Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

The struggle for the soul of food

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There is food. There is no food. There is no contradiction in there being food and not-food at the same time.

But the not-food is not ‘no food’, it is primary crop that has been passed to food industry, instead of directly to households, and in that industry it is converted into a raw material that is entirely different from the cereals, vegetables, pulses and fruit forms that we consider food and which farmers grow.

That conversion is the food industry, and the demands of that conversion include the use of ‘high-response’ crop varieties, livestock and aquatic breeds, enormous doses of synthetic agro-chemicals and the flattening of ecosystems.

The food industry makes plants grow by applying pesticides and herbicides that sterilise all other life, takes those grown plants and reduces them to components, re-mixes and alters those components, infuses them with deadly formulations of chemicals so that they withstand the treatment of the supply and retail chain, packages them and sells them as ‘food’. This is the not-food that a majority of households in countries now eat.

The industrial food model is predicated on waste, on a false economy of surplus production of commodities rather than on the basis of ecological sustainability, on a biological science that has hideously distorted the rhythms of life.

In the last few weeks, several incisive new reports describe the problems with the industrial food model, and I have drawn quotes from four here. These are not the first. But the conditions they now describe for an old malady are not what we have seen before.

There is a fifth, which I call a pseudo-report. It describes the problems differently, as if they were disconnected from the source of the problems which the other four reports correctly identify. The FAO State Of Food And Agriculture 2017 report refuses to acknowledge the macro-economic, corporate science and finance capital causes for the problems.

Here are the summaries, with links:

Whereas historically the organisations’ proposal for agrarian reform referred particularly to land distribution and to access to productive resources, such as credit, financing, support for marketing of products, amongst others, the integral or genuine agrarian reform is based on the defence and the reconstruction of territory as a whole, within the framework of Food Sovereignty. The broadening of the object of agrarian reform, from land to territory also broadens the concept of the agrarian reform itself.

“Therefore the contemporary proposal for integral agrarian reform does not only guarantee the democratisation of land, but also takes into consideration diverse aspects that allow families to have a decent life: water, the seas, mangroves and continental waters, seeds, biodiversity as
a whole, as well as market regulation and the end of land grabbing. Furthermore, it includes the strengthening of agro-ecological production as a form of production that is compatible with the cycles of nature and capable of halting climate change, maintaining biodiversity and reducing contamination.”

From ‘Struggles of La Via Campesina, for Agrarian Reform and the Defense of Life, Land and Territories’, La Via Campesina, 2017

The Industrial Food Chain is a linear sequence of links running from production inputs to consumption outcomes. The first links in the Chain are crop and livestock genomics, followed by pesticides, veterinary medicines, fertilizers, and farm machinery. From there, the Chain moves on to transportation and storage, and then milling processing, and packaging. The final links in the Chain are wholesaling, retailing and ultimately delivery to homes or restaurants. In this text we use ‘industrial’ or ‘corporate’ to describe the Chain, and ‘commercial foods’ should undoubtedly be associated with the Chain. Just as peasants can’t be comprehended outside of their cultural and ecological context, the links in the Chain – from agro-inputs to food retailers – must be understood within the market economy. All the links in the Chain are connected within the financial and political system, including bankers, speculators, regulators and policymakers. The Chain controls the policy environment of the world’s most important resource – our food.”

From ‘Who Will Feed Us? The Peasant Food Web vs The Industrial Food Chain’, ETC Group, 2017

A significant horizontal and vertical restructuring is underway across food systems. Rampant vertical integration is allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm machinery and market information under one roof, transforming agriculture in the process. Mega-mergers come in the context of an already highly-consolidated agri-food industry, and are ushering in a series of structural shifts in food systems. Agrochemical companies are acquiring seed companies, paving the way for unprecedented consolidation of crop development pathways, and bringing control of farming inputs into fewer hands.

“The mineral-dependent and already highly concentrated fertilizer industry is seeking further integration on the back of industry overcapacity and a drop in prices; fertilizer firms are also moving to diversify and integrate their activities via hostile takeovers, joint ventures, and the buying and selling of of regional assets– with mixed results. Meanwhile, livestock and fish breeders, and animal pharmaceutical firms, are pursuing deeper integration with each other, and are fast becoming a one-stop shop for increasingly concentrated industrial livestock industry. Leading farm machinery companies – already possessing huge market shares – are looking to consolidate up- and down-stream, and are moving towards ownership of Big Data and artificial intelligence, furthering their control of farm-level genomic information and trending market data accessed through satellite imagery and robotics.”

From ‘Too big to feed: Exploring the impacts of mega-mergers, concentration, concentration of power in the agri-food sector’, IPES-Food, 2017

Power — to achieve visibility, frame narratives, set the terms of debate, and influence policy — is at the heart of the food–health nexus. Powerful actors, including private sector, governments, donors, and others with influence, sit at the heart of the food–health nexus, generating narratives, imperatives, and power relations that help to obscure its social and environmental fallout. Prevailing solutions leave the root causes of poor health unaddressed and reinforce existing social-health inequalities.

“These solutions, premised on further industrialization of food systems, grant an increasingly central role to those with the technological capacity and economies of scale to generate data, assess risks, and deliver key health fixes (e.g., biofortification, highly traceable and biosecure supply chains). The role of industrial food and farming systems in driving health risks (e.g., by perpetuating poverty and climate change) is left unaddressed. As well, those most affected by the health impacts in food systems (e.g., small-scale farmers in the Global South) become increasingly marginal in diagnosing the problems and identifying the solutions.”

From ‘Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power
relations to build healthier food systems’, The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food, 2017

a) Industrialization, the main driver of past transformations, is not occurring in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa and is lagging in South Asia. People exiting low-productivity agriculture are moving mostly into low-productivity informal services, usually in urban areas. The benefits of this transformation have been very modest.
b) In the decades ahead, sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, will face large increases in its youth population and the challenge of finding them jobs. Workers exiting agriculture and unable to find jobs in the local non-farm economy must seek employment elsewhere, leading to seasonal or permanent migration.
c) The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers risk being left behind in structural and rural transformations. Many small scale producers will have to adjust to ongoing changes in “downstream” food value chains, where large-scale processors and retailers, who are taking centre stage, use contracts to coordinate supply and set strict standards to guarantee food quality and safety. Those requirements can marginalize smallholder farmers who are unable to adjust.
d) Urbanization, population increases and income growth are driving strong demand for food at a time when agriculture faces unprecedented natural-resource constraints and climate change. These increases have implications for agriculture and food systems – they need to adapt significantly to become more productive and diversified, while coping with unprecedented climate change and natural resource constraints.”

From ‘The State Of Food And Agriculture. Leveraging Food Systems For Inclusive Rural Transformation’, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 2017

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