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University of California Press
Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond / Edition 1

Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond / Edition 1


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Beginning to End Hunger presents the story of Belo Horizonte, home to 2.5 million people and the site of one of the world’s most successful food security programs. Since its Municipal Secretariat of Food and Nutritional Security was founded in 1993, Belo Horizonte has sharply reduced malnutrition, leading it to serve as an inspiration for Brazil’s renowned Zero Hunger programs. The secretariat’s work with local family farmers shows how food security, rural livelihoods, and healthy ecosystems can be supported together. In this convincing case study, M. Jahi Chappell establishes the importance of holistic approaches to food security, suggests how to design successful policies to end hunger, and lays out strategies for enacting policy change. With these tools, we can take the next steps toward achieving similar reductions in hunger and food insecurity elsewhere in the developed and developing worlds.

Learn more about Jahi and his work on his personal website.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293090
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/19/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

M. Jahi Chappell is a political agroecologist with training in ecology and evolutionary biology, science and technology studies, and chemical engineering. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, a Fellow of FoodFirst/the Institute for Food and Development Policy, and an Adjunct Faculty member of the School of the Environment at Washington State University.

Read an Excerpt



Food and Famine Futures, Past and Present

The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.

— William Gibson (1999)

For me, speculative fiction author William Gibson's quote evokes the dreams of a future of high technology: robots, "smart" homes, powerful personal gadgets, dinosaur-sized autonomous mechanical harvesters, and flying, self-driving cars. While the debates over the significance and implications of such technologies can veer into the abstract for those of us in the Minority World — a term coined by Bangladeshi artist Shahidul Alam (2008) to refer to the minority of the world's population living in the richest countries — they might seem positively irrelevant to the billions of the world's refugees, poor, violently oppressed, and disenfranchised. The disconnect between technologies like these and the actual challenges facing the poor and the hungry might even strike some as a cruel joke.

However, the truth is that the future will be based not on the promises of whiz-bang technology, but on the more mundane features of the decisions our societies make about what we will do, how we will do it, and who will get to decide. That is, our future fates are based on our institutions. "Institutions," as a technical term, refers to the rules prevalent in a society. They are essentially about how we run our lives individually and collectively, and the many conscious, and unconscious, mechanics underneath the surface. Our ancestors would likely be just as shocked at these institutional foundations of our current societies as they would be at the tools and technology that support them. Institutions, in this way, are as much the stuff of sci-fi fantasy as bleeding-edge plant breeding techniques and the Dick Tracy wrist-radio/watches some of us now wear on our wrists.

Despite the core functions that institutions embody, they are definitely not what first comes to mind for most people when they think of the Matrix trilogy. The Wachowskis' turn-of-the-twentieth-century cinematic series is remembered more as a lead-in to a new age of computer-augmented special-effects action and elaborately choreographed martial arts set pieces. For some (me excluded) it is remembered as disappointing and artistically unsuccessful. Rarely appreciated is that the series undermined some of the typical tropes of Hollywood and contemporary capitalist society more broadly. The Matrix movies are some of the few films that are fundamentally about institutions, and not just about the "good" and "bad" people in them. This is an important distinction, as changes in institutions are fundamental to the core story of this book: how the food security policies of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, show us how we may begin to end hunger.

The plot of The Matrix and its sequels revolves around a dystopian future where humans have been completely subjugated by sentient machines. The human race, save for a small resistance, are trapped in a virtual reality simulating late twentieth-century Earth. In order to keep humans docile and amenable to the deception, there are multiple "systems of control." These extend beyond the virtual Matrix and into schemes-within-schemes by the oppressive Machines. Importantly, the Machines have contingencies deployed such that those humans who "wake up" from the Matrix, or try to do so, end up playing into a larger cycle designed to control human rebels in the real world, channeling otherwise unpredictable human tendencies into a repeated pattern of rebellion, defeat, and reinsertion into new versions of the system of control the Matrix represents. All that said, over the course of the movies, we learn that the Machines are not necessarily villains. They, too, are trying — and have a right — to survive.

So while Western popular culture has long focused on individual choice and the characteristics of singular "bad guys" and "good guys," the Wachowskis' trilogy puts these choices in the context of people's (and machines') interactions with institutions — that is to say, of their interactions with the underlying mechanics of social behavior. As used by social scientists, the term "institutions" is used to group together the norms, rules, and values behind our actions and reactions. There are numerous examples of institutions at work in our everyday lives, from our conceptions of a nuclear family to how to behave in public, how we drive (or don't), and the natures of our schools and workplaces. These structures map out a lot of our actions so that we don't have to think consciously about our behavior every moment and in every social situation. For a broad range of institutions, we have internalized their dictates to the extent that we rarely question or even notice them.

