When Food Becomes a Statement of Your Wealth

By Fazila Farouk · 6 Aug 2008

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Picture: Obscene Pickle
Picture: Obscene Pickle

Nouveau environmentalists and the super rich are queuing up to fill their hybrid cars with ethanol blends. Agribusiness is selling its corn to the highest bidder while many millions around the world are being deprived of the right to eat.

It doesn’t seem to matter much that the production of corn-based ethanol releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than is actually gained by burning it as a fuel. In today’s world, the market dictates whether you eat grain or not --- and the market has decided that the production of biofuels is far more profitable than the production of basic foods.

The sick parody of the situation reveals itself in the fact that Paris Hilton recently treated herself to a hybrid vehicle for her 27th birthday.

If we continue to leave it to the market to decide who gets what, pretty soon only people like Paris will be able to afford hybrid cars and healthy food. The green revolution sweeping our planet already targets the well heeled. This is the market that can afford to wear hemp jeans and sleep on serenity mattresses with sustainable sheeting.

The absurd notion of food boutiques for the rich is fast becoming a reality as the divide between who you are and what you eat, gets wider. In South Africa where inequality is a hallmark of our lives, there is no shortage of preposterously priced gourmet food delis in the swanky suburbs where our rich and up and coming reside. Food is bountiful for those who can afford it.

For those who can't afford to feed themselves, President Thabo Mbeki has announced the Food Control Agency, whose main function is to study the food crisis to make recommendations to cabinet about the systemic causes of the crisis.

Given its mandate, it's unclear why Mbeki feels the need to announce this initiative. There are plenty of food security experts that have already studied the phenomenon and can provide well-researched answers to the food crisis.

It's unlikely that Mbeki’s food agency will come up with any substantive recommendations to address the systemic drivers of the crisis unless it engages with the historical antecedents of wealth generation in South Africa and reviews South Africa’s macro economic strategy, as well as its over reliance on market fundamentalism. However, there is little evidence that the agency will follow this route.

Few talk about the industrialisation of the food production process and the imposition of markets as drivers of the food crisis. But food security experts have been writing about this for ages.

They refer to it as 'deagrarianisation'. In other words, removing farming activities as a sustainability strategy from the family unit and putting it into the hands of the market.

What this meant during the colonial and apartheid eras in South Africa is that black people were forcibly removed from fertile farming land, relocated to unproductive land and then forced to work on large scale commercial farms as underpaid labourers.

This is how the market was imposed on the South African food production process. As it still remains untransformed in post-apartheid South Africa, this process continues to dictate the path and pace of food security in our country.

To demonstrate the point that the market is an ineffective mechanism for food security, activist and author of the book Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel provides the example of India’s transformation from feudal farming to commercial farming.

According to Patel, when the British arrived in India they felt that the peasants should not be given handouts, but a hand up. Thus, the process of imposing markets was felt to be a good thing by the British, who argued that it was much better to work for one’s self than to work for a landlord. Having adopted the system, Indian peasants soon found out that markets only worked for people who had money, such as British workers who were working in the 'workshops of the world' in England and to whom the Indian grain was being exported.

Quoting from Mike Davis' book, Late Victorian Holocausts and revealing the horrific outcome of the situation, Patel argues that in the 2000 years before the British arrived in India, famines only occurred once every 120 years. However, after the British imposed the market on India’s agricultural production, famines occurred every four years.

Despite the shortcomings of feudalism, prior to the arrival of the British, India’s landowners took the responsibility to feed peasants when harvests were bad. For many millennia, a moral economy prevailed, which ensured that nobody starved.

Patel’s example shows quite clearly that markets lack morality. Markets follow money and nothing else. In the 1800’s markets created famine in the third world because grain was being diverted to workers with money from the industrialising world. Today markets are creating famine because grain is being diverted to livestock and biofuels.

Even people who’ve made billions through financial markets, like hedge fund billionaire George Soros, argue against market fundamentalism. Speaking at the launch of his new book The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means, at the London School of Economics, Soros said:

"Market fundamentalism is a very convenient belief for the 'haves' because it justifies their having it. In other words, they prosper (that includes me, by the way, among the haves but I don't share this view on market fundamentalism). It's a wonderful excuse for pursuing your self-interest to the detriment of the common interest because there is a theory that says that the common interest is best served by everyone pursuing (his or her) own interests. So its a very convenient belief and that is why it has such great currency and that's why you find that it is generally people with lots of money who are supporting and propagating this belief. There is a connection."

Soros questions the humanity of the rich and powerful. In a similar vein, Patel refers to a revolutionary question originating from the Italian Communist Party in the 1970's. They asked:

"Why is it that only rich people get to have sensuousness and pleasure from their food? Why is it only the rich who get to savour things and connect with food and (experience) the joy of eating? Why is that not the right of every human being?"

One wonders whether Mbeki’s food agency will challenge itself by thinking out of the box in its framing of the food crisis. This inquiry from the 1970's should be the question that it uses to frame its investigation of the food crisis in South Africa. Questions like this take us out of our comfort zones – a space that our president and his food agency desperately need to step out of.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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Michelle Nel
5 Aug

Well Written

Beautifully written and expressed. My sentiments exactly!

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Rory Short
17 Aug

Food Security

Food Security

For food security to be a reality two things are essential. There must be food available for distribution and the number of people needing to eat it must not exceed the number to whom an equitable distribution, of the amount of food that is available, could be made.

Neither of these things can be determined by fiat as there are myriads of determining factors involved in each of them but it is possible to say a few things with regard to food security.

For there to be any food available for distribution it is essential that the people who grow the food should be willing to produce more food than they themselves need. Thus the readiness of agriculturists to produce more food than they personally need is essential if there is to be any food security.

For there not to be more people needing food than there is food available for equitable distribution it is essential that we control the number of human births in order to keep our numbers in sync with our capacity to produce food. This is a question which, up until now, humankind has not wanted to collectively address by bringing it into consciousness. Until we do this, however, food security will remain nothing but a pipedream.

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