Nick Jacobs grew up in the UK and moved to Brussels in 2008. He works on agri-food, trade and development issues within the team of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, after having spent three years as journalist for Agra Europe.
What if, instead of saying that Europe must get back to growth, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso decided to say the opposite?
For all of its bluster, the current EU budget battle is being waged over fairly narrow stakes: whether Europe will get back to growth more quickly by spending a little more or a little less at the EU level. The stakes are narrow, firstly because what is spent at EU level is only a fraction of public spending in the 27 member states, and secondly because all of the bickering is focused on how to get growth, and not on whether it is actually necessary or desirable.
Do alternatives to growth really exist? The debate remains on the margins of the public political sphere, but in Europe and elsewhere serious academic theories and grassroots movements are building around the idea of a ‘steady state economy’ with zero growth, or even ‘sustainable degrowth’.
What is degrowth?
The degrowth movements believe that producing more year on year will not make us truly better off, and cannot go on infinitely due to ecological limits.
US ‘steady state economy’ advocate Herman Daly argues that we have already hit a threshold where growth no longer brings net gains even in purely economic terms, i.e. the costs of all the damage done by additional growth (e.g. paying for environmental clean-up and health afflictions linked to pollution) already outweighs the benefits.
‘No one denies that growth used to make us richer. The question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or is it now making us poorer?’
Degrowth theorists also rubbish the idea that economic growth can realistically be decoupled from growth in resource use and carbon emissions. According to UK economist Tim Jackson:
‘In a world of nine billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it is today’.
What’s more, this growing body of thinkers and activists does not believe that additional growth in advanced economies is socially desirable. Data used by degrowth theorists point to rising wellbeing up to modest per capita income levels of around $20,000, after which it depends much more on other factors such as love, family and friendships. So the extra things that extra growth produces, and our extra per capita income allows us to buy, do not lead to extra wellbeing.
Nudging into the mainstream?
How significant is this movement? Mainstream political parties have been reluctant to debate, let alone to defend, a concept that runs so deeply against the grain of current political discourse. The Greens, in several European countries, are a notable exception (see previous blog on green parties).
The closest that degrowth has come to the corridors of political power was the publication in 2009 of a report drawn up by Tim Jackson for the UK Sustainable Development Commission, an advisory body to the government that was subsequently abolished by David Cameron. Jackson’s ‘Prosperity Without Growth‘ report drew plaudits but has remained on the margins of the debate as politicians in the UK and elsewhere have gone firmly into recession-mode, asking only the old, familiar question: how can we get back to growth?
Meanwhile, grassroots movements have been growing in strength. Over the last two months alone the 3rd International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity has taken place in Venice, while the Global Women’s Forum in Deauville held debates centred on degrowth. Meanwhile the local initiatives that underpin the movement are flourishing. In Italy, where a strong Decrescita Felice (‘happy degrowth’) movement has sprung up, the ‘Cittaslow’ network has brought together dozens of towns and communes in the interests of slowing the pace of urban life and repurposing urban space away from commercial uses – a movement that has now spread to more than 20 countries.
Why should this be the EU’s battle?
But why should EU policy-makers pay attention to these alternative voices if they barely feature in the political debate at national levels?
Firstly, because they can. The EU executive is used to raising the uncomfortable questions and being blamed by national politicians who are themselves more constrained by the short-termism of electoral cycles. ‘Bonkers Brussels wants to ban growth’ and other such headlines would of course abound from the British tabloids if the EU were even to open a reflection on degrowth. But headlines like this are business as usual, and unfortunately are the price that must be paid for bringing a new and sensitive debate into the mainstream.
Secondly, the European Commission should embrace the degrowth debate because disillusionment with growth-based strategies is Europe-wide, and is growing. Across Southern Europe determined protest movements are building against the price of past growth (mountains of debt) and the prescribed remedy for returning to growth (austerity).
The whole bloc is facing hard questions about how to squeeze more growth out of its factories, farms and financial centres. The answers all point towards an unappetising race to the bottom: Europe must work more, work longer, and regulate and spend less for health, wellbeing and the environment.
For many, these are necessary compromises. After all, what are the alternatives? Without more growth, and with an expanding population, everyone’s piece of the pie gets smaller – meaning reduced employment and reduced income.
This, however, is not the whole story. Jackson’s ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ theory openly acknowledges the need to shift to labour-intensive, resource-light activities, where existing work is shared around and people have more time for leisure, volunteering, and tending to themselves and their relationships.
