Our modern food economy is a complex web of production, distribution, and consumption that affects nearly every aspect of our lives. While it has brought us convenience and variety, it has also given rise to profound challenges. In this blog post, we will explore the current state of our food economy and its role in perpetuating poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and other societal issues. We will delve into how capitalism has contributed to the rising costs of food and the ethical concerns of treating food as a commodity rather than a human right. Additionally, we will examine the potential of local circular food economies as a sustainable alternative.
The Cost of Capitalism
Capitalism and Food Production
Capitalism's influence on the food industry has been substantial, shaping it in ways that prioritize efficiency and profit over sustainability and accessibility. This section will examine how capitalism has impacted various aspects of food production.
1. Industrial Agriculture:
Capitalism has shaped our food economy to become industrialized. Industrial agriculture, often referred to as intensive or conventional agriculture, is a modern farming system characterized by large-scale monoculture cultivation, heavy use of synthetic chemicals (such as pesticides and fertilizers), mechanized equipment, and the commodification of food production. While it has led to increased agricultural productivity and food availability, these benefits are obsolete due to the system wasting 1/3 of that increased production. Industrial agriculture has significant negative environmental and societal impacts, here's a few examples.
Loss of Soil Fertility: Intensive farming practices often involve using pesticides, fertilizers and continuous planting of the same crop, depleting the soil of essential nutrients and killing beneficial microbes in the soil. When we use these industrial practices we are killing our soils. Applying fertilizers and pesticides kill all the fungi and other microbes that contribute to a healthy soil and help plants grow. Tilling the land releases the carbon from it and disrupts the soil ecosystem which allows the primary colonizing plants (weeds) to take over since they thrive is disturbed environments.
Soil Erosion: The removal of natural vegetation and the use of heavy machinery in industrial agriculture increase the risk of soil erosion, which can result in the loss of topsoil and degradation of water quality. It is estimated that we lose 25-40 billion tonnes of top soil each year due to our mismanagement of the land (Food & Agriculture Organization).
Nutrient Pollution: The runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fields contributes to nutrient pollution in rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, leading to harmful algal blooms and dead zones.
Habitat Destruction: Industrial agriculture often involves clearing natural habitats to expand cropland, leading to the displacement and loss of wildlife diversity. Which puts human health at risk since many plants, fungi and animals are used to make medicine. Once we allow species to go extinct we could be losing the cure for many illnesses.
Monoculture Farming: Planting vast areas with a single crop reduces biodiversity and increases the vulnerability of crops to pests and diseases.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions:
Fossil Fuel Dependency: The use of fossil fuels for machinery, transportation, and the production of synthetic fertilizers in industrial agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
Methane Emissions: Livestock production within the industrial agriculture system contributes to methane emissions, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
Rural Communities: Industrial agriculture can lead to the consolidation of farms and a decline in the number of rural farming jobs, impacting the economic and social fabric of rural communities. The industrialization of our food has caused many farmers to lose their farms because they can't compete against industry giants. Additionally, the way industrial farming is done requires farmers to spend millions on farm equipment, fertilizers and pesticides which have killed their soil which makes it harder to make money on their land and needing to spend more money on fertilizers/pesticides just to grow crops.
Food Security: The focus on monoculture and profit-driven food production can lead to a lack of crop diversity and vulnerability to crop failures, affecting food security.
2. Food Economics
Capitalism has a profound impact on the economics of food and food supply chains, influencing how food is produced, distributed, and consumed. Here are some key ways in which capitalism shapes our current food economics.
Profit Motive: In a capitalist system, the primary driver of food production is profit. Farmers and agribusinesses aim to maximize their financial gains, often leading to decisions that prioritize efficiency and cost reduction over human or environmental welfare/resilience. Corners are often cut in different regulations in order to drive down costs and become more profitable. A common example is with low wage labour and the working conditions they provide their workers.
Commodity Agriculture: Capitalism encourages the cultivation of crops and livestock that can be sold as commodities on the global market. This often results in monoculture farming, where a single crop is grown over large areas, leading to reduced biodiversity and increased vulnerability to pests and diseases. These commodities are then often bought and sold to make other products to help increase the demand for that crop. Corn is a great example of a commodity that is grown in massive mono cultures where the majority doesn't even get used as human food. It is grown to produce bio-fuels and feed animals (like cows who don't naturally eat corn and grow much healthier when eating grass not corn).
Price Fluctuations: Capitalist economies subject food prices to market forces, causing them to fluctuate based on supply and demand. This can result in price volatility and make food less affordable for vulnerable populations during times of scarcity. In a global market the countries willing to pay the most will get access to the foods they want even if the food is not grown there. Having scarcity drives prices up and over supply drives prices down which causes many farmers to try and match trends in the market so they can grow the highest valued crops. This is done a lot in the berry industry where farmers will change between blue berries, raspberries and strawberries depending on what is expected to be most valuable that year.
Speculation: In capitalist markets, speculative trading can influence food prices, leading to extreme price spikes and volatility. Speculators often bet on future price movements, which can exacerbate food insecurity because speculator buy and sell commodities which can either make prices too high for some people to buy their food or cause farmers to suffer financially due to the price of their crops dropping too low. Speculators are only in the market for short term gains in profit. Their actions however can have long term affects on peoples lives due to the price volatility they create in the food market.
Globalization and Long Supply Chains:
Global Sourcing: Capitalism encourages the globalization of food supply chains, with food often traveling long distances before reaching consumers. This can result in increased energy consumption, transportation emissions, and a greater risk of supply chain disruptions. Additionally, these long supply chains leave us with less fresh food and more food waste. Millions of tax payer dollars are also poured in to ensuring the safety of international foods. When fresh produce crosses the border it must be quarantined and tested to ensure no pests or diseases are coming with it before it can be sent to its final destination.
