motivations driving food production

George Kent
University of Hawai‘i
Draft of January 27, 2015
George Kent is Professor Emeritus with the University of Hawai'i, having retired from its
Department of Political Science in 2010. He teaches an online course on the Human
Right to Adequate Food as a part-time faculty member with the Centre for Peace and
Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia and also with the
Transformative Social Change Specialization at Saybrook University in California. His
recent books on food policy issues are:
 Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food,
 Global Obligations for the Right to Food,
 Ending Hunger Worldwide, and
 Regulating Infant Formula.
The world already produces more than enough food to support everyone on earth, but “A
billion starve because the wrong food is produced in the wrong places by the wrong
means by the wrong people (Tudge 2013a).” Why does that happen?
The explanation is simple: good basic nutrition for all is not the dominant motivation that
drives food production. Concern for nutrition was the major driver of agriculture from the
time of its invention, but in the last few centuries it has been driven primarily by the
pursuit of income and wealth.
This is well illustrated in the history of islands. In pre-contact Hawai‘i, for example, food
was abundant, and people were healthy. Taro and other foods were produced to meet
people’s needs. One can eat just so much taro. However, with the advent of modernity,
agriculture and nutrition were separated. Settlers came along and decided to produce rice
for profit. There was a large-scale shift from taro to rice production in Hawai'i in the
The rapid displacement of taro by rice led the local newspaper to ask, “where is our taro
to come from?” The disconnect between farming for food and farming for money became
clear. The people whose taro supply was threatened were not the people who benefited
from rice exports.
Historically, local pre-modern, non-industrial food systems had tight links between
agriculture and nutrition. These systems still function in much of the world where
farming is not tied to modern markets:
Only 30% of the world’s food supply is produced on industrial farms
while half of the world’s cultivated food is produced by peasants. More
than 12% comes from hunting and gathering while more than 7% is
produced in city gardens. . . .
There are about 1.5 billion peasant farmers on 380 million farms; 800
million more urban gardens; and 410 million gathering the hidden harvest
of our forests and savannas; 190 million in animal husbandry and well
over 100 million peasant fishers. Many of our world’s farmers are women.
Better than anyone else, peasant farmers feed the hungry . . . (Courtens
2012, based on ETC Group 2009).
Agro-ecology evolved to meet the needs of people and the eco-systems in which they
were embedded, in sustainable—almost timeless—systems. That pre-modern form of
agriculture is alive and doing well in many parts of the world, but it gets little attention.
Its effectiveness in providing good food supplies has been well documented (Inter Pares
2004; Kuhnlein, Erasmus, and Spigelski 2009).
These time-tested modes of food production are losing ground. Back when almost
everyone was indigenous (Rasmussen 2013), farmers were responsive to the needs of
local communities. However, as travel and trade have grown throughout the world, many
food producers became disconnected from their local communities. With the
encouragement of trade, farmers scan the horizons for the highest bidders for their
services. Often, local needs are bypassed.
Many modern agricultural investors are outsiders who take over distressed local farms or
see farmland simply as another commodity to be traded for quick profits. There is
continuity between the actions of settlers and colonists a few centuries ago and modern
land grabbers.
In pre-modern forms of agriculture, there were and are close linkages between producers
and consumers, but in modern agriculture, they are separated. They are separated not only
by distance but also by layers of marketers, processors, and investors who all have their
own distinct interests in the food system.
In modern agriculture, the primary buyers are not the final consumers, but wholesalers
and processors. Large-scale wholesalers are likely to ship the products to the most
lucrative markets, as illustrated by the global fish trade and the fruit and vegetable trade.
The demand for food has grown much faster than can be explained by population growth.
Many people now consume far more than they require to meet their dietary needs for an
active and healthy life. The global obesity epidemic provides ample evidence.
Where food systems used to be driven by people’s dietary needs, now the primary driver
is the desire to make money. There is no satiety on that dimension.
As agriculture is modernized (industrialized), their production is increasingly directed to
people with money, anywhere in the world, rather than to neighbors who just need basic
Food processors’ main interest is in adding economic value to the product, so the system
delivers too much highly processed food. This leads farms and food factories to operate
in ways that exploit their workers, their environment, and their customers. The global
shift of the motivation for agriculture from producing food to producing wealth is well
documented (Kaufman 2012; Lindgren 2013; Rosenthal 2013; a2013a, 2013b).
Advocates of large-scale modern agriculture often justify it by claiming economies of
scale, but the evidence for that is thin. Rather than efficiency in production, the key
advantage of large farms is that they have one owner profiting from the work of machines
and many poorly paid laborers. This is incentive enough for the owners.
