Global food system Essay
Anti-globalisation protests from Uruguay to Seattle, widespread concern for the environment, almost daily news items on food-related health issues and the plight of the developing world, coupled with the multitude of authors who have published volumes critiquing the global food system suggest that there may be valid grounds for criticising the food system in existence in the world today. The issues covered range from matters relating the individual such as deteriorating health standards and shifts in cultural norms to global issues such as large scale environmental degradation and the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
Today’s consumers live a life whereby there is a seemingly wide choice of food items on supermarket shelves at their fingertips; literally, with the progress made in internet shopping. The following document shall attempt to explore the different sources of this criticism in an attempt to provide a justification for the oppositions to the contemporary food system. A brief overview of lifestyles in the industrialised countries and history of the global food system in the periods that have seen the most rapid changes; post World War II, provide a platform for the beginning of the analysis of the food situation in the world today.
In the countries of the global north, food is a taken-for-granted commodity in that it features in the minds of a majority of the population only when biology intervenes and reminds them of the need to eat to survive and based on the fact that it only accounts on average for a measly 13% of total family expenditure compared to greater than 32% for housing and roughly 19% for transportation according to the US census board’s statistics for 1999.
Food, especially nutritious food, has come to be the expendable item in the family’s budget in a bid to cut expenditure in the turbulent contemporary post-capitalist society we live in that encourages profit and accumulation over all else. There has also been a shift towards a diet high in fat, sugar and refined food, and low in fibre, found throughout the world and at progressively lower levels of income (ODI, 2003)
For a brief history, it emerges that at the end of the Second World War, the global food system was at risk of collapse and the US had no market for its agricultural exports. There was a need to reconstruct Europe to provide the market for the surpluses being generated in the US and to get industrialisation back on track. During the reconstruction, European countries used capital goods to industrialise not only their manufacturing sectors but also their agricultural production with additional fertilizer input and use of scientific methods.
Throughout the cold war period, an ‘agricultural revolution’ took place as workers were drawn from the farm to the factory to provide labour for the manufacturing industries, resulting in large tracts of land being put through ‘industrialisation’ by the employment of machinery as a substitute for the labour that had been in place prior to that. As governments focused their attention on the recreation and reorganisation of their manufacturing industries, private firms paid attention to the food production side of things and gained economies of scale to become large efficient firms in food production by the 80s.
Towards the 90s, there was a power shift from the producers who were now multinational companies to retailers. The retailers were supermarket chains who operated mainly in localised geographic locations in most industrialised countries. In the new millennium, the power is completely wielded by these large retailers with huge retail outlets in almost all major cities in developed countries, with some transcending national borders to maximise their profits and power they exert over the global food supply chain.
In the middle there is a narrow pinch-point, where just 110 retailers’ buying desks (the teams responsible for buying goods in different categories) decide what will be available in the shops for us to buy. ( Rosalind Sharpe, 2004). In the UK alone, 60-70% of all food now passes through four companies, aptly dubbed the big four: Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway and Asda (sovereignity. org). One of the greatest criticisms of the global food system is the effect that it has on the consumers’ health.
These health issues range from relatively curable conditions such as obesity and fatal diseases such as Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease (CJD) spread through consumption of infected meat products to long term effects such as heart disease and diabetes. Together with a lifestyle of poor exercise among northern consumers, the effect of the poor diet that has been adapted in developed countries begins to emerge.
The World Health Organisation estimates the costs of poor nutrition, low physical activity and obesity in Europe calculated in Disability Adjusted Life Years2 lost at 9. % (compared to 9. 0% for smoking). This means that 9. 7% of years lost in respect to the life expectancy is due to poor dietary and exercise regimes as compared to 9. 0% for smoking which has received far more sustained criticism than eating habits. In terms of actual costs, a treasury review of long term health consequences in Britain estimate that the NHS would be spending £30 billion less per year by 2022 if the population ate better, was less obese, smoked less and took more physical activity (Wanless, 2002).
The estimated costs of obesity on the government and ultimately the public in the USA, UK and Australia to name a few were estimated at US$75 billion(CNN. com), £2 billion(National Audit Office, 2001) and Aus$290 million (Caterson, 2004) respectively. The cause of this obesity has been largely attributed to changing food consumption patterns towards fatty foods due to the changes in lifestyle that have taken place in recent years. Another health issue afflicting the existing food system in the world today is genetically modified (GM) foods.
