Sunday, June 12, 2011

The New Geopolitics of Food is Crap

The most recent issue of Foreign Policy is the "food issue" and the lead article is :

The New Geopolitics of Food

From the Middle East to Madagascar, high prices are spawning land grabs and ousting dictators. Welcome to the 21st-century food wars.  

I saw this article come across my feed reader and thought it looked interesting.  It was very interesting.  Admittedly, I don't know much about the geopolitics of food systems, but the concept of food systems has been on my mind lately. 

A Little Bit About Where I'm Coming From
We do this thing every so often called 7 Days 100% local challenge.  The goal of the challenge is to move our diet in a more local direction with the goal, for those 7 days, of getting as close to 100% locally sourced food as possible.   A big part of this is discovering what my friend would call an "honest" local meal.  What does it look like to really eat local?  What would be missing from your plate?  What new items would show up?   How is eating local in Portland different than eating local anywhere else?  It's not about making substitutions.  It's about discovering what "here" means.  (Of course, the ultimate in "honest" local food would be only foraged an indigenous items, but I haven't gotten there yet.)

Doing this challenge has also let me to thinking about other issues--mostly what really is the impact of eating local.  If part of the goal of the challenge is to move more people and dollars away from industrialized food and toward local sources, does that really have an impact?  How many people and how many dollars would need to be moved out of Kroger Corporation's pockets and into the local food economy before it could be considered "making a difference"?  According to the 2009 Kroger Fact Book (PDF), Kroger has 2468 super markets representing 36 different brands with over $76 billion dollars in annual sales.  That's freaking huge!  There there is a gigantic industrialized agriculture machine pumping unimaginably large quantities of food products out these stores.  

How in the world can choosing to eat local impact this system?  How can something so big, so entrenched, and with so much money behind it be moved by just by choosing to eat local?  We could do the "our family chooses to eat local" thing, but that just feels too self-righteous for me.  Honestly, I've started to become pessimistic about the whole thing.  

Where the Article Steps In
The New Geopolitics of Food does not brighten my day.  It's a really interesting article that hit home the point that the world of food is really about food for the world.  This is the opposite of local intention.  The article points out how food is used for foreign relations.  We export massive amounts of food to other countries when they are having a bad year.  It also points out how as economic growth and the appetite for meat seems to go hand-in-hand.  China is a specific example.  Meat production is soaring there, and demand is outpacing supply. For anyone concerned about the horrors of industrialized meat production, this represents a very real and growing nightmare.  It also makes a good point about the rising price of food and how foreign governments (mostly in Africa) are leasing their arable land to foreign food companies while their own population starves.  It also points out the we are starting to use grain for fuel as a substitute for fossil fuels. This is putting tremendous pressure on grain production because its using up our "surplus".

Multiple Problems.  Multiple Answers.
The answer the article positions at the end, is to find ways to increase crop yields in a hurry because there is an international food catastrophe on its way.  

The answer, apparently, is not to transition more to local sources.   

Increasing yields also could be a way of supporting more intensive industrialization of the food chain, along with more GMO products.  Overall, this solution is the opposite of what the local food movement cares about.

Also, as food--especially meats and grains--becomes even more of an international bargaining chip, having deep production reserves will be a key component of being a powerful nation, just as oil reserves are now.   Given this reality, it seems unlikely that the government will want to support reducing industrialized food production.  This puts the local food movement fundamentally at odds with the government also.

What to do!  

Is the local food movement really taking everything into consideration?  Is local food philosophically aligned with isolationism?  And is that realistic in today's interconnected world?  

As a  person interested in transitioning away from industrialized food and who believes that the commoditization  of food in general creates lower quality food, damages the environment, and encourages a system ripe for abuse under the guise of increasing "production efficiency", this article causes a lot of thoughts. Unfortunately, not all of them are hopeful.

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