SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 204 Dec/Jan 2016/17

Feeding global warming

The Great Climate Robbery: how the food system drives climate change and what we can do about it

Edited by Henk Hobbelink

Published by New Internationalist, 2016, £9.99

Reviewed by Kate Jones

When we think of climate change and the forces driving it we generally think of energy – electricity generation from coal, gas and oil – and transport – the vehicles on our roads and planes in our skies. We protest against oil pipelines and fracking. But around half of all greenhouses gases are emitted directly or indirectly by the growing, transporting, storage, processing, packaging, retailing and wasting of food.

How this comes about, who benefits from it and what we can do to change it is outlined in The Great Climate Robbery, from the GRAIN collective, which describes itself as a "small international non-profit organisation working to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems". The book, a series of articles, makes compelling reading for anyone interested in where the world’s food comes from, who controls it, and the environmental impact.

Between 44% and 57% of all greenhouse gases come from the global food system. A staggering claim. But break it down and it becomes clearer.

Deforestation 15-18%: Expansion of agriculture accounts for most of global deforestation as forests are cut down for industrial-scale palm oil and soya plantations.

Farming 11-15%: Emissions from chemical fertilisers, fuel for machinery and vehicles, effluent and intensive livestock farming. Chemical fertilisers account for 3-5% of global emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful per unit mass than carbon dioxide.

Transport 5-6%: Food travels the globe to reach our plates. Grain from Argentina is fed to chickens in Chile which are processed in China and end up in a ‘happy meal’ in the US.

Processing and packaging 8-10%: The transformation of foods into ready-made meals, snacks and beverages requires energy for both processing and packaging. ‘Value-added’ products – a packet of crisps rather than a potato – are hugely profitable for global food conglomerates.

Freezing and retail 2-4%: Energy-intensive chilling and freezing play a role in preventing waste, but are at the heart of modern supermarket and fast-food procurement systems.

Waste 3-4%: The industrial food system discards up to half of the food it produces. Food waste in landfill or open garbage tips accounts for 90% of greenhouse gases from waste. Industrial-scale farming leads to increased wastage.

Just a few examples from the book demonstrate how the global food system works for profit, wreaking havoc for the poorest people and for the climate of the entire planet. For uncounted generations, farmers have saved, stored, exchanged and used seeds. The very origins of crop-growing and improving varieties lie in this practice. One problem: agribusiness makes no profit from it! Now, however, corporations are granted patents and other ‘rights’ which lead to farmers across the developing world being forced to purchase commercial seed, designed for industrial farming and reliant on fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.

Peasants’ own seeds are "decreed illegal, branded as inadequate, and treated as a source of risk to be eliminated". Until the 1970s, crop varieties were developed by government research stations or by small seed companies. Since then, "we have witnessed a massive process of large companies taking over smaller ones and public programmes giving way to the private sector". Today, just ten companies account for 55% of the global seed market: Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont… Not coincidentally, they also control 76% of the global agrichemical market.

Across India, millions of backyard dairy farmers, each owning one or two cows or buffalo, supply milk to millions of families and small enterprises like tea-stalls. Dairy is a significant source of income for poor rural families, contributing over 20% of India’s agricultural GDP. India is the world’s largest milk producer with 15% of global dairy output – 85% of it from individual producers and 96,000 dairy co-operatives, large and small. Most of the 108 million tons’ annual production is consumed domestically.

Enter so-called free trade agreements (FTAs) – such as the one between India and the EU – and the Indian government is pressured to allow foreign retailers into the domestic dairy market. Next will be the opening up of the Indian market to heavily subsidised powdered milk and other dairy products from the EU. While India’s farmers, co-ops and trade unions are at the forefront of current protests against the India-EU FTA, they may be unable to resist the onslaught of global agribusiness.

US-owned transnational Cargill, not a household name but one of the world’s biggest food companies, is investing millions of dollars into mega-dairy farms in India. The climate change implications are huge. A switch to industrial-scale dairy farms, transport, chilling/freezing and industrial processing all mean more emissions – but the profits to be made are massive.

Like other developing countries, Mexico is seen as both a producer and a market for cheap processed food, a source of easy profits for capitalism. On the production side, companies like Nestlé and Unilever use Mexico as a source of cheap labour and ingredients for processed food products. Local markets and corner shops (tiendas), selling mainly fresh produce, are replaced by outlets filled with these products. The food giants undercut the tiendas by cutting transport costs for their own products. Supermarkets and convenience stores have risen in only 20 years from 700 to tens of thousands. One chain owned by Coca-Cola now has 14,000 outlets. The takeover of Mexico’s food system was made possible by ‘free trade’ agreements with the USA and EU.

Mexicans, especially the urban and rural poor, pay a heavy price. With processed food now completely dominating the market, diet has changed drastically, with a switch to processed ‘junk’ food causing a toxic spiral of obesity and diabetes. Trade policies favour heavily processed and refined food rather than fresh, while the Mexican government’s ‘crusade against hunger’ is sponsored by PepsiCo! Meanwhile, Mexico’s increase in industrial-scale agriculture, packaging and transport stokes the fires of global warming.

The Great Climate Robbery gives socialists, climate activists and food campaigners a wealth of facts, figures and very thorough and useful references. The authors also spell out some steps they think need taking. They call for a reduction in pesticides and herbicides by a move from intensive monoculture towards small-scale and diverse farming. It is unclear what levels of productivity could be achieved under such a system, but it is a fact that the growth of industrial crops increases reliance on pesticides and herbicides.

In the last 50 years, an area the size of India has been taken over by four crops – oil palms, oilseed rape, soybeans and sugar cane. Small farmers, who produce the bulk of the world’s food, are squeezed into under a quarter of the farmland. Land redistribution would give them more say in land use and crops. The foods of affluence – meat and processed dairy – emit up to ten times more greenhouse gases per kilo than fruit, vegetables, pulses or rice. But a healthy diet needs fresh foods to be available, affordable and for people to have the time, knowledge and means to store and cook them. That is impossible in a shantytown or a run-down estate, with no access to affordable fresh food, if you have no cooker or fridge, or no money for the meter.

The authors recognise the need to confront the interests of governments, global agribusiness and the food industry. To socialists, the actions required are crystal clear. Nationalise the big food and agrichemical businesses. Redistribute land to small farmers or into state control. For research into new methods of food production (such as GM) to be in the hands of public bodies – not private corporations and their profits. Genuinely equitable trade not ‘free trade’. A reduction in the global consumption of meat and highly processed foods, with cheap community restaurants serving healthy food. A socialist plan of food production and distribution that prioritises a healthy diet and a sustainable food system – for the benefit of the people and planet.

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