Our Current Food System Is Broken and Unjust—We Need a Paradigm Shift That Values Nutrition as a Human Right

Lambert here: From March, but still relevant.

By Dr. Robert Biel, a Senior Lecturer in he Development Planning Unit of the Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London. Cross-posted from Alternet. Dr. Biel’s complete book, Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City (UCL Press), from which this excerpt is drawn, can be downloaded here (PDF).

There is a sense that the world food system has reached an impasse. Hunger afflicts at least an eighth of the world population, mostly in the global South, but also in the North where austerity policies—which respond to crisis by prioritizing the interests of the wealthy—leave working people hungry. What is even more serious is that even this damaged ‘food security’ cannot be guaranteed into the future. International institutions now recognize that something fundamental must change, a realization embodied in the notion of paradigm shift and further concretized in the form of sustainable intensification.

Such recognition is all the more significant since, for most of its history, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tended to be somewhat unwilling to offend corporate interests. Within the UN system it was mostly the two successive Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler and Olivier de Schutter, who pushed for a more radical and systemic critique. The latter notably placed his authority behind agroecology, a term that implies bringing farming back to an understanding of natural systems, and that forms an important point of reference for this book.

A landmark in official critiques of the ruling food paradigm was the publication of Save and Grow, A New Paradigm of Agriculture—A policymaker’s guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production, which argued specifically for a revitalization of small farms and a recognition of their dignity and essential contribution. Expanding on this, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) further stated: “The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agroecological system…”

This and similar statements embody a welcome reflection on what the shift may entail: terms like ‘mosaics’ and ‘regenerative’ imply a change in how we think, moving away from linear and reductionist approaches and towards a systems perspective.

These ideas are stimulating. Nevertheless, we should ask whether the new paradigm is correctly framed. Not everyone, even among those critical of the old paradigm, would accept that it is, particularly the assumption that the answer is ‘intensification,’ which could imply a merely quantitative solution and contradict the more qualitative issues raised. Indeed, the notion of a ‘new paradigm’ entered the debate quite some time ago, precisely in relation to quality issues. The emphasis on quality arose as a critique of earlier mainstream policies, targeting mainly quantity, which often were critically labelled ‘productivist’ and were typified by the now-discredited Green Revolution in which hybrid crop strains were bred only for quantity of yield.

The question therefore arises as to whether sustainable intensification is merely a cosmetic updating of productivism. Could the problem of feeding the planet be solved in another way?

It might for example be argued that the issue is not insufficient production, but rather cutting waste; indeed, food waste is a crucial issue, commonly estimated to represent between 30% and 50% of food produced.

Distributive Justice as a Critique of Social Ills

Another, complementary, critique would see the problem as one of distribution, rather than production. Plenty of food is produced, but fails to reach those in need.

The issue of access to food is by no means just a matter of technical logistics; it is, ultimately, about distributive justice: decent nutrition should be addressed not through hand-outs or largesse, but as a right.

Distributive issues are, in fact, central to political ecology, which critically questions issues like the distribution of risk…of which food insecurity is an integral part.

One way in which the distributive issue can be framed is in the terminology introduced by Amartya Sen, according to which malnutrition is caused not by deficient production per se, but by a deficit of ‘entitlements’ (the means which enable you to access food). And, in the urban context, food justice has an important spatial angle, expressed in the phenomenon of ‘food deserts.’

More radically still, we could frame distributive justice in the form addressed by Marx: there is no absolute law saying working people must only be paid the minimum cost of subsistence: we have a right to struggle for a larger share in the value we produce; and the struggle for improved access to food would obviously be central to this.

For all the above reasons, we might ask if the ruling bodies have an interest in presenting the problem as one of food production, simply to distract attention away from the awkward structural issues raised by distribution.

Nevertheless, in the author’s view, there are reasons why we might be more favorable to ‘sustainable intensification’ than the argument so far seems to imply.

The key point is that, although it may at the moment be true that there’s enough food ‘around’ (provided we stop wasting it and distribute it fairly), the system which currently produces that food is not ecologically sustainable into the future. It’s not just that this system is failing but, more fundamentally, it is actually its successes which are eroding our future. This is a point where we can again draw from Marx, who predicted such a sustainability crisis, inasmuch as, under capitalism, ‘all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.’ We could demonstrate this practically using the case of chemical fertilizer where, with regard to input, there is clear evidence of diminishing returns—between the beginning of the 1960s and the mid-2000s, global fertilizer inputs per hectare increased 5.5 times for a 2.5 times increase in cereal yield per hectare. With regard to output, nitrogen runoff is a major ecological disaster in terms of ecosystem depletion, which (as revealed by recent research) will retain a persistent effect over several decades, while a very similar point can be made about the long-term persistence of fertilizer-derived phosphorus (Powers, et al., 2016). Marx’ point about the long-lasting sources of fertility is further illustrated by research showing how chemical nitrogen application disrupts the natural symbiotic relationship between plant roots and nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobia).

