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Peak Food: Blaming the Victims

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In today's Independent we see an eye-opening article revealing that amidst what is described as a series of "global food shortages", a new "government-backed report" shows that "the British public" annually throws away "4.4 million apples, 1.6 million bananas, 1.3 million yoghurt pots, 660,000 eggs, 550,000 chickens, 300,000 packs of crisps and 440,000 ready meals. And for the first time government researchers have established that most of the food waste is made up of completely untouched food products – whole chickens and chocolate gateaux that lie uneaten in cupboards and fridges before being discarded" -- adding up to "a record £10b" every year.

And that's just us Brits. Imagine what the totals are for the Western world combined: Scary and revealing stuff that makes the word "overconsumption" seem like a gross understatement.

But despite the shock value of such important revelations, I'm increasingly concerned at the way in which the food crisis is being portrayed. The Independent goes on to explain the causes of the food crisis as follows: "... millions of the world's poor face food shortages caused by rising populations, droughts and increased demand for land for biofuels, which have sparked riots and protests from Haiti to Mauritania, and from Yemen to the Philippines."

So the food crisis comes down to three things:

1) rising populations (presumably not us in the advanced West, but rather those Third World crazies breeding like rabbits despite being so poor)

2) droughts (which may be exacerbated by climate change but in any case often occur naturally and therefore we purportedly can't do much about)

3) and the drive from energy corporations for investment in biofuels.

Indeed, according to the British government's new chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington speaking at a
government conference two months ago:

"price rises in staples such as rice, maize and wheat would continue because of increased demand caused by population growth and increasing wealth in developing nations. He also said that climate change would lead to pressure on food supplies because of decreased rainfall in many areas and crop failures related to climate. 'The agriculture industry needs to

double its food production, using less water than today.'

So again, population and economic growth in the 'developing nations', plus climate change, are to blame, and can only be addressed by doubling food production using less water (technologically impossible for all intents and purposes, but we'll come back to that). It's Them again -- too many of Them, wanting More.

As if to emphasise the point, we hear in the same
piece that:

"Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, said at the conference that the world's population was expected to grow from 6.2bn today to 9.5bn in less than 50 years' time. 'How are we going to feed everybody?' he asked."

Only a rhetorical question of course. Sorry to break it t'ya folks, but 'feeding everybody' has never really been one of the state's major concerns. That's why "Each tonne of wheat and sugar from the UK is sold on international markets at an average price of 40% and 60% below the cost of production respectively (ie,
it is dumped)", thus undercutting local farmers across the South, who thus lose any semblance of agricultural-independence they may have once had (i.e. the ability to feed their own people), thus becoming subject to the whims of the global food market, manipulated through speculation in the interests of Northern investors and consumers.

But the important point for now is that as far as Hilary Benn is concerned, it's clear that the cause of the problem is "their" population growth.

Later in the article, Professor Beddington is cited pointing out that global grain stores are currently at the lowest levels ever, just 40 days from running out. He again emphasises the question of food production: "I am only nine weeks into the job, so don't yet have all the answers, but it is clear that science and research to increase the efficiency of agricultural production per unit of land is critical."

According to Beddington, food security is the "elephant in the room" that politicians must face up to quickly. In reality, the "elephant in the room" goes far deeper than the surface issues scratched at lamely by the government, and sits in the heart of global food production. Some of Beddington's observations show that he is dimly aware of this problem. He understands that production needs to be increased drastically. But his solution is a technological one, "science and research" in order to maximise "efficiency" so we can produce faster and better to meet escalating global demand. This is unlikely to happen. Beddington knows it. Benn knows it. The supermarket chains know it.

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Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the 'System Shift' column for VICE's Motherboard, and is also a columnist for Middle East Eye. He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work.

Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New (more...)

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