2000s >> 2009 >> no-1260-august-2009

Book Reviews

Green-lite reformism

Fuelling a Food Crisis – The impact of peak oil on food security. By Caroline Lucas, Andy Jones and Colin Hines. (www.carolinelucasmep.org.uk/2006/12/08/fuelling-a-food-crisis/).

 Current methods of food production and distribution are having a negative effect on the environment. The facts of the case are set out in this report by Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas and the two others, on behalf of the Green Group in the European Parliament, even though the measures they offer are no more than “green-lite” reforms.

 They show that the increased industrialisation of farming, particularly following the end of WW2, means that current methods now consume 50 times the energy input of traditional agriculture and in the most extreme cases “100 fold or more.” “Including energy costs for farm machinery, transportation, processing and feedstocks for agricultural chemicals – the modern food system consumes roughly 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced.”

 The UK has developed an increasing dependence on imported food. Figures from the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show that between 1988 and 2002 imports in tonnes increased by 38 percent and that 50 percent of all vegetables and 95 percent of all fruit consumed in the UK now come from overseas.

 How necessary are these imports for the consumers? The ‘New Economics Foundation’, in its UK Interdependence Report for 2006, published a list of food imports and exports, showing a two-way process of similar products travelling in opposite directions being both imports and exports simultaneously: in 2004, UK imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream from France – and exported 9.9 million kilos of milk and cream to France. The figures traded between UK and Germany for milk and cream were 15.5 million kilos to and 17.2 million kilos from the UK. UK imported 1.5 million kilos of potatoes from Germany and exported 1.5 million kilos of potatoes to Germany. UK imported 44,000 tonnes of frozen boneless chicken and exported 51,000 tonnes of fresh boneless chicken (countries not specified).

 These examples are a tiny fraction of the crazy methods of the globalised food trade which have scant regard for either environmental protection or actual consumers.

 A report for DEFRA in 2005 on “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development” concluded:

“Transport of food by air has the highest CO2 emissions per tonne and is the fastest growing mode. Although air freight of food accounts for only 1 percent of food tonne kilometres and 0.1 percent of vehicle kilometres it produces 11/ percent /of the food transport CO2 equivalent emissions.” (https://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/reports/foodmiles/final.pdf)

 Whilst the UK imports almost twice as much food as it exports vegetable and fruit imports account for over 60 percent of its food air freight. This is the upside-down world where there are, on the one hand, international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while, on the other, trade agreements to exchange foods internationally involving unnecessarily flying foodstuffs around the globe, so increasing the emissions.

 Food has to be transported but all transportation is at cost to the environment. How it is transported and how far are not decisions about which the consumer is consulted. Individuals could make a difference by the choices they make using their own moral code – providing they are equipped with all the available information – but, like travel, unrestricted flying, expansion of airports etc., individual actions make little impact. Action groups can and do make differences by boycotting certain food outlets or companies to affect their stance on political, humanitarian or moral issues (apartheid South Africa, Nestlé’s infant food formula sold in countries where customers had no access to clean water for mixing it, Fair Trade products) but these successes, whether small or substantial, don’t address the root problem and there’s always the need for yet another campaign.

 Also topsy-turvy are the various goals set for using crops as alternative fuels. The authors quote George Monbiot that “It has been calculated that meeting the EU’s target for 20 percent of transport fuel to come from biodiesel by 2020 would consume almost all of Britain’s croplands.” Presumably, attempting to achieve this target would imply relying even more heavily on imported food with all the associated extra environmental damage, plus the damage to domestic farmland and the environment from growing a monocrop.
 Then there is the environmental impact of modern industrial agriculture’s use of fertilisers:

“The manufacture of synthetic fertilisers is particularly energy intensive and accounts for around one third of the UK’s agricultural energy consumption. It has been estimated that 40 percent of world food protein now relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.”  “The fourth most traded bulk commodity in world shipping trade after iron ore, coal and cereals is fertilisers and their raw materials.”

 Peak oil and natural gas are not seen as a problem for future manufacturing in the fertiliser industry as there are sufficient coal reserves for 200 or so years at current production levels. “The consequences in terms of climate change, however, would be catastrophic. Additionally, production of ammonia from coal is 70 percent more energy intensive than production from natural gas.” Fertilisers are both big business and big polluters. Damage is caused during production, during distribution and to soil and water post-use, upsetting natural soil balance and leaching into water sources.

