EVEN as hundreds of millions go hungry, food has a low price tag attached to it in the global market. This is because we have externalised many of the costs of producing and consuming it. We let someone else - nature, other people, future generations, taxpayers - foot the bill for climate change, for loss of biodiversity, for eutrophication, for nitrates and pesticides in our groundwater or even for losing the water or the soil altogether. It has become painfully clear that we can no longer afford cheap food.
An unsustainable system
Cheap food allows a growing proportion of the global population to eat meat, fresh vegetables and fruits all year round, something most people could only dream of a few generations back - and something many people in the world can still only dream of. People live longer, are taller and are generally healthier than in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. But the current food system has also produced obesity, allergies and other diseases, and destroyed the environment and devastated farming communities.
Our whole food system contributes at least a third of manmade total greenhouse gas emissions. The extraction of water for irrigation exceeds the regeneration of water sources in many parts of the world. Pesticides cause a major loss of biodiversity and hundreds of thousands of direct deaths among farmers and farm workers. Nobody really knows how they affect other aspects of our health. The European Nitrogen Assessment concluded that farmers using nitrogen fertilisers create costs for society at large that are on par with the economic benefits for them.1 European chickens or Chinese pigs are, to a very large extent, fed soy protein from Latin America, much of it from the Cerrado, the Amazon or the Pampa, landscapes which are razed and raped by agribusiness. The extinction of species and the greenhouse gas emissions caused by this are also not included in the price of chicken breast or pulled pork.
That almost a billion people don't have enough to eat, while even more eat too much and huge quantities of food are simply wasted, also shows that the food and farming system is socially unsustainable. For most farmers in the world, farming is not economically viable. Global competition causes the abandonment of farms even in large parts of Europe where almost a hundred million hectares of farmland has been abandoned in the last 50 years.2 Rich countries such as Sweden which could be almost self-sufficient in food import increasing quantities of foods, but even more troubling is that many of the least developed countries have become net importers of food. Sub-Saharan Africa went from a 14% surplus of calories to a 13% deficit in the last 50 years.3
Farming has become one of the most capital-intensive businesses. The very successful Danish farms have an average debt of $1.6 million per farm.4 In the United States the total farm assets in 2014 amounted to $3 trillion,5 corresponding to $1.2 million per full-time job. Low labour cost is no longer a comparative advantage in crops where production is easily mechanised, such as the main staples. On the contrary, low prices for staple crops make it impossible for small farms to mechanise production, which is why more than 80% of the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and around half of the farmers in Asia and Latin America still farm manually. Such farmers would have to devote all their monetary income over a whole lifetime to upgrade to ox-ploughing. However, they are still, mostly, (just) above the threshold of survival, which means that they will continue to farm as long as there are no more promising alternatives beyond agriculture.6
By and large farmers are stuck on a treadmill. They are forced by competition to increase productivity, and the increased productivity leads to lower prices. Vanguard farms will constantly develop and improve and mostly increase in size, at the expense of their less successful counterparts. Larger farms are not normally more productive per area unit, but they do have lower costs of production. They will establish a new level of costs and prices, each time racking up the notch for the minimum efficiency needed to stay in business. For farmers who cannot participate in this stiff competition, there is no option except to get out. The fact that 'people will always need food' is small comfort for the farmer who cannot compete.
Chickens and commodification
A closer look at the major agricultural commodities helps us understand why things are as they are. Chicken consumption increased tenfold from 1961 to 2009 globally. The past practice of chicken rearing saw small numbers of chickens raised on waste products or seeking their own feed in the farmer's yard, the thicket or the manure heap - a very popular place for the animals. Chicken meat was relatively scarce and thus expensive in many cultures. Today chicken from broilers in the shape of nuggets, wings or strips are munched 24/7. There is hardly any other food that has increased its market share at such speed in such a short period. Why is that?
A trend analyst would explain that consumer choice is driving this, that consumers prefer white meat to red for health reasons, that chicken is low in fat, that chicken is an international food or that chicken is better for the climate than eating beef. Well, I'm no trend analyst and venture that the main explanation is that chicken has become much cheaper compared to other foodstuffs.
But we can go one step further and ask why chicken has become so much cheaper. In my book Global Eating Disorder, I examine why our food and farming system has developed the way it has and explore the underlying causes. There are three megatrends that have shaped our food system over the last couple of centuries: 1) the commercialisation of the entire food system; 2) the use of energy and applied technology (e.g., in the form of machinery or nitrogen fertilisers) to replace animate labour and processes; and 3) demographic changes, such as population growth and urbanisation, and the related lifestyle changes.7
These three megatrends are mutually reinforcing. For example, the application of energy and mechanisation in farming, in particular the use of fossil fuels, has increased productivity per agriculture worker by between 50-200 times, which meant that the share of population engaged in farming dropped tremendously. Without fossil fuels, globalisation and massive urbanisation could not have happened. And without urbanisation, there would be little development of markets for agricultural products. Similarly, without commercialisation of farming, there would be little incentive to mechanise and use chemical fertilisers, as both presuppose market-driven farming.
