The troubles with food

Food prices have soared over the past year. One might think that this would provide a welcome boost to the incomes of the world's poorest people, most of whom are farmers and farm workers. But it doesn't work that way, as Raj Patel explains

April 25, 2008 · 17 min read

The return of the food riot

Across the world, from Mozambique to Mexico, from the Philippines to Pakistan, countries have been surprised by the re-emergence of one of the oldest forms of social protest – the food riot. Food is getting more expensive, and many people are less able to afford it. In 2006, food prices increased by 9 per cent. Last year, they went up by at least 37 per cent. This year doesn’t look like it will be any better.

Most of this increase is in the dairy and grain sectors, but the entire planet feels the effect. In its understated way, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations puts it like this: ‘Rarely has the world felt such a widespread and commonly shared concern about food price inflation, a fear which is fuelling debates about the future direction of agricultural commodity prices in importing as well as exporting countries, be they rich or poor.’

Agflation (as it’s somewhat inelegantly called) hurts those least able to afford it. It is they who spend the greatest part of their income on food, and they who will find it hardest to span the price jump.

In Haiti, one of the most mercilessly punished countries on the planet, the poor in Port-au-Prince are finding themselves priced out of the market for food. Never let it be said, though, that the market cannot provide. In the poorest districts, there is now a brisk trade in mud cakes. Mothers feed the biscuits, made with water, salt, margarine and clay, to their children. The cake puts a dampener on hunger, at least for a couple of hours, but leaves your mouth dry and bitter for several hours more.

In some respects, the city’s clay cookie eaters are the lucky ones. At least they’re in a position actually to buy something, no matter how awful. By far the largest number of people who die from hunger die in rural areas, where the food is produced, and not ultimately for want of food, but for want of money to be able to buy the food that is available.

There’s a bitter irony here. Most of the world’s poorest people are the farmers and farm workers who actually produce food. One might think that they’d benefit from the fact that food prices are going up. And some farmers will undoubtedly be better off, particularly those growing cereals for export.

But most countries in the global South have a very particular pattern of agricultural production, which involves a few, very large scale farmers producing the bulk of export crops. The majority of poor rural people – and four out of five poor people on the planet live in rural areas – either work on or, if they’re lucky, own a very small amount of land. Their food production has been largely destined for the home market. With the World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO) pushing for increased levels of free trade, they’ve found themselves shut out of their own markets by imports dumped from the global North.

Consider rice, a source of income and sustenance for more than two billion people. As part of its ‘structural adjustment’ policies, the World Bank has insisted that countries in the South reduce government support for agriculture. This has meant that in order to feed the people, governments have become increasingly reliant on the global economy.

But the giants of the international economy, particularly the US and EU, haven’t had to play by the same rules. While the WTO removed tariff barriers in order to ‘level the playing field’ in developing countries, many large scale farmers in the North remained heavily subsidised by their governments, with inducements to export surplus production. So when US rice farmers sold their product overseas, the subsidies they received undercut the local competition. That is why a 50-kilo bag of rice will sell in the US for $19, but in the Ghanaian market the same bag will cost you $15. The latest available data show import prices running at a third of what you’d be able to get for a similar locally produced bag at wholesale prices. No Ghanaian farmer can compete with that for long.

Following the money

Between 2000 and 2003, this dumping of rice into the countries of the South was compounded by another feature – low rice prices. It meant that the poorest farmers were ground out of the market, unable to make a living. Again, the World Bank puts the positive spin on trade liberalisation. In its 2005 Global Agricultural Trade report, the Bank put it like this: ‘The real story is the large transfers between consumers and producers that lead to these net gains. In [rice] importing countries consumers gain US$32.8 billion, while producers lose $27.2 billion.’ But since those farmers were among the countries’ poorest, transferring money away from them to slightly richer working people in the cities meant that poverty deepened.

What are ex-rice-farmers to do? The World Bank would like them to move to the city. In countries where they have followed the Bank’s advice, there have been explosions in urban poverty. The industrial jobs that should have been there to feed the displaced rural poor had themselves been whittled away by the same liberalisation policies that had just put the boot in to agriculture. It is a double whammy that millions of farmers continue to face, and one that has recently been adopted as an official development policy by the World Bank, under the banner of ‘agriculture for development’. And it becomes a triple whammy when displaced agriculturalists end up in cities forced to pay far more for food than they ever thought possible.

So what’s behind the food price rises, and why aren’t poor farmers benefiting? We’ve got an intuition that helps us here. When the price of oil goes up, we don’t think for a minute that the beneficiaries are oil

workers or the people on the petrol station forecourts. We understand that oil is a commodity controlled by a few powerful corporations, and that it is they, and more specifically the oil financiers, who are getting fat pay cheques. This intuition helps us understand why most farmers aren’t getting rich off the price rises – if they’re involved with the international economy, it is, with few exceptions, invariably as peons.

