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Postcards From The Global Food System (#1)
Zaid Hassan, 26 Feb 05

melons in sao pauloCausality, according to Wittgenstein, is the ultimate superstition. While he probably wasn’t thinking about the global food system when he said that, he may well have been.

The story of the modern global food system is the story of unintended consequences. It’s the story of a causal logic run amok. It’s the familiar story of how we’re all intimately connected without quite grasping just how intimately. It’s the deeply disturbing story of a system characterized by historic injustice that continues to produce injustice today. It’s a story that goes to the throbbing, bleeding heart of sustainability. Finally, it’s the worldchanging story of what we do when faced with the reality of such a narrative. It can, without being hyperbolic, be called the mother of all systemic problems.

In the coming weeks I'll be sending worldchanging a number of "postcards" from my on-going journey through the global food system.

I’ve been struggling, as part of my work over the last year, to figure out exactly how and why the global food system is unsustainable and to get my head around the logic of the system. This is easier said than done. Two of my colleagues at the Sustainable Food Lab, Hal Hamilton and Don Seville, have articulated the dilemma as follows,

“Nobody intends for their decisions to result in a system that is unsustainable overall. Decisions are made by individuals trying to do the best job possible within their context. Some must please a boss or increase shareholder value. Cost cutting is frequently necessary in order to compete successfully. All of these decisions are usually rational within the context of the decision-maker, but the net result of all these decisions includes problems ranging from soil erosion to low quality nutrition.”

[Thanks to Larry P. for the photograph.]

The Multiple & Conflicting Logics of Food

It’s clear that many thousands of decisions are made everyday about food and agriculture that, in aggregate, give rise to the global food system. Each of these decisions is obviously part of a particular culture, paradigm and worldview. Each of these decisions is also congruent with a very particular logic, a way of reasoning out a decision about food. As Hal and Don point out, none of them are per se, illogical or irrational. They all have their own reasons. The word "logic" is a precise description of the chain of reasoning that drives decisions.

The Indian activist and biologist Vandana Shiva explains that “even though the complex socio-ecological phenomena of the food system may well have been conceived in technological deterministic frameworks of single cause single-effect they cannot be understood by this logic.” (My italics) Rather “the best one can strive for is contextual causation, in which indicators and suggestions are made of how the creation of certain contexts creates overwhelming conditions for certain processes to be unleashed.” Or to put it another way, when dealing with complex, systemic problems causal analysis only works in hindsight. If we’re interested in insight, that is, innovation and foresight then we must start with the specific cases and build “contextual causation” from specific socio-historical cases.

In trying to grasp the food system, my initial, rather simple-minded, mistake was to assume that just because a single system existed there must also be a single, universal logic to go with it, and all I had to do in order to understand food was to grasp that logic. Through a grindingly painful process I came realized that there actually isn’t a single over-riding logic but rather there are multiple, conflicting and sometimes faulty logics which together produce the incredibly complex global food system. (Like most a-ha’s I wondered why someone hadn’t simply told me this at the start.) What’s more, many of these logics are profoundly disconnected from each other. So for example, the logic that gives rise to the decisions of an urban consumer is a universe away from the logic of a small farmer living twenty miles away. The only connection between them is the hard to discern food supply chain. It’s more obvious that the logic of the same urban consumer is even further disconnected from that of a small farmer living five thousand miles away, even though a piece of fruit picked by the farmer on Monday may well be eaten by the consumer on Tuesday. In other instances, where logics do somehow meet, more often than not the engagement is violent, with logics seeking to exploit, de-legitimize or even destroy the other.

As is obvious, the process of globalization is pushing these logics up against each other in a way which means, like it or not, they’re going to engage. Marx described such engagements as akin to “a train crashing into a wheel-barrow” and while that perhaps describes the trajectory of the current system, it also describes a possible future that we could avoid. The question of how we can avert the “wheel barrow” scenario is one that I carry with me through this ongoing reconnaissance of the global food system.

