What role can food play in reducing inequality?

Behind all the political earthquakes we have been witnessing in the rich, developed world – Brexit, Trump, Macron, even the Governor of Tokyo’s sweeping victory in July with her new party – have lain two, closely related, issues: inequality and injustice.

In a West whose flaws have been so brutally exposed since the 2008 financial crisis, people feel their voices are not heard, that their societies and economies have become unfair, that “the system is rigged” against them.

The greatest task of our time is that of remedying this sense of inequality and injustice, in every way possible: political rights, campaign finance reform, access to education, the distribution of income, barriers to social mobility, minimum wage levels, and many more. At similar times of crisis and social dissent in the past, similar big new investments in extending and creating greater equality and a sense of shared citizenship have been made. So it can be, and must be, done again.

To some, this might sound like an issue of left versus right, and that the left needs to get back into power so as to swing the political pendulum back towards equality. I prefer to point to a historical precedent. In the early years of the 20th century it was a Republican US president, Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt who led the battle against what he called “the malefactors of great wealth” who had caused inequality and injustice in what Americans called “the gilded age”. He introduced new laws to be able to break up monopolies such as the Standard Oil Company, and even oversaw a big expansion of the country’s network of national parks.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What are needed today are new Teddy Roosevelts of both right and left. In these issues, food is simultaneously one of the battlegrounds and one of the danger zones. It is a battleground because monopoly power – the excessive concentration of control over markets, production and distribution, and correspondingly disproportionate control over politics and public policy governing those markets—is at the core of all concerns over food.

It is a danger zone, however, because in the pressure to reduce inequality, the political temptation to make food cheaper and more industrial is ever-present, as the Slow Food Movement knows all too well.

Battling monopolies and other forms of excessive corporate power needs to be a theme shared across many sectors of the economy: banking, because of the way vast financial institutions wreaked havoc in 2008 with the help of public subsidies and then were rewarded with publicly funded rescues; technology, because of the way network effects are concentrating control over our personal data and communications in the hands of a small number of companies; supermarkets, because of their power to bully suppliers; and the huge agri-business and pharmaceutical corporations.

So there is a good case for those campaigning for fairer and more freely competitive food systems to find allies among those campaigning against other forms of concentrated corporate and political power. Freer competition is all about making power more equal, using legal and democratic control to prevent monopolies and cartels that restrict choice and diversity.

What are needed today are new Teddy Roosevelts of both right and left.

The danger however can be seen in the British debate over what trade arrangements the country should adopt once it has left the European Union in 2019. Already, the UK government is discussing a new trade deal with the United States, in which the big pressure from those concerned about income inequality and poverty promises to be in favour of permitting the import of cheap US food, most notoriously chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef.

Photo: Getty Images

Will Britain have voted, in the words of the Leave campaign’s slogan, to “Take back control” from the EU merely to hand it to Washington and its lower food standards? The battle, against both monopoly and mediocrity remains to be won. In fighting that battle, we should all consult the great Scottish father of free-market economics, Adam Smith, who warned in his “Wealth of Nations” in 1776 of the dangers of cartels and monopolies. He also wrote, in a less well known book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, about the bonds that tie us all together in society, about our sense of a common welfare. Food is one of the great modern battlegrounds of exactly that sense.

Bill Emmott is a former editor-in-chief of The Economist. His latest book, “The Fate of the West”, has just been published in English, Italian and Japanese.


Cover Image: Yarek Waszul/ New York Times

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