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Transcript for

Jennifer Clapp on Commodifying Food

[only in rebroadcast]


Hi everybody. We are currently taking a little break while I’m on parental leave. We are releasing some pre-recorded episodes from our first season that not only talked to issues of scale, but also had a lot to say about power in the food system.


In this episode from our first season, Jennifer Clapp discusses who has the power to shape policy debates, who has economic power, and how speculators are gaining new power in shaping the food system. We hope you enjoy this conversation and we will be back with new episodes in June.

[intro music]

Samara 0:06

Welcome to Feed - a food system podcast in conversation with people trying to transform the food system. 

Matthew 0:11

This podcast is presented by Table, a food systems collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Wageningen University. I’m Matthew Kessler.

Samara 0:23

And I’m Samara Brock. And today we’re speaking with Jennifer Clapp, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Over the last few decades, she has conducted research on the politics of corporate power in the global food system, trade, international food aid, the global food crisis, and how values shape environmental debates.

Jennifer 0:46

Those policy responses over the past 70 or so years to pass food crises, and those pushes for efficiencies in the system, through industrialization, through trade through complex supply chains, in a way set us up for the vulnerabilities that became really evident in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the food crisis that that ensued.

Matthew 1:09

We speak with Jennifer about the commodification of food and the financialization of the food system. She lays out the history of how post-World War 2 food policies have led us to this current moment, how the covid-19 food crisis is different than previous ones, and how diversity in all of its forms, is essential to building a resilient food system.

Samara 1:30

And now onto our conversation.

Matthew 1:34

This has been a difficult conversation to prepare for, as there are many topics we would like to discuss with you. Let's start with possibly a simpler question. How did you first get into the world of food system research?

Jennifer 1:45

First, I just want to say thanks for having me as a guest, I really got quite interested in food system research when I was a graduate student at the London School of Economics. One of my professors was Jean Drèze, who had written “Hunger and public action” with Amartya Sen, around that time. And he was bringing forward many of those ideas to our graduate seminar in development studies. And I was really taken with the dynamics of the global economy in terms of the global debt crisis, and other sorts of international financial and trade dynamics and how that affected these questions of hunger and food security, which was unfolding in terms of food crises across Sub Saharan Africa at the time. And so that was sort of like a really defining moment for me, where a lot of those threads came together. And I really - I made an unconscious decision at that time that I was going to dedicate my studies going forward to better understanding the connections between hunger and food security and food sustainability and the global economy. And the reason I'm still doing this 30 plus years later, is there's just a lot to understand and a lot to know - it's really complicated, and I really try to break it down and make it digestible.

Samara 3:05

So one of the themes that crosses through a lot of your work is the ideas of food as a commodity. Can you speak to a little bit how food is different than other things that are framed as commodities?

Jennifer 3:17

I do think there is a case to be made that that food is different from normal commodities that are bought and sold on the marketplace. And that's because food plays a host of roles in society beyond its market value. It obviously provides nourishment that we need to survive on a daily basis. It provides livelihoods. Around a third of the global population is engaged in one way or another with the food and agricultural sector, some 2.5 billion people around the world working on around 500 million small scale farms that produce the bulk of the world's food. So livelihoods is a really important aspect. Food and agriculture also provide important ecological services, especially when grown in food systems that are diverse and environmentally sound. They can provide biological diversity and water filtration, carbon absorption, etc. and food also plays an important role in terms of social identity and cultural heritage plays a part in rituals going back 1000s of years. And it's also important in terms of providing, you know, rural landscapes that we can all appreciate. So when we talk about food, it's really much more than just its commodity value, we have to think about all these other values embodied in what we eat.

Samara 4:34

And so how did this conceptualization of food as a commodity grow in the 20th century?

