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Occupy Food

So. Farwell then, Occupy London? There’s nothing like writing a (relatively) topical blog to remind you of how fast news develops. When I began thinking about this post, the protestors at Occupy London outside St Paul’s had lost their appeal against their eviction. It seemed that this wing of the occupy movement had gone the same way as Occupy Wall Street when Zuccotti Park was cleared. But now the campers have found a new, fifth spot, still in the City of London: Roman House, an empty building in the Barbican.

I visited Occupy London in December last year. I had arranged to attend a drawing class presented by Baduade (this is her account of it, with some of our contributions) and was hopelessly early, so I decided to visit two of the protest’s other sites, in Finsbury Square and in the abandoned UBS building in Sun Street – now rechristened the Bank of Ideas. I was struck by the social and ideological complexity of the protest. Not only did the protestors represent a variety of opinions, but were a varied group of people who had decided to camp for different reasons. Laurie Penny’s recent article on Occupy London sums this up particularly well:

The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia.

In his account of a night spent at the St Paul’s camp, James Macintyre noted a class difference between the sites, with more middle-class protestors choosing to settle at Finsbury Park – the site which produces The Occupied Times. My experience certainly bore this out: as I arrived at the Finsbury Park welcome tent, the girl supervising it bounded up to me and exclaimed in tones which would cheer any elocution teacher, ‘oh I love your badges!’.

Part of the appeal of the camp, commented Macintyre, particularly for homeless people, is that it has a kitchen which provides food for free:

The campers, a multi-ethnic mix, are fed in the soup kitchen by volunteers, including several part-time chefs; they say they feed up to 1,500 people a day, most of whom are just around the camp during the day. The volunteers’ chief concerns are the need for more donations of vegetables, and the lack of storage facilities for meat, rather than the evils of global capitalism.

The same was true at Zuccotti Park which developed a reputation for the quality of the cuisine which its cooks – some of them professional chefs – prepared. In fact, the kitchen’s output proved to be so popular that overworked and apparently ‘underappreciated’ volunteers temporarily refused to make food. Indeed, there were even some reports that Occupy Wall Street decided to limit the kitchen’s output because of the numbers of homeless people the protest was attracting.

Whatever the politics of feeding so many protestors may have been, Occupy Wall Street’s achievements are worth celebrating: its kitchen relied entirely on donations, meaning that meal planning was almost impossible and relied on cooks’ inventiveness and ability to think quickly. Also, the kitchen was not allowed to use any form of open flame.

The kitchen at the St Paul’s protest was as heroic, and reminded me of the cooking done at the Climate Camps a few years ago (and I think that there’s more to be said about the overlap between the Climate Camp movement and Occupy London): using mainly donated produce and almost always vegan – a practical choice in terms of storage and dietary requirements – food was prepared using wood-fired rocket stoves and provided free to all people on the campsite. It was delicious – and I write this as one whose experiment with veganism lasted only a week.

In both cases, the food served at the camps was emblematic of the concerns and ideals of the protestors, as the New York Times described the Zuccotti Park protest:

The makeshift kitchen has fed thousands of protesters each day. Along the way, it has developed a cuisine not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement itself: free-form, eclectic, improvisatory and contradictory.

Requests for food go out on Twitter and various Web sites sympathetic to the protesters. And somehow, in spontaneous waves, day after day, the food pours in. The donations are received with enthusiasm, even when they are not precisely what the troops might have desired.

Robert Strype, 29, a protester from the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area who was wearing a T-shirt that expressed his displeasure with Monsanto, said that anger about practices like factory farming and the genetic modification of vegetables was one of the factors that had roused him and some of his fellow occupiers. ‘Food plays a huge part in this movement,’ he said. ‘Because people are tired of being fed poison.’

Of all the various manifestations of the occupy movement – from the recent Occupy Nigeria, to Occupy Art and Occupy History (my favourite, obviously) – one of the most persistent has been Occupy Food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it began in the United States. The Occupy movement was produced by the inequalities of Obama’s America, and no country on earth has as powerful a food industry as the US. Whereas it’s an exaggeration to refer to Big Food in South Africa or Argentina, this is certainly not the case for America. As Strype makes the point, Americans ‘are tired of being fed poison.’

But the idea has had a worldwide resonance, despite the fact that ‘occupying food’ seems like an inherently illogical idea: how can you ‘occupy’ something which is so ubiquitous? The organisers of the first Occupied Food protest at the re-named Zucchini Park explained:

We started Occupy Big Food because we thought it was really important to bring the discussion of food to what is happening at Occupy Wall Street. The goals of OWS and OBF are totally aligned — we are against the corporate takeover of our food system.

