On feast and famine

 Photo by iman zaker on Unsplash

Throughout my childhood we had a feast almost every day – not just on special occasions – every day. I expect you did too. We ate meat. Almost every day.

Last week I attended a Guardian online webinar, one of Fairtrade Fortnight’s events. The topic was ‘The impact of the climate crisis on global food supply’, and this quote from Professor Tim Lang, author of Feeding Britain – Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, is still ringing in my ears:

“Eat simpler. Have feast day foods only on feast days, not every day.”

You need to know more. You need to know why.

What’s the problem?

We are living above our means, not financially – materially. But if it helps to think in financial terms, think of the planet as the bank account and its resources as the balance. We have been withdrawing at a rate that exceeds our deposits. When the balance is nil, there will be no overdraft facility. Fact. In terms of food, that translates as:

depleted soil fertility = no farming = no food.

Got that? No food.

 En Route to Europe: Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

The process is taking place so slowly that to those of us in rich countries it is going unnoticed. But in poorer countries the change is palpable. Take the Dominican Republic for example: the source of our bananas and coffee. Last year was a bad one for the farmers; having invested in their first crop of the year, they were hit by a hurricane just at the start of harvest. Farmers really ought to have emergency reserves, especially in times of climate crisis events, but these farmers, already paid less than the living wage, have no chance to save. So they had to borrow. Just as they had regrouped, another hurricane hit, so they had to borrow more. As if climate crises and the low market price were not enough, their problems were made even worse by the impact of Covid-19. Such situations risk exploitation of the land to extract as much as possible in the short term, compromising biodiversity and food safety.

With or without global catastrophes, a situation in which the market price does not cover the cost of production is unsustainable. There is no welfare safety net in many of the poorer countries, and with increased poverty comes an increased risk of human rights violations. It can be no surprise therefore to learn that migration to urban areas is on the increase. A whole generation of Dominican farmers is lost ‒ 60 is now the average age of those remaining.

There is a general perception that the climate crisis is all about energy, whereas expert opinion states that it is all about food. The way we produce food is actually adding to the climate change crisis. It is not just the threat to biodiversity; food production is the world’s biggest user of water, the biggest user of land and the biggest employer of labour, and the emissions from food production are massive. Professor Lang urges that we should not take his word for this scary list. It is backed up by many scientific reports, the recently issued  Dasgupta Review being one of the most important, along with the Fairtrade Federations’ A Climate of Crisis: Farmers, Our Food and the Fight for Justice and the UN’s Making Peace with Nature.

Key reports. Composite image by the author

How did we get here?

The rich nations of the world have played a large part in this. Colonialism and land dispossession over the centuries is too great a subject to cover here, but is at the root of the plight of small farmers. They are at the mercy of the large agri-companies and are exploited in order to bring us cheap food.

We take the overwhelming choice of food products for granted and that is what we have come to expect, to demand. We want it now and we want it cheap. The market for cheap food has driven key decision-making – price wars drive prices down even further and imported food, being cheaper to grow, has replaced home-grown food. We in the UK now have a state of affairs dubbed by Professor Lang as a “home-grown food security problem”.

And what good is it doing us? Cheap food, wide variety, lots of it, has made us greedy. We are eating more than we need, we are eating more than is good for our health, we are eating “a distorted diet,” – Professor Lang again – “we have turned food from being a source of life to a source of premature death and expensive health care”.

As a nation we are in denial on the health front and in ignorance of the supply chain detail.  Maybe we would change our eating habits if we knew exactly what it was like to be a farmer in the Dominican Republic, if we knew how many miles our food had travelled, if we knew how much energy this complicated chain requires.

What should we be doing about it?

Let’s think about:

  • lack of awareness;
  • unfair agri-business practices;
  • dispossession; and
  • climate.

If consumers were made aware of the true cost, they may be motivated to change. If people care enough, they protest, they vote with their feet, they spread the word. It is a fundamental change of attitude that is required – and that is quite a challenge. It would take regulation, and for that we depend upon our politicians; we must monitor their actions, lobby our MPs.

In every part of the world, including the rich countries, the primary producers of food get next to nothing. This must change. The Fairtrade Federation acts in the interests of small farmers, helping to negotiate fairer prices and safe working conditions. Wherever there is a choice we should buy Fairtrade products – the greater the support, the greater their chance of expanding into other areas. It seems unbelievable that a living wage does not count, officially, as a basic human right; it should ‒ we can lobby for that.

Dispossession and climate crises are enormous political problems requiring legislation. Reallocation of the land is a tough one, but it is not too late to put a halt to further land grabs. Many good suggestions were made on climate crises at the webinar and these will surely form part of the agenda at these major 2021 events: the G7 Summit in June, the UN Food Systems Summit in September and COP 26 in November.

But right now we, as consumers, can:

  • eat less but healthier food;
  • eat what’s in season;
  • eat less beef, less dairy;
  • check out the food miles before we buy or buy local;
  • Ask supermarkets to display food mile info;
  • buy Fairtrade wherever we can; and
  • lobby our politicians and supermarkets

This promises to be a year of hope, but changing mindsets will be a challenge.  To quote Professor Lang again: “If the rich world does not wake up and change diet, the poor world will not be able to provide enough, and that will be the rich world’s catastrophe.”

So keep your feast day food for feast days!

Precious Earth: Composite image by the author