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Food Chains

By Andrew E. Hall

“In less than three decades, a handful of multinational corporations have engineered a fast and furious corporate enclosure of the first link in the food chain.”

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote: “If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world” – but Tolkien died in 1973, before the advent of commodity buffering and price hedging that became characterised by so-called “butter mountains” and “milk lakes” in the European Union during the 1980s and onwards – when food took on an equivalency with hoarded gold.

The world was not merrier.

Government-subsidised over-production engendered wastage on a scale difficult to comprehend. While, in what was then referred to as the “Third World”, people in their hundreds of thousands died of malnutrition. In sub-Saharan Africa, food became a weapon of war.

It is still used as such.

The 2011 World Development Report states: “Most forms of political violence, particularly violent protest, communal violence, and civil conflict, are most prevalent in countries at lower levels of economic development … Due to the high correlations among low per capita incomes, poverty, and food insecurity, it is clear that political violence is largely a phenomenon of the food insecure world.”

Food chain2

A common analogy in economic theorising refers to guns and butter – a hypothetical that relates to a nation’s opportunity cost of spending its treasure on guns (defense/security) or butter (consumer goods). Opportunity cost is the cost of making one economic decision over another, and – in the broadest context – what proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) should be allocated to what sectors in which a nation believes lay its best interests to invest.

The guns and butter allegory, however, doesn’t correlate terribly well with economies modeled on a “free market” – a term that is misleading in the extreme … what it really means is non-regulated markets, where checks and balances have been removed to facilitate unmitigated access by monopolies and oligopolies. A “trickle-up” effect, in direct opposition to the mythical “trickle-down” doggerel, affected by lobbyists and marketing departments, in right-wing western democracies.

But in conflict zones on the African continent (and anywhere else, for that matter) if you own the guns and the butter you can kill off communities – in a variety of ways – whole pesky populations that represent a (real or imagined) threat to the established order. The opportunity cost of this is obviously in favour of starvation – bullets cost money.

In western “free market” economies greater and greater percentages of food resources, production, and preparation are falling into the hands of fewer and fewer multinational corporations in a global industry that boasts a size and scale that beggars belief.

So, what is our relationship with “food” other than it being an essential fuel to keep us going in our daily lives? (Those of us, that is, who are in the privileged position of having access to it …)

In (western) popular culture food has become synonymous with the celebrity chef … the gastro-porn industry that is a relatively cheap way of filling television broadcast schedules.

In the good ol’ days there were one or two cooks on TV – my favourite was Keith Floyd, a Brit, who basically went on a lengthy, and geographically diverse, drinking binge and whacked things up in a wok.


Nowadays a plethora of gastro-gnomes infest our screens, and cooking competitions like MasterChef (and even kiddy MasterChef) have become spectator sports where the stresses and strains of bunging something on a plate lead to various forms of neuroses and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Some of it is entertaining I suppose but it’s also become kind of cultish.

Lisa Abend wrote in Time magazine: “It’s been a few decades since we started turning cooks into stars, and still the phenomenon continues to grow. These days, the Emerils, Marios and Gordons of the world scarcely need the qualifier chef — they are celebrities, plain and simple … In the Food Network era, the phenomenon of the celebrity chef has utterly transformed the restaurant industry and, in the process, changed the very nature of how we eat.

Cooking, culture and community were (and still are) symbiotic and specific in many parts of the world, but we have been thrown into a confusion of fusion – a blancmange of blending where the food has largely lost its own identity; replaced by the imprimatur of those who prepare it … whose word we are admonished to take on taste and texture, on form and function. And whose “brands” have become the be-all, and end-all, in what is considered appetising and appropriate by a new sociological species, the Foodie.

There is a light and funny side to the whole pop culture food-centricity, as pointed out by Mic Looby in a recent issue of Australia’s The Age newspaper …
“Witness the cooler-than-thou eateries where waiting staff delight in translating the menu’s highbrow hogwash into something slightly less hogwashed …” he writes.

“Your attendant may be offering to help you, but what they’re really saying is: ‘Shall I decipher this gastronomical work of art into something you plebs can understand …’

Everyone loves a laugh, but in the humour lurks the fact that there exists a disconnect between the psycho-social nature of what “food” actually means in the “First World” and what it means in all the other ones.


In my younger days I had the great privilege of doing a lot of my growing up with the Bedouin people in southern Saudi Arabia, just north of the Yemen boarder – over a period that stretched 11 years or so.

It was a barren, rocky, and mountainous part of the world that could reach 50 degrees Celsius during the day and drop to near zero at night. The people of the region resembled their environment – tough, resilient, sometimes fierce … and incredibly hospitable; especially when it came to a 14-year-old white boy who landed in their midst for whatever reason.

