The new politics of food & farming

April 8, 2010

The politics of food and agriculture are changing fast in the 21st Century. Farm lobbies remain as dominant as ever over policy within their own sectors in OECD countries, but in the realm of culture, the sophisticated elite that claim to speak for food safety, food quality, social justice, and the environment have put industrial farming squarely on the defensive. The resulting debate has produced few significant policy changes so far in rich countries, but global institutions of several kinds, including the intergovernmental institutions of the UN system, transnational advocacy networks, and of course transnational corporations, have now brought this cultural debate somewhat prematurely into the politics of non-OECD countries as well. The consequences are not always good for the rural poor.

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In writing his new book entitled Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know author Robert Paarlberg says he was asked to speak “truth to power” about the current food system, the surrounding politics and their implications for the livelihoods and overall welfare of its dependents, particularly the rural poor in developing countries. According to Paarlberg, a primary message of the books is that “in industrial and post-industrial societies, even though the current crisis is one of overnutrition and not undernutrition- an obesity crisis- power remains fairly tightly controlled by agricultural producers and food companies, institutions that don’t have the highest incentive to respond to the modern obesity crisis.” Moreover, Paarlberg argues that in Europe and North America those who do recognize the obesity crisis as the problem represent a small minority of citizens who are among the most disconnected not only from those directly suffering from obesity but also agricultural production in general. Their response in large part has been to advocate a return to a “pre-industrial food system that’s organic and local and slow.” Paarlberg sees limited value in advocating such approaches among developing countries in widespread fashion, a viewpoint based largely on his assertion that such systems already exist in many parts of Africa, for example, and are not meeting the basic needs of rural populations living in regions experiencing yields that are one-tenth as high as in rich countries, incomes that are less than a dollar a day, and where one-third of the population is malnourished. This finding leads Paarlberg to conclude that “the alignment of political power (in agricultural production and food politics) isn’t very well connected to the locations of the most important social needs.”