Unless we have a smallholding and are self sufficient, the food we eat is brought to us by a complex global food system. Issues of justice and fairness are evident across the wholesystem. Women play a key role in food: in much of the developing world, women make up over 50%, in some cases 70%, of the workforce in agriculture. In the west, nearly 3/4 women remain responsible for food buying, cooking, and maintaining the health of their children. (Global Trends Survey 2014)
• The world population is increasing -
7 billion now, rising to an estimated 9 billion in 2050. There are immense inequalities in access to adequate, healthy food – Food and Agrictural Organization (FAO) estimates that 16 million people are undernourished in developing countries.
• Role of women in agriculture in developing world -
Women are not only involved in crop production, but also have diverse roles as labourers and in animal rearing. Women often can be the first to be marginalised as agriculture is increasingly mechanised. Women tend to have less access to resources, finance or training than men, so land farmed by women is often less productive. If women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, this could increase yields on women’s farms by 20–30% and raise total agricultural output by 2.5–4%. Gains in agricultural production alone could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger, according to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate. A key to achieving this is to strengthen women’s land rights in parts of the world.
• Food poverty is also an issue in the United Kingdom, with unequal access to good quality food. Foodbanks are opening at the rate of 5 a week (www.foodpoverty.org) and rickets is on the increase. In late October 2014, CEDAR reported that the price gap between more and less healthy food is growing.
2. Land who owns the land?
• Land grabs, many for biofuel production or to ensure food security for the new land owners mean poverty increases as food production is removed from the hands and power of local people. Action Aid uses a definition of land grabs that draws on the Tirana Declaration, agreed at a 2011 international conference. The Declaration defines land grabs as deals that are “in violation of human rights, particularly the equal rights of women, not based on principles of free, prior and informed consent, or are in disregard of, or fail to thoroughly assess, social, economic and environmental impacts, not based on transparent contracts … ” or are not based on “effective democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation”.
• Impact of land grabs – people forced off their land and deprived of livelihoods.
• Oxfam observes that more than 60 per cent of investments in agricultural land is by foreign investors, between 2000 and 2010 these investments took place in developing countries with serious hunger problems. However, two-thirds of those investors plan to export everything they produce on that land.
• Food sovereignty - puts the people who produce, distribute and consume food at the centre of decisions on food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations believed to have come to dominate the global food system.
3. Trade and ethics
• Fair trade and ethical trade play a part in ensuring the grower and producer gain a better income and supports community infrastructure.
• Food commodity trading, resulting in profits for the investors rather than the producers. Should food be a commodity that attracts speculative investment and the hope of fast profits?
• The food system is controlled by a few multinationals (for example, Cargill, ADM, Bunge).
• Concern over the impact of GM and control of access to seeds by the seed suppliers, rather than the farmer being free to save seed or seek alternative supplies.
• Example of asparagus growing in Peru – Felicity Lawrence in the Guardian – for every $ US 1.00 spent by the United States consumer, 70c stays in the US, but Peru doesn’t even gain the full benefit of the remaining 30 cents, because a large portion of the 30 cents Peru makes returns to the US anyway: it is spent by Peruvians on US seed, US materials for processing, US fertiliser
and US pesticides. US-based vegetable corporations, Del Monte and General Mills Green Giant, have been able to enjoy lower land values, cheap labour and low environmental costs by moving some of their production to Peru. The handful of corporations that dominate the global markets in seed, fertiliser, pesticides, trading, distribution and retailing take care of the rest.
• Rise of supermarkets in Asia – bypassing local traditional food production systems.
• Western subsidies for agriculture – much of European Union (EU) budget goes to large corporations or transnational companies (for exmaple, in the UK, Tate and Lyle).
• TTIP – the trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and US contains the Investor State Dispute Settlement, which would enable companies to sue governments for loss of profits if their product could not be sold – for example, currently there is a ban in the EU on the use of growth hormone in beef; if this trade agreement is enacted, EU countries including the UK could be sued, or let the product in.
• This years grain harvest (2014): The ‘Financial Times’ of 23 September 2014 reports: ‘Global grain supplies this year are soaring’:
‘The new abundance will have broad effects, weakening incomes of farmers and companies that supply them, fattening profit margins at food and biofuel companies and - eventually – slowing price inflation for consumers in rich and poor countries alike.’
• In the UK and EU, the large supermarkets play an important role in controlling the market and prices – their relationship with farmers and producers produces unfair contracts, lack of certainty about using the whole crop, and waste resulting from artificial cosmetic standards.
4. Ethics and the environment
• I believe in the concept of stewardship, looking after the earth and leaving it in a fit state for future generations.
• The impact of climate change, caused by industrialised nations and felt by countries in developing world through increased climate unpredictability or drought is significant.
• Ethics of production – depletion of natural resources, degradation of soil through intensive farming practices, concerns about animal welfare in intensive rearing, over useof water resources to grow crops for export (for example, potatoes in Egypt, tomatoes in southern Spain, asparagus in Peru) or for grain to feed cattle. The issue of food waste is important, too.
5. Human rights
• Abuses of human rights through forced labour, or slave labour occur throughout the world, for example slave labour in Thailand on fishing boats for prawn food, child labour in chocolate production in Western Africa, migrant labour in agriculture in western Europe – for example, tomato production in Italy and Spain
• FAO May 2014 reports on Child labour – 98 million boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 17 identified as working in agriculture and fisheries globally (Western Africa, Brazil, southern India and Thailand significantly).
• In the UK there is a history of use of migrant workers in agriculture, poorly paid, poorly housed and with little job security. The recent case of a gang master in Armagh fined £500 for keeping migrant apple pickers in inhumane conditions illustrates howlightly we take abuses of this kind.
The language of ethical production, social responsibility and sustainability is now common currency, all the large agribusiness companies (for example, Nestle, Cargill, ADM) include explicit claims on their web sites, but do these claims match the reality?
Can a food system, driven by market forces and an ethos of profit making, ever provide a truly ethical food system, where natural resources are nurtured, people are valued and access to adequate healthy food is a reality across the globe?
Ann Mitchell (c) October 2014
Ann Mitchell spent nearly forty years in primary education, first as a classroom teacher, then as head teacher in schools in Hertfordshire and Cambridge. After she retired, a television programme about food waste sparked an interest in the food system and its environmental impact. Galvanised into action, she joined Transition Cambridge Food Group and has taken part in food related projects aimed at encouraging people to grow more of their own food and to eat more sustainably. She is now secretary of the recently formed Cambridge Sustainable Food (part of the national Sustainable Food Cities Network), bringing together individuals, community groups and public and private sector organisations, as well as local food producers and health professionals, to promote food that is good for people, good for community and good for the planet. She has given talks on a range of food issues at local conferences and events.
Sources For Further Information
Oxfam. The Food Transformation 2012 and The Future of Agriculture
CEDAR http://www.cedar.iph.cam.ac.uk/blog/price-gap-between-more-and-less-healthyfoods- grows/
Note: Presented as ‘Producing What We Eat – food for life’ at the WWAFE (Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom & Equality) seminar at the House of Lords, Westminster, London on 23 October 2014.
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