Last February, (Former) Secretary of State for the Netherlands, Henk Bleker, gave the keynote speech at the start of a debate, held in de Rode Hoed in Amsterdam, called ‘it’s food, stupid!’. As he entered the stage, he held-up a bag of green beans from one of Holland’s biggest supermarket chains, saying:
‘These beans are from Kenya. They are a famous example used by proponents of a locally organised 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-tech farm, producing healthy, sustainable products. The farm offers jobs to hundreds of local farmers. The point I’d like to make here is, these beans are not what they might seem. Sustainability has many faces.’
Needless to say, the left-leaning, sustainability driven, Amsterdam crowd did not agree. To make things worse, Mister Bleker even left his beans on the stage. How’s that for foodwaste…
So, I began to wonder, is it true that Dutch-Kenyan beans are as evil as most environmentalist would like you to believe? After all they do create lots of jobs for the local population, and I reckon a Dutch hi-tech farm is probably more efficient, and maybe puts less pressure on the local environment, than some smallholders do.
But what about the land? Didn’t the local workers own the land, before the arrival of the Dutch farmer? What does this mean for small-scale farmers in the neighbourhood? What do the local farmers earn? Do these examples of international agricultural practices actually represent a type of modern colonialism? And are we right to want to eat green beans, year round, without having to pay a high-price for them?
In the Netherlands food is cheap. And not like, affordable cheap, but really, very, unbelievably cheap. As a young person, I have never experienced hunger, neither has my father, but my grandfather certainly did. In the last 150 years, and especially since the second world war, Europe has done a great job of feeding itself. The creation of a Common Agricultural Policy meant farms became bigger, and technological innovations, such as the tractor, helped Europe to become almost self-sufficient in less than a decade. In fact, Common Agricultural Policy was so successful that during the mid-eighties Europe took to dumping surplus food onto the markets of less developed countries, destroying local agricultural systems and flooding foreign markets with cheap imports.
For a long-time, this ever increasing growth of our food system was considered to be a good thing. Now however, we are realising that we have created an agricultural system, which produces a lot of cheap food but exceeds its natural boundaries. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on external inputs. It is dependent on oil, but we know that oil will not last forever. It has focused on a small selection of intensively produced mono-crops, which has resulted in the destruction of a great deal of biodiversity, biodiversity of the soil, but also of animal and plant species. Bees, as we know, are increasingly declining in numbers. Ever tried producing food without bees? You simply can’t do it, and at this point we don’t appear to have a plan B.
In the process of increasing industrialisation, we have also lost our perspective on the value of food in our society. We happily spend hundreds of euro’s on iPhones and holidays, but in the supermarket, we compare prices to the cent, always looking for the cheapest option. Thirty cents extra for an organic potato? Too expensive. Fifty cents extra for fairtrade green beans? No way!
The current food system is globally interconnected. Problems in Africa have become our problems, too. Thinking about how the African food supply functions is no longer a matter of charity or famine concern. In an increasingly connected world, these problems have become our problems. It’s what some call global citizenship.
If we want to do something positive, let’s export our knowledge and farming practices instead of our food. Let’s help to build a proper food production system in Africa. A system that does not only create basic foodstuffs, but also incorporates production knowledge that will allow communities to add value to the products.
In Europe, we have built our wealth on the production of lots of cheap food, but regional food security is going to be the topic on everyone’s lips over the coming years. Regionally oriented food systems are the future, which means knowing where your food comes from and re-thinking the value of food in our society.
As Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, said at the last Terra Madre conference: ‘Young people have discovered: Food is the new rock’. My generation aims to change the world with food, and if we need to, we’ll do it one meal at a time.
Sign up to our Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news