There has been a lot of talk about food security recently, but most of it assumes that the fundamental problem is a lack of food, and that the most appropriate response is to ‘produce more’. This analysis is deeply flawed. It flows from a refusal to grapple with the deeper causes of what is really a system in profound crisis: a crisis of over-production.
The debate about what caused the 2007-08 food price crisis continues as we enter a new phase of record high food prices. While the finger of blame was initially pointed at declining grain stockpiles, many other factors were at work. The run-up in food prices, then as now, was accompanied by a run-up in oil prices. This is a relation that has held true for decades, and in the era of peak oil, we ignore it at our peril. Regardless of what view one takes on the carbon tax, there is an urgent need to begin de-carbonising the food system.
High oil prices mean increased costs of production: rock phosphate rose by nearly 600 per cent from 2006 to 2008, while super-phosphates almost tripled in price over the same period. These problems were exacerbated by financial speculation and a biofuels boom driven by government targets and subsidies; both of which drove prices up even further.
For all our technological achievements, we are no closer to resolving basic human outrages like the persistence of mass hunger at a time when the world actually produces enough food to feed 10 billion people or more. What we have is, in fact, a crisis of over-production of a few commodity crops, principally corn and soy. Too much of these grains are converted into highly processed, highly packaged, energy-dense, nutrient-poor ‘pseudo-foods’. The result? Hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and a growing percentage of this country’s children, now suffer from obesity and a suite of chronic dietary-related illnesses. To add to this picture of madness – mass hunger, mass obesity, massive dependence on a declining non-renewable resource – we also have to recognise that one-third of all food produced goes to waste. In Australia, we throw away around $5 billion worth of food every year.
We could of course go on to complete the picture by talking about the social destruction wrought by global free trade in agriculture, and the catalogue of environmental disasters such as oceanic dead zones caused by nutrient overloading, but the writing is already on the wall.
Instead, we want to ask this question: why is this crisis one of over-production?
It’s quite simple, really. Our food system is geared to produce profits before meeting the genuine food needs of all humanity in a truly sustainable way. Increased demand for biofuels means that grains go into lucrative (but environmentally dubious) energy production, and not into kitchens. In many countries of the global South, from India to Bolivia to Kenya, cultivation of cash crops like coffee, cotton and decorative cut flowers for export markets replaces food crops for domestic consumption.
Since grain production in the U.S. is so cheap, thanks to government subsidies, it is dumped on markets in the global south, such as Mexico, destroying local food production and supporting the proliferation of factory farming in the U.S. Environmental costs are horrendous, to say nothing of the unspeakable cruelty meted out daily to millions of cattle, chicken and pigs. This is a system that thrives on the public knowing nothing about it, as Meat and Livestock Australia, and LiveCorp, are now discovering to their cost.
We will not solve the food problem unless we solve the economic problem.
Corporate control of agriculture, food processing and retailing means that decisions about what food is produced, how it is processed and where it is sold are driven by the impersonal imperatives of profit, and not by human needs. Today, three firms control over 90 per cent of world grain trade; and this is just one example of the global agri-food oligopoly.
Yet because the mainstream framing of the food security debate is to see the ‘hunger problem’ in terms of a lack of food, the inevitable response is to call for increased production: to bring more land under cultivation; and to intensify agriculture with more inputs and ‘better performing’ crops. During the ‘Green Revolution’ of the post-WWII period, irrigation-based petro-farming replaced mixed farming systems with monocultures, and made millions of farmers newly dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. While this increased grain production for a period, it also poisoned and degraded land and water resources, meaning that on-going viability for food production has been undermined. This is a problem many farmers in Australia know well. Monocultures also reduced dietary diversity reduced for many, especially poor people living on subsistence farming, leading to nutritional deficiencies.
The next wave of agricultural intensification spruiked as a way to increase production comes in the form of genetically modified crops and other hybrid seed varieties, sold as a package with chemicals by Monsanto et al – the chemical company turned agribusiness that brought us Agent Orange, rBGH growth hormones in milk and deadly PCB chemicals.