DR MEHTA: QUESTIONING THE SOCIAL NORM OF FOOD DISTRIBUTION AND SUSTAINABILITY

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Written by Emilie Wood, Writer and Event Coordinator, UCSB Living Lab

How many times a week do you go grocery shopping? Once? Twice? What if you didn’t have enough money to go that often, or even at all? What if you couldn’t afford to feed yourself, or what if there was no food for you to buy? One out of every eight people on Earth is undernourished. To add to this already daunting statistic, climate is changing. As seasonal average temperatures shift and climate variability increases, crops fail, pushing food prices higher and higher. People are already struggling with access to food. How will the most vulnerable in society cope with the inevitable instability and increases in food price increases? Dr. Mehta, an assistant professor in the Global Studies department at UCSB, is investigating the sustainability of food subsidy programs, attempting to inform public action to better protect these communities from future price increases.

Dr. Mehta has written several papers on the food subsidy programs in the Philippines, but the issues he brings to the table in this country can be widely applied to other countries in similar fiscal situations. Many citizens in the Philippines benefited from subsidized food, which was made available to any citizen, low income through upper class. His research uncovers a remarkable discrepancy between the amount of food allocated for delivery at subsidized prices, and the amounts actually delivered. For about every 2kg of food allocated nationally, only about 1kg was actually purchased at subsidized prices. This suggests that a staggering amount of theft took place, and that some people were accessing cheap subsidized food, repackaging it, and selling it on the black market for a steep profit.

Dr. Mehta’s research underscores that these theft rates could rise as food prices rise and governments push more food into opaque supply systems. Governments often adjust the amounts of subsidized food allocated for distribution, without providing consumers credible information about these changes. When this happens, consumers cannot push back against theft, and the potential for theft grows enormously. Consistent with this theory, Dr. Mehta shows that across regions of the Philippines, a 4 kg difference in the amount of rice allocated per consumer was associated with only an additional 1 kg of rice actually received by consumers. How can this be prevented?

Dr. Mehta’s research not only identified the theft, but also made some suggestions as to how it can be avoided. Transparency and realistic food allocations, he insists, must be the number one priority. He also recommends distributing food stamps rather than subsidized food. Food stamps are like giving people cash, but cash that can really only be spent on food. In this way, people on food stamps still have a say in what food they want to eat, and therefore can impact the market. It also helps to ensure that these public resources will be spent on food, and in most cases women are handling the food stamps, which has been shown to increase the money spent on nutritional items.

Dr. Mehta explained that it is important to think about the financial sustainability of programs like this, because when they become too expensive, governments cut them, which could lead to even more malnutrition. The sustainability of these systems will be critical moving forwards into even greater climate change, and increased food price volatility. Dr. Mehta points to non-transparent, nonresponsive governments handing out food subsidies as a prime example of an unsustainable system, and encourages these governments to move away from this type of business. Since his paper about the Philippines was published, that government has actually moved to cash handouts, a system much like food stamps, though perhaps less cost-effective than food-stamps as a means of improving nutrition.

Dr. Mehta expressed his concern regarding the goals of the future economy being decoupled with environmental goals. As middle class populations grow, which is inevitable, carbon emissions also grow through increased spending on transportation, heating, cooling and emissions from purchased items. Can economic growth ever be coupled with environmental goals? Dr. Mehta really only saw one clear, simple solution: heavy carbon taxes. He believes that with a heavy carbon tax, there will be a reallocation of resources into sectors that lower carbon emissions, and the potential to fund public works projects like reforestation and insulation. Overall, Dr. Mehta believes we need hard hitting, simple solutions and that success only comes with compromise. This type of solution is evident even in his research, as the mitigation techniques for food allocation that he suggests are also simple and effective.

Dr. Mehta strives to bring sustainability into his research and teaching, whether it is the sustainability of the financial sector in a country, the sustainability of a government or a program. The discussion Dr. Mehta’s work prompts ties into the new Food Initiative Goal set by the UC President, and we are glad to have Dr. Mehta and other experts working on topics related to these goals. As climate continues to change, we are in serious need of long lasting food solutions, and with sharp minds like Dr. Mehta working on these critical issues, we are moving in the right direction to become a sustainable species.