The Global Food System Vs Soil
Under the strain of massive external demand and serious moral and practical internal problems, the global food system is breaking. These problems have been building for decades, even centuries. Food globalisation has a long history. The first instances of international food trade sprung up as early as the 16th and 17th centuries with the rise of European maritime exploration. Since then, civilisation has not looked back and today, you can find food from every part of the world in every part of the world! This is a result of food globalisation. It has played a large part in feeding a population explosion, expanded the variety of foods available and brought great prosperity and knowledge-sharing. But, when combined with industrialisation, big agribusiness and their technologies and trade deals favouring profits over public interests, food globalisation becomes a different type of animal.
At the moment, multinational food corporations which mass-produce ultra-processed food using monocultures are the ones who decide what is eaten and who grows it. International trade deals between such businesses favour mass importation and exportation of food over locally grown food feeding local people. Many of those locals have, in fact, been pushed off their land by the same corporations. The larger the scale, the more economically viable a farm is and the better the government subsidies (this is the same in Ireland as everywhere else). However, these industrial farming practices are unsustainable, the food produced is of a lower quality and these agribusinesses generally produce far less per hectare than a small independent farmer could. Gradually, Big Ag takes over the land and over-works it, degrading the soil and killing the local biodiversity while small subsistence farmers go out of business and are forced to migrate. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the food gets worse and the soil is destroyed. It has been referred to as a ‘model of death’ by Subcomandante Marcos Zapatistas. This is not far wrong. There are many ways Big Ag has of gaining a global monopoly on food supply:
They cooperate with each other to get better at marginalising small farmers
- Patented GMOs:
They develop GMO crops which are higher in yield but are worse for the soil. They then patent these seeds; the original farmers cannot legally grow these new crops but also cannot use their old ones in the contaminated soil
- Heavy Machinery:
They use high-tech farming equipment; small farmers cannot compete and they are denied access while it also does irreparable damage to soils
- Chemical Farming:
They use artificial fertilisers, pesticides and other chemicals which poison soil and produce less nutritious food
Where local people’s land is not legally protected, as is often the case, they push thousands of small-scale farmers off their land every day
- Corporate Lobbying:
They use their political and financial clout to block, amend or otherwise discourage policies which would protect soils and land-owners rights.
This is how they operate. It’s absurdly unjust and wrong. And we are a far cry from defeating it.
How did this system come to exist? The dominant economic paradigm, based on a neo-liberal capitalist model, thrives on competition. When profits are valued over people, any cooperation or solidarity between farming entities is precluded. Soil needs to be nurtured over time to keep each successive generation fed. Instead of this permaculture approach, the priority is to extract as much financial value from the soil as possible right now before the next guy can. Clearly, this is not sustainable. It is said that good a farmer looks after their crops while a great farmer looks after their soil. Soil is an indispensable natural resource; we need it to grow food and without food, there is no life. Therefore, our treatment of it will decide on whether or not we can survive and prosper. If we continue in the current fashion, The Scientific American estimates that we might only have 60 years of topsoil left. A systemic change is needed. But a change to what?
First, a few definitions:
- Food desert = a place where people do not have access to affordable, nutritious food
- Food security = Knowing where your next meal is coming from i.e. people’s ability to feed themselves
- Food Sovereignty = The right of peoples, communities and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. This can also be considered democracy within the food system.
If communities have the power to decide what they eat and who grows it (i.e. to control food access) then they can become self-sufficient (food sovereign). This make them less vulnerable to the effects of climate change on the global food system. It also puts them in a more independent position internationally; they are not reliant on trade deals in which they have no say. As their food security is within their control, they will implement a far more realistic idea of what their soil can sustainably produce. Cultural appropriateness is an added benefit. Of course, for Big Ag, this type of independence within the food system is bad for business and they will do whatever they can to halt it. Failing that, they will intensify production in order to use as much of these agricultural resources as possible before they are stopped; the clock is ticking!
Food sovereignty would take the power over food supply away from these corporate entities who depend on profit for survival and give it back to the people who depend on the food itself for survival. This is quite a challenge and would require action at every stage of the food supply chain from the grassroots community initiatives all the way up to the UN policy-makers. It would involve national and international centralized governing bodies deciding to allow localised community groups to grow their own food. This, in turn, would involve a recognition of the fact that the local community could do a better and more sustainable job of feeding themselves than the globalised food system.
