If you’ve been reading the Mail and Guardian recently, you might be surprised by my saying things like
“I like the idea of organic, but it seems difficult to feed entire populations on organic produce. I think one solution could be GM crops, despite the unsavoury business model.”
I was a little surprised myself. I’ve never said that.
In an, I suspect futile, attempt to set the record straight here’s what I did say in my interview with the Mail and Guardian. I realise that I may have brought this misquoting upon myself. The questions that the interviewer asked were ones that commonly get put, and they needed time and space to undermine their premises, space which isn’t necessarily aligned with our soundbite-driven media.
Still, it’s a long way from “There are always better ways of doing things than GM crops”, which I did say, to “I think one solution could be GM crops”, which I didn’t.
When the M&G posts the interview online, I’ll link to it (and check it against the transcript I’ve got here – the one advantage of email interviews). And I’ll be dropping their editorial people a line. Until then, here’s the unedited exchange…
What got you interested in this subject?
I’d been studying the global justice movement throughout the 1990s, and was involved with the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. One of the most inspirational groups I saw there was Via Campesina, an international organisation of landless workers and small farmers with, by some estimates 100 million members, who had a profoundly moving and eminently practical vision of change that respected equality and social justice. It was through them that I came to appreciate the journey food takes, from farm to fork. This was the single most important step in a voyage running from the United Nations to the World Bank to, finally, broad based democratic movements for change.
How does South Africa reproduce the systems you describe?
South Africa is a poster-child of a country both stuffed and starved. The obesity rate in South Africa is the same as in the United States with 57% of women and 29% of men either obese or overweight (with a far higher rate among black women than white, with Indian and coloured somewhere in between). Yet in 2004, nearly 3% of deaths in South Africa were attributable to malnutrition.
South Africa also embodies another key contradiction (about which more below) – that of profoundly unequal land distribution. A few very large farms lie in the hands of a minority, while the majority of people in rural areas with limited or no access to their own land. It is these people who, more than any other group in South Africa, risk dying of hunger.
And yet South Africa is also home to Shoprite, Africa’s largest retailer. Shoprite has moved across the continent and even to India with surprising ferocity. And not everyone is happy with its arrival in the countries where it sets up shop. Farmers in Zambia were so incensed by Shoprite’s arrival, and its refusal to buy crops from them, that they threatened to burn the company down.
And herein lies the central contradiction. While a few people get very rich, those most likely to go hungry are the rural poor, and those most likely to be obese are the urban poor. And they go hungry because they’re either too poor to afford food at all, or can only afford the cheapest, and most unhealthy food.
How can we reconcile capitalism with a better way of eating? What would be a better way of eating?
As the Shoprite example shows, small farmers in developing countries have an ambivalent relationship to the market. Every farmer wants to be able to sell what they grow, and too many find it hard to do so, because they lack access to markets, or any other kind of support. But the language of free markets has been too often turned around and used to bash smaller farmers on the head. ‘Free trade agreements’, sold as bundle of market-friendly reforms, are actually anything but free. Under ‘free trade’, most notably under the World Trade Organization, the European Union and United States get to subsidise their farmers to the tune of billions of dollars a year, while no such supports are allowed for poorer farmers. This is why millions of small farmers and landless people say ‘Access to markets? Yes! Access to our own markets!’
Along with them, I do think that there are ways that the market can work well, if it is closely regulated, and if the true social, economic and environmental costs of production actually feature in the prices of things we buy. Under this kind of market, a diet of food grown locally, seasonally, low in meat and with as little processed food as possible becomes not only more viable, but far more desirable, and more economical.
Does food ever make you feel guilty?
What a great question! In general, the answer’s no, but it’s easy to see why people do. It’s increasingly hard to hide from the news that our chocolate might contain cocoa picked through child slavery, or that our vegetable oil was grown by displacing thousands of poor rural people from their land. But if the response to trauma in our shopping carts is guilt, then we might believe that the solution is just to shop more ethically, to buy fair trade this or that. And of course it’s important to buy fair trade things – the alternative, unfair trade, is far worse. But this isn’t something we can shop our way out of.