The Occupy Food rally was followed a month later by a farmers’ march to Occupy Wall Street to ‘to ‘fight and expose corporate control of the food supply.’ Willie Nelson – yes, for it was he – writing in his capacity as the President of Farm Aid, urged his readers to Occupy the Food System:

From seed to plate, our food system is now even more concentrated than our banking system. Most economic sectors have concentration ratios hovering around 40%, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40% of the market. Anything beyond this level is considered ‘highly concentrated,’ where experts believe competition is severely threatened and market abuses are likely to occur.

Many key agricultural markets like soybeans and beef exceed the 40% threshold, meaning the seeds and inputs that farmers need to grow our crops come from just a handful of companies. Ninety-three per cent of soybeans and 80% of corn grown in the United States are under the control of just one company. … Today, three companies process more than 70% of beef in the U.S.; four companies dominate close to 60% of the pork and chicken markets.

In an article for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott elaborated on Nelson’s point. Firstly, the food system is dominated by a handful of very big businesses, whose reach is global: Monsanto has a virtual monopoly of the world’s seed supply; only four companies – including Cargill (which begs the question why the World Food Programme sees fit to do business with it) – control the grain trade; and Walmart’s reach is extending around the world.

Secondly, the size of these businesses allows them unprecedented power over the whole food chain. In an effort to drive down prices, farmers and suppliers are put out of business, wages plummet, standards of animal welfare decline steeply, and the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other poisons increases.

Thirdly, the growing involvement of hedge funds and banks in the commodities market – which now includes food commodities – has led to concern that speculation on wheat, maize, and other staples is driving up the price of food. The best known example of this occurred two years ago when hedge fund Armajaro bought up Ghana’s total cocoa crop – about 7% of global production – causing a 150% rise in cocoa prices and many Ghanaian farmers to go out of business. Several economists have drawn a link between high food prices and the origins of the Arab Spring.

Finally, the relationship between food companies and governments can be uncomfortably close. In the United States, intense lobbying from the food, agriculture, and beverage industries has caused already light regulation to crumble. In the UK, a collection of food companies – including PepsiCo and Mars – advise the government on how to curb obesity and have formulated a programme which helps to swell their profits.

In other words, the food system is controlled by too few organisations. A lack of regulation of both industry and the economic system has driven up prices, contributed to a decline in the quality of food, and undermined job security, animal welfare, and ethical farming practices. On its own, this is enough to compel us to occupy the food system by growing our own food, supporting small farmers and producers, lobbying supermarkets to stock sustainable and ethically-produced food, and taking action against the cosy relationship between business and government.

But beyond this, there are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. The Occupy movement came to prominence partly because of, as my friend Seb commented, one of the best slogans in history: ‘we are the 99%’. It’s catchy and, most importantly, accurate (even if it may be the case that we’re actually the 99.9%). We know that the poorer people are, the poorer their diets are. In extreme cases, they simply can’t afford food, and starve and suffer from extreme malnutrition. But for most of the 99%, good, fresh, ‘whole’ food – the food that the shrinking middle classes can afford to buy from Woolworths, Waitrose, and Trader Joe’s – is simply too expensive, or too far away. They rely instead on heavily processed food.

As a recent report published by the World Health Organisation indicates, obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases are now as much a problem in the developing world as they are in the developed. This is partly the result of prosperity – the new middle classes crave McDonald’s burgers and Coca Cola as indicators of status – but mainly because of shifts in eating patterns caused by high food prices and the greater availability of cheap, processed proteins and non-foods.

In an extract from his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, Paul Mason responds to critics who argue that the Occupy movement – and, indeed, the other protests which dominated the news in 2010 and 2011 – had few clearly defined goals and viable alternatives to the social and political status quo. Referring to Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1980), he explains:

parts of the book now bear rereading, in particular Gorz’s definition of revolution: taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.

If this is so, the occupy movement signals a beginning in a shift in our understanding of how power should work in society, and particularly as regards inequality.

We are the 99%. And we demand to eat well too.


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

Margarine Myths

So this week’s blog post was going to be about food and fiction – having had drinks and supper at Pablo Neruda-themed Maremoto last night, it seemed appropriate – but along with the post on authenticity which I promised yonks ago, it will have to wait while I simmer with annoyance at the World Food Programme’s decision to solve the world’s food problems by working with Unilever.

Yes, you read that correctly. The World Food Programme is working with Unilever to alleviate the hunger crisis.

Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch food, margarine, and cosmetics giant which also happens to be the biggest consumer goods company in the world. Is this really a good idea?

I have nothing whatsoever against corporate social responsibility. In fact, I wish that more countries encouraged the private sector to become involved in philanthropic work. With their efficient logistical support and understanding of the market, there are few organisations better positioned to help poor communities that those which provide services or produce consumer products.