The State of the System

James Ridgeway, in his recent study on the control of global resources, “It’s Not For Sale,” makes the point that “Perhaps the single most important problem for American foreign policy since the building of the railroads and the opening of prairie agriculture in the middle of the nineteenth century has been how to dispose of farm surplus, notably grain.”

The Sustainability Institute in a study on the long term effects of corn prices put their finger on the dynamic emerging from the Second World War.

[It] “unfolds as follows: In the struggle to maintain income in the face of falling prices, producers attempt to maximize their yield. They do this by adopting any new, yield-boosting technology as long as the anticipated income gain from yield increases is greater than the cost of the new technology. Technology suppliers carefully price new technologies so that, most of the time, new technologies will pass this cost-benefit test and be purchased. While higher yields can potentially increase individual incomes, the net effect of many producers making the same decision is higher overall production, which tends to decrease price and therefore reduce incomes.

This story [of corn farming] is typical of commodity agriculture. Farmers have increased their yields and lowered their per-unit costs for many decades, but this productivity has been won at the cost of higher taxes for citizens in Europe and the United States (to pay for subsidies and other programs), a decreasing standard of living for farmers and rural communities, and the degradation of the rural landscape. Yet because the underlying dynamics are not clearly understood, well-intended but nevertheless ineffective solutions are applied over and over again.”

Currently, the globalised food system is deeply stratified. At least as far as consumers and producers are concerned the West has an over-abundance of food whereas the South is characterised by a scarcity of food. (When I say 'food' I mean what gets sold in retail stores or otherwise consumed by people, when I say 'produce' or 'crop' I mean the raw product that farmers produce.)

This means that in the West retailers are in fierce competition for consumer dollars, in effect, a constant mission impossible to try and deliver more for less. The bulk of food retailers are large, public multi-nationals, and must demonstrate year-on-year growth in order to keep their share prices up.

Retail sales of food covers a relatively small range of food stuffs. This includes fresh produce such as dairy and meat, as well as fruits and vegetables – of which relatively limited varieties are sold. (For example of maybe 2,500 varieties of apple available in England, supermarkets will sell, at most, a dozen.) Then there are the many thousands of processed products sold in supermarkets which mainly consist of processed commodities such as sugar, salt, corn, corn syrup and soya.

The over-abundance of commodities translates into producers being constantly squeezed on price. New Internationalist reports how, "In 2000, [British] supermarket giant Tesco introduced international ‘reverse’ auctions for its suppliers all over the world. They were asked to bid against each other until Tesco got the lowest price..."

The best way to bring the price of produce (fresh & commodity) down is through mono-cropping, volume production and large scale processing. Large monocultures farms can deliver produce for cheaper. They can leverage scale. Small or even medium size farms (ranging in size from 50-2000 acres) cannot deliver single-crop volume at the price that large farms can. This is not simply because of yield but also because of complex systems of credit and subsidies that benefit large commodity farms.

The dominance of market logic means that small & medium farms have been steadily going out of business in the last fifty and being replaced by large farms, many owned by corporations. The closure of small & medium farms, which contributes to the decline of rural culture, is one factor contributing to the growth of urban populations. Farmers are abandoning their farms, rural populations are joining urban communities increasing the demand for food while simultaneously decreasing production and self-sufficiency in food. The remaining farms, in response to this increased demand for food, are increasing food production. In doing so, they’re flooding urban communities with food, decreasing the cost of food and dramatically heating up competition for the same consumer dollar. The solution for how to win more of that consumer dollar is through simultaneously decreasing the cost of produce while somehow adding value, that is, processing the produce and turning it into food.

Into this situation comes the middle-man, or what’s become the multi-billion dollar industry of food processing. The food processor buys produce from farmers, processes it in various ways and then sells it on for a mark-up. An over-abundance of produce generally means that the producer is losing out on price (and trying to gain on volume) and the food processor can go to whomever is offering the most competitive price.

