A paradox for post May Day focus

Posted on May 3, 2015


It’s a great paradox: as food production has increased, so too, has the amount of hunger in the world. And not because of a rapidly increasing population — there is actually enough food to adequately feed everyone. But there is also an extraordinary amount of wastage, coupled with price manipulation on a global scale.

These points were raised by Jacklyn Cock when she addressed trade union students at the Witwatersrand University’s Global Labour University programme in Johannesburg. Cock, emeritus professor in the university’s sociology department, detailed how up to a third of South Africa’s estimated 31 million tonnes of food available every year is wasted.

For obvious reasons, highly perishable foodstuffs such as fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rate. Along the supply chain, from harvest to retail, more than half of the production is lost. At the same time, nearly half the country’s population is “food insecure” regularly suffering hunger and malnutrition.

Cock describes this as a form of “slow violence”, resulting in one in every four South African children under the age of six showing signs of stunted growth because of malnutrition. “That means we are producing a stunted generation, both physically and mentally,” she says.

The problem, however, is global. And Cock has highlighted how food availability, shortages and price rises have been factors in revolutions and social instability from France in 1789, to Russia in 1917 and the Arab Spring of 2011. In 2008, there were social protests in 30 different countries triggered by increases in food prices.

However, the 2008 disturbances were caused not by shortages, but by market speculation and the drive to turn food crops into ethanol fuel, something I regard as feeding cars rather than people. At a basic level, food price rises, often coupled with increases in transport costs — a situation South Africa now faces — lead to instability as trade unions demand higher pay to cover the increased cost of living.

But there is a growing awareness among environmentalists, human rights campaigners and trade unions that global corporations play major roles in determining food prices and the manner in which crops can be used. It is this that underlies much of the disquiet and has resulted in demands for change; for some alternative to a system that is clearly not working in the interests of the bulk of humanity.

It is also, agrees Cock, a system that not only unjust, it is unsustainable. Modern agriculture, she points out, is heavily dependent on water and on non-renewable fossil fuels for transport, oil-based fertilizers and other inputs. With climate change, water shortages will increase, as will the costs of energy.

Then there is the issue of declining food safety as cheaper, more highly processed — and more profitable — foods reach the market. As US activist Professor Michael Pollan notes: “The more a food is processed the more profitable it gets to the large corporations that dominate agro-industry.”

Hundreds of chemical additives, along with salt, fat and sweeteners go into various processed foods that are increasingly consumed by the public at large. Says Cock: “The average salt intake of South African adults, for example, is 8.1gms a day, or nearly twice the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation.”

Extra salt can be hidden in such items as bread that can also contain a third of a teaspoon of sugar per slice. “Then there is the question of genetically modified organisms that give big corporations unprecedented control over the food chain and where the long term health risk is unknown,” says Cock.

Something new is clearly needed, she told the trade union students. And she quoted the radical playwright Bertold Brecht: “We cannot afford to sit in a burning house while the flames lick the rafters and singe our brows and question whether a new house is possible. We must abandon the old structure and seek to build a new one.”

This will require political will to encourage a system of food sovereignty that could be based on small and medium-sized producers along the lines of of La Via Campesina, founded in 1993 and now the largest grassroots movement in the world. It attempts to “give power to the hungry to address hunger”.

As such, I don’t think there are many people who would disagree with Cock when she says we should strive to create a situation “in which the needs of people rather than corporations are at the centre of the food system”. A good concept to focus as another May Day has just passed with workers almost everywhere under siege.