I ostensibly lived in a mining exploration camp in a place called Wadi Qatan – about three hours drive from the nearest town, Najran. At the top of the nearest mountain – Jebel Haar (which means “high mountain”) – there were ancient petroglyphs of what could only be described as human-like figures wearing helmets with antennae; in a wadi (dry river bed) near to the camp, a mining claim, in Thamudic script, proclaiming ownership of the area in the name of the Queen of Sheba, was carved into a cliff face.

It was a fascinating place to go exploring.


But the best times were the nights, when I would visit the woven camelhair tents, strewn with carpets and cushions, of my friends; Sheik Ali; Sheik Zaid; Abu Salem; Gublan; and their womenfolk, to share a meal. Food resources were relatively scarce and the gathering would usually involve a number of families from the surrounding area.

First, a beast (goat, sheep, or camel – depending on the size and auspiciousness of the gathering) would be slaughtered, and baked in the ground on hot rocks – sacred men’s business.

The women would prepare subtly spiced rice, and doughy bread that was dipped in olive oil. There were endless rounds of sweet mint tea, and ghawa – coffee made with roasted green coffee beans and cardamom … the grinding of which took place with a brass mortar and pestle, accompanied by rhythmic metallic ringing, and the singing of songs.

There was much laughter and the telling of (often bawdy) jokes around the campfire, under cloudless skies that presented the Milky Way in a way I had not seen before or since.

The only time silence reigned was when our meal was served – on giant trays that were attacked by one and all with gusto, by hand – the right hand … followed by voluminous belching.

The food brought us together. The food removed any sense of “difference” between us. The food confirmed our friendship.

I remember those times with great nostalgia and fondness. And I look at the insidious creep of the fast food industry over the intervening years – lamenting the very real part it has played in rending the communal fabric of our social experience.

It has trivialised and popularised the way we (in the “developed world”) relate to eating.

It has made us fat …

… at the same rate it has fattened the coffers of the global industry that spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year convincing us to eat it.

But discussions about “fast food” more often than not are limited to the fare that you can buy, precooked, and delivered through the window of your vehicle. Very little discussion focuses on packaged and processed “foods” that you buy in your local supermarket.


Traditional markets in the developing economies are places of social intercourse, barter and banter – where people wander and mingle as they get up close and personal with the produce that will end up on the family table. It is an organic process (in the anthropological sense) whereby the whole act of procuring the ingredients of sustenance becomes a valuable ritual in the social cycle.

Vegetables and fruits are fresh from the primary producer. Animals, fish and birds, are (hopefully) newly dead, taken away live (for later slaughter), or butchered in situ. It’s a personal relationship with the responsibility for consuming things … things that were once alive but were sacrificed for our benefit.

There is some speculation that even plants feel pain.

As I chow down on my spinach pie, do you think I care?

… not nearly as much as when I was required to take the life of a sentient being, I can assure you.

The point being that as I remove the carrot or cucumber from the place it has grown up in, or take a knife to the throat of a goat, I am the one asserting a primacy over the other things that Nature has created. For me this engenders a form of respect for Nature’s benevolence.

In a “super”-market, however, I am reduced and diminished … I am a mere “shopper”.

Let me share something with you: I loathe shopping in all its forms, particularly in supermarkets. I plan my forays into shops like a military campaign, and only after my refrigerator has stubbornly refused to restock itself for a number of days.

I make a list of what I need, and paint a mental picture of exactly where these items are located in the supermarket based on my last visit. I meditate for an hour or so, and then do some yoga – so that I am flexible enough to weave past the cart-pushing throngs, and their badly behaved children. I get in my car and drive to the shop … very slowly so I have time to consider all the reasons I have to NOT do what I’m doing.

Having parked the car and carried out some breathing exercises I walk purposefully through the wheelie gate and head straight for my first target aisle – only to find that what I want is no longer there! I become angry and insecure.

It’s a cheap trick supermarkets use to force shoppers to spend more time in the infernal establishments … and I fall for it every damn time.

In the ever-shrinking “fresh produce” section there is a forlorn selection of meats and veggies, hopelessly overwhelmed by acres of cold cabinets that contain packaged “food” that has been prepared in a factory somewhere far away. Reading the “nutritional” information I see lots of letters with numbers after them, and wonder what it all means.

At least 30 per cent of what I put in my trolley will have been manufactured by the world’s top 10 food and beverage “processors”. More than 40 per cent of people like you and me, worldwide, will be handing our hard-earned over to fewer than 100 companies.


The ETC Group reports: “After decades of consolidation, giant grocery retailers occupy the most powerful position in the agro-industrial food chain.”
… and the “fresh” potatoes that I put in the trolley on my last visit to the supermarket turned out to be rotten.

ETC Group again: “When the top of the food chain starts yanking, it’s labour that suffers the biggest squeeze. When giant food retailers dictate lower prices, suppliers are forced to trim costs. That typically means lower wages and declining labour standards further down the food chain.”