Jennifer 4:39

Yeah, so it's a great question, because food hasn't always been considered this kind of hyper commodity that we - that it is today - bought and sold in supermarkets and grown in commercial ways. But it's the development of food as a commodity, I would say is the product of a number of forces that have unfolded over the course of hundreds of years, if not longer. If we think more recently, in the last one or 200 years, we can think about the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, as we've seen the rise of industry and people working and living more in cities, unable to grow their own food, people began to trade their wages for food, and it really created a demand for a specialized production in food. And that sort of gave impetus to food markets really, and that is often happening within countries, but also between countries, we've seen enormous growth, especially over the last couple hundred years in international food trade. And some of that, especially in the last 50 years, since the end of the Second World War, we've seen a real ballooning of food trade, and to the point that today, around one quarter of all food that's produced actually crosses a border before it's consumed. And interestingly, originally before, like when the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was agreed at the end of the Second World War, food and agriculture were actually exempted from the original, were effectively exempted I’ll say, from the original trade agreement, which was seeking to liberalize trade generally, but agriculture, as I said, was seen as somewhat different and countries recognize that. But after 1994, the World Trade Organization agreed to an agreement on agriculture that really sought to liberalize food trade in particular. And the value of global food trade today is around 1.5 trillion. So it's pretty large, but it goes beyond trade and it goes beyond that specialization.
We can even look at technological change in the agri-food system playing a role in the commodification of food. So for example, the discoveries around plant genetics in the early 20th century led to the development of improved or modified seeds, hybrid seeds in particular, and hybrid seeds are the kind of seeds that might deliver a high yield, but then they don't produce their own seed for future use, they have to be continually reproduced. And that gave rise to private corporations getting interested in the seed industry, because that need to keep producing seeds and hybrid seeds kind of built in intellectual property protection that made it profitable for corporations to get into the agricultural inputs sector. And it goes beyond seeds when we can talk about synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and equipment and mechanization. A lot of these kind of developments technologically, within the food and agricultural sector sort of gave rise to this notion of farming as a business, and farmers needing to purchase inputs, and they need to sell their products in order to cover their costs and make a profit. But within this technological change, we also saw corporations taking a greater and greater role in the food system, not just in terms of those farm inputs, but also in terms of trade and food commodities and processing. We've seen the rise of really big food processing corporations operating on a on a transnational scale, as well as global retail.
And then we can also add in financial forces, they really have played a role in commodification of food. In fact, some would say quite a central role. And maybe even going back further than some of these other dynamics that I've mentioned, because we've had commodity markets selling agricultural commodities, through exchanges dating back to at least the 16th century where these kind of agricultural derivatives that we talk about today when we talk about futures markets, etc. They actually first emerged centuries ago. And this was in part to serve the needs of both the sellers and the buyers of agricultural commodities so that they could make future purchases based on products that might even still be growing in the fields or being traded internationally. And so this development of futures for items like coffee or cocoa, or wheat kind of lent to the idea that these were marketable goods in the marketplace and really seen as commodities. So it's not like there's one thing you can pinpoint to say, how and why food became commodified, it's really the product of like a number of processes that have unfolded over the past couple of centuries.

Matthew 8:48

As Jennifer mentioned, futures markets date back to England in the 1600s and early 1700s Japan, where the Dojima Rice Exchange was set up for trading rice futures. A futures contract are a legal agreement to buy or sell something at a predetermined price in the future. On one hand, futures markets are a risk management tool for producers and processors as it hedges and protects them from major changes in the price of the commodity being traded. It also insulates consumers from fluctuations in prices. On the other, it gives mores power in the food system to speculators. Jennifer discusses the influence of financialization in her and Ryan Isakson’s book “Speculative Harvests: Financialization, Food and Agriculture”, which we’ll link to in the show notes. We’ll also talk about this more later in the chat.

Jennifer 9:36

So it's not like there's one thing you can pinpoint to say, how and why food became commodified, it's really the product of like a number of processes that have unfolded over the past couple of centuries.

Samara 9:49

Interesting, I'd be curious to know, what you think, can be most effective in sort of affirming foods connection to all of the other things you talked about that are important to food? Do you see efforts like true cost accounting, or things like conceptualizing food as a right as steps towards decommodification?

Jennifer 10:07

That's a really good question. In some ways, the move toward true cost accounting can help us to better understand the value of some of these other functions that foods serves in society, like the value of its ecological services, or the value of its livelihood, or even nourishment. But at the same time going down the route of assigning monetary value to these other functions could just serve to reinforce the commodification of food. I think, perhaps a more fruitful avenue for reminding us of these other functions would be to focus more on the right to food, which isn't something we want to necessarily put finish value on. But also just recognition more broadly about the need for sustainability and the cultural roles of food and society. And I think a lot of that needs to happen through public education to better understand and reaffirm those positive roles that food play in society, outside of financial transactions.

Matthew 11:10

And as you mentioned, financial actors engaging with an influencing the food system is not a new idea. What do you think is different or unique about financialization in the food system today?

