Capitalists produce food for profit, not need

Capitalism leads to a situation where enough food is produced, yet poor people can’t afford to buy it. So says Cosatu’s national spokesperson, Patrick Craven. He says the time has come for the government to regulate food prices, because food price-fixing scandals have shown that market forces can’t prevent profiteering at the expense of the poor. Annelie Coleman reports.
Issue date : 06 June 2008

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What, in your opinion, is the root cause for food inflation?
Millions are suffering from hunger and malnutrition and the problem has been exacerbated by the huge subsidies paid by the US and EU to protect the profits of their farmers at the expense of consumers and poor farmers in the rest of the world. This inevitably pushes prices up and on top of this, we have the rush to use grain for biofuel, which has also increased prices dramatically.

What has Cosatu done in response to the local situation?
We’ve urged the Competition Commission to investigate the entire food price chain to find out who is pocketing the extra money that consumers are paying in the shops. We’re not pointing fingers at any particular groups, but have noted that the identified perpetrators of price-fixing have been the food processors, rather than the farmers. And we know for certain this money is not going to the farmworkers or those in the food industry, who remain the lowest-paid. T here’s been talk about direct assistance to the poor.

What is Cosatu doing in this regard?
We’re campaigning for increasing social grants and the raising of the minimum wage for the lowest-paid, such as farmworkers, to reflect the increase in prices of essential items. We also support extending the zero-rating of VAT to more foods and other measures like coupons for the poor. Our responsibility is to protect the interests of our members and the broader working class who are battered by the price increases. We’re also campaigning for interim measures to cushion the impact of food inflation, for accelerated land redistribution and for the reform of the world trading system. This will level the playing field by stopping the subsidisation of wealthy farmers in the US and Europe.

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What happened to your threats of rolling mass action?
We’ve always said that what you haven’t won in the streets you’ll never win at the bargaining table. Mass action is the only way to ensure that government and business regard the matter of rising food prices seriously and take action. However, mass action is not an alternative to talks, but a complementary process. We are continuing to engage with government and business through Nedlac. The food price-fixing scandal has shown that government intervention is essential to regulate the market and ensure that consumers are paying the lowest possible price. Ironically, this used to happen in the apartheid days through the agricultural boards, which were scrapped.

If regulation keeps prices to a minimum, then surely that’s a good thing?
You’ve called for the resignation of CEOs from retailers like Spar and Pick ‘n Pay, or at least a significant cut in their salaries… Their salaries and bonuses are outrageous, especially when compared to the wages of their staff. Sean Summers of Pick ‘n Pay got R10,19 million in 2007 and sold off some of his shares for R13,5 million during the year, making his total take-home income R23,69 million per annum. Pick ‘n Pay’s minimum wage is R400 a month (R4 800 per annum). It’s part of the broader problem of widening inequality in South Africa and we must narrow this huge gap between rich and poor.

Is Cosatu prepared to work with organised agriculture to find solutions for the food crises?
Certainly, we’re always willing to talk and we already engage with business at Nedlac, where I assume organised agriculture is represented.

What role should BEE play in alleviating the problem?
BEE isn’t working as it should. It’s proceeding too slowly and has made little difference to the racial and gender distribution of wealth. Land redistribution needs to be speeded up and more assistance needs to be given to new black farmers to help them get started and be sustainable. A ray of light is that it should now be easier for emerging farmers to make a living from food production. We hope BEE will reverse the trend of converting farms into game parks and golf courses, bring more land into cultivation and increase the supply of affordable food to the people. |fw