For food sovereignty to work, it takes communication and cooperation between individuals and communities, between farmers and governments, between rural farmers and urban farmers. Skill and knowledge-sharing are a necessary component. Also necessary is an emphasis on agro-ecological farming practices and a permaculture approach. This system has countless social and ecological benefits with community togetherness, biodiversity enhancement and healthier produce being just a few. It can also have long-term economic benefits as it entails a right but also a responsibility. The right is to produce food and the responsibility is not to dump it at export into a foreign market that cannot handle it. Therefore, the hallmark of a food sovereign state needs to be solidarity between all stakeholders. But this solidarity would not come at the expense of autonomy. Indeed, a major principle of the framework is that it would actively encourage every aspect of food production to be localised and that includes decisions on how best to approach the crisis.
In Ireland, we currently only use about 1% of our land to grow organic vegetables according to Agriland. We import most of our food over-all. This is strange for a country known colloquially as ‘The Emerald Isle’. It makes us very vulnerable to disruptions in the global food supply chain, caused by climate change or financial crisis. These are two things associated with Big Ag. However, at the moment, there is an encouraging trend towards local allotments and community gardens which brings us to YFoE’s own work.
What we do at YFoE
At YFoE, we are involved in several community gardens and have ties with several others. This is an active step we are currently taking to implement a food sovereignty framework by reducing local reliance on food produced globally. We also do awareness-raising campaigns. The aim is to get people to think about the food problems they are soon likely to be affected by and, of course, their capacity and options for actionable changes.
Policy reform is another area in which YFoE engage with this issue. We are constantly on the look out for lobbying events, civil society group actions and relevant petitions which we can support either through attendance or dissemination. An example was the Save Our Soils Campaign petition created as part of European Citizens Initiative (ECI). This petition required Ireland to get over over 8,250 signatures to become officially in favour of asking the European Commission to grant soil the same legal protection as water and air. YFoEI, along with a coalition of other NGOs, were instrumental in distributing this petition which passed in September!
However, it is arguably creative protest where YFoE has the largest capacity to make a meaningful difference. Our soil is a precious resource and control over both its use and the food grown in it is an indispensable right. Public engagement on this was exemplified at Bloom in the Park in June when a cross-section show garden was displayed by FoE as a means to educate the public on soil biodiversity and health. Currently, there is a big focus on how this external awareness-raising and education can be done to the greatest effect so that the greatest number of people can relate. The story of the soil and our food which grows in it is a disheartening one right now but with a greater spread of awareness comes hope.
This story can only end in one of two ways. We change course or we continue to oblivion (global food shortages and mass-starvation). The modern system is incompatible with a sustainable future and, for many, a survivable present! Very soon (probably within this generation), it will be too late to do anything about it. And this food crisis is already beginning, here as well as everywhere else. We are aware of it and, therefore, we have an ability and a duty to respond before it gets out of hand. It can be averted. The soil can be saved and the food supply can be protected. We are already taking steps towards this.
Ultimately, the question we need to be asking ourselves is who would you trust more to ensure you are well-fed? Would it be a corporate agricultural conglomerate or your regional government? A manufacturer of pesticides or the people in your local Grow It Yourself community? Essentially, would you trust the entire global food system or your own two hands? This is the decision between keeping the capitalist approach to food production and moving towards a food sovereignty approach. There can be only one answer.
Arsenault, Chris. "Only 60 Years Of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues". Scientific American. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 20, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil- degradation-continues/.
Finnerty, Conor. "Only 1% Of Irish Farms Grow Vegetables, The Lowest In The EU - Agriland". Agriland. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 20, 2017. http://www.agriland.ie/farming-news/only-1-of-irish-farms-grow-vegetables-the- lowest-in-the-eu/.
Magdoff, Fred and Brian Tokar. Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal. New York: NYU Press, 1994.
 Fred Magdoff, Brian Tokar, Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal (New York: NYU Press, 2001) 191.
 Chris Arsenault, "Only 60 Years Of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues",Scientific American, last modified 2017, accessed November 20, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/.
 Conor Finnerty, "Only 1% Of Irish Farms Grow Vegetables, The Lowest In The EU - Agriland", Agriland, last modified 2017, accessed November 20, 2017, http://www.agriland.ie/farming-news/only-1-of-irish-farms-grow-vegetables-the-lowest-in-the-eu/.