Sunday, April 10, 2016

Robert Paarlberg - Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

This is not an anti-capitalist critique of the world's food system. In fact, in places it celebrates the successes of the system, and argues that solutions lie very much in reforming and improving existing practices. Nonetheless, for those trying to understand the problems of world agriculture, and its failings, it offers much useful information and data.

Much of Paarlberg's criticisms of the food system have been written about elsewhere. He points out the problems inherent with using too much fertilisers, too much pesticides, too many anti-biotics, as well as the limitations of a critique of capitalist agriculture that simply argues for a return to small scale farming. He notes as well the domination in certain aspects of world agriculture of a few massive corporations (four companies control 80 percent of US beef, for instance. Though he argues this does not have the impact that some suggest, for instance, quoting a US Department of Agriculture 1989 survey that there was "no significant effect on supermarket prices from increasing industry concentrations". Continuing that "Instead of controlling consumers, modern supermarkets compete with each other to attract customers by offering an ever growing array of affordable food purchase options". At best I suggest this is a naive vision of the role of supermarkets, which in the interests of maximising profit have helped distort food production and distribution, as well as consumer choice because of their large capital that can force farmers to comply.

Paarlbery believes that there must be a role for science and technology in feeding the world. He doesn't believe the problem lies with population. This means he rejects what he sees as simple solutions (such as organic only farming) pointing out that this can mean higher emissions of greenhouse gases and larger land use. But to be fair, he also understands the benefits of organic agriculture.

The problem I think is that Paarlberg's analysis doesn't begin from questioning the role of power in society and international relations. For instance, he notes that there are "food circumstances" between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries occuopying the same island. The problem he suggests is governance. In "poorly goverened Haiti 45 percent of all citizens are undernourished, versus just 15 percent in the better-governed Dominican Republic". No one would suggest that governments do not matter, but to ignore the way taht Haiti has been a victim of colonialism and imperialism for the last 150 years, is to misunderstand the way that capitalism ultimately shapes the food choices that people (and governments have).

Paarlberg suggests that "eating habits worldwide will continue to converge towards common sets of practises, including an increased reliance on foods purchased at supermarkets; increased consumption of packaged and process foods...a wider range of affordable eating choices, both healthy and unhealthy... but choices available will continue to expand for nearly all. Individual diets will continue to move away from, being ones geographic or economic destiny, toward being instead a result of conscious choice."

I'd suggest that this is not a positive vision. As even Paarlberg notes this "will destroy the natural environment". But it also will not challenge the very real problems with the food system, diet and health. Because the author doesn't attempt to challenge the way that agriculture reflects the priorities of the economic system and the most powerful economies within that, he fails to grasp the limitations of a system that creates hunger and obesity in vast amounts.

Strangely much of the information in the book does imply a critique of the current system. Paarlberg is not a vicious right-winger only interested in the profits of agri-business. His book is very much an attempt to understand what is happening in the world food system and to improve things. He sees both the threat from mass hunger and mass-malnutrition as being two parts of the same coin, but in my opinion he fails to explain what is the root problem. For readers trying to understand the system this then is a book which has much information to help form your own opinion, but for ultimately it is an apology for the status quo and its conclusions are thus limited.

Related Reviews

McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Patel - Stuffed and Starved
Bello - Food Wars

Lymbery - Farmageddon

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