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Green Revolutions

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate generated by a study done by a research team at the University of Caen in France. Last month, they published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, in which they alleged that rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified maize and exposed to the herbicide Roundup – also produced by Monsanto – over the course of a lifetime, developed tumours and suffered multiple organ damage.

Terrible photographs of some alarmingly lumpy rats circulated around the internet, and it seemed that the green movement’s vociferous opposition to GM crops was vindicated. But almost as soon as the study’s findings were announced, doubts – around the validity of the research itself and the way it had been communicated – began to emerge.

Not only have similar, more rigorous tests, demonstrated that GM crops had no impact on health, but, as the New Scientist reported:

the strain of rat the French team used gets breast tumours easily, especially when given unlimited food, or maize contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormone imbalance, or just allowed to age.

Moreover:

Five of the 20 control rats – 25 per cent – got tumours and died, while 60 per cent in ‘some test groups’ that ate GM maize died. Some other test groups, however, were healthier than the controls.

…the team claims to see the same toxic effects both with actual Roundup, and with the GM maize – whether or not the maize contained any actual herbicide. It is hard to imagine any way in which a herbicide could have identical toxic effects to a gene tweak that gives the maize a gene for an enzyme that actually destroys the herbicide.

This research isn’t entirely without value: it could suggest that even the smallest dose of weed killer or GM maize has the potential to cause physiological harm.

But even this conclusion is undermined by the circumstances in which the study was produced. The research team at Caen is open about its opposition to GM crops; and the anti-GM organisation which orchestrated the publicity around the release of the report, refused to allow journalists to consult other scientists about the paper.

As we’re right to be suspicious of studies undertaken by scientists affiliated to industry – the implications of which Ben Goldacre explores in his latest book on Big Pharma – so we must question the motives, however noble they may be, of this research team funded by anti-GM groups.

What I found so interesting about the response to the study was the vehemence of the anti-GM crop lobby. Like the debates around nuclear energy and, even, animal testing, it seems to me that the strength of feeling – on both sides – has a tendency to shut down all reasonable discussion. I was appalled when, earlier this year, a group of anti-GM activists threatened to destroy a field of GM wheat planted by scientists at the publicly-funded Rothamsted Research. Their work aimed partly to reduce pesticides sprayed on crops.

On the other hand, though, pro-GM scientists, economists, and others seem to be too quick to label those with – legitimate – concerns about the genetic modification of plants and animals as ‘anti-science.’ In an article from 2000, Norman Borlaug argued:

Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist environmental bandwagon in search of research funds. …

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement that has taken place over the past 40 years. This movement has led to legislation to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity. It is ironic, therefore, that the platform of the antibiotechnology extremists, if it were to be adopted, would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.

His point is that GM crops have the potential to end world hunger. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with originating the Green Revolution during the 1950s and 1960s, Borlaug was in a position to argue– with some validity – that selective plant breeding had helped to feed a world of, now, seven billion people.

In 1943, concerned about the link between food shortages and political upheaval – particularly as the Cold War loomed – the Rockefeller Foundation began sponsoring research into the development of new drought-resistant and higher yielding plant species in Mexico.

Focussing on wheat, maize, and rice, Borlaug and other scientists affiliated with the programme cross-bred higher-yielding species. These new seeds were distributed at first in Mexico, India, and the Philippines. It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of this research, as Gordon Conway explains:

Cereal yields, total cereal production and total food production in the developing countries all more than doubled between 1960 and 1985. Over the same period their population grew by about 75 per cent. As a result, the average daily calorie supply in the developing countries increased by a quarter, from under 2,000 calories per person in the early 1960s to about 2,500 in the mid-80s, of which 1,500 was provided by cereals.

The Green Revolution has made it possible to feed a population of seven billion people. But it had substantial drawbacks. Conway writes that the ‘potential’ of the Green Revolution crops

could only be realised if they were supplied with high quantities of fertiliser and provided with optimal supplies of water. As was soon apparent, the new varieties yielded better than the traditional at any level of fertiliser application, although without fertiliser they sometimes did worse on poor soils. Not surprisingly, average rates of application of nitrogen fertilisers, mostly ammonium sulphate and urea, doubled and redoubled over a very short period.

