Asian farmers deserve decent living wage

05 November, 2013


Letters to the Editor, South China Morning Post, November 5, 2013

By Eric Stryson

The article ("Food safety threats highlight need for proactive approach", October 29) by Bram Klaeijsen, of Cargill, and John in de Braekt, of Mars Incorporated, rightly points out that food security and food safety will be defining global issues in the years to come. It fails, however, to address several critical aspects of the challenge.

Firstly, primary producers of food, that is, farmers and rural processors throughout Asia, must be compensated with a decent and fair living wage for their services.

In mainstream global business terms, competitive advantage means externalising costs and underpricing agricultural inputs, often using cheap labour and thus exposing food supply chains to unethical and dangerous practices.

This is evidenced in high-profile cases ranging from tainted milk powder in China to horsemeat sold as beef in Europe. Greater monitoring will help, but not solve this fundamental problem. Safe food will naturally be more expensive.

Furthermore, we must move beyond conventional notions of food safety and be brutally honest about the food we eat. Can food be deemed safe if in the long run it makes us sick? The global diabetes epidemic is driven by excessive consumption of sugar and packaged foods. As consumers, we are bad at monitoring and restricting our behaviour and reliant on appropriate rules to curb consumption of foods that are dangerous in large quantities. This can also be achieved through more appropriate legislation, labelling, pricing and taxes - all of which are opposed by the so-called food industry. Packaged sweets, soft drinks and nutritionally empty food should be taxed, similarly to tobacco. In the US, food marketers resist this through lobbying and consumers suffer the consequences.

As for food security, resource allocation in terms of land and water use and input management is paramount. Government policies must be set to prioritise feeding people high-quality food (not simply more) ahead of attracting investment and making shareholders happy. Finally, it is well documented that we are producing enough food to feed the majority of the planet.

Investments should be made in post-harvest infrastructure in developing economies - specifically processing, storage and transport - in order to reduce wastage at the farm gate.

In advanced economies, food wastage should be taxed, but again this is antithetical to profit-driven agribusiness, which relies on more to be sold, and at any cost, with wastage built into the business model.

Eric Stryson, director, Global Institute for Tomorrow