That explains why farmers aren’t getting the lucre. But where, then, does it go? One clue is to be found through a longer historical view. We’d like to think that food price rises are new, but if you look at the real cost to consumers, the price of food has been increasing, while at the same time the price that farmers receive on that food, the farm gate price, has been falling in real terms. Driving a wedge between the consumers and farmers are the food corporations, and it’s unsurprising that they’ve been one of the most consistently desirable stocks on the market.

But there are other factors at work too, ones outside the control of even the most powerful food companies. Most important, the harvest has been incredibly poor over the past year because the weather in several key growing regions has been erratic. Some are already calling this the first climate-change famine and the harbinger of worse to come. In Africa, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, studies suggest that within a century, crop revenues could be down by up to 90 per cent as a result of climate change. This could be compounded by up to 50 per cent of animal species becoming endangered (so no relying on tourism) and up to 250 million people being affected by water stress as a result of a very conservative one-degree temperature increase.

The oil we eat

At the heart of this, of course, lies oil, and oil matters to food more than global warming. Take, for instance, the price of oil. It makes sense that, with higher energy prices, the costs of food distribution have soared. But this isn’t the only way that oil matters for our food. Industrial agriculture, by definition, involves the use of inorganic fertiliser. Making inorganic fertiliser requires a great deal of energy, and one of the primary elements in fertiliser manufacture is natural gas. Dearer oil means dearer gas means dearer fertiliser means dearer food.

Ironically, one of the other major reasons why prices are going up is because of an intervention to wean us away from oil: agrofuels (the combustible plant products that we’re being induced to call ‘biofuels’). The source of these fuels varies from country to country – from palm oil in Indonesia to sugar cane in Brazil. Their production is peddled by politicians as an unmitigated good in the battle against climate change, even though study after study suggests precisely the opposite.

This research will come as small comfort to those displaced to grow agrofuels, those going hungry because of them, or even those directly involved in growing them. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 50,000 slaves in Brazil, mainly on sugar cane plantations. The cane is thirsty, and is drying up the largest aquifer in South America- the Guaraní. In the US, the government has backed the transformation of corn (maize) into ethanol, a move that has pleased farmers and delighted the ethanol producers (food giants Cargill, ADM, Bunge, joined by the more familiar ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil) who lobbied hardest for it.

The demand for agrofuel corn means that there’s less corn around to eat, and the price goes up. Farmers being astute and very aware of the market, see the bright future for corn, and switch to it from other crops. This means that not only has the price of corn gone up but there’s less of the other cereals, leading again to higher prices. And tilting the market yet further, the US and EU have explicit policy targets and subsidies for agrofuels to reach the political nirvana of ‘energy independence’.

As a result, there is less food on the market. But there’s a further force at work, which means that an even smaller fraction of it ends up in the bellies of the hungry. As the incomes of the new middle classes in India and especially China increase, the demand for meat has spiked. To produce a kilo of chicken requires two kilos of grain, to produce a kilo of pork needs four kilos, and to produce one kilo of beef needs seven. The demand for millions of tons of meat means that multiple millions of tons of grain are being fed to animals, rather than people. Reducing the demand for meat loosens some of the supply constraints on grain, which means that it’s more accessible to the poor. And that’s independent of the ethical reasons to cut out meat, and ignoring the environmental damage done by livestock, not only through methane emissions but through toxic levels of agricultural run-off from the farms that breed them.

The peasant way

There is a gamut of reasons both why prices are higher and why farmers are seeing less and less of the revenue. Those hurt the hardest are rural workers and small farmers. So it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that farmers are at the forefront of understanding the effects of international agricultural trade. For decades, they’ve been schooled in the violence of the market, and in the use of food as a political weapon by agribusiness.

Recently, though, modern communications technologies have allowed conversations between different struggles in different parts of the world. One of the largest farmers’ movements in the world, La Via Campesina (Spanish for ‘the peasant way’) is an international association of millions of farmers, peasants, and landless labourers. It has long organised against the predations of international capitalism. It was in 1992, for instance, that farmers were reading and critiquing, in the fields of Karnataka, India, a Kannada translation of the charter text that was to found the World Trade Organisation. This was fully seven years before the Seattle WTO protests.

One of the movement’s major outcomes has been the development of a coherent international alternative to modern industrial agriculture. It’s called ‘food sovereignty’. To fully understand it, it’s important to contrast it with the dominant liberal goal – food security. Food security has a technical definition, along the lines of this, taken from the US government: food security is characterised by ‘access by all people at all times to sufficient food and nutrition for a healthy and productive life’. This sounds all well and good until you realise that it’s compatible with everyone getting vouchers for McDonald’s and a baggie of vitamins to fill the nutritional gaps.

Crucially, what the definition of food security omits is any idea of who controls what and how food is grown and distributed. The definition of food sovereignty is fairly long; Wikipedia has a good summary. The most

recent iteration of it is this: ‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.’

