Food Security: First Requisite of Agricultural Sustainability[1]

John Ikerd[2]

I am an agricultural economist. I have been retired now for more than 18 years, but I still consider myself to be a social scientist, an educator, and an unabashed advocate of agricultural sustainability. We simply cannot afford to give up on agricultural sustainability. Agriculture is absolutely essential for sustaining a human population or human civilization even remotely comparable to what we have today. So, if we are going to sustain human life on earth, we will have to create a sustainable agriculture.

Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. It is anthropocentric in that it is specifically about sustaining human life, but it is eco-centric in that it recognizes the interdependence of humans with all the other living and nonliving things on earth. So, sustainability is “co-centric.” It is about fulfilling our uniquely human responsibilities as members and caretakers of the earth’s integral community.

Some early advocates argue we should abandon the term “sustainable”—that sustainability is not enough, that we ought to aspire to even more in the future. I agree, but we first must be able sustain what we already have. Others argue that the word sustainable has been so misused, abused, corrupted, and co-opted that people are confused about what it actually means. Again, I agree, but can you think of a word than is been more misused, abused, corrupted, and coopted than the word “love”? We still know what love means, and we know we can’t sustain human civilization without it. We also know what sustainability means. We just don’t want to do what sustainability demands of us.

If we love life, if we love humanity, if we love the earth, then we must care about agricultural sustainability—regardless of what we call it. We must create an agriculture that meets the basic food needs of all today without diminishing agricultural opportunities for those of the future. I spent the first half of my 30-year academic career and more than half of my life working toward the first requisite of agricultural sustainability—without thinking much about the second. I was trying to meet the basic food needs of the present. During those years, I was an unwitting advocate of what I now call “industrial agriculture.” I thought specialization, routinization, mechanization, and consolidation of small farms into big farms was the best means of producing enough good food for everyone—of meeting the food needs of the present.

We were going to increase agricultural productivity by applying the basic principles of industry to agriculture. In the process, we would create new economic opportunities for family farmers which would sustain economic prosperity of rural communities. But most importantly, we were going to reduce the cost of food and make good food affordable for everyone. American farmers would not only eliminate hunger in America, they would “feed the world.” I traveled across the states where I worked, teaching what I had been taught. Farming had to become an economic bottom-line business, rather than a way of life. Farmers would need to either “get big or get out” of farming.

It was a bold and well-intended experiment—but it simply didn’t work. My awakening came during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s. For a variety of foreseeable reasons, the farmers who had followed the advice of the so-called experts were going broke. They had borrowed a lot of money at high interest rates to “get big,” and now they were losing their farms because they couldn’t even make their interest payments, let alone pay off their loans. The rural communities that had supported and were supported by these farm families were in economic decline and decay. I then began to realize what industrial agriculture was doing to the land—soil erosion was rampant; the air and water was polluted by the agricultural chemical and biological wastes. I began to realize that this kind of agriculture couldn’t last long enough to meet the needs of the future. It wasn’t sustainable. I simply couldn’t continue to support a kind of farming in which I no longer believed.

Only later would I realize that industrial agriculture had failed to fulfill its most fundamental purpose. It had failed to feed those who were hungry. “Food security” may be defined as “Access at all times by all people within a household to enough food for an active, healthy life.”[3] In 1967, when CBS-TV aired its classic documentary, “Hunger in America,” an estimated 5% of the people in the U.S. were hungry, which was considered a national emergency. Nearly fifty years later, in 2015, more than 12% of Americans were “food insecure” and more than 16% of American children lived in food insecure homes.[4] In addition, agricultural industrialization has been accompanied by an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and a variety of other diet relate diseases. A 2010 report of 500 public health scientists from 50 countries stated, "The so-called 'Western lifestyle' is being adapted all around the world, and the impacts are all the same."[5] It concluded that obesity is now a greater global problem than hunger.

Thankfully, the sustainable agriculture movement was emerging in the late 1980s, and I was able to transition my academic career to become a part of it. I have continued learning and teaching ever since. The more I experience and understand authentic sustainability, the more I believe in its importance to both the present and future of humanity. That’s why I am still doing what I do to promote sustainability, after being retired for more than 18 years. I am trying to help create an agriculture that meets the basic food needs of all today while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of future generations. I am still working to help make hunger a part of the history rather than the future of humanity.