This is not to say that the written and unwritten rules of institutions don't change. They can gradually evolve, or be changed rapidly as individuals and groups resist, ignore, or enforce any particular set of institutions. To illustrate, let's briefly consider the institution of marriage. The meaning of marriage has changed fairly significantly over the past decades and centuries, particularly in the Minority World. The expectations and practices built around the putative superiority husbands hold over their wives have thankfully declined in many places, increasingly (if fitfully) replaced by a sense of the romantic joining of equals. The increasing acceptance of same-sex marriages aligns well with this latter sense, but clashes with some of the rules, norms, and values understood as traditional (and either unchanged or unchangeable) by others. At the same time, many common elements extend across differing understandings of marriage. Some broad, but not universal, norms for marriage include assumptions of sexual fidelity, cohabitation, and coparenting children. Any one of these need not hold for a particular marriage, but just as for any other rulebook or tradition, such differences are widely recognized as varying from mainstream expectations (regardless of whether those expectations are thought to be positive, negative, or neutral).

This book, however, is precisely about positive deviations from the norm: changing the rulebooks around food from where they are now to where we need them to be if we are to end hunger. Referring to just such a gap, one of the peer reviewers for an article by geographer Jesse Ribot suggested that "the institutions, processes and forums that could enable the fundamental changes you call for do not yet exist." Ribot responded:

They do exist in some places at some times for some people. ... If we, as analysts or activists, insist on requiring that all interventions enable democracy, and we insist this demand be enforced, we may help force the hand of practice. ... I do not want to act or be in a world that does not try. Democracy is an ongoing struggle. It is not a state to be arrived at. It will come and go in degrees. Trying is the struggle that produces emancipatory moments — however ephemeral they may be. The fleeting joy and creativity of freedom seem worth it. (2014, 698)

Important institutions, such as nation-states, human rights, public education, and gender equality, have never been instantly and evenly distributed worldwide. They all started as an idea among a smaller number of people that went on to influence and shape billions. It is the same with hunger, where the future institutions we need are in many ways already here, if in imperfect forms.


Não sou otimista babaca, mas otimista ativo.

— Herbert de Souza, quoted in Helvecia (1994)

This quote from the late Brazilian sociologist Herbert "Betinho" de Souza came to my attention in one of the first analyses of the food policies of the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil (BH) — the subject of this book and the site of a set of important and "futuristic" institutions (figure 1). In this analysis by Adriana Aranha, a former BH administrator, she quotes Betinho's statement that "I'm not some stupid optimist." Rather, he assured us, "I'm an active optimist."

Aranha used the quote to begin her master's thesis analyzing Belo Horizonte's programs, which she had helped shape and implement over the previous years. I happen to like it, too. Betinho gets at the most fundamental element of ending hunger: an activist optimism that demands we take on the notion that hunger can be ended. In the vein of Betinho, this book sets out to show that active optimists can bring about a future without hunger, by respecting, improving, and more evenly spreading the institutions to make it possible.

In the United States, it sometimes feels like active optimism — insisting on not only the possibility of change but also its urgent necessity — is taken to be synonymous with being a self-righteous ass. Our politics and philosophies are often shrunk down to the idea that our only power lies in our consumption choices — buying our way to a more just and sustainable world — without acknowledging that, among other things, this literally defines away the power of the poorest to change the system. In elevating the consumer to fill or replace the role of citizen, it relegates citizenship — not just voting, but organizing, protesting, resisting, and agitating — to the margins. Achieving change becomes the responsibility of the comfortable, who as a matter of course question neither the basis of their comfort nor whether changing their consumption patterns represents change enough.

Indeed, "and next we'll solve world hunger" has long been used to take know-it-alls down a peg: "We'll do what you say, right after we do this thing that is effectively impossible." Such fatalism, matched with images past and present of starvation around the world, has fixed the idea that hunger and starvation are inevitable and insoluble. I won't try to convince you that this idea is bandied about to justify continued hunger in and of itself. But neither will I rationalize the deprivation and repression that exist alongside food surpluses. Rather, without being cynical, a rational analysis of current food policy and the history of its development and distribution must consider how such notions have often been applied. We must recognize that the stories we tell ourselves often circulate not because they are true, but because they are useful in maintaining political systems that many of us would otherwise question.

Indeed, any rational analysis of policies and possibilities, whether of food systems or more broadly, must consider questions of epistemology, or the nature of knowing. How do I know what I think I know? If what I think I know is wrong, what does that mean for what the "correct" policies and processes might be? And if there are errors or incompleteness around what I thought I knew, why? Cui bono? Who benefits from this?

