The politics of food and poverty

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The global food crisis is tightly connected to poverty, climate change, ecological destruction, migrant workers, imperialism, health and the super-exploitation of workers.

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Left Unity describes itself as “the new party of the left in Britain – established to offer an alternative to the main parties’ agenda of blaming the poorest for society’s problems and destroying the welfare state.” It was founded in November 2013 as “a new kind of party, with feminism, socialism and environmentalism at its heart.”

This article was published on April 16 in the ‘Discussion and Debate’ page of the group’s website. It is posted here with permission from the author, who is a member of Left Unity in Manchester, and is a supporter of the Socialist Platform tendency in LU.

by John Tummon

Introductory remarks on the food industry

The leading world authority on the politics of the food industry is Susan George, a prolific writer on the subject over many decades. She has pointed out that as much as half of all the food produced in the world – equivalent to 2bn tonnes – ends up as waste every year and about 1 billion people, or one in six of the global population, go hungry today, even though more food is being produced than ever. And yet, around the same number of people are overweight or obese and likely to have their lives cut short by diet-related disease. We have, in other words, a food system that is failing.

It is a food system that is profligate with finite resources – with fossil fuels for agrochemicals, artificial fertiliser, processing, packaging and transport, with water that is increasingly scarce, and with soil that is being eroded and degraded.

It delivers an excess of food that is unhealthy for the affluent and yet is incapable of producing enough calories for the poor. And it is a system in which the value of the food chain has been captured at each point, from seed to field to factory to shop, by powerful transnational corporations.

Three giant corporates dominate global seed sales and have turned the raw material of food into patents; six corporates dominate agrochemical production; three companies control the bulk of global grain trade; in most European countries a handful of processors now dominate the supply in key food sectors such as meat and milk; and, in many countries, just three or four retailers are now the gatekeepers for access to consumers. Meanwhile, all but the most intensive and large-scale farmers are being driven off the land, many of the poorest forced into migration.

It is a system of extraordinary sophistication and yet also one of startling fragility, vulnerable to climate shocks and energy price spikes and the frequent cause of both. But it has not been created by accident; post war US and European government policies have fostered it – with agricultural subsidies that have encouraged surpluses of their own commodity crops, and with trade agreements and loans through international financial institutions that have forced markets in poorer countries open, to take those crops and the processed junk diets their manufacturers like to make of them.

Climate change, rising food prices, lack of investment in small-scale farming and the grabbing of land being used to grow food for local people by speculative investors has resulted in communities just not being able to grow enough food to survive. More and more people are being forced to rely on food aid.

For Left Unity, this means that a politics of austerity and poverty which focuses just on what the Coalition government has done is going to be narrowly national and would not be able to link up issues of equal importance to the Left – global poverty, climate change, ecological destruction, migrant workers, imperialism, health and the super-exploitation of workers.

The politics of food is what offers us a way of seeing the interrelationships between all these issues and towards establishing unity and solidarity between people and groups campaigning on each of these issues. If we can make these links real and vivid in the eyes of anti-poverty campaigners, environmental campaigners, anti-racist groups, NHS campaigns, trade unionists and among the supporters and workers who devote their time to international charity work, then we will become THE force on the Left that brings together the broadest possible range of single issue activists, but which does so in a way that promotes a mutual learning between each of them.

Introductory remarks on poverty

As of 22 April 2014, according to Oxfam, the coalition’s welfare cuts (specifically the drop in the overall value of benefits, which rose by less than inflation, as well as changes to housing benefit and council tax support) had pushed 1.75 million of the UK’s poorest households deeper into poverty. But the very bottom of the so-called safety net – the Social Fund – has been scrapped by the Coalition and replaced by schemes administered by local authorities, which are no longer ring-fenced. We now hear that nationally, Tory, Labour and Lib Dem-run Councils are sitting on £67 million in emergency help for the poor out of the £136m that had been allocated to local welfare schemes a year ago. Half of the 150 local authorities allocated these funds had spent less than 40% of them.