Jennifer 11:20

While we've had commodity futures products and commodities exchanges for hundreds of years, what's different about finance in the food system today is this sort of hyper, what we call financialization. Basically referring to the increased role for financial actors, financial institutions and financial motives in the global economy more broadly. And this certainly filters through to the food system, and it has a really important effects that we need to understand. And the reason it's become sort of what I would call a hyper version of this financialization is that it goes beyond those early futures markets that we saw developing in the 16th and 17th centuries in places like Japan and Europe. But we're now seeing the rise of things like commodity index funds, where we're basically seeing banks selling an index of commodity prices to investors who basically want to gain exposure in their investment portfolios to volatile commodity prices, because if food prices are rising, they want to be able to make money off of that. But a lot of investors like pension funds and hedge funds, etc. They don't necessarily want to own physical commodities, they just want to own an index that tracks the prices of those commodities. And so those kinds of new products, what the CIFs or commodity index funds came about as a product of financial deregulation, as big banks were trying to make money by selling these products, they actually had to get permission. Because there were rules, like in the US  for example, there were rules since the early 20th century, trying to ward against excessive speculation, because that could lead to price volatility. And so banks were able to get exemptions from some of these earlier financial rules in order to set up these new kinds of investment products. But it's not just commodity index funds. We've seen index funds emerge on all kinds of things, including agricultural farmland. So there are some financial products that track the prices of farmland and in the 2007-2008 food crisis, when food prices and land prices were really rising quickly. These were sources of speculation that financial investors were quite interested in diversifying their portfolios and, you know as the housing market was tanking, they were sort of shifting their investments over into things like food commodities and land. And more recently, we've seen the development of what are called exchange traded funds or ETFs. That are products where they're actually selling, again, not the shares in corporations, but an index of the share prices in corporations. So it's sort of like these sort of derivatives become more and more disarticulated from the actual things that they're tracking. But it's a really important and interesting development. Because what we're seeing now is big asset management companies selling these kinds of products are becoming some of the biggest owners of the Agrifood corporations all across the food supply chains. Anywhere from 10 to 30% of the shares of these companies are now typically owned by asset management companies like the biggest being BlackRock, which controls almost $9 trillion of money in the global economy, or Vanguard, which controls around 7 trillion. I mean, collectively, there's about five of these big asset managers that management companies that control a big chunk of the global economy, including in the food sector. And so what we're seeing is, as these financial actors become more engaged in more complicated, and also in more direct and indirect ways into the food system, it does, it does have an impact.

Matthew 14:47

This trend towards financialization, it doesn't come out of nowhere. At the same time, there's also a rise in growing corporate concentration in the Agri-food system. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about how these two are influencing each other.

Jennifer 15:02

I think that's one of the biggest impacts of financialization is that it - In my research, anyway, I'm discovering that it's played a big role in encouraging greater corporate concentration in the agri-food system. Where what we're seeing is that as corporations are increasingly being owned by these big asset management companies that are being driven by financial imperatives. It's pushing them to engage more in mergers and acquisitions. And we're seeing growing consolidation. We saw this with the mergers across the agricultural input sector where Bayer bought Monsanto and Dow and DuPont merged and Syngenta teamed up with ChemChina and BASF bought up all of the assets the others had to sell in order to complete their mergers. And so we've ended up with a system where just four companies are controlling a huge proportion of agricultural inputs.

Matthew 15:47

So Jennifer just described three mergers where the 6 biggest global seed and pesticide companies became 4 from 2015 to 2018. As part of this consolidation, now four companies control and distribute 60% of the world’s seed supply.

Jennifer 16:03

And these kinds of mergers and acquisitions are going on all across food supply chains from, you know, fertilizer sector to farm machinery to food processing, and etc. So, financialization has played a role in terms of making these corporations more and more sensitive to these financial demands because their shares are ending up being part of these financial products and investors demanding returns. And it sort of becomes the point where financialization and corporate consolidation concentration become really tightly linked. And that has consequences because as corporations become more consolidated. It can create - or it can push for higher prices. These corporations have more opportunity to close off competition, which can mean that they can charge higher prices, or they more fewer of them to have more opportunities to collude or cooperate with one another. And it's led to all kinds of really interesting questions that, you know, number of scholars are looking at, from lawyers to, you know, antitrust lawyers, to economists, etc. They’re trying to understand these dynamics because it can really affect equity in the global economy, generally, but also specifically within the food system.
And we've seen this with the recent COVID crisis has really highlighted the extent to which food system workers, for example, are not treated, as well as they should be. They're not paid a decent wage that they deserve. And part of this is this financial imperative to make profits for the shareholders over these other kinds of concerns. This concentration of financialization can also encourage agricultural production models that don't necessarily take environment into account as much as they should, because it's simply easy to externalize environmental costs by pushing for large scale industrial production that can undermine biodiversity, that can undermine efforts to address climate change, for example. And so when financial imperatives override these other aspects in the food system, like equity and environmental sustainability, this can cause real problems.

Matthew 18:05

Can you make a positive argument for corporate consolidation in the agri-food system?

Jennifer 18:10

Well, that's an interesting question because obviously, the corporations as they merge and acquire one another are making arguments to regulators for why they should be allowed to get bigger and have a larger share of the market. And a big part of their rationale is that being bigger, allows them to gain those kind of efficiencies of scale. And also they argue that being bigger gives them the financial resources to invest in innovation which can bring efficiencies as well as lower prices. And so this has long been the sort of debate is whether we should allow these corporations to get so big and so concentrated because they make the case that they're delivering us, you know, the latest innovations that are going to bring these kind of efficiencies. And the most recent part of the argument of these big companies is like the input companies that I already mentioned who have recently merged. They argue that they need to get bigger to bring those innovations, especially to a deal with environmental problems. And so they are saying we're investing in new technologies like digital agriculture, and gene editing, and these kind of technological advancements that they see need these large budgets behind them, in order to bring the sort of like a technological solution to the problem of unsustainability in the food system. Which they do recognize - they recognize that climate change is a threat that it needs to be addressed, and also that food systems need to reduce their environmental footprint or impact.
I guess the big question there is whether this technological solution to these problems is the right solution versus other kinds of solutions that don't necessarily cost farmers as much money. So for example, an agroecological farming method doesn't require those kind of external inputs, it doesn't require farmers to purchase from big concentrated corporations that might actually be raising prices down the road. And that's a big concern, as well as that while they might be able to make the case that initially, these new innovations could bring costs down. Overall, once competition is gone, there's very little incentive for those firms to keep those prices low, and they could eventually rise. And that's the same kind of question we've seen around technological developments in other sectors, like in Amazon. This is a big case that people talk about right is that they brought these cheap book prices for everyone and cheap prices for everything. And then all of a sudden, they're the only retailer out there, and they can charge whatever they want. So we do need to be careful about these issues. And they're complicated, they're not straightforward at all. And I think that's why regulators really struggle with how to address these dynamics. And I think that around the world, governments are coming to realize that these are huge issues and they are getting more and more interested in bringing back more robust regulations and looking at these kinds of applications for mergers and acquisitions, etc. in a new way to take some of these other issues into account.