With these mega-drivers as a background, we can discern some factors which have played a major role in the transformation of the luxury that was Sunday chicken into a very cheap food. Earlier, most farms with animals also produced their own feed. With the large-scale introduction of chemical fertilisers after World War II and improvements in transportation technologies, farms no longer had to integrate animals and crops. With increasing mechanisation, crop farmers could produce much cheaper grain, and later on also soybeans - increasingly grown in monocultures. The grains were sold to specialised livestock farmers, including chicken producers.
Chickens, just like humans, depend on sunlight to produce vitamin D. Therefore chickens would feed on worms and other insects in the yard and would be fed maize when they went back into the chicken house. Once farmers realised they could simply add vitamin D and other vitamins and medications to the chicken feed, they no longer had to let the chickens outdoors. Meanwhile, technology for automatic feeding had been invented. Now, the industrialisation of both broilers and laying hens could proceed apace. Mechanisation of the whole slaughtering process helped to reduce prices and increase volumes. In just over 50 years, the number of chickens produced in the United States increased 14-fold, while the number of farms having chickens dropped from 1.6 million to just 27,000.8 Half of all American broilers now come from farms producing more than 700,000 chicks per year.9 Big food industries came in and contracted producers for their brands and provided them with technologies and markets. At the beginning of this century three-quarters of global chicken production were in the hands of agribusiness companies.10
The development of broiler production was paralleled by developments in the processing, marketing and consumer side. The birds themselves are torn into pieces and reconfigured in a multitude of products such as nuggets and strips. In 1930 the then 40-year-old KFC founder Harland Sanders (who never was a real Colonel) was operating a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, and it was there that he began cooking for hungry travellers who stopped in for gas. He called it 'Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week'. Today, KFC, together with Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, is part of Yum! Brands, Inc., the world's leading restaurant company with over 40,000 restaurants and 1.5 million people employed in more than 125 countries and territories.11
Chicken breeding is extremely concentrated as a result of high research expenditure and the capital-intensive nature of the chicken business. By the late 2000s only three sizeable breeding groups remained for broilers: Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen and Groupe Grimaud.12 Two breeders control 94% of the supply of laying hens.13 All these developments have had profound impact on the main character of the story, Gallus gallus. In just half a century, the breeders created two different specialist chickens, each one incredibly efficient for its specific purpose. A typical laying hen of today needs 1.99 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of eggs, while a broiler hen will need 5.22 kg of feed for the same quantity. But the broiler chicken is far superior in converting feed to meat. To produce 1 kg of live weight the broiler needs only 1.7 kg of feed, while the chicken of a laying hen needs 3.8 kg.14 Unfortunately, both the broiler and the laying hen are less efficient than their common ancestor in being a chicken.
Today 300 million male chicks of egg-laying hens are killed in the European Union each year as soon as they hatch, because it is uneconomical to raise them for meat15 since meat from chickens especially bred for meat production is cheaper. Many of them, and their American siblings, are consigned to 'Instantaneous Mechanical Destruction', which is a technical way of saying they are ground up alive.16 Hens that no longer lay eggs also pose a disposal problem and are burnt or thrown into wood-chipping machines, sometimes alive.17
The chicken industry provided a blueprint for the industrialisation of livestock. The capital-intensive model cuts out small farmers and pastoralists and is built on the use of bought-in inputs: feeds, medicines, technologies and breeding stock as well as external knowledge. The production model bears a close resemblance to assembly industries, and producers all over the world use the same breeds, feed and technology. The notion of landscape, place or culture in our foods has totally lost any meaning under these conditions. What is particularly disturbing with the commercialisation of animal production is that it doesn't take into account that animals are living, sentient beings. Through the commodification of animals, their welfare and their ability to exercise their natural behaviours have become externalities - side factors of production - just as the landscape has in plant production.
