Global food systems and contradictions

Global food systems are not confined to production. There are also a massive complexity of commercial interactions. All this is in the context of an economic system we call capitalism which, while food access a public essential, due to own internal logic food is primarily produced for exchange rather than use.

Now George Monbiot has published a thought-provoking article linking food and financial systems in The Guardian (19 May) where he has a regular column: Banks collapsed in 2008; now food systems? 

Monbiot, a British environmental and political activist who has also written several books, argues that “…the global food system is beginning to look like the global financial system in the run-up to 2008.” He notes that while financial collapse would be “…devastating to human welfare, food system collapse doesn’t bear thinking about.”

George Monbiot: global food system beginning to resemble global financial system before 2008 global recession

Monbiot focusses on the current surge in food prices. While it is  generally assumed that this crisis is caused by a combination of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, he drills down further to argue that these two events are aggravating a more dangerous underlying situation.

From 2005 to 2015 there had been a trend of declining numbers of undernourished people  from 811 million to 607 million (nothing to be proud of but the trend was at least in the right direction). However, 2015 was a turning point with global hunger rising ever since (650 million in 2019 and 811 million in 2020). 2021 is expected to prove to be much worse.

Massive contradiction

Contradictions are central to the functioning of capitalism. Global food systems are not exempt from this dynamic. Here is its contradiction and what a massive contradiction it is. At the same time as global hunger is on the increase, so has global food production.

In fact, this abundance has been rising steadily for more than half a century; even greater than population growth. But only in the past two years has it surged thereby making it a major driver of inflation.

So why do we have significantly increasing food production and hunger concurrently? Monbiot provides an insightful answer – the complexity of a system that develops spontaneously from billions of interactions” thereby creating “counterintuitive properties.”

When under sufficient stress these properties start transmitting shocks through the network. There is a critical threshold where “a small disturbance can tip the entire system over” to an extent that collapse is possible.

Complexity of global food systems

Describing them as connecting nodes, Monbiot identifies food production’s inter-dependencies. They include corporations trading grain, seed and farm chemicals, major exporters and importers, and ports linked together through commercial and institutional relationships.

Counter-intuitiveness

The counter-intuitiveness arising out of this systemic complexity is that where these nodes are weak, and subject to behaviours, the system is likely to be resilient; conversely if certain nodes become dominant, behave in similar ways and are strongly connected, the food system is likely to be fragile.

An estimated four corporations control 90% of the global grain trade. But there is more. These corporations have been buying into seed, chemicals, processing, packing, distribution and retail. This has set the scene for a further contradiction; while food production has become locally more diverse, globally it has become less diverse with wheat, rice, maize and soy comprising almost 60% of the calories grown by farmers.

Similarly food production is now highly concentrated in a handful of nations, including Russia and Ukraine, the global network is increasing streamlined, and the industry is becoming “tightly coupled” to the financial sector. The food system is more and more vulnerable not only to its internal frailties, but also environmental and political disruptions that might interact with each other.

Changing drivers; from exchange only to use

There is an urgent need to diversify global food production and break the control of the big corporations and financial speculators. In the words of George Monbiot:

“If so many can go hungry at a time of unprecedented bounty, the consequences of the major crop failure that environmental breakdown could cause defy imagination. The system has to change.”

The problem, however, is that the tendency of the economic system we call capitalism is for increasing monopolistic power to accelerate this pursuit of not just profits but, more so, profit maximisation. This means narrowing the scope of food production at the expense of reducing global hunger.

The global food system desperately requires major reform in order for a humanitarian public good to be achieved (reducing on route to ending global hunger). But inherent economic drivers create behaviours which ensure that food production is primarily for exchange rather than use values.

Until this is resolved, this perverse outcome of increasing food production and increasing hunger globally can be expected to continue.

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