Peak Food: Blaming the Victims

food-crisis.jpgBy Nafeez Ahmed | I’ve already written about this in previous posts under the ‘hidden holocaust’ theme, but am prompted to re-address this issue given the way it’s been dealt with by mainstream media and associated ‘experts’.

In today’s Independent we see an eye-opening article revealing that amidst what is described as a series of “global food shortages”, a new “government-backed report” shows that “the British public” annually throws away “4.4 million apples, 1.6 million bananas, 1.3 million yoghurt pots, 660,000 eggs, 550,000 chickens, 300,000 packs of crisps and 440,000 ready meals. And for the first time government researchers have established that most of the food waste is made up of completely untouched food products — whole chickens and chocolate gateaux that lie uneaten in cupboards and fridges before being discarded” — adding up to “a record £10b” every year.

And that’s just us Brits. Imagine what the totals are for the Western world combined: Scary and revealing stuff that makes the word “overconsumption” seem like a gross understatement.

But despite the shock value of such important revelations, I’m increasingly concerned at the way in which the food crisis is being portrayed. The Independent goes on to explain the causes of the food crisis as follows: “… millions of the world’s poor face food shortages caused by rising populations, droughts and increased demand for land for biofuels, which have sparked riots and protests from Haiti to Mauritania, and from Yemen to the Philippines.”

So the food crisis comes down to three things:

1) rising populations (presumably not us in the advanced West, but rather those Third World crazies breeding like rabbits despite being so poor)

2) droughts (which may be exacerbated by climate change but in any case often occur naturally and therefore we purportedly can’t do much about)

3) and the drive from energy corporations for investment in biofuels.

Indeed, according to the British government’s new chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington speaking at a government conference two months ago:

“price rises in staples such as rice, maize and wheat would continue because of increased demand caused by population growth and increasing wealth in developing nations. He also said that climate change would lead to pressure on food supplies because of decreased rainfall in many areas and crop failures related to climate. ‘The agriculture industry needs to
double its food production, using less water than today.’

So again, population and economic growth in the ‘developing nations’, plus climate change, are to blame, and can only be addressed by doubling food production using less water (technologically impossible for all intents and purposes, but we’ll come back to that). It’s Them again — too many of Them, wanting More.

As if to emphasise the point, we hear in the same piece that:

“Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, said at the conference that the world’s population was expected to grow from 6.2bn today to 9.5bn in less than 50 years’ time. ‘How are we going to feed everybody?’ he asked.”

Only a rhetorical question of course. Sorry to break it t’ya folks, but ‘feeding everybody’ has never really been one of the state’s major concerns. That’s why “Each tonne of wheat and sugar from the UK is sold on international markets at an average price of 40% and 60% below the cost of production respectively (ie, it is dumped)”, thus undercutting local farmers across the South, who thus lose any semblance of agricultural-independence they may have once had (i.e. the ability to feed their own people), thus becoming subject to the whims of the global food market, manipulated through speculation in the interests of Northern investors and consumers.

But the important point for now is that as far as Hilary Benn is concerned, it’s clear that the cause of the problem is “their” population growth.

Later in the article, Professor Beddington is cited pointing out that global grain stores are currently at the lowest levels ever, just 40 days from running out. He again emphasises the question of food production: “I am only nine weeks into the job, so don’t yet have all the answers, but it is clear that science and research to increase the efficiency of agricultural production per unit of land is critical.”

According to Beddington, food security is the “elephant in the room” that politicians must face up to quickly. In reality, the “elephant in the room” goes far deeper than the surface issues scratched at lamely by the government, and sits in the heart of global food production. Some of Beddington’s observations show that he is dimly aware of this problem. He understands that production needs to be increased drastically. But his solution is a technological one, “science and research” in order to maximise “efficiency” so we can produce faster and better to meet escalating global demand. This is unlikely to happen. Beddington knows it. Benn knows it. The supermarket chains know it.

From this conventional analysis of the food crisis, we are not left with many solutions. We may, however, pick among the following: 1) the proliferation and prolongation of droughts due to climate change means that we need to slow down our CO2 emissions by introducing ‘market incentives’ (i.e. big taxes) targeted largely at consumers, who are blamed for having no regard for the size of their individual carbon footprints. transfering to alternative renewable energies is, for some odd reason, irrelevant. 2) reducing population growth in developing countries to decrease demand for food (nothing at all to do with NSSM 200, of course). 3) go easy on the biofuels (but fail to propose investment in other viable alternative energy sources). 4) pray day and night that Science will somehow generate a technological miracle of agricultural production.