The myth of choice
We might believe that we chose to eat a certain food, that it is the consumer who is the conductor of the whole food system, but that is an erroneous starting point for a conversation about which foods we eat and which we should eat. Our palates have been shaped over centuries to like some things and dislike others. Differences in local foods and food preferences are proof not of how different from each other we are, but of how well we adapt to what is available. Swedes liked herring and cheese, Bantu people liked cassava and goat stew, and people in South East Asia preferred rice. Fermentation, drying, freezing and curing have all played different roles in different countries. If you lived in the humid tropics, your culture would never develop cured ham, as the conditions for making the ham do not exist in such a climate. The availability of fats and fuels determined your favourite style of frying or roasting or if you mostly ate food boiled in water. Our food preferences were thus by and large dictated by the local ecological context we lived in.
With fossil fuel and capitalism, this all changed. Today, our food choices are by and large determined by the economy instead of ecology. In most parts of the industrial and urbanised world, people hardly eat anything that comes from close by. Consumption has no direct link to local agriculture, which is organised in the same way as modern assembly lines, with parts being delivered from all over the globe to be assembled as a Gorby's pizza, a McDonald's hamburger or a Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Indonesians consumed a stunning 14 billion packages of instant wheat noodles in 2012.18 What is strange about that? Indonesia produces no wheat at all - what has become a national dish is based on a raw material that is completely imported. The history of wheat in Indonesia began in 1969 when the United States extended food aid in the form of wheat flour and wheat to Indonesia. Indonesia's wheat imports outweigh the total agriculture development budget in this nation of 250 million people.19
Does this mean that people have almost unlimited choice from the global supermarket? Not quite. To be sure, when one stands in front of a supermarket shelf or sits at a table reading a restaurant menu, there are many choices. But before we face all those choices, a number of people have already made the selection for us to choose from. Governments and agribusiness are choice architects and they shape what consumers can and cannot buy.
The modern food system is simultaneously moving towards uniformity and diversity. Globalisation gives many people access to many more kinds of foods than before, but at the same time the differences between regional cuisines are diminishing. We are easily duped by the bright colours of marketing messages and packaging. A supermarket may carry some 50,000 food items, but a very large part of them are variations made out of the 'Big Five' - wheat, maize, palm oil, sugar and soybeans - spiced, coloured, preserved and texturised with additives.
Globally our farming system is still based on a few grains, root crops and oil crops supplemented with animals. Most meat is also produced from the same staples. Almost no new plants or animals have been domesticated in the last centuries, so in that regard our food system is still determined by the choices of generations of ancient farmers. The balance between the staples has changed and instead of being bound to one or two staples, we can now eat rice, pasta, potatoes, cornflakes, meat, milk, cheese etc.
Armies provided a development field for logistics, food processing and, not least, mass catering, which also served the masses in the rapidly growing cities. World War II reshaped the food preferences of American citizens, both those who were drafted into the armed forces and civilians at home. This transformation of diet was influenced by the food industry and government alike. It also helped American food industries to conquer new markets. The President of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff, ordered that every man in uniform should be able to get a bottle of the beverage for 5 cents wherever he was and whatever it cost the company. In 1943, General Dwight D Eisenhower sent an urgent cablegram to Coca-Cola requesting shipment of materials for 10 bottling plants. 'During the war, many people enjoyed their first taste of the beverage, and when peace finally came, the foundations were laid for Coca-Cola to do business overseas,' is how the Coca-Cola Company describes the effect on its website.20
In the United States, four companies control 80% of the meat market, three companies control 80% of maize exports and 65% of soy exports, and four companies control 60% of the domestic grain market. The top 10 food and beverage firms (the three largest are Nestl‚, Pepsico and Kraft) control an estimated 28% of the global market. The top five breweries have around 50% of the market while the top 10 wine marketers have around 16% of the market.21 And if you cannot beat your competition, you can just buy them out. Increasingly, huge multinationals have bought up pioneer organic companies or other premium brands. Many companies integrate 'upstream' production (i.e., farmers and other suppliers) and 'downstream' sales (outlets, agents), which allows them to extend their control of the chain. Most of the transnational companies in the food sector are from the United States or Western Europe, but times are changing. Brazil-based JBS SA is now bigger than Unilever, Cargill and Danone, and slaughters 85,000 heads of cattle, 70,000 pigs and 12 million birds. Each day. In September 2013, China's Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. bought US-based Smithfield, the world's biggest pork producer.22
The production and supply of inputs to farms is also highly concentrated. The global commercial seed market in 2009 was worth $27 billion, with the top 10 companies having three-quarters of the market. Three of them controlled more than half of the market and one, Monsanto, now controls more than one-quarter of the commercial seed market. The concentration in the agrochemical market is even higher, with the top 10 having 90% of the global market.23 Five of the top six agrochemical companies are also on the list of the world's biggest seed companies. Monsanto is the world's largest seed company and fourth-largest pesticide company. Monsanto's seeds that are genetically modified to work together with the company's flagship herbicide, Roundup, constitute a clear example of a successful strategy.
