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From land to mouth
Interview with Brewster Kneen
by Diana Holland

In an interview, Brewster Kneen, Canadian economist and author, calls market forces-driven agriculture a failed system and suggests a return to local farming.   

Brewster Kneen is an economist and author who believes that charity has no place where social justice prevails. I first encountered him on television, explaining his view that big humanitarian concerts like Live Aid are essentially a managed commercial product. While they exhort the general public to give to worthwhile causes such as ending world hunger, Kneen said, they tacitly condone inequitable food production and distribution systems which we should be questioning and beginning to transform. Brewster Kneen has spent over half his life studying the corporate structuring and control of individual commodities such as sugar and canola, and of food systems in general. I recently interviewed him for Share International.

Share International: Your book, From Land to Mouth: Understanding the Food System, is one of the most perceptive and interesting I have ever read. What prompted you to begin your analysis?

Brewster Kneen: I was concerned about the global effects generated by things we take for granted in the West. If we take the sugar which appears on our table, for example, and trace it back to the cane-cutters in Mozambique, Madagascar or South Africa where it comes from, we find that conditions for the producers are far from the best, and that there are a whole series of corporate structures in between.

SI: Could you briefly describe how market forces have influenced agriculture as you see it?

BK: The logic of the corporate food system is that food is a commodity, a way of making money. Feeding people is simply a by-product of the system. The basic principle which seems to drive everything is what I call "distancing." You create as much distance as possible between the consumer – the eater – and the farmer from whom the food originates. All of the interventions between consumer and farmer are basically mechanisms by which profit can be made.

SI: As you describe it, you've experienced first-hand the illogicality of the system.

BK: Yes. In 1971, my family and I sold our house and moved from the metropolis of Toronto to the hinterland of Nova Scotia, one of Canada's Maritime Provinces on the Eastern seaboard. We decided to become farmers and raise sheep. That we had no farm experience or agricultural training turned out to be to our advantage, because our common sense quickly led us to question the current agricultural policy. For example, corn was being subsidized that year in a region where no one had ever dreamed of growing corn.

Time and time again, official policies made sense only in a larger context – the uncritical acceptance of farm industrialization, monoculture practices, and specialized agriculture beholden to a handful of large machinery and chemical companies. In a word, agricultural policy served the interests of agribusiness, and the system followed its own logic.

When we made more money in one day as dealers in the lamb auction barns than in a whole year as farmers, we realized that the primary producers of food should be intervening in the market on their own behalf instead of through middlemen. We set about organizing a regional, farmer-owned and operated cooperative. This in itself was a good lesson on how the food system is organized, as we came in contact with a whole range of wholesalers, retailers, storehouses, etc. We ended up re-structuring much of the livestock industry in Eastern Canada, and became active in farm politics and organizing.

When our children were grown and ready to leave for university, we had to make the difficult decision, like many families, to give up the farm. We could not afford to hire someone to replace family labour and keep it going. In 1986, after 15 years of reinvesting every penny of profit into the farm, we left, selling the entire operation for about half the price of an average house in Toronto. It had been a significant learning experience.

Meeting local needs first

SI: You espouse a different view of how the food system should work. What needs to change?

BK: Agribusiness today exists to produce crops as a means to make money. It fosters the exploitation of people, land and resources to produce crops to export and trade elsewhere, regardless of starvation in the Third World, a farm crisis in North America, and endemic environmental degradation everywhere. I suggest that we should concentrate on feeding the family and the local community first, and then trade whatever is left over. This is almost the exact opposite of the current market principle – that you produce primarily for sale, and hope to make enough money to survive on.

As I see it, the market does not work, because it does not ensure that everybody gets fed. And if it doesn't work, there is something radically wrong, both with the mechanisms of distribution and the structures which control them, because more than enough food can be produced.

In the Old Testament, the book of Exodus tells the story of manna, the miracle food which Yahweh provided for the Jews as they wandered the desert for 40 years after escaping from slavery in Egypt. Every morning, a coat of dew would appear all around the camp with the manna beneath it in a delicate, powdery film. The Jews were instructed to gather it, morning by morning, each according to his needs. The manna spoiled if it was hoarded, so it was not possible for opportunists to turn it into a commodity for profit or speculation.

When you restore "proximity" rather than "distancing", by meeting local needs first, the monoculture and uniformity so characteristic of the dominant system are replaced by as much diversity as possible in small-scale, local operations. Instead of depending on one or two crops that can be wiped out by disease or drought, farmers can ëinter-crop', as was done in traditional, nutritional agriculture, to avoid having all their eggs in one basket. Much costly processing, packaging, and advertising could be eliminated, along with trucking and many agricultural inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

SI: Could such a change be made? You would have to service large urban areas where people are used to eating products in boxes and ëfresh' fruits and vegetables trucked in from countries far away.

