From Abundance to Hunger: The Paradoxes and Absurdities of the Global Food System

A panel of experts in ecology, fishing, agriculture and poverty met today, October 23, at the Salone del Gusto to debate the problems of waste, over-abundance and hunger in our industrialized, globalized and decentralized food system. The conference “From Abundance to Hunger” was held in the Sala Gialla at 12 pm, chaired by Silvio Greco, a marine biologist and the chairman of the Slow Fish Advisory Committee. He opened the discussion with a single shocking statistic: “There are 6 billion people on the planet and 925 million are going hungry, yet we produce enough waste to feed 3 billion people.”

“Food has lost its purpose of feeding people and has become a commodity,” he said. Food production is also one of the most important sources of pollution, and when we waste food we are also wasting the planet.

Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist and president of the Navdanya movement, picked up on this point, saying that 40% of greenhouse gases are directly linked to the industrialization and globalization of the food system, which produces huge amounts of emissions. Instead of big business and monocultures, we need small, biodiverse farms, she said. “Monocultures like soya beans are not solving food problems, but creating them.” She explained why the current system produces such massive amounts of waste, with as much as 50% of American food being wasted. The food industry takes something fresh, packages it, puts a best-before date on it and then has to throw it out. Agricultural mechanization and the mass retail system require uniformity, which adds to waste as any fruit or vegetable that is not the right size must be thrown out.

Shiva went on to describe how in India, food adulteration laws used to keep chemicals out of food. Then, with the support of the United States, the government introduced the Food Safety Act, to put more chemicals into the food. “Diversity is criminalized,” she said. In an autonomous, fresh food economy, you make food and you eat what you make. “Instead we have centralized production and long-distance transport, governed by pseudo food-safety criteria, which make the non-wasteful system look dangerous.” You cannot sell fresh food, she said, it has to be packaged. In an integrated system, animals eat the waste, or it goes back to the soil as compost.

In the “great food swap,” food is exported, imported and reimported back to its country of origin, creating huge profits for agrobusiness, she continued. Farm prices have gone down but food prices are going up, creating more profits. “We need a decommodification of food, ecological farming, decentralization and localization,” she said, calling for “foodsheds,” like the watersheds that protect the water supply. “We must have agricultural zones supporting cities, they must be part of urban planning. Food production must be regionalized and localized.”
The next to speak was Laura Ciacci, spokeswoman for the Italian coalition against poverty, GCAP. She talked about the rise in global consumption, up 28% in the last five years. “To stop consuming is like stopping breathing. We can do it for a short time, but then we start again,” she said. “We need a cultural change.”

Andrea Segrè is the head of the University of Bologna’s Agriculture Faculty and president of Last Minute Market, a project to bring together shops and producers with unsold goods which would otherwise be discarded with people and charities who need them. “Waste is all around us, but we don’t see it,” he said. “It’s in trash cans, behind the scenes at supermarkets, at the bottom of the sea.” October 16th was World Food Day, with the theme “United Against Hunger,” while October 10th was Italy’s Obesity Day. “We are all crazy,” he said. “Between the obese and the hungry, a third of the world’s population is badly nourished. The common denominator is waste.”

“I would like to genetically modify consumers, because we are all lacking the ‘ecological intelligence’ gene,” he said. “Politicians on the right and the left are still talking about GDP and growth. We need a ‘sufficient society.’ We need to evaluate the impact of consumption, reducing quantity and increasing quality.”

Marco De Ponte, the general secretary of Action Aid Italy, also talked about the need to change how people think. “For decades in the NGO world we have been appealing to ideals, to people’s good sentiments, asking them to donate their money and time. But now we need people to do the right thing not just because it is the right thing. We need to move from appealing to ideals to appealing to identity and interests.” He said that biofuels were lauded in the 2000s as a weapon against pollution, but they actually produce poverty by taking up land that could be used for growing food. “And they are planted with subsidies that are paid for by our taxes,” he said, calling for a certification system to ensure that biofuel crops don’t take land away from food growing.

The last to speak was Sergio Marelli, president of the Italian Food Sovereignty Committee, who agreed that consumers have to change their way of thinking. He explored some myths and lies about food production and hunger, for example that hunger is a problem of food production. “Every American wastes three-quarters of the calories needed to feed another person,” he said. During the 2007-2008 food crisis, when prices rose, people thought producers were earning more. “Instead it was the profits of agrobusiness multinationals that went up,” he said. He called for investment in agriculture, citing the successful example of Malawi’s investment in farming. And he decried Monsanto’s Winner Project in post-earthquake Haiti, which provided farmers with a kit of GM seeds and toxic Roundup herbicide. “We need to inform people and remove lies,” he said. “People are fundamentally intelligent and they will make the right choice if provided with truthful information.”

The discussion concluded with questions from the audience. In response to one about food-labeling systems, Segrè talked about how everyone behaves at the supermarket. “We look at the best-before date on yogurt, and if it’s two days away we’ll reach behind and take one that expires in ten days. Then we let it go bad in our own fridge.”