Cheap food

Ian Mason | 12 years ago

‘Industrial agriculture is threatening the food security of our planet’ according to Indian scientist and activist, Dr Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, the Indian seed collection and preservation network, speaking at a meeting of the Gaia Foundation in London. While over a billion people suffer starvation or severe malnutrition a small number of international corporations are tightening their grip on the world’s food supplies. They work on three main fronts. First, they are steadily tightening their grip on seed supplies, especially through the introduction of patented GM varieties. Secondly, they are steadily driving small -holders who specialise in varied food production from their land in order to create industrial scale farming units. Thirdly, control of the entire retail chain is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, forcing suppliers to seek ever cheaper means of production, mostly through mechanisation, and forcing small scale farmers out of the market.

The world’s highest traded crops, such as corn, soya, rice and cotton are all treated as commodities and the biggest trade in all of them is in genetically modified varieties. Industrial scale farming certainly produces more of these commodities, but it is well established that it produces less actual food per acre and it also leaves food producers hungry. Dr Shiva also points out that because the commodity markets do not distinguish between food for people, food for cattle, food for fuel and food for industry, we do not notice that the increasing hunger of machines actually makes greater demands on modern food production than the hunger of human beings.

In India, despite annual GDP growth rates in the region of nine per cent, every fourth Indian is seriously hungry. Even in this era of cheap food, sufficient nourishing food is beyond the purchasing power of twenty five per cent of the population and yet land and resources are being diverted from food production to commodity production.

According to Shiva, and many others, the intelligent response to all this is that ecological agriculture is the only road to freedom. Small farms rooted in biodiversity can produce up to ten times as much food per acre with the added bonus of being the most efficient way of converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into healthy humus for fertile soils.

This view is certainly shared by fellow speaker, Patrick Holden, chairman of the UK’s Soil Association, the organic certification and campaigning organisation. He sees the same tendency to fewer and fewer producers, processors, packers and distributors in the UK food industry. He reports, for example that 80% of carrots in the UK come from just ten carrot growers while all our supermarket milk comes from only five major processors who may soon be reduced to four. He also reports that those who thought that we had succeeded in keeping GM foods out of the UK are deluding themselves: more than one million tons of GM soya and maize is fed to UK pigs, chickens and dairy cows annually with no labelling requirement on the final product.

Holden would also agree with Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation who views all this as evidence of what Gandhi would have described as a deeply violent society which institutionalises violence to the soil, to seed, to animals, to farmers, to consumers and to ourselves by the food we put in our bodies. Gandhi’s response, she says, would be to fight back non-violently by not participating in violent systems and building alternatives. This means choosing, and taking the trouble, to eat less violently produced food and supporting local growers and retailers by choosing food produced locally and with integrity. Every penny of our household food budget is a vote for the system that produces what we buy. It means rediscovering how to nurture the soil so that the soil nurtures us, knowing the story of the food that we eat and reclaiming food sovereignty and security by growing as much of our own food as possible.

These prescriptions are excellent for those who can afford them, but there is another all important factor. The drive for cheaper and cheaper food is because billions of people the world over cannot afford to pay for food that has been produced locally with care and integrity. The reasons for this lie in the prevailing economics which forces people into a working environment where they must compete with their fellows for jobs by accepting wages that have already been competed to a minimum or by selling at prices that have already been competed to a minimum.

This has become a global phenomenon. British, and much European, agriculture is no longer economic because agricultural labour is so much cheaper in other parts of the world – and so is agricultural land. Farm gate food prices will not provide what has become an acceptable income to the inhabitants of Britain while also paying for the land to grow it on. Elsewhere, they are not sufficient to support a small farmer and his family while at the same time providing sufficient revenue to pay for seed, fertiliser and machinery.

All this plays into the hands of industrial scale farming enterprises. They have the capacity to provide the capital inputs which dispense with the need for ‘expensive’ human eyes, hands and energy by replacing them with machines. This is what capital inputs have become: not the provision of tools and equipment that make human work more effective and productive, but the replacement of human work fuelled by nourishing food by immense machines fuelled by oil – and now, increasingly by organically produced fuels whose production is displacing human food production and having devastating effects on the environment.

This raises serious questions to be addressed by economists. First, why has the human relationship with land and the capacity to grow food become so distorted that farmers can no longer grow the food that they and their neighbours need? Secondly, who is benefiting from this situation and to what purpose? Thirdly, how can economics, and through economics, governments and policy makers, address the position?

These questions do not readily admit of short and easy answers, but the beginnings of answers are not too difficult to see. In most westernised economies the relationship with the land has been distorted by believing that land can be privately owned without obligation and can be bought and sold with impunity. The older understanding that the land does not belong to anyone, and that we humans belong to the land has been lost to modern economics. The real beneficiaries of this situation are those who can establish ownership and control of productive land whose purpose is to benefit themselves and their shareholders (for many of them do have shareholders) but not to benefit those who must live and work on the land if they can. This position could be addressed by governments and policymakers by the establishment and enforcement of simple obligations on those who claim exclusive ownership or occupation of land. Such obligations are routinely applied to tenants by landlords. There is no reason why they could not equally be applied by governments local or national, to landlords.

Two things seem to be necessary to bring this about. The first is a revised understanding of the underlying economics of the entire system. The second is political will. Every individual can help with both of these by demanding examination of the key questions and insisting that their representatives do so as well. The establishment of justice and equity in economic life depends upon us all taking up this cause.

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Ian Mason'