As a result we would earn less, but we would not necessarily be less wealthy – even in strictly monetary terms. Debating growth vs degrowth can help us to understand the cycles we are in: we need lots of money so we work hard; but we also need that money because we work hard.
Paying for crèches, stress and fatigue-related medical expenditure, commuting expenses, on-the-road snacking, comfort purchases, insurance payments for our comfort purchases, expensive getaways… it turns out that many of our financial ‘needs’ are contingent in some way on working (too) hard. Of course if we weren’t taxed so much we wouldn’t need to earn so much in the first place… and yet much of this tax is levied to fund the public services whose need arises from our individual over-working and over-consuming (e.g. healthcare) and our collective over-working of the environment (e.g. the clean-up of water courses from agricultural and industrial run-off).
Can these cycles be broken? Can there be another way? Could it be the European way? Surely this is too important a debate not to have?
At last month’s Rio+20 summit, world leaders chalked up what for many people was a failure too far on the environment. The lack of binding agreements on anything, and the general lack of urgency shown by governments, led Greenpeace chief Kumi Naidoo to call for “civil disobedience” in the face of a failing political process.
For those who agree with the general premise, it is perhaps still worth asking whether all political means have truly been exhausted before blockading oil refineries and boycotting the polluters. What about voting Green first?
The environmental battle often feels like it is being waged between mainstream political parties and climate activists from outside the process. For the millions who believe that mainstream parties are failing abjectly on the environment, but find the protests of climate activists too radical, surely voting Green should provide a happy medium?
Why, then, are Green parties not more visible and more widely supported? Are they too ‘hippyish’? Are they single-issue parties without an economic programme? Or are these stigmas thoroughly out of date?
The first thing to bear in mind is that Green parties have in fact been making modest headway in recent years. The Greens-European Free Alliance took a record 55 seats in the 2009 European Parliament elections, making them the fifth-largest party. The German Greens, having been junior partner in red-green government coalitions from 1998-2005, won a historic victory in the Baden- Württemberg 2011 regional elections and now have their first minister-president.
Within the last two years the UK Greens have had their first MP elected to Parliament – party leader Caroline Lucas – and in Brighton took control of a local council for the first time. Even the US Green party had its own diminutive breakthrough last month, raising enough campaign money to qualify for ‘matching funds’ from federal government for the first time.
So who are these Green parties, and what do they believe in?
A criticism often levelled at them is that they do not have a serious policy programme beyond advocating environmental conservationism and cuts in GHG emissions. Quizzed in a recent BBC interview about whether the UK Greens were still a “single-issue party”, Lucas replied that the problem was that the media had only ever paid attention to them on that single issue.
A scan of speeches and manifestos by Green parties in various countries suggests that Lucas is right. In modern Green manifestos the holy grail seems to be not full decarbonisation but full employment. The outsourcing of jobs, the privatisation of healthcare and income inequality are vilified just as forcefully as polluting power plants and unambitious GHG targets. The five policy areas highlighted on the UK Green Party’s website are in fact all socio-economic: Banking, Housing, Jobs, Health and Pensions.
Green New Deal in the US?
Meanwhile, the centrepiece of the ‘Green New Deal’ proposed by US Green candidate Jill Stein is a programme to pick up slack in the private sector by taking up to 16 million unemployed workers into “community-based direct employment”. The sectors to which state-subsidised labour would primarily be made available – organic agriculture, public transportation, renewable energy – are indeed those traditionally earmarked as ‘green’, but the scheme would also divert labour to public education, health care, child care and other services with no visible ecological dimension.
This goes to show that the raison d’etre of the scheme is strongly socio-economic. It is a public works programme with a green tinge, rather than the other way around. Even when Stein moves onto the more familiar ground of raising tax on “the rich agribusiness corporations and the oil, mining, nuclear, coal and timber giants”, the primary justification given is to “keep the wealth created by local labour circulating in the community rather than being drained off to enrich absentee investors”. Again it is the distaste for globalisation, and the vocabulary of the financial crisis, that takes centre stage. The environmental content is still there, but is slotted into a narrative which is first and foremost about people’s jobs, livelihoods and communities.
France’s Europe-Ecologie Les Verts (EELV) continues to define itself primarily in its opposition to nuclear power and its advocacy of a domestic energy transition, but like in the US, economic planning ideas are nonetheless present and specific. The EELV eyes full employment and identifies specific tax loopholes it would close in order to finance the creation of thousands of ‘green jobs’ – although in this case the definition would not necessarily stretch to Stein’s social infrastructure jobs.
