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Felicity Lawrence

Felicity Lawrence argues that the globalisation of the food industry has devastating consequences
Felicity Lawrence argues that the globalisation of the food industry has devastating consequences

Global banquet runs out of control

Felicity Lawrence is Consumer Affairs Correspondent for the Guardian newspaper.

Food ought to be one of life's great pleasures. For most people in the West it is more plentiful and varied than ever before, and yet our food has been industrialised and globalised in less than a generation with devastating consequences for the environment, farmers, social justice and our individual health. The money made from food has shifted dramatically from those at the bottom of the chain, the farmers and producers, to those at the top, the big transnational food processors, manufacturers and retailers who now dominate and control our food as never before. Like most people, I imagine, I had never really thought about how bags of salad reached me, any more than I questioned why chicken breasts were now so cheap, why out-of-season strawberries were available in Britain at Christmas, how prawns had got so large, or why all processed foods seem to contain derivatives of corn and soya.

Why such intensive crop production?

Most salads today are the product of intensive monoculture with extended cropping seasons. Cosmetic perfection in these conditions can be achieved only with a little high-tech help. The fungus Sclerotina, for example, can flare up suddenly and rip through a field of lettuce so that you lose half your crop in a matter of days. Most pest and disease lifecycles can be broken by the traditional rotations that farmers once used as their insurance policy against devastating disease. Today, the farmers' insurance policy is to apply chemicals.

The UK government's Central Science Laboratory records the overall usage of pesticides. Its most up-to-date figures (1999) show that outdoor salad crops received on average four insecticide sprays, two fungicide applications and two herbicide doses. Because lettuce has been such a persistent offender, the Pesticides Safety Directorate has been conducting special tests on it. Its survey for 2001-2 showed nearly one in five lettuces exceeded the statutory maximum residue levels and 6 per cent contained pesticides not approved for use on the crops.

Why do farmers - most of whom are, I believe, generally honest and well intentioned - use chemicals on their salad crops that are not even legally permitted? Why do they insist on throwing away over a third of their crops? They are just as caught up in this industrialised, globalised food system as we are. The supermarket specification has become a tyranny: for every 10 tonnes of carrots harvested, only 3 tonnes pass muster. In Kenya, some 35 per cent of the bean crop grown for export is thrown away because it does not meet the supermarket specification that beans must be straight, of an exact diameter and length, and cosmetically perfect.

Unbounded by seasons

The supermarkets have created a world in which no one is bound by the seasons. They buy globally depending on where it is cheapest to guarantee a year-round uniform supply. The new intensive horticulture that has sprung up in Spain to provide northern Europe with summer vegetables through its winter months has an extravagant thirst. Spain is the driest part of Europe, and water is already at a crisis point: groundwater has become polluted with pesticides, and over-extraction has sucked seawater into the water table. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers has led to nitrate levels that are in some places 10 times higher than World Health Organisation (WHO) safety limits. In southern Spain, the government's head of agri-environment told me intensive horticulture would have to move to virgin territory in northern Africa - it already has begun to do so - as the land and water become polluted and exhausted.

Lake Naivasha, in the Great Rift Valley, is one of only two freshwater lakes in Kenya. Today huge patches of white plastic rise like blisters around Naivasha's waters. These are the greenhouses and tunnels of intensive farms that produce top-quality food for export, such as green beans. The lake is shrinking, and its southern shores are blighted with algal bloom. Although the big international firms dispute it, local environmentalists blame the water problems here, as in other parts of Kenya, on the country's growing horticultural activities and the resulting excessive abstraction of water for the crops, pollution from pesticide and fertiliser run-off, and deforestation caused by migrant workers on industrial-scale farms cutting wood for cooking fuel. Some predict that, without a radical change in practices, the area will not be suitable for farming in 15 years.

Packaging and transport

New figures published by Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reveal that 40 per cent of household rubbish that ends up in landfill is packaging from supermarkets. We are rapidly running out of holes in the ground to dump all this rubbish. Transporting out-of-season food around the world also has a devastating environmental impact. It depends on that most politically charged of substances, crude oil. Our food chain's current contribution to the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions is 12 per cent, according to conservative government estimates, or possibly as much as 22 per cent.

These sorts of foods are then clearly environmentally unsustainable, but they are also morally and socially unsustainable. Their production depends on the use of large armies of migrant workers. Without their cheap, flexible labour the system would collapse. If they were paid decent wages, housed in reasonable conditions, and treated fairly while they cut and trimmed our chicken, packed our tomatoes, topped and tailed our beans or washed our leaves, we could almost certainly not afford their services. Southern Spain's economic miracle has been possible only because large numbers of migrants, mostly from North and Francophone West Africa, work the hothouses and packing factories there.

Biologically unsustainable

Our industrialised diet is now known to be a major contributor to disease. Sixty per cent of deaths around the world, according to WHO, are "clearly related to changes in dietary patterns and increased consumption of fatty, salty and sugary foods. About a third of the risk of cardiovascular disease is related to unbalanced nutrition. Thirty to forty per cent of cancers could be prevented through better diet." As industrialised diets are adopted in developing countries, the same patterns of disease emerge. The dramatic rise in the consumption of fats and sugars in China and India that has crept in with industrialisation and urbanisation is mirrored by an equally dramatic and alarming rise in cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer in those countries.

Do you still want to eat this way?

Felicity Lawrence is the author of Not on the label and delivered the 2004 Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture on 3 December 2004.

Date published: May 2005

 

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