Questioning the myth of food scarcity

World leaders are debating global hunger in Rome, yet French fishermen are giving away seafood stolen from supermarkets. What’s going on?

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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The muggy Mediterranean town of Perpignan, France, is buzzing with rumours; groups of fishermen and their supporters are milling around. They have just raided a supermarket, loading up their shopping trolleys with fish from the shelves before handing it out to passers-by. It is the shoplifting version of the Spanish fishermen giving their catch away to pensioners, which was shown on the TV news here two nights ago (Perpignan is actually a few kilometres inland from the ports where the real catch is put ashore).

The men are nervous. The protest is half way between a Jacquerie and a flashmob. It is about ‘essence’, they tell me, gasoline prices, which push their costs above their takings. Elsewhere the protests are more organised. The ports of le Havre and Cherbourg were blockaded, in action coordinated by fishermen’s leaders. Farmers and some hauliers have been protesting. In Germany, the demonstration is even weirder than in Perpignan: they are watering their fields with milk, because it is not economic to sell it to the supermarkets.

What are Europe’s shoppers supposed to make of these protests? Supermarket prices have been climbing sharply since 2006; Eurostat, the Statistical Office of the European Communities, reports that inflation has overtaken unemployment as its biggest economic fear. Last year Italians organised a pasta boycott in protest at doubling prices. Worldwide, grain prices are rocketing, and world leaders are currently meeting in Rome to deal with the food shortage crisis. If food is in short supply, why are farmers and fishermen throwing it away?

The first thing to bear in mind is that European farmers are histrionic at the best of times, and always keen to play the martyr. The second is that the European Union’s agricultural policy has been out of whack for years.

Between 1960 and 1990, the ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ subsidised overproduction because of postwar paranoia about food security and also because the rural constituency was an important counterweight to left-voting urban populations, Christian Democracy’s voting fodder. The policy created mountains of beef and butter and lakes of wine, which were being destroyed just as famine returned to Africa in 1986. One reason why EU ministers today are unlikely to heed farmers’ protests is that it has taken them a decade to work up the will to shift the subsidies.

Instead of paying farmers to produce more, EU agriculture commissioners, following Ray MacSharry in 1993, have been paying them to produce less. Under the ‘set aside’ scheme, farmers were paid not to farm (and were paid even more to retire their land from production altogether, under a kind of ‘wilderness scheme’). Gingerly, the EU tried to dismantle price subsidies, exposing farmers to something approaching free competition.

Because the old price subsidies protected large-scale agribusiness and less efficient small farmers alike, the latter felt the removal of protections most bitterly. Ten years ago, prices were tumbling and farmers started blockading ports. EU policy was to use economic pressure to get the smaller farmers out of the business, or into niche markets like organic farming and bio-fuels. Farmland was being retired all over Europe – as it was all over the world – with land being transferred to national parks, or golf courses.

Since then, the growth in demand for food from China’s and India’s growing urban populations has pushed prices up. The most exposed populations, like Egypt’s urban poor, are struggling to buy bread. Africa in particular is exposed because aid agencies have prioritised inefficient labour-intensive agriculture following the 1983 UN Brundtland Report on the ‘accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources’ (see Small is not beautiful, by Rob Lyons ).

However, media analyses of the food ‘crisis’ have come up with some peculiar scapegoats. Chubby Chinese couples are photographed standing by their cookers, as if their meat dinner was the real problem. US President George W Bush’s bio-fuels, too, are blamed for taking valuable farmland out of production.

In truth, though, there is no absolute shortage of food. World demand has increased, and that is a good thing. Europe’s farmers have shown the world that food is going to waste while Egyptian families go hungry. The land given over to bio-fuels is a tiny percentage of the millions of acres of land that have been retired from production as a deliberate policy of Western governments over the past two decades. All the world could be fed tomorrow and feasted next spring if the artificial limits that policymakers have put on output were lifted.

At the Rome Summit, though, there will be rhetoric about world hunger but precious little action to deal with the practical issues. Price hikes will hurt Europeans’ pockets but they, at least, are unlikely to starve. EU chiefs are determined to rationalise their farm sector regardless of world food needs. And however much fishermen complain about fuel costs, the EU is determined to substitute homegrown ‘alternative’ energy (developed with anti-competitive subsidies) for imported Middle Eastern oil.

James Heartfield’s Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance is available from Amazon(UK). Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said, in relation to the food price crisis, that the world is not on the brink of starvation. He observed out that many are using reports of a crisis to scaremonger about everything from population growth to modern technology. Brendan O’Neill pointed out that the flooding of Somalia with aid in the 1990s effectively destroyed the country’s agricultural industry. Justine Brian celebrated the freedom provided by mass food production. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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