Pollan: ‘Locally grown’ is answer to lack of food

Nov 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: Ask the Experts

In this Q&A with Michael Pollan, Stefano Valentino asks, “What does ‘eat locally grown food’ mean for Africa?”


The motto “Eat Locally Grown Food” echoed by the California-based foodie movement could help solve the food crisis in Africa. One of those who advocates this theory is Michael Pollan, celebrated best-selling food writer and professor at the School of Journalism in Berkeley. What do organic fans in the Bay Area have to do with people starving miles away across the ocean? To understand this bizarre relationship, let’s talk about rice. The Department of Agriculture forecasts rice production in California will reach the record peak of 2.3 million tons by the end of the year (8 percent more than in 2008). Only Arkansas will do better. Multiply that figure by 100 and you will have the number of Africans in the sub-Sahara region that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) still considers chronically hungry: roughly 230 million!

Philanthropists may think that shipping overseas the abundant Californian rice, the most subsidized in 2007 (see the Farm Subsidy Database), could save those souls from starvation. That’s a good example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Why? The funny answer would be that Californian short-grain rice does not fit sub-Saharan long-grain diet. The serious one is that subsidized food aid, far from being a remedy, actually contributes to the global food crisis. Heavily supported by public money, U.S. rice (together with corn) has been over-produced and largely exported to Africa below market price over the last decade — a great deal for poor people who could rely on foreign cheap food instead of having to produce their own. But such a deal didn’t last long. In 2008 world prices skyrocketed and so did the number of empty stomachs. That brings us straight to the point: Unlike what the consumerist propaganda says, the current food crisis is not a matter of lack of food. It is a matter of subsidized food.

Pollan explains how U.S. subsidies have become the worst enemy of African food security. “The Farm Bill, passed in 2007, allows our farmers to sell on the world market below the world price, thus making it harder for African farmers to compete in the production of essential crops for their livelihood, such as soy, cotton, corn”, the author of The Onnivore’s Dilemma argues. “This indirectly applies also to the corn-fed chicken that the U.S. sells to Africa for a cheap price.” Poor countries have asked in vain the international institutions to outlaw these subsidies which are illegal under WTO rules. “Most of the Americans mistakenly think that the cheaper the food is, the better it is because it helps feed the world. They don’t understand that dumping commodities on world markets is not the right way and that their taxes are, indeed, making the poor even more hungry: Producing a lot of food is useless when people do not have money to buy it”, Pollan says.

The big lesson drawn from the rise of food prices which has been striking the world since last year is that relying on imports is dangerous and that each country should produce its own food. What’s happened exactly? According to the journalism professor at Berkeley, “When world prices were low, African farmers could not produce enough food to meet their domestic demand because the World Bank-led reforms had deprived them of the subsidies they used to receive from their governments while the U.S. was still subsidizing its own farmers. So when prices went up and people could no longer afford imported grains, the local production was insufficient to feed them all.” Pollan calls for policies that help smallholder farmers grow for local markets, thus enabling developing countries to have some control over their food destiny, even if that means protecting their markets and supporting their farmers — something the U.S. is very good at. “Westerners like to pretend they are independent, self-made, autonomous, but usually you find a government helping hand behind much of their success”, Pollan points out. “It’s important to understand that some farmers in California do receive subsidies — rice and cotton growers in particular — and most of them benefit from other forms of federal help, such as cheap water, interstate highways, etc. Californian farmers shouldn’t flatter their independence too much.”

The foodie movement, of which Pollan is the unrivalled guru, doesn’t ask for the suppression of subsidies but for their conversion into new forms of incentives encouraging farmers to preserve the land, reduce pollution and invest in food quality rather than food quantity. “I’m not against supporting farmers. To the contrary, eliminating farm support and subsidies is not the answer”, the Berkeley-based organic food paladin concludes. “What we need to do is create incentives through those programs so that farmers produce the kind of food we need. The challenge is to align our farm policies with our health, environmental and global food access goals.”

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