Although these have not been fully incorporated into the food cycle in Europe as they have in Canada and the US, due to consumers’ rejection of them, they are gaining popularity among politicians and recent moves in legislation has seen the ending of a five-year-long moratorium on imports of any new GM produce by the European Commission, which might lead to them being slowly adopted in Europe. As if the global food system is not in enough crises as it is, this move will undermine it even further.
GM foods are thought to have long term negative effects on everything from health to the environment to global food security and developing nation’s agriculture. Although thought to be a problem afflicting mostly the global south, malnutrition has also crept into the developed world. In assessing the access people have to food; nutritional food for that matter, the poor children and their families in urban area of developed countries have been forgotten as symbolised by pictures of malnourished children in Africa, Asia and Latin American countries which have come to be the faces of malnutrition.
Supermarkets stock fresh fruit and vegetables in the middle of winter, meats and canned and processed goods of all sorts line the aisles, food is abundant and readily available in most industrialized countries and as a result, the general feeling is that whatever problems industrialized countries may have, malnutrition is surely not one of them. However, this is a misconception.
Those living below the poverty line in industrialised countries; approximately 11% of the population in the US(Wheelan, 2002), have to contend with diets that are not anywhere near nutritious and in extreme cases may not even get enough food let alone nutritious meals. Despite the existence of these aisles lined with a selection of foodstuffs, ‘the large retailers’ superstores court the car-owning and monied customer’ (Blair, 2003 in Dowler, 2003).
This leaves the poorer population at the expense of the corner shops which unable to compete with the larger retailers resort to survival techniques of providing quick-to-go foodstuffs and high value added manufactured foods; ‘durable foods'(Friedmann, 2002) which are far from nutritious and continue the spiral towards declining health. Besides malnutrition and obesity, contemporary food consumption trends have contributed to the increasing prevalence of other diseases such as diabetes, coronary diseases, arthritis and dental decay.
The substitution of cane sugar for processed high fructose corn syrup in the manufacture of durable foods has been a major blow to the health of consumers. These substitutes are not directly consumed by consumers but are subjected to the manufacturing process in an attempt to ‘add value’ as defined by the profit seeking executives of food processing industries. However these processes do very little in the way of adding value to the foodstuffs that go through their conveyor belts.
On the contrary, they become more harmful than when they were in their natural, unprocessed state. When sugar is refined, minerals that assist the body in its digestion are taken out. Once the refined sugar is ingested in the body, the minerals have to be drawn from other areas of the body to digest the sugar and as more and more minerals including calcium3 are drawn from other areas of the body, these other parts of the body begin to suffer. Excess sugar eventually affects every organ in the body. Initially, it is stored in the liver in the form of glucose (glycogen).
Since the liver’s capacity is limited, a daily intake of refined sugar soon makes the liver expand to its capacity. When the liver is filled to its maximum, the excess glycogen is returned to the blood in the form of fatty acids. These are taken to every part of the body and stored in the most inactive areas: the belly, the buttocks, the breasts and the thighs and obesity begins to set in. When these comparatively harmless places are completely filled, fatty acids are then distributed among active organs, such as the pancreas, heart and kidneys.
These begin to slow down; finally their tissues degenerate and turn to fat leading to these other health complications such as heart failure and diabetes. Any criticism of the food system in existence in the world today would be inappropriate if it did not analyse the main bone of contention between antiglobalistaion protestors and the proponents of the existing food system; fair trade. ‘Imagine a spectacular invention: a machine that can convert corn into stereo equipment.
When running at full capacity this machine can turn fifty bushels of corn into a cd player… windows software into the finest French wines… it can be set up anywhere in the world and programmed to turn whatever is produced there into things that are usually much harder to come by… Amazingly, this invention already exists. It is called [international] trade. ‘ (Wheelan, 2002). There are very few anthropologists and economists who would argue against international trade as a positive development that can and should make all parties involved better off.
However, that international trade is the ‘pure’ type; without the tariff and non-tariff barriers that have made it an exploitative relationship between retailers in the developed world and farmers and other small producers in the developing world. As countries of the world entered into different multilateral agreements, tariff barriers to trade were increasingly abolished and less obvious non tariff barriers were imposed.
The choice was not between ‘regulation’ or ‘free trade’, therefore but between new forms of implicit or explicit regulation. Friedmann, 2002) Some of these were import quotas and antidumping laws which restricted the amount of goods from the developing nations that could be imported into industrialised countries as well as government subsidies to producers in the industrialised countries which effectively paid them to produce even if it was uneconomical for them to do so. Free trade was supposed to resolve most of the inequalities between the developing and developed world save for the factors that are beyond the control of man such as climate.
