When is choice not a choice?

Abundance and Scarcity: When is choice not a choice?

Chi-Hoon Kim and Roberta Saccone

How we think about choice in restricted circumstances, such as with international food security, is a complex question. What is choice in food aid? How is choice different for donors and recipients of food aid? How should we approach the multi-dimensional nature of abundance and scarcity of choice? More often times than not, discourses around food security and food aid assume that food scarcity is the root of the problem rather than complex political, economic, and social factors. Frequently, aid organizations look to nutrition science and agriculture for answers or techno-fixes for solving the problem of hunger and food security.

We first examined the classic problem of whether food scarcity is the result of population growth that exceeds food production or political and economic barriers to adequate distribution. In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus argued that population growth will outstrip food production because, while food production increases arithmetically, population grows infinitely. He asserted that population growth will be checked by the increasing deaths of the poor, which will bring population back to equilibrium. Today, the need to feed a growing World population seems critical since population is expected to increase to 10 billion individuals by 2050  (United Nations, 2011). Mortality facts worldwide indicate that 3.45 million children under the age of five died from illnesses that could have been prevented, with nearly a third of those deaths linked to malnutrition (WHO, 2012).

The terms ‘abundance’ and ‘scarcity’ invoke automatic associations with wealth and poverty respectively. We selected articles that would provide an entrée into exploring ways to tease apart these terms to examine the various roles choice plays in the context of international food security. By dividing the framework for our discussion into four broad categories, we began to discuss how choice can be conceived of differently in each case:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s The Peanut Butter Debate highlights the adoption of Plumpy’nut, made exclusively by the French company Nutriset and sold to the Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) therapeutic feeding centers in Niger. This shelf-stable ready-to-use food (RUTF) packs 500 calories into a good tasting paste that does not rely on water for reconstitution. The paste uses peanuts, a familiar and indigenous food, which is well liked by children. Should the nutrient rich sachet should be offered to children through “blanket distribution” as a preventive measure or restricted only to those who medically qualify? We discussed the possibility that Plumpy’nut may be doing long-term harm by altering the taste preferences of the younger generations who have become accustomed to this product. Additionally, although Plumpy’nut is used to address food scarcity with abundant nutrients and calories, it ultimately generates profit for Nutriset due to patent laws, which reifies the unequal power and resource distribution.

To examine situations when the demand for relatively new staple food items increase food insecurity, we turned to Andrae and Beckman’s book, The Wheat Trap (1985). The authors show us how the “entrenchment” of wheat became built into the fabric of Nigerian culture. They argue that dependence on wheat—a product which cannot be grown locally, and must be imported—impedes agricultural self-sufficiency and crowds out locally produced foodstuffs.
Similarly, Susanne Friedberg’s (2002) French Beans for the Masses shows how exports of food to please the palates of those in former colonial powers shifts the economic landscape of the food economy in former colonies. For example, Burkina Faso’s export of french beans to France has left its economy dependent on a commodity subject to rapidly fluctuating price controls and the demands of consumers in Europe. As a result, french beans are often found rotted and wasted in Burkino Faso because they are refused on the basis of the quality standards of those who can exercise choice (i.e., European consumers), leaving the masses, or leftover beans, to those who cannot (i.e., most Burkinabes).

It is estimated that 30 to 40% of food is wasted in developed and developing countries. Our fourth reading, Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands illustrates how the fatty underbelly of lamb or mutton produced in Australia and New Zealand is considered waste and rejected as ‘not fit to eat’ in wealthy countries, and exported to the islands of Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji lands, where it is considered culturally acceptable food.  Flaps have taken a new but compromised position in the cultural practices of Pacific Islanders that is embedded in its changing local economy. The fatty meat can be seen as a symbol of the continuing dichotomies between nations of abundance and wealth, or those who ‘refuse’ or ‘accept’ them. Our seminar considered whether acceptance of these controversial animal parts mean they were truly chosen.


As we grapple with the slipperiness of the terms ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’, especially in an international context, we will continue to engage with the multidimensional nature of abundance and scarcity. To nourish our growing world, now and in the future, taking a closer and more interdisciplinary look at the intrinsic disparities of nations and the extrinsic influences that change them may provide some tenable solutions.  To feed a growing world, we may ask those being “fed” for the answers.

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