The shock of the first wave of the virus exposed the inner workings of our interconnected food creation and distribution system – and its weak points – to many of us who had never given it a second thought. This system is, of course, the result of decades of technological advancement, from global shipping and refrigeration networks to commodity markets (running on high-speed internet and massive cloud computing infrastructure) that provide the capital to do everything. run. Millions of people around the world may still have nasty surprises in store as the pandemic unfolds. But this moment gives us the opportunity to consider how we got to this point, and how to change things for the better.
The cost of growth
Simply put, the modern food system is the product of the forces inherent in free market capitalism. Decisions on where to invest in technological research and where to apply its fruits have been guided by the desire for ever greater efficiency, productivity and profit.
The result has been a long and constant trend towards greater abundance. Take the example of wheat production: thanks to railroads, the introduction of better equipment, and the adoption of higher-yielding varieties, production in the United States tripled between the 1870s and 1920s. Similarly, rice production in Indonesia has tripled in 30 years after the adoption of the mechanized, input-intensive methods of the Green Revolution in the early 1970s.
But as we all know, overproduction in the United States at the turn of the 20th century led to widespread soil erosion and the Dust Bowl. The steady progression of higher yields has been achieved by using large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as by rejecting local crop varieties deemed unfavorable. Agricultural land has become concentrated in the hands of a few big players; the United States had about one-third more farms in 2000 than in 1900, and on average they were three times the size. During the same period, the proportion of the US workforce employed in agriculture increased from just over 40% to around 2%. Supply chains continued to be optimized for speed, reducing costs and increasing returns on investment.
Most of all, consumers were happy to take advantage of the convenience gains that flow from these trends, but there has also been a backlash. Products distributed around the world can seem soulless, removed from local culinary tradition and cultural contexts – we can find blueberries in the dead of winter and the same brand of potato chips in remote corners of the planet. In response, wealthier eaters are now seeking “authenticity” and turning to food as an arena to declare their identity. Suspicions or outright critiques of the technology have arisen within the so-called food movement, along with a frequent and uncritical adoption of pastoral fantasies that sometimes reflect the preferences of wealthier (and often whiter) consumers.
Such attitudes ignore the obvious: the availability, accessibility and affordability of processed foods a major force in reducing food insecurity around the world. The number of people suffering from undernourishment increased from around 1 billion in 1990 to 780 million in 2014 (although hunger rises again), while the world’s population grew by 2 billion during the same period.
And to criticize the mass production of food per se is misguided. It is indeed a very imperfect company that produces a lot of high calorie and low nutrient foods. But it is not doomed to ruin our planet and our well-being. Not if we make choices that take into account factors other than profit.
The value of values
The shutdown of slaughtering and meat-packing plants in response to covid-19 has caused upstream unrest, forcing farmers to kill and dispose of overpriced livestock to feed without the certainty of sales. This is what happens when a system optimized for efficiency, productivity and profit hits a shock.
Technology, however, is not inherently opposed to sustainability and resilience. In fact, many of the problems typically attributed to technology in the food system stem from the legal and financial framework in which it develops. Intellectual property is a central issue here; patent holders have used their patents almost exclusively to maximize profits, rather than to improve food safety and food quality.
Genetic modification is a prime example. For the most part, his techniques have been applied to cash crops such as wheat, soybeans and corn, cultivated in large quantities and traded internationally. The goal is unique: to increase yields, even when it requires more intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers – which are often patented by the same companies that hold the patents on GMOs.
This investment in genetic modification and agrotechnology, however, is lacking for many crops that serve as the staple of millions of smallholders around the world – taro in the Pacific Islands, South Asia and West Africa. cassava in Latin America and large parts of Africa. . If applied to these crops in the pursuit of food security instead of profit, genetic technologies could be used to create stronger, more resilient local agriculture and a healthier food system – but it is not. , because it would not generate sufficiently large profits to interest the private biotechnology sector. To make matters worse, many low-income countries have also historically been forced to accept trade and financing agreements from the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization that open their markets to these highly globalized cash crops. regardless of farmers or consumers. customs and needs.
And even, most debates on GMOs focus on their supposed danger to human health – for which there is little scientific evidence – rather than how they tip the scales against small farmers and the communities they feed. In short, by focusing on bogus tech issues, we ignore the very real legal and social issues.
The way forward, therefore, is to make choices that align technological advancements with the causes of sustainability, resilience to shocks and people’s well-being, rather than being limited only to the results of large companies. There are already many examples. Navdanya Community Seed Banks, started in India by activist Vandana Shiva, train local practitioners (mostly women) to become seed keepers, thereby making endangered varieties available to farmers who can then cultivate them. and cross them. These inexpensive conservation technologies help maintain agrobiodiversity by identifying, selecting and protecting endangered genetic material.
The issue of ownership and control also touches on other aspects of the entanglement between technology and the food system. There’s a mile-long list of stylish gadgets that promises to revolutionize the hard work of staving food off the earth. Farmers can wire their fields with sensors connected to the internet, monitor their crops and livestock with farm drones, or manage their stocks using a blockchain. They can use their cell phones to access data on weather, pests, and the cost of inputs and crops. But the companies driving these innovations have an incentive to sell as many apps, devices, and data streams as possible, not feed and feed as many people as possible. If companies change their business model, abandon a product or service, or simply fold back, farmers are at their mercy.