food system that is designed to meet real food needs in a sustainable way is likely to be far more fulfilling than being associated with one that meets mass manipulated wants in an unsustainable way, as does our present food system.


A sustainable food system is one that is not dependent on non-renewable resources, or on the degradation of renewable resources, the environment or humans. Much can be learned about the nature of such systems by examining natural ecosystems.

Natural ecosystems are characterized by the existence of numerous associations between organisms and their living and non-living environment. Most of these associations are finely tuned, having evolved over millions of years With respect to the efficient functioning of ecosystems, most associations can readily be seen to be beneficial. Such ecosystems, particularly those approaching the climax stage within a succession, exhibit a high degree of complexity, both in terms of numbers of species and types of interactions. Nutrient flows are cyclical. There are constraints of form and function which, if disregarded, lead to disruptions and inefficiencies in the system. Waste is minimal, and what may appear as waste can usually be seen, after further study, to serve a longterm "survival" function. Change is non-linear and characterized by relatively sudden responses as thresholds are reached. Natural selection operates against unsustainable processes. There is an economy of nature that may be seen as homeostatic feedback, self-maintaining, self-regulating and optimizing mechanisms.

Such systems, powered by the sun, contain much of the "wisdom" that we need to incorporate into our food system designs if they are to be sustainable. Examples of the application of these insights into policy are given in Table 1. Already, several agroecosystem designers have recognized the wisdom of creating complex food producing systems that emphasize nut, seed and fodder producing trees with managed ground covers comprising several mutually beneficial species, companion crops and mixed cultures, a diverse array of livestock and fish ponds. Such systems would aim to minimize the need for human intervention, and emphasize the substitution of skill and knowledge capital for machinery and chemicals. Thus, the creation of self perpetuating linkages and interactions, such as the establishment of populations of natural controls for pests, may be used instead of resorting to repeated interventions with non-specific poisons.

If this ecological approach to agriculture is adopted many changes will be required. The ground will be kept covered, either with growing plants or with dead organic matter. This will minimize the common problems of wind and water erosion. All organic wastes will be recycled to the land and biological nitrogen fixation will be encouraged. Farms will probably be relatively small, or if larger, will be operated cooperatively. Most of the population will be involved, at least to some extent, in the production of food and production will be balanced according to the needs of local populations, there being very little export and import, as these practices tend to result in the degradation of some areas and the pollution of others.



Some policies have been suggested or implied in the preceding text, and others in Table 1. Additional policies are presented in Table 2 in the form of seven major goals of a normative Canadian food policy. These focus on health, permanence, efficiency (broadly defined), environmental quality, fair rewards to those employed within the food system, and supportive relationships with less developed countries. They are of a long-term and general nature, emphasizing real needs, respecting biochemical constraints and the complex, cyclical character of the natural environment.




The central concern of policy must be the implementation of the goals that are being promoted. To be successful in this endeavour, it is necessary to adopt a holistic approach that takes into account the means for promoting change, the groups of people involved, and the internal and external relationships of the food system (between the physico-chemical, big-ecological and socio-economic factors)(Figure 2).


Figure 2. Implementation of changes within the food system


Such a vision explains why so many narrowly focused efforts fail, and why, if we wish to bring about change on the farm or in the food handling sector, we must take into account and involve all other components of the system, particularly consumers. Such a system may be viewed as similar, . in some respects, to a theatrical play in which we the population are the author, actors and audience. Every actor, particularly the principals, must have a clear script, the direction must be supportive, and the props adequate. The principal actors, in this case, are the general public, producers, those in the supply service and retail industries, researchers, communicators, (including media people, educators and extension agents) and politicians and civil servants associated with every level of government. Too often in the past, efforts to implement change have emphasized one sector of society, neglecting the need for the cooperative involvement of all other sectors, if only by their vote. Some of the strategies for implementing change open to government include laws, regulations, standards, codes, taxes, incentives, education, demonstration models, research-and development, public participation, planning, and the establishment of appropriate policies: These and other factors that must be considered when implementing change in the food production process are listed in this figure to indicate all the "farm" variables that must be considered.


Figure 3. Model for generating appropriate strategies for promoting sustainable food production. An equivalent model can be established for animal production.


Underlying these various strategies are three fundamentally different approaches- the provision of the following:

1. Supports - education, extension, services and legislation.

2. Rewards (for those who act responsibly) - tax incentives, subsidies, low interest loans, etc. These should only be used during the transition period to avoid the development of dependence.

3. Penalties (for those who act irresponsibly) - monitoring programs and legislation.

While it will undoubtedly be necessary to take action in each of these three areas, most resources should be focused on the provision of supports.

With appropriate support, we can expect three types of positive response. Firstly, the substitution of one practice for another; secondly, efforts to increase efficiency (largely through innovative "management" approaches); thirdly, perhaps most important of all, a change in the values and associated needs and wants of the population at large. This latter response is both radical and liberating and contrasts with the dominant strategies used to solve food system problems. These tend to emphasize the commercial "fix-it" approach and the bureaucratic "control-regulate-monitor-it" approach. Only by changing our values and redefining our needs, however, are we likely to be able to develop lifestyles that are sustainable and in balance with the support environment. I believe that sustainable change comes about, not by imposing controls from outside, but by changing ourselves from within.

The concept of a nourishing, fulfilling, sustainable food system, while problematical to most individuals and governments within our present society would be, I believe, the obvious choice for individuals and governments that have adopted more holistic values.


1. Tofler, A. (1980). The Third :Wave. Wm. Morrow, New York.

2. Hill, S. B. (1981). Food from land. Ecology. No. 5129, pp. 95-110. Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, Canada.


I would like to thank the Macdonald Stewart Foundation of Montreal for their support and the staff of the Ecological Agricultural Projects for their help in the preparation of this manuscript.

This paper was presented at the International Conference Towards a Global Approach of Food and Agriculture -Theoretical Basis and Economic Realities held in Paris, November 25th-26th, 1981 w rich was organized by Nature et Progrès and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). It is also to be published in Nature et Progrès.

Copyright © 1982 Ecological Agriculture Projects

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