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The end of cheap food begs new food politics

The global food system is under unprecedented strain, buffeted by rising oil prices, erratic weather patterns, soaring demand, and shocking waste, but Hugh Campbell doesn’t want you to head for the hills just yet. 

“We need to enact positive politics,” he urges. 

Campbell, who leads Sociology, Gender and Social Work department at the University of Otago in New Zealand and has edited several books on global food systems, spoke at Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions Wednesday, making a case for optimism about the future of food politics. 

Beginning with a brief historical review of the evolution of food systems that supported the Industrial Revolution, Campbell traced cycles of growth and the crises that marked the end of that growth including the Irish potato famine in 1845 and the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. 

World War II ushered in food security as a policy concern and Campbell described the postwar effort to massively scale up agriculture, resulting in the system of “Big Ag” that dominates the American food scene. 

“Industrializing agriculture has worked better than anyone could have possibly imagined,” Campbell says. 

Prices dropped dramatically. While the average household spent 24 percent of its income on food in 1930, today the average is closer to just 10 percent. But, pointing to food price spikes in 2008, 2011, and a third this year, Campbell argues that the era of cheap food is over. 

Against this backdrop, an arresting picture of widespread food waste is starting to emerge. Consider the following facts Campbell presented from the book “Waste” by Tristram Stuart:

  • Twenty percent of the food purchased in the United Kingdom is never eaten. 
  • Seventy-five percent of greens destined for pre-bagged salad mixes are never consumed. 
  • Ten percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by wealthy counties is produced growing food that won’t ever be eaten. 

Oh, and by the way, Campbell informs us that the life expectancy of today’s schoolchildren will be shorter than their parents for the first time. Why? Sugar consumption. 

“We are in one of those moments,” Campbell says. “We are in new times since 2008.”

But Campbell finds reason to be hopeful. The rapidly changing dynamics around food will open up new possibilities for the agriculture picture in the United States, which is fractured between extremely large factory farm-style agriculture and boutique operations catering to buyers of local and organic food—with very little in the mid-sized range. 

The end of the cheap food will also add credence to local food movements, prompting them to scale and reach beyond upper middle class demographics. 

As he puts it: “If we’re going to be resilient about it we’re going to have to do it locally.”