United and coherent?
While the emphasis and the vocabulary differs, Green parties from various countries appear to gravitate towards the same core policy programme. And far from being fixated on climate change, this programme in fact amounts to a wide-reaching, comprehensive – and fairly coherent – vision for the economy and society.
By and large it involves: shifting financial and human resources away from the military, fossil fuels, nuclear power and polluting industries, and towards renewable energy and labour-intensive, community-focused services; cracking down on tax havens and shifting to more progressive taxation; channelling finance through development banks rather than speculative investors; taking a zero tolerance approach to corporate lobbying and backhanders; supporting unions, cooperatives and companies that choose not to outsource; instituting a living wage (defined by the UK Greens as 60% of average earnings) in place of a minimum wage; providing free or highly subsidised university education; reclaiming public ownership of utilities and transport. All of this sits alongside the policy with which Greens are traditionally associated: going much further and faster than mainstream parties in cutting GHG emissions.
Unrealistic promises – according to who?
So there is a programme, but how realistic is it? The UK Greens claim that their huge public spending promises would be paid for by axing Trident (the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent) and thus saving £78 billion over thirty years. Stein’s Green New Deal would meanwhile be part-financed by closing America’s foreign military bases.
But, their critics would argue, plans of this type are essentially unrealistic. Here the battleground is political discourse. What is ‘realistic’ and ‘unrealistic’ surely depends on global political realities, which are themselves shifting. Is it more unrealistic and unthinkable to envisage withdrawal of the UK’s nuclear capacity, or to envisage continued inaction in the face of catastrophic global warming, resource depletion and environmental degradation, not to mention growing income disparities and structural unemployment?
Playing both sides
The response of mainstream parties is to navigate disingenuously between the two ‘unthinkables’. Since the onset of the financial crisis, many mainstream politicians have touted their own ‘green new deals’ and have railed against the excesses of dirty industries and dirty financiers, promising to use stimulus packages as an opportunity to stimulate green investment, and to shift resources towards the wholesome, hard-working, sustainable parts of the economy.
Yet despite the rhetoric, the vast majority of public money has been ploughed back into banks with few or no strings attached – and therefore the impetus has been handed back to markets to decide where to allocate these resources. Schemes such as ‘cash for clunkers’ in the US are about as ambitious as state interventionism has got, but even here the goal was basically to stimulate automobile sales, rather than to durably shift resources towards greener production methods.
Politicians have talked about systemic problems, hinting at the need to fundamentally change the way that capital is allocated. But at best what they have provided are piecemeal, sectorial actions which are by definition unfit for the challenge. At worst they have recapitalised and left basically unchanged a market system which has proved itself unable to allocate capital to sustainable mortgage arrangements, let alone to environmentally sustainable outcomes.
This is why, even if people do not vote for the Greens, it is crucial to the political process that their voice be heard. They have been honest about the fact that a transition to a sustainable economy has to be holistic and far-reaching, and has to involve big trade-offs (e.g. with military spending).
Does this mean it is time to vote Green? It is certainly time to redefine what is ‘unrealistic’, and to make all political parties emulate the honesty of the Greens by acknowledging the true trade-offs, and pinning their true colours to the mast. If they fail to do so, then voting Green may well be the least unrealistic option.
Another year, another dire health warning about fast food.
This time the sector is under fire from the influential American Institute of Medicine. The dangerous obesity epidemic engulfing America – and many other countries – cannot be put down to personal choice alone, the report states. Washington is advised to consider a tax on sugary drinks, and to ensure that healthy options – and not merely fast food – are available at shopping malls and sports facilities.
In short, it is the obesogenic environment that must change – and nothing characterises this environment more than fast food outlets and the cheap and abundant calories they offer.
How has fast food survived so long, and what future does it have, when McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are the public face of a public health crisis? Judging by the figures, the fast food industry is in much ruder health than its customers. Fast food sales remained steady in the US through the worst of the economic crisis, and actually increased in Britain, France and Japan, while whole swathes of the restaurant and retail sectors fell by the wayside.
But while individuals can still afford a Big Mac, the public purse can no longer afford to pay for the fallout. The costs of fighting diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are becoming untenable: obesity in the US – now afflicting 34% of people – is responsible for an additional $190 billion (€241 billion) per year in healthcare costs, according to Reuters. In this climate, all avenues for tackling overeating will be explored, and fast food will be subject to more scrutiny than ever.