We know now that we need a new Green Revolution – one which is not as heavily reliant on water, and which does not poison and destroy ecosystems. There’s a certain logic, then, to many activists’ arguments that it’s ‘science’ which is to blame for present food insecurity: that a return to small-scale peasant farming offers the best means of supplying food to an ever-growing population.

This suspicion of ‘science’ – whatever we may mean by this – is nothing new. During the 1970s, for instance, the green movement emerged partly in response to concerns about the implications of the Green Revolution for human health, biodiversity, and water supplies. Much of this early environmentalism advocated a return to nature, and a rejection of technology.

I haven’t made up my mind about the usefulness or otherwise of GM crops, but I hesitate over the whole-hearted embrace of ‘traditional’ methods of farming. It’s worth remembering that pre-industrial agriculture required the majority of the world’s population to be involved in food production in order to stave off hunger. Now, in developed nations, this number has plummeted to only a couple of per cent. In sub-Saharan Africa, seventy per cent of the population remains in engaged in agriculture, although this is also likely to decline.

Better technology and higher-yielding plant varieties have freed up the majority of the world’s population to do other forms of work. The world has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century.

What concerns me more, though, are the businesses which push GM crops – those which are at the receiving end of European and African bans on the planting of genetically modified wheat, maize, and other plants. Monsanto and Cargill are currently the target of a campaign to end the patenting of seeds – making them cheaper and more freely available to small farmers in the developing world.

These two companies, in particular, have a growing control over the world’s food supply. Not only do they own seed patents, but they provide pesticides and fertilisers. Cargill produces meat and grows grain – in fact, no one knows how much grain it has stored in its silos. Given that Cargill and the commodities trader Glencore have both admitted that their profits have increased as a result of the drought in the US and the resultant rise in food prices around the world, it’s exceptionally worrying that these organisations have so much control over our food chain.

What the GM debate reveals is a set of complex and shifting attitudes around the relationship between food, farming, and science – and around how we define what is ‘natural’. Instead of rejecting the potential benefits of GM crops out of hand, I think it would be wise to encourage more research into their implications both for human health, and for the environment. Moreover, I think we need to scrutinise and hold to account big businesses like Monsanto, Glencore, and Cargill. They represent a far greater threat to our ability to feed ourselves.

Further Reading

Norman Borlaug, ‘Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,’ Plant Physiology, vol. 124 (Oct. 2000), pp. 487-490.

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Himmat Singh, Green Revolutions Reconsidered: The Rural World of Contemporary Punjab (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Root of the Evil

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching with barely-disguised glee, the evisceration of a recent Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson – pet historian of the American right – in which he provides a deeply flawed analysis of Barack Obama’s past four years in power. As Matthew O’Brien notes, before systematically working through Ferguson’s argument (or, indeed, ‘argument’), ‘He simply gets things wrong, again and again and again.’

I’m no fan of Ferguson’s. This has less to do with our political differences – in relation to him, I’m so left-wing I should be living in a Himalayan hippy commune practising an obscure form of yoga while teaching Capital to peasants – but because of the way he shapes his interpretations of the past to suit a particular neoliberal agenda.

Of course, no historian is capable of writing an absolutely objective history of anything – nor would we want to because it would be dreadfully boring – but Ferguson presents, and defends, his arguments on the grounds that they are absolute truth.

He was called out on this last year by Pankaj Mishra, in a fantastic review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest for the London Review of Books. In Civilisation, Ferguson argues that

civilisation is best measured by the ability to make ‘sustained improvement in the material quality of life’, and in this the West has ‘patently enjoyed a real and sustained edge over the Rest for most of the previous 500 years’. Ferguson names six ‘killer apps’ – property rights, competition, science, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic – as the operating software of Western civilisation that, beginning around 1500, enabled a few small polities at the western end of the Eurasian landmass ‘to dominate the rest of the world’.

Leaving aside the strange question of why an historian writing in the twenty-first century thinks that it’s possible to divorce the ‘West’ (whatever we may mean by that) from the rest of the world – and even why an historian feels like writing a triumphalist history of Europe and North America (I thought we stopped doing that in the sixties?) – this is a history which largely ignores, or plays down, the implications of modern capitalism and globalisation for those people outside of the West.

