Starving the World for Power and Profit: The Global Agribusiness Model

By Don QuijonesRaging Bull-Shit.

A daily ration of bread is now beyond the reach of roughly a billion people on planet Earth. What’s more, hunger is spreading like a pandemic, making incursions from its traditional strongholds in the global south to towns and cities across depression-hit Southern Europe. In Greece reports are growing of young children having to scrounge for food from classmates, while in Spain city dwellers have become all but inured to the daily spectacle of people of all ages, genders and walks of life rummaging in rubbish bins for a bite to eat.

Some people point to this 21st century hunger pandemic as evidence of the unsustainability of current population growth — and to an extent they’re probably right. After all, there’s only so many people that the world’s rapidly declining resources can sustain. However, as Esther Vivas of the Pompeu Fabra University’s Centre of Studies on Social Movements points out (video), the crude reality is that many of us continue to live in a world of food abundance.

The problem of world hunger, she says, is the result of the acute inefficiencies of a global agribusiness model geared purely at generating ever larger profits for the handful of businesses that now control the global food chain. Tragically, all too often the human cost is measured in the lives of those who don’t have enough money to pay the rapidly escalating prices of basic foodstuffs. And it’s a heavy cost indeed: according to some estimates, one person dies of hunger every 8-12 seconds.

Vivas offers sharp insights on a global industry that prioritizes, at pretty much every turn, profits and power over human welfare. Unfortunately, the video is only available in Spanish and without English subtitles, so for those of you whose linguistic talents don’t quite extend to the Spanish tongue, here’s a brief summary of the highlights:

Supermarket Dominance  

Like most countries, the distribution, wholesale and retail of food is dominated by a handful of supermarket chains which, through their oligopolistic structures, are able to more or less dictate what people eat, how much they pay for their food and how much farmers receive for their produce. Needless to say, it is a model that is wiping out small local farmers throughout Europe and the U.S., as well as leaving a terrible toll on the environment due to the vast distances much of our food has to travel before reaching our plates.

Food Speculation

The same people who kindly brought us the subprime crisis and the resultant Great Recession are now speculating vast quantities of money on the price of basic foods on the international commodity exchanges. As a result, the prices on these exchanges are no longer determined by real-world conditions of supply and demand but rather by the financial interests and whims of a small but extremely powerful group of big banks and hedge funds, many of whom have been gorging at the trough of taxpayer largesse for the last five years (for more information on the financialisation revolution, read this).

The Fatal Cost of Price Shocks

In countries like Ethiopia and Somalia, the price of essential foodstuffs more than doubled in the space of just a couple of months in the summer of 2011. In these countries many families spend as much as 80 percent of their disposable income on food, so when the price doubles, they go without.

The Famine Myth

Whenever famines take place, the media tends to pin the blame on meteorological problems, droughts or war, often ignoring the elephant in the room: the wholly inefficient and inhumane global agribusiness. Indeed, what we’re rarely told is that many countries in the global south were largely self-sufficient in food production until the late 1970s.

In the 80s and 90s, however, the rise of the global “free trade” movement meant that many local farmers suddenly faced fierce competition from some of the world’s biggest food producers — companies which received vast subsidies from the U.S. government or E.U. and were thus able to produce huge food surpluses, which they them dumped on some of the world’s poorest countries at below-cost price.

The result was all too predictable: peasant farmers and small holders were priced out of the market and countries which had for centuries been self-sufficient in food production became wholly dependent on food imports — hence their stark vulnerability today to food price shocks.

The Privatization of Virtually Everything

The breakneck pace of privatisation of land and seeds in the last 30 years has massively enriched the political and economic elites of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, at the expense of the general population. As much as 70 percent of the world’s seeds now belong to a handful of huge multinational conglomerates, granting them virtual control over the global food chain. Seeds, which for millenia have been a common good to be shared out and improved among small communities of farmers, are now almost the sole preserve of companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, which brings us to:

The GM Revolution

As global hunger rises, ever-greater pressure is being brought to bear on countries to embrace GM technologies — despite clear evidence of the risks they pose. [According to an international study from 2008, the industrialisation of agriculture, of which GM is a part, has led to the heavy use of artificial fertilisers and other chemicals. These have in turn harmed the soil structure and polluted water ways. What’s more, the leaching of the soil of essential minerals means food is less healthy than 60 years ago].

Perhaps most importantly, legitimate concerns remain about the impact on GM foods on human health. For this reason, countries across Europe including Germany, France, Switzerland and Greece continue to prohibit sales of GM food. But not so in Spain, where GM crops are routinely tested, grown and sold to unsuspecting consumers. [Indeed, Spain has more large-scale plantations of genetically modified seeds than any other country in the European Union (EU), accounting for 42 percent of all field trials of genetically modified crops in the EU, according to figures from the European Commission Joint Research Centre].

We Are What We Eat

Clearly, if we regularly consume GM products or food with high levels of pesticides, flavorings and chemical fertilizers, the long-term toll on our health will be heavy indeed. But despite what we are often told by Agribusiness representatives, there are alternatives out there. We can choose to buy healthier options such as local organic food, and in turn help to support local farmers. We can even develop our own urban allotments, as more and more city dwellers are choosing to do. The most important thing is not to descend into apathy and resignation, for that is precisely what the world’s major food corporations want. Contributed by Don Quijones.

Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.