Book Review: The Global Food Economy by Tony Weis
C R Sridhar
The corporate images of the food economy are full of deceptive advertisements of a mythical cornucopia of contented animals waiting for their disposal as someone else’s meal. The other images, which reinforce the intrinsic ‘fun and plenty’ of the food economy, are of supermarkets catering to the affluent sections of society, with food products stacked in shelves procured from far off places.
Beneath the illusion of plenty, there are other contradictory images of starved babies with distended bellies in famine stricken Africa, coexisting obscenely with obese people from the developed world. Starved farmers in agriculturally dependent economies who eke out a miserable living out of cash crop economy offer a harsh contrast to the bon vivant life style of CEOs of Transnational Corporations.
Tony Weis, an Assistant Professor of Geography teaching at the University of Western Ontario- Canada, has written a book called The Global Food Economy, which is a searing indictment of Big Agri-businesses destroying small farmers and the delicate eco-systems devastated by modern capital-intensive modes of production. Going beyond the platitudes of corporate PR, the author ‘examines the human and the ecological cost of what we eat.’
At the heart of the problem, the author argues, lies the role of TNC agribusiness, especially the grain-livestock complex, in adopting industrial methods, which are inimical to the eco-systems and the condition of human beings in general.
The ecological footprint left by Industrial Agriculture is a negative one and exacts a mounting toxic burden. In the past the long-term viability of farms depended on a sensitive relationship with respect to the ecological limits of growing food. It was recognized that there must be functional diversity in crops, soil species, trees, animals and insects to maintain ecological balance and nutrient cycles. This was maintained in traditional farming methods by multi-cropping, rotational patterns, green manure, fallowing land, careful seed selection and the integration of small animal populations.
In contrast modern farming transformed by capitalism and industralisation represented ‘a movement toward the radical simplification of the natural ecological order in the number of species found in an area and the intricacy of their interconnections’. This was made possible by the development and rising use of synthetic fertilizers, agro-chemicals, enhanced seed varieties/genetically modified seeds, farm machinery, concentrated feedstuffs, animal antibiotics and hormones, and the expansion of irrigation systems, which allowed industrial techniques to override previous ecological constraints. Moreover, embedded in industrialized farming is the new dependence upon fossil fuel consumption in the twentieth century, not only on transportation costs involved in bringing the food from the place where it is grown to the plate of the consumer and the demands of the machinery used for agriculture instead of animals, but with the petroleum demands of proliferating synthetic fertilizers and agro-chemicals. With the price of oil reaching $120 per barrel (expecting to touch $200 per barrel) it is certain that food prices would shoot upwards.
Rejecting simplistic notions that the industrial transformation in agriculture has resulted in high yielding crops, which are also yield stable, the author points out the inconvenient truth that it leads to chronic toxicity. This is evident as crops grown in industrial monocultures are prone to pest infections- a threat that is suppressed by the use of pesticides leading to greater pest resistance to the pesticides and involving greater use of pesticides in a never-ending cycle. The excessive use of pesticides results in pesticide poisoning which afflicts nearly three million suffering every year leading to 2,50,000 deaths. The other problems that arise with mechanized tillage are that the soil is drained off its nutritive power. The quick fix in the form of technology is a mere illusion as more and more use of inputs serves to mask the problems while creating fresh ones, one of which is the increasing use of fresh water for agricultural purposes, which is becoming scarce and a flash point of conflict.
Hoof prints left by livestock
The increased meatification of diet offers fresh challenges to the eco-systems as the increased demand for consumption of meat products leads to large-scale supply from feedlots. There are also health problems associated with increased meat intake as it increases the risk of strokes and cardio-vascular diseases.
In the factory, the dense livestock population is the major consumer and polluter of water. It is calculated that in excess of 3000 litres of water go into producing a single kilogram of US beef while a factory farmed pig requires about 132 litres of water for drinking and flushing of its wastes. A typical slaughterhouse in US uses in a day the water used by 25000 people.
The faecal matter of the cattle and pigs creates problems of waste disposal, as it is a gigantic task to get rid of 1.4 billon tons of animal manure (US) without polluting the rivers and streams. Added to the problems of sink function, there are health hazards arising out of over crowding of poultry birds in production factories which exposes the public to the dangers of a virulent strain of H5N1 which is capable of mutating and jumping the species barrier to human beings. The WHO warning led to hundreds of millions of birds getting culled in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The feeding of neural tissues, bone meal and blood from cattle carcass to essentially herbivorous cattle created the mad cow disease (BSE), which could transmit to humans when they eat the infected meat. Thus the hoof prints left by livestock production leaves an intolerable burden on eco-systems and public health.
An Uneven Playing field
The human cost of the food economy is a heavy burden disproportionately resting on developing countries- where overwhelmingly large sections of the rural people depend on agriculture for livelihood. TNC Agri-businesses, which are subsidised by rich developed countries (especially US) flood the world market with cheap grains/ cereals, driving the poor farmers of the developing world out of the market leading to destitution and poverty. They are driven to cities in search of jobs in Urban areas, where they constitute the under class found in Urban ghettos living in abject poverty and filth. Most of the poorer countries are still trapped in neo-colonial relationship with centers of Metropolitan capital as they increasingly depend on cash crops grown for export to the affluent people of the world and face the daunting prospect of not able to feed themselves out of their dwindling export earnings. The producing countries simply do not control the international price for their commodities- they take what they get. The export earnings are insufficient to buy finished goods from the developed countries and they face the dreary prospect of increasing the volume of export of cash crops without increasing the value, which is just not enough to pay for the imports.
The author’s book is a sane and compassionate plea to reorder the global food economy to serve human needs and not the diktat of corporate agriculture with its obsession of profit maximization. In the last chapter of his book called the future of farming, he passionately calls for moving agricultural systems off the chemical and fossil energy treadmill and towards lower-input, labour-centered intensification and more bio-diverse agriculture. That this vision is not that of a Luddite who wants to turn the clock back to a romantic past, is borne out by the fact that there is an urgent need for agro-science to be shaped by more scientific research for more humane ends like empowering the small farmer and not for mindlessly enriching the corporate coffers of the few.
For people of India, especially the middle class, who are enthralled by the IT service economy, it may be a wake up call to know that even today two-thirds of its one billion plus population still depend on agriculture as source of income. The author’s book, which pleads for a socially just, ecologically rational and humane food economy, should find a place in our bookshelf.
Book Review: The Global Food Economy by Tony Weis
- » Published on May 19, 2008
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