The function of the food processor is to somehow translate this general over-abundance of produce into a profit. Enter branding. Enter packaging. Enter frozen dinners. Enter pre-cooked gourmet meals. Enter hundreds of breakfast cereals. Food processing companies include some of the largest corporations in the world, such as Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg's and General Mills. Increasingly, supermarket chains are joining the ranks of food processors by producing their own, cheaper, in-house versions of the most popular products.

The relationship between producer-food processor-consumer forms the DNA of the global food supply chain.

To summarise, the basic cycle of the food system in the West, set up over the last fifty years, looks something like this. The system is characterized by slow, steady increases in demand for food; producers respond by over-producing which in turn results in an over-abundance of crops; food processors buy crops, integrating and consolidating in order to pass on the lowest price to consumers; more and more crops are being grown in mega-farms driving more small farms out of business; the price of food in retail stores is falling; small producers are steadily going out of business; there is an overall increase in urban populations which drives on-going and steady increases in the demand for food. This is the dominant logic of the food system, and it drives patterns in the global food system.

As one critic put it "most farmers are becoming producers of raw materials for a giant food manufacturing system. They are really not in any sense producing food anymore."

Next week: Postcard #2 - The Road From Green Revolution To Fatal Harvest

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Fantastic stuff. I'm looking forward to the rest very much!

Posted by: Vinay on 26 Feb 05

Great piece, Zaid.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 26 Feb 05

I would sum up the problems by observing that:

1. Industrial capitalism is a very poor way to organize farming, fishing, and hunting.

2. We have too damn many people on this planet and more arriving every day.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on 26 Feb 05

Regarding the latter:

Population will most likely peak at under 9 billion, still a substantial number but certainly less of a threat than the 12-20 billion people were fearing in the 1970s.

And while it's fine to bemoan the state of things, there are really only two options -- let masses die or figure out how to feed them. I'd prefer the latter.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 26 Feb 05

The food system has been global for a very long time for a few very amazingly simple obvious reason.

Food varies alot from place to place and everyone wants foods they cant get localy.

Due to seasons and stuff to get year around food you want food from around the world.

Its far cheaper and more enerergy efficient to buy and ship strawberries from kerfectastanicoff then it is to grow it localy out of season.

Everyone has a food they are great at and so people wishing alot of great food will span the globe finding it all.

When bleep happens its always best to have backups and a global system is a global backup.

And finaly when your selling food whoever pays the most gets the food even if they are on mars.

Posted by: wintermane on 26 Feb 05

There are definitely problems with how farming is done in the US and around the world... not the least of which are the subsidies that farmers in US and Europe are given.

However, there is no question that the world can easily feed the people we have now, it will be even easier to feed the people we will have in 2050 and easier still to feed the people we will have in 2100. The per capita calorie consumption of the world has steadily increased since 1970 and there are no reasons to assume that it won't keep increasing. People, even in the poorest countries, will have more calories, more dairy products and more meat.

The biggest "food problem" the world will face this century is obesity not starvation.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 26 Feb 05

While increasing efficiency in crop production is one method of adapting to the demands of the marketplace, there are others. One is crop diversification, in other words grow new stuff. The other is alternate land use. If you take land out of production to produce new housing, new factories, you can get a better return on your locked-in capital and your actions globally strengthen producer pricing power by reducing food supply surplus. A third method is market diversification.

I recall one year, long ago, that the price of anti-freeze jumped many fold. When I asked what was going on, a worker explained that a major component of anti-freeze was mining waste and somebody else had entered the market with a new use for the stuff and bid up the price. We've been paying a higher price for anti-freeze ever since. For the mining industry that process was market diversification.

The same effect can be seen in food crops as growing plants for their energy content will likely be a major new market for farmers as soon as energy prices rise high enough and the science of bio-fuels advances enough to make the enterprise commercially sustainable absent subsidy.

This is all pretty conventional and simple stuff here but the lack of supply responses in the article make me suspect that the author is missing some of the picture.

