Not beyond the free market

TreeHugger features the story of a British artist and activist who’s “challenging global issues of waste, capitalism and globalisation by scavenging food, and setting up a cooking co-op where anybody can join in and share in the wealth.”

Her name is Eugenia Beirer and this has been in pursuit of a degree from the Chelsea College of Art & Design. The project’s website is here, but I’m half-inclined to believe that what she’s actually up to is parodying confused anti-capitalist activists.

To be clear, I think what she and her fellow artists are actually doing is great. They go around public markets and collect food that’s slated for disposal that’s still edible, then prepare meals out of it, which they serve free to anyone who wants it. Practically every food-seller in the world pitches a lot of stock that doesn’t meet enough consumers’ aesthetic standards to be salable, or that’s not spoiled yet but will be soon and has to make way for fresh stock. Sometimes it goes to food banks or homeless shelters or other worthy causes, but all too often it doesn’t. If Beirer and others want to volunteer to collect the stuff and turn it into something useful, good on them.

But why they say they’re doing it doesn’t make any bloody sense at all. Here’s an explanation in a long Q&A at the U.K.’s New Consumer:

New Convent [sic] Garden Market is one of the wholesale markets in London where fruit and veg from all over the world are delivered to, stored and sold. Food overproduction stands in high contrast with food insufficiency in the developing and third world. Within Free Trade and Free Market, food overproduction is encouraged in order to keep prices low. There was a time when farmers within the EE [sic] would be paid for their waste. This led to farmers overproducing insane amounts just to produce waste and be paid for it. You can see the complications! World poverty is not down to there not being enough food; it’s down to politics and economic global policies of food production and trading. The reason I set up BTFM [“Beyond The Free Market”] kitchens is so people can witness this and hopefully inspire them to make changes in the way they think, consume and engage with the capitalist system.

Wait … what? Using public money to encourage farmers to produce food nobody’s going to buy is a consequence of free trade and free-marketism run amok? Somebody’s confused or putting us on. As with Hazel Henderson’s recent essay at WorldChanging talking about, e.g., the failure of First World countries to knock down Third World trade barriers while keeping their own up as evidence of the failure of capitalism, Beier is blaming free markets for the failures of free markets’ enemies.

Another “problem” Beier blames free markets for is European regulations defining particular foods, such as bananas:

An example of this is bananas. Now when you think of a banana you think of a semi long, perfectly shaped fruit. In Tenerife, platanos are mini bananas which grow naturally. Because the platanos are short and thick and not long and narrow, the EU has prohibited the export of platanos, which means farmers from Tenerife can’t enter the European market even though they are part of Europe!

Instead, bananas (as we know them) get flown over from Puerto Rico or other parts of the world. So the EU legislation contributes to climate change through unnecassary [sic] food-miles when they should be supporting local farmers. Also, fruit and veg species die out due to standardisation, as producing them is not profitable or even affordable any more.

I’m not familiar with these specific regulations, but assuming they’re more or less as Beier describes them, it’s pretty outrageous that a resident of Europe can’t buy a platano if he or she wants to. It makes even less sense if the result is that they’re importing Puerto Rican goods instead of consuming something grown domestically — in that case, the regulations wouldn’t even be living up to their stated purpose. My point, though, is that there’s no earthly reason for a government to care whether its people eat bananas or platanos or stewed golf balls. Whatever the consumer wants, presumably the market would be quite content to supply.

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