As in his writing on the creation of European empires, Ferguson has a problem with accounting for the widespread resistance of Africans, Asians, and others to European conquest – and the violence and exploitation which followed colonisation. Mishra writes:

he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo.

Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about a comment which Roger Casement made in a report for the British government about atrocities committed in the Congo Free State during the late nineteenth century. Writing in 1900, he concluded:

The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain….

The Congo Free State came into being at the 1884-1885 Berlin West Africa Conference, where the assembled representatives of European states acknowledged the Belgian king’s right to establish a colony in central Africa. Leopold II’s International Association – a front organisation for his own commercial interests – was allowed to operate in the region.

There were strings attached to the deal – Leopold had to encourage both humanitarianism and free trade, for instance – but with the sharp increase in international demand for rubber in the 1890s, after JB Dunlop’s invention of inflatable rubber tyres, Leopold’s interest in the Congo, which had only ever extended to exploiting the country for its natural resources, narrowed even further. Leopold operated his own monopoly on the rubber trade, leasing some land to other companies on the proviso that they pay him a third of their profits.

The ‘evil’ to which Casement referred was the transformation of the Congolese population into a mass of forced labourers compelled to contribute quotas of rubber to the various businesses operating in the Free State. Those who failed to do so, those who refused to do so, or those who were suspected of not doing so, faced brutal reprisals from the State’s Force Publique, including being killed, often along with their families; having their hands cut off; and seeing their villages and property burned and destroyed.

It’s estimated that ten to thirteen million Congolese died as a result of murder, starvation, exhaustion, and disease between 1885 and 1908, when international condemnation of Leopold’s regime forced the Belgian government to take control of the Free State.

Although other colonial regimes in Africa could be brutal, violent, and unjust, none of them – with the possible exception of Germany in (what is now) Namibia – managed to commit atrocities on the scale that Leopold did in the Congo. As Casement makes the point, ‘the root of the problem’ was that the Congo was run entirely for profit, and that the businesses which operated in the region were not regulated in any way. This was capitalism at its most vicious.

But what does this all have to do with food? Well I was reminded of Casement’s comment when reading about Glencore’s response to the current droughts – chiefly in the US, but also elsewhere – which are partially responsible for global increases in food prices:

The head of Glencore’s food trading business has said the worst drought to hit the US since the 1930s will be ‘good for Glencore’ because it will lead to opportunities to exploit soaring prices.

Chris Mahoney, the trader’s director of agricultural products, who owns about £500m of Glencore shares, said the devastating US drought had created an opportunity for the company to make much more money.

‘In terms of the outlook for the balance of the year, the environment is a good one. High prices, lots of volatility, a lot of dislocation, tightness, a lot of arbitrage opportunities [the purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from price differences in different markets],’ he said on a conference call.

This weekend, it was revealed that Barclays has made more than £500 million from food speculation:

The World Development Movement report estimates that Barclays made as much as £529m from its ‘food speculative activities’ in 2010 and 2011. Barclays made up to £340m from food speculation in 2010, as the prices of agricultural commodities such as corn, wheat and soya were rising. The following year, the bank made a smaller sum – of up to £189m – as prices fell, WDM said.

The revenues that Barclays and other banks make from trading in everything from wheat and corn to coffee and cocoa, are expected to increase this year, with prices once again on the rise. Corn prices have risen by 45 per cent since the start of June, with wheat jumping by 30 per cent.

What bothers me so much about these massive profits is partly the massive profits – the fact that these businesses are actually making money out of a food crisis – but mainly it’s that these monstrously wealthy businessmen are so unwilling to admit that what they’re doing is, even in the most charitable interpretation, morally dubious.

Barclays’s claim that its involvement in food speculation is simply a form of futures trading is disingenuous: futures trading is an entirely legitimate way for farmers to insure themselves against future bad harvests. What Barclays and other banks, as well as pension funds, do is to trade in agricultural commodities in the same way as they do other commodities – like oil or timber.

In 1991, Goldman Sachs came up with an investment product – the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index – which allowed for raw materials, including food, to be traded as easily as other products. When the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission deregulated futures markets eight years later, for the first time since the Great Depression, it became possible to trade in maize, wheat, rice, and other foodstuffs for profit.

