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Food, Health and Mega Profits

Jane Kelly

 

After a series of food related scandals, such as BSE, E-Coli and foot and mouth disease, followed by revelations about the fat, sugar and salt drenched contents of processed foods, the government has finally recognised that it will be cheaper to try and deal with the health implications now rather than stick to their free market principles. However, free market capitalism will not be able to resolve this crisis. Most ordinary people will only be told part of the story because the food lobby, like the pharmaceutical industry, is very powerful and most will be left unaware of the real causes of many health problems.

 

Their public statements are therefore just the tip of a very unpleasant iceberg.  Global warming may lead to the icebergs melting, drowning low-lying countries in the process: the meltdown of years of eating nutritionally ‘dead’, processed food, will be equally catastrophic – both for individuals and for society as a whole.  The threat of a generation dying before its parents from the effects of what is actually malnutrition, is very real – this in one of the richest countries in the world, with apparent superabundance in our well-stocked supermarkets. The prospect of spiralling health service costs as a result of poor diet has led even this government to recognise that something has to be done urgently. Needless to say the neo-liberal policies of privatisation of the welfare state that have been partly to blame for this situation, are not addressed.

 

In schools, the balanced diet of the post-war period has long been replaced by meals provided by contractors whose motive is wealth not health; vending machines sell sugary snacks and there are adverts for junk foods; playing fields have been sold off to fund education; all these have contributed to a deterioration in children’s health. Nor is the relation between poverty, food and health seriously confronted. For obesity tends to be a disease of poverty, both here and in the US. It is the cheap, processed food that is most harmful, which combined with a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, often not locally available, makes for a very unbalanced diet. While the new middle classes (?), who have more time to read between the lines, turn increasingly to organic foods and nutritional supplements, these are individual strategies not available to most of the working class, for financial reasons. This shows that healthy eating is very much a class issue.

 

The White Paper’s contents

 

The weakest part of the government proposals is of course the section on the food industry itself. Phrases like, ‘the Government intends to discuss with the food industry how it might contribute’; ‘introducing long-term and interim targets for reducing sugar and fat levels’; ‘we will work with the farming and food industries to co-ordinate action’; show the limits of the New Labour approach, which is to appeal to the food industry monopolists to regulate themselves with not even the pretence of attempting any kind of democratic control.

 

The adulteration of food is not of course a new problem. The Co-operative movement was founded in the late 19th century to counter this common practice. However, consciousness of these issues on the left, which existed in the early socialist movements, has today been mostly lost. This is in part due to more state regulation of the food industry, particularly in the post World War 2 period and, in the advanced metropolitan countries at least, the apparent elimination of malnutrition, together with the highly deceptive appearance of superabundance in our supermarkets.

 

Even with tighter controls, through the 20th century and throughout the world, scandals about adulterated food and drink, (cooking oils, wine, for example), littered the headlines. But now food is being adulterated on an industrial scale: pesticides and chemical fertilisers on plants; chemical additives in fizzy drinks; hydrogenated or trans fats and modified starch in processed foods. It is big business. And no amount of ‘targets’ or ‘discussions’ can overcome this one fact - the food industry is about making mega profits and is not in business to keep us healthy. In fact the increasing monopolisation of production, distribution and retailing of goods, dominated by companies in the US and Europe is, along with the concentration of finance capital, an essential component of imperialism.

 

 

Concentration and monopolisation

 

In a series of articles and books Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, [1] shows how this concentration has come about since 1945, and how it has accelerated and is continuing to accelerate in the present period. For example, market share of the top 20 food manufacturers in the US has doubled since 1967, so that now 100 firms account for 80% of value-added in the sector. There is a similar pattern in Europe. Nestle (Switzerland), Unilever (UK and Netherlands) and Kraft (US) are the top three global players with gigantic annual turnovers of 50, 48 and 33 billion dollars respectively. Six of the top ten food producers are US companies, with the rest in Europe.