However, recent evolutions in the sector demonstrate just how resilient and adaptable it has proved itself to be. For many years now, a combination of public opinion and regulatory pressure have forced the sector into an ongoing process of rebranding and reinvention. Offering salads and smoothies alongside burgers and coke is no longer an eccentric marketing ploy – it is effectively a prerequisite for chains that wish to stay in business. Burger King fell behind its competitors during the recession, but is bouncing back this year largely on the basis of revamping its menus to include new healthy options. There is, presumably, no healthy way to produce fried chicken – but KFC has nonetheless signposted its own commitment to de-stodgifying its output by bringing in the Kentucky Grilled Chicken range. McDonald’s, through its McCafé experiment, has gone furthest and fastest in its bid to associate itself with Starbucks-style modern consumerism: quick but healthy, snack and beverage-driven, young professional.
From nutritional greenwashing to real change
Often these healthy branding offensives are the nutritional equivalent of ‘green-washing’. McDonald’s new UK kids’ beverage, Fruitizz, contains twelve spoonfuls of sugar – and yet promotional campaigns highlight how it delivers one of the requisite ‘five a day’. Subway, which now holds more franchises worldwide than McDonald’s, goes to lengths to convince customers that it is a fresh sandwich company rather than a fast food outlet. Yet stacks of processed meat, melted cheese, abundant sauce, and the possibility for the sandwich to be 12 inches (30 centimetres!) long, make its offerings nutritionally akin to fast food.
Even when the healthy options are genuinely healthy, expanding and adapting the menu in the way McDonald’s and Burger King have done is a relatively painless rebranding process: the core items remain as fatty, salty, sugary – and cheap – as ever, and continue to drive business.
Only rarely have the ingredients and preparation processes of these core items come under genuine scrutiny – and it is only then that the real change starts to happen.
Following a Jamie Oliver-led campaign, McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell recently declared that they would no longer use ‘pink slime’ – beef containing ammonium hydroxide-treated ground connective tissue – to fill out their burgers. Following a similar outcry in the early 2000s, the leading fast food chains moved to scale back or eradicate trans fats in their cooking oils. Meanwhile the Happy Meal, and similar offerings aimed squarely at children, have been revamped to reduce calories, add fruit and vegetable snacks, and generally pre-empt regulation to this effect – none of which would have occurred had the threat of regulation not been real.
Evolution or revolution?
None of this is enough to stem the negative health outcomes of what remains a food offering based around fried, processed items. But the gradual eradication of the most harmful ingredients and practices does go to show that slowly, surely, with the right mixture of political carrot and stick, and sustained consumer scrutiny, fast food can move towards detoxifying its brand – and the arteries of its customers.
Since the inception of McDonald’s in 1940, fast food restaurants have undoubtedly played a role in democratising the experience of dining out. But healthier options are now available in the same price bracket. A shish kebab – freshly grilled chicken or lamb in pitta bread with ample fresh veg – will generally have a better nutritional profile than the pre-made, pre-frozen burgers that pass through the industrial-scale supply chains of major fast food retailers.
Will consumers eventually abandon the Big Mac in favour of healthier convenience food? Or will McDonald’s and co ditch the Big Mac altogether in favour of wraps, salads, smoothies and coffee? What, then, will be their unique selling point?
Fast food will not reform itself out of existence, whatever the pressures brought to bear on it. But more likely is that it continues along its current path towards a slow death – in the form of gradually eradicating the corner-cutting, obesity-fuelling practices that define fast food as we know it.
Humankind has degraded its environment and stretched the planet’s ecological limits beyond the point of no return. The food supply is threatened, and the world’s top scientists embark on a race against time to develop novel means of producing food.
This may sound like a science fiction plotline, but it is effectively the thinking behind the massive real life research efforts now being undertaken to secure the food supply of the future. The 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 food price spikes have intensified existing efforts to rethink food production, in the face of rapidly escalating demographic and environmental challenges.
Here are four of the candidates – two well-established, and two recent arrivals on the scene – to lead the technological revolution and become the face of futuristic food.
1. Genetic modification (GMOs) and the ‘climate gene’
Genetic modification involves pre-programming a plant to respond to its environment in targeted ways, by inserting external genes into a plant’s genome. Twenty years in, food safety concerns have been largely assuaged, but the industry has failed to shrug off concerns that wide-scale GMO cultivation leads to ultra-resistant pests, unpredictable impacts from gene leakage, and patent battles over what is, ultimately, a proprietary technology.
