Blog by Joris Lohman about the value of food and our connection to the African foodsystem.
By Joris Lohman
Last februari, (Former) secretary of State, Henk Bleker, held the keynote at the start of a debate series, held in de Rode Hoed in Amserdam called ‘it’s food, stupid!’. Entering the stage, he held a bag of green beans from one of Hollands biggest supermarket chains, saying:
‘These beans are from Kenya. It’s the famous example used by proponents of a locally organized food system: beans from Kenya are wrong! There’s too many food miles in there, what about the environment? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am here tonight to tell you I’m proud of this product. It’s a great example of Dutch entrepreneurship. Last week, I visited the farm in Kenya. It is a big, high tec farm, producing healthy, sustainable products. The farm offers jobs to hundreds of local farmers. The point I’d like to make here, these beans are not what they might seem. Sustainability has many faces.’
Needless to say, the leftish Amsterdam crowd did not agree. To make things worse, mister Bleker even left his beans on the stage. How’s that for foodwaste…
Is it true that Dutch-Kenyan beans are evil, like most environmentalist would like you to believe? There’s lots of jobs created for the local population. And I reckon a Dutch hi-tec farm is probably more efficient, and maybe even puts less pressure on the local environment than a smallholder farm would do.
But what about the land? Didn’t these local workers own the land, before the arrival of the Dutch farmer? What does this mean for small-scale farmers in the neighborhood? What do the local farmers earn? You could also label these practices as modern colonialism. And why? Because we want to eat green beans, year round, and we are not willing to pay for it.
In the Netherlands food is cheap. And not like, affordable, but really, very, unbelievably cheap. I have never experienced hunger. My father neither. But my granddad certainly has. In the last 150 years, and especially after the second world war, Europe has done a great job feeding the continent. After WWII, the main goal for Europe was to get rid of hunger, for once and for all. The Common Agricultural Policy was created. Farms got bigger, and technological innovations such as the tractor, Europe managed to become self-sufficient in less then a decade. The Common Agricultural Policy was a great success. It banned hunger from Europe for good. On the contrary: in the mid-eighties, Europe produced so much food, that excess food was exported to less developed countries, destroying the local agricultural system and food market. This practice was even supported by subsidies. These practices have been aborted.
Now we are left with an agricultural system that produces a lot of cheap food. But we have exceeded the boundaries of the system. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on external inputs. We know that oil will not last forever. We don’t have a plan B. Industrial agriculture has destroyed a great deal of biodiversity, of the soil, but also in species. Try producing food without bees. You simply can’t.
In the process of industrialization, we have also lost the value of food in our society. We easily spend hundreds of euro’s on iPhones and holidays. But in the supermarket, we are comparing prices to the cent. Thirty cents extra for an organic potato? Too expensive. Fifty cents extra for fairtrade green beans? No way!
In what way are we connected to Africa? The current foodsystem is globally interconnected. Problems in Africa, nowadays, are our problems, too. Thinking about African food supply is no longer a matter of doing good. It’s a necessity in an ever more connected world. It’s the responsibility we need to take. It’s what some call global citizenship.
If we want to do something, let’s export our knowledge and farming practices instead of our food. And let’s help build a proper food production system in Africa. A system that does not only create basic foodstuffs, but also holds the knowledge for adding value to the products.
In Europe, we have built our wealth on the production of a lot of cheap food. In our own continent. A successful economy starts with a functioning food system. Regional food security is going to be the topic for the coming 20 years. More regionally oriented food systems are the future. This also means knowing where your food comes from. We need to re-think the value of food in our society.
There is hope. As Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, said: ‘Young people have discovered: Food is the new Rock’. We can change the world with food, 7 billion meals at a time. And we will change the world, with food.