Food crisis? We’ve enough on our plates

Tim Lang
Yes, food prices are rising but more competition is not the answer — it’s time to stop over-consumption.
Slowly, surely, a new mixture of consensus and fault lines is emerging about world food. On the one hand, there is agreement we are entering a new era in which basic agricultural commodity prices are rising after decades of falling. This will hit the poorest hardest, as an Oxfam report this week on food justice rightly points out. But there is not yet sufficient agreement or political leverage to begin the big, necessary changes. And there’s disagreement on what the problem really is.

Is another round of technical intensification needed to raise productivity? That’s what the U.K. government’s Foresight report argued this January, calling for the oxymoronic “sustainable intensification.” Or is it best addressed by a more equitable distribution of wealth? This is what Oxfam and others argue, saying there is enough food to go round if properly shared. Much hangs on which perspective is used to frame food policy.

To the west, the great success of the food story in the second half of the 20th century was lower prices. This allowed spending to diversify and fuelled the consumer boom. Proportionately less outlay on food meant more for clothes, homes, holidays and fun. This rebalancing came at a cost to the developing countries dependent on food exports. Their purchasing power declined while ours went up. It also came with dire environmental costs: biodiversity loss, pollution, soil damage and water stress. These indicators suggested that the environment too was being squeezed.

Under to over-consumption

From the 1960s, with growing evidence and conviction, environmentalists have warned that human reliance on the eco-sphere might be threatened. Public health analysts spotted the transition from problems of under-consumption to those of over- and mal-consumption. Mass hunger sits alongside mass obesity. This distortion is no longer one where the rich world is fat, and the developing world is thin; even sub-Saharan Africa now has an obesity problem.

The evidence of this mismatch between policy and reality has been growing for decades. It ought to be centre-stage on every government’s food policy agenda. The tragedy is this isn’t the case. For a moment, when in 2006-08 world food prices rose, even rich countries looked worried. Fresh from the banking crisis, no one wanted food destabilisation too. An emergency world conference was scheduled. But even before it was held, prices began to drop. Sighs of relief in the west.

Three years on, prices are way above 2008 levels, and food inflation is endemic. Oxfam predicts food prices will double by 2030. That would take the average British shopping basket to about 20 per cent of disposable income. But to the poorest of the world, it would mean almost all income going on food. Even the World Bank and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are troubled.

In South Africa

What can be done? In 2008, many governments acted unilaterally; chaos ensued. Today, the South African government has emulated Tony Blair’s action in 1999 when concerned about food prices: turn to Walmart. Aware of the vice-like grip Britain’s dwindling number of supermarket giants had over 60 million British mouths, Blair signalled that the U.K. would welcome the world’s biggest food retailer to introduce price competition. Competition and U.S. capital were the recipe to reduce food prices. Walmart purchased Asda.

But this model is part of the problem. The last thing South Africa needs is a retail giant that threatens the existence of thousands of small shopkeepers. Allowing it into Africa may signal modernity, but it is ecological and social irresponsibility.

The prospect of food prices doubling ought to be a political wake-up call. But politicians don’t seem to be listening yet. They will, though.

To be fair, the challenge they face cuts across conventional political boundaries. An entire 20th-century approach to food modernity is under threat. Consumer expectations, not least that we can eat whatever we like whenever we like, are at stake. The 20th century created the fiction that ever more food can be produced by tapping oil, throwing fertiliser at seeds, spraying endless water and treating the soil as blotting paper, a neutral medium. We now know how fragile that mix is, and how fragile the Earth’s crust and biology are too.

In the west, we are over-consuming and wasting food. A whole change of direction is required, not just in the food chain but in food culture. ( Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University London.) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011.


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