This is why we need a paradigm-shift in the way food is produced and why it is not sufficient merely to address issues of distribution/waste.

To view the original version of this excerpt, with inline citation, click here.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carl

    In a sense, the food distribution failures are just another failure of the overall economic paradigm, since our distribution of economic resources is equally unjust, i.e. we could afford to house and provide subsistence to the vast majority of the world population but our ideological blinders prevent such.
    The value of intensification and potential pitfall of same is an interesting point.
    I’d like to see some evidence that this is either happening organically on a large enough scale to make a difference, or some realistic pathway to cause it to occur. Without that, I fear it is just another academic exercise (“we could do such and such, but we all know it’s not going to happen”) that litters the innertubes.

  2. Why CIA framed Alger Hiss

    Thanks for this. As a specialized agency FAO is hampered by US capacity-busting in the Secretariat, which attacks any trace of the independent international civil service required by the UN Charter and shoehorns corporate parasites in. Fortunately, FAO participates in ECOSOC, which is harder for the US to wreck because the US government is scared to ratify the ICESCR. The multipolar world is leaving the US behind and institutionalizing the human right to food and water.




    ECOSOC session reports describe what’s been going on outside the US media cone of silence.

    Look at any human right and you see the same pattern. It’s no coincidence that US punching bags Syria, Venezuela, Iran, and Libya all govern to ECOSOC standards for social/economic rights. Though Ivy League indoctrination has got US functionaries brainwashed with formulaic so-called realism, anybody can play with this map and see the fundamental force at work in the world: the USG fighting tooth and nail to keep from being held to any standards.


    1. Vatch

      I know what FAO is, it’s the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (which includes forestry as well as food). But I had to look up the other acronyms. For those who share my ignorance:

      ICESCR: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
      ECOSOC: United Nations Economic and Social Council

  3. Kalen

    Evey time I read NC article again and again hitting the extremely critical issues of highest importance to ordinary people reminds me of Chomsky saying that NYT and Wapo is for elites published by elites peddling their sick psychotic delusion their spending their $billions to live in.

    Food is critical, the food or rather a chemical product substitute for food, that ultimately kills or injures people on a longer time scale (FDA looks at nine months of usage only) is a core of health crisis in the US.

    The low toxicity water and fake food is responsible for vast majority of diseases in the US and that includes genetic alteration or chemical mutation.

    Entire commercial food industry (and tobacco) conspire with medical establishment, hospitals and insurance companies to destroy health of our nation. To make people sick.

    Author correct points to Marx who in volume one of capital address the very issue of how nonexistent food market was artificially created and how small farmers were exterminated removed from their land by government decrees as well as economic financial terrorism of oligarchy to create capitalist workforce and to consolidate the farmland to use industrial methods of growing food substitute.

    1. sharonsj

      My personal anecdotes re food: I developed cataracts in my mid-50s. In my 60s, I developed a debilitating all-over body pain. In doing research, I discovered that bad nutrition could cause both and I started taking a regimen of vitamins to make up for our depleted food. It was too late for the cataracts (I’d already had the surgery), but after taking vitamins for just four days, the body pain disappeared.

      The biggest problems I see are that supermarkets sell 90% processed foods while “fresh” foods are too expensive for average people. Fortunately I live in a rural area, so shortly the farmers markets will start up and I’ll be buying produce there.

      1. Kalen

        Your are right. One honest nutritionist told me not to go to a supermarket alone since I would be liable to moderately poison myself and my family. In the US it take trained professional to do groceries.
        It is disgrace.

        US corporate food mafia rules. In my opinion horrible quality of, not actually food, but a food substitute is responsible for majority of diseases in the US while the rest is caused by enormous social stress and uncertainty associated with US economic decline over last four decades.

        The little dirty secret all over the world is that food prices are controlled everywhere, in most cases explicitly at retail and agriculture subsidies. In the US it is done form political reasons via direct subsidies and additionally by collapsing of enforcement of labor laws, environmental laws and most of all quality of food or straight replacement of food with food substitutes, treating human food as like pig feed.

