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Issue #1688      June 10, 2015

Food under commodified agriculture (Part 2)

The modern food system

The modern food system is simultaneously moving towards uniformity and diversity. Globalisation gives many people access to many more kinds of foods than before, but at the same time the differences between regional cuisines are diminishing. We are easily duped by the bright colours of marketing messages and packaging. A supermarket may carry some 50,000 food items, but a very large part of them are variations made out of the “Big Five” – wheat, maize, palm oil, sugar and soybeans – spiced, coloured, preserved and texturised with additives.

Globally our farming system is still based on a few grains, root crops and oil crops supplemented with animals. Most meat is also produced from the same staples. Almost no new plants or animals have been domesticated in the last centuries, so in that regard our food system is still determined by the choices of generations of ancient farmers. The balance between the staples has changed and instead of being bound to one or two staples, we can now eat rice, pasta, potatoes, cornflakes, meat, milk, cheese etc.

Armies provided a development field for logistics, food processing and, not least, mass catering, which also served the masses in the rapidly growing cities. World War II reshaped the food preferences of American citizens, both those who were drafted into the armed forces and civilians at home.

This transformation of diet was influenced by the food industry and government alike. It also helped American food industries to conquer new markets. The President of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff, ordered that every man in uniform should be able to get a bottle of the beverage for 5 cents wherever he was and whatever it cost the company. In 1943, General Dwight D Eisenhower sent an urgent cablegram to Coca-Cola requesting shipment of materials for 10 bottling plants. “During the war, many people enjoyed their first taste of the beverage, and when peace finally came, the foundations were laid for Coca-Cola to do business overseas”, is how the Coca-Cola Company describes the effect on its website.


In the United States, four companies control 80% of the meat market, three companies control 80% of maize exports and 65% of soy exports, and four companies control 60% of the domestic grain market. The top 10 food and beverage firms (the three largest are Nestle, Pepsico and Kraft) control an estimated 28% of the global market. The top five breweries have around 50% of the market while the top 10 wine marketers have around 16% of the market. And if you cannot beat your competition, you can just buy them out.

Increasingly, huge multinationals have bought up pioneer organic companies or other premium brands. Many companies integrate “upstream” production (i.e. farmers and other suppliers) and “downstream” sales (outlets, agents), which allows them to extend their control of the chain. Most of the transnational companies in the food sector are from the United States or Western Europe, but times are changing. Brazil-based JBS SA is now bigger than Unilever, Cargill and Danone, and slaughters 85,000 heads of cattle, 70,000 pigs and 12 million birds each day. In September 2013, China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. bought US-based Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer.

The production and supply of inputs to farms is also highly concentrated. The global commercial seed market in 2009 was worth US$27 billion, with the top 10 companies having three-quarters of the market. Three of them controlled more than half of the market and one, Monsanto, now controls more than one-quarter of the commercial seed market. The concentration in the agrochemical market is even higher, with the top 10 having 90% of the global market. Five of the top six agrochemical companies are also on the list of the world’s biggest seed companies. Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company and fourth-largest pesticide company. Monsanto’s seeds that are genetically modified to work together with the company’s flagship herbicide, Roundup, constitute a clear example of a successful strategy.


The most spectacular development in the food chain in recent decades, however, is not the might of Coca-Cola or Nestle, but the increased influence of retailers. In 2008, Walmart recorded sales of US$436 billion from 7,657 stores (this corresponded to the GDP of Sweden), Carrefour US$161 billion, Metro Group US$116 billion and Tesco US$109 billion. In 1992, the top five supermarket chains in the United States had a market share of less than 20%; by 1999, that share had increased to one-third and in 2012 the four largest retailers sold more than half of the groceries. In Australia, the two giants Coles and Woolworths now control about 80% of grocery sales, and in Sweden, ICA alone has half the retail market.

The power of the supermarkets is also strengthened by the spread of retailer-owned brands and private labels. The retail share of private labels among food products has reached almost 60% in Switzerland and between 20% and 40% in most other Western European countries. The retailers try to uphold the idea that we have choices by introducing many different private brands.

The biggest retailer in Britain, Tesco, has many own brands: Value, Standard, Finest, Discount, Light Choices, Organic, Free From, Whole Foods and finally Disney Kids, which was introduced in 2007 “to help parents by providing a range of nutritionally balanced food that children will engage with and enjoy”. This range includes a Mickey Mouse-shaped pizza.

Cooking and eating were for a long time social and cultural activities done within the household or in the community, with the work being done without pay and for no costs. Gradually, cooking and eating have become commercialised and acquired a totally different meaning and role in society.

In the supermarkets we find a large supply of fully prepared meals, including ready meals of all types and takeaway food for consumption at home. In any week, 45% of Europeans and Americans consume such meals. The habit is also spreading rapidly to emerging economies where the consumption of convenience foods is increasing, partly due to increasing urbanisation: retail sales of ready meals in India and China grew by 26.9% and 11.8% respectively from 2003 to 2008.

We have seen how food processing and retail follow an industrial logic. The same is true of the production of convenience foods. The web of suppliers to these operations is so complex that it proved very difficult to pin down the point at which horsemeat became beef in the European horsemeat scandal in early 2013. The factory that supplied Tesco with its “horseburgers” was using “multiple ingredients from some 40 suppliers in production batches, and the mixture could vary every half hour”, according to the Irish department of agriculture.

The tragedy of the market

Earlier, trade in foods was very limited and determined by needs or ecological adaptation. For example, farmers in plains traded grain for meat or yoghurt from pastoralists in mountains or deserts. In most cultures there existed “markets” for exchange, but there were few cases where farmers oriented their production fully to sales in the market, and when they did so the market was mostly the town close by.

