Thursday, July 09, 2015

“Arise, ye prisoners of starvation” (1/3)

Food and its production is one of the most important issues of the anti-capitalist movement. The lack of access to sufficient quantities of food to satisfy minimum human need the quality of the food we consume and its impact on our health, and the control of the world’s food resources, have all been the focus of attention for many. Even in the developed world with supposedly ‘adequate’ levels of nutrition, the food we eat has become a major cause of ill health and early death, especially among the poorest in society who consume the foods with the least nutritional quality. Capitalist food production and Big Business lie at the heart of these issues. Human and animal welfare violations are shocking with food products devoid of nutrients. The extent of corporate power frightening. The world's population is larger than ever before - but so is world food production. Indeed the surplus potentially available is greater than it has ever been. Some claim that the equivalent of twice the minimum nutritional level for everyone in the world is already being produced. And with world transport and storage better than ever, it should be easy to overcome any local shortages, or even out shortfalls in one year with stocks accumulated in good time (and we have known how to do this since Old Testament times)

It is clear now that climate change and the increase in extreme weather events such as flooding, and drought – will impact on food production. Global warming is becoming an issue for food production on a global scale. While climate change is likely to increase world hunger, it is not the cause. The problem is capitalism. The motivation for big business to produce food is profit, not to provide for people. Despite the great strides the progress of technology and increased food production, this system cannot provide the most basic necessities for the world’s population. Advances in nutrition and agricultural science could allow us to produce abundant, healthy, safe, and tasty food for everyone. Humanity could produce an enormous variety of foods, both to guarantee food security against pests, disease, and climate change through agricultural diversity, but also to keep meals appetising. In short, the knowledge, technology, and collective potential to completely transform the way the world eats exists now. What doesn’t exist is a social structure that allows for a rational and balanced approach to food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption.

People cannot fill their bellies and go hungry or feed their families. It is not a question of there being too many people or not enough food available. We currently grows enough food to feed 10 billion. Hunger and malnutrition today is a result of structural and political conditions, not the inability to grow enough food. Our food production and distribution is not planned but is at the behest of the anarchy of the market and the exchange economy. This dysfunctional relationship with food is regularly lamented but the reasons are rarely explained. Today, capitalism is unable to feed the world. The future, under capitalism tomorrow, will mean this will get worse. Socialism is the only solution to stopping and reversing climate change – and for providing everyone with the necessities of life.

Many people want to do something about food and the closely related problem of the environment. But virtually all the proposals are limited to tinkering with the existing system or appealing to the good will and reason of the rich and powerful. This is utopian. In a system driven by and defined by commodity production and money, what matters to the capitalists is not food quality or the benefits to human health, but maximising profits. The solution is not to be found in blaming individuals for their “personal choices,” or in changing this or that aspect of the status quo. The solution can only come from abolishing the dysfunctional system of capitalism itself.

A central problem in the food system is one of exploitation of small producers and landless labourers by the more powerful corporations. The market control they seek is through the domination of supply chains and processing. It is here that they believe ‘value adding’ and product differentiation can be achieved. The development of large transnational firms has given rise to a system of production whereby their size and dominance have provided them with an ability to structure the food market. In the food chain, close linkages between large-scale farmers, manufacturers and retailers are used to regulate competition. The key players in the industry are the manufacturers and the retailers who dominate the individual sectors and in doing so attempt to determine the prices and profits in the industry as a whole. Most of these companies operate as dominant firms in their respective market sectors. That provides them with the opportunities to establish prices and profits within the supply chain and ensure governments introduce rules which benefit them and help them dominate small producers. Free-market ideology suggests that prices are determined by the interaction of demand and supply. In the food industry nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers receiving subsidies provide manufacturers and retailers with the ability to purchase low-priced raw materials and sell them at high prices to consumers. A system of import tariffs and subsidies from governments provides subsidies throughout the industry. Dwayne Andreas, the boss of Archer Daniels Midland - one of the global giants - said in 1995, "There isn't one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market. Not one! The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians."

To reiterate, there is currently the ability to produce enough food to adequately feed the world’s population plus extra. The primary problem facing the developing world is the distribution of food and its control. There exists the concern that current farming techniques, factory-produced meat, and fertiliser-reliant techniques for crop production are unsustainable in terms of wasting the earth’s resources and damaging the environment. Certainly we should seek methods of production which are sustainable, but that does not rule out all industrial or intensified forms of agriculture. For sure, a move away from monoculture farming heavily dependent upon chemical fertilisers and herbicides is necessary. Local food movements have sprung up but capitalism has created the conditions in which commodities can be transported around the world. Specialisation in production can be beneficial and can be more efficient for many products but again monoculture farming encourages the spread of disease and increases chemical use. The debate between localisation and globalisation in food production needs to start from considerations of satisfying human need rather than a value judgement on the benefits or otherwise of rival systems. Any rational food production system would certainly lead to higher levels of localised production, certainly to greater diversity in the food we consume and certainly not a world in which millions starve while food is left to rot. Nor would a rational food production system see millions being made ill from the poor quality of the food produced or a world in which the food produced was determined by the needs of big business to maximise profits. But equally it would almost certainly involve the continuation of some forms of large-scale agricultural production and not solely organic and international trade in food, but at a level which is sustainable, rational and aimed at satisfying the needs of all.

"The global food system is broken," say Oxfam. They are right. But what makes it this way, what stands between production and consumption. Our answer is capitalism and the drive for profit. What we need is to take control of the food system. Change will only come when those in power running the system for the purpose of profit are dethroned. This will enable us to deal with the wasteful and wilful system of buying and selling. Socialists look forward to a world of plenty.

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