Hunger Frames

As promised, I will now discuss a contemporary environmental problem using the concept of environmental framing and the questions presented in last week’s guide. I will walk through a whole set of related frames and discuss their similarities and differences. To begin, let’s consider several recent news items:

  • On September 11, Chipotle launched a stealth advertising campaign with a top-of-the-line animation from Moonbot Studios. The ad presents Chipotle as a champion of “food with integrity” defending the people from a sinister corporate and industrial food system. It racked up over 6 million views in 11 days.
  • On September 14-15, Yale University hosted an international conference on Food Sovereignty, or the idea that people should have the right to control their local food system rather than let global markets determine whether and what they grow and eat.[i]
  • On September 18, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law released a joint study describing “how confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America.” According to the press release, the U.S. wastes (doesn’t eat) an estimated 40% of its food.[ii]
  • On September 18, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released its 2013 report under the title, Wake Up Before it is Too Late. The report “warns that continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis” (emphasis added). It advocates for “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible” to replace monocropping industrial farming with muli-functional agriculture.
  • On September 19, the U.S. House or Representatives passed a bill to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is better known as federal program that provides food stamps.[iii]
  • On September 21, NPR’s Weekend Edition aired a story on the latest project of the Trader Joe’s ex-President, Doug Rauch: collect food past its expiration date and sell it at a steep discount to “the underserved in our cities.”[iv]

This list might seem a grab-bag at first, but I want to pull out a common theme: hunger. Each of these stories frame, in different ways and with different consequences for people and nature, problems surrounding the basic human need to eat.

A note on style: I have written this in prose rather than a step-by-step walkthrough of the guide I posted last week, as I thought the latter too tedious. However, I have tried to make note of points I make that directly relate to the questions from the guide, which are numbered in this pdf version. I use the notation (Q1-3) or a (1-5/a-g) to point to the corresponding guide question.

Feeding the World

For the discussion to follow, we need some historical background. People have confronted the problem of hunger for as long as there have been people. However, in 1798 the English  Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus introduced a new, abstract global (2d) framing that would come to dominate public discourse over hunger for the next two centuries. He proposed simply that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”[v] In other words, the human population grows faster than the amount of food people produce, which is limited by natural constraints such as land (in modern vocabulary, Earth’s carrying capacity). In the long term (5b), Malthus predicted that these unequal growth rates would result in mass global crisis (2a).

The Malthusian doctrine, as it came to be known, tended to focus attention on two variables: the number of people and the amount of food (4a-b). Malthus himself advocated for policies to limit the number of people, since he could not see a way to sufficiently increase the amount of food grown. For obvious reasons, limiting the number of people turned out not to be politically (let alone ethically) feasible.[vi] However, increasing the available supply of food was.

In the latter half of the 19th century, expanding agriculture to the North American great plains—after the US exterminated the American bison and brutally removed the indigenous peoples there—flooded grain into the emerging world market (at the cost of “mining the soil”[vii]). At the same time, the second industrial revolution added another jolt with mechanized fossil fuel power. Toward the turn of the century, soil science and technology advanced enough to reverse declining soil fertility by artificially adding key soil nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK). When German chemists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch developed a process to fix N2 into biologically available N—the most limiting soil nutrient for plant growth—many people believed that human ingenuity would always find a way to surpass the natural limits to food production that troubled Malthus.

Following the destruction of WWII, however, global hunger loomed large on the post-war reconstruction agenda. Spear-headed by the US and its allies, and fueled by nascent Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the emerging development movement was deeply concerned with freeing the world from hunger (and communism) (3a-c). Top US foreign policy officials were concerned with questions such as, “Can the world’s soil grow all the crops that would be needed? Are fertilizer sources great enough? Do we have the technology and management ability to produce the crops and maintain the soils?”.[viii]  Mobilization in response to that concern launched the petrochemical-based research initiatives of the Green Revolution, a grand strategy to bring Western capital-intensive agriculture to the Third World.