Samara 21:17

At the same time that all this growth and consolidation is happening. There's also a counter movement going on in terms of - you talked about agroecological approaches or more localized approaches. Can you talk a bit about those and also talk to whether this binary is too simple in terms of splitting the local from the global?

Jennifer 21:39

Well, in some ways, I do think it is a bit too binary to make a division between global solutions or local solutions. I think we can say that a globalized and concentrated food system does tend to take up space that could be occupied by local and alternative and diverse food systems. But those diverse food systems could be very localized. But they could also be at a national scale, or even a regional scale that maybe transcends borders, but it's sort of more within bioregions. But I do think what's important is that there is - what I would call policy space. Policy space for diverse alternatives to thrive be they national, local or regional. Be they small, medium, or mid-sized kind of firms. I think the key here is diversity, not just sort of demonizing all food corporations and saying that's all bad. We actually need to have a diversity of different types of food system firms and different sizes of food system firms. And we need to have competition, and we need to have an ability for firms to enter the market. Like at the moment where we have certain sectors that are so concentrated, and in those sectors, the barriers to entry can be really, really high. It's not like we're going to see a new pesticide or seed company emerge just out of nowhere. These companies, there were hundreds of them at the beginning of the 20th century. And they gradually became more and more and more concentrated. Now we're down to just a handful, but because they're engaging in research, that's extremely expensive. And they've built this case for large scale industrial agriculture and that locked in a lot of producers. So there's just not a lot of room for entry into the marketplace. And there's also not a lot of room for a lot of government support, let's say for the kinds of agricultural models that don't require these kind of purchased inputs. Like for agroecology, governments could do more to support and subsidize alternative production methods and also to create that kind of policy space for medium and small scale enterprises to enter into the system. So I think we need to take a big shift - think about antitrust which deals with competition and consolidation. We need to think about that a little bit differently in a way that opens up space within economies to create a more diverse marketplace for food and agriculture.

Samara 24:05

Yeah, that's interesting. It's sort of a counterpoint to what you were saying before, in terms of the arguments of companies saying that consolidation leads to innovation, what you're arguing is that it may actually lock innovation and players out of food and agricultural markets.

Jennifer 24:23

Yeah, I think that's exactly right, we've seen a real lock in of a certain kind of a model, where it's hard for some farmers to even conceive of moving away from things like herbicide use in agriculture, because that's what the seeds require, that's what the large- scale system requires, etc. And so shifting away from that can be really daunting. And it can be scary. But in a way, that sort of argument of the big corporations that they're innovating by bringing us these herbicide connected seeds, for example. It's only one kind of innovation, and it's crowding out those kind of innovations that are more ecologically grounded that don't require purchased inputs, and etc.

Matthew 25:10

So we're going to shift a little bit now into the policy realm. We spoke a little earlier about how, over the 20th century, we've seen a push towards food system financialization. But there's also been, as you described, in your article, this food crisis is different. These three different policy eras, can we first start with maybe a description of how food policy priorities have changed over time?

