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Food for Thought

The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming by Tony Weis;

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 2, 200825Food for Thought C R SridharThe corporate images of the food economy are full of deceptive advertisements of a mythical cor-nucopia of contented looking animals waiting for their disposal as someone else’s meal. The other images, which rein-force the intrinsic “fun and plenty” of the food economy, are of supermarkets cater-ing to the affluent sections of society, with food products stacked in shelves procured from far-off places.Beneath the illusion of plenty, there are other contradictory images of starved babies with distended bellies in famine-stricken Africa, coexisting obscenely with obese people from the developed world. Starved farmers in agriculturally dependent economies who eke out a miserable living out of cash crop economy offer a harsh contrast to the bon vivant lifestyle of CEO’s of transnational corporations (TNCs).Tony Weis, an assistant professor of geography teaching at the University of Western Ontario Canada, has written a book calledThe Global Food Economy, which is a searing indictment of big agri-businesses destroying small farmers and the delicate ecosystems devastated by modern capital-intensive modes of pro-duction. Going beyond the platitudes of corporate public relations, the author “examines the human and the ecological cost of what we eat”. At the heart of the problem, the author argues, lies the role ofTNC agribusiness, especially the grain-livestock complex, in adopting industrial methods, which are inimical to the ecosystems and the condi-tion of human beings in general. Ecological FootprintThe ecological footprint left by industrial agriculture is a negative one and exacts a mounting toxic burden. In the past the long-term viability of farms depended on a sensitive relationship with respect to the ecological limits of growing food. It was recognised that there must be functional diversity in crops, soil species, trees, ani-mals and insects to maintain ecological balance and nutrient cycles. This was maintained in traditional farming methods by multi-cropping, rotational patterns, green manure, fallowing land, careful seed selection and the integration of small animal populations.In contrast modern farming trans-formed by capitalism and industralisation represented “a movement toward the radi-cal simplification of the natural ecological order in the number of species found in an area and the intricacy of their inter-connections”. This was made possible by the development and rising use of syn-thetic fertilisers, agro-chemicals, en-hanced seed varieties/genetically modi-fied seeds, farm machinery,concentrated feedstuff,animal antibiotics and hor-mones, and the expansion of irrigation systems, which allowed industrial tech-niques to override previous ecologicalcon-straints. Moreover, embeddedinindustr-ialised farming is the new dependence upon fossil fuel consumption in the 20th century, not only on transportation costs involved in bringing the food from the place where it is grown to the plate of the consumer and the demands of themachin-ery used for agriculture instead ofanimals, but with the petroleum demands of prolif-erating synthetic fertilisers and agro-chemicals. With the price of oil reaching $ 120 per barrel (expecting to touch $ 200 per barrel) it is certain that food prices would shoot upwards.Rejecting simplistic notions that the industrial transformation in agriculture has resulted in high yielding crops, which are also stable with respect to yields, the author points out the inconvenient truth that it leads to chronic toxicity. This is evident as crops grown in industrial monocultures are prone to pest infections – a threat that is suppressed by the use of pesticides leading to greater pest resistance to them and involving greater use of pesticides in a never-ending cycle. The excessive use of them results in pesti-cide poisoning which afflicts nearly three million suffering every year leading to 2,50,000 deaths. The other problems that arise with mechanised tillage are that the soil is drained off its nutritive power. The quick fix in the form of technology is a mere illusion as more and more use of in-puts serves to mask the problems while creating fresh ones, one of which is the in-creasing use of fresh water for agricultural purposes, which is becoming scarce and a flash point of conflict.Hoof Prints Left by LivestockThe increased “meatification” of diet of-fers fresh challenges to the ecosystems as the increased demand for consumption of meat products leads to large-scale supply from feedlots. There are also health problems associated with increased meat intake as it increases the risk of strokes and cardio-vascular diseases.In the factory, the dense livestock popu-lation is the major consumer and polluter of water. It is calculated that in excess of 3,000 litres of water go into producing a single kilogram of US beef while a factory farmed pig requires about 132 litres of water for drinking and flushing of its wastes. A typical slaughterhouse in US uses in a day the water used by 25,000 people.The faecal matter of the cattle and pigs creates problems of waste disposal, as it is a gigantic task to get rid of 1.4 billon tonnes of animal manure (US) without polluting the rivers and streams. Added to the problems of sink function, there are health hazards arising out of over crowding of poultry birds in production factories which exposes the public to the dangers of a virulent strain of H5N1 which is capable of mutating and jumping the species barrier to human beings. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warning led to hundreds of millions of birds getting culled in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The feeding of neuraltissues, bonemeal and blood from cattle carcass to essentially herbivorous cattle created the mad cow disease (BSE), which could transmit to humans when they eat the infected meat. Thus the hoof prints left by livestock production leaves an The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farmingby Tony Weis; Zed Books, London and New York; Indian edition, Books for Change, Bangalore, 2008; pp 256, Rs 300.

crsridhar@hotmail.com

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