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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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How the geography of world obesity has shifted

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(1) Obesity is on the rise globally: One in three adults in the world (1.46 billion) were overweight or obese in 2008, up by 23% since 1980. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: North Africa and the Middle East, and Latin America now have almost the same percentage of overweight or obese people as Europe. Graphics: ODI

(1) Obesity is on the rise globally: One in three adults in the world (1.46 billion) were overweight or obese in 2008, up by 23% since 1980. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: North Africa and the Middle East, and Latin America now have almost the same percentage of overweight or obese people as Europe. Graphics: ODI

For the last few years, food scarcity and the effects of industrial food have co-existed, often within the same demographic circle and within countries. This is no contradiction (although it demands far more attentive food policy) because the in the world’s industrialised agriculture and processed food system, both must exist in order that profits are made, in order that ‘economic growth’ is fulfilled.

Now, the BBC has reported that the number of overweight and obese adults in the ‘developing world’ (an unnecessary hangover that label, which media organisations must outlaw) has almost quadrupled to around one billion since 1980. The BBC report is based on a study by Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, which has said that one in three people worldwide was now overweight – the study uses these findings to urge governments to do more to influence diets.

(1) Obesity is growing in the developing world: In the developing world, the number of overweight or obese adults more than tripled from 250 million in 1980 to 904 million. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: More adults were overweight or obese in developing countries than in rich countries in 2008. Graphics: ODI

(1) Obesity is growing in the developing world: In the developing world, the number of overweight or obese adults more than tripled from 250 million in 1980 to 904 million. (2) Where overweight or obese people live is changing: More adults were overweight or obese in developing countries than in rich countries in 2008. Graphics: ODI

There has indeed been a dramatic increase in the numbers of overweight or obese people in the past 30 years, as anyone who has passed through public places is likely to have observed. Previously considered a problem in richer countries, the biggest rises are in what those familiar with ‘development economics’ (another term that means effectively nothing) call ‘middle income countries’ and the ‘developing world’.
The ODI study, called ‘Future Diets’, has traced how the changes in diet – more fat, more meat, more sugar and bigger portions (what the Americans loving call ‘supersize’) – have led to a health crisis. It also looks at how policy-makers have tried to curb these excesses, usually with little success.

[Use this calculator to check where you are on what the BBC calls ‘the global fat scale’]

The official line on the causes of obesity includes higher incomes. The rationale is that those households which earn more are now able to choose the kind of foods they want, and that they choose poorly. Changes in lifestyle are mentioned, as is the increasing availability of processed foods, the dreadful impact of advertising in and on every space discernible by our senses, and the co-option of media by the food industry (along with most other consumerist industries that require propaganda to ensure quarterly profit and expectations are met and that shareholder value is protected).

(1) Sugar and sweetener consumption is rising: An indicator of changing diets is the increasing consumption of sugar and sweeteners, which has risen by over 20% per person between 1961 and 2009. (2) Change is possible: South Koreans ate 300% more fruit and 10% more vegetables in 2009 compared to 1980 thanks to concerted government-led campaigns. Graphics: ODI

(1) Sugar and sweetener consumption is rising: An indicator of changing diets is the increasing consumption of sugar and sweeteners, which has risen by over 20% per person between 1961 and 2009. (2) Change is possible: South Koreans ate 300% more fruit and 10% more vegetables in 2009 compared to 1980 thanks to concerted government-led campaigns. Graphics: ODI

But this is the very alarming result. In what are also called ’emerging economies’, where a large middle class of people with rising incomes lives in urban centres and takes less physical exercise than their parents and grandparents did, there is “an explosion in overweight and obesity in the past 30 years” which of course will lead to serious implications for public health.

The consumption of fat, salt and sugar has increased globally according to the United Nations, and these increases are significant factors in the increase seen in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. The study has recommended more concerted public health measures from governments, similar to those taken to limit smoking in developed countries, but of course, to really bring about a change in the way new entrants into the urban middle classes eat, there must be the admission that economic ‘growth’ should first stop, then reverse. How likely is that in the next generation?

The planetary case for a meat-free society

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There is no case at all for humans to continue eating the amount of meat they do. In what are commonly called ‘industrialised’ countries (a category that includes most of the OECD countries) the share of meat in total food consumption is around 48% and has been so for several decades (has in fact been so once the overhang of the food shortages of the Second World War wore off, and particularly after the emergence of Europe’s common agricultural policy, which ushered in a change in that part of the world which was as far-reaching in its consequences as was the Green Revolution in South Asia).