Jennifer 25:34

We have seen different eras in terms of food policies over the last 70, 80 years, for example. But I would say that there's been, which I'll talk about in a second. But there's been a consistency across those food policy areas, which is that they've been really embedded within the expansion of industrial farming, and specialization and within the pursuit of international trade. And across all of these policy areas, efficiency, which we've already talked about, has been one of the underlying rationales for those kinds of policies. So if we look at like, for example, the 1960s and 70s, when there was a lot of concern about growing populations, particularly in developing countries, and whether there was enough food to feed everyone and maintain political stability, especially when food prices spiked in the early 1970s. What we saw is a big push for policies to focus on industrial production methods on a global scale with the adoption of the Green Revolution. And that was all about efficiency of production. So sort of the argument was made at the time that these industrial production methods would be more efficient, would produce more food and bring peace and stability. And so what's interesting in that era, it was that a lot of it was about promoting food, self-sufficiency in developing countries. There was this real push that these countries would be able to feed their own populations and not be dependent on inputs, because that could create instabilities. But then there was a shift in the 1980s and 90s with the rise of neoliberalism. And the concerns at that time, was almost a reaction to the previous policy era, which was produce more and more and more, and all of a sudden, we were commodity glut. Food prices were actually low and falling. And so farmers were facing a livelihood crisis. It wasn't like a food crisis of high prices anymore. It was sort of like a livelihood crisis of low commodity prices.
And in this era of food policies kind of shifted to promote efficiency in a different way. And in this time, it was sort of more about efficiency through specialization and trade. So it was more about really getting different countries around the world to specialize in different food products, and then trade them internationally. So it was about reducing protectionism and trading more. Still was about efficiency, but a bit it was articulated in a different way.
And then from the early 2000s, concern returned again about whether production capacity could keep up with population growth, particularly in the face of challenges like climate change. And here we saw policy shifting yet again, towards sort of hyper specialized global supply chains. And this was again about efficiency through a different means it was about efficiency through this sort of just in time, hyper specialized and also bringing smallholders into these global supply chains. Whereas before the small holders and developing countries were largely seen as inefficient producers because they were producing on a small scale. They weren't always using industrial tech analogies that the large-scale farmers were using around the world. And it was this sort of this idea to bring those smallholders into these - integrate them really into these global supply chains. But they were increasingly be dominated by transnational corporations. So those policy eras are a little bit different in those three different time periods. But they did share this idea of bringing efficiency to the food system, just it was just by different means. The balancing act through all of these policy eras was really about trying to leverage efficiency gains to bring more food production and more access to avoid crises. But critics would argue that, you know, through these different policy eras, we just set up a system in which, you know, linking back to my previous comments about finance, a system in which financial speculators could really basically drive food crises. They argued it wasn't that we weren't producing enough food as the reason prices were spiking. It was instead the fact that financial actors were more and more able to speculate, and that was causing food price instability. So there's obviously a lot of debate about what caused the food crisis. But these are competing ideas about what was going on there.

Samara 29:32

You mentioned efficiencies a lot as sort of the driving force behind a lot of these sort of impacts of consolidation. And I'm just wondering, what is a counter narrative to falling into the efficiency trap?

Jennifer 29:44

That’s a good question because I think there’s this broader narrative out there that efficiency is always a good thing. And efficiencies can be good things, but we need to conceive of efficiencies in different ways. So most of the dominant food policy understandings of efficiencies have been around economic efficiency, and production efficiencies, as opposed to thinking about energy efficiency, and diversity and resilience as counterparts to efficiency. So of course some efficiencies are good, but we need to make sure that we maintain diversity, which is important for long term resilience. We need to understand that we can't just fixate on financial metrics for efficiency, but we need to understand energy inputs and energy outputs. And that's where different production models like agroecology, are really strong in terms of addressing those fixations on efficiency, because they - agroecological models, really try to ensure that the system isn't using more energy than it delivers back out. It's trying to ensure diversity, diversity of soils, diversity of plants and crops and ecosystems more generally. So one could go down that efficiency route and just defined it in different ways. Or one could sort of counterpose efficiency talk with talk of need for diversity and resilience. I think all of those issues need to be brought to the table, and we shouldn't just prioritize one thing over the others.

Matthew 31:14

So the history that you just laid out, Jennifer, in a way, brings us to this moment where we're in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, which is a global crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a hunger crisis, how has history led us up to this moment?

Jennifer 31:32

It's an important question, because one could make the argument which I did make the argument with my colleague, Bill Moseley, that those policy responses over the past 70 or so years to past food crises, and those pushes for efficiencies in the system, in certain ways, through industrialization, through trade through complex supply chains - in a way set us up for the vulnerabilities that became really evident in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the food crisis that that ensued. In a way we ended up with highly industrialized, highly specialized, highly segmented supply chains on a truly global scale. So when the pandemic hit these aspects of the food system, we're very vulnerable to the kinds of disruptions that emerged.
So whereas past food crises have typically been defined as areas where food prices rose sharply, and suddenly people weren't able to purchase food, usually through a narrative where people assuming there isn't enough food being produced. So that's widely debated because it could have been speculation causing it, but typically it's been price spikes, or as I mentioned in the 1980s, where we saw a glut and that was sort of a farm livelihood crisis -  a different kind of food crisis. But the COVID-19 induced food crisis is really different. Because it's, it's not either of those things that we're used to when we think of a food crisis. It's really a problem of supply chain disruption. And that was caused by lockdowns trying to control the COVID-19 spread, or even illnesses faced by food system workers where facilities had to be shut down, again, to stop the spread of the disease. So supply chain disruption was really the initial aspect of the food crisis that people were paying attention to.

Matthew 33:15

And how specifically is the scale of this COVID-19 crisis different than previous ones?