The most spectacular development in the food chain in recent decades, however, is not the might of Coca-Cola or Nestl‚, but the increased influence of retailers. In 2008, Walmart recorded sales of $436 billion from 7,657 stores (this corresponded to the GDP of Sweden), Carrefour $161 billion, Metro Group $116 billion and Tesco $109 billion. In 1992, the top five supermarket chains in the United States had a market share of less than 20%; by 1999, that share had increased to one-third and in 2012 the four largest retailers sold more than half of the groceries. In Australia, the two giants Coles and Woolworths now control about 80% of grocery sales, and in Sweden, ICA alone has half the retail market.24
The power of the supermarkets is also strengthened by the spread of retailer-owned brands and private labels. The retail share of private labels among food products has reached almost 60% in Switzerland and between 20% and 40% in most other Western European countries.25 The retailers try to uphold the idea that we have choices by introducing many different private brands. The biggest retailer in Britain, Tesco, has many own brands: Value, Standard, Finest, Discount, Light Choices, Organic, Free From, Whole Foods and finally Disney Kids, which was introduced in 2007 'to help parents by providing a range of nutritionally balanced food that children will engage with and enjoy'. This range includes a Mickey Mouse-shaped pizza.26
Cooking and eating were for a long time social and cultural activities done within the household or in the community, with the work being done without pay and for no costs. Gradually, cooking and eating have become commercialised and acquired a totally different meaning and role in society. In the supermarkets we find a large supply of fully prepared meals, including ready meals of all types and takeaway food for consumption at home. In any week, 45% of Europeans and Americans consume such meals.27 The habit is also spreading rapidly to emerging economies where the consumption of convenience foods is increasing, partly due to increasing urbanisation: retail sales of ready meals in India and China grew by 26.9% and 11.8% respectively from 2003 to 2008.28
We have seen how food processing and retail follow an industrial logic. The same is true of the production of convenience foods. The web of suppliers to these operations is soÿcomplex that it proved very difficult to pin down the point at which horsemeat became beef in the European horsemeat scandal in early 2013. The factory that supplied Tesco with its 'horseburgers' was using 'multiple ingredients from some 40 suppliers in production batches, and the mixture could vary every half hour', according to the Irish department of agriculture.29
The tragedy of the market
Earlier, trade in foods was very limited and determined by needs or ecological adaptation. For example, farmers in plains traded grain for meat or yoghurt from pastoralists in mountains or deserts. In most cultures there existed 'markets' for exchange, but there were few cases where farmers oriented their production fully to sales in the market, and when they did so the market was mostly the town close by.
With the total integration of farms in national and global markets, the market, initially just a tool for distributing surpluses, has become the conductor of the whole food system, from farm to fork, determining how we farm, the whole social fabric and how, where and what we eat.
As farmers become integrated into the market economy, they no longer reproduce and regenerate their production system. The commercialisation of farming also leads us to view land, water and nature as private property and the life of the land, our symbionts, as commodities. It is this process that is the real tragedy for food. It also makes a large contribution to obesity because when food becomes a commodity its main purpose is to be consumed.
The challenge of feeding a growing population is formidable, but managing the planet's ecosystem is an even bigger challenge. Considering that farmed landscapes dominate more than half of the terrestrial area of the Earth,30 it is clear that the way we farm has an enormous impact on the planet's ecosystems; that human agricultural ecosystems must be seen as planetary ecosystems. Yet, the food and farming system is increasingly managed by signals from 'the market', which do not include the signals from these ecosystems: of the species threatened by extinction and the loss of biodiversity, of pollution and of greenhouse gas emissions. The market signals also don't include the feelings of the animals brutalised in our service. The system is simply not geared towards stewardship of the planet and living beings but to the maximisation of marketable output and profit.
The straight rows of endless monocultures in Mato Grosso are reflected in the aisles of the supermarket and the lanes of the highways full of lorries bringing goods into them and cars transporting food to people's homes. But the food system is a life support system and should be based on the principles of living systems, not on the perceived efficiency of the industrial model. Linear thinking and linear processes are fundamentally at odds with the cycles of nature, and, ultimately, nature still rules. The food system is not a smorgasbord where we can pick out the bits we like and keep those we don't like. What we eat, how we eat and how we farm are all interdependent. There is no way to produce good foods and biologically diverse landscapes in a containerised, standardised and monopolistic food system. We can't combine animal welfare with the view of animals as commodities. And we can't produce healthy foods with the use of chemicals.
