by Lotty Clare
Land is a topic that is not at the centre of political news or conversations in the UK, yet land and how we value it is central to environmental, social and economic sustainability worldwide. Land is central to food security, culture, conflict and peace, and society as a whole. Food is a human right, and yet it is a commodity privy to the powers of the market, and not guaranteed for many people. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few mega corporations who monopolise global agriculture and food systems.
The term ‘food system’ takes into account how and where our food is grown, transported, packaged, consumed and the power dynamics within this chain. Currently, this system is failing to feed the population of the planet, whilst at the same time wasting about a third of food for human consumption on a global scale. Over 800 million people are affected by hunger, and with an exponentially increasing global population and middle class, demand for food is placing a great deal of pressure on the global food system. Much of the food we consume in the west is imported and frequently has large carbon footprint due to food goods being transported all over the world.
Modern intensive farming methods often work in conflict with the natural world, with farmers spraying vast amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides onto monocultures of crops. This may produce high yields in the short term, but in the long-term, soil fertility, and hence productivity is dramatically reduced because the diversity of nutrients, biology and root associations degrades. Two years ago, the UK government estimated we have about 40 years of harvest before our soils become too degraded. The results of intensive agriculture have been food with low nutritional value, biodiversity loss of plants and animals at a rapid rate, pushing peasant farmers and indigenous people off their land for agribusiness projects. Agriculture is also one of the leading causes of climate change, deforestation and environmental degradation.
Through owning agricultural land, hundreds of rich families escaped a £208m in inheritance tax in 2015-16. Because farmland is used as a tax shelter, farmers are being priced off the land and foreign firms are acquiring land here to avoid taxes.
Control over the means of production, particularly land and agriculture, has for a long time been closely linked to political and social power. The global food system is controlled by more or less three or four companies at every stage of the system. A handful of firms control over 75 percent of the global seed and agrochemical market, and mega-corporations Unilever and Walmart own hundreds of food brands and retailers. Companies such as Monsanto have a monopoly over global seed production and trade due to patenting seeds and GM varieties and despite claiming to improve the lives of farmers, countless stories and research shows that Monsanto dis-empowers smallholder farmers and puts a patent on nature which many argue should not be possible. Monsanto’s seed monopolies and the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties have set the stage for farmers’ debt and hardships, driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India. Increased chemical inputs have dangerously reduced genetic diversity of crops, the resilience of crops, and hence farmer livelihoods, exposing them to risks such as climate change, and mega-pests and diseases that Monsanto’s monopoly on agricultural inputs have actually helped to create.
This story is echoed across all corners of the world. Closer to home, in the UK, land has been central to the control of social and economic capital for centuries, particularly since the land enclosures hundreds of years ago which turned common agricultural land into privately owned parcels. Since 1995, land values in this country have risen by 412%. In large part because successive governments have used tax exemptions and other advantages to turn the ground beneath our feet into a speculative money machine. Through owning agricultural land, hundreds of rich families escaped a £208m in inheritance tax in 2015-16. Because farmland is used as a tax shelter, farmers are being priced off the land and foreign firms are acquiring land here to avoid taxes. This reality has been crafted through decades of strategy by food related companies, both influencing policy in different sectors of the food chain and influencing related narratives. It is also important to take into consideration the ingrained neo-colonial elements within the global food system. The World Bank policies a few decades ago imposed damaging economic and agricultural policies on countries in the global south that channelled wealth to western countries and corporations. The World Bank encouraged countries such as Senegal and Mozambique to mass produce monocultures of crops like groundnut, subsistence farmers turned to cash crops for export. Markets were then overrun with that product, driving down prices and exacerbating poverty whilst the west profited. Some farmers in the global south no longer grow food to provide for their families and instead sell cash-crops for export, do not have a stable income due to fluctuating market prices, without enough money to feed their families. Food poverty and insecurity in the global south has been used by commodity trading ﬁrms to proﬁt from food aid programs that appear to be ‘feeding the world’, but undercut prices for local farmers in poorer countries.
Other ways in which this harmful dominant food system has been created by corporate interest, is the way food retailers have actively engaged in campaigns, for example to weaken antitrust legislation in the United States. This has allowed them to dominate huge sections of the market, for example in the US, Walmart accounts for a third of food retail. Food retailers can consolidate the vast amount of power they already obtain, by demanding lower prices from their suppliers to maintain their competition. Speaking to farmers in Norfolk, many feel that they are under pressure from retailers to follow strict procedures including using certain seed varieties and chemical inputs to achieve a desired yield, often at the expense of the environment and often at the cost of animal welfare. Food-processing companies have worked to successfully create a demand for highly processed, addictive and packaged foods. Large farms are positioned to receive the largest proportion of government and EU subsidies, enabling them to further expand at the expense of smaller, more environmentally sustainable farms. The seed and chemical industry has pushed for more stringent intellectual property rights to protect their innovations and prevent other ﬁrms from entering the market, as seen in the case of Monsanto in India.
Power is being filtered upwards in the global food system, shaping policies about the food we eat, where and how it is grown, who has a voice in the food system, and even our mindsets and relationship to agricultural goods.
Photo Credit: Joao Marcelo Marques
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