Our global food system is broken, and anyone who takes the time to look at it can see this. The main thing that makes it obvious to even a casual observer is that we actually have more than enough agricultural output each year to feed the entire world – and yet hundreds of millions of people across the globe continue to be hungry. It should be an outrage on all of our lips, but it’s actually mostly swept under the carpet and ignored by those of us who are fortunate enough to have food on our plates. However, the UN has started to take notice, with the special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter recently releasing a very detailed report on the matter.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest problems with the system. Perhaps worst of all, poor countries are forced to grow food not to feed their own people but to pay off their debts. Because of the debts incurred by countries in Africa and Latin America during the 20th century – mostly money given by exploitative banks to corrupt dictators – developing nations need to get their hands on as much foreign currency as they possibly can, just to keep paying off the interest and avoid defaulting. This means they end up producing flowers, coffee, cocoa, and, particularly in the case of Latin America, meat and soybeans. These products have no nutritional value for the average hungry citizen, or, in the case of meat, are totally unaffordable to locals. They are all shipped out to the richer countries at low prices in attempt to pay off debts that should be cancelled anyway, and take up valuable agricultural land that could be used to grow edible crops for local people.
Meanwhile, the rich world has its own farmers, who produce wheat and other grains and animal products primarily, as well as some oil crops and soy beans. Due to the higher living cost in these countries, much of this produce would be very expensive – but the rich nations pay subsidies to the farmers to help them keep the cost down. So the taxes of ordinary people are given to the (usually rich) landowners in these countries to perform a service that is completely inefficient. In fact, the subsidies actually make the process even less efficient, as the farmers are encouraged to produce too much – there are so-called mountains of butter and lakes of milk going to waste in Europe because there is simply too much of it for people to eat. We could give it to the poor in other countries – but, of course, they can’t afford it, so we’d rather let it rot.
All of that is ridiculous enough, but our food system is also accelerating climate change. Industrial agriculture damages the environment through its intensive use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers; the raising of cattle for beef and milk contributes to greenhouse gases through the production of methane; and the transport of food all over the world, as opposed to encouraging people to eat food that is locally produced, requires a huge use of carbon-spewing fuel.
As an alternative, the UN’s special rapporteur is going to be encouraging small scale farms that focus on diverse crops and food sources, rather than singular cash crops; environmentally production methods that don’t rely on chemicals; and end to biofuel targets (an increasing amount of the crops we grow around the world are simply added to gasoline to make it ‘greener’); and an end to food waste in the rich nations. All of these are good steps, but it will take strong action from the UN if we are to implement them. After all, the current global food system may seem crazy, but it continues to operate in this way for a good reason – because some people make a lot of money from it. Those people will resist change for as long as they can, even if the current system hurts and exploits the poor – it will take a concerted effort from all of us to support the UN in bringing about something more sustainable and more just.
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