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Food for profit: food for thought

The work of growing and preparing food should involve pleasure, not exploitation of those engaged in it. The environment should not be damaged by profit-seeking, short-term policies for “marketing” food. The consumption of food should be a healthy activity based on need, not ability to pay.

Capitalism cares little about the working conditions of the people who produce food, the effects on the environment of how it is produced, or the well-being of its consumers. Socialism will mean a fundamentally different set of priorities regarding food – no exploitation of producers, proper regard for environmental consequences, need not profit as the motive for distributing and consuming it.

Exploiting producers
There is ample and growing evidence that workers engaged in the food industry are among the most exploited and poverty-stricken producers of a vital “commodity”. This is especially so in the Third World. The Guardian (17 May) gave details of the working conditions and daily lives of wage-slaves in just one African country, Kenya. The general picture, if not the details, could be repeated in many other parts of the economically underdeveloped and developing world.

A group of Kenyan women are picked up by the company truck from their homes at 4 am to arrive at the workplace in time for the 4.30 am shift, which lasts until 3.40 or 4 pm, as laid down by Kenyan law. Their job is to top and tail beans for the English market. They work in refrigerated packing sheds next to Nairobi airport, standing at stainless steel benches. They work “flexitime”, depending on the amount of orders they have to complete each day. Sometimes they can go home early, but if the orders are big they have to work until they are finished.

Gladys (not her real name) is dead on her feet after a 12-hour shift with only one break. She lives with her husband and three children and works to earn enough money to send them to school. In the block where she lives 100 people share a lavatory and outside tap. She has no choice about the hours she works or the way she is paid. There is no overtime, but performance-related pay instead. The employer's representative is candid about this: “We've found that by introducing PRP we can reduce the number of the workforce.”

Environmental consequences
The capitalist food industry is bad for the environment as well as for the workers. In many parts of Africa and elsewhere, land where people were growing food for local consumption has been turned over to land growing food for export – cash crops. The greenhouses and tunnels of the intensive farms shrink the lakes and blight the shores with algal bloom. There is excessive extraction to water the crops, pollution from pesticide run off, deforestation caused by the logging industry and workers having to cut wood for cooking fuel.

In the last 20 years or so there has been much controversy over the introduction of genetically modified crops. There is nothing inherently damaging to people or the environment about genetic modification. For thousands of years the seeds of plants with more desirable characteristics have been selected for planting the following year – in effect, a form of genetic modification. What is harmful is not the technique but its use in the pursuit of profit. Agribusinesses have sought to patent the “terminator” gene introduced into plants. Crops are harvested normally, but the germ of the grain is sterile and seeds have to be purchased each year. Only in capitalism, where the prime aim is not human welfare but profit, could such a mad idea be put into practice.

Bad for consumers
Food today is bad for consumers in a number of ways, all connected with the market system. On a world scale there are crises of starvation and obesity happening at the same time in different places. Peasants who were once self-sufficient can no longer earn a living from their produce. Increasing numbers of people in the economically developed world grow grossly fat and unhealthy on the heavily promoted commodities of the junk-food industry.

Capitalist methods of food production have led to a number of outbreaks of food poisoning resulting in deaths and serious health damage. In the 1980s it was the injection of hormones into calves to fatten them quicker that led to birth defects. There followed salmonella, E coli, BSE and a spate of more recent food scandals. The causes are a mix of misuse of GM technology, pesticides that induce cancers, animal maltreatment, no or inadequate labelling, and abysmal hygiene standards. Market forces always value profits above human welfare. Whatever remedial measures are taken are usually too little and too late.

Food in socialism
Marx famously dissuaded us from writing recipes for future cookshops. We can speculate about the future, but would be wise not to go into too much detail. However, since socialists advocate the replacement of capitalism with socialism we are obliged to outline, at least in principle, how the new system will work. Without majority agreement and action on these principles some form of capitalism, reformed or unreformed, will continue.

Socialism means a classless society – no working class employed and exploited to produce food among other commodities, no capitalist class to own the means of food and other production and distribution. With no workers required to be employed in activities useful only in capitalism – banking, insurance, the war industry, among many others – more of us will be able to devoted more time and energies to producing and distributing food. With profit no longer the spur to activity, short-term policies leading to environmental damage will give way to long-term and sustainable policies.

Probably there will still be big eaters and small eaters, vegetarians and carnivores, even those who like fast food once it is rid of its capitalist connotations. In our pamphlet Socialist Principles Explained we discuss how food production and distribution may be organised in a socialist world. To some extent existing bodies like the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN may be converted and used for socialist purposes. But it may be that other and novel arrangements will be called for.

Socialists today lean towards being technophiles or simple-lifers, or somewhere in between. Some of us look to a future of socialist restaurants and hotels and less home cooking – others like the idea of having more time for artisanal rather than industrial food production and preparation. All tastes will be catered for.