April 5, 2005
When the anti-globalization riots occurred in Seattle in the late 90’s, it seemed that none of the major news reports bothered saying just what they were protesting against. Yes, they said “globalization,” but nothing about why the protesters saw globalization as a rampant evil. Thankfully I was part of a few networks that touched on this movement and passed its news on, so I knew that it wasn’t just creeping materialism they were against, and it wasn’t development per se that they hated: rather, it was the wholesale exploitation of third world countries for the continuing benefit of the first world, and, increasingly, specific transnational corporations. Postcards From The Global Food System (#3) at WorldChanging last week brought this all back, and serves as a terrific introduction to the problems of globalization without regard for local conditions, cultures, and needs.
The essay is long, but well worth the read if you’d like to understand the social and life-or-death issues of globalization, in particular of western/industrial agriculture. This industry has been phenomenonally successfull in feeding western/northern countries (though not without major environmental repercussions). But it has also set up a situation wherein
The surplus of food in Europe and North America has the consequence that it’s detrimental to Western economic interests to have Southern countries producing food surplus to their needs. This becomes a fine line because a lack of food surplus means that any crop failure (due to a failure of rains or other reasons) has the potential of rapidly becoming a disaster because there are no buffers to protect populations.
Zaid (the only name given for the author) goes on to point out how western practices often replace local food production with production of commodities intended for processing into food products. Such a movement drives up prices for local consumers, denies them historically/culturally relevant food items, and often replaces nutritious foods with low-nutrition ingredients (for instance, an Indian product called gur, which is made primarily from sugar cane byproducts but contains many nutrients, has largely been replaced in the market with pure sugar).
Beyond the crippling effects of subsidies and trade policy, historical shifts in culture play a large, but mostly unacknowledged, role in weakening people’s ability to remain healthy and well fed. These are trends, in large part unintended consequences, caused by the global shift from subsistence to commodity agriculture. Cultural shifts, such as the slow, steady decline of rural culture, means that communities are becoming less and less resilient when it comes to food.
In the spirit of WorldChanging, the essay doesn’t just focus on what’s wrong with the world, but also looks at what is right and can be made right: “Yet for all the doom and gloom, the failure of industrial agriculture, not just in Africa but in the developing world (the tropics, the South), means that there is space here for the development of niches that don't suffer the burdens of industrial agriculture.” He suggests that development specialists are beginning to question their previous assumptions about how best to “help Africa,” how to bring about economic development that positively impacts the average consumer and not just the industrialist and the well-bribed bureaucrat. Author and agrarian scientist James C. Scott is quoted as saying “…it isn’t that the tropics are unsuited to agriculture but rather they are unsuited to an alien agricultural logic, that is, industrial agriculture.”
Zaid draws together the elements of his “Postcard” by pointing out that it is increasingly clear that the solution to third-world famine agri-industrial development is not western style agriculture, but rather a return to local foods and food-producing techniques. Never has the need for an integrative approach to life science and social science been so clear:
Widening our vision means taking into account the flood of messages that are pouring out of the developed world, as well as Africa and the South. If we start tuning in through the noise and confusion of multiple conflicting logics, using our peripheral vision so to speak, all these flickering messages seem to be leading us, somewhat inexorably, towards a single, clear message: we need to re-generate local food systems.