Food Security Discussion Series
Summary by Dr Jane O'Sullivan

Thursday, 2 June
Geoffrey Lawrence
Food Security Challenges for the 21st Century


Professor Lawrence’s talk was a synopsis of six years’ study of the financialisation of food systems. I recommend you refer to his presentation for more detail.

The book “The transformation of agri-food systems” (McCullough et al, 2008) identifies three general categories of food systems: traditional, modernising and industrial. Traditional systems are characterised by local, direct trade in simple wet markets. Modernising systems diversify diets and market arrangements, with more sophisticated retailing. Industrialisation sees the domination of supermarkets and contracted supply chains. Diets initially diversify with greater capacity for regional distribution, then increasingly include processed food. Markets and products are increasingly regulated. Agricultural enterprises move from low-input, smallholder mixed farming to more specialised and semi-intensive family and corporate farms, to larger, highly specialised ‘productivist’ enterprises.

Drivers of these transformations include globalisation, neoliberalism, and financialisation. Influences which are increasingly important are consumerism, climate change and resource depletion.

Globalisation widens and speeds up world-wide interconnectedness, and forces compliance with the globalised system. While maximising the diversity of products offered in any place, specialisation narrows the range of products produced locally. Pressure is intensified to ‘optimise’ production, including tailoring crops and animals to food chain requirements.

The ideology of neoliberalism values individualism over societal considerations, and prioritises free markets and minimised regulation. The practice of neoliberalism features privatisation of public assets, user-pays, deregulation and reduced taxes for corporations. It was enshrined as the global economic orthodoxy through the Washington Consensus, administered through the World Bank and IMF, which imposed on developing countries ‘fiscal discipline’, ‘structural adjustments’ and openness to foreign investment.

Financialisation refers to the increasing presence and influence of financial entities and products in modern life. Products such as derivatives and credit default swaps enable financial entities to capture profits while minimising risks.

While consumerism is seen as shaping production patterns, it is itself a product of neoliberalism and financialisation: a set of behaviours designed to maximise market demand and turn-over of products. Increasingly value-added, processed foods have seen diets incorporate more sugars, fats and animal protein.

Geoff proposed five key food security challenges for the 21st Century:

  1. Achieving global food security in the face of climate change and world population growth
  2. Increasing food production without compromising the environment
  3. Reducing waste in, and energy requirements of, agri-food systems in the context of global supermarket expansion
  4. Ensuring food sovereignty in an era of ‘financialisation’
  5. Introducing ‘sustainable diets’ into a world of growing consumerism

The Sustainable Development Goals include several targets relating to food security, particularly in Goals 2, 12, 13 and 15. On the positive side, it is the first time targets have been set to end hunger and malnutrition, and sustainability is integral to development. On the negative side, it is a wish list which provides only voluntary guidelines, and it would take 3.4 planet Earths to sustain the consumption implicit in the goals. The SDGs document is framed in neoliberal ideology, emphasising trade liberalisation, corporations and private finance as key drivers.

Drivers in the opposite direction, toward more inclusive and sustainable systems, are tiny compared to the dominant actors. They include NGOs such as Via Campesina, an international organisation of small farmers promoting food sovereignty, and alternative food networks which are bypassing the industrial food chain to connect growers to consumers. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are opposing some aspects of international globalisation which they see favours the existing centres of financial power to the exclusion of emerging economies. This may act to ‘tame’ global neoliberalism.

In conclusion, population growth and resource depletion mean more food will be needed from a deteriorating base. Productivist farming might increase food production, but at a cost to smallholders and the environment. If the neoliberal agenda does not meet global food needs, we are likely to see increasing dissent and civil unrest, with demands for food sovereignty and nations withdrawing from the Washington Consensus.

Our discussion explored why there is so much concern about industrialisation in agriculture, but not in other sectors of production, and whether it was valid to equate small-scale with non-industrial production, or even a preference for less industrialisation. Here it is less about technology than about financialisation concentrating assets and decision-making power into few hands with narrow, short-term interests, disempowering the majority of stakeholders (both producers and consumers). It was suggested that enhanced family planning programs should be listed among the potential solutions, since such programs are currently neglected and food security depends considerably on how many people there will be. It was also proposed that we refer to ‘nutrition security’ rather than ‘food security’, to highlight that malnutrition is more widespread than undernutrition.


Discover more presentations from the GCI Food Security Discussion Series here.

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