The way the world produces food has gone from something essential to life, to just another commodity for profit. We are producing more than enough food to feed the entire world, yet millions of people are malnourished and face starvation every year.
What makes this so much worse is that millions of tons of food each year are hoarded in warehouses to artificially drive up prices, or are deliberately destroyed. Prices also fluctuate as investors speculate on food through the capitalist market, driving food out of the reach of the poorest people.
Over the past three to four decades, international agribusiness companies have restructured the global agriculture industry. This has been possible through their own market power as well as through governments and the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation. They have succeeded in changing the way food is grown and distributed around the world, reaping the profits and making global hunger worse and food crises inevitable.
Increasingly, traditional farming organised by and for communities and families, has been replaced by industrial farming aimed at lining the pockets of corporate agribusiness. This has resulted in almost a complete monopoly of buyers and sellers of agricultural products around the world. For example three companies almost entirely control the world’s corn, which means that they alone decide how much of each year’s crop goes to make ethanol, sweeteners, animal feed or human food.
The way we produce food results in a number of social problems. The United States, despite being the richest country in the world, hosts 49 million (including 15.9 million children) food insecure citizens. 50 million Americans rely on unhealthy fast food for the bulk of their diet, resulting in epidemic levels of obesity, and other health problems.
The animal and food industries are among the most exploitative in the world for animals and workers alike. These industries often have long hours, low pay, and unsafe working conditions. They also tend to employ largely immigrant labour forces who are often deprived of their right to organise into unions due to their visa status. As long as big business runs the economy, particularly combined with weak regulation, animals will be brutalised and workers’ rights will be violated whenever a profit can be made.
The heavy use of chemicals and pesticides poison our food supply and environment. In fact 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States are on farms, raising concerns about the emergence of antibiotic-resistant disease. A 2012 study published in Nature examined hundreds of trials and found that, despite the use of all these chemicals, yields on most food crops are only 20% to 25% higher than pesticide free food.
Large scale cultivation is also not necessarily more productive. When comparing large-scale industrial farming with small-scale farming studies found that the latter was actually more productive and less damaging to the environment. Industrial farming however delivers uniform products in predictable quantities, engineered to resist damage during shipment to distant markets.
This however does not mean that we should take a step back to food production reminiscent of peasant style farming. It is perfectly possible to create a democratically organised structure in which farming is done on small to medium sized plots of land.
Starvation, malnourishment, environmental degradation, and animal cruelty are just a few problems still common in many parts of the world. Backlash from ordinary people in the form of food riots continue to happen, not because there is no food to be had, but because hundreds of millions of people simply cannot afford to buy it.
The knowledge, technology, and collective potential exists which would allow for a rational and balanced approach to food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption. What we need now is a new social structure to allow this.
Democratic socialist planning is the alternative to capitalist globalisation. On the basis on public ownership and control working people could decide on how the world’s food is produced.
By Amy Neve