Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Population Pressures

The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.
So understates the British report The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability. Two billion more people to feed by about 2050, and we can't even get food from farm to plate with the people we've already got.
     We're bloody useless at food, really. We've experience with famine that stretches back to the dawn of time, but we still haven't figured out how to handle famine relief. When food prices began their upward movement in 2008, it was clear that  a lot of people were going to fall off the food delivery waggon. And they did. As Raj Patel points out, "There are 75 million people more undernourished now than in 2008."And that's in the modern fossil fuel age--and that's not the total number of people who are food insecure or actually starving to death. That's just the people added to the total in the last two years.

     Part of the problem is the way we treat food.
These perverse poles of the global food economy, obesity and hunger, reflect the basic reality that while food is elemental to life and health it is conceived as a commodity and not a right--food aid and food banks, which reflect a minimalist conception of food rights, notwithstanding--and the motive force of profit prevails over concerns about equity and nutrition.
The global food economy : the battle for the future of farming p. 13
Food is not a right, but a commodity. As such, steps have to be taken to ensure that the maximum of profit can be realized; thus the use of food aid as a lever to destroy local markets, depress food prices, drive farmers off small holdings and into the cities, and the concentration of land ownership into fewer and fewer hands. none of this actually improves access to food, quality of food, or security of supply--although all of these claims are made, none of them stand up to sustained scrutiny.

On 10 July 1954, President Eisenhower signed Public Law 480, the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, more commonly known as PL-480. While the language of the act ennobled its goals with terms of international camaraderie, PL-480 was a cunning and powerful foreign policy tool. Any US-aligned government that found itself battling worker-led organizing or, indeed, any plausibly left-wing political opposition could gain access to the US strategic grain reserve. Those countries abutted by socialist ones were bumped to the front of the queue.
And so food aid became a central part of US foreign policy, accounting for more that [sic] half of all economic aid by 1956. Between 1956 and 1960 more than one-third of the world trade in wheat was accounted for by American aid. The world price of wheat was kept artificially low through food aid, hurting growers, but hooking countries of the Global South on US largesse. In 1968, the Global South's addiction for American goods peaked - 79 per cent of all US exports went to the 'Third World'.
It as an agenda fully subscribed to by the US. Earl Butz, Secretary of State for Agriculture under Nixon and Ford, observed: 'Hungry men listen only to those who have a piece of bread. Food is a tool. It is a weapon in the US negotiating kit.'
Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved p. 91
Rising food prices have already helped bring about revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but the developed world has been mostly shielded from the worst effects. But our poor, our underemployed, and our working class people are starting to feel the squeeze as well (for example, locally milk has risen $0.70/gallon since the beginning of the year).How do they cope, particularly in a system where food banks "reflect a minimalist conception of food rights"? I help feed between 80 and 120 people one day a week on donated food; food that would otherwise simply enter the waste stream. There is never a shortage of bread--often very pricey loaves--that haven't sold and are borderline stale.  It's actually difficult to give enough of it away. So what does it say about a food system where that much waste is built in?
     There is a tragedy of the commons, but it's more in the loss of the commons than in any exploitation of it. Self-sufficiency, whether personal, local, or national, has become progressively more difficult as globalization progresses. As Anthony Weis notes in The Global Food Economy:

In short, as food production and consumption become bound increasingly tightly within an integrating and uneven global system, small-farm livelihoods are becoming less viable, traditions surrounding harvest, preparation and mealtimes are severed and agriculture is rapidly losing its place as 'an anchor of societies, states and cultures' as it is transformed into a 'tenuous component of corporate global sourcing strategies.

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