Supply Chain Vulnerabilities: Long and complex supply chains can be vulnerable to disruptions, such as natural disasters, pandemics, or geopolitical conflicts. Capitalist supply chains may prioritize cost efficiency over resilience.
Consolidation and Market Power:
Corporate Dominance: In capitalist food supply chains, large corporations often dominate the market. This consolidation of market power can lead to unfair practices, such as monopolistic pricing, which can harm small-scale farmers and consumers.
Retailer Control: Large retailers in capitalist systems have significant control over what products are offered to consumers. They may prioritize products that maximize profit margins, which can limit consumer choices and stifle competition.
Low-Wage Jobs: In pursuit of cost reduction and profit maximization, capitalist food supply chains may rely on low-wage labor, both domestically and internationally. This can lead to poor working conditions and exploitation of workers. Many global human rights issues stem from agriculture since companies are competing to provide the lowest prices.
Seasonal Labor: Seasonal labor demands in agriculture often lead to the employment of migrant or temporary workers who have limited job security and may face substandard working conditions.
Commodification of Food: Capitalism treats food as a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. This approach raises ethical questions about whether food should be treated as a fundamental human right or a market-driven product. Does everyone have the right to eat or do only wealth people?
Food Waste: The focus on profit in capitalist systems can result in the wasteful disposal of edible food items due to aesthetic standards or shelf-life considerations. Billions of dollars worth of food and resources get wasted each year do to the profit driven free market because we produce food for the purpose of making money rather than trying to feed people.
Addressing the Issues: Local Circular Food Economies
Principles of Local Circular Food Economies
Transitioning to local circular food economies can help mitigate the issues associated with our global food system. In this section, we will explore the principles and benefits of such systems.
Local Sourcing: By sourcing food locally, communities reduce their dependence on long supply chains and support nearby farmers and producers. This boosts and empowers the local economy and reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation. When food is produced and consumed locally, people have more say in what is grown and how it is grown compared to a globalized system. It also creates a more resilient community since they are providing for themselves and not relying on fragile supply chains that are easily disrupted by pandemics, disasters or politics.
Sustainable Practices: Local circular food economies often emphasize sustainable farming practices that minimize environmental harm. This includes organic farming, regenerative agriculture, and reduced chemical use. It is a myth that we need to produce food industrially to feed the world. We waste 1/3 of all the food produced globally, clearly we do not need this industrial production if we can't even use it all. Additionally, it has been found that regenerative farms produce the same or in some cases more food/acre than industrial farms since their lands are more fertile (Can Organic Farming Feed the World?). Farming sustainably helps rebuild our local ecosystems to be more resilient to climate change and decarbonize the industry.
Community Engagement: These systems encourage community involvement through farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA), and food cooperatives. This fosters a sense of connection and reduces the power of large corporations. It gives people a voice in the food they want grown by having a real relationship with their farmer. Community gardens and local farms help educate people on how food is grown which is a skill many people have lost. It is important for our communities to stay in touch with our food so we can live happy healthy lives and be self sufficient.
Food as a Right, Not a Commodity: In local circular food economies, the focus shifts from profits, to ensuring that food is a fundamental human right. This approach values equity and accessibility, aiming to eliminate food deserts and address food insecurity. Each region is responsible for producing their own food giving them independence and the ability to feed their own communities. There will undoubtedly be trade among other communities but the reliance on outsiders for their food will be minimized by each community. Also, food must not be wasted, mandatory food donations from over producers will allow low-income families to access food more easily since perfectly good food will be illegal to through out. There is also opportunity in having labour for food programs where people can volunteer on the farm in exchange for produce or more co-ops can exist where people pool their money together to own a farm and produce food for everyone in the co-op. These types of programs already exists in todays society but they are few and far between. The idea of the circular food economy is to make them more achievable for communities by changing zoning laws, policies and subsidies away from industrial agriculture and to a more sustainable and equitable system that values people being fed over the increased profits for a few companies.
Actionable Steps Towards a Circular Food Economy
Transitioning to a local circular food economy requires collective effort and conscious consumer choices. Here are actionable steps that individuals, communities, and policymakers can take to help make this transition:
Support Local Farmers: Buy locally grown and produced food from farmers' markets, CSAs, and local grocery stores. This helps support local agriculture and reduces the carbon footprint of your food.
Advocate for Sustainable Practices: Encourage and support farmers in your community to adopt sustainable and regenerative farming practices. Advocate for policies that incentivize these practices.
Reduce Food Waste: Be mindful of food waste at home. Plan meals, use leftovers creatively, and compost food scraps to reduce waste that ends up in landfills. Approach your local politicians to enforce mandatory food donations so perfectly good food doesn't get wasted.
Engage in Community Food Initiatives: Participate in or support community initiatives such as food cooperatives and community gardens. These efforts promote local food access and strengthen community bonds.
Advocate for Food Justice: Raise awareness about food justice issues in your community and advocate for policies that address food insecurity and inequality.
Vote for Change: Support political candidates and policies that prioritize sustainable and equitable food systems. If there is no candidates advocating for it, write them a letter and ask for it.
Our current food economy, shaped by capitalism, has contributed to poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and ethical concerns. However, by embracing local circular food economies, we have the opportunity to transform our food system into one that is sustainable, equitable, and just. It is time to prioritize people and the planet over profit and recognize that food is not just a commodity but a fundamental human right that should be accessible to all. Through collective effort and conscious consumer choices, we can pave the way for a more resilient and ethical food future. It is within our power to create a food system that nourishes both individuals and the planet.