MicroFEWs Blog

04 February 2019

Why do we even care to look at Food, Energy, and Water Security?

By Henry Huntington

Everyone needs food and water, and nearly everyone relies on electricity and other modern forms of energy. Unfortunately, not everyone can get the food, energy, and water they need. We use the term “security” to describe having reliable access to a stable supply of suitable food, energy, and water.

Let’s start with food. Everyone needs to eat. But some people go hungry. And others can’t get healthy foods, or foods that they like to eat. For example, a vegetarian would not be happy if the only food store was a butcher’s shop full of meats. Similarly, many people have strong cultural preference for certain types of foods, such as subsistence foods in Alaska Native cultures.

With this in mind, we can see various ways that food security can be undermined. At the simplest level, the food may not be available. If hunting and fishing are poor, and bad weather prevents the local store from getting more shipments of food, a community may be in trouble. Many people keep at least a few days’ supply of food on hand, just in case. The recent earthquake near Anchorage was a reminder that even big cities can be vulnerable to disruptions, so may not be as food secure as they’d like to think.

Even when food is available, it may not be accessible to everyone. Imagine a poor person outside a grocery store. There is plenty of food just beyond the glass windows, but the individual can’t afford to buy it. Food banks and assistance programs can help in this case, and they are good at preventing starvation and extreme want. But these programs may fall short of providing the foods people prefer, especially in the case of traditional foods such as salmon or seal meat. In other words, it’s possible for someone to have enough food to eat, but still not feel “food secure” if the food is not of a kind they find suitable.

Last is the idea of stability. Can we be confident of getting the food we need and want indefinitely? Or do we often worry about getting enough or the right kind of food? The food bank depends on donations, and government assistance programs depend on politicians remaining committed to policies that provide such help. As we’ve mentioned, the supply chain to the local store may be disrupted by bad weather or an earthquake or other disaster, and populations of fish and wildlife go up and down. Achieving food stability is not easy.

This is not to paint a bleak picture and say that everyone is “food insecure.” Instead, the ideas of availability, access, suitability, and stability help us think about where we are vulnerable and what we can do about it. If food is not available, we need to think about ways to increase the supply. If food is there but many people can’t get it, we need to think about ways to better distribute the food we have. If people can’t get the food they need to feel healthy and to support their cultural identity, we need to consider how we can change that situation. If food supplies are unreliable, we need to think about ways to improve stability so people do not have to worry about where their next meals are coming from.

The same ideas can apply to energy and water. Is there enough electricity, or does the power company have to limit the supply, for example by reducing power available? Can people afford the electricity they need to keep their homes functioning? Is the power suitable, for example not having power surges that damage electronics or cause other problems? And is it reliable, so that people can count on having their lights on and their furnaces running during the dark winter months?

Water, too, needs to be available (think about droughts in places like California), accessible (can you get it to your home?), suitable (does the taste of treated water make you not want to drink it?), and reliable (will the community water supply run out in late winter?).

Because food, energy, and water are central to all our lives, we think food, energy, and water security are important topics to study. Our hope is that by better understanding the limits on these kinds of security, we can find ways to improve them and therefore the lives of people throughout Alaska.