Despite repeated technical advances in agriculture, which today includes genetically modifying crops and livestock to produce greater yields, the specter of Malthus’ prediction still looms. Consider, for example, a 2009 white paper from the US Office of Global Food Security, a branch of the US State Department. Here are a few choice excerpts:

More than one billion people—nearly a sixth of the world’s population—suffer from chronic hunger. It is a crisis with devastating and far-reaching effects…

Ensuring global food security will only become more challenging in the future as demand for food is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years. Increased demand will come primarily from population and income growth in middle-income countries. Growth in agricultural productivity, already lagging globally, also faces increasing threats from climate change, scarce water supplies, and competition for energy resources from industry and urbanization…

The 2008 food price crisis illustrates the kinds of disruptions we could experience more often in the future. The steep rise in prices affected families here in the United States and was particularly devastating for the poor in developing countries. Without significant improvements in agriculture productivity, market access, post-harvest infrastructure, and rural incomes, the imbalances between food supply and demand will increase food scarcity, food price volatility, and food insecurity.

In this example, the global, yield-centric frame for hunger appears today much as it did 200 years ago. The neo-Malthusian frame has spawned many variants that, while accepting the basic problem definition (Q1), approach it with a different set of tools in hand and possibilities in mind (Q2). The example I’ll talk about here revolves around food waste (2b) and the promise of efficiency (4a). At the same time, some frames pose hunger in a radically different light altogether. Movements such as food sovereignty reject the very definition of the problem (Q1), highlighting a different set of causes and effects (5c) and prioritizing a different set of goals for people and nature (Q3).

Waste Not, Hunger Not

Many people have noted a glaring oversight in the neo-Malthusian framing of hunger: at a global level, people produce enough food to feed everyone on Earth.[ix] So what accounts for the gap between amount produced and mouths fed? (2b) Some people argue that the real problem is waste.

A January 2013 report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers put it this way:

By 2075, the United Nations’ mid-range projection for global population growth predicts that human numbers will peak at about 9.5 billion people. This means that there could be an extra three billion mouths to feed by the end of the century…

One key issue is how to produce more food in a world of finite resources…

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands.

The report does not challenge the Malthusian problem defined as too many people and too little food (Q1), but it does challenge the assumptions about which options are available to deal with the problem (Q2). If food never makes it to the plate, the report reasons, then increasing production will be in vain. Moreover, expanding agricultural production can actually inflict more harm on people and nature than the benefits it brings through increasing the overall amount of food. This expands the conception of who might lose out or benefit, and how (3b).

The report frames hunger in a way that puts it on a level with environmental protection and cost-savings (2g). All three of these problems fall under one umbrella problem: waste (2a). By focusing on the whole supply chain, rather than just the farm level (5a), this frame proposes to address multiple problems at once by leveraging a new tool: efficiency (4a). Calculating it out, the brief finds that “food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.” Note that the metric of success (4d), number of people fed, is the same here as for the global food security frame.

We can see a similar line of reasoning applied to a national scale (2d) in the NRDC-Harvard Law report. “By increasing the efficiency of our food system,” reads the press release, “we can make better use of our natural resources, provide financial saving opportunities along the entire supply chain, and enhance our ability to meet food demand.” Doug Rauch’s proposed project embodies one form that a solution to the problem framed in this way might take (4b), only now he applies the solution to the city level (2d):

It’s the idea about how to bring affordable nutrition to the underserved in our cities. It basically tries to utilize this 40 percent of this food that is wasted. This is, to a large degree, either excess, overstocked, wholesome food that’s thrown out by grocers, etc. … at the end of the day because of the sell-by dates. Or [it’s from] growers that have product that’s nutritionally sound, perfectly good, but cosmetically blemished or not quite up for prime time. [So we] bring this food down into a retail environment where it can become affordable nutrition.

These three examples demonstrate how a frame can operate at different scales, although the context (1a-e) may change dramatically. What I find fascinating about the waste/efficiency frame for hunger is that it both denaturalizes and depoliticizes hunger. Hunger is not caused by natural limitations to agricultural expansion, but rather by inefficiencies in human systems: “poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage” (2b). At the same time, this frame avoids placing responsibility for hunger and accountability for dealing with it on anyone in particular (2b). Waste is rather an accident or oversight, and no one need pay for the harm caused or make difficult decisions about possible tradeoffs. A technical solution is called for, not a political one (2f).