The current food crisis has been caused by a range of factors – from the drought, to the excessive use of maize and other crops for biofuel – and exacerbated by climate change and pre-existing conflicts, corruption, inequalities, and problems with distribution. In Europe, unemployment and low wages will add to people’s inability to buy food – hence the rise in demand for food banks in Britain, for example.

Food speculation has not caused the crisis, but it does contribute to it by adding to food price volatility. I’m not – obviously – comparing Glencore or Barclays to Leopold II’s International Association, but the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State provide an excellent example of what happens when capitalism is allowed to run rampant. Let’s not make that mistake with our food supply.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Futures

One of the funniest articles I’ve read recently was Robert Webb’s account of his experience writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. He describes – for gleeful readers of the New Statesman – his battles with the commentators on the newspaper’s online edition. The internet’s equivalent to the ‘green Biro brigade’ of usually right-wing newspaper letter-writers, these ‘Ghouls’ as, Webb calls them, used the Telegraph’s comment function to heap scorn and ridicule on Webb.

These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their ‘comments’ were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.

The problem was not that they disagreed with Webb, but that their comments were aimed solely at reminding him what a ‘worthless bastard’ he was.

I hadn’t realised that these internet trolls had moved beyond the places I’d usually expect to find them – news sites, mainly – and on to food sites as well. In a post which seems to have gone viral this week, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten Free Girl explains the extent to which she’s been subjected to internet bullying:

Every day, there is some nasty, vituperative comment on a post, something I skim quickly then delete. It could be comments about my husband (‘He’s obviously retarded. Look in his eyes. There’s something wrong.’) about our life on Vashon (‘Oh that’s right, everything is perfect on  your fucking ISLAND.’), about our food (‘That looks like dog vomit. Why does anyone pay you to do this?’), and mostly about me (my weight? my writing? my hair? my mere presence in the world? take your pick).

I want to make this clear: criticism and debate are absolutely vital – even on food blogs. I have no truck with writers who believe that any form of critical thinking is ‘mean’ or ‘negative’. But I have no time whatsoever for bullies. I had a small brush with one (or two?) this week after publishing a post critical of the Toffie Food Festival’s Menu magazine. A few commentators using dodgy Hotmail accounts and a suspiciously identical IP address sent comments which were fairly personal and meant only to tell me and the world that my ideas are stupid.

But a decade in academia has helped me to grow rhino hide for skin and it takes more than a few bullies to stop me. So troll who lives at IP 41.133.175.4, you know who you are. As do I.

Troll at IP 41.133.175.4 did, though, ask a good question, and one which is worth answering. He (or indeed she) responded to my point that the authors of Menu have a profoundly problematic conception of food as a consumer product – like jewellery or clothing – which can be used and thrown away at whim, by asking: ‘where do you live where you don’t have to buy food’?

Yes, dear troll at IP 41.133.175.4, you’re quite right: food is a product or commodity which has to be bought (unless, of course, you grow or rear it yourself). But there’s an important difference between food and bed linen, perfume, cutlery, or clothes, for example. Only one of those products is absolutely essential to human life – only one has a significant impact on people’s incomes and the ways in which they live. Only one can cause ordinary people to protest when prices become too high.

Food is, then, is bought by consumers and treated as a consumer product even though it’s significantly different from other products. Our understanding of food as a consumer product is a relatively recent phenomenon: it’s only a century or two old, and linked strongly to the industrial revolution and mass production, as well as the development of a very powerful advertising industry.

Why should we care about this? Given that the mass production of food allowed greater numbers of people to eat better and more cheaply than ever before, surely these processes could only be considered a Good Thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the industrialisation of food production as long as it is environmentally sustainable, humane to animals, respects workers’ rights, and produces safe and uncontaminated food – which, as the industry functions at the moment, is not always the case.

Moreover, as I wrote last week, this conception of food as a consumer product means that we understand food differently. Food moves from being something we associate primarily with nourishment to being a commodity which has the same meaning for consumers as other, less essential goods. This means, for example, that they are more willing to throw away large quantities of food. As the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation reported a few months ago, the average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year – and wealthy countries are responsible for half of the total amount of food wasted every year.

There are many other implications for seeing food as a consumer product – not least the foodie worship of food since the early eighties – and I’ll consider these more carefully in the next few weeks. For the moment, I’d like to take a quick look at food speculation.

