2000s >> 2006 >> no-1227-november-2006

Thought for food

The food industry under capitalism is part of the problem of starvation and malnutrition, not its solution.

Of all the ways in which capitalism means extremes of poverty and privilege, deprivation and excess, none is greater than in the production, distribution and consumption of food. According to Oxfam, 800 million of the world’s 6.5 billion population are malnourished, while two billion have a diet which is lacking in essential vitamins and minerals. At the same time obesity in the industrialised countries is on the increase. Obesity is not usually the result of eating too much good food – it is a working-class condition stemming from cheap food that adds bulk but not nutrition.

Capitalism seeks the nourishment of profits, not persons. There is more than enough food in the world to feed all of its population. But food is bought and sold, only exceptionally given and taken. Unless people are the recipients of charity that only nibbles at the problem, those who have to live on a dollar a day or less struggle to survive and often die prematurely.

The capitalist food industry has a number of features that make it part of the problem of starvation and malnutrition, not its solution. The market for food means that only enough is offered for sale that will cover costs and yield an expected profit. Anything more will not be brought to market because it will either remain unsold or push prices down. Hence the butter mountains and wine lakes that were the subject of so much adverse publicity in the 1980s. Small reductions were made, but the excesses are still there. Something similar applies to “set aside” — the logic (only to capitalism) of paying farmers not to grow food that cannot be sold.

Agribusiness is concerned with getting the best price it can for crops and cattle with the least possible expense. Scientists are agreed that artificial hormones injected into animals to fatten them up can be harmful to humans. Laws have been passed to limit but not abolish what amounts to poisoning food for profit. A reasonably healthy workforce is in the interests of employers generally, so we have consumer protection laws. The consumer who is mainly being protected is the consumer of labour power – the employing class.

When ill people are taken to hospital they expect the food they get there will help them recover. Often not so. Hospitals are among the worst sources of food poisoning. Hygiene standards are lowered by cuts in staff costs. Children are also the victims of a business approach to school meals. According to the Economist (20 May) plans to improve school meals are causing havoc. Jamie Oliver’s well-intentioned campaign against junk food has made some contracts between schools and the catering industry unsustainable. The schedule of lowly-paid dinner ladies assumes they just open packets and heat up the contents. They don’t have time for the labour-intensive preparation of fresh food.

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