Bitter Harvest

harvester under dark cloud
The Tablet magazine has just published a piece I wrote explaining who wins and who loses from the rising price of food. Here’s the full piece.

Bitter Harvest

The switch from fossil to biofuels is being encouraged by governments to combat global warming but emissions in their manufacture are worse than burning diesel. Now the quantity of land required is contributing to a worldwide shortage of food.

Consumers in Britain have been warned that they will have to pay more for meat in the coming months as farmers pass on the increased cost of animal feed. Bread is going up too to keep pace with the rising cost of wheat. Elsewhere in the world the price of basic foods is already increasing. One recent report observed that the price of tortillas in Mexico had quadrupled, Indian food prices were up by over 10 per cent, and in China, the cost of pork rose by more than 40 per cent last year.

These price increases are just the beginning, as in the years to come the effects of a world food shortage will begin to bite. The latest warning came last week from 50 climate and soil scientists gathered in Iceland to discuss the future of the world’s food production. The picture they painted was bleak. In the next 50 years, we’ll need to produce more food as a species than in the past 10,000 years combined. And this is happening at the same time as soils are being degraded by intensive agriculture. As a result of more people demanding increasingly scarce food, prices are set to rise. It’s a combination that bodes ill for the world’s poor.

The first symptom to appear has been high grain prices. In part, wheat and maize prices are high because the harvest this year has been particularly poor – climate change has already taken a toll on some farming operations. There has been bad weather in important grain-growing areas such as Canada and parts of Europe. Soil degradation and water depletion also play a role. But, ironically, the new and forceful reason for the price rise lies precisely in a measure designed to prevent climate change – biofuels. With prices for maize at record highs, farmers are switching to growing it for the biofuels industry.

President Bush is keen to increase annual output to 35 billion barrels of biofuels within a decade. We might be more inclined to accept this if biofuels actually worked. But they do not. One recent study found that production of palm oil in South East Asia produced between two and eight times more carbon dioxide than burning diesel. The British Government’s own advisers have cautioned against going down this road. But every government, including the British one, wants to be in on the act.

Biofuels – agrofuels is what environmental campaigners argue we should call them – are taking over. The Indian Government intends to plant 14 million hectares of them while Brazil is planning 120 million hectares, and an African consortium is vying for 379 million hectares over 15 countries. This is the energy policy that our leaders have committed us to, despite evidence that it is irrational.

The competition between biofuels and food, you might think, leaves at least one clear set of winners – grain farmers. But even here, the situation is not clear. For biofuels to work, they need to be produced on an industrial scale. And that means growing them on plantations, and using cheap labour. Plantations are made by one of two means: either clearing virgin forest – which more than cancels out the carbon-reduction goal – or by taking land away from the poorest farmers, who are usually indebted, and ready to be bought out by large landowners just to keep the wolf from the door.

In fact, the real winners here are not farmers at all, but food corporations. Today, the four companies that run our food supply are companies few of us have heard of – ConAgra, Bunge, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. They remain mighty forces – hidden from us as consumers, but with the power to pit farmers across the world against one another. Emelie Peine, a United States-based soya farmer who was visiting Brazil when I interviewed her, put it like this: “Farmers need to understand why they’re competing. The thing that made me realise this most is that Cargill is not only the largest exporter of US soybeans, but also the largest exporter of Brazilian soybeans. Farmers need to understand that every independent producer of tradable commodities in every country is being squeezed by the same companies and that the root of the problem is the corporate structure of the global agricultural economy.”

The irony, as food prices rocket, is that the world’s poorest people are those who work the land. Three out of four poor people in the developing world live in rural areas. Higher crop prices are going to increase income a little for those who can afford to bring their produce to market. But for the opportunity to be successful, a farmer needs to have land, access to loans to be able to invest in crops, and the technical support to be able to develop better farming systems. Those are things that the poorest agricultural workers can only dream of. Most are left to fend for themselves. The support that goes to industrial and corporate farming in the US, through the Farm Bill, and in Europe, through the Common Agricultural Policy, means that the poorest farmers, in both the developed and developing world, struggle to compete.

Around the world, farmers and landless people have been organising to reclaim our food system. Together, they have formed La Via Campesina – the peasant way – that promotes the idea that both farmers and consumers need to be more connected to our food. Currently based in Indonesia (although with origins in Latin America) and claiming up to 100 million members, it is a strong contender for being the world’s largest social movement.

Progressive farmers’ movements want to circumvent the industrial agricultural giants and deal with consumers directly. They want to be able to grow the food to feed the planet in a way that respects its producers, as well as deal with a range of issues, from direct farmer-to-farmer emergency relief work during disasters such as the Asian tsunami to lobbying the World Trade Organization and the alarm about human rights violations committed against the rural poor.

Their hope is that we’ll connect with food more, and enjoy it more as a result. Recent research shows that children enjoy food more if it is wrapped in a McDonald’s wrapper than if it’s wrapped in brown paper. How much more would we enjoy food if we knew where it was grown, how, what was in it and how we were connected to it? A group of activists, artists and artisans realised this long ago in Italy, and started the Slow Food Movement. They want to enjoy food more by celebrating the labour that produces it with every morsel.

One important move is to eat less meat and fish, and consume more vegetables. It’s sensible advice from a purely nutritional perspective, added to which there’s certainly not enough land on earth to support a global population of six billion eating the amount of meat that we do in the developed world. But this isn’t a hair-shirted movement; it is also tremendously enriching as well as a way of combating obesity – current trends suggest that by 2050 half of all British children will be overweight.

If there is to be more expensive food, let it be expensive not because it is grown in competition with biofuels, but because it reflects the true human cost of growing it, with farmers earning the income they are hungering for, in a society that allows its poorest members dignity and self-respect. That would be an outcome worth savouring.