Of the many causes of the current global food crisis, food speculation is the most contested and seems to be the most complicated to understand. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter as well as Oxfam and other organisations have argued recently, the deregulation of commodities markets in the West during the mid-nineties have had catastrophic implications for food prices.

Let me explain: farmers have long traded in food futures to secure their incomes. Farmers protect themselves against bad harvests by selling their produce in advance to traders. They use the profits they make in bad years – when they have less to sell – to protect themselves against future losses. This works well for traders, who do particularly nicely in good years. Writing about the United States, Frederick Kaufman explains how well this tightly regulated system worked:

The result: Over the course of the 20th century, the real price of wheat decreased (despite a hiccup or two, particularly during the 1970s inflationary spiral), spurring the development of American agribusiness. After World War II, the United States was routinely producing a grain surplus, which became an essential element of its Cold War political, economic, and humanitarian strategies – not to mention the fact that American grain fed millions of hungry people across the world.

But things changed at the end of the twentieth century. Partly because of intensive lobbying from hedge funds and banks, like Barclays, governments in the West deregulated commodity derivatives markets. Banks and investors became interested in trading on the commodities market – once the preserve of specialists like Glencore – when bankers at Goldman Sachs (yes, they really do their best to be the embodiment of venality) devised new investment products which included speculation in food futures. Investors which hadn’t before been involved in the commodities markets, like pension funds, were, then, willing to play the futures markets.

As a result of this, food – grain, cocoa, fruit, rice, and meat – can be traded in exactly the same way as other commodities, like gold, timber, and coal. Brett Scott writes:

The controversy can be broken down into two separate issues. Firstly, are financial players in commodity derivatives markets causing derivatives prices to disassociate from what the price ‘should be’ if it were reflecting the fundamental balance of supply and demand in the underlying commodity? Secondly, does such a disassociation in futures prices get transmitted into the real price of food people end up paying?

The answer from the UN and a range of other charities is a definite, ringing ‘yes’. Irresponsible banks are driving up the price of food, they argue. John Vidal cites two well-known examples of food speculation causing price spikes:

Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.

But what role does speculation play in causing food prices to rise more generally? This is more difficult to pin down, as Scott implies. De Schutter argues, convincingly in my mind, that even if speculation was not responsible on its own for causing the spike in food prices in 2008, it was a major contributing – and new – factor. I think it’s worth quoting him at length:

a number of signs indicate that a significant portion of the price spike was due to the emergence of a speculative bubble. Prices for a number of commodities fluctuated too wildly within such limited time-frames for such price behaviour to have been a result of movements in supply and demand: wheat prices, for instance, rose by 46% between January 10 and February 26, 2008, fell back almost completely by May 19, increased again by 21% until early June, and began falling again from August. The 2008 food price crisis was unique in that it was possibly the first price crisis that occurred in an economic environment characterized by massive amounts of novel forms of speculation in commodity derivative markets.

The particular area of concern is speculation in derivatives based on food commodities. A study conducted by Lehman Brothers just before its bankruptcy revealed that the volume of index fund speculation increased by 1,900% between 2003 and March 2008. Morgan Stanley estimated that the number of outstanding contracts in maize futures increased from 500,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million in 2008. …the changes in food prices reflected not so much movements in the supply and/or demand of food, but were driven to a significant extent by speculation that greatly exceeded the liquidity needs of commodity markets to execute the trades of commodity users, such as food processors and agricultural commodity importers.

Food speculation is a manifestation on a very grand scale of a shift in thinking of the value and significance of food: here, food is simply another commodity to be bought and traded, often very lucratively. We know the futures are useful and important to farmers, but the unregulated speculation of food means that food prices are no longer linked to what people can afford to pay. When the UN and other organisations call for a greater regulation of commodities markets – to a return, to some extent, to the derivatives trading of the twentieth century – they are also pointing to the fact that food cannot be understood in the same terms as other commodities and consumer goods.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

Public service announcement: if you’re in Cape Town and would like to know more about the Protection of Information Bill and what YOU can do about it, come to Right2Know‘s public meeting on Tuesday, 7 June, at 18:00 at Idasa, 6 Spin Street. Judith February will be joined by Pregs Govender, Zapiro, Pierre de Vos, and others.

