Why the global food system isn’t kind to local farmers
Recently, I’ve come across two articles that pungently demonstrate the place of small-scale farmers in a global economy geared toward long-distance trade.
The first, a Salon-published excerpt from Charles Fishman’s recent book The Wal-Mart Effect, explores what the U.S. love affair with $5/pound salmon means for Chile. (Prepare to click through a few ads to get to the story.) The other, a NY Times piece, depicts high-level hand-wringing in China over rural “land grabs by officials eager to cash in on China’s booming economy.”
(Thanks to Tyler Bell for alerting me to the Salon piece.)In Wal-Mart fish cases across the country, Fishman reports, sit bountiful stacks of salmon, “gleaming and vivid pink-orange,” proudly labeled a “farm-raised product of Chile.”
Fishman points out that in the past 20 years, salmon has gone from a luxury or special-occasion food to a cheap source of protein. In inflation-adjusted terms, a pound of salmon today probably sells for less than hamburger meat did in the 1970s.
The author deftly documents the immediate environmental problems caused by the explosive growth of industrial salmon farms along Chile’s coast, which have popped up to feed voracious U.S. demand for salmon: the unspeakable concentrations of fish shit that overwhelm ecosysytems and create dead zones along the shore.
He also notes:
In just a decade, salmon farming has transformed the economy and the daily life of southern Chile, ushering in an industrial revolution that has turned thousands of Chileans from subsistence farmers and fishermen into hourly paid salmon processing-plant workers.
Now, it’s long been the opinion of international NGOs that subsistence farmers and fishermen are living miserable lives and in dire need “development” — an attitude that jibes well with the interests of corporations in search of cheap labor.
Fishman, in this otherwise-excellent piece, might have explored this issue more deeply. Are the dead zones created by the fish farms wrecking the livelihoods of subsistence fishermen — making them reliant on jobs at the fish factory and food from the global industrial food system? Is a cheap and ready source of protein for local residents being sacrificed to create a less-cheap source of protein for consumers thousands of miles away? What’s becoming of the land once tended by the former subsistence farmers? Have they stopped consuming home-grown meat and vegetables and moved on to supermarket food — with its huge doses of embedded fossil-fuel energy, to speak nothing of inferior nutrition?
In neoliberal terms, our former subsistence farmers and fishermen have experienced progress. But beyond increased claims on the global oil supply, I can’t see what they’ve actually gained.
Over in China, it seems, small-scale farmers are experiencing a similar “Wal-Mart effect.”
The NYT reports that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao recently publicly deplored the “reckless occupation of farmland” that has marked the nation’s ascent to global production powerhouse.
Public breast-beating about the plight of farmers is nothing new in China, the NYT adds; the government reported in 2004 that “new factories, housing, offices and shopping malls had consumed about 5 percent of the total arable land in the previous seven years.”
Decision-makers in China and Chile may be making grave errors by endangering local food security in order to produce for a global consumer market. Sacrificing localized food-production capacity means throwing your lot with the global industrial-food giants like Archer-Daniels Midland — which rely on heavily subsidized commodity production and cheap and easy access to oil to produce food that’s made U.S. consumers the most overweight, diabetes-ridden people on the world.