Under the new local welfare assistance schemes, four in 10 applications for emergency funds are turned down, despite evidence that many applicants have been made penniless by benefits sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims. Under the previous system – the social fund – just two in 10 were turned down.

Charities and MPs have warned that those denied help are turning to food banks and loan sharks, among them sponsors of several Football Clubs, from Newcastle United to Blackpool. In some communities, Credit Unions are being formed to provide a collective alternative for people caught in the poverty trap and Left Unity should be getting behind these initiatives and leave the church and others to entangle themselves and those they help in the paternalism, judgmentalism and disempowering food bank movement.

The worst off in terms of contemporary poverty are young people, jobseekers, carers, single parents and those with disabilities unable to work have become worse off. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, revealed that more than 900,000 people received food parcels in 2013-14, a 163% increase on the previous year. Its figures understated the likely level of people going hungry, it said.

Poverty in advanced capitalist countries reflects material inequality. The five richest families in the UK have the same wealth as the bottom 20% of the population but the problem is deeper than this – as a society, all of us who can’t draw an income from inherited or acquired wealth, are collectively doing more work, for less money and this has been going on ever since the first building blocks of neoliberal capitalism were put in place by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. Before this, during the post-war boom and welfare state, incomes were increasingly congregated around a median point that seemed to many at the time to be generating a new middle class in which better off workers could share, but incomes are now more polarised than ever before; society looks more like an hourglass, squeezed in the middle, with a demoralised poor below the squeeze point, deprived and much larger in number and proportion than most people realise.

In the 1970s, inequality existed because the wealth of the upper classes was increasing at a faster rate than the wealth of the poor and this had been the broad pattern since capitalism began; from the 1980s onwards, though, the rich were becoming richer while the poor were becoming poorer. A new super-rich class has emerged out of neoliberalism, both in Britain and internationally, dominated by those making money in land, property and finance rather than from industrial production. As of 2010, there were 47,000 people in this country with an average pre-tax income of £780,000 a year. Another 420,000 have pre-tax incomes of between £100,000 and £350,000; that’s about half a million people living off the backs of the rest of us – less than 1% living off the 99%! Wall St and the City of London operate as a giant informal cartel, charging excessive fees for activity that is more likely to transfer than to create wealth.

The share of the top UK 1% of income earners increased from 7.1% in 1970 to 14.3% of total income in 2005. This inequality suddenly got worse after the 2007-8 Credit Crunch – between 2009 and 2011, low paid workers saw their hourly pay decline by 7.5% in real terms. Yes, the middle has been squeezed out of society, in both the UK and US, but what Labour fails to recognise is that it is all those below the squeeze point who are suffering. The ‘Middle England’ on which the Blairite project was based is increasingly a nostalgic myth, yet Labour has not moved on from the assumptions arising from this view.

The overall outcome is that the poorest tenth of the population now have, between them, just 1.3% of the country’s total income and the second poorest tenth have 4%.  In contrast, the richest tenth have 31% and the second richest tenth have 15% of total income; this 20% is the real upper and upper middle class, above the squeeze point.  The income of the richest tenth is more than the income of all those on below-average incomes and around a quarter, maybe even a third, of our people, are increasingly ghettoised in poverty and five million people are permanently overdrawn. Nearly eight million of us failed to pay at least one bill over the last year.

Despite all the propaganda which has accompanied this rise of inequality, the largest survey of UK opinion – in 2003, at the very height of the last boom – 75% of the UK adult population said they would prefer a fairer income distribution; only the very rich favoured inequality. The same pattern of public opinion exists in the United States. However, the media and political class is forever manipulating the opposite view into prominence, so that the natural common desire for a more egalitarian and just society is obscured.

Socialists have always been pretty clear that poverty changed with the advent of capitalism into an inevitable by-product of the capitalist system, simply because whatever goes to profits cannot go towards improving the living standard of people whose only income comes from wages, and vice versa of course. The balance between these two – wages and profits – has varied during different periods in capitalism. Neoliberalism has shifted it decisively away from the balance achieved during the post-war boom by the advent of the welfare state.

