Blinded by the capitalist paradigm

The inflexible political philosophy of capitalism has become so dominant that it limits the policy options we can propose. This straitjacket became alarmingly obvious to me on reading the Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming report published by the UK government’s Office for Science in January 2011. The authors accepted several assumptions as common sense, including corporate control of the food chain, free trade as an unquestioned good, rising prosperity around the world, continued major migration away from rural areas into cities, and the dominance of the global market over community and national priorities.

The report accepts constraints on food production such as water scarcity, land degradation, climate change and high energy costs, but assumes that the free market is the universal solution. The frightening oxymorons in the text included this:

Food security is best served by fair and fully functioning markets and not by policies to promote self-sufficiency. However, placing trust in the international system does not mean relinquishing a country’s sovereignty, rights and responsibilities to provide food for its population.”

Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming, p.19

This seems to me a statement of intent without any policy to give it meaning. How can a country provide enough for its population if it does nothing to encourage food production? The report goes as far as proposing (p.13) a ban on food export bans, which I interpret as privileging commodity trading companies above populations in need of food. The paradoxical statement accepts that markets are fair, and will achieve social objectives if only they are left alone. I do not think there are historical precedents for this view, which in 2011 seems very 1980s, as if thinking has not moved on since Reagan and Thatcher.

Another oxymoron relates to globalised sustainability.

“A globalised food system also improves the global efficiency of food production by allowing bread-basket regions to export food to less favoured regions.”

Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming, p.13

Huge trade flows over long distances, eating up fossil energy and emitting greenhouse gases with abandon, are the opposite of sustainability. The “establishment of development corridors linked to major ports” are proposed (p.17) as “a very effective way of stimulating local economies”. The greenwash term “local economies” really means “corporate opportunities”. The proposal (p.17) to strengthen rights to land and natural resources, such as water, fisheries and forests, means to endow private ownership rights over vital, communal resources. To this end, business and financial reform should “facilitate entrepreneurship in the food production sector”, which would “increase food production, household revenue, livelihood diversification and the strength of rural economies”. How would entrepreneurship improve sustainability? No answers.

There is a lot in the report about food waste, estimated at 30% of production, but not a lot about the links between long supply chains and waste. Indeed, the presupposition that long supply chains are efficient (and sustainable) permeates the text.

I nearly choked on my (imported) cocoa – I am a walking sustainability oxymoron – on reading the following:

“Future reform of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization cannot ignore the issues of sustainability and climate change. But there is the risk that allowing sustainability to be reflected in trade rules may lead to environmental protectionism.”

Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming, p.20

So environmental protectionism is bad? Yes, it must be that it limits corporate profits. Of course. On the following page I read that “there does not seem to be an argument for intervention to influence the number of companies in each area or how they operate”. Leave it all to the market. What about cutting greenhouse gas emissions? The “creation of market incentives” (p.29) should sort it out. That’s what the report says.

The big solution to world hunger contained in the report’s pages is “sustainable intensification”. Another oxymoron, but presented as advice to government.

When thinking like this prevails, calling for more of the same failing, exploitative practices, it is tempting (and practical) to retreat into the garden and grow vegetables. But it’s not enough.


3 Comments on “Blinded by the capitalist paradigm”

  1. kay says:

    wat a really interesting angle on things!
    made me analyse the situation in the two beautiful countries
    much more after reading your article!
    well done and now when we give our talk to the local
    towns people, we may be able to answer a few more questions after it!

  2. Thank you for your comments, Kay. Sometimes it feels that the big corporate interests have got so much control over food supplies that systemic change is a very long way away. I’m sure there’s hope, though, if enough of us want change, and work for it.

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