Nor, I think, would we want to. We don’t, for instance, pick our ethics off a supermarket shelf. We are more than mere consumers. We’re people, living in a society, under governments that are meant, at some level, to represent us. These governments are the best, most accountable, way of making democratic change. It has only been through governments that environmental protection and social redistribution have happened, after all. That we should try to effect the bigger-picture changes through politics (and not just through shopping) will not only make it easier to keep our diets healthy, but to keep rural commuities and the planet intact too.
For me, the appropriate response to the way our food comes to us shouldn’t be guilt. It should be anger. Anger is a far more potent fuel for change than guilt, and anger is likely to address the underlying issues, far more likely to spur progressive change than guilt ever could.
You write about a new and different food system being forged by rural communities. What will be the end result of the mass mobilisation you describe? How possible is this?
Rural communities around the world already are creating different food systems – from Brazil to India, groups are forming to create communities, with education, housing and healthcare, on disused or underused land. But for those changes to matter to anyone outside this handful of rural areas, everyone needs to be involved. Most people today live not in the country, but in cities. And it’s only through a mixture of urban and rural action that change can happen.
I’m not sure how possible this is – it’s still an open question, and one that can only be answered by trying to make it happen. But I’m certain that change is necessary – the way our food comes to us is economically, socially and environmentally bankrupt, and we need to change it if we are to survive as a species.
Do you enjoy food? Do you feel guilty eating certain types of food or in certain places?
I grew up in the London equivalent of a spaza shop, surrounded by sweets and crisps and all manner of junk. I liked eating that stuff, too. But in researching this book, I came to appreciate food far more. And that’s one of the positive messages of the book – that by connecting more with the people who grow your food, the season in which it is grown, by taking time to enjoy the way it tastes, you enjoy food more. About guilt, well see above.
Ever eaten a Big Mac?
Yep, and I used to be a McNugget addict when I was a kid. And I’m sympathetic to people who can’t kick the McHabit. When you see what they put in the food in fast food restaurants to make us crave it, you understand that we face some steep odds. I’m also not one to bash people for eating fast food. For most of us, it’s the only way to get a hot meal in a hurry.
But that’s why the Slow Food movement is so interesting. With their roots in Italian socialism, the founders of Slow Food had a strong egalitarian streak. They asked ‘why is it that only rich people get to enjoy food? Why can’t everyone have pleasure when they eat?’. They realised that to really enjoy food, you need two things – time and money. So they campaigned for a living wage for workers, and also for a two hour lunch break. It’s this kind of practical imagination that will shift us away from Big Macs, and towards healthier (and tastier) fare. (And I’ve written about this a little more here.)
You say (according to an article in the Witness) that people should eat local, seasonal produce grown sustainably. I’ve been considering this very question myself but I’m not convinced organic food is the way to go. It’s more expensive, partly because of the premium for luxury goods, but also because organic agriculture has lower yields. And in a country like South Africa, where much of the soil is very poor, how do you produce enough food without resorting to non-organic fertiliser?
If you just look at yields for a single crop over a large area then, yes, organic produce as much as industrial monoculture in South Africa. But there are two responses. First, bear in mind that by some estimates, it takes ten calories of energy to produce every calorie we eat, and most of that comes from fossil fuels. Livestock rearing alone produces 18% of all greenhouse gases caused by humans. That’s more than transportation. The costs of climate change, estimated in excess of $70 trillion dollars, will largely be shouldered by the poor. If the costs of industrial farming reflected the true costs of the environmental harm it causes through pollution, run-off and emissions, organic farming would be the cheaper option.
Second, agroecological farming offers some real hope for change. Agroecology is the science of increasing production by growing several crops side-by-side, where the pests attracted to one crop are consumed by those attracted to another, where some things are planted to increase soil fertility, others for fuel, others for construction and clothing. If you take the output of the combined fuel, fodder and food, the case against industrial farming becomes much more compelling and, on this metric, agroecological farming can outproduce any industrial farm. And the science is only getting more sophisticated, which bodes well for the future.
I may be misunderstanding you and you are not actually advocating for organic produce. I like the idea of organic but it seems very difficult to feed entire populations on organic produce. I think one solution could be GM crops. I don’t like the business model (where Monsanto has patented the seeds) which surrounds GM, but if it helps the soil to produce enough to feed all our people, surely that’s good?
One country that has gone further than any other towards feeding its people through organic agriculture is Cuba. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cubans produced sugar for the Warsaw Pact, and got cheap oil, fertilizers and tractors in return. Pesticide consumption there was the second highest in all of the Americas. But when the subsidies ended, the country descended into a period known as ‘the hunger’.