And as big corporations go, Unilever ranks pretty high up the sustainability stakes. Last year it launched its Sustainable Living Plan which aims not only to reduce Unilever’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use, but that of its suppliers and customers as well. It’s an ambitious plan which seeks to make the whole supply chain sustainable – while doubling Unilever’s profits. The company is also funding a range of projects, including encouraging the sustainable production of palm oil (although who knows if it’ll be able to roll back the incredible damage it did by investing in palm oil in the first place), and sponsoring hygiene programmes in the developing world to reduce the numbers of children who die as a result of diarrhoea.  I really hope that they succeed, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to consume less for social and ecological good.

I think that my concern about the WFP’s enthusiasm for Unilever is connected to the fact that this business makes a profit by selling food which isn’t particularly good for its customers. However much Unilever might like to promote its fluffy credentials – and buying Ben and Jerry’s, the business which gave away scoops of Yes Pecan! ice cream on the day of Obama’s inauguration, was certainly part of this – its purpose is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The question we need to ask is how it goes about raising those profits.

For all of Unilever’s good intentions, it has a patchy track record on the quality of the food it produces. Consider the ingredients in a jar of Skippy peanut butter:

Roasted peanuts, corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed) to prevent separation, mono- and diglycerides, minerals (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, ferric orthophosphate, copper sulfate), vitamins (niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid)

In comparison, the sugar- and salt-free version of South Africa’s Black Cat peanut butter (also the product of a big food company), contains peanuts and ‘stabiliser’. There are other brands of mass-produced peanut butter which contain only peanuts and oil.

I know that this might seem like nitpicking, but the point is that Unilever doesn’t sell ‘whole’, unprocessed food to make a profit: like any other big food company, it adds strange and occasionally harmful ingredients to its products to make them taste better or last longer, and it hides this fact with a vast advertising budget. In 2009, for example, it spent £148 million on advertising in the UK alone. In the same year, in Canada it promoted Hellman’s mayonnaise as part of an ‘eat localdrive. Two years before that, a US-based campaign around ‘real food’ suggested that Hellman’s could be included in a diet of ‘real’, ‘whole’ food. Hellman’s is neither ‘local’, nor ‘real’. Its low-fat version contains the following:

Water, modified corn starch, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, egg whites, salt, sugar, xantham gum, lemon and lime peel fibres, colours added, lactic acid, (sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, phosphoric acid, natural flavours

The bulk of Unilever’s profits come from margarine, which it promotes heavily on the grounds of its health benefits – something which still divides the medical world. This is a business which chooses its ethics carefully.

Consider its involvement in the Public Health Commission, a body created in 2008 by the UK’s then-shadow Minister of Health, Andrew Lansley (greedy):

In the chair of the commission, by invitation of Lansley, was Dave Lewis, UK and Ireland chairman of Unilever, one of the largest processors of industrial fats in the world.

With him were Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate affairs director of Tesco, , the supermarket that has been a leading opponent of the traffic light food labelling scheme favoured by the Food Standards Agency, and Lady Buscombe, Conservative peer and former head of the Advertising Association, where she established herself as a formidable political champion of the ad industry’s right to operate free of restrictions.

Asda’s corporate affairs director, Paul Kelly, formerly PR head of Compass, the school meals company of turkey twizzler fame, had to send his apologies. Mark Leverton, policy director of Diageo, manufacturer of leading vodka, whisky and beer brands, joined them by phone.

Lansley – who has links with the food industry – is now Minister of Health and, surprise, surprise, had invited this dubious collection of businesses, alongside McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, and Mars, to help shape Britain’s public health policies around obesity and diet-related diseases. This is as pointless as asking BP, Shell, and Chevron to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the first outcomes of this public-private partnership was the Department of Health’s ‘Great Swapathon’ which encourages families in England to choose healthy products through a voucher scheme. The vouchers

can be exchanged for products deemed to be healthy, including Unilever’s Flora Light margarine, Mars’ Uncle Ben’s rice and Molson’s alcohol free lagers. Other businesses offering vouchers will include supermarket Asda, for its own brand goods; sportswear firm JJB Sports; outdoor activity provider Haven Holidays; Weight Watchers; and private gym group the Fitness Industry Association. The News of the World will help promote the scheme.

The list of companies includes food manufacturers whose products have been blamed for increasing obesity. Unilever’s product range includes ice creams, Pot Noodle and Peperami, while Mars makes chocolate and Molson is a brewer.

‘The News of the World will help promote the scheme.’ Priceless.

This is so misguided it’s almost amusing. A scheme to promote healthy eating actually benefits a clutch of big food companies whose products facilitate Britain’s obesity crisis.

The WFP is engaged in a similar project. It also works in partnership with PepsiCo, manufacturer of crisps, soft drinks, and a range of non-foods; Cargill, whose inhumane and unhygienic slaughterhouse practises contributed to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in some of its meat in the US; Yum! Brands, whose chains include KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell; and Vodafone, a company’s whose outstanding £6 billion tax bill in 2010 could have paid the UK’s welfare bill for a year.