With the total integration of farms in national and global markets, the market, initially just a tool for distributing surpluses, has become the conductor of the whole food system, from farm to fork, determining how we farm, the whole social fabric and how, where and what we eat.

As farmers become integrated into the market economy, they no longer reproduce and regenerate their production system. The commercialisation of farming also leads us to view land, water and nature as private property and the life of the land, our symbionts, as commodities. It is this process that is the real tragedy for food. It also makes a large contribution to obesity because when food becomes a commodity its main purpose is to be consumed.

The challenge of feeding a growing population is formidable, but managing the planet’s ecosystem is an even bigger challenge. Considering that farmed landscapes dominate more than half of the terrestrial area of the Earth, it is clear that the way we farm has an enormous impact on the planet’s ecosystems; that human agricultural ecosystems must be seen as planetary ecosystems. Yet, the food and farming system is increasingly managed by signals from “the market”, which do not include the signals from these ecosystems: of the species threatened by extinction and the loss of biodiversity, of pollution and of greenhouse gas emissions. The market signals also don’t include the feelings of the animals brutalised in our service. The system is simply not geared towards stewardship of the planet and living beings but to the maximisation of marketable output and profit.


The straight rows of endless monocultures in Mato Grosso are reflected in the aisles of the supermarket and the lanes of the highways full of trucks bringing goods into them and cars transporting food to people’s homes. But the food system is a life support system and should be based on the principles of living systems, not on the perceived efficiency of the industrial model. Linear thinking and linear processes are fundamentally at odds with the cycles of nature, and, ultimately, nature still rules.

The food system is not a smorgasbord where we can pick out the bits we like and keep those we don’t like. What we eat, how we eat and how we farm are all interdependent. There is no way to produce good foods and biologically diverse landscapes in a containerised, standardised and monopolistic food system. We can’t combine animal welfare with the view of animals as commodities. And we can’t produce healthy foods with the use of chemicals.

It is no longer very controversial to question the direction our food system has taken. Today, expert bodies, such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, clarify that “business as usual is not an option”. We simply have to find new ways, whether we want to or not. But we will only be able to find new ways if we understand the factors that determine how we farm, what we grow and what we eat.

Most commentaries focus on the technical aspects of food production and farming, such as use of genetically modified organisms and chemical fertilisers, their benefits and drawbacks. But these technical aspects of farming are only parts of the problem or the solution. The food system is a social, ecological and economic system and needs to be viewed as such.

Towards a regenerative food system

Food and farming remain, together with energy, labour and housing, one of the most regulated parts of the economy, even before we consider all the cultural norms surrounding them. This is a recognition that the free market doesn’t work. Or rather, that it does indeed work according to the textbooks, but we don’t like the result of its workings.

Access to food should be an inalienable right. An equitable world will have the potential to feed everybody. It will certainly ensure that the food is distributed more fairly among the world’s population. But distribution by the market is the antithesis of equitable sharing. We can still see in times of disaster, war or disturbance that societies rapidly shun the market as the main mechanism for distribution and public or community control over food are the preferred ways of ensuring proper sharing.

Instead of trying to squeeze more of the commons, such as land, water and seeds, into the market, we should rebalance food towards public goods. In this way ecosystem services and food production can be balanced within the same framework. The rethinking of food as a right, of farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons will lead us to develop new institutions that complement the roles of the market and the state.

There are ample opportunities to produce more foods with regenerative methods, such as organic farming and agroecology. Regenerative methods need nature and humans to be productive, but can’t use the shortcuts introduced by linear methods, externalisation of costs and massive external energy use. For example, global plant production can be sustained on a high level with a combination of biological nitrogen fixation by leguminous plants in the fields, reduced losses, integration of animals and plants, and recycling of waste and human sewage (which has to be source separated).

We can still feed as many persons as with chemical fertilisers, but under current economic conditions the cost will be higher as we need to use some of the resources to regenerate and reproduce the means of production. With regenerative food systems we will also need a higher share of the population engaged in food production. This in turn affects how many people can be engaged in producing iPhones and cars or serving us coffee. By and large, I think such a shift will only be good for society, culture and nature.

New relationships

We need to build new relationships in the food system, new relationships that can gradually take over most of the food system. Those relationships should be based on food and farming as joint common activities. There should not be “producers” and “consumers”, but co-production. Initiatives such as community-supported agriculture have the seeds for this. Consumption as a separate category should wither and we would cook and eat in harmony with production. There will most likely be markets in the future, but not “the market” that we know today, the globalised market with unlimited competition.

Political actions of many kinds are needed. Some should be oriented to limiting the harm produced by the current system, such as bans on pesticides and harmful practices. We also need to throw sand or gravel in the machinery of unfettered global trade, as unlimited competition forces farmers and food industries into externalising costs.

This includes opposition to privatisation of common resources, including fighting intellectual property rights; we need to expand the commons again. Other political actions should promote the development of alternatives. This can range from reallocating research funds from industrial farming models to regenerative farming, to revising tax codes to stimulate the numbers of people engaged in farming and facilitating emerging new economic relations. 

Ultimately, it is about us as human beings. Are we ready for the great leap into an unknown future, based on new insights? Do we prefer the sterile and cheap ready-to-eat meal wrapped in plastic from the supermarket to the earthy smells and tastes of nature, combined with more sweat and toil? In the long term I don’t think we have much choice. An increasing scarcity of key resources will make the choice for us. But the ride will be easier if we halt the depletion of resources and of nature and build a regenerative food system now, before we are faced with the possibility of worrying whether we will get any food at all before going to bed.

Third World Resurgence

Next article – Film Review – Frackman the Movie

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