Should big business get out of the food business?
Let’s pretend we are the members of a committee with broad power to reshape the food system (perhaps for a nation, perhaps for a municipality, perhaps for the world). Our goal is to allow our polis to feed itself in a way that is equitable and environmentally sustainable. We can do whatever we want: dissolve Monsanto, provide guaranteed basic income for everyone, fund new forms of agricultural research, force everyone to drink gluten-free almond milk cocktails mixed with plant blood … anything!
What foundational principles should we use to form this food system?
This, essentially, is the game I’ve been playing with this Hungry Hungry Humans series. Up until now, everything I’ve set forth is almost universally accepted by the people who study these problems (with a few wonderfully free-thinking exceptions).
I can summarize that common ground in a few sentences: We produce enough food to feed everyone, but the market distributes it inequitably. Ending poverty and hunger are preconditions to ending population growth. For that reason, environmental efforts have to be, first and foremost, a social justice campaign. It’s still important to increase small farmers’ yields, because that is one of the most powerful levers anyone has ever found to reduce poverty. Farmers should have access to whatever technologies truly help them improve the long-term fiscal and environmental health of their communities.
As far as I can tell, most experts agree up to this point — and then the consensus falls apart. Because this is where core political beliefs come into play: Those on the left say we need to give the people more control over their food by limiting the power of big businesses. The people who believe in functioning capitalism — both liberal and conservative — say that market forces already give people power over their food system.
I think it’s fair to say that University of Texas professor Raj Patel is on the left. He worries about oligopolies controlling the food system and says we should take away their power. His articles show up in places like Radical Philosophy, and The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest.
Giving people access to food isn’t enough, he said.
“We should insure not just access, but control over the food system,” Patel said. “It’s possible to have access without freedom. You can be ‘food secure’ in prison, for example. A prisoner has access to food but has no say over what that food looks like, or how it’s grown, or the processes by which it reaches them. And for a lot of the food system we are in prison.”
Though we have unlimited choices in the supermarket, it’s a billion versions of the same thing. Pick anything you like! As long as it’s a product of the industrial food chain, with lots of added fat or sugar.
Patel’s bio says he “studies the global food system and alternatives to it.” When I asked him what his preferred alternative would be, he — like a good academic — said that it would depend utterly on the context. So I asked if there were any contextual examples of a place exercising the kind of food sovereignty he admires. Cuba, he said, is an example of a country that embraced agroecological farming techniques, both for practical reasons and to provide good jobs to small farmers.
“Cuba suggests,” he said, “we need to be reimagining the role of agricultural extension services, the role of science, the role of agronomists in helping to feed a community, the role of the state in making sure that farmers are supported and hungry people have access to good food that is not likely to make them ill in the way we see in the United States.”
But should we really aspire to be like Cuba? I’d thought of Cuba as an agricultural exemplar, too, until a journalism professor who had worked there snorted at the idea. The food is terrible there, he’d said, and there’s never enough to eat.
“From what I saw from being in Cuba, it depends who you talk to,” Patel said. “The data that we have around Cuban hunger is that it’s less than the United States. And the data is important. Obviously one needs to be suspicious of all data. Certainly there is poverty in Cuba — I don’t think anyone disputes that. But in Cuba, unlike the United States, if you are poor you tend not to go hungry. That distinction is one that is really important.”
It’s comparable to healthcare: The United States has an objectively fantastic healthcare system, in that we have some of the best doctors and much of the best medical technology in the world. People fly to the U.S. for medical treatment. Rich people, that is. But if you are poor, or even middle class, you are probably better off in a country with socialized medicine.
Patel sees us imprisoned in a corporate food system that is very good at satisfying bougie fetishes, like low-carb diets and handmade cupcakes, but very bad at getting healthy food to the less fortunate. To create a better system, we have to “be brave and big,” he said, to take on institutions like patriarchy when trying to eliminate hunger, to work for a “transformational shift, rather than just tinkering.” He’s not against farm technologies, but points out that many ag-technologies enrich and empower big corporations.
