Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Food Wars - Book Review

Food Wars, the Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets
by Tim Lang and Michael Heasman (2004) 365 pages including Index

“There is hardly anything in the world which some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who buy on price only are this man’s lawful prey.”
John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)

Very statistics laden presentation starting with a declaration that food and beverage product choices have risen globally to 25,000 products in the average supermarket with more than 20,000 new packaged foods and beverages in 2002 alone (p 11). This is indeed a significant number compared to my most recent one from the book EU Policy of 10,000 in 1995 in a typical retail store up from 550 in 1954 as compiled by the European Commission in 2007!  But statistics, being what they are, may or may not add validity to the arguments. Nonetheless, many valid points are made throughout the book and the statistics provide clear defining strokes to the overall picture giving it dimension. There are also many charts and graphs to assist the reader.

On the other hand, some of what the authors discuss is self-evident to me, but maybe not for everyone. For instance, food policy is obviously contested when divergent interests are at stake. And obviously, we are where we are because of policy choices made in the past including funding, setting research priorities, education, trade rules, and the legal framework adopted. But setting out the obvious may be helpful as a reminder that what we do today is shaping our future and we can use the past as an indicator of what direction we are going in.

The authors take an interesting frame for their analysis using three paradigms (see Chapter One):

(1) the Productionist paradigm – current one which is based on quantity to achieve profit at all costs;

(2) the Life Sciences Integrated paradigm – uses biological sciences for advancements (e.g., see my article Nestlé Proposes Band-Aid) and dominated by transnational corporations such as Pharmacia (Monsanto), DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow (p 179); and

(3) the Ecologically Integrated paradigm – in which public health is based on prevention rather than cure on an environmental, not just societal basis (p 103).

If implemented, the Ecologically Integrated paradigm would block the Productionist paradigm. For example, the alternative to preventing illness is to cure it which is another part of the Productionist paradigm as a source of employment and profit. The two stand against one another and it is only because the Productionist paradigm is proving to be so inadequate that other paradigms are being considered. As mentioned by the authors, the Life Sciences Integrated paradigm has some potential of following in the footsteps of the Productionist paradigm, but the authors explain the nuances that separate them (although I remain to be convinced).

Some points were interesting because of the connection that can be made with today’s policy. Corporate powers are indeed shaping food policy agendas as much as public policy (p 126). This is particularly important due to the continued growth of corporate power due to acquisitions, mergers, joint ventures, partnerships, contracts and other types of agreements (p 144). As I discussed in my blog article Debate in the House of Lords on Obesity Comes to Fat End, the government is now busy implementing the Responsibility Deal (government working in partnership with corporations). Also pointed out by the authors, a call for consumer responsibility is still a favourite for government shedding its own responsibility. In addition, the authors claim that “only about one-fifth of the world’s 6 billion people are able to participate in the cash or consumer credit economy that modern food capitalism thrives on,” but that corporations work in clusters to overcome this. The expansion of capitalism would also serve corporate interests though.

Another such point was about the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Since I did not live in England at the time, I was very amused to read that just after its creation in 2000, the FSA launched a public attack on organic food!! I have several entries about the more recent FSA attack on this blog: FSA Chief Executive's letter on organic food, Letter to Tim Smith, Chief Executive, Food Standards Agency, Report for the Food Standards Agency, Organic Food Is More Nutritious Say EU Researchers, and Full Circle with the FSA on Nutritional Viability of Organic Food.

The authors do not mention Nestlé as being at the forefront of changing in response to health and social demands, but rather, Coca-Cola and Unilever. However, as far as I can tell, they are all up to the same thing using various methods of exploitation and manipulation including psychology, advertising and emotional appeal (p 159). Another side of this coin of twisting things about is acknowledgement that some business practices are against the public interest, but found to be still ‘securing a good deal’ for the consumer (p 165).

Nestlé is mentioned though with reference to the organic market. The authors make the statement that in 2003 the organic market was valued at less than half of the total sales of Nestlé. Although Nestlé is the biggest food company in the world, it is still only one company among many and that puts the size of the organic sector in real perspective (p 175)!  Hardly worth the FSA's attention I would have thought!

The authors state that “... there is good evidence that the vegetarian diet can be entirely satisfactory for health” (p.248) and an article by TAB Sanders (1999) is used as justification. I checked this reference and would take this opportunity to add a caution because it is such an important point. First of all, Sanders begins on the premise that because of the mess that our food supply is in, we should simply avoid eating certain foods, such as meat because it is pumped full of chemicals and reared unethically and fish because of over fishing. It would make more sense for our health to correct the food production system than to change diet for these failures of the market. Secondly, for brevity’s sake, I will only mention one nutrient that is important to human health and only found in meat and fish, i.e., Vitamin B12. The solution to this problem offered by Sanders is to eat foods that are fortified with vitamin B12, such as Marmite and breakfast cereals. All I will say here is that this solution entails dependence on man to artificially supplement the diet instead of getting the required nutrients from nature as nature intended. It is another example of humans thinking they can do better than nature, or even live without nature, instead of living within natural parameters.

Also, in conclusion, I was not overly impressed by the policy options offered for the future:

• do nothing and allow ‘market forces’ to run their course;

• look to corporate solutions;

• frame market conditions; and

• empower civil society to demand and consume differently (p 304).

New alliances with greater choices and business opportunities? The do nothing option is undesireable because corporate power is out of control.  See my book review on Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance for signs of this.  'Market forces' are destroying the planet.  So looking to the corporations for solutions is an unlikely place to find them. Frame the market conditions is another form of the Responsibility Deal, or Corporate Finagling.  And empowering civil society? The only way that can be done really is to give everyone a big bag of money (re-distribute wealth) so that we all have equal voting power in the market.  But the last option is the best, even if it is a big challenge.

Meanwhile, as the wars continue to rage, our food, health, biodiversity and the environment continue to be the casualties! The authors do call for peace in the end by stating that “the goal of food and health policy surely must be for humanity to be at one with nature” (p 307). Policy that reflected reality, the reality that we are one with nature, would be a nice change!!