Sunday, April 16, 2017

Feeding the world

The Jacobin magazine writes that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global food production is more than adequate to feed the world. For instance, 2,577 million tons of cereal were forecasted to be produced in 2016, with 13 million tons leftover after demand is met.
Worldwide we already produce over two thousand kilocalories (kcal) per person on average, the minimum level of energy humans require according to USDA dietary guidelines. Still, with all this production, 780 million people are living with chronic hunger, many of them living in rural areas dependent upon agriculture for their livelihoods.
Estimates are that around one-third of food is lost or wasted, and food waste researchers consider this an underestimate of the problem. Hypothetically, if that waste were eliminated, that would add another eighty-five million tons of cereal.  The FAO argues that “even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.”

Technology can resolve a lot of issues faced by agriculture, but it doesn’t address why producers would decide to leave food in the field rather than bring it to market, or why distributors would rather throw out food than delivering it to those in need. Both are absurd acts if your goal is to feed people. But that is not the goal of capitalist food production. Capitalist production is animated by an insatiable drive to profit and accumulate.  Capitalist incentives lead to overproduction of food that is never delivered, and no one is under any obligation to utilize such a surplus and abundance for eradicating hunger. Once we understand this contradiction, we can see the capitalist food system as one of an absurd abundance. A commodity is produced for its exchange value — its price. A capitalist uses money to make a commodity to sell to get more money. From this simple chain, numerous economic reasons arise for farmers to not harvest everything grown.
Food that isn’t commodified has no value for a capitalist, despite its biological value to a hungry person. The specific use value of food for that person is of no consequence. The farmer who has no use for such food, of course, is not being malicious — just responding to competitive market pressures. As price fluctuates over the course of the growing season, farmers pick fewer crops. At the beginning of the season, the price for fruits and vegetables is higher than at the end. So as the season progresses, more and more produce is left in the field. Farmers recognize the effect of price — they are economic optimizers in a capitalist market. They leave more and more produce out of the supply chain in an effort to inflate the food’s price. Farmers are controlling supply to affect the price, regardless of the demand.

 The principle cleavage is between a left-liberal faction that clings to the erroneous idea that this system can be reformed to serve human need and the radicals who insist that it can’t. The UN and the FAO have adopted strategies that completely ignore the reality of capitalist imperatives. They emphasize technology, markets, and policy as panaceas for reorienting the food system to be more just and ecologically sustainable. They propose that people support “local farmers or markets and sustainable food choices” along with “using your power as a consumer and voter” — all individualized actions amounting to the cliché “vote with your fork.” 

Hunger is not an inevitability; it is a choice. We can choose to end it.


Mike Ballard said...

"A commodity is produced for its exchange value — its price." Price hovers around the exchange-value of a mass produced commodity. It hovers with supply of and demand for the commodity.

What I'd like to see is and article about how many people on our Earth could be fed using the latest transport technology and organic growing methods. Despite the arguments that more food is being produced than being distributed, I still think that world population should be at a lower level than it is now and that this lower level should be achieved through planned parenthood. What the authors of this article forgets are the impending difficulties which humans will encounter as temperature rises, already built into the climate, begin to make their presence felt on the ground.

ajohnstone said...

I think you have a point about the imminent effect of climate change and the disruption to growing seasons and the varieties of crops. But even the current scientific opinion is one that is full of educated guesses and speculative projections all constrained by a mind-set that the only possibility is that of capitalism continuing rather than the alternative of an economic system change.

I am confident, however, once freed from the profit motive, that farmers, agronomists, fertiliser and pesticide industry will get together with the food processors and the food distribution networks to come up with viable choices that we can make democratically. We have been and will continue to debate within our movement the advantages and disadvantages of organic v industrial farming, GM V other farming models and we will eventually pick the best fit, mixing and matching for best practice.

In an ideal world, no-one would oppose a less populated planet and the trend is indeed towards a slowing down and in many countries a reversal of growth in numbers because the factors of better education, female empowerment, and an increase in relative prosperity are the main contributors to reduced reproduction. Africa is the only region that is problematic yet paradoxiclly it is the region with perhaps the greatest scope for expanding food production by bringing idle arable land into use.

But the real issue for today to be highlighted, i believe, is that we can actually feed the world on actual existing food production levels but are not because we are not distributing according to needs and the cause is not just "unavoidable" waste - which is avoidable - but because of the economic system that is capitalism.

As you say it is basically about demand and supply - but it is "effective" cpitalist demand - a demand that is backed up by dollars and cents which mean on the world market those in the greatest need - the real demand of the hungry - are ignored by the suppliers who satisfy the stomachs of the wealthier who can pay with surplus and unnecessary food creating the problem of obesity.

They also skew the actual diets of people to maximise profit rather than provide nutritious sustenance and perhaps it is no coincidence that the oldest person at 117 years of age just died was Italian due to the "Mediterranean" diet.

But that brings us back to your original the problem over-population one of longevity (and improved child survival rates) that is effecting the global population rather than amount of family numbers?

Mike Ballard said...

I agree that what we need is social ownership and democratic control over the collective product of our labour, Comrade. I think you'd agree with me that this cannot be established except by the immense majority wanting such an outcome and then organising as a class for the political power to implement it. As you well know, only a minority of us want this now or even know that it would be an alternative to the wage system. I think one determining reason for this miserable state of affairs vis a vis class consciousness is that workers don't know about who produces the wealth and who appropriates the lion's share. I congratulate you and your party for your efforts over the decades to correct the situation. Keep that focus, Comrade. But also, I think you need to demonstrate that workers can and have gotten some of the product of THEIR labour back via what's commonly called, "the social wage". I totally realise the critique which says that reforms are ways of buying off the working class, making them satisfied with the status quo. My argument is that workers see the SPGB as dreamers because they can't even see the benefits of free healthcare versus the alternative, a totally commodified system of market based healthcare. That's just one example.

Anyway, thank-you for responding with usual sense and courtesy. Honestly, I want a social revolution too. I just think that a more effective way to get the rest of our class on board would be to hammer home the message summed up in that old slogan, "The product to the produce."

ajohnstone said...

I think we are reluctant to admit that some reforms have been a benefit to our class generally, Mike, so you are i believe made a valid criticism.

The Welfare State and the NHS has removed us from utter destitution of the past and prospect of the work-house.

Sadly it has introduced new problems. Institutionalised sub-standard Care Homes and rationing and waiting lists in health-care. For every step forward, we seem to take one side-ways (not so much backwards.)

We have erred on the side of caution according to some folk by not recognising that there has to be a vigourous struggle to defend and extend the gains we as a class have achieved. But as you say there are very few voices that explain the limitations of reforms and how eventually they fail in thier task of creating permanent remedies.

This blogger feels that we can finely attune our approach more precisely in the sense we can extol the virtues of some reforms for the broad workers movement to use for defence and protection (even attack) - yet disclaim the adoption of a policy of reformism for a political party.