This frame tends to present opportunities for resolution as win-win situations, such as how Rauch describes his business idea: growers win, grocers aren’t bothered, the urban “underserved” get food, and he gets to feel good about his work. The waste/efficiency frame tries to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, this also tends to limit who may participate in defining, addressing, and resolving the problem (Q1-3). If it’s all win-win, or at least a matter of easy solutions like fixing government labeling rules, then what need for a broad public discussion? Only the “people in the know” take part (1e)—engineers, policy experts, full-time NGO activists, lawmakers, industry leaders—and the average person, let alone those living on the margins who actually have to experience hunger, finds little opportunity to get a word in edgewise (4c).

Does the World Need to be Fed?

However, not everyone frames hunger apolitically. Take the Chipotle ad. Corporate industrial farming (Crow Foods) has taken over in this parable (2b), leading to cruel food production practices (sad cow eyes), environmental degradation (Dust Bowl-like landscape of crop-land turned desert), and oppression of the working class (the coverall-clad scarecrows) (3a). Meanwhile, clueless consumers blithely munch away on processed meals tidied up with bright packaging and sunny advertising designed to mask the grim, nightmarish scenes behind the curtain. Critics have already parodied the ad for using the same marketing spin-tactics that it critiques (3c), but there is more beneath the surface of this obvious irony. The ad makes many references to aspects of the corporate-industrial food system that the viewer (aka potential Chipotle customer) should agree are bad (2f-g). In particular, look at the billboard going up in the background around the 2:00 minute mark:

The Scarecrow

This scene mocks the absurdity of the Malthusian treadmill. Chipotle is challenging the long-standing claim that industrial agriculture feeds the world and is launching a direct attack against major global agribusiness corporations like Monsanto (1c).[x]  The ad tells potential Chipotle customers that we need to get off the treadmill (1a). Maybe, it suggests, we’ve been going about this need to eat all wrong. What if the problem is not how much food is produced and how many people are fed, but rather what quality of food is grown, how animals and farm workers are treated, and how people eat? In other words “It’s not how many people we can carry, it’s how we carry them.” (3a-b)[xi]

This seems a fair point. Feeding people good, ethically-produced food in a real place as opposed to anonymous pseudo-food in anonymous global space strikes a chord with many people. In fact, this problem definition and vision for resolution match well with the UNCTAD report’s call for “regionalized/localized food production.” So why are many people skeptical?[xii]

Here’s the question that a recent article in The New Yorker raised:

So does “The Scarecrow” initiate an important conversation about our food system? Showcase Chipotle’s genuine commitment to sustainability? Or is it a cynical attempt to turn consumer fears about certain agricultural methods into sales?

The ad might bear a noble message, but Chipotle is still a for-profit business. The ad’s message targets potential customers whom the company is trying to persuade to buy Chipotle burritos. At the end of the day, success is measured in sales, market share, and profit (4d). This measure of success narrows the range of options that Chipotle can apply to the problems identified in the ad in two ways (Q2).

First, the main mechanism for change works at the point of sale (4b). Individual people can choose to buy one food over another, and take upon themselves responsibility for all the consequences caused in its production. At the same time, consumers generally know nothing about the product apart from what the company selling it tells them (5d-e). So there seems to be a fundamental problem knowing whether progress has been made or not (4d). Furthermore, the target audience is relatively well-off people who have access to a Chipotle and can afford to buy the company’s food. Anybody who can’t afford to eat out or simply doesn’t live near a Chipotle cannot participate (4c). As Food First analyst Tanya Kerssen put it in an article discussing the debate over whether US consumers should buy quinoa or not,[xiii] in such a consumer-oriented frame, “The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less.”

This narrow set of available options leads to the second point: those same affluent consumers are most likely to be motivated by individual worries about their own health rather than broad impacts on the environment, public health, and general societal well-being (2c). Sociologist Andrew Szasz has termed this phenomenon inverted quarantine:

There is awareness of hazard, a feeling of vulnerability, of being at risk. That feeling, however, does not lead to political action aimed at reducing the amounts or the variety of toxics present in the environment. It leads, instead, to individualized acts of self-protection, to just trying to keep those contaminants out of one’s body.[xiv]

