By Madeleine Andrew-Gee
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
Who feeds you? Think about this question for a minute. Who raised the bacon you had this morning? What is the origin of the wheat in your bagel? How far did your orange travel before you bit into it? Most importantly, when was the last time you thought about where your food really came from?
Food is a necessity. Yet, many of us are disconnected from the ways in which our food is grown, cultivated, and produced. We know little-to-nothing of the time between when a seed is planted and the moment we grab fruit off the grocery store shelf.
This past fall at the Sauvé Series event, Re-thinking Food: Rural and Urban, Local and Global, Professor Kim Samuel urged the audience to consider that food is the great equalizer that connects us to each other and to the earth. Yet, at a time when the Canadian government is creating its first ever national food policy, the ways in which we consider food, and the ways it is produced, are being disrupted.
For at least 12,000 years, peasant agriculture has fed most of the world’s population.[i] More recently, however, large industrial processes have steadily taken over food production. These processes threaten peasant livelihoods, ways of traditional life, human health, and the environment. By the end of the current century, industrial agriculture will have impacted the environment in ways that will contribute to making our climate virtually unrecognizable.[ii] To move us off the current path — where traditional ways of life are being destroyed and food sustainability threatened — we must make drastic changes in the way we relate to food systems.
In the future, who will we rely on for our food? ETC Group, a small civil society organization that “works to address the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people” is addressing this question. In the third edition of the organization’s report, Who Will Feed Us?, ETC asks us to consider two different types of food systems: the Industrial Food Chain and the Peasant Food Web.
The Industrial Food Chain refers to the linear system of food production in which production is directly connected to retail consumption.[iii] Alarmingly, this system uses 75% of the world’s resources to feed only 30% of its population.[iv] Of the total food calories that the Chain produces, 76% are wasted in meat or biofuel production, as well as in transportation and in households.[v]
The Chain affects food and agricultural workers through a combination of low wages, health risks due to machinery operation and chemical exposure, and the replacement of jobs with technology such as drones.[vi] Furthermore, increasingly more violence is being perpetrated against peasants in an attempt to drive them off their traditional lands or to take control of their seeds and agricultural inputs.[vii]
On the other end of the spectrum is the Peasant Food Web, on which 70% of people depend for food, including close to a billion urban growers.[viii] The Web relies heavily on the expertise of food and agricultural workers. The broader network of peasant agriculture consistently protects diversity of food crops, fish, and meat. This means that the Web is more resilient to changes in climate or unforeseen events such as severe weather events.[ix]
The continued strengthening and growth of the Industrial Food Chain is not inevitable. As ETC Group explains, “With the right policies, land and rights, peasant-led agroecological strategies could double or even triple rural employment, substantially reduce the pressure for urban migration, significantly improve nutritional quality and availability and eliminate hunger while slashing agriculture’s GHG emissions by more than 90%.”[x]
One key policy change that could kickstart a transition away from the Industrial Food Chain would be a focus on the development of fair wage systems and working conditions that would benefit agricultural as well as food workers.[xi] In this way, the issue of food systems relates strongly to human rights. ETC Group states, “The Chain respects neither livelihoods nor human rights.”[xii]
Remember again that certain agricultural practices are tens of thousands of years old and are deeply tied to traditional ways of life. Two thirds of households in the Global South are involved in some type of food production, and over 2.6 billion livelihoods are based on some combination of farming, fishing, or pastoralism.[xiii] These people deserve conditions that not only support a decent life, but also support and encourage the sharing of their traditional forms of agricultural knowledge.
The mass industrialization of our food systems threatens traditional livelihoods and the health of humans and the environment. Indeed, an urgent move is needed towards embracing the Peasant Food Web, through intentional policy changes. Such a move, which includes rejecting the assumption that the Industrial Food Chain’s control of our food will protect us from hunger, is crucial to protecting peasants’ rights and building a more sustainable future. In short, we must ensure that those who feed us are not damaging others in the process.
So, ask yourself again: Who feeds you? And are you comfortable with the answer?
[i] Who Will Feed Us?, ETC Group, p.48
[iii] Ibid., p.10
[iv] Ibid., p.7
[v] Ibid., p.15
[vi] Ibid., p.44
[viii] Ibid., p.13
[ix] Ibid., p.12
[x] Ibid., p.48
[xii] Ibid., p.44