Human populations have engaged in agriculture — the use of land for plant and animal production — for more than 10,000 years, and have been enormously successful in doing so. The use of fertilisers, irrigation, mechanisation and genetic engineering have served to increase harvests and support unprecedented levels of population growth.
Use the activities below to design a teaching session on sustainable food supply.
Explain to your students how our modern economy makes it possible for an ever smaller number of people to be engaged in agriculture professionally. The proportion is around 2 to 4 percent in most of the world’s developed countries. This small fraction of the population is responsible for supplying food for everyone, freeing up more and more people to work in the industrial and service sectors, which is essential for our urban lifestyles and ensures our urban future.
Make sure your students are also aware of the true environmental costs of modern agricultural techniques, such as the use of fertilisers and mechanisation. The resulting damage to the environment, combined with increasing urbanisation, are raising new questions about future food security, which the World Health Organization defined nearly 20 years ago as being achieved “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”
Ask your students to picture their local supermarket and the variety of fresh and packaged food products on the shelves. Do they ever ask themselves how it all gets there?
Explain that cities, almost by definition, are centres of food consumption, not food production. The foods we eat arrive in our cities and markets via extremely complex supply chains. Sometimes the food we buy is grown and harvested close to home, but much of our food originates from halfway around the world and all points in between — cheese from France, oranges from Greece, bananas from Ecuador, jasmine rice from Thailand, or tuna from Australia.
Ask the students where coffee comes from. (Answer: Brazil and Colombia are the biggest coffee exporters, but some 30 countries around the world, all in the tropics, produce coffee.)
Explain that Europe is a relatively wealthy part of the world, which is why European citizens can enjoy food products from around the world — and, for the most part, at any time of the year. Contrast this with poorer societies that rely heavily on local food production. They not only have a necessarily limited range of food available, but are highly vulnerable to any set of conditions that jeopardises local food production and procurement.
Ask the students to suggest what some of these conditions might be. (Examples include droughts and other extreme weather events that can destroy crops; political crises that force people from their land; or food price increases.)
Suggest that there are two important things to consider when looking at food supply chains in a global context: the chains may be both unsustainable and unjust.
Greening the supply chain
PDF | 526 Kb
This simulation game gives students an opportunity to experience the inequity of world hunger. The fact that one or two students receive most of the M&M’s (or crackers, if you prefer), while over half the class receive almost nothing, will spark discussion. Make sure you discuss how your country fits into the picture. The activity is designed for a class of around 25 students.
How can food be produced and supplied to cities in ways that are more sustainable and more humane? Ask students to think of a few of the products that can be found in their local supermarket. Ask them to imagine where those products come from and how they get there. What are all the processes involved? Does everyone along the product supply chain benefit equally? Are there more sustainable, humane alternatives to these specific products?
Share an example from your country of an unsustainable practice in the food industry. Or tell the students about this European example: The sole fisheries in the Irish Sea, the west English Channel and other locations have become overfished to the point of virtual collapse. Catching as many fish as possible may seem like a profitable practice, but overfishing has serious long-term consequences. Fisheries are depleted more rapidly than their rate of recovery, thus the fish population is no longer able to sustain itself through natural reproduction. This affects not only the balance of life in the oceans, but also the social and economic well-being of the coastal communities who depend on fish for their way of life. When a shared resource is overused, the phenomenon is often referred to as the “tragedy of the commons”.
This guided inquiry encourages students to come up with a solution to ensure their “survival”. The only way that a fishing community can fish indefinitely is to harvest sustainably. Even though the goal of the fishing game is to gather the maximum number of fish (or “profit”), represented by Goldfish crackers or M&M's, if someone in one of the groups starts overfishing it almost always results in a crash in the fish population and the ultimate demise of all the players.
After the end of game 1, discuss the following questions with the students:
After the discussion, start another round of the game. Again, ask the students to fill in the data table after each “year” of fishing, and remind them that they must not communicate with each other. After the second game, discuss the following questions:
From state-supported farming programmes to EU policy to commercial community gardens, the case studies will give your students plenty to think about in terms of solving food security challenges and keeping food supply sustainable.
Urban agriculture in Havana
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Prinzessinnengarten: Urban gardening and cultural cross-pollination
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The EU Common Agricultural Policy
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Distribute the info sheet and ask your students to try out at home some of the ideas presented. Ask them to write a one-page report describing which of the practices they tried with their families, and which, if any, they couldn’t — or didn’t want to — try. The report should address the following questions:
Greening the supply chain
PDF | 526 Kb