This week Oxfam published a report on the state of the world’s food systems. Titled ‘Growing a Better Future,’ the study argues that by 2030 the world will be in a state of permanent food crisis. Staples will cost twice as much in twenty years time, with the price of maize increasing by as much as 180%. The world’s poorest will be the worst affected by the crisis. As demand for food outstrips supply and places pressure on existing food distribution systems, more than a billion people will go hungry every day.

Already, the average growth rate in agricultural yields has halved since 1990, and this is set to decline even further. A combination of factors have converged to produce this crisis. Climate change, increasingly limited natural resources, commodity speculation, the demand for biofuels, population growth, and changing, more meat- and dairy-heavy diets are working to destabilise our food system.

The result of the food crisis is not only hunger, but poverty and increasing political upheaval:

we have entered an age of growing crisis, of shock piled upon shock: vertiginous food price spikes and oil price hikes, devastating weather events, financial meltdowns, and global contagion. Behind each of these, slow-burn crises continue to smoulder: creeping and insidious climate change, growing inequality, chronic hunger and vulnerability, the erosion of our natural resources. The broken food system is at once a driver of this fragility and highly vulnerable to it.

Alongside this report, Oxfam has launched a campaign, ‘Grow’, to publicise its set of solutions to the food crisis. It’s attempting to mobilise opposition to land grabs and commodity speculation, to promote small-scale agriculture, and also to highlight awareness of the links between climate change and food prices.

In his analysis of the report, Mark Lynas makes the point that one of its most interesting features is its pragmaticism. The report notes (rightly):

The romanticisation of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

It even adds:

Large-scale agriculture also has a role to play in meeting the sustainable production challenge. It is better able to meet the exacting standards that have come to characterize the food supply chains that feed burgeoning cities. Moreover, as economic development takes place, and labour costs rise relative to capital costs, larger, more mechanized modes of production become more viable, in turn providing an exit from agriculture for poor rural people as long as sufficient jobs are created in industry.

Has Oxfam lost its marbles? Of course not. This report is a tacit rejection of the idea that industrialisation is itself the cause of the instability of the food system. It makes the point that while technology may have caused incredible damage to ecosystems and even reduced yields, it has the potential to get us out of this crisis as well. The issue isn’t the technology itself, but, rather, the way in which it is used.

I am concerned that Oxfam will have an uphill battle over this point. So many organisations seem to have swallowed whole the concept that we need to return to the farming, cooking, and eating of the past in order to eat better in the present, and future. The Oxfam report demonstrates that our food crisis is so complex that this simplistic way of thinking about food simply won’t do.

As I wrote last week, the Slow Food Movement has long described itself as offering an alternative way of thinking about food. I think that despite the good that Slow Food has done in the world, its views on food and the past are not only deeply troubling, but actively harmful. Its Manifesto on the Future of Food argues for a wholesale rejection of all forms of technology and a ‘transition to a more decentralized, democratic and cooperative, non-corporate, small-scale organic farming as practiced by traditional farming communities, agroecologists, and indigenous peoples for millennia.’

The Slow Food Manifesto (and Slow Food seems to like nothing more than a manifesto) states:

Our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food.  Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer. … Slow Food guarantees a better future.

It is partly this enthusiasm for the regional, the local, the ‘indigenous’, and the ‘traditional’ which makes me question that Slow Food does guarantee a ‘better future’. To which ‘tradition’ do we return?

It’s particularly interesting that Slow Food originated in Italy. This is a country with a heavily invented notion of its own food traditions, and a suitably bad memory of what Italians really did eat in the recent past.

Up until the end of the First World War, Italian diets were very poor – which, given Italy’s climate, terrain, and precarious political situation throughout the nineteenth century, isn’t terribly surprising. Most main meals consisted either of bread or polenta with onions, oil, and whatever cheap fish and vegetables were available. The components of what we now believe to be the age-old Italian or Mediterranean diet – pasta, tomatoes, wine, dairy products, and other fresh produce – were eaten only during festivals. Carol Helstosky writes in Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy:

Although few people starved or fell seriously ill from malnutrition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the majority of the Italian population did not consume a nutritionally adequate diet because of economic and political constraints on their behaviour as consumers and eaters. Subsistence farming and local markets characterized Italian agriculture while a weak national economy limited consumer options, even for urban workers and members of the middle class. … Italian consumers remained trapped in a post-subsistence economy for multiple reasons, unable to make the transition to a more varied and nutritious diet.

