Vol.2 No.29, 16 October 2002

New Hopes for Food Policy?

By Margaret Legum

The SA government’s new policies on food prices inches towards understanding that food cannot be treated like any other commodity as far as market competition is concerned. It has introduced subsidies for maize, the basic staple – an essential life-saving mechanism – flying in the face of rigid market ideology. And it aims to create a low tariff regime in the SADEC region. That is a lot better than international tariff-free trade. The fact is that food should be produced as close as possible to where it is consumed.

Trade in staple food is a highly dangerous business – for a whole lot of reasons. We talk about food security for good reason. We don’t talk about shoe security or cosmetics security or computer security, because these are not essential to maintain life. We cannot decide that in view of the price of food we will do without it, or that we would rather spend our money on clothes or movies. People cannot do without food. Therefore we cannot rely on events, policies and people at the other end of the earth for our food security. The production, sale and distribution of food must be under the control of a sovereign authority directly accountable to those who give it that authority.

This is not to say that food should be controlled by government. Only that internal competition between producers is all the competition that is needed. And that production of food may, in some circumstances, need to be subsidised, so that farmers can have a reliable income, and so produce food reliably.

In South Africa we have experienced – at enormous human cost – the effects of allowing food prices to be determined by international market mechanisms. The speculation-fuelled fall in the rand and the war-fuelled price of oil have nothing to do with our capacity to feed South Africans. But they are responsible for unaffordable food. Worst of all, the fact that staple foods are defined as international commodities has priced them out of reach of poor South Africans, though it has nothing to do with the costs of producing them on our own soil. We can easily produce all we need at affordable prices. But we are forced to sell at international prices.

Consider also the connection with international trends on climate change. Some nations – no names, no packdrill - refuse to join the rest of us in reducing toxic emissions that cause climate catastrophes like droughts and floods. Those nations also insist that their mass-production methods of growing food – involving chemical pollutants, genetic modification, massive irrigation and international markets – be introduced internationally without hindrance, on pain of enforced penalties.

All of this profoundly affects food security everywhere. Agriculture may be destroyed over vast areas by climate change. And agri-business displaces small farmers infinitely faster than it employs people. The application of capital, chemicals and scarce water resources replaces people who previously fed themselves and their own communities benignly and sustainably. World-wide they join the millions starving in urban slums. Agri-business also rubs out local plant diversity, destroying previously rich sources of nutrition, reduces water tables and requires bought-in soil supplements, previously provided organically.

The final effect of all this is that the destitute must be fed with food bought on the open market, which - surprise surprise - raises the international price of food. So South Africans must pay more for food because the effects of climate change have devastated our neighbours’ agriculture. We have a ‘feedback loop’, which is positive for the multinational food corporations and negative for the rest of us. Nice work if you can get it.

Not only staples like maize, wheat and rice should be produced deliberately for the local or regional market. Healthy people also need vegetables, fruit and oils. The closer these are grown to where they are consumed the cheaper they are in terms of resource use. The further they travel the less nutritious they become, and the more they have polluted the skies, the earth and the soils. It has been calculated that the ‘fresh’ food landed at Heathrow Airport will release, when eaten, about one-hundredth of the energy it has absorbed in production and travel. Air transport is the most polluting of all travel.

But, say the marketeers, internationally traded food is cheaper than local food to the consumer. The hundreds of new farmers’ markets throughout Europe and elsewhere show otherwise. Farmers get more for their product, because they get it direct; and consumers get healthy local food at competitive prices. Moreover, what is usually forgotten is that long-distance travel is subsidised by governments in the form of tax-free aviation fuel, airports, highways and tax breaks for supermarkets. The ‘cheap’ food in large outlets does not include the costs to people and the earth of transport and chemical pollution, ill health and unemployment.

Finally, we must not forgot that whatever the theory, trade rules are made and enforced according to the strength of different nations. There is no fairness, as we all know, in the rules about who can sell what and where. President Bush is refreshingly honest when he says he will do nothing to undermine American interests. Just as we would not expect President Mbeki to put at risk South African industry and farmers to suit Ugandans. If we think competitive trade should run the world, we should not be surprised when the strongest makes sure it wins.

What is needed for the long-term in South Africa is a widespread emphasis on food-growing – in urban areas, in homesteads, in rural communities. Food security is not only about being able to feed ourselves, important though that is. It is about being about to refuse the blandishments of others who wish to continue to exploit our weakness. It is about independence.

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