But we have been slower in seeing the links between poverty and inequality and health, education & food.

Seeing poverty more broadly

Within a single regional health authority, those in the most well off ward can typically expect to live for 14 years longer than those in the most deprived ward. One rich local authority – Richmond upon Thames – sends more of its young people to Oxbridge than the whole of Scotland. In other words, Poverty and inequality feed through into every area of life – for instance, our diet is putting our bones increasingly at risk of osteoporosis, due to the lack of vitamin D.

According to the Health Minister, the number of those admitted to hospitals with malnutrition has almost doubled nationally from 3,161 in 2008/09 to 5,499 in 2012/13 and SEVEN times as many people were admitted to hospital in Bolton suffering from malnutrition in 2012 as there were in 2008.

A report last year from the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that at least 4.7 million British people are in food poverty, meaning they have no choice but to spend 10 per cent or more of their household income on food. According to the report the average household food bill will rocket by a whopping £357 by 2017. 27 Anglican bishops wrote recently to the Daily Mirror, attacking David Cameron for creating a “national crisis” in which 2013 saw 500,000 Britons visited UK food banks, predicted to rise to over 1 million in 2014. The number of workers paid below the living wage level has leapt to more than 5.2m, equivalent to 21 per cent of the workforce – half the people living in poverty in the UK are in a family where someone has a job and many are turning to food banks in their lunch hours.16 per cent of people who receive help from food banks are aged 16-24, whilst barely 1 per cent are pensioners – this is a new form of poverty, linked to low wages and the attacks on young people; a poverty that causes ill-health, including poor mental health, drug addiction, broken relationships, poor educational attainment, low self-esteem and collective esteem.

But it is not a British problem. The amount of food needed to provide a balanced and adequate diet is being denied millions of us not just because our wages or benefits are too low to afford it alongside other necessary expenditures; the amount – and cost – of food required is itself dramatically distorted by the capitalist organisation of the food industry in the wider world.

The global issue

The problem of food poverty is international. A 2013 report found that between 30% and 50% or 1.2-2bn tonnes of food produced around the world never makes it on to a plate and, in Britain, 30% of vegetable crops are not harvested, due to their failure to meet supermarkets’ exacting standards on cosmetic appearance. This is due to the commodification of food – food ‘products’ have to compete in the market with other food products on appearance, cost, packaging and advertising.

Older people might remember the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s and ’70s. This phrase was bandied about in the mid – 1970s by the popular press, to refer to the new strains of high yield crops that had been developed by American bio-scientists working for the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico. These ‘miracle’ crops would, it was claimed, eliminate hunger and famine once and for all, but the deals that farmers had to enter into to obtain these crops stipulated that they also had to import expensive fertilisers produced by US agribusiness companies when much cheaper, locally manufactured fertilisers were available. But much more fundamental than all of these was the fact that the destination of these new crops was never going to be the poor who needed them most. Rather, the produce of this modern agricultural revolution was bound for world, and particularly Western, markets.

It was the enforced export orientation of Third World economies in the train of these crops, wrenching them away from self-sufficiency, that was ultimately to take food from the mouths of the hungry. The result was that whilst rice production in India rose dramatically, rice consumption in India actually fell. When the Kenyan government carried out its Rural Child Nutrition Survey in 1982 it found that 28 per cent of children under five were stunted compared to 24 per cent ten years previously. It also revealed chronic sickliness in nearly half of all children. In Zaire real wages had fallen to a tenth of what they had been at independence and 80 per cent of people were living in absolute poverty. That’s called ‘progress’ by the political class and its media; its real name is imperialism.

