Renewable Food

A recent special investigation by The Ecologist magazine has highlighted an interesting link between global food poverty and famine and “food speculation”, a recent financial trading trend amongst the Big Money players.

The theory is that “speculators” (traders with no commercial interest in the commodity they are buying or selling) have the ability to increase global food prices, simply through their involvement in the stock exchange. In effect, an urbanite in London, who has never stood amidst a field of real live corn, can make a few million on corn stocks with the click of a button. Before you can say ‘popcorn’, a few thousand people in a poorer country across the globe go hungry because the boosted price of said commodity means they can’t afford to buy maize anymore.

This is sad, but not surprising. We are constantly confronted with debate and anxiety about future food shortages, piled on top of promotional guilt trips to “dig deep” and help the hungry in Africa…yet food prices everywhere keep rising. Africans can’t afford to buy food, and neither can a lot of Australians, Americans or Europeans. Of course there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s just the rules of supply and demand – even the three basic necessities for survival (water, air and food) are not exempt from being used for someone’s profit.

The Gruen Transfer recently laughed at the idea of selling Bottled Air, but it may not be so funny in years to come. These days it’s fairly impossible in most places to find drinkable water without paying for it, either with your wallet or your health. Now, maintaining a healthy diet is also becoming harder. Clean air may be the next to succumb to profit-making – it’s not that hard to imagine when many people in the world aren’t inhaling pure, breathable oxygen anymore.

But back to the food issue. I am not an economist, and I know these things are a lot more complicated than I think they are, but I do get frustrated at the irrationality we have injected into the global food industry.

I have already talked about the globalisation of produce in Vegetable Oil Slick and the irrational ‘food miles’ that supermarket chains can add to (already poor quality) produce with their logistical nonsense in Supermarket Ecology. The silliness of it all became more apparent last week when I was in the Sunraysia region of north-west Victoria for field work.

The region is one of Australia’s main ‘food bowls’ – driving along narrow dirt roads or country highways, you pass acres and acres of grapes, almonds, citrus, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, beans and many other fruit and vegetables destined for supermarket shelves around the country. On one particular day, I drove past a few decent-sized asparagus farms in full production. Fruit and veg stalls along the road were selling fresh local asparagus, straight from the farms. Twenty minutes up the road, in the local supermarket’s produce section, one tray of wilted asparagus was for sale – ‘Product of Peru’.

It just doesn’t make sense. We spend millions doing research into health conditions and diseases attributed to poor health. We spend millions on marketing campaigns pushing the benefits of fresh produce, whole foods and healthy living and raising awareness of cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. We are officially one of the fattest nations in the world, with the fastest growing rate of obesity, and health organisations are in overdrive trying to reverse this trend.

On the other side of the coin, we have some of the most fertile soils and best climates in the world and enough land to produce a significant amount of fresh, healthy, whole food (provided the land is managed well!).

Yet we sign ‘free trade’ agreements with other countries and export all our good quality food overseas – because we make more money this way than if we eat it ourselves.

We import (often lower-quality) produce from other countries, risking/eliminating our disease- and pest-free status in many food production industries – because we make more money from trade than by eating our own food.

We sell off prime agricultural land for coal seam gas wells, essentially eliminating the production value of those parcels for decades – because we make more money from resources than food.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Why waste our time ‘speculating’ and trading hypothetical stocks and shares? Why insult Food by cementing its value in Profits rather than Health and Life? Our time and energy needs to be spent on developing far-sighted, renewable food production industries around the world, not limiting Life and resources by focussing on short-term gains.

A biodynamic almond orchard in the Sunraysia region of Victoria.

© Manu Saunders 2011

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