Animal factory farming, endless monocultures, a carpet of chemicals, dramatic loss of biodiversity, obesity, malnutrition, food waste, appalling working conditions for migrant laborers and undermined livelihoods of small farmers and pastoralist. The list of failures of the modern food system is long. Are they caused by evil multinationals, by ignorant farmers and food industries or by consumers shopping for the cheapest? Is the root cause lack of technology? Is there even a root cause?
It is astonishing that so little of the food debate is enlightened by a proper understanding what the main driver of the food system is: Markets or even more precisely, capitalist markets (today, one can hardly find a market that is not capitalist). All the things I mention above are certainly driven by markets even though they are not necessarily uniquely caused by markets – after all, it is quite possible to become fat or destroy the environment also in a non-market economy. Nevertheless, in the world of today the market is defining the terms for both production and consumption. It is one of the mysteries of the modern world how we on the one hand praise ”the market” for all that is good and fail to allocate the blame for all that is not so good to the same market.
Most of the public attention is directed to which technologies are used or which food consumers chose or should chose. By and large these are diversions. Food waste provides an illuminating example: Consumers are told, with moral indignation, that they should stop wasting food. But why are consumers wasting food? Why do they buy more food than they need?
People in the Sunnansjö pop-up shop
The market economy has made food into products to be bought and sold thereby erasing or reducing the cultural, social and sensual expressions of it. The role of the consumer in the food system is basically to buy. Through the pressure of competition and productivity increases, production and consumption will increase and prices decrease. Consumers spend a lower share of their income on food, they eat more supposedly luxury food and junk food at the same time and eat too much and waste too much. It is all quite simple and totally in line with the logic of the market.
On the production side the logic is similar; animals and plants have become commodities to be sold in competition with millions of other producers of the same thing. Economies of scale drive farmers into linear, industrial production systems whereby increasing quantities of inputs are bought. Specialization and mechanization go hand in hand with the competition and economies of scale and orient farmers into monocultures and commodity cropping. Within the global market framework it is incredibly hard to keep up a diversified production. Which is also the reason for why organic and regenerative farmers as well as proponents of agro-ecology and permaculture mostly try to find new ways of connecting production and consumption.
One can see this clearer if one contrasts the global food system with a system of self-sufficiency in food. A self-sufficient small farmer will have a lot of diversity in her system, she will have several kinds of animals and grow many kinds of crops to provide for a diverse diet for herself and her kin. Food waste doesn’t materialize as all the work to get food means that food is appreciated for its real value. Obesity and malnutrition are not likely to occur and agrochemicals are reluctantly used by anyone that grows her own food.
Being self-sufficient in foods have many merits, but also some shortcomings. While such a food system mostly can be biologically and culturally highly productive, the labor productivity is rather low. That means that a big share of all labor in a society where everybody grows their own food will be used for farming, food preparation and preservation, cooking and eating. Not such a bad life if there is no landlord or oppressive state that will squeeze any surplus out of the farmer. But the self-sufficient economy leaves little room for shopping malls, SUV:s, annual holiday trips to a beach thousand miles away. Perhaps not such a disaster? More difficult to accept for most would be that the surplus is not enough for hospitals with intensive care or legions of academics or musicians. Those who practice self-sufficiency can testify that they have problems to ends meet and will contribute little tax money for the government and may not attend concerts or other cultural performances very often. They will rarely afford to buy other people’s services. Total self-sufficiency is not possible or desirable, and cannot be the foundation of human civilization as cooperation is a defining characteristic of humans. But increasing the level of self-sufficiency in food and other essentials is a path away from even further division of labor.
Most peoples’ minds are stuck in the market paradigm and blinded by a Cold War dichotomy of “free markets” versus Soviet style planned economy. In my view, it is utterly depressing to envision that there would be no other options. And certainly, there is no scientific basis whatsoever for such an idea. It is flabbergasting that those who state that human creativity, and not nature’s resources, is the source of all development and progress find it impossible to believe that we could have other systems than markets or planned economy. After all, throughout history, the way most people got their food was neither from the market nor from government bureaucracies.
To liberate or withdraw an increasing share of the food we eat from the chains of the market is, in my view, one of the major transformations needed. This can take many forms such as self-sufficiency, community supported agriculture, communal farming, food assemblies and urban farming. It will also lead to a localization of food and communal nature resource management as suggested by the landscape model. Once we enter that path in numbers we will find new ways. When many walk there, local and national governments will have to follow to be relevant. Thereby we can create virtuous cycles where government policies reinforce peoples’ actions and they in turn create both pressure and conditions for even more reformed policies.