Obviously, this is not the place for a complete survey of the field of epistemology. But a broad appreciation of the importance and implications of its concepts is vital. Food policies, as we will see, have too often been based on things that we think we know but that don't hold up under scrutiny. So when we engage in a careful examination of the big picture, we often cut against the stories broadcast across mainstream media and transmitted even by many a researcher who should know better. We are led to the necessity, then, of grappling with epistemology. Only then can we figure out how to reconcile what we believed we knew about food, what conflicting sources tell us, and what we may be called on to know tomorrow.

So how do we know what we think we know? This is a harder question to answer than it appears. We "know," for instance, that we will need 70–100% more food in the next several decades — a number cited by many top scholarly journals, news sites, and prominent officials (Cribb 2010; Jackson 2015; Ray et al. 2013). But political economist Tim Wise shows that the projections such estimates are based on were never meant to be taken as predictions of what ought to happen, or what has to happen; in the case of the upper-end projection of 100%, it is not even clear where it originally came from (2013, 3). With regards to the low-end projection of 70%, the authors of the report that originally derived it have themselves advised against citing it as a projection of what we will need for the future (Alexandratos and Bruinsma 2012, 7). Beyond that, they updated their estimate from a 70% increase to just 60%. They also figure, however, that we are on track to meet that increase (Wise 2013, 4–6). While it is quite likely such production would continue to incur serious costs to our environment, we also already have the means to mitigate or avoid these costs. We could be forgiven for thinking that this was a controversial or disproven idea, however, as many experts have breathlessly repeated the need for a whole new (technology-focused) paradigm.

If these basic interpretations are incorrect or incomplete, what might that mean for our proposed solutions? What might that mean for our model of how the world works? And who benefits — Cui bono? — from a model that overestimates how much food we need while underplaying the potential of reducing food waste and changing diets, and dismisses as wistful thinking the possibility of political changes to make our food systems more fair and equitable? The historical roots of these misconceptions and misinterpretations, in fact, are deeply embedded in the histories of food, agriculture, and science alike.


The ideas of the English political economist Thomas Malthus have been immensely influential since the publication of his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. His writings about population and food not only profoundly affected social sciences such as economics and political science but also were pivotal in the development of evolutionary biology and ecology.

Malthus proposed that human populations will grow exponentially with time, while food production will rise only linearly. Under these conditions, the amount of food available per individual will constantly decline, until some individuals, without food, starve and die. With the poor and starving an everyday sight in late Georgian England, and with massive riches accumulating to the few through burgeoning international trade and the Industrial Revolution, Malthus derived a brutally elegant application of his theory.

The reason the poor are poor and stay poor, he proposed, is because the amount of food in society can only increase so fast, outpaced by the constancy of the "passion between the sexes" that lead the poor to produce more offspring than they can feed. After all, if several children of a poor family survive, and each produces several surviving children of their own, then even the poorest couple will end up with dozens of descendants who do not have the means to take care of themselves, much less pass on resources to their children. Giving the poor more resources directly, however, will do nothing to improve things in his view. With more resources, poor couples will simply have more children than they otherwise would have, who themselves will have yet more children, leading to exponential growth that always surpasses the (hypothesized) linear growth in food supply. Thus, the resources of the poor will always be stretched by more mouths to feed than can be supported.

What is one to do? "Nothing" is one of Malthus's answers that has stuck with us ever since. "Nothing" was an option long before Malthus, of course, but his calculations established it as a scientific "fact." Now, thanks to him, we "know" that if you give the poor resources, they will simply end up right back in poverty where they started, by way of the passions of exponential growth. To help the poor then is, in fact, to hurt them, and so the ratchet of the "survival of the fittest" must be endured to whittle away "excess" people. The overbreeding poor lack the industriousness and self-control to pull themselves out of their miserable circumstances.

Life as we know it, however, limits Malthus's applicability. First, a simple observation. There is no necessary condition by which food rises linearly while populations increase exponentially. The reality of human systems, in fact, is that our food supplies have variously decreased, increased linearly, and increased exponentially, depending on the time period and scale at which one looks. Importantly, per capita food availability, or how much food is theoretically available in the world for each person, has often kept pace with or even outpaced population growth (see figure 2). This means that at times food supply has grown faster than human population. So the facts refute Malthus's modest proposal in multiple ways.


Excerpted from "Beginning to End Hunger"
by .
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword by Frances Moore Lappé

1. Introduction: Food and Famine Futures, Past and Present
2. Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and Beginning to End Hunger
3. Belo Horizonte: All Five A’s on the Horizon
4. Multiple Streams and the Evolution of the Secretariat of Food and Nutritional Security
5. Farm, Farmer, and Forest: SMASAN and the Environment
6. Conclusions: Belo Horizonte and Beyond


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