We need to see the link between the issue of Third World debt with that of ecological destruction if we are to understand the politics of food on a global scale. The impact of such things as the removal of topsoil, the diverting of rivers, the ‘cashing in’ by Third World governments of natural resources to service debts to western banks and the forced transmigration of millions of indigenous people, such as most recently in China, all degraded the environment in poor countries. By 1982, of the 24 largest debtor nations, eight never had or no longer had forest reserves significant on a world scale. Of the 16 remaining major debtors…all were found to be on the list of major deforesters. The correlation was particularly strong for mega-debtors such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria, all of which rank among the top ten deforesters, as well as being Washington’s much-praised ‘emerging economies’.

To heavily indebted countries such as these the rainforests are either a source of revenue in themselves in terms of the hardwood exports, or they need to be cleared to make way for the grazing of cattle or the growing of modern cash crops, in order to help pay their debts. The fact that rainforest clearance is a major contributory factor to global warming is not a concern of capitalist development. Generous loans have been made available to promote these new sectors, combined with structural adjustment programmes that give tax breaks to foreign investors, remove tariffs and open up poor countries’ agricultural markets to imports, especially imported processed food.

Peruvian asparagus production has received multi million dollar loans from the World Bank’s commercial lending arm, the IFC. Most of it has gone to large agro-exporters, who have received tens of millions of dollars each. British and American appetite for the thirsty, out-of-season luxury crop asparagus has led to severe water shortages in one of the poorest and driest regions on earth. For every dollar spent by a US consumer on imported asparagus from Peru, $0.70 stayed in the US. The money goes not to Peruvian farmers, but to US supermarkets and wholesalers, and to US shippers, distributors, importers, and storage owners. Just $0.30 stays in Peru. Diverting water to the asparagus fields has disturbed the fragile balance of water supply and demand on which the survival of Peruvians in the poorest part of the country depends.

It was the issue of water, its diversion and its privatisation in the service of transnational capitalism, that has been at the bottom of class conflict in Bolivia for some time. See

Guatemala is another prime example of the imperialism of the food industry, according to a report by Oxfam. The organisation predicts that the average price of staple foods in Guatemala will double by 2030. “Spiralling food prices, climate chaos, rising demand on top of a collapsing resource base, and markets rigged against the many in favour of the few” are, the charity warns, taking us into a new era of crisis in which more and more people are going hungry. Half of all the nation’s children under five are malnourished – one the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. Yet the country has food in abundance. It is the fifth largest exporter of sugar, coffee and bananas. Its rural areas are witnessing a palm oil rush as international traders seek to cash in on demand for biofuels created by US and EU mandates and subsidies. But despite being a leading agro-exporter, half of Guatemala’s 14 million people live in extreme poverty, on less than $2 a day. Guatemala is now dependent on imports of staple foods, mostly from the US, and it is at the mercy of increasingly volatile food prices internationally.

The global food system is not only under threat from climate change; it is also a significant contributor to it. Agriculture now accounts for between 17% and 32% of all human-induced greenhouse gases. Two of the key drivers of emissions are fertiliser use and livestock, both of which are set to increase.

Barclays Capital, the Investment Banking arm of the high street bank, is the UK’s biggest player in food commodity trading. Along with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, Bar Cap has pioneered new kinds of financial products that have enabled pension funds and other investors traditionally barred from commodities exchanges to bet on food prices. A report estimates that Bar Cap may have made as much as £340m in 2010 from its activities in food speculation.

The root cause of hunger and famine is rarely crop failure. It is about who controls and benefits from land and its resources. Biofuels are grown instead of food that could feed local people because of the effective control over development in poor countries exerted by western capitalists.

The biggest threat to the rainforest right now is palm oil plantations, dominated by 6 gigantic middlemen. PepsiCo is just one transnational company that buys staggering amounts of palm oil every week. Deforestation in Southeast Asia has made Indonesia the third largest carbon emitter on the planet. The Orang-utan, the Sumatran tiger, and countless other endangered species are being pushed to the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, the remaining forests of Indonesia are storing as much carbon dioxide as the entire earth emits in a year, meaning that allowing the destruction to continue could detonate a carbon bomb. Even so, campaigning has forced a dramatic slowdown in the rate of deforestation in Brazil, so there is hope for Indonesia.