The WFP was established in 1961 to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Its focus is on providing food aid, but aims ultimately to reform the food system to the extent that food aid will become largely unnecessary. While the WFP has been invaluable in bringing emergency supplies of food to disaster areas, it has singularly failed to do anything else. We are in the midst of a global food crisis where food aid is needed more than ever before.

One could argue that this is precisely the reason why it’s necessary for the WFP to work with big organisations: they have money and resources. The WFP can only respond to the crisis with adequate funding and assistance. But even given the fact that the WFP is desperately in need of funds at the moment, there is no great imperative for it to work with Unilever, PepsiCo, Vodafone or any other dodgy multinational – and I think that these partnerships only serve to undermine the WFP’s aims. (And it’s worth taking a closer link at the WFP’s finances, as this excellent investigation into the WFP by Sheila Dillon of the BBC’s Food Programme does.)

Famine and malnutrition are caused by a range of factors and, paradoxically, a lack of food isn’t one of them. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote, people starve or go hungry when they can’t buy food: when food becomes too expensive for them to afford it, or when distribution systems fail or are inadequate. There’s usually enough food to go around, but people have difficulty accessing it.

One of the best, and most poignant, examples of this was the 1992 famine in Somalia which occurred in Bay, one of the country’s most agriculturally productive regions. People starved because militias prevented food from being cultivated and distributed efficiently. It’s no coincidence that famines occur in countries with dysfunctional – or no – governments. The Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s began after the collapse of its government – the country had managed to feed itself before then.

Democracies tend to have food systems which function properly. Instead of focussing on raising money and sending food parcels, promoting democracy and drawing attention to the connection between bad governance and hunger should be at the top of the WFP’s agenda.

Getting big food and agriculture companies to sponsor the WFP’s work will not bring democracy to the developing world, nor will it end the food crisis. These are organisations have little or no interest in promoting good governance if it’s bad for business.

And, secondly, some of these organisations have actually benefitted from the food crisis. Cargill is the world’s biggest agricultural commodities trader, and it’s been doing rather well recently, as the Financial Times reported in January:

Cargill benefited from supply disruptions in the global food chain and rising prices to report a tripling in profits in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

The world’s largest agricultural commodities trader said net income in the three months to November 30 rose to $1.49bn, up from $489m in the same period a year earlier.

First-half earnings more than doubled to $2.37bn, up from $1.01bn in the six months to the end of November 2010.

The windfall highlights the big margins in the sector led by Cargill, which rose to prominence in the 2007-08 food crisis, when agricultural commodities prices hit all-time highs.

Chris Johnson, credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said that droughts in some of the key grain-producing regions and the ensuing trade dislocations were behind the strong results.

‘To the extent that you’re able to provide grains in parts of the world where they cost more you can get a larger profit margin,’ he said.

Food prices have been driven up by food speculation. Cargill is both a hedge fund and a commodities trader, so it not only benefits from higher food prices – but is partly responsible for causing them to rise too.

The title of this post comes from an essay by Roland Barthes from his collection Mythologies (1957). In ‘Operation Margarine’ he argues that advertisers use a kind of reverse psychology to persuade us to buy things we know aren’t all that good for us: the advertisement acknowledges that the product, margarine in the example Barthes provides, isn’t as tasty or healthy as its rivals, but then turns this on its head by emphasising its convenience and cheapness. Margarine then becomes the obvious product to buy.

The WFP is attempting some margarine-mythmaking in insisting that its work can only be achieved in partnership with these big multinationals: yes, they’re bad, but – hey, what can you do? They have money and power and people are hungry. Nonsense. The WFP is inadvertently giving the best PR possible to a clutch of businesses which, at best, have very little interest in producing good, healthy food. At worst, the WFP is trying to solve world hunger in partnership with organisations which have a vested interest in keeping the world hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

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

Food Links, 27.07.2011

Ever wondered what it’s like to intern at El Bulli? Here are two articles which describe the experience.

The glory of eggs.

I can’t wait to read this: Frank Dikötter’s Samuel Johnson Prize-winning new account of the 1958-1962 Great Famine in China.

Why industrial agriculture won’t feed the world – and why we need to stop industrial farms from denying us access to their operations.

The American Dietetic Association – an organisation providing supposedly objective and scientific advice on diet – has been accepting money from Coca-Cola and Pepsico. Not good.

The amazing ‘jellymongers’ Bompas and Parr organised a Rabbit Cafe in Brighton to celebrate Easter. It’s partly in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the first Futurist restaurant. The Cafe, though, isn’t the first homage to Futurism’s fascination with food – this is an account of one recreation of the Futurist aerobanquet.