 

Retailing shows a similar pattern. The list of the top 30 is dominated by US company Wal-Mart with a turnover of 180 billion dollars, three times that of its nearest rival. Seven of the top 30 retailers are US companies, 17 are from Europe.[2] Of the rest two are Japanese and one each from Australia and Canada. The recent cut-throat competition between supermarkets in Britain, with Sainsbury losing out to Asda (Wal-Mart owned) and Tesco, is an example of this process. It is predicted that the market share of the top ten European retailers will increase from 37% to 60% by 2010 if present trends continue.[3]

 

The third and key infrastructural sector is agrochemicals and here monopolisation is at its most advanced. In the late 1980s twenty firms controlled 90% of global production; in the late 1990s this number was reduced to ten; now it is seven. The names are familiar to those who follow the debate on genetic modification – Syngenta, Aventis, Monsanto, BASF, Dow, Bayer and DuPont – for many have diversified into the seed and biotech industries. [4]

 

In the US, the top four beef packers already controlled around a quarter of the market in the 1970s. Today, just 20 feedlots feed half the cattle in the US and these are directly connected to the four processing firms that control 81% of the beef processing either by direct ownership or through formal contracts.

 

Concentration of power over the food system is now remarkable, whether one looks nationally, regionally or globally. A web of contractual relationships turns the farmer into a sub-contractor, providing the labour and often some capital, but never owning the product as it moves through the supply chain.[5]

 

The revolution in the food supply chain during the 20th century has industrialised food on a massive scale; manufacturers and food processors have adopted post-Fordist methods of just-in-time production, made possible by the use of IT to follow food from farm and manufacturer to the supermarket check out desk. Small and medium sized producers and retailers have been squeezed out by increasing monopolisation and the power wielded by the multi-nationals that dominate food production, distribution and retailing leaves governments with neo-liberal agendas little room for manoeuvre.

 

The profits of the global food industry has a terrifying cost for workers. It is not only producing increasingly unhealthy populations in the imperialist heartlands and in those areas adopting a western diet, especially amongst the working classes and the poor, but also for those who work as wage labourers within these industries, illness and poverty wages are the norm. Felicity Lawrence in her book Not On The Label [6] charts both the horrifying processes our food is subjected to before it ends up on our supermarket shelves and plates, and the appalling working and living conditions and ill health experienced by the migrant workers who dominate these industries.

 

Too much coffee

 

A few examples will suffice. If you wondered why so many coffee houses litter the high streets of our towns and cities –the answer is cheap coffee.  After 1990, the Vietnamese Government, forced into restructuring its economy by the World Bank and the IMF, encouraged its farmers to move out of growing the traditional rice crops for the domestic market, into producing coffee. With the heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides, Vietnam had, by 2000, transformed itself into the second largest coffee producer after Brazil. The deforestation, over-fertilisation and widespread irrigation necessary to produce the cheap, Robusta coffee, used mostly in instant coffee or blends, is producing severe environmental and ecological problems. ‘And all this to produce an oversupply of coffee, just as the Brazilians were also bumping up their yields by mechanising and intensifying production with a greater use of agrochemicals.’[7]

 

The result was a collapse in the price of coffee beans: producers in Latin America, Uganda as well as Vietnam, who can no longer afford to send their children to school or the cost of medicines; a banking crisis and governments unable to cover their budgets for education and health – and coffee houses on every street corner in our cities.

 

Expensive salad leaves

 

If you thought eating salad was a healthy option, then think again. Lawrence investigates the growing conditions, harvesting, processing and retailing of the humble salad leaf. This is the one you can buy ready washed in a convenient, modified-atmosphere package, ready-to-serve at your table. You need only add salad dressing. In the bag she discovers five whole leaves, eighteen tiny whole leaves and seven torn pieces of dark green leaves, all for the princely sum of ninety-nine pence.

 

Bagged salads did not exist before 1992. Now two thirds of households buy them regularly. The value of the UK salad vegetable market had in fact grown by 90 per cent between 1992 and 2002. By 2002 it was worth £1.25 billion – more than the total value of the sliced bread market or the breakfast cereal market. This does not mean we are eating 90 per cent more salad – volumes have grown only by 18 per cent over the same period – just that the food industry has found ways to make much more profits out of salad.[8]

 

Before being bagged up, these leaves are routinely washed in chlorine.  According to an industry company director, ‘The chlorine level is usually maintained at a minimum of 50mg per litre – twenty times higher than in the average swimming pool’.[9] The vacuum cushioning which protects the leaves is not just any old air either. Oxygen is reduced from 21 per cent to 3 per cent and carbon dioxide levels raised accordingly. In the process nutritional levels are destroyed so that by the time we are ready-to-eat this commodity there is little Vitamin C or E or any other micronutrient left. In ordinary life after a few days lettuce leaves go limp – but the wonders of modern packing keeps them looking fresh – it is just that there is no nourishment in them any more.