It is no longer very controversial to question the direction our food system has taken. Today, expert bodies, such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, clarify that 'business as usual is not an option'.31 We simply have to find new ways, whether we want to or not. But we will only be able to find new ways if we understand the factors that determine how we farm, what we grow and what we eat. Most commentaries focus on the technical aspects of food production and farming, such as use of genetically modified organisms and chemical fertilisers, their benefits and drawbacks. But these technical aspects of farming are only parts of the problem or the solution. The food system is a social, ecological and economic system and needs to be viewed as such.
Towards a regenerative food system
Food and farming remain, together with energy, labour and housing, one of the most regulated parts of the economy, even before we consider all the cultural norms surrounding them. This is a recognition that the free market doesn't work. Or rather, that it does indeed work according to the textbooks, but we don't like the result of its workings.
Access to food should be an inalienable right. An equitable world will have the potential to feed everybody. It will certainly ensure that the food is distributed more fairly among the world's population. But distribution by the market is the antithesis of equitable sharing. We can still see in times of disaster, war or disturbance that societies rapidly shun the market as the main mechanism for distribution and public or community control over food are the preferred ways of ensuring proper sharing.
Instead of trying to squeeze more of the commons, such as land, water and seeds, into the market, we should rebalance food towards public goods. In this way ecosystem services and food production can be balanced within the same framework. The rethinking of food as a right, of farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons will lead us to develop new institutions that complement the roles of the market and the state.
There are ample opportunities to produce more foods with regenerative methods, such as organic farming and agroecology. Regenerative methods need nature and humans to be productive, but can't use the shortcuts introduced by linear methods, externalisation of costs and massive external energy use. For example, global plant production can be sustained on a high level with a combination of biological nitrogen fixation by leguminous plants in the fields, reduced losses, integration of animals and plants, and recycling of waste and human sewage (which has to be source separated). We can still feed as many persons as with chemical fertilisers, but under current economic conditions the cost will be higher as we need to use some of the resources to regenerate and reproduce the means of production. With regenerative food systems we will also need a higher share of the population engaged in food production. This in turn affects how many people can be engaged in producing iPhones and cars or serving us coffee. By and large, I think such a shift will only be good for society, culture and nature.
We need to build new relationships in the food system, new relationships that can gradually take over most of the food system. Those relationships should be based on food and farming as joint common activities. There should not be 'producers' and 'consumers', but co-production. Initiatives such as community-supported agriculture have the seeds for this. Consumption as a separate category should wither and we would cook and eat in harmony with production. There will most likely be markets in the future, but not 'the market' that we know today, the globalised market with unlimited competition.
Political actions of many kinds are needed. Some should be oriented to limiting the harm produced by the current system, such as bans on pesticides and harmful practices. We also need to throw sand or gravel in the machinery of unfettered global trade, as unlimited competition forces farmers and food industries into externalising costs. This includes opposition to privatisation of common resources, including fighting intellectual property rights; we need to expand the commons again. Other political actions should promote the development of alternatives. This can range from reallocating research funds from industrial farming models to regenerative farming, to revising tax codes to stimulate the numbers of people engaged in farming and facilitating emerging new economic relations.
Ultimately, it is about us as human beings. Are we ready for the great leap into an unknown future, based on new insights? Do we prefer the sterile and cheap ready-to-eat meal wrapped in plastic from the supermarket to the earthy smells and tastes of nature, combined with more sweat and toil? In the long term I don't think we have much choice. An increasing scarcity of key resources will make the choice for us. But the ride will be easier if we halt the depletion of resources and of nature and build a regenerative food system now, before we are faced with the possibility of worrying whether we will get any food at all before going to bed.
1 European Science Foundation. 2013. 'Nitrogen in Europe: Current problems and future solutions', part of The European Nitrogen Assessment. www.nine-esf.org.
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17 Chong, J-R. 2003. 'Wood-chipped chickens fuel outrage'. Los Angeles Times. 22 November 2003.
18 World Instant Noodles Association. 2014. 'Expanding Markets'. instantnoodles.org.
19 Jakarta Post. 2013. 'Indonesia caught in wheat trap'. 11 July 2013.
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29 Lawrence, F., P. Allen and P. Scruton. 2013. 'The complex food supply chain that led to the horsemeat scandal'. The Guardian. 22 October 2013. www.theguardian.com.
30 Ellis, E.C. and N. Ramankutty. 2008. 'Putting people in the map: Anthropogenic biomes of the world'. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(8): 439-447.
31 IAASTD. 2009. Agriculture at a Crossroads: Global Report. Washington, DC: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.
Published in Third World Resurgence No. 295, March 2015, pp 7-13