Contrasting Food Corporations and Economics with Peasant Farmers and Sustainability

This is the second in a series of posts to provoke discussion about the global food system and influences on food policy prior to our Governing Food Policy Workshop to be held on the 25th of September 2015. In this post, Peter Senker contrasts the current role of multinational food corporations with peasant farmers and contemporary efforts to consider human health and environmental sustainability in the food system. Peter presents a discord between economically-driven food production and marketing industries and small-scale farmers and independent retailers.

Peter Senker worked as a Senior Fellow in SPRU, University of Sussex, from 1972 until 1995 when he retired. Despite retiring 20 years ago Peter is still very active in academic research and continues to publish his work. Peter has recently taken a position on the BSUFN steering group representing the Food Cultures and Technologies special interest group.

Contrasting Food Corporations and Economics with Peasant Farmers and Sustainability

We all know in general  about  the literature that Adam Smith wrote  more than a couple of hundred years ago about the benefits of markets in which suppliers compete with each other to meet the needs of consumers; and about how an ‘invisible hand’ ensures that each supplier striving for his own advantage benefits Society.

This sort of thinking still dominates the minds of most policy makers worldwide. But enormous quantities of research has clearly shown that this stuff does not apply to the modern multinational agricultural, food production, marketing and distribution industries.

Massive quantities of research have shown clearly that these industries are dominated by small numbers of huge multinational corporations whose central objective is to increase their profits.  They do this mainly by means of strenuous efforts to reduce the costs of the inputs they buy – from agricultural products to labour to transport – and by increasing the price they get from the sale of the products they produce, market and distribute. In reducing the costs of their inputs, the nutritional qualities of the foods they produce and market are of little interest to these corporations. In fact, from a nutritional point of view, a huge quantity of foods sold –particularly packaged foods sold at high prices in supermarkets – is not particularly nutritious, and indeed, is often harmful to their consumers’ health (obesity, diabetes etc.).

Large-scale food processing factory

Large-scale food processing factory

The corporations are happy so long as billions of customers can be persuaded to buy their products in vast quantities. The corporations spend many millions of pounds – including expenditure on research & development and innovation – on reducing the costs of inputs –taking some ingredients out, substituting cheaper ones etc. They spend billions on advertising etc., in persuading customers that the products they produce are tasty and nutritious.

In contrast, billions of peasants and small farmers around the world produce nutritious traditional tasty foods mainly for themselves and their families, largely by traditional means, and sell any surplus on markets.  Over the centuries, and all over the world, traditional farming has often produced and deployed substantial positive innovations to cultivation. But the huge resources derived by multinational corporations which they secure from their profitable operations are used continually to increase the proportion of land used, and agricultural and food production and distribution undertaken by those corporations.

Peasant farmers in Amhara Region, Ethiopia

Peasant farmers in Amhara Region, Ethiopia

In addition, there is a small but growing number of independent farmers, food producers, restauranteurs, etc., who treat the production and sale of nutritious food at the same time as minimising its harmful environmental impact – as their “profession”. This is analogous to the way in which doctors treat their patients with the main aim of helping them to recover from illness and stay healthy.

In summary, the present world agricultural and food production and distribution system is rubbish (“Dysfunctional” is the more respectable word used in my academic publications).


BSUFN would like your thoughts on this topic. Do think the current global food system is dysfunctional? What works well in the current food system? What do you think needs to be changed? What role can BSUFN play in this dialogue? Is there a need for BSUFN to support or undertake cross-disciplinary research? Could BSUFN take a role in publicising information to a wider audience? Could BSUFN get involved in advising policy-makers in the food sector?

You can get in touch with us by posting in the comments section below, via the Creating a Network for You page, or by e-mailing us at


Peter’s comments are drawn from two of his recent publications:

  • Senker, P. (2013)  ‘Arable agriculture, food, technology choice and inequality’, In: Cudworth, E., Senker, P. and Walker, K. (Eds) Technology, Society and Inequality: New Horizons and Contested Futures, Peter Lang, New York, NY, pp.105–19
  • Senker, P. (2015) The triumph of neoliberalism and the world dominance of capitalism, Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation, available here

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