It’s a bold vision, and it has two sets of demands. The first is that food policy must be decided by everyone in a democratic manner, rather than a small cabal of plutocrats in a smoke-filled room. Nonetheless, there is a second set of demands that are non-negotiable, demands that protect women’s rights and ecological sustainability. The insistence on women’s rights is, incidentally, the clearest indication that what Via Campesina is lobbying for is not some misty-eyed recuperation of traditional agriculture, but a thoroughly modern and socially just system of food production and consumption.

It’s ambitious, yes, but it offers to solve some of the biggest troubles with food. First, the demands of ecological sustainability mean that industrial agriculture and agrofuels are off the table. There are ways of growing food agro-ecologically, free of inorganic fertiliser, that have a far smaller ecological footprint, foster biodiversity, and provide outputs at levels in excess of conventional agriculture. These techniques have been pioneered in Cuba, which used to be one of the largest importers of fertiliser and pesticides on the continent, but has since turned its agricultural production around. The fall of the Soviet Union, in combination with the US trade embargo, forced the country first towards two years of widespread hunger, and then the development of some of the most sophisticated oil-free agricultural science on the planet. Today 70 per cent of food eaten in Havana comes from Havana.

Cuba has become an agricultural leader by reforming its land tenure system, offering relevant and public scientific support to farmers, and paying attention to the effects of geography and town planning on access to food. They are lessons from which the rest of the world can profit. But in order to be able to implement them, the South needs to have a little more wiggle room in agriculture than it currently does. Which means that agricultural concerns should be removed from the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank (responsible for a great deal of damage to agriculture over the past 30 years) should be defunded, and the subsidy systems in the global North and South need to be overhauled to benefit the poorest, rather than the wealthiest, to promote local food democracies.

From ethical shopping to political hedonism

While there are elements of Cuban agriculture to wish for everywhere, it’s easy for the majority of us, living in cities, to feel rather disconnected from agrarian struggles. The solution we’re offered, to eat sustainably, is sold to us as a lifestyle choice for a kind of consumerism that somehow aspires to short-circuit capitalism. This is a deep contradiction in terms, of course, but it has its seductions. After all, which Red Pepper reader hasn’t bought fair trade coffee? I certainly have.

But while fair trade is preferable to its alternative (super-exploitative trade), it’s not going to do anything about the major inequities of the farming system. Most of the poorest and most militant farmers are demanding not slightly higher prices for a sack of beans, but land reform and comprehensive agrarian change. This isn’t the sort of thing that one can shop for, and even the best fair trade programmes don’t pretend to be advancing this agenda. This is precisely the limitation of consumer activism – that it makes us feel that through judicious shopping we’re engaging in structural change when our behaviour is entrenching precisely the structures of domination we would range ourselves against.

So what are we to do? The principles of food sovereignty suggest that the solution doesn’t lie in abdicating responsibility and doing whatever passing fancy crosses one’s mind. One solution to put growers and eaters back at the heart of the food system is to be found, paradoxically, in a particular kind of hedonism, one that comes from a country where leftist politics and food are both treated very seriously: Italy.

One of the triumphs of the Italian left has been the staking out of a particular territory of joy. In 1986, the Italian communist daily Il Manifesto published an eight-page insert fighting for, among other things, the right to food. The publication was called Gambero Rosso – meaning ‘red shrimp’ but also a play on the words ‘bandiera rossa’, ‘red flag’. The thinking behind it was this: why should pleasure be only the domain of the bourgeoisie? Is it not every worker’s right to be able to enjoy food?

From a class analysis of pleasure came a realisation that in order to enjoy food, workers needed two things: time and money. And the getting of these things was to be a social and collective pursuit, in defiance of, rather than through the market. The organisers worked with unions for an increase in wage rates, and then campaigned for a two-hour lunch break, freeing time in the middle of the day for agricultural workers to be able not just to eat but to savour their food. Soon, the original founders were joined by a range of activists, artists, writers, workers and cooks from across the world. They wrote their vision into a manifesto, with lines like ‘In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes.’ Their answer became the name of their organisation: Slow Food (see Red Pepper, Oct-Nov 2007).

The Slow Food movement suggests that enjoying food more is a way of reclaiming our nourishment from capital. The kind of enjoyment they’re fighting for involves not just individual choices but social ones, and requires more than simply opting for a more ethical shopping basket. It is in the direction of Slow Food that the principles of food sovereignty point those of us living in cities.

Food sovereignty offers a paradoxical solution to agflation. The answer isn’t to lower prices – most farm workers and farmers see little enough as it is. The solution is simultaneously to increase farm-gate prices, to promote land reform, appropriate technology and women’s rights, and also to increase wages and social supports. These outcomes can’t be shopped for. They’re the fruits of organising and agitation, a necessary step if we are all to be able to savour our food. And they’re fruits well worth struggling for.

Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Portobello Books) He is a researcher at the University of California, at Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, and at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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