Posted by: TM Lutas on 26 Feb 05

TM Lutas -- second that. A very biased view that strikes me as telling only half a story. Granted the point about subsidies -- which primarily serve to enrichen Archer Daniels Midland's shareholders -- but sneering at "market logic" makes me expect a Marxian Part II coming right up.

It's hard to take such a prescription seriously if so.

Posted by: Rob McMillin on 26 Feb 05

Regarding supply responses and "sneering at market logic."

What you say about anti-freeze is interesting but I fail to see how such logic might work in the world of the small and medium size farmer. You're making a very simple sounding suggestion that farmers somehow either create new markets for themselves using the same products or that they grow new, different produce. Well that's all great but do you not think that farmers have thought of that? Do you in fact have any idea how difficult it is to do what you're suggesting?

I'll report on some efforts down the line but at this stage I think your assumptions are presumptive.

I've heard that the suicide rate among farmers in the UK is one per week. Rates of farm repossessions in the USA are very high. Do you not think that farmers tried to diversify their holdings before they decided to kill themselves or before their farms got repossessed? Rates of suicide and repossessions amongst farmers are searing indictments of market logic. And I haven't even said anything about farm subsidies, hunger and the third world yet.

Finally, to say that the current market system is not working does not constitute a Marxian analysis. It's simply stating the facts.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 27 Feb 05

Um the current system does work its just that we have far more farmers then we need and have had it like that for quite some time. Whenever you have an industry that is contracting you have massive pressure and suicides. Farming is a massively contracting industry.

Posted by: wintermane on 27 Feb 05

On the topic of North American farmers, options & diversification, and suicide rates - I was actually talking about something like this in the office today. Many family farmers here in Manitoba have no understaning of finance or accounting, or they cyclical nature of their own business. They don't know squat about price hedging with options and futures, or the diversifiaction options open to them. All that many of them know is putting seed in the ground in the spring, and harvesting in the fall.

Sadly, the innocent pastoral life of the family farmer - salt of the earth, man of the land, etc. - has come to an end, here in North America. There are plenty of successful farms here - "business" farms with accountants and financial advisers, and family farms that have grown through education and acquisition. The suicides are a tragedy, but one who's fault is *not* the global food system, but rather a lack of education, and an attitude of entitlement, supported by their local governments.

What I mean by the last point - entitlement - is that many small, uneducated family farmers feel "entitled" to be small, uneducated family farmers, because their fathers before them were small, uneducated family farmers - it is their way of life, and they'll fight to resist change. Suicide happens when they admit defeat and the sad realization that they're unable to adapt. Our governments perpetuate this sad cycle with their market distortions - proping up insolvent farms with subsidies and "farm aid," allowing outmoded business models to persist.

I look forward to hearing what you've got to say... sounds like some lively discussion on its way!

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 1 Mar 05

I want to comment on this suicide issue. I'm sure you don't mean it to come across this way but I find the lack of empathy in the above post rather astonishing.

The notion those farmers who commit suicide are "small" and "uneducated" is an ungrounded and crude generalisation. Suicide is a highly complex phenomenon and I feel that we need to understand the conditions that drives people to such extreme reactions.

Simply understanding your situation is no help when you know there is nothing you can do about it.

My collegaues and I have been researching teenage suicide rates among aboriginal communities in Canada. One of the explanations we have come across for why teenagers resort to suicide as a response is the complex notion of low "self and cultural continuity" - which, to be reductionist, means they feel that they have no control over their own lives both at an individual and community level. What this means and how is arises is not trivial.

You can say that anyone who kills themself has "given up" but that doesn't help anyone figure out how to avoid getting to this point and breaking the cycle.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 2 Mar 05

The one reason suicide is up is people have forgotten the very basic fact that your not tied to the life you start with. If its bad just drop it and go find a better one. If all else fails stop waiting to die and just go and see whats out there at least then your death will be interesting.

Posted by: wintermane on 2 Mar 05

Forgive me for the tardiness of this comment, I am new to this site.

