Food fight: the battle for justice from paddock to plate

A food system designed for profits still works well when people go hungry. We need a different system. AAP

Recent reports of a “salt-tolerant” wheat claimed the plant would “help tackle food shortages due to soil salinity”.

Saline soils, and other types of land degradation, are indubitably a problem across much of Australia’s landscape and elsewhere. But the inevitable coupling of “looming food shortages” with the “solution” of technology-driven productivity increases reveals an inadequate and simplistic analysis.

Globally and locally, our agrifood systems are more productive, in sheer quantitative terms, than ever before. In 2011, global grain production increased by 3.7%, with a record-high wheat crop in 2010 and 2011. Australia was a major contributor to this bumper harvest.

According to Jean Ziegler, one of the world’s leading experts on the human right to adequate food, we produce enough food to feed 12 billion people. This figure takes into account the vast amounts of grain diverted to agrofuels and the rapidly expanding factory farming system. It also acknowledges the fact that up to 40% of all food produced by OECD countries is wasted.

The world has an abundance of food. AAP

This abundance of food, and more importantly, how its production and distribution are controlled, paradoxically generate what Raj Patel terms the “stuffed and starved” phenomenon. Nearly one billion of us are malnourished, while another 1.3 billion suffer the consequences of diets based on the cheap and empty calories that constitute the foundations of the corporate agri-business food system.

Contrary to what we usually hear in public debate, food insecurity in the midst of such abundance is not primarily a question of on-farm production. It is a question of poverty. More precisely, it is a function of the grotesque misallocation of resources and priorities, according to a market-driven “configuration of scarcity” in which only those with sufficient financial resources get to eat quality food, all the time.

Contemporary food insecurity is not restricted to the Global South. The number of people dependent on food stamps in the United States rose from 25.5 million in 1996, to over 45 million by June 2011. Conservative estimates suggest 5% of people in Australia are food insecure.

Volatile cereal prices, which are the result of the increasing financialisation of the food system as well as the agro-fuels boom, put food out of reach for millions of people.

There can be lots of food, but prices still put it out of reach of many. AAP

Rice, maize and wheat prices all jumped sharply in 2011 (though not to the heights seen in 2008). In Kenya, the price of a 90 kg bag of maize, the main food source, soared 160% between June 2010 and July 2011. In countries where food represents half or more of the average household budget, these prices hikes are devastating.

The commodification of food distorts the priorities of our food systems. Food has become primarily a source of capital accumulation and profit, rather than a basic human need. Grains that might otherwise go to dinner tables are used to feed more lucrative biofuels and livestock markets. Food that won’t generate a profit is dumped by food retailers who lock their bins to keep out foragers.

Aggressive marketing and abuse of market power by agrifood companies and fast food retailers mean that junk food diets are privileged – and heavily subsidised by taxpayers through many externalised social and environmental costs - over fresh fruit and vegetables.

The global food system is designed to generate profits, and it’s doing a great job. s. al/Flickr

Does this catalogue of dysfunctionality mean that the global food system is broken? No. It was never designed to “feed the world”; that is simply its cloth of legitimacy. Its main purpose is to facilitate capital accumulation and to generate profits for agri-business corporations, fast-food chains and giant retailers, and it’s doing this job very well. That’s why critical scholars argue that the pandemics of hunger and obesity – unlike “biophysical contradictions” such as climate change, resource constraints and biodiversity loss - pose no crisis for the corporate food system.

The Australian Government has made clear where its priorities lie. In late 2010, it appointed a working group dominated by big agri-business and retailing representatives to advise on the development of a first-ever National Food Plan. In its issues paper to inform development of the plan, no fewer than half of the questions for consultation concerned the need to promote a “competitive, efficient and productive food industry”. One question out of 48 concerned environmental sustainability.

A future food system that genuinely provides for human and environmental well-being will require a drastic re-calibration of our objectives and values. Do we want our food system to be about producing food, and caring for people and ecosystems; or profits?

Food sovereignty puts producers and consumers - not corporations - at the heart of the system. AAP

An alternative vision for the future of food is offered by the burgeoning, global food sovereignty movement. Food sovereignty means diverse food and agriculture systems that are democratically designed and controlled by the people who work in and depend upon them. As the “international peasant movement” La Via Campesina says, food sovereignty “puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations”.

Here in Australia, a struggle for food sovereignty is underway in the Goulburn Valley. Workers from a closed Heinz tomato processing plant are working with growers and the community of Girgarre to re-open the facility as a co-operatively owned, multi-functional Food Hub. They hope their success will inspire similar collaborations around the country, as work begins to re-localise and democratise our food systems.

From research and projects the authors are involved in, we know that a number of local councils in different regions are looking closely at the Food Hub model. They believe it could be an essential piece of community infrastructure in the construction of a truly sustainable, resilient and fair food system, fit for the challenges of this century.

On Friday, March 30 2012, over 80 people attended screenings in central Sydney of Growing Change, the story of the Food Sovereignty Revolution in Venezuela; and Food Fight, which documents the battle for democratic control of food system infrastructure in Girgarre. Further screenings of both films are planned around the country.