More and more of the world’s primary producers are being bonded to fewer and fewer of the world’s food mega-corporations, which means that the world’s consumers are similarly chained. The people have lost control over their relationship with both producing and consuming. And because the populations in the developing world are so vast, and their comparative wealth is growing, the major corporations are targeting them with ruthless efficiency … witness, for instance, the proliferation of malls, “marts”, “mini-marts”, and all the other “mart” sizes on Bali. You can’t walk more than a hundred metres in any town or village without passing one or more of these places that flog plastic food in plastic packets. And people are flocking to them.

At the beginning of the food chain a creeping corporatism is applying the shackles to farmers by way of an increasing emphasis on developing genetically modified (GM) seed stocks and applying patents to them.

The Ecologist states: “Since the mid-1990s just five biotech giants – Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and DuPont – have bought up more than 200 other companies between them to dominate our access to seeds.

“Philip Howard from Michigan State university (USA) … says the increasing power of seed companies is ‘incompatible’ with renewable agricultural practices such as saving and replanting seeds. He says one solution to restricting their control would be through banning the practice of granting patents on seeds, plants and genes.”

The debate about whether GM crops are good, bad or otherwise will rage on for many years to come, no doubt. Science is science and people will always fiddle with the structures of things – as much out of curiosity as anything else.

There are arguments that breeding new varieties of food can help ameliorate the levels of poverty and starvation in places like sub-Saharan Africa – drought resistant grain crops etc.

Here on Bali we see a GM crop almost every time we walk outside … it’s called “miracle rice” or IR36 and IR72.


American Henry Beachell and, later, his colleague Dr. Gurdev Singh Khush began crossing IR8 with at least 13 other varieties from six nations. Eventually, they developed IR36, a semi-dwarf variety that proved highly resistant to a variety of pests and diseases and produced the slender rice grain preferred in many countries. In addition, IR36 matured rapidly – in 105 days instead of the 130 days of IR8 and 170 days for traditional varieties. That meant that many regions could finally grow two crops a year, instead of one. By the 1980s, at least 11 million hectares were planted with IR36 around the world. In 1990, Dr. Khush produced IR72 which out-produced even IR36.

So the upside is more crops a year. The downside, as we can see when we wander through the rice fields, is people spraying pesticides and applying fertilizers. The advent of miracle rice also engendered a fundamental change in the community approach to harvesting. We’ve all seen the tourist mini bus stopped by the side of the road and people snapping photos of women threshing bunches of rice in the field … this is because the heads of miracle rice won’t stay on the stalks until the plants can be taken back to the family compound where threshing traditionally took place when the indigenous Balinese rice was ubiquitous.

Balinese rice is naturally resistant to pests in this environment. It requires far less fertilization. It just doesn’t grow as fast.

Pros and cons of farming practices aside – and the basic fact is that the human population is growing rapidly, requiring enormous boosts in agricultural production – the concentration of power to sell and supply the raw materials for this production has been deliberately concentrated into the laboratories and boardrooms of a very few corporations.

The ETC Group report states: “Deregulation of the corporate-controlled food system has resulted in a cornucopia of calamities: It is making us sicker, fatter and more vulnerable. Unhealthy and hazardous food products and related environmental disasters are constant reminders of a corporate food chain broken to bits.

“In the first half of the 20th century, seeds were overwhelmingly in the hands of farmers and public-sector plant breeders. In the decades since then, Gene Giants have used intellectual property laws to commodify the world seed supply – a strategy that aims to control plant germplasm and maximize profits by eliminating Farmers’ Rights. Today, the proprietary seed market accounts for a staggering share of the world’s commercial seed supply. In less than three decades, a handful of multinational corporations have engineered a fast and furious corporate enclosure of the first link in the food chain.”

A report, Future of Seeds and Food, published by a coalition of campaign groups, including Greenpeace, called for an end to patents on seeds to halt the domination of biotech giants like Syngenta. It says only bigger seed companies can afford to apply and enforce a patent.

“Patents exacerbate genetic erosion as they promote monoculture by hindering the development of new seed varieties. In sum, the possible long term consequences of patents are control of the whole food chain by a few companies,” the report says.

“What is needed most is a clear legal ruling that exempts seeds and farm animals from patent protection.”

Food glorious food. We all need it. It fuels us and comforts us. The rituals surrounding it bring us together. Conflicts over it tear us apart. Control of the “butter” is just as, if not more, worrisome as control of the guns, if those in control are not motivated by a morality that embraces the wellbeing of the global community.

Profit maximisation has never been a very good mechanism for promoting equity and access, fairness, and our fundamental human rights.

At 2011 seminar in the US titled “Feeding Hope: Living Democracy”, prominent advocate for a more humanised approach in negotiating the food chain, Dr. Vandana Shiva said:

“ …the agricultural tools of industry come from the mindset of war, where diversity is seen as the enemy

… if we don’t make change, there’s only one future. No future.”