All in all, a very good post, Zaid. A good summary of our insane food system. One thing that I hope will get more play is the role that agrochemical companies play in enabling economies of scale, which pushes small farms out. They have a vested interest, because small farms can be chemical, but they don't have to be. Mega-farms have to be.
I would like to react to a few of the comments, and to make this general statement: I find it difficult to fathom how anyone who doesn’t work for a food conglomerate could argue this isn't a terrible system.

"The food system has been global for a very long time..."
No it hasn't. The spice trade has been around a long time, but the system Zaid is critiquing has only existed for a few decades.

"Food varies alot from place to place and everyone wants foods they cant get localy."
One of the main criticisms of the global food system is that food no longer differs from place to place and regional flavors, varieties and methods are being subsumed.

"Its far cheaper and more enerergy efficient to buy and ship strawberries from kerfectastanicoff then it is to grow it localy out of season."
It is amazingly inefficient to ship strawberries, or anything else, over the great distances they travel. It is cheap because the single most significant agricultural subsidy is oil. As oil prices rise, watch people in Canada eating their own strawberries - not ones grown in kerfectastanicoff.

"Um the current system does work its just that we have far more farmers then we need..."
We will soon reach a benchmark in the USA: 1% of our population will grow food for the other 99% (and much of the world besides). This small population is rapidly aging, so soon all industrial farming will be done by machine and migrant labor. There are so, so many reasons why this is a problem...

"The biggest "food problem" the world will face this century is obesity not starvation."
I am willing to bet it will be malnutrition. One great concern over chemical fertilizers - used in all industrial operations - is that as these crops grow, they pull nutrients from the soil (which makes them good for you). But chemicals, as opposed to compost etc., return nothing to that soil; we are essential mining agricultural soil of its nutrients. If we do not add it naturally, we must find a way to add it artificially, or we could literally see people with plenty of food dying of malnutrition.

" other words grow new stuff."
Impossible without a existing market, and consolidated markets do not increase options, they shrink them. There are no farmers with the ability to innovate and wait for buyers to catch up.

"If you take land out of production to produce new housing, new factories..."
This is happening in the US at a rate of approximately 2 million acres/ year. It has not meant much for farmers as a group, only for the individuals who sell. When oil prices rise and agriculture becomes more labor intensive and more local than it was, we will long for all that good earth...

" soon as energy prices rise high enough and the science of bio-fuels advances enough to make the enterprise commercially sustainable absent subsidy."
There are currently no subsidy-independent energy markets in the US, and biofuels do not hold that much promise, they will always be a sideline industry at best.

"Our governments perpetuate this sad cycle with their market distortions - proping up insolvent farms with subsidies and "farm aid," allowing outmoded business models to persist."
Have you (I mean everyone who argues against subsidies) thought about the implications of halting farm subsidies? After the 30's, the US gov’t made a promised of cheap food, which I don't believe they will ever abandon. Who would benefit if food prices jumped? Are any of you poor? Know anyone poor? Pay taxes for food stamps? Want to pay more? The problem is not subsidies, but what is subsidized; equipment, energy and water for big farms, nothing for small farms. Small “insolvent business model” farms. Why should food, without which we all die, be subject to market pressures? Surely it is more important that we all have nutritious food - even at taxpayer expense - than let the corn chips fall where they may. They will not fall in your lap, or in mine...

Thanks for this important and often overlooked discussion,

Posted by: Justus on 7 Mar 05

Actualy food has been shipped since ships were first invented;/

As for variety go to the supermarket and look at how many types of veggies they have and remember when I was a kid not all that long ago 80% of that was seasonal only if even then at all.

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Mar 05

I think the real question that has to be asked in the present context is : Would an organised system be more efficient and profitable than the current unorganised system? And in fact I would only leave “efficient” in the question because profitability will follow efficiency.

Since i’m reading this excellent paper in particular and this blog in general you probably know that my vote would go to the organised system but i’m still asking the question because i think that the big issue here is : Is anyone going to be able to convince the deciders that an organised system will be more efficient than a non-organised system?

Posted by: jpm on 10 Mar 05



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