Localizing the problem, the tools to address it, and the criteria of success all at the scale of the individual severely limits the likelihood of real systematic change. Szasz points to the example of the organic label. Widespread concerns over the environmental and public health impacts of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering used in conventional industrial agriculture (the sort promoted by the 2nd Industrial and Green Revolutions) sparked the organic food movement (Q1). The US Department of Food and Agriculture eventually produced a system for certifying and labeling organic farmers. In theory, the USDA organic label would inform consumers about the consequences of their purchasing choices and eventually lead to full transformation of the agricultural system to phase out dangerous chemicals (Q2). In practice, we now have a segregated market, “a large conventional sector that grows affordable, if slightly contaminated, food-stuffs for the majority, and a smaller one producing organic alternatives for the minority, largely made up of affluent health seekers.”[xv] In other words, consumer-driven change made a dent, but only a small one. We have settled for a much more modest vision of what an organic future could look like.

The same could happen in the case of hunger: assuming individual consumers can resolve the problem with their independent buying decisions threatens to lead to a false sense of individual security. This in turn leads to political apathy, the lack of will to work together to collectively address widespread public problems (2f, 5a).[xvi] Although the Chipotle ad points out large structural problems and even goes so far as to identify (implicitly) culprits (2b), people are skeptical because the ways to change the world in effect redefine the problem as a matter of individual consumption (4a-c). There is a mismatch of scale, in other words, that bodes ill for addressing the structural problems associated with the need to eat (4d).

Hungry for Jobs, or a Livelihood?

According to The New York Times article, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (1e) justified the bill cutting food stamps by saying, “This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs” (emphasis added). He refers to new requirements that claim to make sure people are working if they are going to receive food stamp benefits. In the words of Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), a strong backer of the bill, “This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.” These two quotes highlight an interesting feature of another frame that introduces a new causal factor for hunger, unemployment (2b). The Republican backers of the bill claim to speak for the relatively well-off Americans who pay into the treasury through taxes and who don’t want that money to go to waste (1b). For that reason, they argue that the food stamp program costs too much public money because it encourages too many people to stick around for the free ride instead of finding ways to get off food stamps and become self-sufficient. In other words, if people need food, then they need a job (4d).

The variable of employment crops up in many frames. For example, the global food security frame above defines food security not on the availability of food, but on the ability to purchase food. Since jobs (in theory) give people money, it is a short logical step to link employment with food security, unemployment with hunger. Again, the UNCTAD report makes the same connection, arguing that “the highest priority must be given to enabling the rural poor to become self-sufficient in food or to earn sufficient income through agriculture so that they can buy food.”

However, there is a sharp division around whether joblessness is an individual or a collective problem (2c). The Republican backers of the House bill seem to believe that employment is a matter of individual motivation. Democrats counter that most people don’t choose to be on food stamps, especially single mothers and children who make up a large proportion of the recipients (1c). Consider again the UNCTAD report’s warning that “continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis” (emphasis added). I interpret “collective” to mean both that multiple big problems are interrelated (2g) and that these problems must be dealt with by collective action (2c). In other words, there are structural features of the problem that individuals on their own cannot overcome (5a). Structural change requires collective, not individual action as Szasz pointed out above.

But not everyone agrees that even ensuring employment is an adequate measure of success. Rather, the availability of livelihoods matters, as Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Gimenez puts it in this Huffington Post article.”Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity,” he writes. “For this challenge,” he later concludes, “agroecological approaches and structural reforms that ensure that resource-poor farmers have the land and resources they need for sustainable livelihoods are the best way forward.” What is the difference between a job and a livelihood?

Consider the example employee budget published by McDonalds. Despite assuming that the employee works two jobs, the budget includes no line item for groceries. We can infer that someone with not one but two jobs and working for the federally mandated minimum wage is going to have some major difficulties affording food. In part, then, there is a disagreement between the idea of jobs and the idea of livelihoods over both the timeframe of interest—livelihoods provide stable income in the long-term, jobs can come and go (2e). Also, while a job just means an income, livelihoods imply a host of other positive impacts that can help deal with the compounding of multiple problems such as healthcare, housing, transportation, education, and so on (2g).Framing hunger as a problem of livelihood highlights a structural problem not just with the number of people without jobs, but with the whole structure of being a wage-laborer in a society that seems to be trending toward fewer employee benefits and lower job security. The scale of the problem when viewed as a crisis of livelihood expands enormously (5a).

