Global Capitalism Has Pushed Our Food System to Breaking Point

by Adrienne Buller

29 October 2020

Design: Bronte Dow

Covid-19 has brought a new meaning to isolation, but the wearing down of our connections to community, to the natural world and to politics has long been a symptom of the neoliberal project. In this series, Adrienne Buller explores the new forms of connection we need to tackle the challenges of climate and environmental breakdown.

By what standard is a raw chicken breast ‘raw’?

Sweating on a cutting board in your kitchen, it may seem so. But in its journey to arrive there, plastic-wrapped and de-boned, it’s undergone dozens of controlled processes. Even prior to its conception, the chicken was likely selectively bred so it reached adulthood within weeks, with breasts so large it could scarcely move. It will have spent its brief life on antibiotics before being mechanically dismembered, packaged and shipped to the grocery store. Uncooked? Certainly. But a raw substance – something not yet altered by human processes – it is not. However, our total disconnection from the system behind its journey from crate to plate means it nonetheless seems this way – a disconnection that has enabled the growth of a system now at risk of unravelling.

Global food production, in its current form, is fundamentally unsustainable. Covid-19 has served as a reminder of the risks of intensive livestock farming for global health, whether the crossover of zoonotic illnesses to humans or antimicrobial resistance. The (largely migrant) workers in industrial meat processing facilities are often considered “disposable assets”, and while in the US the use of prison labour to fight Californian wildfires has rightly sparked outrage, comparatively little attention has been given to how the meat industry exploits prisoners and participants in addiction treatment.

Intensive farming – particularly to support the more meat-intensive diets of the affluent and those in the Global North – places immense strain on the climate and environment. Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, and livestock farming alone contributes nearly 15% of all emissions. Surging meat consumption has also radically changed the distribution of life on our planet: human and livestock populations now represent 96% of all mammalian biomass, while wild species make up just 4%. Every year, we produce enough to feed a population of 10bn people – a third of which is wasted. And yet in 2019, 690m people worldwide were malnourished. Even in the UK, one of the wealthiest economies on Earth, over 4m children live in households that can’t afford to meet official nutritional guidelines, despite a longstanding trend toward lower food prices.

In a 2009 address to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Waitrose managing director Mark Price claimed “the headlong rush since the end of WW2 for ever greater quantities of cheap food has not only made us fatter, it has led to fewer, more indebted farms and an impoverished environment”. In many respects, he was right; the problem is where Price identifies the obstacle between the current system and a more sustainable one – namely that cheapness is insurmountable because the population has “got used to” it. The real problem, as Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore argue in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, is that the cheapness of food – or certain foods, more accurately – is by design. Capitalism demands cheap food to the extent that wages can remain low, and profits maximised. Far from a happy accident that the entitled masses have been spoiled by, this cheapness is deliberate, deceptive, and destructive.

Cheapness prioritises the ever-expanding demands of capital, or, in the worlds of Patel and Moore: “cheap workers dependent on […] cheap food.” This is why, they note, between 1990 and 2015 global produce prices rose far faster than those of processed foods, meaning people in low income countries would have needed to spend more than half their household income on groceries to get the requisite five daily servings of fruit and vegetables. International trade agreements often support these shifts: as Patel and Moore observe, the Mexican government lobbied for agriculture’s inclusion in NAFTA, creating cheap American chicken imports, not for the benefit of the Mexican working class, but as a blunt tool with which to ‘modernise’ and urbanise its economy while providing cheap migrant labour for US farms. Rather than a positive by-product of the ‘free market’, then, this false ‘cheapness’ is deliberate. Capitalism’s success has depended on it. But both ecologically and economically, it is increasingly self-defeating.

Though we grow more than enough food for the global population, unless we drastically change how we produce and consume it, we threaten our continued ability to do so. Crop yields and nutritional content will fall with rising temperatures, and at current rates of topsoil depletion, the world is estimated to have just 60 more harvests. What’s more, in the race to the bottom between food prices and inequality, a decade of wage stagnation and austerity has left cracks in the façade of a food system premised on cheapness, with world hunger beginning to tick upwards in 2014 for the first time in decades. For the UK, Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals is a moment of reckoning for a system at its breaking point, and contrary to the callous #ToryFoodTips trending on Twitter over the weekend, there is no quick fix through extreme couponing. Ultimately, the calls for meal planning, multi-stop shopping trips to inaccessible superstores and batch cooking all require substantial time. The problem is, when you sell your labour to survive, time is quite literally money, so these ‘tricks’ are hardly affordable.

The issue with #ToryFoodTips is not just that these ‘tips’ disregard the actual constraints of people experiencing food insecurity or poverty; they’re also the argument of a dystopian, Soylent society, in which food – rather than an expression of culture, community, pleasure and creativity – is pure caloric utility. In this worldview, there is no cause for concern that a fifth of meals in the US are now eaten in cars. The squeezing of subsistence and local small-scale farming is not a source of human and environmental devastation, but a pragmatic inevitability. And to say that the global working class deserves more than to just subsist is asking too much.

This is a profound failure of our imagination and our humanity, one predicated on almost complete disconnection from the complex systems supporting our consumption. By reducing food to a means of sustaining labour power, we’ve come to accept a mass-produced sandwich scarfed down on public transit as a fact of life rather than a recent invention of overworking and commuting. Meanwhile, the comparatively well-off are able to ignore the fact that our taste for meat is dependent on Amazon deforestation, violence, and the immiseration of the working class both here and around the world. Crucially, we become able to see food production as distinct from the fate of the climate and environment, as if we and these systems are somehow part of a separate ecology.

The reality is that our lives and wellbeing are intimately connected to that of the planet, and our food system presently threatens both. Challenging it will require more than couponing or techno-optimism about a future of lab-grown meat. Rather, we need to embrace this mutual dependence, and confront the logic of ever cheaper, ever greater production that is straining it.

Adrienne Buller is a senior research fellow at Common Wealth think tank.

Part one in this series can be found here: What’s the Value of a Whale?

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