Heavy price to pay for industrial food production


Jennifer Clapp,

Polity, €15.50; no Kindle

Review: Dan MacCarthy

Among the more chilling statistics in this book is the one about the average western breakfast. The globetrotting meal on your plate is likely to have travelled a combined 2,400km by the time it reaches your stomach.

Clapp explains how this ‘distance’ also includes a mental concept of our knowledge of food production where consumers are lacking in a full understanding of the natural and human conditions under which the food is produced. The lack of knowledge of the various stages in the control of food production is a very serious failing in the consumer. Contrarily, it is argued, if the variety of food that arrives on your table is in good condition then the function of delivery has been achieved already. No need to worry about how it got there.

Well, there is. A Bangladeshi farmer who had been able to sell a bag of wheat for $8 is suddenly undercut by a commodities’ trader in Beijing and will now only receive $3. The availability of out-of-season strawberries year-round in a cold climate is a classic example of a foodstuff that has metaphorically travelled well beyond its sell-by date. This concept has spawned the slow food movement.

The rapacious diet of the marketplace — do we really need 20 varieties of grapes? — has had huge knock-on effects to the environment. Massive industrial-scale production has led to huge biodiversity loss and has exposed populations to toxins.

The scale of global demand for food saw a huge fall in prices for farmers and other food producers in 2007-2008. Nobody is sure why: ‘supply and demand fundamentals’; macro economic conditions, biofuel policies, trade practices and financial speculation on commodities’ markets were all posited. Inevitably, food riots followed across the world. The Food and Agriculture Organisation said that in one year 150m people joined the ranks of the hungry.

Clapp demonstrates that this expansion of what she calls ‘the global food economy’ didn’t happen overnight. It was shaped by forces, often acting separately, over an extended period. Global food markets which have been in existence for over a century were given further impetus by industrialised countries and especially the US from the 1940s on. This gradually cemented the “the global adoption of the industrial-agricultural model” as well as international markets for foodstuffs.

In an increasingly complex argument that Clapp does well to unmuddy, she shows how the development of the world food economy is not the full picture: a great number of “middle spaces” where control and influence of markets are wielded by “intermediaries”.

In 2008 the G8 adopted the l’Aquila Joint Statement on Food Security with is stated aims including “increasing agricultural productivity, stimulus to pre- and post-harvest interventions. emphasis on private sector growth, smallholders women and families and preservation of the natural resource base”.

Later that year the G20 and others endorsed the plan — $20bn over three years was pledged. Only $421m has been lodged thus far.

Clapp’s is a story that needs to be heeded.


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