Thus far, the sustainable agriculture movement has put far more emphasis on the second requisite for sustainability than on the first—on developing an ecologically sound, economically viable approach to farming. There is little indication that the sustainable food movement is actually committed to providing food security or eliminating hunger. The urban agriculture movement is perhaps an exception, where urban gardeners are producing food to meet the needs of their own communities. Even in urban areas, however, much of the emphasis of the sustainable food movement is on producing food for upscale restaurants and high-end food retailers. As a result, organic, local, and sustainable foods increasingly are being marginalized as “elitist” and unaffordable to the people who most need “good” food, particularly children.

Admittedly, human hunger is a “big problem.” If we are going to solve it, we need to be aware of the magnitude and nature of the challenge. It is important to understand that most hunger in the world today is discretionary or avoidable, particularly in America. We already have the ability to make enough “good food”—meaning wholesome, nutritious food—available to everyone. We just haven’t found the means of getting enough good food to everyone who needs it. This kind of hunger first became a problem in Western society with the acceleration of the land enclosure movement in the late 1500s, as lands in the “commons” were “enclosed” to create private property. Prior to enclosure, if anyone in the community farming a “commons” had food, everyone in the community had food.

The enclosures were intended to make agriculture more efficient by allowing markets to allocate land to the most efficient farmers or landowners. Profits from farming would allow them to buy and farm more land more efficiently. Privatization of land meant that people without land had to work to earn money to buy food. The basic problem was that some people were unable to earn enough money to buy enough food. The problem today is still the same. After the enclosures, private and religious charities were no longer capable of meeting the needs of the hungry masses. The English Poor Laws of 1601 were implemented to address the growing problem of hunger. Obviously, those laws didn’t work. In 1795, Thomas Paine wrote that the “landed monopoly… has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.”[6]

Since those early times, a variety of government food assistance programs by various forms of government have been instituted to address the persistent problem of hunger or food insecurity. While such programs obviously have mitigated or alleviated hunger for some—as did the Great Society programs of the 1960s and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs today—hunger has persisted in spite of a growing abundance of agricultural productivity.

So how should we go about addressing the first requisite of agricultural sustainability? First, we should learn from the failures of the past. We can’t provide food security by trying to make good, sustainably produced food “cheap.” The markets have never provided good food for the hungry and never will. Markets respond to scarcity, not necessity. Most hungry people are hungry because they are poor. Poor people don’t have enough money to compete in a market economy for enough good food. Even our current government food assistance programs rely on market choices of recipients, which obviously are not resulting in food choices that provide adequate nutrition, particularly for children.

Poor people trying to survive in today’s complex economy have to make very difficult choices. Money made available by food assistance programs often becomes diverted to other uses, or at least frees up money for rent, medicine, heating bills, rather than more nutritious food. The “disabled poor” and “working poor” often don’t have the time or ability to prepare basic foods from scratch. They end up buying highly-processed and packaged, pre-prepared, or convenience foods—or eating out, driving through, or taking out. Simply giving poor people more money for food will not ensure food security. In terms of economic jargon, we must face the fact that hunger is a market failure that can’t be solved by either markets or market-based government programs.

This means food security will require government food assistance programs that provide more nutrition, and by necessity, less convenience. Nearly 85% of food costs today are accounted for by processing, packaging, transportation, advertising, and other things that make foods more accessible and convenient.[7] Only 15% of average food costs in the U.S. go to the farmers who produce the agricultural commodities that constitute the nutritional essence of food. Even those who choose fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, milk, and eggs end up paying a high price for convenience. This results in diets that have too many calories and too few of the nutrients essential to support healthy, active lifestyles. Food assistance programs must focus on necessity and nutrition rather than expense and convenience.

Finally, private and organizational charities have not and will not fill the gaps left by impersonal food markets and government food assistance. Charity is inherently selective, and those who receive food are often those who are “deemed worthy.” Many either deem themselves unworthy or are too proud to ask for help. In addition, times of greatest need are often times where people can least afford to give. Charity will always have a role to plan in food security, but charity has not and will not provide a permanent solution to the problem of hunger.