Per capita consumption of major food items in developing countries, 1961-2005. Source: FAO

Now we see more clearly that as per capita food consumption has increased it has been accompanied by (those ‘market forces’ at work, the industrialisation of agriculture and the disinheritance from local choices for the average consumer, both by connected design) a change in dietary patterns that can only be described as catastrophic. Those who look at this change from an economic standpoint call it ‘structural’, for we have seen the diets of people in ‘developing’ (forgive the use of this term, so misleading it is, especially when the ‘developed’ world’s ravenous greed for resources turns these very concepts grotesquely on their heads) being altered.

In the South, for these peoples (some of them newly urbanised and whose activities contribute to the growing inequality of incomes – one has only to look at oddly swelling Gini curves to see this), there has been a rapid increases of livestock products (meat, milk, eggs), vegetable oils and, to a smaller extent, sugar, as sources of food energy. These three food groups together now provide 29% of total food consumption (also often called “dietary energy supply”) and this proportion has risen from 20% only three decades ago. Mind, these are not small increases over more than a generation – as a first look at this change will seem to imply. A single percentage point increase over a generation for a country’s population places a very large burden on land, water, crop growing patterns and of course health.

It is the prognosis that I find chilling. The FAO has rather unemotionally remarked that this share is projected to rise further to 35% in 2030 and to 37% in 2050. Can civilisation (let’s assume we can call this human imprint on the planet a single civilisation of a homogenous species although we all know it isn’t, not by any stretch of the fertile imaginations of our tens of thousands of indigenous peoples) tolerate such a shift in how people feed themselves. No, certainly not, the impact is catastrophic already.

Per capita GDP and meat consumption by country, 2005. Source: FAO

There are libraries of evidence to show that demand for livestock products has considerably increased since the early 1960s in the ‘developing’ countries. India, for example, so staunchly vegetarian through its struggle for freedom and through the leisurely years till economic ‘liberalisation’ strengthened its grip on minds and alimentary canals alike, is home to a very large and rapidly growing poultry industry (how quickly the vocabulary turns upon the rational, when did harmonious domestication and the organic circling of the nutrient cycle turn into an ‘industry’, banishing animals from their roles in our ecosystems?) and a fisheries ‘industry’ that has depleted the Arabian Sea (it is the Mer d’Oman from the other side) and the Bay of Bengal of their creatures both demersal and pelagic.

Thus we are confronted by the spectres of consumption of food which is attached, like a motor-car engine is to its crankshaft, to growth-by-magnitude. In the ‘developing’ South, the consumption of milk per capita has almost doubled (recall Operation Flood in India), meat consumption more than tripled and egg consumption increased by a factor of five (recall the National Egg Coordination Committee and its catchy jingle: “Meri jaan, meri jaan, murgi ke ande khana“). And yet, it is not yet South Asia – for the most substantial growth in per capita consumption of livestock products has occurred in East and Southeast Asia. China, in particular, has seen per capita consumption of meat quadruple, consumption of milk increase tenfold, and egg consumption increase eightfold between 1980 and 2005. And yet again, among the developing-country regions, only sub-Saharan Africa has seen a modest decline in per capita consumption of both meat and milk (according to FAO).

Where will this lead to? Into what zone of rolling disaster will the pursuit of the animal protein take our land-water-crop-habitat balance, already so precarious and already on a knife’s edge? The estimates (all bland, all unemotional, as if unable or unwilling to emote the reality to come) are that such demand is set to increase significantly towards 2050 because of population growth and continuing change of dietary patterns. The forecasts ought to be seen as terrifying: according to FAO’s estimates, an increase in the consumption of livestock products will cause a 553 million tons increase in the demand for feed, which represents half of the total demand increase for coarse grain between 2000 and 2050.

The FAO’s regiments of agro-economists and trend watchers have said that income growth in low-income countries and emerging economies will drive demand even higher (the Foresight 2011 report has said so too). They concur that there will be a shift to “high-status and non-seasonal foods, including more meat consumption, particularly in countries with rising income” (ah yes, the rising income, the fata morgana of a tide that lifts all boats, as the development banks have long wanted us to believe). No, comrades, it is not so – Nature does not recognise your balance-sheet.

Choose real food

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Written by makanaka

July 29, 2011 at 20:19