18 April 2014 – the new politics of food – don’t forget the role of wet markets

The Financial Times had an opinion piece written by Paul McMahon (author of Feeding Frenzy: The New Politics of Food) on 11 April where he picks up on some of the issues raised in his book. These relate to food price volatility and its effects on an already unbalanced food system. The author discusses how reactions to recent food price spikes have made food an important geopolitical issue. He discusses how factors related to the inextricable link between food and energy (oil and biofuels), ecological limitations and the long term threat of climate change increasingly highlight critical disparities between where food is grown and where it is (and will be) needed. He stresses the need for co-operation and strong policy at the international level as countries attempt to control their own domestic food prices, suggesting that many food insecure countries no longer trust the market to provide. He also highlights the sustainability gap in all countries (rich and poor alike), advocating agro-ecological systems and the critical issue of healthy soil.

Paul McMahon is not without hope and points to some examples from developing countries, like Vietnam, which have invested in and supported smallholder farmers. He argues that by investing in rural infrastructure, Vietnam has been able to go from food deficit to status as a major rice exporter. However, as noted on this blog (1 December 2013), a recent article on Vietnam’s urban food systems by Lauren Shields (http://www.iddri.org/Iddri/Intervenants-auteurs/Shields) asks the question, ‘how do we build a modern urban food system without irreversibly losing the ‘working’ characteristics of the traditional system such as mutual trust between its stakeholders, from producers to consumers?’ It is these very systems, where practical and local knowledge systems survive, that retain vital skills about how to maintain healthy soil. It is clear we need not only careful balance between global and local food policy that is not wholly market-driven, but also balance between traditional and modernized food provisioning systems – vividly brought to life by the everyday life of Hanoi’s wet markets as they feed the burgeoning urban population.

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