And this, in turn, leads to the reason why food sovereignty has taken hold as the alternative frame for hunger. The Yale conference intro states that food sovereignty “is broadly defined as the right of peoples to democratically control or determine the shape of their food system, and to produce sufficient and healthy food in culturally appropriate and ecologically sustainable ways in and near their territory.” One way to interpret food sovereignty as a frame (which many people around the globe are actively developing, I should add), is that hunger is not just about the right to be employed. It is not even just about the right to earn a livelihood. Rather, addressing hunger is tied into addressing disparities in the right to own the decisions that determine the shape that livelihoods will take in the collective economy. In this interpretation, the food sovereignty frame identifies a different problem (ownership), a different set of tools (democratic control), and a different vision of success (culturally appropriate, sustainable, local) than the neo-Malthusian food security frame we started with (Q1-3).

We have now walked through a gamut of hunger frames. There are other variations out there, different ways to interpret them, and more subtle differentiation among those I’ve discussed here. Nonetheless, I hope that this exercise has demonstrated how asking clear questions can help reveal the differences in how people define problems, establish facts, create visions for the future, understand what is possible and what is not, and decide who gets to have a say and who doesn’t. Also, anyone is free to share or adapt the guide for non-commercial purposes provided that I am attributed and it is made free to share and adapt under same or similar conditions. If you do use it, I’d appreciate your feedback as well!

Next week, I’ll finally move past environmental frames. The posting length will go back to the normal 700-1000 word goal with an introduction to the idea of determinism.

[i] It’s a lot more than that, of course. Some 80-odd papers were written for the conference and are posted here.

[ii] Not all of the 40% can be attributed to expiration date labels. Also, I didn’t look closely into how the number 40% was reached, but I imagine that a close examination of the methods would reveal a lot of uncertainty and potential error.

[iii] The full text of the bill, H.R. 3102.

[iv] I want to note that Rauch’s idea is not new: many non-profits have been collecting and distributing food that is past its expiration date for years. Also, the Boston Globe had a more in-depth article back in February.

[v] Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London. p. 4.

[vi] Apart from committing mass murder or enacting harsh birth control policies, there are few options to directly limit population growth. Since the time of Malthus, many indirect means for reducing population growth have been “discovered”, among which educating and empowering women is one of the most effective:

[vii] Writing of the rapid expansion of wheat and corn farming in the North American great plains, which eventually led to the dust bowl and massive erosion and soil fertility problems, Sir Albert Howard said,“The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple. Moreover, it is a particularly mean form of banditry because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.” 1947. The Soil and Health. The Devin-Adair Company: New York. p. 63.

[viii] Salter, RM. 1947. World soil and fertilizer resources in relation to food needs. Science 105 (2734) (May 23): 533-8.

[ix] UN World Food Program:

[x] One of monsanto’s latest goals is to double yields by 2030: “In order to feed the world’s growing population, farmers must produce more food in the next fifty years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined.” Presumably in response to this sort of skepticism, the company has subtly shifted its feed-the-world emphasis in the past few years. Even as recently as 2010, the message was worded more directly: “Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years— combined.”

[xi] A quote from a talk given by Michael Gelobter, a prominent climate and sustainability strategist, in 2010.

[xii] A brief good search revealed a couple of thoughtfully skeptical editorials from The New Yorker, Huff Post, and  Triple Pundit.

[xiii] There was a whole series of articles in different news outlets in early 2013 discussing whether or not Western consumers should buy quinoa. This Mother Jones piece is a good example. Quinoa was touted as a “wonder grain”: both highly nutritious (plus gluten-free!) and also a fair-trade darling that would support poor peasant farmers in Bolivia and Peru. However, global demand raised so rapidly from 2007 to 2013 that quinoa prices tripled. This meant that those same peasant farmers were now having trouble affording a traditional staple food, and also that the sustainability of quinoa farming was being undermined as rapid expansion and intensification of quinoa production began to overtax the ecosystems and land base. So, what were consumers supposed to do? Either buying or not buying quinoa carried an unavoidable cost and harm to somebody.

[xiv] Szasz, Andrew. 2007. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. University of Minnesota Press. p. 3.

[xv] Ibid, p. 207.

[xvi] Ibid, p. 194-5.


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