Big Food

The world is subject to a global food system that couldfeed the world but doesn’t.

Around the world, enough food is grown, harvested and processed, and an estimated 40% of all food grown is wasted and never consumed. Waste isn’t the only problem; the way food is distributed is neither sensible nor fair and adds to global food poverty. I think the changes we’ve seen in bread are a living example of the effects of Big Food on both the global food system and the climate. 

It’s what I call bread politics.

So what is Big Food, and why should you care? Big Food is the name given to the large food companies that control much of the world’s food. From agricultural companies like Du Pont and Monsanto, which was bought by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer in 2018, to food companies like Nestle, Tyson Foods, or Brakes in the UK, their reach and influence can’t be ignored. The Bayer/Monsanto story is a scary one – the company owns the patents on a large number of commercial crops and sells the seed, together with their sprays (fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and crop conditioners) that will kill everything on the field, except the cash crop. It has been modified to withstand the assault of their chemical weapons. The company also produces chemicals used in food processing and artificial vitamins for food fortification. Finally, when a lifetime of eating foods produced in this way has made you sick, it will also sell you a wide range of drugs to keep you going. Wonderful….from the point of view of the shareholders anyway! 

We’re approaching a crisis: a shortage of energy, water and land will soon make it impossible to meet the increased demand of a growing population. This could affect food prices and trade, incite conflict, and create new waves of refugees. And the planet? Damaged, destroyed, desolate. How did we get here?

The green revolution of the 20thcentury increased agricultural yields and may have saved some from starvation, but it has made a global system that’s dependent on fossil fuels to grow, harvest, process and transport much of the world’s food. This type of chemical farming together with tilling is killing the soil biology and structure and as the microbes and worms are dying off, the soil looses its ability to store water. The result: soils wash off and agricultural yields drop. As supplies of oil run out, the price will skyrocket, taking with it the cost of food. Ethanol is an alternative fuel source, but if ethanol crops are prioritised when space is allocated, there won’t be enough land for food crops. Climate change itself could make agriculture so difficult that it will be increasingly impossible to feed the world a good diet. 

Scarcity of supply will affect the most vulnerable first and they will be powerless against the might of the global food system. It shows more interest in profit than nutrition – agricultural and manufacturing processes focus on extracting the maximum yield at the lowest cost. The shareholders in Big Food demand a good return on their investment, and this may come at the cost of ethics, health, nutrition and the environment. Is it ethical to encourage the consumption of sugary drinks, or poor quality foods high in sugar, salt and fat? To farm in ways that aren’t sustainable? And it’s not just their size that’s a worry. Their behaviour and influence are even more of a concern. Big Food has big budgets, especially for funding (and influencing) research and development, and for lobbying governments to make sure they are able to carry on their business unrestricted by rules and regulations.

As well as affecting what people eat, the global food system and Big Food contribute about one-third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, driving climate change that may make agriculture untenable in parts of the world.

A quarter acre section can grow significant amounts of food.

In the days before Big Food, people were partly responsible for growing their own food. The rest was bought from small food producers like bakers, butchers, and grocers. People could feed themselves independently, often baking at home, killing their own livestock or growing their own produce. The quarter acre section that still so many New Zealanders dream of owning is based exactly on this proposition – that it will allow enough food to be grown on it to feed a family of 4 – 6 people. This independence gave people some control over their economy as well as their diet, and while there were times of famine, there was generally sufficient food to allow the growth of civilisations and cultures – otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.

Big Food’s spread around the planet has displaced traditional food systems and dietary patterns. This has had a huge impact on people’s health, causing obesity and starvation at the same time. Changing dietary patterns, particularly the trend to eat more protein, have been hugely destructive, with many of the crops grown by agricultural giants used to feed cattle rather than people. Giving priority to feeding livestock has caused massive areas of deforestation in South America and South East Asia – this affects locals as they lose both land and hunting grounds, and the environment, as the trees are burned or logged, giving up their carbon which is released into the atmosphere. Just so we can all eat burgers. With the world population expected to pass nine billion by 2050, resources such as land and water will become the most sought after commodities, and if we continue on the current trajectory the demand for food will continue to outstrip what the environment can sustain (for more in-depth information please read the study from the Lancet linked below).

So how can we battle Big Food and a global food system designed to maximise profit rather than nutrition? Every time we eat, we are making a choice. A choice to accept the current state, or to fight back- with your wallet as your weapon. With buying products that are produced using sustainable and organic methods. With reading the ingredient labels of products and rejecting chemicals and things you don’t know what they are. Eating less meat. With supporting local producers. And with eating real bread. And that’s no hardship, is it?

The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change Study

Read about the history of bread in ‘The long history of the loaf’.

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