Agriculture: food or money?

October 3, 2012

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.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Gillian Rea October 3, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Hi Ruth – I heard you speak at New Horizon in the summer. Also went to hear someone speaking about sabbath economics – ched myers’ idea that we can/should reach a point where we have enough – and where therefore we can distribute work and goods fairly and evenly. Thinking this must have a bearing on what you are saying here – that agriculture is not simply a stage in development to get more and get richer, but a part of this issue. Don’t know how this works in practice, or how we all decide what constitutes ‘enough’ – but interested to hear your perspective on myers’ concepts.

    • Reply ruthvalerio October 6, 2012 at 9:28 am

      Hi Gillian, nice to hear from you. Our current economic system works on the premise that we can keep growing ad infinitum, and what we are now realising is that that isn’t the case. Can we collectively reach a point where we say, we have enough, we don’t need anymore? It seems that we’re not capable of doing that and therein lies our problem. So yes, I do agree with what you say Myers is saying (although I haven’t read him myself so can’t say for sure).

  • Reply Rosemary Moon October 3, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    A good slant on a massive challenge. Of course, in most developed societies food, unless costing a great deal of money in a fashionable restaurant or food-to-go establishment, is of little worth. It does not have the value of handbags, anti-ageing cream or designer jeans. It is fuel for existing, maybe not even for living life to the full. Remember the saying: if there is not enough food there is only one problem. If there is plenty of food there are many problems. A fair price for farmers is necessary and the desire to alleviate waste, in the fields, on the shelves and in the fridge!

  • Reply lizacooke October 4, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Thank you Ruth.So many issues for so many people.Perhaps we will only begin to start addressing those issues as we make room for a change of our attitudes towards food. Like everything else it will be different for every individual and people group but perhaps for all of us it needs to come from a profound embracing of “Bread is the stuff of life”.

  • Reply James Sharp October 5, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Love it Ruth-some useful material ahead of our Harvest Thanksgiving this weekend. You might want to think about dis-abling those who advertise on your blog, slightly hilariously when i logged in there was a bunch offering to protect the retirement investments of those who have over £250,000 in a portfolio!!!! Seemed slightly at odds with the whole simplicity thing!! Love from us all. x

    • Reply ruthvalerio October 5, 2012 at 10:11 am

      Oh dear, how incongruous! I have no idea how to disable adverts, but you’re right – I definitely need to work out how to do it. I’m glad though that my post has given you some material – do let others know about it if appropriate. ATB x

  • Reply Byron Smith October 5, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Great comments. I particularly appreciated Rosemary’s insight that food in developed societies doesn’t have the value of handbags, anti-ageing cream or designer jeans.

    I’d argue that most contemporary rich-world people have a moral obligation to spend more of our income on food than we presently do. Or rather, an obligation to avoid encouraging practices that treat farmers like dirt, animals like machines, and which treat dirt like, well, dirt – and doing so is very likely to mean spending more than the tiny fraction we currently do on food, because it is going to mean more input of human labour (especially skilled labour, through the development and deployment of much smarter and sustainable farming methods based on permaculture principles, for instance), and this labour needs to be valued justly.

    In general, I’m starting to rethink the categories that treat agricultural “production” the same as industrial production. Making a car and making a meal are not analogous in all kinds of ways. This is related to my increasing appreciation for a point long made by Marxists, indigenous cultures and readers of the Torah – that land is not a commodity like other commodities.

  • Reply Rob Elliott October 6, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Hi Ruth, absolutely agree with everything you wrote.

  • Reply Rob Elliott October 6, 2012 at 2:00 am

    wondered how you may feel about an idea that one of the Fair Trade asks in the new campaigning round would not simply being towards Govn but also towards those who campaign. In essence that while we campaign for the world we need to campaign for and with the poor here and make sure that this is accesible to them. That it is the fault of the educators rather than the poor, who whether a youth who hits out because he doesnt know how else to express desperation about the needs of his own family, his friends, the community he sees pressed in around him each day, the cries of a man whose house is taken by the Gov coz of council tax changes or loads of similar folks,..the UK Poor know about injustice. Would they care enough to do things about the injustice in the wider world? Is it well known that the poor are more generous than the rich?? Surely as we talk on enough part of what we who call ourselves church must not be afraid to do is have less but also be wary of encouragng thise with less than us to think of God as a being who will fill their lives with loads of stuff, when stuff often is bad for the environment, health, community living and in lots of other ways. Do we encourage often, the poor to have more to make us feel better about having stuff? When actually they can teach us, if we let them , how to live with less. Who are the teachers,… the small holders and fishermen in africa, asia and everywhere else. I would add to that with all sincerity (as I think on real people I know), potentially the homeless or exhomeless, those who have shared allotments and feed their families from them for years etc etc. Would welcome chat with you about this Ruth. Have sent some thoughts to Daniel of Progressio and Andy from Speak about how the UK Poor may be encouraged and be included in campaigning. If you may like t read do say, can live with a no but would value your opinion.

    • Reply ruthvalerio October 6, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Thanks for this, Rob. It strikes me that you have actually got more of an idea on this one than I do (or Daniel or Andy). You’re the person living and wrestling with this issue/question and so you can be the one who informs on how to be more inclusive when it comes to campaigning etc. Do send me your thoughts: ruth@jaysonw32.sg-host.com. Cheers. BTW, if you liked my blog, would you FB it for me and let others know about it? Ta!

  • Reply Neil October 9, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Ruth Hi agree with what you have said. I’ve blogged on the value we put on farmers with the example being the whole milk issue over the summer. Interestingly the biggest reaction on my blog I’ve had so far was over the fact that our church decided to have a harvest festival this year for the first time-well its so long ago I cannot remember.

  • Reply Valerie Comer October 20, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Thank you, Ruth. As a farmer and local foods advocate in British Columbia, Canada, this is one battle we are fighting. Not only fair pricing for food (fairtrade isn’t only for the third world!), but respect for the farmer.

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.