Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 12: Community Food Security

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 12: Community Food Security

Women with shopping bags talk at an outdoor market.

In order to be healthy, people need to eat nutritious food. If we cannot grow, buy, or trade enough food for our families and ourselves, we face hunger, malnutrition, and many other health problems.

Food security means that everyone has enough safe and nutritious food all year round to lead an active and healthy life. It also means food is produced and distributed in ways that promote a healthy environment, community self-reliance, and enough good food for every person and community.

Hunger has many causes. Some causes are environmental, such as poor soil, changes in climate, and a lack of water. Hunger from these causes can be addressed through sustainable farming and better use of land and water resources (see Chapter 6, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, and Chapter 11).

Other causes of hunger are political, such as unfair food prices, no land to grow food, and corporate control of markets and food systems. Hunger from these and other political causes can be addressed through community organizing.

To produce food, we need land, water, tools, seeds, and knowledge of how to farm. To make sure that everybody has enough food, we need fair distribution, affordable food prices, local markets, and food safety. To achieve these, we must work for a just and sustainable world. Only by working towards a healthy environment and social justice can we guarantee food security for everyone.

Changes in farming

In Prey Veng, Cambodia, people have grown enough rice to feed themselves for as long as anyone can remember. Along with rice, they traditionally ate wild greens, fish, eels, snakes and other animals from the rice paddy, as well as fruits, nuts, and roots from the forest, and meat from animals they hunt. This diet gave them good health all year round, except in times of war or flooding.

More than 40 years ago, the government began to promote new farming methods to increase production of a few main crops, like rice, for export. These new methods were part of a worldwide change in agriculture, the deceptively named Green Revolution. The Green Revolution encouraged the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to produce more rice than traditional methods. It also used large irrigation systems and machinery to plant and harvest.

When they started using these new farming methods, the people of Prey Veng were able to produce large amounts of rice to sell. They used the money to improve their houses, build roads, and buy personal goods like clothes and radios. The villagers stopped using animal manure, stopped rotating rice with dry season crops, and stopped using other traditional farming methods as well.

The new methods worked very well for growing large areas of a single crop, and increased the amount of rice they had. But over time, they discovered that their land and the way they ate had changed. Herbicides killed the wild greens the villagers had eaten before. Fish and other wild foods grew scarce. Year by year they spent more money on chemicals and had nothing but rice to eat. Before long, the soil in their fields no longer supported healthy crops, and rice yields began to go down.

Coming together to discuss the growing hunger, the villagers recalled the old ways of farming that used mixed crops, field rotations, and natural fertilizers to grow crops all year round. They saw many advantages to the traditional methods, and decided to change back. They also began trying new methods like planting rice plants closer together and growing different crops in the same field.

Farmers work in a rice paddy, as birds fly and fish jump.

There were hungry years while their soil recovered fertility after heavy chemical use, but now the villagers of Prey Veng have more food. They have less rice to sell, but more variety of foods to eat. As Meas Nee, one of the village elders, said, “Because we grow food in the ways of our ancestors, the ancestors are happier, the fields are happier, and we are healthier.”