Cannibalism is a glory and a wonder. In Brazil in the last century it was used as a metaphor for postcoloniality; the Brazilian was supposed to eat up the Europeans and thus absorb everything good about them without being dominated by them. (This metaphor was handy for the Americans, who ate up Brazil like a sugar-sprinkled doughnut while Brazilian intellectuals were bragging about how free they were from foreign influence.) In Lesotho during the crises of the early nineteenth century rumours of cannibalism flooded the country, rumours which endure even today. Evidently bad times breed cannibalism (and cannibals also bring bad times, especially for the people they eat).
But now there is a worldwide food crisis. The cost of food has shot up and the force of gravity has been repealed. Luckily, good restaurant prices are little higher than they were (you don’t pay for food, you pay for status, and the kind of person who goes to such restaurants has the moolah to pay twice as much with no crisis). The rich are getting a lot more money without spending proportionately more. They are devouring our bank accounts through our food budgets. This puts a more realistic spin on the anarchic early-1980s British movie, Eat The Rich, or on the conclusion of Godard’s Le Weekend; the rich are actually eating us. As per usual.
Outside movieland, the truth is — well, similar to that, only of course, more complicated. It’s a problem which can be solved, but with a lot of difficulty. So therefore few people are calling for any solutions. Fuhgeddaboudit! COSATU, for instance, demands action against food companies which are allegedly colluding to keep prices high. Doubtless when COSATU’s leaders find that their houses are on fire, they go straight out and picket the nearest match factory. (The Creator realises that COSATU needs to keep its membership dynamised without any actual political education; this is a process which understandably requires a lot of bullshitting.) More influential people call for privatisation of something, or deregulation of something else, and blame the government, because they want more money and power, and blaming the government is cost-free.
Given how much the Great and Good in our society have royally stuffed things up, their opinions are never reliable, but the Great and Good own the newspapers and most of the media. (How they constantly shriek about the horrid existence of the SABC! However, they will change their tune once they control it.) The Great and Good are not criticised in the media. Therefore it has to happen here.
The food crisis is caused by the convergence of the effects of a series of bad decisions, all of which were taken because some corrupt rich person somewhere stood to make a profit out of it.
(The Creator apologises for shocking everybody.)
The biggest bad decision was a combination of a reluctance by Western investors to invest in Africa and other impoverished parts of the world, and a determination by the leaders of African and other impoverished nations to rob their people in order to enrich themselves. Both are products of identical Western capitalist greed. One result is that African agriculture is unproductive — even where it is highly capitalised it is unsustainable. Across much of the world, agriculture is in crisis because of under-investment or mis-investment. Agriculture is seemingly (officially) not profitable except when performed on a massive monocultural industrial scale, and it is easiest to do this in developed nations. When the people of impoverished countries are upset, it is the city people who count, since they can march on State House; the people on the land usually do not matter. Hence poor countries tend not to invest in the countryside, preferring to bribe the inhabitants of the cities.
All this is a product of greed, to which capitalism is the biggest contributor.
Then we come to the specific problems which afflict us now that we already have this horrible discrepancy between rich and poor nations. Why is the system not working?
The obvious problem is the world commodity market. There shouldn’t be one. There should, actually, be national commodity markets, some of which sell their surplus produce on a wider market. Instead, as Thomas Friedman said, the world is flat — meaning that the capitalist imperialist steamroller has run over it and squashed it into a bloody pulp some of which can be scraped up and put to use by the owners of said steamroller.
O dear, the Creator is driving under the influence of metaphors again. But, not really. Once upon a time in South Africa, agricultural produce was all sold to the government which then sold it to the companies who sold it to the consumer. Hence the government could decide if spare food should be stored or sold. The producers got a guaranteed price which could be subsidised in bad times or used to subsidise the government in good times. Overproduction did not lead to bankruptcy any more than droughts. So it was supposed to work, and while it was often corrupt and dysfunctional, it at least had the potential of being efficient in preserving people working the land in order to feed the nation.
But that went out of the window in the 1980s (no, it wasn’t the evil ANC, despite what you hear). Even before the World Trade Organisation was founded, farmers were expected to sell their goods directly to massive bureaucratic organisations — but because these massive bureaucratic organisations were privately owned, none of the media (themselves privately owned by massive bureaucratic organisations) complained. Instead, people like Friedman were paid lavishly to celebrate and to explain that it was good for the consumer. So it was, while the farmers were ground under the bureaucratic heel without redress — since the companies buying their goods were in other countries. Smaller companies, sensibly, refused to pay more than the bigger companies — why should they? So commodity prices were pushed down, and the consumers benefited — or thought they did.
