OFN handbook


Symptoms and root causes for a broken food system

A third of all food produced is wasted. 842 million people are starving. We have lost 75% of our biodiversity. In the US there are 8 times more antibiotics sold for industrial farming than to hospitals. Cancers and other health issues are booming. There are less and less nutrients in food. Climate change threatens the future of our planet. There are 400 dead zones in the ocean, with no marine life left. Food packagings contribute to that 7th continent made of waste, in the middle of the ocean. 370 000 farmers commit suicide every year using pesticides. … So one must ask the question: isn’t the food system broken?
We can mention two major root causes for all those negative externalities:
  • Physical and psychological disconnection: with urbanisation, globalisation, and the centralisation of the food distribution system, there are today a lot of middlemen between us and our food. Physical disconnection has brought mental disconnection. If you go to a supermarket, you don’t know who has produced the food, how it has been made, you don’t realise all the effort and energy that are necessary to produce it. We don’t value our food so much, because we have lost awareness about how it’s grown. So we throw it away very easily. On average in Europe, most of the food wastes comes from the households (42%).
  • Centralisation, concentration and integration: All along the food system, there has been during the past decades a movement of mergers and acquisitions, horizontal as well as vertical integration, that has concentrated the power in the hand of very few big corporations. Half of the food consumed on the planet is produced by 15% of the farms, industrial intensive farms. The number of farmers is dramatically decreasing, -30% in Norway over the last 10 years, -50% in France over the last 20 years, the farms becoming bigger and bigger through acquisitions. The Berne declaration, a Swiss NGO, has published a tremendous report, Agropoly, showing how the global food system is in the hands of a few big corporations, and how this high concentration and integration produces those negative externalities. To give just one example, the same companies make the seed and the pesticides (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, DuPont), so they make sure the seeds need pesticides, like GMOs for example. The seeds don’t reproduce reliably, and the firms own intellectual property right on them, so farmers are forced to buy seeds each year, they can’t save nor exchange them. This situation has not only consequences on health and environment, but also on the survival of the farmers, who find themselves totally dependant of those big corporations. Regarding distribution, the situation is not better: in 2011 in the EU, the largest five retailers in every country had a combined market share of more than 60% in 13 member states, with market concentration exceeding sometimes 80%. In most countries, however, market concentration among two or three major retailers is the norm: 2 supermarket chains control over 70% of the market in Australia in 2013. 3 groups hold 55.5% of the market in Canada in 2011. Their huge power as buyers gives those big retailers the ability to set the terms under which the food supply chain operates.