The global drive for genetically modified organisms in agriculture is driven by similar
incentives. As Colin Tudge explains:
Overall, after 30 years of concerted endeavour, ultimately at our expense
and with the neglect of matters far more pressing, no GMO food crop has
ever solved a problem that really needs solving that could not have been
solved by conventional means in the same time and at less cost.
The real point behind GMOs is to achieve corporate/big government
control of all agriculture, the biggest by far of all human endeavours. And
this agriculture will be geared not to general wellbeing but to the
maximization of wealth (Tudge 2013a).
Many large farms are profitable only because they operate in unsustainable ways,
externalizing many of their social and environmental costs. The “development” of
modern agriculture is about increasing concentration of control and wealth, not about
increasing productivity, efficiency, or sustainability.
Much large-scale agriculture is profitable because it receives subsidies from government.
Some subsidies are explicit, in the form of cash, and some are hidden in the form of
government services such as road-building, marketing assistance, and research. The
subsidies provide incentives for overproduction of certain commodities, leading to
distortions in the human diet and in local and global economies. The overproduction of
corn in the well-known (Pollan 2007), and the global overproduction of rice has
recently become more visible (Lobello 2013). Unfortunately, the excess food does not go
to those who need it. It is more likely to be turned into a cheap ingredient for processed
food, go to animal feed, or be used to produce biofuel.
What is the purpose of the vast subsidies for large-scale farmers? If the public policy
objective was to improve human nutrition, far more would be achieved by subsidizing
well-managed small farms that produce basic fresh foods (Wiggins and Keats 2013), or
by supporting breastfeeding (Gupta 2013).
It is curious that the international agencies ask how agriculture might make a stronger
contribution to nutrition without at the same time discussing the role of the marketers and
processors who come between the primary producers and the ultimate consumers. In the
global food system, most of the power is in these intermediaries, and they receive the
largest share of the food dollars that are spent. The small-scale producers who supply
their local communities are marginalized in that system, as demonstrated by their low
incomes. In the industrialized food system, consumers might get cheap food, but many
suffer from food insecurity and nutrition-related health issues. The roles of the
intermediaries in the system should be made more visible.
How might it be possible to return food systems to their original mission, providing good
food for everyone? One remedy would be to ensure that local communities are capable of
providing for themselves, whether by producing their own food or by earning enough
money through other means so they can import food. People in local communities are
likely to care about one another’s well being, unlike industrial farmers who never get to
know the final consumers of their products. If communities import or export, it should be
on terms they set together with their trading partners. The key is not local self-sufficiency
under which communities produce all their own food, but self-reliance under which
communities make their own decisions.
This is not a call for simply turning back the clock. The task is to imagine, design, and
implement post-modern food systems--globally, nationally and locally--that draw on the
best of both the pre-modern and modern worlds, and avoid their worst features (Kent
Global and national agencies could help to ensure that local resources are managed
locally, and outsiders are not permitted to harm people, land, and other resources. If that
were done, using appropriate technology, the historic connection between agriculture and
nutrition would be restored. The need now is for social, not technological, innovation.
This work would not be easy, but it would be the right thing to do.
Courtens JP (2012) Blame industrialized agriculture, not organic farmers. Letters to the
Editor. September 13.
ETC Group (2009) Who will feed us? Questions for the food and climate crises.
November. Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration.
Gupta, A (2013) “Breastfeeding needs more aid.” Devex. August 1.
Inter Pares (2004) Community-based food security systems: Local solutions for ending
chronic hunger and promoting rural development. Inter Pares: Ottawa, Canada.
Kaufman F (2012) Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food. Wiley: New York.
Kent, George 2014. Ending Hunger in Caring Communities. University of Hawai'i.
Unpublished manuscript.
Kuhnlein HV, Erasmus B, Spigelski D eds. (2009) Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems:
The Many Dimensions of Culture, Diversity and Environment for Nutrition and
Health. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome, and
Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment: McGill University,
Lindgren S (2013) Bet the farm: Spinning wheat into gold. UTNE Reader.
Lobello, Carmel 2013. “Why Asia is letting millions of tons of extra rice go to waste.”
This Week. July 31.
Pollan, Michael 2007. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New
York: Penguin.
Rasmussen D (2013) “’Non-Indigenous Culture’: Implications of a Historical Anomaly.”
Yes! July 11.
Rosenthal E (2013) As biofuel demand grows, so do Guatemala’s hunger pangs. New
York Times. January 5.
Tudge, Colin 2013a. “The Founding Fables of Industrialised Agriculture.” Independent
Science News. October 30.
Tudge, Colin 2013b. “World agriculture: Living well off the land. [Commentary] World
Nutrition August-September, Vol. 4, No. 7, pp. 514-548.
Wiggins, Steve and Sharada Keats 2013. Smallholder Agriculture’s Contribution to
Better Nutrition. London: Overseas Development Institute.