Self supply to nutriceuticals.
In industrial countries the time has long gone when the majority of food was grown in gardens and fields close at hand, by populations who consumed their own products, fertilised by animal and human manure and vegetable wastes, and protected against crop pests by natural predators. Food gets to most of our mouths via a petrochemical based agriculture keeping up crop yields and keeping down pests involving oil based inputs and highly mechanised sewing and harvesting. This production system feeds a world food market, at the end of lengthy transport networks. The food is held in suspended animation before ripening or against degeneration by sophisticated storage technologies, processed industrially, and it is co-ordinated, bought and sold via dense transactions networks. I think it worth saying here that in recent years many aspects of this networked interdependency have become computerised and are therefore vulnerable to the Millennium bug. How much remains to be seen but there could be quite serious problems.
Modernising self supply - community gardening
Most discussion of food economics starts from the assumption of influencing the big players in the food market. However modernisation of self supply should not be dismissed as an option for improving health and environment. Food that gets to you via a supermarket will have got there with 16 times the energy that your body will get from consuming it on average. Food produced for a mass market is produced on a huge scale and so inevitably generates environmental problems - the countryside is standardised and non-product species are defined as pests and weeds. Biodiversity declines and natural cycles. Mass mono-cultures create conditions for the spread of diseases, the rapid multiplication of pests and creation of toxic wastes. Self supply out of your own or a community garden, particularly if it is fertilised with kitchen wastes or, (unlikely), composted human manure, will not have this expenditure of energy and toxic chemicals and can make an important contribution to the eco-renovation of food production. Of course growing vegetables in your own garden seems utopian so its has to be seen as part of a different local level package - this package is community gardening.
Problems with markets - market power, information, weak regulation
There are many imperfections in the operation of food markets. Even convinced free marketeers admit that when markets are dominated by a small number of buyers and/or sellers then this concentration is not in the interests of all. This is important because economic giants at the selling end and at the petrochemical inputs end are having a big impact on food supply. In 1983 the supermarket chains purchased 24% of fresh food. In 1991 this had risen to 47.6% and was predicted to rise to 70% by the end of the decade. I will come in a minute to the effects of this. But before that let me turn to another assumption in economics which is that markets work better when people have access to unbiased information. But it is very difficult to get information which can be trusted and is accurate about food. We have to bear in mind that much food is transported from across the world, from where it is produced under conditions one is not able to check and processed later in uncheckable conditions. Of course one hopes that, in such circumstances governmental regulatory agencies will protect consumer interests, or take into account environmental issues, but there must be concern that big food economic interests override safety, health and environment in regulatory bureacracies. The power of economic interests overriding health and consumer interests was demonstrated in the BSE inquiry. A further example is the USDA. Big agricultural interests wanted to get into the market of their organic and ecological competitors. The USDA proposed to reduce the standards required to qualify for an ecological label and then to ban any standards higher than their own. This created such a storm that they had to withdraw their proposals.
Effects of supermarketisation
Some of the effects of the increased domination of UK food markets by the supermarkets include:
28% increase in the number of shopping trips 1975/76 and 1989/91; mileage by cars on shopping trips almost doubled (3/4 is for food shopping); increase in time spent shopping from 41 minutes a day in 1960 to 70 minutes in the 1980s; typical social and environmental subsidy of society to an out of town supermarket is £25,000 a week most of which are the economic costs of traffic congestion and pollution - this does not count the costs of heavy lorry transport; 3/4 of packaging is on food and drink - almost all of which is on supermarket food; spent packaging is one quarter of the cost of landfill; packaging takes 5% of UK energy and is a major creator of greenhouse gases; frequent complaints by farmers about supermarket chains include the chains abuse of their monopoly buying power - breaking contracts over trivilities, late paying on bills, not allowing food prices to rise when local harvests are poor but buying abroad which ruins local farmers, undermining local supplies with imports. One might say that this benefits exporting countries however what actually happens is that land is collared in poor countries by powerful economic interests and turned over to export instead of being used for local food crops for local people.
The mass market demand for uniform products for big sellers has led to a marked decrease in the genetic pool with a dangerous decline in food security. Of 2000 UK apple varieties only 9 now dominate. This increases considerably vulnerability to pests and diseases and leads to a vicious spiral of increased pesticide use, then genetic engineering to make the crops able to take even more pesticides.