Obviously, none of these ‘solutions’ seems to really offer a way out for the food crisis — and that’s because the analysis is fundamentally flawed. It’s not completely wrong, it just misses out half the picture, and so comes up with a false diagnosis of what’s actually gone wrong. The result is that the institutions that require urgent re-structuring are being absolved. The government, the state, and the network of giant multinational corporations that govern global agribusiness, are excused of any culpability. The cause of the crisis, we keep hearing is, WE, THE PEOPLE! It’s the developing nations, who just won’t stop breeding, dammit. It’s us Western consumers, who won’t stop eating and throwing a third of our food away. It’s everyone except the state-corporate complex that controls the food industry.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that you and I are NOT culpable. Of course we are. We do throw away tonnes, literally, of food. We do, each of us, have large carbon footprints that we should try to reduce in our own ways. Populations are increasing. But the question is this: are these factors the fundamental causes of the current global food crisis? Or are they exacerbating factors that are accentuating and intensifying the impact of the food crisis? Following mainstream news coverage of food shortages, one would be forgiven for believing that rising food prices are all because of you and me, the public, the general consumer. We have been thoroughly pathologised. And the British government, with its eye-opening study of how much food the British consumer chucks away without thinking, is complicit in this pathologisation.

Why is that the government-backed report discussed in today’s Independent, says nothing about the institutions who are primarily responsible for food wastage, the supermarkets, the multinational food chains? If the government is genuinely concerned about food wastage in this country, why won’t they do something about the fact reported by the same newspaper in February, that:

Retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste each year… An influential watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), will condemn targets set by the Government’s waste-reduction programme as ‘unambitious and lacking urgency’. It will also say multi-buy promotions are helping to fuel waste and obesity in Britain. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday ahead of the report’s publication on Saturday, Tim Lang, SDC commissioner, said it was ‘ludicrous’ that the Government had not pressured retailers into setting tougher targets to cut waste.

Three years ago, the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) left it up to supermarkets to find voluntary ‘solutions to food waste’ in an agreement dubbed the Courtauld Commitment. ‘The Government is frankly not using its leverage adequately. It really should toughen up on Courtauld, which must be enforced because this is ludicrous,’ said Mr Lang, who is also professor of food policy at City University, London.

The 18-month study, which found that ‘too many supermarket practices are still unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable’, said Wrap should adopt a ‘more aspirational approach to reducing waste in food retail by setting longer-term targets and [supporting] a culture of zero waste’…

A separate study by Imperial College for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, found that supermarkets preferred to throw away food that was approaching its sell-by date rather than mark it down in price.”

So three months after being hit over the head by the Sustainable Development Commission, the government’s waste reduction programme completely ignores the warnings that supermarket profit-maximisation policies are not only directly generating billions of pounds of waste by dumping good food, they are encouraging consumers through excessive advertising, multi-buy offers, and refusal to slash prices on older foods, to also buy excess food they don’t need, a third of which they dump in turn. Instead, the government simply blames consumers. Period.

Don’t penalise Profit, nor Power. Pathologise People.

The corporate-biased law doesn’t help either, because: “The scale of the wastage from supermarkets, food processors, wholesalers and restaurants is not known, because many companies refuse to make their data public, citing commercial confidentiality.” In other words, we don’t even know the real scale of corporate food wastage. Worse, the government regularly does the same thing — here’s an example: “In the past 10 months, the government’s food intervention board dumped almost 30,000 tonnes of fresh vegetables and fruit which had been withdrawn from the market to guarantee farm prices.”

So the problem is far more complex, rooted in a consumerist culture that is tied to a political economy being deliberately sustained by those institutions with the most to gain from this entrenched structure. The government has no interest in transforming that political economy. So the result is an insistence on inspecting only half the picture, ignoring the role of the global corporate food industry.

Driven by capitalist imperatives for short-term profit maximisation and long-term cost-minimisation, global agribusiness has established an international food production system that is, basically, dying.

Most of the Earth’s fertile land is already now being used for food production. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005 reported that “there is now little room for further agricultural expansion.” One of the scientists, Dr Navin Ramankutty, points out: “The real question is, how can we continue to produce food from the land while preventing negative environmental consequences such as deforestation, water pollution and soil erosion?” Or, more bluntly, how are we going to keep producing food if our production-system continues to destroy the very means to produce food?

It’s not that the Earth can’t produce the food. Its that corporate agribusiness can’t produce the food. In fact, as I’ve warned previously, it has been failing to produce the food since the 1990s, during which grain production has increasingly slowed. The frenzied application of fertilisers and other modern agricultural practices served to temporarily escalate production, but simultaneously have intensified soil erosion, destroying in years essential nutrients for crop-growth that take centuries to replace. The imminent peak of world oil production, oil being the chief underpinning for industrial agricultural methods, which is either just round the corner in 2010-ish (or worse, passed in 2005) means that the global corporate food production system is up against its own physical limits.

For us to keep eating, it’s true, we have to put an end to our insane overconsumption and wastefulness. But there are real limits to what the consumer can do within the existing global corporate food system. So we need to turn our attention to that system, and demand that it changes fundamentally, which means, of course, a wholesale transformation of our political economies in ways which rely on renewable energy resources and localised less-intensive but no less successful traditional agricultural practices. We need some kind of grassroots action, which makes our voices impossible to ignore. It will take time to develop, to become strong, to gather momentum. But it needs to be done, and now. Because at current rates of declining food production and rising prices, fuelled by unscrupulous market speculation, many, many people are likely to die, not just in the South, but here too. And while this death escalates, a few at the helm of the global corporate food industry will reap unprecedented windfall profits from their deaths. That’s why real solutions aren’t being put on the table. Death is regrettable, but when it comes wrapped in £££$$$, it’s not so bad…