In keeping with my efforts to alert this audience to sources that are not seen as often in diaries here I have an article by Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor at Cornell University and Brian Tokar, a long-time activist and author, and current director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Plainfield, Vermont entitled Agriculture and Food in Crisis. The article appears in the July-August issue of Monthly Review. The article was sent to all the people in Charlie Sing's group. I have diaried about this group in the past. Read below the break and I will discuss their article.
In previous attempts to raise this issue here I found that we are a very mixed group. Some say these warnings are too mild and others are quick to dismiss them. If nothing else, this suggests the that the level of understanding of these issues in the general population must be even more divided. If so, we have our work cut out for us. Magdoff and Tokar start out by telling us this:
"Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?," asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.
In 2008 people woke up to a tsunami of hunger sweeping the world. Although the prospect of rising hunger has loomed on the horizon for years, the present crisis seemed to come out of the blue without warning. Food riots spread through many countries in the global South as people tried to obtain a portion of what appeared to be a rapidly shrinking supply of food, and many governments were destabilized.
The causes for the extraordinary spike in food prices in 2008, doubling over 2007 prices, brought together long-term trends, at work for decades, with a number of more recent realities.1 The most important long-term trends leading to current situation include:
* increased diversion of corn grain and soybeans to produce meat as the world’s per capita meat consumption doubled in about forty years. As much as 95 percent of calories are lost in the conversion of grain and soybeans to meat.
* decreased food production associated with poor countries adopting the neoliberal paradigm of letting the "free market" govern food production and distribution;
* widespread "depeasantization," partially caused by neoliberal "reforms" and International Monetary Fund (IMF) mandated "structural adjustments," as conditions forced peasant farmers off the land and into urban slums, where one-sixth of humanity now lives; and
* increasing concentration of corporate ownership and control over all aspects of food production, from seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, to the grain elevators, processing facilities, and grocery stores.
It is not possible to read those words without becoming alarmed unless you think they are making this up. They are not newly discovering the problem:
Hungry for Profit
Many of the trends discussed ten years ago in the summer issue of Monthly Review, Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (later issued in book form5) continue to this day:
* the disruption of nutrient cycles with the spread of capitalist agriculture and the more recent move toward large-scale, factory-style animal production facilities;
* the ecological damage caused by chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive agricultural practices;
* the great extent of consolidation (both horizontal and vertical integration) in the input and processing sectors of the agrifood system;
* farmers increasingly working as laborers for agribusiness, often under contract to large integrated meat-producing corporations;
* the role of genetically modified (GM) seeds in consolidating corporate control over the input sector and farm practices overall;
* the difficulties presented to the third world by the various provisions of the World Trade Organization;
* the mass migration of peasants from the countryside of the third world (depeasantization), and into urban slums where there are few jobs available;
* the extent of hunger amidst plenty in the United States, with many anti-hunger organizations focusing on the most immediate emergencies, thus leaving the deeper issue of poverty unaddressed;
* the importance of land reform and the benefits of reducing or eliminating reliance on commercial fertilizers and pesticides;
* and, the resulting emergence of organizations within the United States and worldwide that are not satisfied with the system and are working to develop new solutions to feed communities and protect the land.
Things have changed in the course of the last decade, of course. However, the basic trends continued and have become deeper and more ingrained in the system. For example, the many ecological disasters associated with conventional agricultural production have only gotten worse. These include pollution of groundwater and surface water with nitrates, phosphates, sediments, and pesticides; contamination of food; nutrient depletion on farms that raise crops, even while nutrient-rich wastes accumulate to dangerously polluting levels in large-scale animal production facilities; and increasing spread of antibiotic resistant microbes due to the routine use of antibiotics in factory-raised livestock. The main driving force of the agrifood system is, of course, the never ending goal of continual generation of profits. Little appears to stand in the way of a system that worships, as Rachel Carson put it, the "gods of profit and production."
As we watch the Obama miracle unfold, it becomes more and more evident that he inherited a very large set of nasty problems. There is something else though. He also is not superman and has to do whatever he is going to do with the same government structure that got us here. In other words, these, among the many other problems he is confronting, have a live of their own and are interconnected within a very cumbersome but stable system. That system by its nature is unable to offer the avenues by which it will be changed in anything but trivial ways. The testimony of these authors concerning the fact that things only get worse is sobering if not downright frightening.
The article goes on describing the present situation and then ends with an apparently simple idea:
"Food for people, not for profit" must be the slogan of the new agrifood systems.
Here we go again, Whether it be health care reform, climate, energy, or now agriculture, we confront that same word "profit" over and over again.
It gives rise to the same comments every time because it is the most misunderstood word we read in these commentaries. Profit is a word with the kind of lack of contextual definition that makes it almost impossible to discuss rationally. Profit as a simple way of making sure that the sacrifice of what one owns to enable a goods or services outcome to happen is as value neutral as one could imagine. But when used in the context we use it in discussing these and related problems it does not have a neutral meaning at all. It is the one word that captures a value system that is both intricate and anti-human. It describes an attitude that strips away the consequences of activities and justifies them solely on the illusion that all that is involved is a fair return on investment. What is missed is that the return is only fair when it is measured against its cost in human terms. This is not a merely financial issue. It is an issue about immediate gratification. It is an issue about hiding real costs that escape having anyone in the profit making position responsible for covering as part of the overall deal. It is structural and deeply embedded in all we do. This discussion needs to be totally re-framed and we had better do that quickly for we have squandered far too much time already. "Profit" must never be allowed to prevent a just and humane system from existing. So far it has. This needs to be changed. Yes we can!