The concentration on larger and larger retail outlets which are increasingly only reachable by car means that a dual food market emerges - one for wealthy car owners and another for the poor, elderly and those who can only reach local smaller shops where there are less healthy choices. It has been shown that low income groups are just as well informed about good diet but are actually not so able to access this healthy diet because the food in the shops available to them does not include the healthy options. (Information taken from IPPR study by Hugh Lang et al called "Off our Trolleys")
An important issue in economics in recent years has been a claim that, left to themselves, markets will produce optimal economic choices. But we have seen that there are considerable reasons to doubt this. Food cultivation, processing and distribution is increasingly in the hands of economic giants who are, in the jargon of economics, imposing considerable "external" costs on the environment and poorer communities. A recent innovation in public sector purchasing is the expectation that purchasers will get "best value" for public money and this involves looking at a whole set of quality issues and, in theory, environmental issues too. But best value purchasing is only as good as the information available to purchasers and there are a set of begged questions about whether information is always available and how it is interpretd. Ultimately the question of best value can be seen as a consumer decision or a citizen one. In recent years the two have been confused, as much by economists as anyone else. Citizen decisions take into account wider responsibilities to the community, consumer decisions take into account only private and personal preferences and personally available purchasing power.
Animal Rights, ethics, health and economics
In regard to meat people who think in terms of money use the concepts of "cost". People who are concerned with animal rights are motivated by the very different notion of "suffering". The concept of suffering does not exist as such in economics and before anything can be said that is to be taken seriously it does have to be said in this now universal language in which all decision making is taken. When we are speaking or writing in the language of economics it only possible to say something meaningful about suffering if we are relating suffering to decisions about the allocation of resources - i.e. where suffering effects purchasing decisions and measurable costs.
Suffering caused by humans to animals can be said to occur where the species characteristics of animals are seen as an inconvienence because these animals are perceived as products, or as the raw material for products. It is a species characteristic of chickens, for example, to wander, to scratch and to peck. In the battery these species characteristics do not and cannot occur. One of the chief inconveniences of animals to the money junkies who run the food industry is that they have bits that humans can't or won't eat - heads, bones, teeth, entrails, claws, hooves etc. One way of dealing with this is to process the bits and feed them back to the animals. Another inconvenience is that, left to their own devices, animals will insist on moving around - thus you not only need to spend money on fences but you have to go and fetch them and herd them around. Also if you feed them fodder crops a large part of the good money you spend on the fodder gets wasted as the used up energy spent on walking around - rather than on building up the meat. But with factory farming you can deal with this, at least partly, by preventing your food products moving around. The fact that they suffer is neither here nor there, as long as the public keeps on buying your products.
But ethics has a biological basis to it. When suffering occurs an animal is not living its species characteristics. If it is not trapped it will try to live out those characteristics that it has been borne with and, if it cannot, then it will get sick. At this point the money junkies are faced with losses unless they can find a response, which in recent years has lain, for example, in the routine administration of anti-biotics. The next step is to genetically and chemically engineer the life forms. Far from calling a halt, meat production in the hands of the agri-business empires spawns new industries aided by huge research grants to Dr Frankinstein of the University of Moneyland, Department of Scientific and Technical Progress.
In the food empire two things then inevitably begin to happen. Firstly, some of the diseases inevitably become endemic and in places cross the species barrier to humans. Secondly, whatever ethics can still be found in the food industry evaporate in front of the need to get the next money fix by selling the product, however much dioxine it has eaten.
Compassion in farming is not something that can be ignored - when you do you eventually get the food you deserve coming back to you, or if not to you, to your children. Although meat can come from animals that have grazed on land where no other crop is possible it is more and more the case that meat comes from feeding food to animals and then eating the animals. Agri-business corporations and the governments and scientists that work hard to serve their needs, like to to tell us how desperate they are to find new scientific solutions to Third World hunger. The sick truth is that if the maize, soya, sorghum, oats, barley and other food crops fed to animals were fed directly to humans there would be no hunger at all in the world because most food animals must eat 5 or 6 times the calories that humans get from eating them. In terms of energy efficiency and financial cost therefore meat is expensive. Indeed meat is the diet of winners, it is the diet of an unequal world, and producing it is one of the main source of environmental problems. It uses up huge quantities of fresh water in a world where fresh water is scarce; it creates huge quantities of farm slurry and slaughterhouse blood and offel and is thereby one of the chief causes of water pollution; it creates methane, a cause of global warming; it uses up huge quantities of non renewable energy in fertilisers producing fodder crops, in transport of meat and meat products under refrigeration, and in pesticides killing wild animals; it destroys natural habitats and drives out wild animals and plant species in order to create grazing land or land under fodder crops.
Meat is what winners eat - who don't give a damn. It is not the lack of scientific solutions that have given us world hunger but "enterprise culture" itself.
November 1998 and July 1999.
© BRIAN DAVEY