However this has not been the case, especially in regard to food. In her article on the food regime, Harriet Friedmann points out that despite of the US push for fair trade in public, it has and continues to pursue a protectionist policy in the background. The GATT was supposed to see an end to barriers to trade between countries of the world. However it excluded agriculture [and food in general] from its ban on import controls and export subsidies at US insistence (Friedmann, 2002).
The rules defining the food regime (after the 2nd World War) gave priority to national regulation, and authorized both import controls and export subsidies necessary to manage national food programs (Friedmann, 2002). What barriers to trade do in effect is allow for agriculture to take place where it should not, due to inefficiencies that arise should it be allowed to. For the countries of the south where it should take place this has had a devastating effect. One of the main effects is basically a substitution of their produce for produce that is home-grown.
With increased protection of the agricultural industry in the north comes increasing production and a generation of surpluses. These surpluses have to find a market and in the early post-war years this was done through mercantile practices by the US government of purchasing the produce to keep upward pressure on the prices of agricultural produce in favour of farmers and at the expense of the developing world who would have exported these goods to the developed world and gained foreign exchange (Friedmann, 2002).
Developing countries meanwhile have not been able to come up with nearly as effective barriers to counter these barriers in the developed countries. Their dependence on financial aid has further left them out on the edge as they have to implement SAPs4 to ensure survival. However the costs of barriers to trade do not fall only at the doorsteps of the countries of the south. Consumers in the developed world suffer too. An example of Brazilian oranges brings out these costs.
While 92 percent of American tariffs fall below 10 percent, those on juice from Brazil range as high as 63 percent, which adds about 30 cents to the price of a gallon of juice in American supermarkets (DePalma, 2000). The imposition of this hidden tax is to protect the farmer in Florida from the one in Mateo where almost perfect oranges are produced. Once we consider that 68 million glasses of juice are consumed in America daily, the huge cost to the consumers begins to become clear.
Besides the fact that there is imposition of a tax on consumers, protectionism and barriers to trade also lead to a reduction in the quality of the produce that consumers can get in supermarkets. Once the food industry is protected from competition in the form of barriers, such as tariffs and other barriers ratified by the US in the GATT agreements, there grows complacency in maintaining the quality of produce. This means that consumers have to contend with lower quality goods because there are no better quality goods which they could access to, at the same low price as the goods that are protected by the barriers
Besides the barriers to trade, the unfavourable terms of trade5 that exist in the global food system are another reason to criticise it. From as early as the 1920s, countries in the developing South began to experience a decline in the terms of trade. These countries have been and continue to be producers of primary agricultural goods which have seen a decline in real prices by as much as 30% in the period between 1985 and 1992, with a projection of ever-more declining prices (Coote, 1992).
This downturn in prices has been brought about by the overcapacity in these countries. Due to dependence on climatic factors in agricultural production, developing countries basically produce the same goods. This leads to a large supply of perishable primary foodstuffs that cannot be fully absorbed into the global market at favourable prices or stored for future consumption, which pushes down the prices that these countries can get for their produce and as more is produced to try and reap any profit, the more prices are bid down and the cycle goes on.
The substitutability of these foodstuffs also adds to the problem to a point that once thriving industries like export of vegetable oils from countries in the tropics come to be substituted with soya oil that is a by-product of soymeal for animal feeds which the US could produce (Friedmann, 2002). The substitution leaves primary producers with large surpluses of agricultural products which cannot be absorbed by the market. The mark-up that final goods have attached to them compared to the cost of the primary goods themselves is further evidence of unfavourable terms of trade experienced by the developing countries.
Kabula Mboje, a Tanzanian farmer pays 800shillings(£4. 50) for a kanga6 which is not much less than she earned from the harvest on her 2-acre plot, yet it produced enough cotton to make 720 kangas. (Coote, 1992) this means that for every £720 that the final retailer gets from sale of final commodities, the primary producer gets £1. Almost the same mark-up exists for most of the rest of the international agro-food industry. With primary producers getting a measly percentage of the final value that consumers pay for goods they have contributed to producing.