Christopher Barrett has a different perspective. An economist at Cornell University, he’s not plotting revolution but instead writing about how the system we’ve got could work better — that is to say, tinkering.
He thinks rejecting otherwise useful technology because it comes from a large company is just dumb. The system isn’t broken — it’s working well and getting better, he said.
“I think the idea that you can have a food system work without large corporations is just wildly naïve,” Barrett said.
The alternative is to have the government plan everything, the Soviet method, which meant bread lines. In Cuba, political leaders have acknowledged ongoing food shortages. As The Economist put it: “Nobody starves, but hard-currency supermarkets go for weeks without basics such as milk and bread.”
You need corporations to do the research and development that leads to innovation, Barrett said. And when they do create something new, they’re going to have a temporary monopoly — either because no one else knows how to make it, or because they have a patent.
“The basic economic logic behind patents is that you have to be sure there are adequate incentives for people to develop new technologies,” Barrett said. “An inventor has to invest a lot of time and money up front, and a lot of risk — there are a lot of failures for every success. A patent is a temporary monopoly to provide the opportunity to recoup that investment.”
He thinks we have a patent system in need of serious reform, but he doesn’t think it’s a problem that there are a few very large companies with a lot of power in our food system. Barrett says that, ultimately, it’s still the people who have control: “The whole reason these companies spend so much on market research is that they are trying to find out what customers want, and they fine-tune it constantly,” he said.
He acknowledges that companies sometimes misbehave, but he thinks they’ve been a positive force on balance. The rise of the local food movement, for instance, isn’t a harbinger of revolution in Barrett’s eyes — it’s just the capitalism, working: “They’ve found a market that’s really interested in their product.”
It’s true, he said, that a greater percentage of agricultural innovation comes out of companies these days, rather than out of public science, but that’s because, “We’ve underinvested in public ag research. And companies — the Dows and Syngentas and Monsantos — have picked up the slack. We have no one to blame for that but ourselves.”
Barrett doesn’t see an oligopoly when he looks at the food system, or a prison. But there is one place where he and Patel agree. Both like the idea of increasing the level of basic income so that everyone can afford to pay farmers more.
“You can get in this kind of death spiral of thinking that well, you know we want food for everyone, and the food therefore needs to be cheap or poor people can’t afford it,” Patel said. “But if you address the issue of poverty and the ability to pay for food by making sure that everyone in the world has enough to spend on food, then all of a sudden the issue around paying a fair price for the farmer and particularly the farm laborer becomes tractable.”
“If I could be king for a day and have my own rules stick, I’d like something along those lines,” Barrett said. But unless you could insure generous support for the poor, having more expensive food is “deeply problematic.”
I’m probably oversimplifying these positions — there’s no way to do otherwise in limited space. Patel does think that markets work well when they’re not monopolized, and Barrett can list numerous ways the status quo needs to change. But I wanted to lay out these positions explicitly because people often skip this step and go right ahead to proposing their food system fixes. We assume either that (A) the engine of capitalism just needs a tune up and more fuel or (B) that it needs to be turned around or torn up. (See Naomi Klein on the latter.)
I’m not going to resolve this, even in my own mind. I’m attracted to the drama inherent in the radical, transformational approach. And I’m attracted to the knowability of the tinkering approach: It’s less likely to lead to unanticipated disaster, and it’s much easier to see where to begin.
Understanding these two mindsets helps to explain why political coalitions form around different approaches. Leftists dislike patented seeds and love the idea of agroecology — in large part because big businesses profit off the former, but rarely the later. Mainstream capitalists don’t see any problem with having both, and they point out that agribusiness can do well by helping out. Public disagreements over farming tools and techniques often have little to do with their environmental and health impacts — and everything to do with the political goals of the people in the debate.
As we move forward, we can clarify that debate by acknowledging that involving big business in agriculture helps perpetuate our current version of capitalism. Then we can go back to arguing over whether that’s good or bad.