Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Future of Food and Farming

As part of my long-term project of commenting on different big reports that touch on food and agriculture issues, in this post I am going to review a report by the Government Office for Science of the UK, called "The Future of Food and Farming".

In general this is a decent report that discusses various of the major issues that will affect our food supply over the next few decades.  In this respect it follows "The Coming Famine", a book I read last year.  The weaknesses of the UK report though are its consistent pro-business stance.

One of the report's supposed working methodologies is that the authors were not going to reject a priori any policy possibilities based on moral issues (page 166).  Such a goal is near impossible and could even be downright evil if you were really to follow through on it; for instance, the report never considers resorting to slavery, genocide, mass sterilization, or anything else of the sort in its efforts to ensure a stable food supply.  I am glad they don't consider such things, but this is indicative precisely of certain policies that they are rejecting on moral grounds.  What the authors really seem to be saying, then, is that they do not wish to step on the toes of big commercial interests that are trying to make money from the patenting of life forms, the overturning of certain basic biological principles, the destruction of ecosystem integrity, or the industrialization of animal production. 

Furthermore, in almost the next breath after saying they aren't going to reject any policies out of hand, the authors explicitly reject the pursuit of food self-sufficiency on a national level as a valid political decision.  Furthermore, the authors incorrectly equate the idea of national food self-sufficiency (that is, the satisfaction of all a country's food needs through national production) with the concept of food sovereignty, which is the idea that each nation should be able to decide how to meet its own food needs through a mix of national production, imports, and any other options the people deem appropriate.  The report seems to be wary of the idea of national self-determination (as they were of moral deliberation by individuals and societies), because it may interfere in the open market, neoliberal fantasy.  But of course they don't want to make a claim so obviously undemocratic as to say that countries shouldn't be able to decide how they get their food, so the report resorts to mischaracterizing food sovereignty as an unreasonable insistence on totally rejecting imports.  The contradiction becomes clear when the report claims that nations should not be limited in their sovereignty, but then immediately calls for legal frameworks such that the international community can prohibit export bans by sovereign nations (pp. 96 and 97).

In the same vein, the report casts doubt on the possibility that having a few large companies dominate various facets of the food supply chain might be a dangerous or undesirable thing (pp. 99-100).  In addition, the report makes it seem as if only private companies are capable of doing valuable agricultural research, when in fact most of the really important breakthroughs that have had a big impact on the world food supply over the past century were based on publicly-funded research with very little patenting or "protection" of intellectual property rights (the breeding work carried out by public universities and the CGIAR system chief among these breakthroughs).  Another telling sign is that all the research and development projects cited by the report are public-private partnerships involving big companies like Syngenta.  You would think from this report that there are no worthwhile initiatives at the national or regional level, and you would certainly have no idea from reading the report that many research and development projects funded by large private companies (and even private donors) have drawn the wrath of a lot of people (among them the poor farmers they purport to help) for their heavy-handed way of doing things.

When it comes time to assign blame for the 2008 food price spike, the report is reticent about the role of permanent long-position index funds and the dominance of commodity markets by non-agricultural actors.  The report on the one hand mischaracterizes these investors as "speculators" in order to be able to make the tautological and smug claim that speculation always cancels itself out, so there's nothing to worry about (pp. 22 and 109), then makes a quick statement that the role of over-the-counter commodity swaps and the permanent roll-over of long positions in index funds needs to be explored further before it can be definitively asserted that these shady dealings had something to do with the 2008 crisis.  They even show a graph that demonstrates that the 2008 price spike was not that big of a deal, but the graph leaves out corn and soybean prices (p. 106).  On the other hand, when it comes to the relatively self-evident and straightforward wisdom of maintaining food reserves, the report does not hesitate to spout unsupported dogma that such reserves would be more costly to maintain than the crises they were meant to avoid.  In addition, the report mainly deals with the straw man possibility of maintaining a unified, international food reserve, which would admittedly be difficult to coordinate, as opposed to addressing the advisability of each country's maintaining a national or regional reserve (p. 168).  Such reserves are not difficult, expensive, pie-in-the-sky ideas in the same way that a global reserve is, but they do aim to influence markets, prices, supply, etc.  This is clearly against the report's neoliberal orthodoxy, which is why the idea of national food reserves is never seriously engaged in the report.  Once again we see the report's overriding fear of distorting trade and capitalism as is (p. 110).  Indeed, the report mimics the WTO's eternal contortions in an attempt to provide some semblance of environmental protections, protections of rural livelihoods, guarantees of food safety and quality, etc., but always with a suspicion that such concerns are just excuses to interfere in the smooth functioning of the sacred global market (pp. 96-97, and especially p. 122's insistence on looking critically at social protection measures).  Throughout the report there are a million suggestions to address the many market failures of a neoliberal system, while always insisting that it's easier or smarter to get every country on board to agree on these million adjustments, instead of trusting each country to govern itself and look out for its own people.

I hope it's clear by now that this report is very biased in terms of its economic policy thinking.  That said, it gives a pretty well-thought treatment to environmental issues (p. 169, for example), and is healthily skeptical of any quick fixes (like biochar, p. 139).  The report rightly points out that agriculture and food production in general will have to operate with fewer resources in the future, and will have to be a contributor to solving many environmental problems, as opposed to worsening them.

My final critique of the report, and it's a really big, damning one, is that there was hardly any input from farmer groups.  In the authors and editors listed, there is one representative of a UK farmer union, and no other national or international farmer representation.  This is perhaps the best indicator of the report's bureaucratic, big business focus.  If you are purporting to ponder and write about food production but you involve basically no farmers in the process, you're bound to miss a big part of the story.  I don't want to say that this report is totally irrelevant, because I know a lot of people worked hard and earnestly on it, but I think if you asked the billion-plus small farmers that feed most of the world, I imagine they wouldn't have much regard for "The Future of Food and Farming".  In this respect, the report seems to repeat the mistakes of the past of food and farming; it totally ignores the intellectual contributions and practical considerations that farmers might offer.

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