And that’s when people started to recover ways of farming that predated the pesticide-driven model they’d become used to. This knowledge wasn’t frozen in the past, though. The government paid thousands of research scientists to work with farmers to develop the science of agroecology, to the extent that they’ve almost recovered crop production to where they were before the apron strings were cut.
This little story matters to the GM debate for two reasons. First, in Cuba they do a great deal of agricultural research, and have some very interesting guidelines for GM crops. The gist of the regulations say that GM crops are allowed if and only if there are no better ways of achieving the goals that the crops are engineered for. And there are always better, more reliable, and more cost effective ways. This shouldn’t be surprising. GM crops are owned by pesticide companies, whose ultimate interest isn’t in feeding the world but fattening their bottom line.
Second, this points to something that often gets forgotten. Opponents to GM crops aren’t opposing science. They’re keen to deploy the best science possible in service of the majority of people. Bear in mind that GM crops today come in two main varieties, one that is resistant to a powerful weedkiller, and another that exudes pesticide from its pores. These seeds are owned and sold by the pesticide industry, and the seed for over 88% of GM crop cover worldwide is sold by just one pesticide company – Monsanto. They’ve done tremendous harm in their past – they’re the same people who brought us Agent Orange. But they’ve destroyed the possibility of public science too. I’ve no doubt that their PR company will send back a prickly letter. But they can’t deny that at the end of the day, GM crops are the most lucrative (for a handful of people) solution to the perceived problem of hunger, but not necessarily the best for the majority of farmers and consumers, society or the environment. Public science offers a better way forward than the monopoly we currently live with.
My other issue with the call to eat local is that it seems to be this punishes the mostly agriculture-based economies of the South which export to wealthy northern countries. The trend to eat locally and seasonally endangers jobs in very poor communities. Climate change does affect these poor countries more, but food exports make up a relatively small proportion of the wealthy countries’ footprints.
This is a very important point, but it’s crucial to put it into context. The reason that the developing world looks the way it does is because of a history of colonialism hitched to food (and brilliantly demonstrated by Mike Davis in his Late Victorian Holocausts). Until forced to export their food to Europe, Brazil and India had very high shares of global GDP.
As Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister noted, it was through colonialism that
“India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3% at that time, to as low as 3.8% in 1952.”
By contrast, Europe and the US became industrial and agricultural powerhouses precisely because they assiduously protected their economies, using measures that are now deemed illegal by the World Trade Organization. It’s not unreasonable to demand that the EU and US stop dumping their subsidized agricultural produce in the third world – farmers in Europe and the US are subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars a year, and with this boost they can certainly whale on farmers in developing countries.
But if you’re concerned about eradicating poverty, the solution isn’t necessarily to boost food exports. The playing field isn’t just tilted against the poor at an international level – it’s skewed domestically too. Export agriculture is, at the end of the day, a minority game. Agriculture in the developing world looks very unequal. The majority of exports are generated through a handful of very large farms. The majority of small farmers and farm workers in the developing world have access to very little if any land at all.
Adopting export agriculture as a strategy to help the poor is pointless if they can’t even get into the game. The key issue concerning many small farmers and landless organizations isn’t whether someone in France is eating local, but something altogether more fundamental and closer to home: land reform.
In this, South Africa has done spectacularly badly. By the most generous estimates, 6% of land has been transferred from white hands to black. I’m always a little baffled to hear the incredulity in South Africa about how popular Robert Mugabe is in the rest of Africa. The key to his stardom, surely, lies in his appearing to be tackling the issue of colonial land reform. This isn’t to endorse Mugabe – far from it. But it is to suggest that there’s a need to act around land reform in a far more serious and comprehensive way than the Department of Land Affairs — seemingly more interested in ‘study tours’ of Canada, New Zealand and Australia — has so far managed.
It is only through a comprehensive package of reforms, including land reform, but also increased public funding for agricultural research and extension services, credit for farmers, and a favourable economic environment that agriculture anywhere in the world has enabled the poorest to thrive. It’s this comprehensive agrarian reform that farmers around the world are crying out for. It’s what they mean when they say ‘access to markets? Yes! Access to our own markets!’