People are starving. Even before the Ukraine crisis, conflict, climate change and Covid-19 had disrupted food supply chains to breaking point; last year, 193 million people around the world were at emergency levels of hunger, a 40 million increase from 2020. António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, reiterated warnings last month of a global food crisis that could last for years. We have more than enough food to go around. How did we get here? Food imperialism is the short answer.
The food system is built on volatile commodity markets and financial speculation. Its foundations are also deeply colonial and imperialist, enabling rich countries to plunder the natural resources, labour forces and agricultural systems of the poor.
Last month, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a report called Europe Eats the World, a sobering account of an inequitable global food system. The report showed that, despite being the world’s largest exporter of agricultural and food products in economic terms, the EU imports far more calories and proteins than its fair share, relying heavily on cheap grain and oil grown in other parts of the world to prop up an unsustainable food system.
The UK is even worse: in 2020, our food trade deficit stood at a massive £26.6bn, importing £48bn and exporting just £21.4bn. In other words, though we could grow much more of our own food, we rely on poorer countries to feed us – a hangover from the 19th century, when Britain’s colonies could produce cheap food to fuel the industrial revolution. Not much has changed.
Over the past few decades, food prices in the west have been kept deceptively low through supermarket monopolies and a broken agricultural subsidy system, which has traditionally rewarded farmers for over-production and poor environmental practices. And as we degrade our land at home through monocultures and the overuse of fertilisers, other ecological harms (such as deforestation) and low-cost labour is outsourced to poorer countries – pushing down prices even more.
Our diet of meat and dairy, ultra-processed foods and stimulants such as alcohol and coffee, depends on staggeringly high imports of animal feed, fertilisers, grain and oils from around the world – many of the countries falling into the low-middle income category. In return, we give them booze.
Both the EU and UK’s highest-value exports are wine, spirits and liquors. We congratulate ourselves on producing some of the best whiskies, wines and beers in the world, but our contribution to global food security is laughable – and no, food aid doesn’t count as global food security, in the same way that food banks don’t count as national food security. In fact, western powers have long used food aid to promote their own interests and influence global politics, in some cases dumping their over-subsidised grain on poorer nations, thereby undercutting local farmers and distorting international trade. At the same time, the legacy of western colonisation, as well as rapid globalisation in the past three decades, have systematically eradicated indigenous and traditional food habits.
These traditional foodways were culturally embedded, nutritionally diverse, and associated with significant health benefits: the traditional and varied diets of East Africa, for example, have been found to protect against a number of diet-related diseases. Yet thanks to economic development and urbanisation in the global south and the changing lifestyles they precipitated – less time to cook, more eating out – predatory food multinationals flooded local food systems with cheap, convenient and ultra-processed foods, leading in part to what academics call the “nutrition transition”. This is when socioeconomic and demographic changes in a country lead to shifts in diet and physical activity, causing spikes in obesity and related ill-health.
Although there are myriad forces behind the nutrition transition, globalisation has been in many cases a direct result of the neoliberal policies enforced by western governments on lower and middle-income countries. The removal of state intervention in agricultural policy, privatisation and trade liberalisation during the latter half of the 20th century has enabled transnational corporations to consolidate their power. For example, the demonic agrochemical company Monsanto (now owned by the equally infernal Bayer) was able to patent seeds, sue small farmers in an attempt to protect these patents, produce cancerous herbicides and repeatedly commit a plethora of environmental crimes with impunity for years.
Ecologically, the current food trade model in the EU and UK is a disaster. The dependence on imported commodities is driving deforestation on a terrifying scale, with almost 20% of land cleared for soy and palm oil alone. The EU is the largest importer of agricultural commodities associated with deforestation, second only to China. And the average person in the EU and UK consumes 61kg of soy per year, with 90% of it “hidden” in animal products. Considering others are going hungry and the planet is burning, this is staggeringly inefficient – and a highly extractive model that privileges western diets over everything and everyone else.
The impact we’re having on the environment overseas is made worse by the troubling misuse of land at home. In the EU, almost a third of cereal production is used to feed animals; in the UK, we tend to eat more of the cereals we grow, but almost half of all land is given over to animal production, either through grassland or rough grazing. While some regenerative livestock farming has benefits for soil health and biodiversity, the industrial modes are carbon-intensive and can damage local habitats. Instead, for the health of people and planet, we need to be growing more alternative grains, fruits and vegetables.
To top it all off, rich industrialised regions like Europe waste more food during production than lower-income ones, despite having better technology and infrastructure; high- and middle-income countries contribute a shocking 58% of farm-stage (ie during or after harvest) food waste despite accounting for only 37% of the global population.
Using crops that can and should be eaten by people to feed livestock or make unhealthy, ultra-processed foods, especially during a global food crisis, makes no sense. Morally, it’s indefensible. And though consumers and farmers can do their bit to help, it’s not a question of individual responsibility. We need systems change to rebalance the scales.
The world already produces enough food to feed itself; research has shown that it will continue to do so until at least 2050 when the world’s population reaches 9.7 billion. Hunger, famine and malnutrition are products of poor distribution, waste and a financial system that commodifies something integral to the health of people and the planet. Rich countries extract from poorer ones – acting, as WWF puts it, as “the world’s high-end grocery store”.
There aren’t any easy answers, especially when leading NGOs like WWF are themselves guilty of neocolonial practices. But interrogating the imperialism of our food system is a good place to start.
Ella Thorold is a food policy master’s student based in London.