The change came in 1919. During the Great War, state control over food distribution systems meant that the diets of ordinary Italians actually improved. (Something similar happened in Britain during the Second World War.) Diets were increasingly more homogenous, and wheat flour began to replace maize and other carbohydrates.

In addition to this, Italian immigrants in the United States began to shape a new kind of national cuisine. Even relatively poor, newly-arrived Italians could afford a greater variety of food in America than they could at home. They were able to buy the tomatoes, pasta, and olive oil which they couldn’t afford in Italy. Helstosky adds:

as Italians began to leave the peninsula for greater economic opportunities in the Americas and elsewhere, they sought to recreate familiar dishes. This led to a growing body of consumers for Italian products (dried pasta, canned tomatoes, and olive oil), which in turn greatly aided the development of certain food industries within Italy. Only after substantial numbers of Italians abroad began consuming these foods did domestic production furnish more products for Italians at home. Ironically, it was because of the ‘imagined communities’ outside Italy that the food industry inside Italy produced the goods that became the foundations of Italian cuisine.

In America, this invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

In a sense, ‘Italian cuisine’ was created in a dialogue between poor, badly nourished Italians in Italy and their wealthier, better-fed cousins in the United States. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, Italians began to eat the same food as Italian immigrants, supplementing their diets to a greater extent with meat and dairy products. They also began to link this invented notion of Italian food with being Italian.

The Italian cuisine promoted by the Slow Food Movement was created in the United States and in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. The ‘traditional’ food to which Slow Food harks back is not the chestnut flour and woody vegetables of inadequate nineteenth-century peasant diets, but, rather, the invented ‘traditional’ Italian food of artisanal olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red peppers, prosciutto, and ricotta.

This is only one example of how a rose-tinted, faulty understanding of history hides the fact that peasant diets – both in the past and those in the present – are produced by backbreaking labour and are usually nutritionally inadequate. We are taller, healthier, and live longer today because our diets are more varied and contain more protein than those of our ancestors.  To suggest to peasants that their diets are somehow better than those in the West is patronising and ignorant.

But the technologies of the twentieth century which revolutionised our food systems are not sustainable. The Green Revolution’s enthusiasm for pesticides and large-scale irrigation, the neglect of small farmers, industrial agriculture, and the increasing concentration of the world’s food supply in the hands of a small collection of supermarkets, agricultural businesses, and food companies, have helped to land us in the situation we’re in now. Clearly, things need to change. Tim Lang writes:

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 squandered scientific possibilities. It 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.

The future of food is not in the past. Even the Slow Food Movement celebrates a peasant diet which was invented partly in twentieth-century North America. I believe very strongly that we can learn from history to improve our eating and attitudes towards food today, but an unthinking return to ‘tradition’ is both impossible and undesirable.

Update: for more on the general dodginess of Slow Food, see Luca Simonetti’s excellent analysis of the moment’s political and ideological leanings.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Robert Bailey, Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World (Oxfam, 2011).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy (Oxford and New York: Berg, [2004] 2006).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Jerry Mander (ed.), Manifesto on the Future of Food (The International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, 2006).

Other sources:

Julia Csergo, ‘The Emergence of Regional Cuisines,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 500-515.

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).

Donna R. Gabaccia, ‘As American as Budweiser and Pickles? Nation Building in American Food Industries,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 175-193.

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘The Tortilla Discourse: Nutrition and Nation Building,’ in iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), pp. 77-97.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 01.06.2011

Oxfam warns the food prices are set to double by 2030, causing the world to be plunged into permanent food crisis.

A report from the Guardian on 21 April 1903 describes contemporary responses to the greater availability of exotic fruit.

Arcadia’s blog Voer is one of the most beautiful I know. Read it if you understand Afrikaans, otherwise look at the pictures.

How food shortages will cause more global unrest.

More evidence that speculation has had an impact on soaring food prices.

Lucy Mangan identifies vegetables.

How should the US rebuild its food economy?

Tom Philpott discusses some recent contributions to the debate around why American diets have become progressively worse since the 1970s.

Hanna Thomas thinks about supermarkets and nostalgia.

The truth about extra virgin olive oil.

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