But now that conditions have changed, the cost of producing and transporting food has increased and there is nobody to subsidise the costs. Nor is it possible for the corporations to grind the farmers further without running the risk of driving them off the land. Small farmers have already been crushed and the bulk of the farms are themselves corporatised. So the price skyrockets with nothing to hold it down, and the consumers whine and wail and the corporate media explain that there is nothing that they can do (to be precise, nothing short of reducing either the profits of the company, or the perquisites of corporate bosses and their immediate lackeys, the capitalist fat of the land).
They promised that everything would be better once the system was changed to benefit the owners of the system rather than the producers of goods. This was a lie, of course. It seemed better for a while, just as a pension scheme based on the stock exchange seems better than a normal one based on company input, when the stock exchange prices are rising. But when stock exchange prices are falling (as they are with painful speed at the moment) then such a pension scheme is revealed as a fraud, although the trouble is that it is much too late to do anything about it. Similarly, it will be very difficult to restructure the food marketing system so as to bring prices down to where they would have been had we not allowed it to be handed over to crooked businesspeople.
It might be possible to do something; for instance, to forbid the export of food, as has been done in Brazil. The problem is, however, that crops are sold many months ahead. Another problem is that there are not necessarily other marketing structures which can replace the foreign buyers. Therefore, such a decision will not solve the problem at once, nor will it solve the problem by itself. We will still have to restructure our marketing arrangements.
But this would be controversial, wouldn’t it? Specifically, if food is going to be brought under control, why shouldn’t other goods also be brought under control? People are already wondering why it isn’t possible to subsidise petrol, diesel and paraffin. (That, again, is because the fuel price, although not deregulated, has in recent decades been allowed to drift up to whatever the market would bear. The state could subsidise fuel, just as it used to subsidise food.) But in that case, the deluge. Why not regulate everything? Why allow businesspeople to rob everybody as a result of factors which the businesspeople do not control, but which the system is rigged to enable them to exploit? Therefore, big business doesn’t want the government to do anything effective.
Besides, it would create the impression that the public can turn to the government for help, and that’s the last thing that big business wants the public to think. At the moment the chief objective of big business is to discredit government as much as possible. (Hence their promotion of Jacob Zuma.) Neither of the edges of this particular sword appeals to big business. Government knows this. Government is always afraid of big business, and particularly now when big business can pick whichever faction in the ANC it chooses to wield as a club over the other factions, using money as the lead in the clubhead. So, once again, government chooses to do nothing.
The unusual thing is that this time the left chooses to do nothing as well.
In the background, of course, are two related problems to the food crisis which are making things worse. These are the growth of fuel-from-food and the growth of bourgeois eating practices within the global proletariat.
One of the biggest and most profitable industries in the world is, of course, the oil industry. The oil industry has hooked us all on liquid-fuelled transport systems. To keep those systems alive as long as possible, the oil industry needs to promote liquid fuels. Hence the promotion of alcohol fuels which can be mixed with petrol, or with vegetable oils which can be mixed with diesel. Thus people can be conned into continuing to use oil-fuelled transport systems. The fact that this means taking vast amounts of food and turning it into fuel, or taking farms which could be used for growing food and putting them under fuel-oriented seed crops, does not bother the people making the profit. As a result, the food problem becomes just a little bigger (while, of course, global warming grows just a tiny bit worse).
Probably a bigger problem, though, are the cows and pigs in the factory-farms beside the roads used by those liquid-fuelled transport systems. These animals have to be fed on something. Apart from being fed on each other, they are mostly fed on food which is relatively easy to transport, meaning that it has to be food of high nutritional value. In other words, food which could go to humans; however, it is more profitable to feed that food to animals whose meat can be sold at a higher price than the price of the food the animals ate.
One of the minor causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the premium on meat dishes. The USSR’s elite decided to provide more meat to the public, thus proving that life was better, against all other evidence. But it couldn’t provide more grain, because its agricultural industry was so inefficient. So the USSR started importing grain, paying for it by exporting oil. Then the oil price fell and it had no means of paying for the grain.
The world is in a similar position; people want meat, partly to compensate for the unlovely life we live, and people want to sell meat, because of all the money it provides. So we dump food that humans could eat into the throats of meat animals. Fast food. Tasteless junk food that makes us fat. Toxic food stuffed with bizarre organic chemicals which gets into our metabolism and does who-knows-what to us. Luckily, meat is slowly becoming too expensive to afford.
Maybe we should start eating each other, starting, preferably, with the privatisers, the oil industry and the owners of the meat factories . . .