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The story of the broken food system

Johny Goerend / Unsplash

The cost of our food largely exceeds the price we pay at the supermarket. In fact, our global food system is utterly broken and the effects are almost invisible to us. It benefits a small number of “too-big-to-fail corporations” and exploits both our planet and the people – all while influencing politics make sure it stays that way. We are here to make sure it doesn’t. Our food. Our future

This is what’s at stake.
This is the story of our food.


Why the global food system is broken

The industrialized food production has brought us to a point of no return – or at least it can seem that way. The food sector is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for up to 40% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Exploitative labour practices and the exponential creation of farmland are displacing entire communities and destroy natural habitats. The most harrowing part: Even though we are producing more food than ever before, an estimated 768 million people in the world are suffering from hunger. Despite the goal of ending world hunger by 2030, the numbers have now been rising dramatically for three years in a row! How is this possible?

Map of hunger: Where do most people suffer from hunger?


Food availability: Living in an abundance of food

The products we see on the shelves of our supermarkets have been purposely disconnected from their origins. Exported goods account for a big portion of the product volume in European supermarkets and yet we don’t see the distances they have travelled or the working conditions in which they were produced. Would we still buy them, if we did? Every food item has a story. And since the advent of industrialised mass production, that story has become far more complex and troubling.

Banana production: This is how a global food supply chain can look like


Industrialisation and the over-reliance on carbon

Industrialisation profoundly changed the way we produce food. Circular economies of the past, centred around producing and recycling locally, have been replaced by a one-way system of continuous flow that services the entire globe. As a result, we create vast amounts of carbon emissions in the processing, packaging, storaging and transportation of our food – only to throw away more of it than we ever have. A total of 30% of global energy consumption happens in the food sector. The industrial meat industry is an especially large contributor.

Comparison of the different foods’ ecological footprints. Aspects such as growing conditions, packaging and import routes were taken into account.

*kg CO 2 -eq. / kg food

Source: Guido Reinhardt, Sven Gärtner, Tobias Wagner Heidelberg (2020): Ökologische Fußabdrücke von Lebensmitteln und Gerichten in Deutschland, in: Ökologische Fußabdrücke von Lebensmitteln und Gerichten in Deutschland (; CO2-Fußabdruck von Fleisch und Fleischalternativen 2019 | Statista


The market dominance of global big players

We have created an agricultural sector dominated by the market imperatives profit maximisation and growth. This has led to huge amounts of power at the top of the supply chain and a growing inequality between farmers who export their products and those dependent on local markets. Small farmers are systematically disenfranchised by tactics like price gouging, displacement from land and the control of seeds and patents. Most troubling of all, this sort of market power enables giant companies to influence laws that benefit them. Anyone who is unable to compete is pushed out of the game.

Large food corporations profit from the agro-industrial food system, which is mainly based on an unequal distribution of profit.


Supermarkets as Gatekeepers

Supermarkets have a huge influence on how our food is produced and distributed, as well. The higher the market share of the supermarket chain, the greater their power to dictate prices and conditions to suppliers. Competition between supermarket chains for even more market power has the effect of squeezing out local retailers and producers, and concentrating market power in a few large chains. These chains ultimately determine the offer on the shelves from which the shopper can choose.

Europes biggest supermarkets by turnover

Source: TOP GROCERS IN EUROPE 2019, Aldi and Lidl take the lead | NHH; Wikipedia


Labor exploitation: A cornerstone of the food industry

Providing more food at cheaper prices does not work without exploitative labour. Human and labour rights violations are widespread in agriculture. Due to the lack of legal protection, many are regularly exposed to dangerous working conditions and have no way to fight back. Employment of vulnerable groups such as migrants and women is particularly widespread, as their legal status and position in society makes them easier to exploit, as they have e.g. fewer and often weakly secured rights, insecure residence status, and are more often affected by racial discrimination. Find out more on our “Foodtest” action page. We have taken a look at the invisible ingredients in food that come to us through global supply chains.

Distribution of profits: Who earns from wine?

Source: BASIC, Wertschöpfungskette Wein, Südarfika nach Deutschland, 2019

Distribution of profits: Who earns from tea?

Source: BASIC, Wertschöpfungskette Tee, Assam, Indien nach Deutschland, 2017

Distribution of profits: Who earns from orange juice?

Source: CIR: Ausgepresst. Hinter den Kulissen der Saftindustrie, 2018


The fight for arable land

The global race for arable land has just begun. Large corporations in particular, but also governments, are acquiring large areas of land, especially in the countries of the Global South, for the profitable cultivation of food or other agricultural goods. In this way, the Global North secures its food supply, but also its imperial power structure. Arable land has become a valuable investment and speculative commodity. Land grabbing is often carried out illegally and violently, sometimes even with the use of police or military, and in the long term destroys the livelihoods of indigenous communities and local small holders, which are increasingly displaced. This form of land appropriation is also known as land grabbing. Once again, industrial meat production is proving to be a major culprit, as the clearing of forests for the cultivation of soya primarily serves the meat industry. To meet the demand for meat, more and more land is needed for the cultivation of animal feed. But in Europe, too, the distributional inequality is obvious: about 3 % of the companies own about 59 % of the land.

LAND GRABBING: Illegal appropriation of cultivable land on foreign territories by powerful actors.

Source: Land Matrix; FIAN event "Land grabbing: investing in hunger"


Environmental destruction to gain more agricultural land

Agriculture today consumes about 70 % of the world’s available freshwater. The fertility of natural soils is decreasing, mainly due to the cultivation of huge monocultures, which promise to maximise profits in the short term, but in this way destroy the soils in the long term. Added to this is the use of dangerous pesticides for faster growth, which permanently damages the soils and contaminates the groundwater. Together with the ongoing deforestation and clearing of the rainforest, the natural livelihoods of plants, animals and indigenous peoples are gradually being destroyed to make room for more arable land. The mass death of insect populations is already a reality.

Consequences of industrial agriculture:
Land and environmental degradation through pesticides, monocultures and overfarming

This image-comparison uses audio if you drag the slider.

Industrial agriculture: A destructive vicious circle

The free market ideology that drives our current form of industrial agriculture is inhumane and unsustainable, and giant corporations are profiting from it. The food system is focused on markets and profits, not needs. Industrial agriculture is dominated by market imperatives such as competition, profit maximization, growth and productivity, and competition leads to the constant search for low labor and production costs. The power relations that secure the logic of our food system are capitalist and imperial, and presuppose seemingly unlimited and cheap access to resources and labor elsewhere. The true cost of our food is borne by exploited workers, dispossessed landowners and small farmers, and the environment, whose resources are finite.

All of this can seem insurmountable, and it is true that we face an uphill battle. What we need is a positive vision for change that we build together. Because we have power – not just through the choices we make in the supermarket, but also through the pressure we can put on our institutions. If you are hungry for justice, join #OurFoodOurFuture!

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