Challenging Control-Blind Approaches to Sustainable Food Systems

Written by Chris Chancellor

The issues of food security and sustainable food systems command large parts of the public and private development budgets. There is a growing realisation that the way in which we produce and distribute our food is one of the principal drivers of human-induced climate change and ecosystem degradation [1]. Ironically, our globalised industrial food system is therefore also one of the principal threats to itself - and to food security. The challenge is often framed as follows: how can we produce enough food to feed our growing population whilst simultaneously looking after the environment? In the face of this increasingly gloomy picture, the dominant response has been to pour funding into developing and disseminating more ‘efficient’ and industrialised modes of production. Terms such as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘precision farming’ have been pushed to the forefront of institutional efforts to make food systems more sustainable [2]. However, these highly technical solutions fail to address the long-standing elephant in the room: who is in control and who benefits?

Whilst this seems like a logical question to ask, it has proven a rather elusive topic on the mainstream development agenda. This becomes even harder to believe when you consider the astonishing levels of concentration that have been allowed to develop within food supply chains.

In the upstream sector, the top 5 agrochemical companies control 84% of the global market, the top 10 for seeds control 73%, and the top 10 for farm machinery and data control 65%. In the downstream sector, the top 10 agricultural commodity traders and the top 10 food and beverage processors control 90% of their respective markets [3]. Retail markets at the national level are often similarly concentrated. In Germany, for example, the top 4 food retailers control 85% of the national market share [4].

So, why does this matter? In short, it matters because these corporations, by virtue of their market shares, hold incredible power to decide how our food is produced and distributed. For example, seed varieties have been developed to perform well only with the assistance of particular agrochemicals, and these are often sold in bundles, locking producers into excessive chemical use, with well documented public health and environmental consequences. Because the market is so highly concentrated, producers realistically have little alternative choice; the same story holds for other chemical or technological inputs. This oligopolistic market structure also drives up input prices [5]. One of the most pertinent consequences of this is that food producers require increasing amounts of capital up front in order to operate, meaning in practice that they must take on large amounts of debt in order to finance these costs. Such a situation is driving the expansion and intensification of agricultural enterprises, as they look to generate of economies of scale in order to offset their debts. In the process, smaller producers, lacking access to capital, are unable to compete and are increasingly forced out of business which further drives their impoverishment.

Similarly, commodity traders, processors, and retailers can use their market power to drive down prices at the farm gate. Faced with low prices and the pressure to deliver large quantities of homogenous produce at set times, producers are again often left with little choice but to conform to the industrial model in order to make their enterprise viable through of economies of scale, or exit the profession altogether [6]. Again, this has consequences in terms of food security, poverty, and environmental degradation.

In addition, the power of these various corporate actors means that they have significant ability to control the direction of policy and research, which further perpetuates the adoption of damaging industrial agricultural practices. The relicensing of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used Monsanto (now Bayer) chemical herbicide Roundup, in the EU is a perfect example of this. Glyphosate has been classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans, and its widespread use on soybean plantations in Latin America has seen ecosystem destruction, water pollution and deteriorating human health. However, following an extensive political and scientific lobbying campaign, it was cleared for continued use in Europe [7]. Again here it is evident that the control enjoyed by these companies flies in the face of socially and environmentally just provision of food.

Focusing on revamping production practices through expensive techno-fixes ignores the role of corporate control in creating and maintaining the conditions that we are trying to overcome. We therefore need to reframe the challenge in a manner that explicitly aims to challenge corporate dominance over the food systems. This will involve taking a more holistic approach to food system sustainability, rather than dislocated efforts aimed at certain parts of the supply chain. Only then can effective solutions be conceived and implemented.

A growing global movement is calling for political figures to base food systems policy around small-scale agroecology, a broad-ranging set of principles which aims to utilise local ecological functions and minimise external inputs and re-localise food supply chains (a more detailed overview of the concept can be found here [8]). By breaking free from input dependency, food producers would be able to become more autonomous in both their finances and their decision-making. Conserving ecological functions forms the core of the management strategy, thereby in principal relieving the environmental degradation brought about by food production. Focusing on distributing food through local or direct marketing also means that prices received by producers are based on the price of production, as opposed to being set by corporate retailers. 

This all seems rather rosy, leading one to beg the question, if this works, why is it not happening already? Well, if you look a little closer, it is. Successful examples are popping up all over the world. In the Sahel region, for example, a grassroots mobilisation by small-scale producers has regenerated 621,800 hectares of severely degraded land, boosting biodiversity, livelihoods, crop yields and even contributing to conflict reduction [9]. Producers are linking up with consumers in innovative new ways in order to break free from the shackles of corporate controlled supply chains, such as Community Supported Agriculture or solidarity economy networks. And it seems that slowly, authorities are beginning to take notice. The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has launched a transition towards chemical-free and socially inclusive agriculture [10], and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has also started to promote the concept of agroecology. 

However, despite the growing number of examples, agroecology and other regenerative production methods remain at the periphery of development thinking. In order to move in a truly sustainable direction, a supportive market, policy, and research environment is necessary, which requires explicitly challenging corporate control over our food systems.

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As a British-Indonesian in the Netherlands, Chris Satrya Chancellor currently works as a freelance writer and researcher on the issues of land rights and sustainable food systems. He is passionate about reforming the way in which we as a society think about and engage with our food and those who produce it.

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