The bitter, untold and detrimental truth about the Agribusiness

This post is basically a summary of another chapter in the book that I am reading these days to understand world hunger and starvation. The name of the book is "How the other half dies" authored by Susan George. 

" Agribusiness was a term coined by Harvard Business School Professor Ray A. Goldberg. He defines it as "all production and distribution of farm supplies, production operations on farms and storage, processing and distribution of farm commodities and processed foods". Some examples would be Nestles, Uniliver, General Foods, Ralston Purnia, Quaker Oats, Swift & Armor etc. 

The agribusiness that concern us more in the context of the world hunger crisis are the ones that use a host country's land and labour for producing food - rarely to satisfy local needs, almost always for export to the developed countries' market that will pay the most for their produce. While investment in manufacturing abroad is gradually becoming less profitable, a new world food prices make investment in agriculture in the UDCs  (under developed countries) a very attractive proposition. Public opinion is much slower to smell the sweet odour of a new and relatively unexploited field for profits than the quivering and alert noses of the MNCs. As we have understood from previous posts that hunger and starvation is not a population problem, it is a social condition that comes due to lack of employment and increasing poverty. There is already plenty of evidence to suggest that agribusiness is capable of destroying everything it touches: local employment patterns, local food-crop production, consumer tastes, even village and traditional family structures. 

On the contrary, agribusiness see themselves as the world's salvation, capable of solving the problem of world hunger. And the heads of agribusiness though do admit that "private business can attack malnutrition, not starvation". While agribusiness is all for the profit motive, it is less enthusiastic about taking commercial risks in the 'most underdeveloped countries'. 

One of the important things to understand about agribusiness is their advertisement and promotion. In the agribusiness world they care very little what you eat so long as they can persuade you to buy it. R&D expenditures on food actually decrease proportionally to sales while advertising increases. If the most profitable foods agribusiness makes are the most highly processed, this is no accident. They have to be to sustain the vertical integration that includes nationwide distribution and long storage periods. Food industry spends more on advertising and less on research than any other industry in America. It seems fair to conclude that agribusiness is not the most thrifty and wholesome way that could be found to feed people, nor to protect the interests of the majority of small farmers- those who are left-against the interests of huge corporate processors. 

American consumers are considered to be the richest in the world, but if the quality of what they eat is any indication of wealth, then they are poor indeed. There has been marked evidence of milk consumption going down and that of soft drinks going up, less and less of fruits and vegetables and more and more of junk food. All this means profits for the agribusiness. It would be a mistake to assume that this phenomenon is unique only to US. Processed-food purveyors pick their markets carefully. They also invest in local production in countries with relatively high per capita incomes where consumers can be taught to pick convenience foods over raw foodstuff. 

Agribusiness is harmful to small, family-type farms and to consumers in the affluent countries.  Interviews of foreign food firm heads in India showed that their products were invariably aimed at upper-income-level consumers. It is a sad fact that the most nutritional food products marketed by commercial firms are aimed at the segment of society least in need of them. The poor buy the same because they are influenced by the companies' barrage of advertising. This has led to "Commerciogenic Malnutrition" : result of teaching the people that their traditional foods are somehow inferior ! 

Agribusiness is basically antagonistic to national control over local food production and marketing; thus governments that welcome it should do so in the full knowledge that what is raised will be largely exported to paying customers, with only a small residue left out for the local middle class. Rich sources of protein like fishmeal, which could perfectly well be used for human food are processed and exported by agribusinesses to feed America's 35 million dogs and its 30 million cats. any rich mongrel or pampered cat is a better customer for agribusiness than a poor human being. 

More and more land in the UDCs is devoted to greater and greater quantities of luxury food products that fewer and fewer people, proportionally, can afford. 

Most of the agribusiness companies promote food which is not healthy, highly processed and disguised to look healthier than natural alternatives. Take for example, Nestles baby food. Nestles as a company has been found to be encouraging African mothers to abandon breastfeeding of their children in favour of formulating milk feeding. A quarter or a third of husband's salary goes on just feeding this one infant with artificial milk. So in fact they buy still buy milk (their breast milk has dried up) but they don't buy adequate quantities. Their food promotion is a scandal!

However, there are positive stories also in which agribusiness has shown that business could make development if social goals, not merely profitability were present in the project from the drawing board to actual operation. The example is Mumias sugar complex in Western Kenya, we shall learn more about it in the next blog post. 

Agribusiness bears a special responsibility for the present food crisis. While food deficits and malnutrition have grown worse during the past ten years, the accelerated growth rate and prosperity of the MNCs during the same period has been inversely proportional to the increase of scarcity. 

This phenomenon is only paradoxical on the surface; the goal of agribusiness is not to increase food resources, not to contribute to their equitable distribution, nor yet to adapt existing technology to the conditions of particular countries. Their goal is first and foremost to increase their markets, and their commercial outlets, to realize maximum production-costs reduction and to increase their profits. This is a truism, but should be made clear. 

Food workers of developing countries have long and bitter experience of this capability. There are great numbers of agribusiness workers whose low salaries, substandard housing, poor health and squalid working conditions are such that hunger, malnutrition and under-nourishment for them and for their families are commonplace. If so many multinational firms do not even allow their own workers to feed themselves properly, then how can we imagine for a moment that they can bring a decent diet to everyone?  " (Entirely from book)

All this makes me wonder "what kind of world am I living in?".  A world in which profit making is acceptable at the cost health of its people and their loss of small employment. The advertisement for agribusiness has certainly spread insanity among people. As aware humans we must be conscious of our choices of purchase and from where to purchase. This chapter has led me to so many questions in side of me. Never had I wondered that the e-commerce way to order fruits and vegetables online is an anathema to local vegetable grocery store people. Never had I wondered that this "convenience" has actually led to "inconvenience" to so many other people and also to the consumers (from health point of view). Vegetables in market early morning are obviously fresh than the ones which are stored in halls cemented with all sort of chemicals to keep them fresh and edible. It has led to increased vehicles on roads, which use more and more fuel and lead to greater and greater pollution. No one seems to have time today to go out and buy vegetables, we are all living super-busy lives! In order to save time, we have allowed our health and local-business to be at stake. On the contrary, I also wonder that employment has increased ! Then is it some sort of trade-off? Certainly, then it is not a black and white situation. 

As I am growing in my life, I am increasingly discovering the contradictory nature of truths of life! It is unsettling to a mind which has not yet been polluted by the false air prevalent all around. It is imperative to be aware of our roots, from where we have come. This makes me so grateful for the way my parents have brought me up, in an environment of absolute, unbending strictness towards natural way to live and eat. I owe them my gratitude. I consider myself sometimes extremely fortunate to have seen and lived in both the worlds : in village and in city, and I think the village aspect is still very close to my heart. "simple living, high thinking" . 

God Bless You  All. 


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