I would be the first to admit that my vision of our future world might look a little rosy. Certain elements of it might even have a naive tinge, and could be criticised for being idealistic – possibly even unattainable. But, if I hear one more person attempting to justify intensive, mechanised agriculture by saying, “Yes, but we’ve got to feed the world . . . “
It matters not that I might be wrong. I would happily bow to a greater argument, one that proves conclusively that what I say is tosh – but no one that I talk to is laying out an even remotely convincing case for doing more of what we are doing already. All I get is this fall-back position of having to ‘feed the world.’ No logic, no reasoning, no research, no persuasive discussion . . . merely this lame acknowledgement of what is somehow seen as our responsibility to the world. No one is telling me how, in the face of so much evidence that current methods are not even coming close to feeding the world, increasing our level of industrial agriculture around the globe is going to fix things.
At regular intervals in the mainstream press, there will be an article along the lines of, “Science solves the problem of feeding the world.” Closer inspection, however, will reveal that all these articles are simply reports on the latest attempts by companies like Monsanto to create new strains of cereal, ostensibly to increase yields but in reality no more than a means to secure Monsanto’s position as a supplier of patented seeds. The integrity of such companies is deceptive, shrouded as it is in a veil of disingenuous clichés and fraudulent spin. They are no more than control freaks, seeking an unassailable position in any given market and dominion over their competitors. That they do this in order to feed the world is nothing but a smokescreen to get their biased press releases into the media. Worse than that, the media itself is ignorant of the truth, so it happily accepts what it is being told and gets its ‘science correspondents’ to tell the readers all about the latest developments in the ‘war against hunger’ (about as inane in its concept as the war against drugs or the war against terror).
Taking a disinterested (the word that the media uses when it means ‘uninterested’) stance reveals that the argument being put forward here is the same argument we have heard repeatedly over the past few decades. In that time, the problem of feeding the world has worsened considerably, and the argument is wearing thin. It is clear that more of the same is no solution, yet arguments in favour of the scientific approach win the support of governments and media alike – or, to put it another way, the support of those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Outside this Wonderland peopled by the Mad Hatters of the corporate world, there are small voices like my own, saying, “This just doesn’t make any sense.”
Let me put it like this: we are not feeding the world, we are simply feeding the processing industry. All the grain and commodity crop production in the world takes place on land that has been wrested from local communities, and most of the harvest from this land goes straight to the processing factories to be made into profitable junk food. It does not feed people directly, except when ‘aid’ has to be delivered to areas of the world stricken by war, flood, earthquake or pestilence. Even then, the bags of rice and other grains dropped from helicopters are as likely as not to have been through the world’s commodity markets, and are therefore likely to have been grown on chemically supported dead soils and then refined for a market that prefers its grain that way. A bag of polished white rice has only a small proportion of the nutrition contained in a bag of the kind of brown rice that aid-dependent people might have grown in their own fields before we came along and stopped them feeding themselves.
I know what you are thinking: he’s off on another rant. Not so. I merely speak as I find, and I have found information on the websites of the very corporations I am talking about that support what I am saying. Take Premier Foods, for instance.
According to their website, Premier Foods is ‘a great British company with a passion for creating great foods and brands that people love.’ Reading between the lines of this corporate appeal to potential shareholders, we could say that it is ‘a global British company with a psychopathic determination for inventing market-dominating branded processed foodstuffs that people are persuaded to eat through slick marketing and very expensive product-centred advertising.’ It is the UK’s largest food producer, proudly claiming that more than 99% of all UK households bought a Premier Foods brand last year. Not difficult when 99% also flock to the supermarkets and fill their baskets with everything from Ambrosia rice pudding to Waistline salad dressings, just two of the many brands in Premier Foods’ portfolio.
Amongst the other well known brands, we have cakes (Cadbury’s, Lyons, Mr Kipling, McDougall’s cake mixes) bread (Hovis, Mother’s Pride, Nimble), flour (Hovis and McDougall’s again, Be-Ro and Homepride) and a whole assortment of processed products that rely on wheat and wheat-based ingredients. To feed the factories that produce these nutritionally depleted alternatives to real food, Premier Foods is proud of the fact that it buys 8.5% of the UK wheat crop. To put that into perspective, that is one in every four fields of bread-making wheat grown in the UK, and is the equivalent to the entire land mass of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire combined.
The other facts and figures from this company’s website would make your eyes water (possibly with tears of frustration that so much good land and scarce resources are being purloined to feed an industry that produces so much useless processed food), but I just want to stick with the wheat question for now. The wheat we are talking about is the usual chemically supported cash crop grown in huge monocultures on land that has long since given up the ghost of a chance of being part of a rich biodiverse environment. It is pulverised into flour in industrial roller mills, and the white powder that comes out at the end of this process is as dead as the soil on which the grain was grown. I suggest that squandering the precious resource of soil to produce a dead foodstuff is at the very least an act of extreme folly. Some people see it as an act of criminal negligence, yet governments around the world see this lunacy as a Good Thing, because it all helps to – you’ve guessed it – feed the world . . .
Let me tell you what I think. I think that the amount of real food that could be produced from this land is staggering. I suggest that if our land was reclaimed from agri-business, repaired, restored to health, put back into the hands of local communities and given over to the production of real organically produced food, and that this model was repeated in every part of our ailing Earth, we would produce enough nourishing food to keep every one of us in good health.
You think that’s crazy? It might be idealistic, and it will undoubtedly involve a lot of hard graft and a huge amount of repair work, but it is definitely not crazy. Next time you are out in the car, just take a look at any given prairie of monoculture cash crops. Think about where this crop is going. Understand that it is not really feeding anyone with anything nourishing. Then imagine that same hedgeless prairie divided up into smaller fields, bounded by wildlife-friendly hedges and producing everything from fruit and vegetables to cereal grains, eggs, meat and dairy products, all managed, harvested, distributed and consumed locally. Now tell me that this is a worse way of feeding people than what is in place at the moment. Then try to persuade me that the only way we are going to feed the world is by increasing our level of intensive, chemically supported, mechanised agri-business. But first persuade yourself.