Food prices and the death of the productionist model
first warnings were aired about wheat, then meat, then dairy. It's
a vertiginous view from the heights of the commodity markets, and
it's clearer than ever before that we need to re-jig our basic food
supply systems if we are to feed the world in the future.
The impact of the price rises and their underlying causes - be it biofuels or harvest shortfalls - is felt at every level, from the farmer who will be paying a premium for his cattle feed, through manufacturers stumping up more for basic ingredients, to consumers having to find a few extra pennies to pay for their meat, milk or daily loaf. But despite the shock headlines, in the well-to-do West, will all of this really have an impact on the daily grocery bill? Possibly not. We've been chasing value-added foods for the last few years, if the extra few pence are pushing the budget too far then it shouldn't be that much hardship to leave that extra packet of choccy biscuits out of the trolley. But what about low-income families who spend higher proportion of disposable income on food and count the nutritional benefit of every penny spent? In some parts of the world people's relationship to their food is that bit closer and there is no buffer between commodity costs and how far you can fill your belly. In Mexico this year there have already been riots as the price of wheat has meant many people are unable to afford tortillas, a basic staple on which the average consumer spends 12 per cent of their food budget. The very fact that a price spike can create widespread hunger is cause for great concern, and a sign that there is something intrinsically wrong with our food supply system. The dominant system at present is known as the productionist model. It developed over the course of the 200 year post-industrialist era as a means to feed as many people as possible as cheaply as possible by emphasising quantity over all else. The productionist model is heavily reliant on subsidies - subsidies that have helped keep commodity costs below production costs but which are now being removed through reforms like those to the CAP (common agricultural policy) in Europe. Although it has had its victories, especially in the war-ridden mid-20th century, food policy advisers agree the productionist model is no longer viable in the current global situation. In their 2004 book Food Wars, Tim Lang and Michael Heasman argued that a number of factors threaten its survival, including health and environmental factors, oil shortages and climate change. The rise of biofuels, to which 1.1 per cent of the price increases are attributed, throws a new problem into the mix. And the predicted population growth spurt that could give us 50 per cent more mouths to feed by 2050 means the Food and Agriculture Organization is already issuing stark warnings that there may not be enough to go around. Lang and Heasman expounded two possible systems that are emerging as possible alternatives: the life-sciences integrated paradigm, which revolves around the application of biotechnology to food production; and the ecologically integrated paradigm, which also has its roots in biology but seeks to preserve diversity with an approach that is more holistic and less engineering. However both are geared towards a greater emphasis on consumer health. Since 2004 the war over food supply has moved on to new battlegrounds. Worldwide policies and industry efforts mean that food-health conundrum is being taken in hand - even if there remains a long way to go before everyone on the planet is a glowing picture of well-fed health. The new fight, it seems, is simply on access to food for the future. And until this is resolved, the life-science vs ecologically integrated debate would seem to be a moot one. After all, no-one is going to be healthy if they can't afford a basic corn tortilla? The answer? If I knew how to eradicate world hunger, I'd be a rich lady (or certainly be half way to earning a Miss World title). However food prices look unlikely to go down any time terribly soon. Just as Lang and Heasman argued three years ago that the drivers of food policy must be imaginative to place health at the heart of reshaping the food supply, it is time to put their thinking caps on once more. Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com