There is likely to be an added premium on developing drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant crop types over the coming years. GMO uptake to date has been mostly limited to maize, soybean and cotton cultivation in the Americas, but the quest to ‘climate-proof’ crops will target other staples such as wheat and rice, in other parts of the world. Drought-resistant qualities are not conferred by a single gene but by several, meaning that whole sequences will need to be patented. Expect controversies on a greater scale.
Cloning, like GMOs, is a technological heavyweight for which the scientific processes – if not public acceptance – are already well advanced. This is a form of animal breeding where nothing is left to chance. The goal is to yield an animal with identical qualities (e.g. lactation, disease-resistance) to the source animal, and subsequently to use the clone as a breeder.
On the back of welfare concerns for the cloned animal, the EU is primed to place a moratorium on the process. However, Brussels is, by its own admission, powerless to prevent imports of meat/dairy derived from the offspring of clones reaching consumers. Climate change, and the need to breed resilience into our food systems, will once again provide an impetus for wide uptake.
3. Test-tube meat
Dutch scientists unveiled the first test-tube meat tissue to the world last month, raising the possibility that the future of meat production lies in the lab. Using stem cells from adult cattle, the scientists developed strips of beef muscle in a petri dish, and will soon produce an entire burger, to be served up to a celebrity by gourmet chef Heston Blumenthal.
Conventional livestock rearing involves extensive land, GHG emissions and eventual slaughter, not to mention the huge inputs, in the shape of land, water, fertiliser and pesticide, required to produce animal feed. Test-tube meat could offer the diner a taste of flesh, without the fallout. Should the technology become financially viable on a mass scale, and should the taste be to consumer liking, the approach could start to gain serious momentum.
4. Skyscraper farms
Vertical farming is also on the cusp of moving from science fiction to practical application. The attraction of layered ‘skyscraper farms’ – normally envisaged as multi-storey greenhouses – is that every drop of water and nutrient would be recycled within a closed system, while light and temperature would be optimised for plant development. By growing upwards, rather than outwards, we would be squaring the circle and producing more food without consuming more resources. Until recently, the concept had existed only in the imagination of architects. But now a 17-storey conical greenhouse is set to enter the construction phase in the Swedish town of Linköping. Drawing on energy from local power plants, the structure will carry rotating pots of fruit and veg slowly around a central helix, and will sell harvested produce direct to local urban populations. This could be the first of many – or a costly experiment that starts and ends in Linköping.
The opportunity cost
All of these solutions are promising when held up against the initial premise: that conventional food production techniques, working within nature’s self-sustaining cycles, are a spent force. But the danger of promoting these technologies is that they reinforce this very message. It is as if we have over-stepped nature’s self-sustaining capacities, and instead of looking for ways to restore the balance, we are trying to circumvent nature altogether.
The real danger is therefore the opportunity cost. The first test-tube burger will have set scientists back €250,000 euros, while the cost of the biggest vertical greenhouse model (25 storeys) is estimated at $280-$555 million. The cumulative costs of twenty years of public and private GMO research are astronomical, while cloning-related innovation could become an equally bottomless pit.
What if this money were ploughed into simple solutions with a proven track record of restoring and maintaining the ecological balance and biodiversity that must underpin all productive farming in the long term? What if the real funding priority were not food innovation, but the dissemination of existing, highly effective techniques? What if the innovation that did occur was focused on advanced breeding techniques (e.g. marker assisted selection and bio-fortification of crops) that raise less ethical issues, and can be kept free of patents? What if we were to improve agricultural infrastructure in Africa, where more than 30% of crops are spoiled in post-harvest storage and transportation? And what if consumers stopped wasting nearly half of their food, and consumed a bit less meat?
Organic-style solutions cannot feed a world of 9 billion people, critics say. And they are right – not while demand is so wastefully high, and supply so infrastructurally crippled. And not while the custodians of degraded or abandoned farmland are deprived of the know-how to keep this land productive. If climate change is allowed to force farming into ever-more-restricted fertile bands, then we will indeed have to rely on miracle, yield-raising technologies. But sooner or later we’ll be confronted, once again, with the resource pressures that intensive farming entails – in all of its incarnations.
Innovation is crucial. But it must come in addition to, not instead of, much-needed investments in simple, low-tech, non-proprietary solutions which can be used freely and effectively by farmers across the world. With food, as with climate change, there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution, and the sci-fi allure of new innovations should not be an excuse for deferring the key decisions about how to live within our limits.