Does food matter? If so, why is our global food system in such an horrendous mess? With nearly a billion people in the world going hungry, nearly the same amount struggling with obesity, and a third of the food produced for human consumption going to waste around the world, we face a crisis of truly overwhelming proportions.
The factors that make up this crisis are massive and were the focus of the Ecumenical World Development’s Food Matters conference, from which I’ve just returned. There is a swirl of issues around such things as land and water grabs, climate change, bio fuels, commodity speculation, cash crops, global governance and corporate power that all need to be looked at and dealt with if we are to see ourselves moving towards a more just world where everyone has enough to eat and access to food that is varied and enjoyable.
I’m not going to be so foolhardy as to try to solve the issues in one small blog post, but I do want to comment on one thing that struck me forcibly through the conference, and that was the value – or lack thereof – that we place on farmers and the role of agriculture in our world. This came out at various points. Anne Bayley, in her reflections on the years she has spent in Zambia looking at food security for people living with HIV, commented that no one she met wanted to be a farmer because it was considered the most menial work to do. A comment from the floor reflected something similar in the UK, with most farmers’ children wanting to get out of the business and do anything but (although of course there are also others who desperately want to get into farming but can’t make it work financially).
It was brought home to me most forcefully though by Duncan Green from Oxfam who finished his otherwise excellent presentation with the statement, ‘agriculture is a means to an end: it’s a means to development. Countries go through stages of development and agriculture is the first stage as countries move towards greater development and industrialisation’. That statement brought me up short. Here, I thought, is the nub of the problem. If we only view agriculture as a means to a different end (ie ‘development’), rather than a means to the end of good food, then we really are in trouble.
Now don’t get me wrong. Development is desperately needed in so many countries. I’m not sitting in my comfy house, having had a good dinner, pointing the finger at others and saying, ‘you should stay poor farmers and not aim to be any more prosperous’. But it strikes me that one of our deepest problems is that we see agriculture (and aquaculture) as being predominantly about money rather than being about food.
What we need is a global culture change that sees farming and fishing and producing food as one of the most important and valuable activities that a person can do. We ought to be placing our farmers in positions of honour in our societies, not treating them, literally?, like dirt. Agriculture should not be a stepping stone on the road to development: a ‘stage’ to be gone through as quickly as possible so we can move on to something better, passing the baton on to the next impoverished country coming up behind. The growing and rearing of food should be seen as equally valuable – if not more so – to the activities of industry.
If there is to be any hope of seeing things change we need, at least, to get this right.