The authors conclude:

“The mandatory rules of trade that promote the interests of agribusiness, industrial production and long distance transport, and that force countries to compete to produce each other’s food at the expense of domestic production . . .  are a disaster for food security, particularly in poorer countries, as subsistence farmers are increasingly put out of business or forced into export production instead.”

 As alternatives to this environmentally destructive madness what do they recommend?

“Relocating our food systems will require a complete change of direction, away from the policies of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and the rules of the World Trade Organisation . . . Instead, the central aim of trade and food policy should be a just and environmentally sound food security programme, for all nations.”

 They go on to list some measures (i.e. reforms) that “would be instrumental in helping to meet the challenge.”  For instance,. “Production methods would have to meet key environmental and animal welfare standards, as well as provide healthy food . . . the reduction of fossil fuel use would need to be prioritised across the framework.” Other proposed measures include fair wages and adequate income, national import controls as a prerogative of all countries, reduced profit margins for food processors and supermarkets, restricting the market share of individual supermarkets, promoting self-reliance and ending subsidised dumping, and rewriting the EU Treaty and the rules of the WTO.

 The trouble is that each one of these reforms, or something similar, has been promoted, implemented, tried, reworked and discarded in favour of whatever is the latest fad. They are offering palliative treatment when only invasive surgery will do. As for agriculture and the environment, there is plenty of evidence pointing to how to get well and truly onto a sustainable path worldwide. Studies and statistics abound from universities, national and international farming networks, coalitions on food sovereignty, and organic farming which demonstrate that traditional intensive farming methods can out-perform industrial agricultural methods and are more beneficial to the health of both people and the environment. People may desire this change but the economic framework of capitalism won’t allow it.

“At a time when water tables are falling, temperatures are rising as a result of climate change and oil supplies will soon be shrinking the need for decisive action could not be more urgent.” Without a doubt. But, whilst the authors set out a wealth of solid information, and display a desire both to improve the lot of worldwide farmers and to ensure enough healthy food for all, their focus throughout their report on the monetary costs of everything – inevitable in a capitalist world – is their downfall for it is this very element that is fuelling both the food and the environmental crises.


Commonly Civic

The Internet and Democratic Citizenship. By Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler: Cambridge University Press £14.99.

 It is hardly controversial to say that the Internet opens up new possibilities for political discussion and for dissemination of opinions and news. From websites and mailing lists to blogs and videos downloaded from mobile phones, details of events and commentary can be circulated far more quickly and widely than was possible even twenty years ago. In this book, though, former Socialist Party member Steve Coleman and his co-author go much further, arguing that citizens’ participation in democracy can be greatly increased by the establishment of what they call a ‘civic commons’.

 This would not be just a matter of e-voting but of true e-participation. An example of the latter would be the discussion on domestic violence in 2000, whereby a parliamentary committee’s sessions were webcast live and an online forum enabled ‘the public’ to submit evidence. This and similar examples, however, illustrate top-down e-democracy, run by government bodies, which can lead only to a kind of pseudo-participation.

 In contrast is e-democracy from below, where people get together to share knowledge and mobilise for action of one kind or another. An example would be netmums, an online group which aims to support mothers locally and provide information, such as the location of toddler groups (see www.netmums.com). The Stop the War coalition is another instance, with a website as a point of first contact for anyone interested.

 Beyond this is the idea of an online civic commons, a democratically-moderated space that is nobody’s property (like unenclosed common land in medieval times). A new public agency would gather and coordinate people’s views on a range of problems, and public bodies would have to react formally. A hypothetical example is given: a debate on the teaching of reading is initiated by a government minister, and parents, teachers and others contribute via the civic commons, where an online library is established and a series of e-guides produced.

 The problem is that there is an unspoken assumption behind all this that capitalism could and should be made more democratic in this way. The authors acknowledge that the Internet is not inherently democratising, but they say far too little about possibilities for democracy under capitalism. The notion of class is entirely missing, and the division into governors and governed is never balanced by anything on owners versus employees. With its vast inequalities of wealth and power, capitalism is inherently undemocratic, and this can at most be only slightly modified by means of a civic commons.

 A socialist society might well employ something like a civic commons, and there could still be sites along the lines of netmums. But the Internet has little if any potential for increasing democracy under capitalism.

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