        If now people were allowed to buy real food with not subsidies they would have to pay at least ten times more for food, like pound of steak for $150 or even more as Japanese are buying from Colorado high mountain cattle farmers whose cattle are tagged and monitored via satellite what they eat and what they drink in the mountains, nothing else is allowed or they will not buy it.

      2. Susan the other

        I have noticed those same dramatic turn-arounds when I take my vitamins – I usually forget for long periods, thinking I’m fine, no problem. Until overall misery hits. One thing, whether true or not, sticks in my mind and it was a report on vitamin A deficiency in children in Africa wherein the stunning conclusion was that if you give a kid one, yes just one, carrot a year it prevents vitamin A deficiency. Of course that same kid also has access throughout the year to other produce. But still. And, yes, I do believe in vitamins – as Rachael Carson once said about nutrition in our food: what carrot grown in what soil?

  4. JimTan

    Very interesting. Regardless of the quantity of food production, only 50-70% is consumed while most of the balance is intentionally destroyed.


    This reminds me of the post yesterday on the USSR, specifically the imagery of the queues. Russians lined up around the block, waiting to pick through the meagerly stocked shelves, making sure not to select more than their quota. This gets contrasted frequently in the West with the oft-repeated tale of a Soviet visitor to the U.S. during the Cold War being taken to a supermarket, where upon they were amazed by the selection and availability, and thus conclude capitalism > communism. However, that well-stocked variety comes at a cost, namely tens of billions of pounds of food thrown away by grocery stores in America every year. I know every time I sift through the bunches of Swiss chard for the one I want at my local grocery store, that several of those bunches will end up never selling and be thrown out. Fixing this waste would be easy for the store; they’d just see how much Swiss chard they sell on average per week, and only order that much every week, maybe a little extra. If they run out, well sorry, come next week, or try the kale.

    But they don’t, precisely because of the kind of reaction the Soviet visitor had. More economical stocking would mean that if that Swiss chard sold out a tad early, even a day or two, that would mean an empty spot on the shelf. The whole store would be more spotted with temporarily empty, or at least sparse, spot. But consumers don’t like that, makes them feel like the store is cheap or failing. And this dynamic doesn’t just hold in the well-to-do neighborhoods, even supermarkets in middle and lower class neighborhoods practice this. The truly flabbergasting part of this is that the supermarkets have to factor in the cost of the wasted food into their pricing so they still can turn a profit. Which means consumers are willing to pay for billions of pounds of food that they will not eat, nay, no one will eat, just so they can have the aesthetics of opulence.

    1. MtnLife

      Our local grocer puts their veggies that are no longer sellable out onto their loading dock for the locals to take as chicken and pig fodder. Some of the local restaurants do the same and often include plate scrapings. At least this way any food not eaten isn’t totally wasted.

      1. polecat

        That’s a really good thing for grocers, and restaurants to do … also reducing their waste management costs it would seem ..

  6. Susan the other

    Here’s my thing about distribution: All food should be grown locally. As local as possible and for as long a duration throughout the year as possible, without industrializing the process, so as to insure a constant supply. Locally. I’m almost mystical about it because if you live and drink and breathe locally so do the plants that grow there and those plants will have slight variations in them which are good for you. and etc.

  7. Vatch

    This is a point where we can again draw from Marx, who predicted such a sustainability crisis, inasmuch as, under capitalism, ‘all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.’

    So Marx predicted a sustainability crisis? Well, of course he was correct, and interestingly, Malthus, whom Marx criticized, predicted it before Marx was even born.

    1. different clue

      And of course Marx loathed and hated peasants, who could do the small-farm on-site-observer type of detailed management a sustainable-intensified agro-horticulture would need. I believe Marx decreed the ultimate end state for agriculture would be vast social plantations manned and worked by “labor armies”.

      Is my memory wrong?

  8. chicagogal

    Here in relatively wealthy Dupage County Illinois, grocery stores and restaurants donate their leftovers to local food pantries who are trying to offer fresh produce to their clients. As a former (hopefully!) food pantry user, I can attest that a good amount of the produce available was rotting and those pieces that weren’t at the time you put them in your box, were by the time you got home! Sometimes the food was so bad I would take the worst items and throw them out so others wouldn’t take them and get sick.

    I always wondered how many people get food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses from taking such bottom of the barrel food since they aren’t in a position to complain or sue someone, and who would they sue anyway?

    As such a rich country, surely we can do better for those who need help the most?

  9. different clue

    To paraphrase William Gibson . . .

    The paradigm shift is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed.

