Public Interest in Private Goods: Food and our Forefathers

Goats in Crete

Ello ello

Holiday reading this year was the stirring “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel; a gripping analysis of our modern global food system. Of particular interest was the idea that our public food distribution service, once upon a time the responsibility of government, has been handed over to the private profit interest. Examples of this happening everyday are not hard to come by; an idle Google search alone reveals a World Bank document, “Considering the future of the Iraqi Public Distribution System”. Even in the first few paragraphs, the authors state one of the Bank’s major recommendations as “increasing the role and capacity of the private sector in the PDS”.

But why is this handover such a bad thing?  Patel argues that the move from public to private control is a politician’s pact with the devil. The industry is making money, while squeezing farmers and producers (often to the point of suicide) and limiting the choices of the consumer. These are the same limited choices that are resulting in a recently announced 48% obesity rate predicted amongst men in the US & UK by 2030. Surely, the only way the public interest can be served is through a public system, rather than the misaligned interests of the private sector?

After all, the history of such public food distribution services stretches back through the ages. One of Rome’s most reforming leaders, Gaius Gracchus imposed the Grain Laws in 123 BC, which distributed cheap corn to citizens.  During the middle kingdom of ancient Egypt (2055-1650 BC), one of the major roles of the Pharoah’s deputy, the “Vizier”, was to control the supply and distribution of food. And even further back than that (2300 BC), the Sumerians were storing food for public distribution in Mesopotamia.

But today, politicians seem to have handed control over to those few organisations which can achieve economies of scale across international boundaries – the multinational corporations we all love to hate, yet find ourselves buying their products (Diet Coke, instant coffee anyone?).

This warped system is something that institutions such as The People’s Supermarket are trying to address. The mantra of the organisation is to “offer an alternative food buying network” to the big supermarket chains, by selling food locally produced at affordable prices. Crucially, cheaper prices can be accessed by “members” of the market – i.e. people who pay a small subscription fee per month and volunteer for four hours a month (more details here).  By imparting control to all members, the supermarket is literally by the people, for the people.

While certainly an excellent initiative (the completed membership form is in a stamped envelope on my kitchen table), the onus must be on government to provide citizens with the right choices.  Food is so crucial to our biological existence, let alone well-being, that government would be daft to continue to neglect its distribution to market forces – even in the era of the Big Society. So with conference season now upon us, let’s hope we get some substantial debate from the peoples’ representatives on this issue.

I hate being negative, but I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t…

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