Farm to fork

Feeding Frenzy: The New Politics of Food, by Paul McMahon, Profile, RRP£12.99, 320 pages

Land grabs are nothing new. Consider Ireland, where the mass transfer of ownership to settlers after Cromwell’s conquest of 1653 resulted in an agricultural system geared towards trade and notoriously unresponsive to local needs. Even during the Great Famine of 1845-52, food exports did not suffer; at its height, half a million pigs were shipped abroad in a single year.

This “nightmare scenario”, warns Paul McMahon in Feeding Frenzy, could be unfolding in a number of African countries. McMahon, a former adviser to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation who runs his own sustainable agriculture consultancy, has written an illuminating history that culminates in the current scramble to secure control of farmland. Along the way, we are served a course of depressing statistics.

The world’s population, for example, is growing by 219,000 a day; by 2050, there will be 9.3bn of us. Meanwhile, what McMahon calls “the advanced breadbasket countries” of North America and Europe are converting more and more food into biofuel: in 2012, 40 per cent of the US maize crop ended up as ethanol.

Making matters worse, argues McMahon, are “the true powers behind the global food system” – commodity trading houses such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Louis Dreyfus, Bunge and Glencore. Once content to monopolise the processed food markets, these giants now seek control of the entire food supply chain, “from farm to fork”.

In the absence of government intervention to break up monopolies, McMahon’s fear is that captive supply chains will leave less food available for open exchange. Throw into the mix more extreme weather events, uncontrolled financial speculation and the coupling of grain and energy prices, and it becomes hard not to worry about the potential for shortages and worse.

Yet McMahon’s answer to what he calls the “nine billion person question” tips towards the optimistic. Population growth is not the problem: we already produce enough food to feed 9bn, but 30 per cent is lost either due to bad storage and faulty handling, or because it is so cheap that people throw it away. A third of all crops is used to feed animals, which in turn help fatten an increasingly obese population in North America and Europe.

For McMahon, Africa represents the biggest opportunity: if governments put smallholder farmers at the centre of their agricultural strategy, the continent could triple current yields. “Africa”, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has said, “has an opportunity not only to feed itself, but to feed the world.” Let us hope it is taken.

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