BK: When I first wrote my book about the corporate control of food systems, I couldn't point to many alternatives. I just described the logic as I saw it. Since then, it has been great fun to see examples of "proximity" emerging in various places. Farmers' markets, for example, have begun springing up in rural communities, which not only encourage the development of the local economy in a genuine sense, but fulfil the social role of providing direct involvement of the consumer with the producer: people like to know the people who grow their food.

Community-shared agriculture is now beginning to take off as well, as in the case of a project in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which began three years ago, when a farmer contracted with 200 families to buy the food he produced. They paid part of their share at the beginning of the season, which financed putting in the crop, and then took whatever produce was in season all through the season, including potatoes, cabbage, and so on, for storage. This was not only economically viable for the farmer, while producing more satisfying work, but very attractive to the consumers: most of them came back the next year, enrolling their uncles, cousins, and other members of their family.

That same farmer now knows of several farms in southwestern Manitoba that could serve a portion of the Winnipeg population while keeping the resources in the community, rather than draining them into the head office of some grocery conglomerate far away. As the pieces come together, I envisage people having a family farmer, just as they have a family doctor or dentist. Community land trusts are now beginning to form, to find both the land and farmers to produce for them, at the same time as commercial farmers are beginning to look for other means to survive, such as organic farming.

When shared farming is implemented, the whole sense of community begins to change. The people in town realize that their well-being is dependent on the health of the surrounding area, and begin to support local producers to grow food for them rather than big companies producing crops for export. The schools, hospitals, businesses, etc, in the rural communities no longer have to close down. Consumers begin composting or returning their vegetable matter to the farmers when they pick up their fresh vegetables. They also get accustomed to using what is in season, instead of buying what's available at the supermarket.

It is an education, and you find that you can produce sustainability on a small scale, within a bio-region or a segment of a bio-region, which is very exciting. I'm not against us trading back and forth. It's nice to have oranges. But where bio-regional sustainability is considered part of the equation, there are plenty of home-grown and local crops that can be processed for consumption as well, using the best of modern technology. Small processing plants fitted on semi-trailers can travel around, serving quite a large area for a very small capital outlay. All the community requires is a gathering site with plumbing facilities.

Giving the Third World a chance to feed itself

SI: Speaking of oranges in Canada, what about the Third World, trade, and the issue of sustainability?

BK: Some very interesting projects are going on all over the world, with archeologists and anthropologists paying much more attention to traditional practices and rediscovering almost forgotten forms of agriculture, as in the Andes, for example. But I see direct links between people saying: "We want to feed ourselves here," and the same thing being allowed to occur elsewhere in the world.

We should give the Third World a chance to feed itself, and try to dismantle the system which is insisting that it grow for export while people are starving to death. It surprises me how much people of the North still think we have to solve the problems of the less developed countries. We talk about working with these nations but we assume that, because of our techno-tricks, we have all the answers for them. My question is: "Where did their problems come from in the first place? As we were the ones who created most of them, how can we now assume that we have the answers?" If we minded our own business and concentrated on feeding ourselves, other people might have a chance to do the same.

The Northern nations have a huge guilt problem to deal with. It may feel good to people when they send off five dollars to buy so many liters of powdered milk for the starving, but that does not really solve anything. It is not going to change the balance of power or the system which currently benefits from it. Supporting the food banks in the developed countries is another case in point: as far as the food conglomerates are concerned, food bank donors simply serve as surrogate buyers for the deprived. The product is disposed of, the money rolls in, and nothing changes.

SI: So we can accomplish more by taking responsibility for feeding ourselves and our communities?

BK: This may seem like a self-indulgent act, but cleaning up our own back yard is one way to start. It is strange how we have come to regard as normal and reasonable the notion that the only way to eat is first to buy food at the store. Even projects that appear marginal are important – like turning a manicured lawn into a vegetable garden, or doing roof-top urban gardening, or starting community kitchens. They are not going to change the big picture, but they give people a different notion about how they could be living, which can be very powerful. Essentially, we need to analyse what is actually going on. Envisioning the alternatives is usually regarded as unrealistic, but there is nothing more unrealistic than the idea that our current market system is adequate or just, or that we can carry on with it.

(Brewster Kneen's book, From Land to Mouth, is a short and incisive study of corporate control of food systems. He also publishes an excellent monthly newsletter, The Ram's Horn. Both are available c/o Brewster Kneen, 125 Highfield Road, Toronto, Ontario M4L 2V4, Canada.)

From the April 1994 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005