Jennifer 33:23

So it’s a crisis that's different to this crisis of a failure to protect food system workers. And we saw that really starkly as COVID really began to ravage around the world, where food system workers were among the most vulnerable and had the least protections. And it was also a problem of drop in purchasing power capacity. And it wasn't because necessarily prices were rising, it was simply the global recession, as lockdown was happening, people losing their jobs, and not having the resources to acquire food. So in many ways, food wasn't necessarily reaching where it needed to get. But also at the same time, people didn't have the resources to acquire it. And then it morphed into yet a different aspect of the crisis, which was uneven food price effects in different parts of the world. And that was due to a range of factors that had to do with really complicated set of issue, like whether a country was a commodity export, or whether it was food import dependent. These factors could affect their value of their currencies or the capacity to import food from abroad. And so we saw really weird dynamics. So the initial as the pandemic was initially sort of globalizing, and reaching all around the world, we saw, actually, some food commodity prices drop, while others rose.
And so it was perishables that suddenly - supply chain disruptions meant that things like dairy and other perishable food products saw their prices, like fresh fruits and vegetables saw their prices fall as farmers were plowing crops into the field and dumping dairy down drains. Yet cereal prices were actually buoyant. And that's because people started hoarding and cereal can be stored, it can stay on a ship until it's ready to be delivered. And so it was sort of this really scattered in really weird ways where it was just sort of affecting the ability to access food, and deliver food, and whether food could be processed and packaged in different facilities and for whom, and then the sort of this uneven ability to access it. It was really a mess. And it still is a mess.  So I mean, a lot of people are experiencing hunger.
Back in the summer of 2020. There were estimates that up to 100 and 150 million additional people that's a beyond the round 700 million who already facing chronic undernourishment could be affected in terms of food insecurity. And I haven't seen any recent studies, now six months later from those earlier projections about what the numbers are like right now. I think it's because it's really hard to do that research. But I fear that it's really widespread. And it's kind of a crisis that's underlying all the other aspects of the crisis that I'm sure we'll begin to start to understand the scale of it as more research is done. But because of the pandemic, it's really hard to do that research.

Samara 36:12

Do you see any sort of hope forward that's arisen out of COVID? In terms of our response to it are there ways that it has opened up the possibility for creating systems which could actually help overcome that food security?

Jennifer 36:25

I think COVID has shone a light on some of these problems within the food system right now. And I think the COVID food crisis might encourage governments to think more broadly about making that kind of transformative change that needs to happen within food systems to achieve our goals. I mean, already the global community set SDG two to end hunger and promote sustainable agriculture. And we're not like the trends show, we're not any. It's not like we're not even near meeting it. We're really not meeting these goals. And so there's been a push from the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, for example, when I'm a member of that the steering committee of the HLPE. And we put out a report last year that really highlighted this problem. It was already on our agenda to write About how we weren't eating SDG, two, when COVID hit. So everything sort of was happening at once. But we sort of, through our analysis, tried to highlight the ways in which COVID almost really give further push for the kinds of recommendations we were already making.
And so for example, the need to shift away from production at all costs or this obsession with economic efficiency and towards a radical transformation of food systems that's driven more by the desire to support and encourage states to meet their obligations to provide the right to food for everyone. So that kind of shift, we were already making that point. And I think COVID really illustrates that clearly. And we also call for shift away from siloed approaches to food security to recognize the interconnectedness of food systems with other systems. And that includes health systems. As COVID shows us this deep connection between global health and global food security, but also ecological systems and economic systems. They're all interconnected, and we can't make food policies in a silo in that sense. COVID really makes that clear. And also, we call for a shift away from a singular focus on hunger to recognize the complexity of problems in the food system, including overnutrition, and unhealthy food environments. And again COVID shone a light on that because people who were undernourished either receiving fewer calories than they needed or less nutrition than they needed, or people who were over nourished, were all more vulnerable to COVID than others who were having a healthy diet. And also finally, we call for a shift away from a one size fits all solution to address food system problems and towards more context specific policy interventions. Because the way that COVID is spread around the world and affected different people in different ways in different regions, again, that underlines the need for that kind of shift. So we think the crisis itself can help push governments towards more transformative food system policies. I guess the concern is that if, you know, obviously, we want the vaccines to be widely available, and we want them to be really effective. But we can't forget the ways in which COVID did highlight those problems that already exist in the food system. And we can't just sort of assume that food problems will go away, once COVID goes away. Those food problems will still be there, and we still need to address them.

Samara 39:40

And when you look forward to the future, are there visions of the food system that you find particularly inspiring, or on the other hand, ones you find particularly alarming?

