Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Global Food Chain

The Nation has a new issue on the politics of food, including this challenging review by Brent Cunningham of two books about food aid and famine in Africa. Cunningham argues that the "good food revolutionaries" (Pollan, Schlosser, Alice Waters, etc.) need to think hard about what it will take to confront Big Ag, whose fortunes are built on arguments about the need to feed the world. Even apart from what cheap calories have done to the American diet, the books document the way food aid subverts agricultural markets in Africa, and so undermines the continent's ability to feed itself.  During the Ethiopian famine of 2003, millions of tons of locally grown grain--unsellable during previous years bumper harvests--rotted in warehouses even as millions of tons of American surplus was flown in.  Why? Because, by law, US food aid cannot be in the form of cash, only commodities.

This requirement, Cunningham argues, speaks volumes about the entrenched power of Big Ag, and the challenge that the local food movement faces.  Another eye-opening moment: why it's so hard to undo government subsidies:

The legislation behind farm subsidies had been structured to make it unusually hard to undo. Unlike many laws, which automatically expire on a predetermined date, the laws underlying subsidies weren't programmed to end. Instead, if Congress didn't craft and enact a new farm bill every five years or so, the law reverted back to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agriculture Act of 1949, which contained even sweeter payments to some farmers.
The point is that global agricultural markets go back to the 1950's, and have structured farm policy in the US for half a century.  Developing more sustainable growing, buying and eating habits will be the work of decades, even if we take seriously Michael Pollan's recent argument that taking on Big Ag is a public health issue: so much of rising health care costs are attributable to chronic conditions (like diabetes) rooted in obesity.

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