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Future of Food

Keith Parkins | 24.01.2005 16:25 | Analysis | Ecology | Globalisation

The Future of Food, a conference organised by Resurgence, held at the City of London Girls School at the Barbican in the City of London, Saturday 22 January 2005.

An excellent line up of speakers: Jerry Mander (International Forum on Globalization), Tim Lang (one of the few academics not in the pocket of the food industry), Vandana Shiva (Indian activist), Caroline Lucas MEP, Colin Tudge (food writer). Satish Kumar (editor of Resurgence) chaired the meeting.

To set the tone, arranged before the platform was a display of mouth-watering vegetables – carrots, potatoes, leeks, etc. I assume all organic, all traditional varieties. Looking far fresher than anything I see on local farmers markets. These were given away at the end, help yourself.

Around the hall were various stalls, including a bookstall and a stall by HDRA, which had some traditional seed varieties.

I will not try to attribute comments to individual speakers, just note what was said, and where necessary, expand. There will be much I will unintentionally leave out, others please feel free to feel in the gaps.

The conference was filmed and taped. This will be made available at a later date.

The world has become richer, more food is produced, and yet more people starve, go without a decent meal. More people subsist on less than $2 a day.

The global food corporations would say they are in the business of feeding the world. They are not, they are in the business of greed, of feeding themselves. By their very actions they make people go hungry, by forcing people off their land. Even where people are not forced off their land, they are still worse off, as they are pushed into the agribusiness model of reliance upon expensive inputs, oil, water, capital.

We are losing genetic diversity by application of the global business model, one size fits all.

The global business model is unsustainable, the cracks are beginning to show. There are growing shortages of water and energy, which will lead to future conflicts.

The cracks are beginning to show within government and within big business. They may not be making these fears public, but they are worried.

One of the biggest worries is health. The problem of malnutrition, overconsumption of the wrong foods: heart diseases, obesity, diabetes.

We are being hit by a wall of fat, a wall of sugar.

This is no longer a problem only of the West. It is increasingly seen in the Third World, even in sub-Saharan Africa.

WHO produced health guidelines. George W Bush intervened personally to try and get these guidelines watered down.

A can of coke contains the equivalent of several cubes of sugar. We cannot exercise this off, not unless you are going to run a half-marathon every day.

Coke are not only churning out junk, they are also damaging local communities with their water extraction and bottling plants. For each litre of coke, they generate 10 litres of polluted water. Each plant is extracting 2 million litres of water day.

There is now a massive campaign in India, to boycott coke.

We need to reduce our intake of fats, sugar, meat, and increase our intake of nuts, grains, pulses, fruit and vegetables. Especially we need to increase our intake of fish, as fish provides long chain fatty molecules, omega-3. Herein lies a dilemma, health wise we need to increase our input of fish, ecologically we need to reduce fish consumption as many fish stocks are over-fished.

Fish farms and shrimp farms are an ecological disaster. Apart from the pollution these farms cause, they require high inputs, and are putting pressure on wild fish stocks that form the inputs.

Fish farms in south east Asia have caused a loss of mangrove swamps. The loss of mangrove swamps, which would have acted as a buffer, has made the impact of the tsunami far worse than it would otherwise have been.

Modern houses are being built without kitchens. What do we need kitchens for, when we can go to the superstore and buy a ready meal and stick it in the microwave? Why waste time cooking, when you can use the time saved watching television?

At the Last Supper, Christ talked of the bread representing his body, the wine his blood. The church has reduced this to a thin wafer and a sip of syrupy wine. Buddha talked of holding a loaf and holding the cosmos in his hand.

We would do well to learn to bake bread, to learn to cook food. We each have the right to an allotment if we choose to exercise that right.

Supermarkets are not about choice, it is an illusion of choice. We are losing all our traditional varieties.

Supermarkets are not about cheap food. No money is made on the back of selling cheap food. They are in the business of selling cheap ingredients expensively packaged.

Bread at a master baker, may cost over £1 a loaf, but it is a meal in its self. The plastic loaf from a superstore may only cost 20p, but it is lacking in substance. It has to be supplemented with junk extras, making it an expensive alternative.

Do farmers deserve to exist? Not unless they heed the wishes of the public and grow what the public wants to eat. Not unless they farm in an ecologically sound and sustainable way. For too long, they existed on subsidies and took the public for granted, in doing so, they lost public support.

Viable farms are small family farms. They are far more productive. Even the World Bank admits to this, but wants to see them driven out of business as they only supply themselves and local markets. The World Bank wants to see them orientated to trade, to supplying world markets.

When farmers open themselves to world markets, they put themselves at the mercy of big business. Farmers in the UK, are just at much at the mercy of global markets as farmers in India.

Experiments by the school Vandana Shiva has helped to set up, equivalent of the Schumacher College in Devon (southwest England), show small farms, traditional methods, traditional varieties, are far more productive.

