Profit or Sustainability? Comparing Models for Tomorrow’s Economy

Monopolies were the focus of yesterday’s debate between Barry Lynn and John Ikerd, moderated by journalist Roberto Bernabò. Barry is a journalist and writer, a researcher at the think tank of the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, he directed the Open Markets program and has written extensively on globalization, economics, and politics. John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus of Agricultural & Applied Economics at the University of Missouri, where he works on sustainable economics and agriculture.

Talking about sustainability in the economy is fundamental. We are living on credit with the planet, consuming many more resources than it can provide, and progressively losing our relationship with nature, its rhythms, and its times. As for the inequality of resources, we must also remember the marked differences between rich and poor countries: in 2018 the earth overshoot day fell on March 15 for the United States, while in Vietnam it is expected to be December 21.

According to Barry Lynn, “Today, in the United States and around the world, we are facing the greatest threat to our democracies. This threat depends on the concentration of economic power, on the concentration of control. For a long time, they told us that the globalized world would be a world of peace, a free world, a utopia. Meanwhile, 40 years ago, while this was the story being sold to us, Reagan and Thatcher were depriving us of our freedoms, abolishing the laws that protected us against monopolies, changing the fundamental rules of our democracies. Monopolies were established in the name of efficiency, treating us as consumers and not as citizens. Now there are monopolies in all sectors that did not exist in the past. This situation has become even worse with the advent of Google or Facebook, which now control the flow of information. This is the biggest threat that we have faced for many decades, and we must win, we must counter this trend.

Ikerd instead started with a definition of capitalism, which today is seen as one of the main causes of the problems that we face. “Today, however, we have neither capitalism nor democracy, we have evolved into something profoundly different. We have corporatism and plutocracy. In all of this, our government has failed to meet one of its first responsibilities, to maintain competitiveness in a large number of companies. Everything was focused on allocative efficiency, on reducing costs by increasing the size of companies. The focus was exclusively on price, on output, and no longer on ensuring sustainability. What we should do to have a sustainable agriculture is to return to the basic principles of democracy and the idea of a traditional market, based on competitiveness.”

Nevertheless, there are signs of hope that can be grasped. Lynn says: “Not in the Trump administration, nor in the European right-wing forces in which, nevertheless, I see a reaction, a rebellion against the monopolies. They fight against monopolies but do not know how to do it, they do it with the wrong people. Today we talk about “populism”, a term that comes from the party of the people. This term means that the people have control. Trump is not a populist, but a demagogue, and even in Europe we do not have populists, but demagogues. The hope lies here: in taking power away from the monopolies, and maintaining democracy.” Ikerd is also tentatively optimistic, and places his hopes in the possibility of interconnection with the earth. “I am convinced that we will succeed in changing society and the economy, because right now they are not sustainable. We need to join forces at a national, international, and global level, returning to fundamental rights. All people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. Everyone has the right to pursue happiness. In the USA, the movement Move to Amend, aims to ensure that people participate in the political process, while the local food system is moving in the direction of sustainability, towards the affirmation of our interconnection with the earth, pushing us towards an ecological integrity that can bring about a change that is based on solid principles. I have supported the current food system for a large part of my career, but then I realized how wrong and unfair it was. Increasing productivity does not guarantee food for everyone, but only the enrichment of large companies, while the number of hungry people is growing. The current food system is clearly destructive. On the contrary, we need to isolate this sustainability chain from the global economic strand. We must produce food in a sustainable way, isolating this chain from the exploitation model currently in force on the market. We must ensure safe food for all and support companies that produce sustainably. If we look ahead and fight, we can win the world. It’s a difficult time, but it’s also full of opportunities. We have to take them.”

Markets, competition, sustainability. These are the topics at the center of the debate at the Mipaaft-Ismea stand, where the debate focused on the development of farmers and farmers’ markets. At the European level, Italy is the leading country in the farmers’ markets sector and the second nation in the world after the United States. The economic value of these markets is important and can no longer be seen as a mere cultural and folkloric phenomenon. They too are an affirmation of democracy, a response to the monopolies, a step forward towards freedom.

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