Sustainable Food and Corporate Retail

'Corporate involvement in the process of food distribution causes changes in eating habits and farming patterns. This creates not just unsustainable forms of production that are ecologically devastating, but also unhealthy consumption choices'.

by Jayati Ghosh

One of the things we really need to remember when looking at the issue of sustainable agriculture is just how much corporate involvement in the process of food distribution causes changes in eating habits and farming patterns. This creates not just unsustainable forms of production that are ecologically devastating, but also unhealthy consumption choices. In the developed world, this has been effectively documented by books like Eric Schlosser's 'Fast Food Nation' and Michael Pollan's 'The Omnivore's Dilemma'.

Of course the concern is that, powerful as these arguments are, they have really not been picked up by policy makers and the population at large, to cause enough of a shift in strategies to address this. Part of the problem is that the large and growing market power of agribusiness effectively prevents such a shift. In fact, food consumption pattern as well as farming practices are also changing fast in the developing world as well as in transition countries. This is likely to have huge implications for sustainability of not just agriculture but even human life on the planet in the future. But these trends are still barely recognised and still less are they concerns of policymakers.

I have recently visited Tallinn, Estonia - a charming city which contains a lovely UNESCO heritage site in the form of its cobblestoned Old City, and largest still-preserved Hanseatic trading centre. The proliferation of malls and supermarkets around the city centre is striking, as is the related almost complete absence of 'mom and pop' or family run shops that could deliver essential items to the neighbourhood. Like much else in the Baltic transition economies, the shift from Soviet-style control to almost complete decontrol in all sectors was very rapid in Estonia, and nowhere is this more evident that in food retail.

This has led to a striking breakdown of any real link between local production and the supply of food. Remarkably for a coastal country, there is hardly any local fish to be had - it is largely imported. The global supply chain has become the source of most food and the European market has become the destination of food production: all mediated by large chains that deal in buying from farmers (often in contract farming arrangements that specify inputs and crops beforehand) and in food distribution down to retail outlets.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that farmers have not gained from this even in a period of rising food prices, as they are powerless relative to the large traders who now control the market. And consumers complain about the rising prices of food, which the supposedly more efficient supermarkets have not prevented at all. According to locals, this has also led to more unsustainable farming practices.

In other developing countries, despite this adverse international evidence, the pressure to introduce corporate retail (especially by multinational food and retail chains) is growing. In India, for example, the argument is made that this will lead to more efficient and less wasteful use of the production. But careful studies, including by Rahul Goswami, show that calculations of efficiency based only on marketed output really miss the mark, because they do not include the varied uses of by-products by farmers. Biomass is used extensively and very scrupulously by most small cultivators, but industrial style farming tends to negate it and does not even measure it.

Goswami notes the interdependence between biological resources, from the genetic to the landscape level, and long-standing traditions, practices and knowledge for adaptation to environmental change and sustainable use of biodiversity. Interdependence gives no place to waste or loss, and that principle governs India's most resilient and adaptive farming systems. But this, and much more bedsides, is increasingly threatened by the move to shift to more corporate control of agriculture.


 Jayati Ghosh is Professor of Economics and also the current Chairperson at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, India. Her specialities include globalization, international finance, employment patterns in developing countries, macroeconomic policy, and issues related to gender and development. She was the principal author of the West Bengal Human Development Report which has received the UNDP Prize for excellence in analysis.



Photo: Alaivani/flickr