But this is not just an environmental issue and should not be seen as such. Many workers are lured into palm oil plantations on false pretences, and have their passports and IDs confiscated. Investigations have found workers being beaten by “enforcers”, locked in tiny barracks at night, and not allowed to leave for any reason. Many workers are forced to spray hazardous chemicals with no protection, and the web of contractors and sub-contractors allows the corporations responsible to avoid legal responsibility.

Food workers

Back in the west, cheap supermarket food depends on a food chain riddled with similar exploitation to what happens in Indonesia and elsewhere; in fact there are 27 million slaves in the world as of today, many of whom are involved in food production or processing. In 2010, the Guardian revealed that 40 Bulgarians found by the authorities to be illegally employed and exploited by a gang master in Cornwall were picking and packing vegetables destined for Tesco and Morrisons. The Bulgarians said they were forced to “live like pigs on scraps”, scavenging vegetables from the fields when their Latvian gang master withheld their pay for 34 days. They were sent to work through a subcontracting chain at Southern England Farms, a leading vegetable farming and packing company that appears on Tesco’s website as one of its flagship local producers of courgettes, cauliflowers and cabbage. They were housed in dirty caravans, with seven trying to sleep in a six-berth van in one example. They were initially charged £50 a week each for this overcrowded accommodation.

Also in 2010, forced labour and human rights abuses involving African crews were uncovered on trawlers fishing illegally for the European market by investigators for an environmental campaign group. Photographs and film of the areas in which the crews were working and sleeping show quarters with ceilings less than a metre high where the men cannot stand up. Temperatures in the fish holds on some vessels where men were being required to sort, process and pack fish for lucrative European and Asian markets were 40 to 45 degrees, with no ventilation, On some vessels the crews of up to 200 had little access to clean drinking water.

The food processing industry in the UK is notorious. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it has uncovered significant evidence of abuse among producers supplying Britain’s big supermarkets. The inquiry includes reports from meat factory workers who say they have had frozen burgers thrown at them by line managers, and accounts of pregnant women being forced to stand for long periods or perform heavy lifting under threat of the sack. The EHRC said some examples, such as forcing workers to do double shifts when ill or tired, were in breach of the law and licensing standards, while others were a “clear affront to respect and dignity”. Migrant workers are the most affected because one-third of permanent workers and two-thirds of agency workers in the industry are migrants

Conclusion – what can Left Unity do about this?

The first thing is that we take time out to look at some of the compelling evidence: here are some online videos:

What is socialist policy on food and poverty?

I would like to see Left Unity move towards formulating a policy on food over the next few months. Some of the elements we could debate about including in such a possible policy might look like these:

  1. De-commodify food: everyone in the world should be given enough food to provide a basic minimum, balanced diet, free of charge. End speculation on food as commodities. Feeding the world on a non-commodified basis would involve producing less, not more food, than we do now! No one goes hungry! Food beyond the basic calorie intake required by a human being working 5 hours per day can be purchased out of wages for those who want this extra.
  2. Restore land in line with an ecological balance, in order to ensure future food production that does not damage the climate. Research into food to be guided by human need, not profit.
  3. Campaign to end forced labour production within the food chain, break up the multinational monopolies that run the food industry and bring them into public ownership.
  4. Ban the use of harmful fertilisers and food production techniques that harm the environment. Reduce the global amount of meat produced.
  5. Organise and run huge health educational programmes which produces a world of cooks who know how to provide a balanced diet for people, a world of people who understand and practice sound and well-informed principles of looking after their own bodies and have the facilities for freely available physical recreation.
  6. Campaign for full employment, an end to austerity and systematic step changes to achieve material equality.
  7. End aid, end and replace capitalist relations everywhere and set up trade in foods based on the equitable, non-monetised exchange of calorific value.

But we also need to have a strategy for what we are going to do with such a policy – who will we approach with it, what campaigns will we be raising it within and what forms of activity can be used to confront the food industry with our opposition. Policy and activity should develop hand in hand.