 

During the summer salad production takes place in Britain – Norfolk, Sussex, Lincolnshire, the Vale of Evesham. In late October it moves to Spain, mostly in the Murcia and Andalusia regions. Here, under acres of plastic sheeting stretched over poles, grow the salad vegetables we have come to expect all the year round. But unlike the olives and almonds traditionally grown in such arid areas, these crops are thirsty – so much so that, along with the tourist industry that also guzzles water, the water table here has so reduced that the sea infiltrates the land. The ground water is also polluted by the overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Nitrate levels are ten times higher than WHO safety levels. The National Hydrological Plan for the Ebro Delta (Europe’s second largest wetland) was intended to carry water to this region. But in June this year, after three years of campaigning the scheme was cancelled by the newly elected Socialist Party government.

 

The big agrochemical companies are here too – Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta – and the use of chemicals to grow this unnatural crop on a three harvest a year cycle has reduced the soil to exhaustion - fertilisers make things grow but at the cost of mineral depletion of the soil. To continue this form of agriculture eventually the dead soil has to be excavated and new earth brought in.

 

Migrant workers

 

Also brought in are the migrant workers. Just as on the farmlands of Britain, in Southern Spain migrant workers are used to work these crops.  Segregated from the nearby tourists and most of the local population, over 70,000 migrant labourers live amongst the pesticides and dust in conditions more akin to the nineteenth century. The industry is dependent on cheap and docile labour in excess.

 

We have allowed a structure to emerge that enables our shops to be resupplied at short notice by casual labourers picked up from the roadside whatever the hour in the Costa del Sol, or collected from their Dickensian housing in rural England. These workers are at the mercy of pecking orders as brutal as those in the turn-of-the-century American docks. We are told this has happened because people want cheap food.

 

The paradox is that our fresh food is not cheap any more. By the time it has been packaged and transported, and the retailers have added their margins, it is very expensive. Ninety-nine pence for a few leaves is a lot of money. But 99p for an unlimited supply of servants to wash and pick over it all, hidden not as in the old days below stairs, but in remote caravans or underneath plastic hothouses – that is cheap.[10]

 

What would we do?

 

From the point of view of capital cheaper foods lowers the price of labour and increases profits. However, poor quality, mass-produced food means less healthy workers, which is why governments in Britain and elsewhere constantly exhort us to eat better, take exercise, etc. The contradiction can be solved in the short term by the super exploitation of workers outside the main imperialist centres. Hence

the widespread use of more vulnerable migrant agricultural workers across Europe and beyond.

 

Trade unions and socialist parties ignore this at their peril. Global capital requires a global response. But trade union solidarity on its own will not be enough: we need to challenge the global food monopolies at the political level as well. New Labour’s weak appeals to the food monopolists to regulate themselves will have to be replaced by something more fibrous!  

 

 

 


 

[1] T.Lang & M. Heasman (2004) Food Wars: the global battle for mouths, minds and markets, London, Earthscan

E. Millstone & T. Lang, eds (2003) The Atlas of Food, London, Earthscan

 [2] All figures from 2002. Quoted in Tim Lang, ‘Food Industrialisation and Food Power: Implications for Food Governance’, in Development Policy Review, 2003, (5) pp555-568

[3] The combined European grocery turnover is predicted to grow from Euro 37.1bn in 2000, to Euro 461.7bn by 2005 and Euro 669.7bn by 2010.

 [4] There are strong links between sectors with chemicals linked to both the food industries and to pharmaceuticals. Our ill-health is their super-profits.

 [5] Tim Lang, ‘Food Industrialisation and Food Power: Implications for Food Governance’, in Development Policy Review, 2003, (5) p561

 [6] F.Lawrence (2004) Not On The Label: What Really Goes Into the Food On Your Plate, London, Penguin Books

 [7] F.Lawrence (2004) pp164-5

 [8] F.Lawrence (2004) p29

[9] Quoted in F.Lawrence (2004) p31

 [10] F.Lawrence (2004) p76

 

March 2005

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This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Jane Kelly and originally appeared in Socialist Outlook 5


Copies £2.00 each can be obtained from: PO Box 1109, London, N4 2UU

 

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