Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Ministry of Food

Felicity Lawrence:
there is an underlying tension throughout [Food Matters] that may explain why the Downing Street soundbites threw the food crisis back to individuals and their waste. It recognises that the agribusiness model of food production based on global competition has failed to deliver, but the government remains wedded to the idea that food markets, like all other markets, are best left to regulate themselves. It wants the food chain reshaped but does not want to edit our choices. It wants to run with the free market, yet trade in food has never been truly free.

Concentrations of corporate power in the global food system distort competition. The government has no plan to address them. The US and EU have retained trade barriers and agricultural protections as they urge poorer countries to liberalise food markets. Britain can't wean the US off its farm bills, nor a biofuels policy that diverts a third of the corn crop to petrol tanks at the expense of global food prices. Nor can it persuade the French to reform the common agricultural policy faster. Moreover, the market has no effective mechanisms for putting a price on the things that matter most: the nutritional, environmental and social costs of production.

1 comment:

Clive Bates said...

There is a rather severe contradiction in this - a rant against the efficacy of markets, followed by blaming all sorts of market distortions, like the CAP and trade barriers. If markets and global competition are to blame, then what's the recipe for change? I presume government intervention of some sort? Well intervention in food policy has a spectacularly poor record.

Markets are never expected to address externalities, governments do that through regulation, economic instruments or other actions. And the idea of a 'limited state' in which governments do not solve everything and personal responsibility plays a part (nutrition?) seems to have passed Ms. Lawrence by.

And who says that markets aren't working just because prices go up? I don't think prices are too high - I think they reflect scarcity of and value of land. Perhaps this is a market signal about sustainability - the fact that agricultural productivity growth is failing to keep pace with population growth and increasing per capita consumption. Perhaps it is high global prices that will create the allotments and kitchen gardens or small-holdings that will deliver localism in food production. Individuals, local governemnt and small-holders need price signals to act - not some sort of clumsy government programme.

The achievement of feeding a population that has been more than doubled from 2.5 billion in 1950 to over 6 billion now should be scoffed at. Yes, there have been famines and under-nourishment - but there always has been. The fact of poverty and inequality is not simply a feature of the food system - it is endemic. It can be fixed with transfers from rich to poor and more even development, but that is not a reason to assume state control.