The term of trade disadvantage has been recognised by developing countries and moves made to try and rectify the situation but this has not come without a multitude of complex problems. To reverse their fortunes, developing countries have made attempts at mechanisation and food processing industries that will enable them increase the profits that they gain from trade. However to do so, they need to invest in the necessary technology and training.
Declining prices and the unfavourable terms of trade mean that these countries face deficits in their balance of payments, which then means the investments have to be financed by external borrowing and aid. But the resulting debt-service obligations, aggravated by high interest rates absorb much of the poor countries’ export earnings. Those countries that somehow manage to develop a food processing base face further difficulties in the market in that tariff structures in the North are biased against processed commodities.
Sugar, for example faces an average tariff of more than 20% if it is refined before export to industrialised countries whereby the export of the raw material attracts a tariff of about 1%. This stifling of mechanisation coupled with the unfavourable terms of trade and barriers to trade all come together to ensure that the countries in the developing south remain at a disadvantage in terms of food production relative to the food processing industries in the north.
Another issue afflicting the global food system is food insecurity. The global food system has come under pressure from declining food security in terms of both quality and quantity. Food security has come to be defined as access to sufficient nutritious food for everyone and further expanded to include availability in any locality without dependence on external markets or distant distributors. (Gronski, 2004). From this definition it is clear that the world is more food-insecure than it has ever been before.
Food security eludes the estimated 30 million Americans who suffer chronic under-consumption of adequate nutrients (Cook and Brown 1992). Globalisation has ensured countries of the world are so intertwined that they have to depend on each other for basic food stuffs as they specialise to maximise their comparative advantages. The US learnt at an early stage in the Cold War that food security was necessary for its survival following from the instabilities caused by shortages and surpluses brought on by the former Soviet Union purchase of its wheat (Friedmann, 2002).
However, two decades later it has forgotten these lessons and so have most of the other countries in the developed world. Japan which imports about 70% of its food has very limited ability to secure its own food resources and should a time come when Japanese electronics and cars cannot be exchanged for a few thousand bags of maize from elsewhere in the world the results would be catastrophic. The rise in the number of food scares has also been a contributing factor to the decline of food security in the world today.
An oft-recited litany of food safety crises have occurred within the UK food supply during the 1980s and 1990s-from pest residues, to salmonella in eggs, to BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy -mad cow disease] and E. coli 0157 (Lang et al. , 2003). These food crises have been brought about by the change in the food production methods over the years such as changes in the rendering7 process whereby animals are no longer subjected to high temperatures and solvents that would kill the micro-organism causing BSE.
Research has also shown that the [recent] SARS outbreak was caused by the contamination of food related to the feeding, processing and slaughter of animals, meat products, and other elements in the surrounding environment (Lucas, 2003) Although these crises have been contained at great financial and human costs, continued changes in food production methods might lead to a crisis that will not be easily contained. For the countries in the global south, the situation is even worse.
Following on from the colonial period when countries of the south were forced to stop growing food for subsistence and instead heed their colonisers’ demands to grow food they could sell; cash crops, their security has been on a decline. Large tracts of land which were under subsistence were converted to cash crop farms for export back to the North as raw materials for the industrialisation that was taking place. Post colonisation, these countries have been left with large farms of cash crops which have either found substitutes in the North or are faced with declining prices on the global market and are thus virtually useless to them.
Export commodities such as these distort a developing country’s agricultural economy, encouraging small farmers to participate in growing cash crops for export rather than food crops for local needs. The cash crops have replaced farms of what was once a diversity of crops that would have provided the nutrition that would reduce the malnutrition and hunger that afflicts populations of those in the developing countries. Lack of basic food items leads to the developing countries’ dependence on food aid which comes with its own set of problems.
Their reliance on food aid as a substitute for their own locally produced food paints an even bleaker picture. Countries of the South have seen a decline in world prices for their produce as well as rising costs of inputs such as fertilizers and agricultural machinery, which has led to a decline in the amount of food that they can produce to feed themselves. With the high population growths in these countries and their increasing inaccessibility to input, it seems that the reliance on aid is set to continue long into the future.
The countries of the North are content with the current situation as it rids them of their surpluses which would otherwise end up on the world market and depreciate prices that they receive for the same agricultural produce. The environment has not been spared the ravages of the contemporary food system. With the process of globalisation well under way, consumers all over the world have been able to source food stuffs from all corners of the earth at a great cost to the environment in terms of food miles8.