Jennifer 39:51

What I find really inspiring in terms of solutions are those that bring food and food systems closer to home, but within a mixed and diverse range of different actors involved - like producers and traders. As I said before, I don't think it's one thing or the other, we don't want to have all big corporations controlling the system. But we also, if we have all small scale producers that can lead to other kinds of issues. And so we need a diversity and a mix of different ranges. But I think that right now, we're over invested in the idea of a global corporate food system, and we need to bring things closer to home and improve that diversity. So I do find those kind of visions inspiring, and I'm optimistic when I’m reading more and more governments are interested in bolstering domestic food production capacity, they're more and more interested in building local infrastructure to support more local alternative kind of food systems. We're seeing that here in Canada, for example, is sort of initiatives towards recentering our food systems within Canada as opposed to being so reliant on global trade.
So,I find those kind of inspiring. In terms of alarming, what I find alarming is these kind of scenarios that we hear about where we can have farming without farmers, where everything becomes digitalized and automated. I find that alarming because, as I mentioned earlier, so many people are connected to the food and agriculture sector as a source of their livelihoods. And taking that away through automation, mechanization, digitalization, it takes away people's dignity. It takes away their agency, it takes away their livelihoods. And I think those kind of automated, mechanized kinds of solutions can be - Yeah, they can contribute to broader problems.

Samara 41:45

I think that what you're trying to argue in, in a lot of your articles is that we can't look for the quick fix, but we need to think of sort of more of the long-term impacts down the line. So I'm curious if you can sort of say what you would say to people who would propose more international trade or more automation as the natural solutions that emerged from COVID-19.

Jennifer 42:09

I do understand those kinds of arguments, of course, I've seen them as well. But I think what we need to remember is that those kinds of solutions, as you said, they might be seen as fixes for the immediate, like, in a way, we didn't want countries to put export restrictions in place at the start of the pandemic, because it did lead to further supply disruptions and higher food prices, in some cases where those export restrictions were put into place. Yet, on the longer term, we have to question whether we want food systems around the world to be so connected to faraway places that can create those kinds of vulnerabilities. And I'm thinking especially of developing countries that might be reliant on just one or two commodities for the bulk of their foreign exchange. And they're relying on those markets for those commodities to produce an income that they can buy food that they need as a basic need. And how can a country uphold its commitment to the right to food, if it's so vulnerable to these forces that are totally out of its control?
And so in that sense, that's where I'm very much an advocate of countries, bolstering their own domestic food production capacity for the long run, to reduce that kind of reliance on global markets, to reduce that vulnerability, and improve diversity. Really, it's all about diversity. I'm not saying that trade should be eliminated, not by any means. I think we need diverse food sources. I mean, I'm sure you and everyone who's listening probably obtains their food from a huge variety of places. I know I do. It's kind of like my side hobby. Figuring out how to source the food that my family eats. And it's a complicated picture. And I think putting all your eggs in one basket can be dangerous.
And I think that diversity is also important in terms of distribution systems. They need to be fair, they need to be sustainable. And that's where this idea that the civil society mechanism that the committee on World Food Security has a report out on what they call territorial markets. And I think it's a really interesting idea, thinking about the regional, local national kinds of markets that allow more entrance. They're not just dominated by these large- scale commodity traders. They're more diverse and allow for greater entry of participants into the marketplace who have more of a say over how those food systems are organized. So I think those are some kinds of ways in which we can build that diversity into the system that I think can push back against some of those claims that we need just all international trade and all mechanization, I think we need to - we need to have a diverse system where more people have agency to have a voice in the system.

Matthew 44:57

If one is to advocate for these territorial systems, what would the policy steps that you would recommend? Or what other actionable items would you take to promote these territorial markets that would have maybe more of a combination of local production and international food trade?

Jennifer 45:13

So I think there are things that governments can do to move us more in that kind of direction of a more diverse and equitable and sustainable food system. I mean, there's some obvious places to start. One would be to redirect subsidies away from focusing on trade and industrial production and towards more locally grounded production alternatives like agroecology. At the moment organics and agroecology receive only a tiny proportion of government subsidies. And so there could just be simply more support, in that respect. And especially around research, for example, agricultural research and development, over the last 50, 60 years has become increasingly privatized, and increasingly focused on these kinds of industrial chemical based genetically modified seed kind of solutions. And that means - because they don't make money off of things like agroecology, they're not researching in that area. And so that's a place where governments do need to step up and do that kind of research. And governments have long played a role in supporting the advancement of science and research on agriculture. And I think this is one area where governments really do need to step up.
But other things can also be done. For example, the global trade rules right now are quite uneven and disadvantageous to the poorest developing countries who become food import dependent and quite vulnerable to disruptions in international trade. And so global trade rules could be fixed in a way that creates that kind of policy space to protect the livelihoods of small-scale producers, and also create that kind of infrastructural base for more territorial markets. But there are other things that need to be done as well, for example, that are global and national rules to foster more competition within food systems to put a check on the kind of corporate concentration and consolidation that's crowding out the capacity for smaller enterprises to enter the marketplace. And I think, in addition, we need better financial regulation policies. And also those need to be coordinated globally to curb financial speculation in the agri-food system.

Matthew 47:24

To recap, here are Jennifer’s recommendations:

  • Redirect subsidies away from trade and agricultural production towards locally based agroecological solutions.
  • Direct more governmental support for agricultural research and development that isn’t only guided by only profit incentives.
  • Amend the global trade rules to protect the livelihoods of the most marginalised farmers in low-income countries.
  • Establish better global and national rules to foster competition that would allow for small and medium enterprises to enter the marketplace.
  • Improve financial regulation policy that is globally coordinated to curb financial speculation.

