Grasping at straws: Is there hope for humans and food in the age of globalization?


Watch: “Preparing to Feed the World”

This is a fluff piece on a fertilizer factory in the United States. The Koch brothers are set to spend $898 million this election cycle. The profits to be made from reduced regulation explain why this number is so large and could be a sign of things to come.

Watch: “The new way of colonialism in Africa”

This is a report done by NHK, a Japanese news station, which helps explain the rise in land grabbing. Understanding the scale of this issue is key to understanding why it is so problematic, you have to see how large these plantations are to believe.


Today, in the world’s newest country, 40,000 people are on the brink of death due to starvation. South Sudan has suffered one of the world’s bloodiest civil wars in recent history, forcing an estimated 2.8 million people from their homes, who according to the UN now face “acute food and nutrition insecurity.” This catastrophe, while predicated on unnecessary violence, is also impacted by a globalized food system that has hindered the third world’s ability to feed itself. This transformation falls within a familiar pattern of capitalist maximization of profits, and erosion of oversight and social protection. The prioritization of agricultural land for biofuels, monopolization of farming corporations, and heavy investment from major economic powers bent on securing resources for their populations, has forced many traditional food sources to the brink of collapse. Today, South Sudan is facing a famine of epic proportions, but as climate change and disease influence the worlds growing abilities, even first world countries which historically have been insulated from drought and inflation might be victims as well. The question then could be, is there a sustainable way to provide food and nutrition for the world’s population?

Perhaps no one reading this is surprised by a link being drawn between a civil war and the food system, but for many Americans, food is associated with cartoon characters and brightly colored packaging, not starvation and war crimes. The idea that consumer choices here might lead to the situation in South Sudan is unsettling. However, consumers only bear so much responsibility. It is the producers who are dictating what we choose to consume in the first place, through pricing, advertising and politics. For example, the recent blending of the food system with the fuel industry has profoundly influenced agriculture. According to the Oakland Institute 30% of the global wheat and grain market is represented by corn, grown in the United States for ethanol. Biofuels are one of many causes for “land grabs” an instance when vast tracts of land are purchased in developing countries to grow crops, which are then exported. Corporations take advantage of antiquated land right systems and weak non-democratic governments, buying or leasing land for a price far below the profits made by cultivating and processing food and fuel. According to a study conducted by Klaus Deininger, land was leased in Mozambique for $0.60 per hectare, far below the estimated value of $9,800.00 per hectare.

With such a problematic food system, the question is often asked is there any way to separate a geographic entity from the larger system of production. One possible way to insulate communities is to “go local” or to condense the production and consumption of food into a finite geographic area. On the surface, this seems like a clear way forward towards sustainability, however Born and Purcell point out “localness of a food system should not be seen as having any inherent qualities – it is merely a strategy that can be applied by any group of actors to advance particular agendas.” Even with good intentions, limiting fossil fuel consumption by reducing distance travelled is not enough. Modern agriculture relies on pumping water, fertilizer, pesticides and mechanical machinery, all which depend on fuel. Due to the unsustainable nature of biofuel production and land grabbing, local attempts at full disinvestment are impossible without using renewable energy, which requires incredible capital. Everything is linked, in some way, to the global food system.

Modern agriculture also relies on scaling up of production, and the larger the scale, the more profitable. Thus, on the surface, small scale seems like an easy answer to the problem. Connely, however, makes a link between the need to pay for hidden costs in food development, and the subsequent pricing out of lower income communities. In other words, even if local food systems are managed sustainably, they inevitably will stay small, or will be forced to cater to middle class consumers to cover the gap in profits between them and their competitors. As lower income consumers are priced out, we see greater inequality in health. As soda prices go down and produce prices rise, wealthier individuals will have a greater ability to eat healthy. Therefore, going local is a good place to start, but until it adequately addresses and insulates entire communities from the food system, these actors will still be buying in to the current means of production on some level.