  10. Joe Kapoe

    regarding the political/economic decline this site has documented so well, I sense the decline of organised labor as being one of the most significant factors contributing to the business-financial-corporate takeover of the government. Going back farther in history, like early1900s, I’ve heard about policies designed to break the political power of the farm vote. Remember, only 100 years ago plus or minus, U.S. population was predominantly rural – family farms were very widespread, they were naturally self reliant and independent thinking in terms of politics. The elites wanted to make factory jobs in the city more attractive than this independent and self reliant lifestyle — it’s easier to control wage slaves than self reliant farmers.

    The stories I’ve heard about cooperative movements which were big in rural areas, and phenomena of organising like the Non Partisan League in the northern plains states around late 1800s are inspiring, as we desperately need a good dose of these kind of populist efforts.

    It’s hard to imagine a major shift back towards large numbers of people working small farms but this strikes me as part of a needed paradigm shift as noted, a counterweight to issues such as food insecurity, as well as empowering people to stand up to the predatory class hell bent on ruining the ecosphere.

    1. different clue

      There are small numbers of people going back to small amounts of land around or near the outskirts of major metro areas . . . starting out new little often-organic farms. If/as more city-siders buy more of their food from new-emerging local or semi-local small farms or mini-farms, more people will feel encouraged to try entering this emerging market and social niche.

      This may be one of those slow-power-struggle processes which will tip the power balance very slowly until it kicks the power balance over very suddenly.

  11. Wade Riddick

    Can we also discuss the issue of widespread malnutrition in the so-called advanced world? Malnutrition – as in *improper* nutrition – is a major source of the cancer, obesity, heart disease and diabetes epidemics – not to mention a factor in all manner of other insulin-resistant and inflammatory diseases (PCOS, autism, Celiac).

    This article is about calories but not every calorie is the same. We processed fiber out of out diets to churn out cheap, addictive highs. This damages the microbiome in our guts – essentially cramming corporate monoculture down our very guts. Without it, we don’t make enough GABA, GLP-1, opiates, cannabinoids and numerous other regulators of our metabolism and immunity. The corporate solution hasn’t been to restore these signaling systems back to normal but instead to sell us unnecessary, expensive replacements – Lyrica for lost GABA (diabetic neuropathy), Byetta for incretins (diabetes) or pot for cannabinoids (cancer).

    It does harken back to yesterday’s post about the USSR. We keep forgetting the dominant theme – and the most important judicial shift of our generation – corporate personhood. Companies aren’t people. Money isn’t speech. Fraud and lying aren’t liberty. Liberty requires responsibility and accountability. By granting businesses rights and representation, the courts have taken it away from actual citizens – including property rights. That is why we really do live in a peculiar form of communist system.

    Letting ISPs trespass into our internet browsing history is but one of the most recent examples. As any lawyer will tell you, the most fundamental power at the heart of ownership is the right to exclude others from the use of your property. When was the last time your heard this full-throated capitalist defense in the context of the information economy? Could it be so many companies want to shove us, kicking and screaming, into the insecure Internet-of-Things, sharing economy because they are all, in their hearts, that most grievous of anti-capitalist creatures, a socialist?

    It’s no mistake that the food web is as dangerous, toxic and insecure to its inhabitants as the world-wide web.

    1. different clue

      If these black hat corporate perpetrators want to share our things with themselves against our will, and wish to privatize those taken-over our-things of ours for their own money-gain, they are not socialist.
      We could call them Yeltsinist or piratist or looterist or enclosurist or some such thing. But not socialist.

    2. different clue

      Yes, malnutrition, anti-nutrition and counter-nutrition found in todays Corporate ShitFood are worthy of discussion. Unless/until the whole social and biological foodscape is reconfigured for nutrition and quality and access; knowledgeable and knowledge-seeking individuals and groups will have to seek out what adequate-nutrition and high-nutrition food exists. . . . and how to handle it and prepare it.

      It exists and it is findable out there.

    3. tony

      First world malnutrition just seems like a value question to me, and I don’t feel right telling others what they should value. Plenty of people are willing to invest in cars, holidays, junk food etc. while neglecting their health and the health of their children.

  12. bmeisen

    nutrition as a right is a legal nightmare and a windfall for ambulance chasers who can’t keep up with the competition.

    1. bmeisen

      yes we have a right to struggle, i.e. argue for political programs. no we do not have a right to fresh and green leafy vegetables.

      by the way, bet Bayer/Monsanto are all for the right to nutrition.

  13. Bawb the Revelator

    And from the Monsanto board room, chants repeating “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!” were noted globally

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