And the last one is for states to uphold the right to food, which according to the United Nations special rapporteur, is that “everyone has the right to have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

Jennifer 48:13

Overall, an overarching policy that needs to really be emphasized, I mean - states have already committed over and again, to uphold the right to food. Yet they're not always upholding that right. And so more support needs to be put in place and more international pressure for states to uphold that right to food. And that can be done through better governance. And, as I said, more capacity for people to have a right to engage with food systems on their own terms in ways that they want, and not ways that others are imposing on them. And I think that's a really important dynamic or component of meeting the right to food that we have to date kind of under emphasized that role of agency within food systems. And I think we need to recognize that it's part of food security, we need to give people more of that kind of say, of how they want their livelihoods to look and their engagement with food systems more generally. And part of that is being part of policy processes and governance policies that affect them and their livelihoods.
Yeah, so sorry, that's a huge agenda, I realize. But that's part of like, what I've been trying to do in my work is sort of ring that global and national policy space that's not even necessarily focused on food specifically, but it's completely relevant for how food systems look and unfold. We have to recognize that food systems - food Policy isn't just about food systems, it's about recognizing that policies across the economy and society more broadly have relevance for food systems.

Matthew 49:50

It's a really interesting package of recommendations. And it's something that I think we can take that package and also discuss it with other guests too, because there are some people who are more on the globalized side of things that want more in the hyper localized, so I'd be curious to see a kind of whether they agree with the steps or whether there's pushback. So we can also stay tuned for that and in the future. So the last thing that we ask our guests is what knowledge base and what evidence do you draw from in your own research and work?

Jennifer 50:18

Actually, I draw on - in terms of evidence, a huge range of information from data on corporate ownership of corporate shares to data on food security and hunger, trade, finance, etc. but also drawing on interviews with policymakers trying to understand where they're coming from in terms of their worldviews and policy preferences. And I really try to bring together the narrative of what is happening in terms of the empirics on the ground, and also how different actors within food systems interpret that data and understand it and create their own sort of understandings of what it means. And to me what's really interesting is there such a diversity of understandings of what the data mean, that we end up with these kind of big debates at the policy level, where there are very passionate arguments on I wouldn't even just say, two sides, like many sides, many angles, that people come at these issues with. And I try to understand - get in the heads of all of those different perspectives, and try to understand how policy then ultimately gets influenced, and how those different understandings connect with power in the global economy. And a lot of my work is about power, who has that power? Who has the influence? And in many ways, it's economic actors that that are able to command more control of market shares, or, trade patterns, etc. often do have more power within that system, and oftentimes, their narratives win out in terms of policy. But I tried to look at, okay, so if their narratives when and policy goes in a certain way, then who does that impact and how.
Sorry, all over the place. But my own work is really trying to pull on all of these different threads and try to understand it. And so where I'm coming from is I have training in economics, I have training in international relations, sort of examined a lot of these questions around power and its interface with the global economy, and also environmental studies and trying to understand that that kind of that kind of data that comes around sustainability and what that means for policy. And also increasingly, I'm realizing I'm finding myself drawn a lot to science and technology studies to understand how technological innovation plays a big role in a lot of these conversations around around dynamic change in food systems and the global economy. So it's a lot it's a mishmash, I think that's why my research agenda will go on for another few decades.

Samara 52:55

You can never retire. [laughs]

Matthew 53:00

And thank you very much, Jennifer, for speaking with us today.

Jennifer 53:03

Oh, well, thanks for having me as a guest. I hope my comments were interesting enough.

Samara 53:09

More than interesting enough.

Matthew 53:16

And that’s another episode of the Feed podcast presented by TABLE

(25 March 2021 outro)


That was a special one for me as I’ve been reading Jennifer Clapp’s work since my bachelors degree. Thank you for listening, and if you enjoyed the conversation, please leave us a review on Apple podcast and send us an email to We’d love to hear what you think of the show and who else we should be talking to.

To stay up to date with newest research on food sustainability topics, job listings and upcoming events, you can subscribe to TABLE’s newsletter: Fodder, and visit our webpage for this episode at where we’ve linked to various publications by Jennifer Clapp mentioned in our conversation.

Today's episode was edited and mixed by me, Matthew Kessler, with special thanks to co-host Samara Brock and the extended Table community! Music in this episode by Blue dot sessions. We'll be back in your Feed soon when we speak to Jamie Lorimer about the Probiotic planet, examining ecosystem restoration on the tiny micro scale to the planetary scale!

Jamie Lorimer 54:20

It’s quite a profound exercise to think that a few microbes doing different things in the soil, or doing different things in the guts of cattle, could actually by the ways in which the system scales up, start to have profound implications on the very processes that environmental scientists have been concerned about for some time.

(12 May 2022 outro)


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The Feed podcast is produced by TABLE, a collaboration of the University of Oxford, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.