The inevitable priority in modern agriculture is not just to scale up in physical size, but also to transition to monoculture crops which take little knowledge to grow, but are extremely lucrative in the global marketplace. Unfortunately, this scaling up often comes with worsened social and environmental consequences that are felt locally, as well as throughout entire regions of the planet. In his book; The African Land Grab, Lorenzo Cotula details the ways in which globalization has prioritized large-scale agriculture. “These evolutions… They tend to squeeze small-scale farmers – by putting downward pressures on their profit margins, by eroding their control over farming decisions, by directing capital towards their large-scale competitors, or by displacing them altogether through large-scale plantations.” This displacement is most troubling, and has clearly caused food security problems in Eastern Africa, as well as around the world. Losing the knowledge of traditional practices is not just a human rights violation, but is actually a negative impact on the global economy. Indigenous cultures farmed and produced food for thousands of years. Yet, this expertise is not valued whatsoever, and the lessons that might be economically lucrative are lost.

Another approach to this global problem came about in recent years in the cities of Richmond and Berkeley, California. Both introduced legislation aimed at increasing taxes on sugary beverages sold within the city limits. The idea behind this was to protect lower income communities from the growing rates of obesity and type II diabetes, both health problems associated with overconsumption of sugar. While the measure was defeated in Richmond, in large part due to political campaigning by the food and beverage industry, it did pass in Berkeley. Unfortunately, this legislation is another example of the inability to address food justice concerns within a distinct geographic limit. There are simply too many loopholes in this attempt at reform; consumers can go to neighboring communities to shop for cheaper sugary beverages, and there is little evidence that the price increase isn’t passed on through other products. The isolation of a single commodity is also problematic. Although the attempt is made to focus on an ingredient detrimental to health, specifically for low-income communities and youth, it doesn’t get at the complexity that has caused a deterioration of health such as the emergence of processed foods and preservatives in our diet.

Michael Pollan, an award winning food author who lives in Berkeley, warns against the industrialization of agriculture and the monopolization of food production. He talks about how historically bread was a staple of nutrition for the human diet, and only because of the scaling up of production did it become unhealthy due to it being highly processed. “The problem with whole grain is that it goes bad…white flour is stable, so you could mill it anywhere, and it sits on the shelf for years. Whole grain flour is volatile, because it has all these volatile oils. It has omega-3s, for example. And, you know, its helpfulness is directly tied to its perishability. So they didn’t like that, and they were happy to get rid of whole grain.” Thus, in the name of maximizing profits, corporations turned bread from a civilization-founding staple, to something that is unhealthy. Most importantly, fermenting and baking bread takes free time, something that lower income individuals do not necessarily have. As indigenous peoples are displaced, they lose the resources they depend on: forests for housing, rivers for water, and the ability to grow wheat and bake bread.

Thus, the food system is too complex to attack any one commodity, even one as ubiquitous as sugar. Likewise, many efforts at reform attempt to address effects, but don’t get at the root causes of food security. Many countries are now at the mercy of climate change, as temperatures increase, and rainfall becomes unpredictable, growing wheat in the third world will become more difficult. Fluctuations in food prices can cause political instability. In Egypt, the price of local food increased 37% between 2008 and 2010, causing the Arab Spring. Despite this revolution, it didn’t create food security, as North African and Middle Eastern countries still import more food then any other region. In South Sudan, we are seeing likely the worst-case scenario of food insecurity. Fixing this problem, and making corporations accountable for the consequences of their land grabbing, is the logical place to begin in reorganizing our food and fuel system.

Luckily, there are some organizations focused on achieving food security and ending land grabbing. Oakland’s own Food First ( is a think tank that comes up with real solutions to problems afflicting farmers around the world. In Brazil there is Friends of the MST ( a non-profit whose work towards stability includes land right education and renewable energy expansion. There are also international non-profits such as GRAIN (, which details land grabbing and lists opportunities for political involvement.