We only need large quantities of water to wash down the inputs.

Traditional and regional dishes, apart from being more nutritious, help safeguard traditional farming methods, traditional varieties.

Travel a few miles in India, and the cuisine changes, the mix of crops grown change.

British agriculture, with its emphasis on cheap food and cutting corners, has been a recipe for disaster – BSE, foot and mouth, salmonella etc.

EU rules need to be changed, to allow schools and hospitals to give preferential treatment to local suppliers.

We need better education of consumers, so they don't buy cheap junk food.

If quality food is too dear, the answer is not cheap food, but eco-taxes and raising social payments so the poor do not suffer.

Science was accused of being the problem, but this was countered with, not science but bad science, bad scientists.

It is companies like Monsatan who use bad science. In Indonesia, Monsatan has been caught trying to bribe officials to accept flawed data.

The future of food is balanced on a knife edge, it could go one of two ways. We do not have the luxury of it remaining as it is, even if we wished it too, as it is unsustainable. We could have a high-tech future, genetically modified nutrients individually tailored. Only affordable by the rich. Or we could have ecologically sound agricultural systems, where food sovereignty is paramount.

Whichever way it goes it is for us to decide. If we don't decide, it will not be fate that chooses for us, but global corporations and corrupt politicians.

Further reading

Christine Ahn, Shafted: Free Trade and America's Working Poor, Food First Book, 2003

Joel Bakan, The Corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power, Penguin, 2004

Joanna Blythman, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, Fourth Estate, 2004

Jose Bove and Francois Dufour, The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food, Verso, 2001

Kevin Bundell, Forgotten Farmers: Small Farmers, Trade and Sustainable Agriculture, Christian Aid, June 2002

Chris Critser, Fat Land, Penguin, 2003

Andy Jones, Eating Oil: Food Supply in a Changing Climate, SUSTAIN, 2001

Andrew Kimbrell (ed), Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Island Press, 2002

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, Chronicle Books, 2002

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, The Ecologist, April 2004

Tim Lang & Michael Heasman, Food Wars, Earthscan, 2004

Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label, Penguin, 2004

Caroline Lucas, Stopping the great food swap: Relocalising Europe's food supply, The Greens/European Free Alliance, European Parliament, March 2001

Caroline Lucas, Michael Hart and Colin Hines, Look to the Local: A Better Agriculture is Possible!, 2002

John Madeley, Hungry for Trade: How the Poor Pay for Free Trade, Zed Books, 2000

John Madeley, A People's World: Alternatives to Economic Globalisation, Zed Books, 2003

Erik Millstone and Tim Lang, The Atlas of Food: Who Eats what, where and why, Earthscan, 2003

Frances Moore Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet:, Ballantine Books, 1971, 1975

Frances Moore Lappé & Joseph Collins, Food First: A new action plan to break the famine trap, Abacus, 1979

Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, World Hunger: 12 Myths (2nd Ed), Food First Books, 1998

Frances Moore Lappé & Anna Lappé, Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, Tarcher Putnam

Marc Lappé & Britt Bailey, Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, Common Courage Press, 1998

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Diet and Health, U-Cal Press, 2002

Marion Nestle, Safe Food, University of California Press, 2003

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield & Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: The social, ecological and economic benefits of local food, International Society for Ecology and Culture, October 2000

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield & Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness, Zed Books, 2002

Keith Parkins, Genetic Engineering - Paradise on Earth or a Descent into Hell?, September 1999

Keith Parkins, Biopiracy and Intellectual Property Rights, December 1999

Keith Parkins, Tropical Shrimp Farms, March 2000

Keith Parkins, Globalisation - the role of corporations, September 2000

Keith Parkins, Localisation: A Move Away From Globalisation, November 2000

Keith Parkins, Killer-Coke Campaign, Corporate Watch news, 14 January 2004

Keith Parkins, Sowing Seeds of Dissent, Indymedia UK, 6 September 2004

Keith Parkins, Seeds of Dissent, September 2004

Pauline Pears (ed), HDRA Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Dorling Kindersley, 2001

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food, Columbia University Press, 2004

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2001

Devinder Sharma, Tsunami, mangroves and market economy, India Together, 11 January 2005

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, South End Press, 1999

Vandana Shiva, Water Wars, Pluto Press, 2002

John Seymour, The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, Dorling Kindersley, 2003

Jeffrey M Smith, Seeds of Deception, Yes! Books, 2003

Colin Tudge, So Shall We Reap, Penguin, 2003

Kathryn Tulip and Lucy Michaels, A Rough Guide to the UK Farming Crisis, Corporate Watch, May 2004

Bill Vorley, Food Inc, UK Food Group/IIED, 2004

Keith Parkins
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Display the following 2 comments

  1. riches — - -
  2. re the bread — cash crop