So how can we meet the challenge of alleviating hunger? First, we must accept the fact that access to enough good food to support healthy, active lives is a basic human right. Before labeling this as communist or socialist, we should recall that the American Declaration of Independence proclaims that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are among our “unalienable rights,” and “that to ensure these rights governments are instituted among men.” All other rights are contingent on the right to life, and the right to life is contingent on the right to food.

The global Food Sovereignty recognizes, and I quote, “The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems."[8] The core principles of the food sovereignty movement include a rejection of reliance on markets. They advocate local control of food choices, land use, and systems of food production and distribution.” Food sovereignty respects the rights of future generations and affirms a commitment to future food security through a commitment to ecologically sound and sustainable methods of farming and food production. Food Sovereignty is a modern version of a “sustainable food commons.”

Food sovereignty obviously depends on effective local governance. I am convinced past government food assistance programs have failed because they have been impersonal and thus inherently bureaucratic. The taxpayers who have paid for food assistance have had no personal sense of connectedness or responsibility for the recipients. Those receiving food assistance have had no personal sense of appreciation or gratitude for those who have paid for the food. This has left state and federal food assistance programs vulnerable to gross inadequacy, economic inefficiency, fraud, and abuse. With community-based programs based on the principles of food sovereignty, there would be strong personal motives to avoid, detect, and correct any inadequacies, misuse, or abuse of the programs.

So, ensuring enough good food for all will require an approach to governance fundamentally different from food assistance programs of the past. I have suggested the model of locally governed, cooperatively managed, “community food utilities.”[9] Public utilities are commonly used in cases of “natural monopolies,” including public utilities for electricity, water, and sewers. However, public utilities are appropriate in any case of market failure—where markets cannot provide an essential public service for everyone in a community. Public utilities remove provision of such services from the economy to ensure that the needs of all are met. Food security is a market failure, which justifies the establishment of community food utilities.

One important difference between my proposed community utility and other public utilities is that local farmers, processors, distributors, and food recipients would all be included on boards of directors. The utilities would be managed as “vertical cooperatives” to ensure sustainability of the entire local food system. The nutritional needs of food recipients would be met by means that give priority to local food producers and would ensure that their economic returns are sufficient to support sustainable production practices. Current government food assistance funds would be integrated into the food utility. Educational programs would help recipients learn to select and prepare raw and minimally processed nutritious food. Maximum nutrition at minimum costs. A community food utility also would provide a stable economic foundation for a sustainable local food system that eventually could be available to all in the community, regardless of income.

Admittedly, meeting the first requisite of sustainability will be a major challenge, but it is a challenge that ultimately must be met. The future of humanity depends on it. How can we ask people who don’t have enough food for their own children to make sacrifices to ensure enough food for future generations? How can we expect even middle-class Americans to take the sustainability movement seriously when it appears to be an elitist movement of an affluent liberal minority? Meeting the challenge of food sovereignty would provide an opportunity to re-energize our commitment to authentic sustainability and enhance the credibility and integrity for the sustainable food movement.

Meeting the first requisite of agricultural sustainability would give us a network of community-based food systems that are good for the land, good for farmers, and good for the people in both rural and urban communities. Most important, it would provide a potential solution to the moral dilemma of discretionary hunger that has eluded humanity for 400-plus years. Finally, meeting the challenge of eliminating hunger gives us an opportunity to accept our responsibility as members and caretakers of the earth’s integral community. It is an expression of empathy, compassion, and love for our fellow humans for the other things of the earth. It is simply the right thing to do!


[1] Prepared for presentation at the Eco-Farm Conference, Asilomar, CA, January 24-26. 2018.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism-a Matter of Common Sense, Essentials of Economic Sustainability, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle-the Pursuit of Happiness, all books available on Books and Kindle E-books.

Email:; Website: or .

[3] Merriam Webster, “Food Security,” .

[4] Economic Research Service, USDA, Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2015, .

[5] Danielle Dellorto, CNN News, “Global report: Obesity bigger health crisis than hunger,” December 14, 2012, .

[6] Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, 1795. .

[7] USDA, Food Dollar Series, 2017, .

[8] Nyelini Forum on Food Sovereignty, “Declaration of Nyeleni,” February 27, 2007, .

[9] John Ikerd, 2016, “Enough good food for all: A proposal.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 7(1), 3–6. .