In a supermarket survey, the Food Commission has found bottled water that has travelled more than 10,000 miles (16,000km) from as far as Fiji to reach UK consumers and every calorie of South African carrots spending 66 calories of fossil fuels(sustain. org, 2002). A typical Sunday dinner has travelled a total of 49,000 miles, producing 37kg of carbon dioxide, before it reaches the plate (Mitchell, 2002). This has led the supply chain of food along the global food system to being referred to as one of the most ludicrous uses of fossil fuels in the world.
If we consider the non-renewability of these fuels, the congestion caused by the trucks on motorways, the noise these trucks produce, carbon monoxide emissions which cause global warming and the multitude of other ills that are associated with the movement of goods along the supply chain from plough to plate, the global food system appears to be highly injurious to the environment. With the need to increase productivity on the farm, to meet the requirements of the corporate actors in the supply chain, there has been a move towards harmful practices on the farm that have affected the environment.
The use of fertilizer has undoubtedly increased agricultural productivity but their wasteful use has been detrimental to the environment. Farmers trying to maximise their yield have overused fertilizers which have led to reduced soil fertility and acidity. Furthermore, fertilizers entering the water cycle in the form of run-off when it rains lead to poisoning of marine life as well as contamination of sources of water for livestock as well as consumers’ use.
Pesticides used to control pests may kill them but also affect the final consumers of agricultural produce when these pesticides enter the food chain through animals that feed on the vegetation sprayed with the pesticides. The banning of harmful poisonous pesticides such as DDT in the early 70s when its harmful effects were realised, was a step in the direction of preventing harmful pesticides entering consumers’ food chains.
However, in the developing countries where there are few bodies that regulate farm practices enough to prevent the use of harmful chemical substances in agriculture, they can still get into the food chain and food being sold in the developed world end up harming the consumers. There has been a move towards organic produce from farms which would help reduce the effects of the chemical substances in the food chain. However, this has been hijacked by supermarkets trying to cash in on the demand for safer food by consumers.
The supermarkets charge a disproportionately high price for organically produced foods which makes them inaccessible to a large number of people who would benefit from the food produced using better, more environmentally friendly methods. It also widens the income gap between the producers who use less input to produce and supermarket retailers who charge a premium for the healthier food that consumers demand. The contemporary global food system also has negative repercussions on the cultures of consumers caught in it.
The changes that globalisation has brought about in the food system has affected all cultures especially those of the developing countries. Historically, there existed a family-oriented and community centred ideology regarding food production and consumption (bryceson). However, the globalisation of food supply chains and the need to grow food for cash rather than subsistence has undermined this structure. There came a labour redundancy with the decline in returns from agriculture and the need to diversify incomes.
Populations had to move to urban centres away from the agricultural activities and local communities that they grew up in to try and diversify income following these declines (bryceson). This led to fragmented families and a homogenisation of culture among the urban redundant workers that became their culture; a notion of affiliation, identity, and loyalty that runs counter to established ideologies of citizenship and national allegiance (striffler, 2002) with the urbanisation came all the ills of urbanisation affecting developing nations such as increased congestion, pollution, higher crime rates, drug abuse and others.
The global food system has also undermined local ways of cooking as well as the kinds of meals that were available. The presence of the golden arches of McDonalds in far-away places is the greatest evidence of this. McDonalds targets the large middle-income populations of the cities they are located and this is direct competition to the established local cuisine retailers who either have to respond by switching to providing menus that are closely related to those of McDonalds and other multinationals that have popped up in cities across the globe or go out of business, both of which kill the local food culture.
For the consumers in the north, availability of microwaveable and fast foods has undermined the traditional evening meal that was the hallmark of a family’s cohesion. Ability to ‘grab something on the go’ has meant that consumers do not feel the need to sit with members of their family at the end of a day to enjoy a meal together and all the socially cohesive characteristics that the evening meal has traditionally held.
The global food system is characterised by movement of food from different geographical locations to where demand is greatest for it at the highest premium to actors in the food supply chain and this is why consumers in the North enjoy unprecedented choice and a diet adapted to their lifestyles. However this choice and customisation does not come free of cost. These costs are on the health of consumers, reflected by the increasing poverty in the south, in the declining security of food, on the environment and also affecting cultural norms.
There have been moves to try and reverse the negative trend in most of these aspects such as organically produced food, pushing for fair trade and legislation to protect the environment. However these are slow to reverse the effects on the global food system and actors who are benefiting from the current food system are working to prevent these changes that would put them at a disadvantage.