Urban Health & Wellbeing

Food security has never been more challenging — and important

Ensuring everyone has enough to eat

Urban Health & Wellbeing

Food security has never been more challenging — and important

A report released earlier this year by the United Nations acknowledges that the number of people affected by hunger globally has been on the rise since 2014. “Latest estimates suggest that 9.7 percent of the world population (slightly less than 750 million people) was exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019,” the report notes in its executive summary. And that was before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, it’s suggested, could add “between 83 and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world.”

Food insecurity and hunger won’t be solved overnight, but research at Ryerson is contributing to a better understanding of the challenges they present, as well as practical solutions that are improving access to food for people today, with the potential for even more in the future.

Addressing the fundamentals of food security

Throughout its 25-year existence, Ryerson’s Centre for Studies in Food Security (CSFS) has understood the matter it investigates as one defined by “Five A’s” — availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability and agency.

“Working with this comprehensive view has differentiated the work we do at the CSFS from the approaches taken by other scholars and research centres,” explains Cecilia Rocha, the centre’s director.

“In particular, our insistence that agency, which is achieved through democratic policies and processes, is needed for food security is significant. Overall, the field of food security has been dominated by researchers emphasizing either the need for food production to improve availability, or poverty reduction to increase accessibility. While those are certainly necessary conditions for food security, on their own they are not sufficient.”

of the global population were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019

Rocha’s perspective comes after many years of academic study and international experience. Over the past two decades, for example, she has worked with colleagues in Brazil to examine policies and civil society initiatives for food security in that country. She’s drawn special attention to pioneering efforts in the city of Belo Horizonte.

More recently, she and colleagues at the CSFS partnered with researchers at the National Institute of Nutrition in Vietnam on a project to improve nutrition and food security for children in that country.

“I am a firm believer in knowledge exchange between countries and different communities,” Rocha says. “If funding were not an issue, I would like to see us collaborate with more people in different settings, so we can learn about their experiences in attempting to deal with food insecurity. There is so much good work being done around the world. But we need to see and understand those positive outcomes — and then share our findings — so that others might benefit from them, as well.”

While field work is likely to be hampered for some time due to travel restrictions imposed as a result of Covid-19, other research can continue. Indeed, how a pandemic affects the Five A’s of Food Security will need to be examined.

In fact, there is a lot of work to do still, as long as we hold fast to the notion that through collective efforts the future can deliver access to food for all.

dome structures
Arviat, Nunavut’s “Double Dome” greenhouses

Growing food in Canada’s North

The twin problems of food security and hunger are not experienced only by people living in third-world countries or in war-torn parts of the world. In fact, for many Indigenous peoples and those who are homeless in cities across Canada, the problems are daily experiences.

Additional vulnerabilities were exposed as the country shut down in response to Covid-19. Supply chains that were disrupted and difficulties hiring foreign seasonal workers needed in the agricultural sector resulted in shortages and rising food prices. For many in the country’s urban areas who lost jobs as a result of the pandemic, resorting to food banks for help was a shocking wake-up call.

of children in Northern Canada face food insecurity

Canada’s North presents its own, unique challenges for food security in the best of circumstances. The hard permafrost removes the ability to plant anything in the soil in most places, and limited sunlight in the winter months makes year-round growing difficult. Almost everything appearing on grocery store shelves is imported by air — at considerable expense — as a result.

Several years ago, two Ryerson students set out to address the problem of growing food in northern climates. Stefany Nieto and Benjamin Canning were studying in the Ted Rogers School of Management when they came up with the idea of applying hydroponic growing in a dome-shaped greenhouse. They tested a proof of concept in Naujaat, Nunavut, in 2015. They later built domes in other Nunavut communities and northern Quebec. After graduating, the pair founded the charitable organization Green Iglu, to ensure that the project continued.

a man inside a greenhouse
Green Iglu Co-founder, Ben Canning, working inside the Growing Domes in Naujaat

“The biggest driver behind our operation is ensuring that food production can thrive in regions that typically can’t accommodate agriculture, whether it’s due to the climate or a lack of general agricultural knowledge,” says Nieto, who is now Green Iglu’s executive director, while Canning serves as chief technology officer.

The biggest driver behind our operation is ensuring that food production can thrive in regions that typically can’t accommodate agriculture, whether it’s due to the climate or a lack of general agricultural knowledge.
Stefany Nieto, Executive Director of Green Iglu

The Green Iglu team is currently exploring renewable energy sources for powering lighting and heating systems throughout the cold Canadian winter, while also focusing on educational programming to keep up with their technology.

The incorporation of root vegetables into food production using raised soil beds is another key differentiator.

“The most important factor in all of this is ownership of the infrastructure,” Nieto adds. “The greenhouses are not owned by our organization, but rather the community itself. We simply provide the growing systems, education, training and maintenance, so that the greenhouses can eventually reach independent sustainability and can operate without our direct oversight.”

For all the practical aspects of the venture, it could also see unexpected benefits. Northern produce growers could see their roots and vegetables embraced by southern consumers for their esoteric value. That would help sustain growing operations in the North, and ensure continued food security at its source, where it is needed most.

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