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The global food crisis is the result of capitalism, not shortages or overconsumption, and the solution requires collective responses, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, Hungry for Change: Farmers, Food and the Agrarian Question (Fernwood Publishing 2013), vi, 194pp.

The global food system is in crisis. There is enough food produced in the world to feed the entire human population, yet every year at least a billion people go hungry. Food price inflation has been relentless since 2007, sparking protests from Mexico to Mauretania, and forming part of the background to the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. At the same time, the actual food producers are also suffering, as the commodification of the products of subsistence agriculture is impoverishing farmers and driving them off the land. These two short books, Hungry for Change and Hungry Capital put different aspects of the food crisis at the centre of their analysis, but are united in considering it as created by capitalism’s expansion within the realm of food production. This leads them to similar conclusions about what should be done; conclusions however which are not always sufficient to the nature and scale of the problem they identify.

Hungry for Change’s focus is on the food producers, as Akram-Lodhi structures his analysis of the problems of the modern food system around the experiences of farmers in the developing world in particular, from coffee farmers in Uganda, subsistence farmers in China and Pakistan, to sugarcane producers in Fiji. Hungry Capital starts from the financial markets and the world of commodity speculation, in which food has gone from the stuff of life to just another commodity, indistinguishable from war planes or widgets, with production determined not by human needs but by profit. This might seem a world away from Hungry for Change’s peasant farmers, but both books make clear that the two spheres are in fact linked. The battles which the poor farmers of Hungry for Change have faced to maintain their livelihoods, in the face of increasing corporate involvement in agricultural markets, arise from the financialisation of food described by Russi in Hungry Capital.

This is brought out particularly strongly by the account in Hungry for Change of the Green Revolution and the subsequent development of GM crops. The Green Revolution was the development in the 1950s and 1960s of new disease-resistant strains of food crops, principally wheat and rice, to increase yields in developing countries like Mexico and India. This revolution remains extremely controversial in green circles. For some it is one of the major causes of environmental degradation, while others see those who object to its legacy as preferring to see poor people starve.[i]

Akram-Lodhi does not get bogged down in these debates but points out that alongside the gains in crop yields, the Green Revolution brought about the introduction of the market into subsistence farming systems, which had hitherto remained effectively outside it. In order to reap the benefits of the new technologies, peasants needed cash to buy the seeds, fertilizer and equipment, and continuing supplies of cash to maintain them. Peasants could not longer exist simply by eating their own produce and selling the surplus; they had to sell their crops if they wanted to continue farming. This effect of the Green Revolution would be continued by widespread adoption of GM crops, which are ‘not about improving small-scale peasant productivity; [but] …about monopolistically consolidating the profitability needs of agro-food transnational corporations’ (HfC, p.95).

Movements like Via Campesina, fighting to take back power from the corporations for the benefit of small producers, are therefore an important part of the answer to the problems of the food system, and Akram-Lodhi in particular is clear about the need for genuinely pro-poor land reform. For both authors, however, what is needed goes beyond the demands of current movements, working as they are within the system as it exists. Both books end with visions of food systems removed from capitalism and based on small-scale, local production.

Akram-Lodhi proposes that ‘some food provision could instead become a kind of “commons” – an area outside the exclusive and untrammelled sway of the market, available to all as a basic right of citizenship.’ This is, as he acknowledges, a return to a pre-capitalist reality: ‘For most of our history, being a member of a community has brought with it a right to an elementary amount of food; this has been true for even very poor communities. It is only in the past four centuries that food slowly became something to be bought and sold to the highest bidder’ (HfC, p.157). The system of communal responsibility described here in fact goes back to the Neolithic and did indeed survive in peasant communities, despite the rise and fall of empires and, in Europe, the imposition of feudalism, until it was destroyed by capitalism. This is certainly a demonstration that there is nothing inherent in human nature which means that co-operative production and distribution of food is impossible. Whether it is possible to turn the clock back in the way Akram-Lodhi suggests is however less clear.

Luigi Russi, Hungry Capital: The Financialization of Food (Zero Books 2013), xii, 160pp.

Russi makes no such explicit call to return to a pre-capitalist model, although the recurrent contrast between ‘artificial’ food production under capitalism with ‘natural’ food does seem to hark back to a pre-capitalist age in a way that is not entirely dissimilar to that found in Hungry for Change. He makes clear however that a world of ‘peasant co-production’ and ‘a diverse ecology of small rural producers’ (HC, pp.98-9) should be the aim for the food system.

The conclusion that when it comes to farming, bigger is not necessarily better is not an unusual one. Studies comparing small-scale farming with industrial monocultures have found that the small to medium-sized mixed farms were also the most productive, as well as the ones which were the least destructive to the environment.[ii] However, this in itself does not mean that peasant production is the only way forward: the size and production patterns of the agricultural enterprise do not have to determine the social structure in which it exists.

It is clear that in Hungry Capital especially that peasant-style farming is presented as a positive good over and above the issue of farm and field size. This is partly through the identification of peasant-farming with natural as opposed to artificial food production, and partly through the definition of the peasant condition as ‘consisting both of an element of resistance and an element of autonomy’ (HC, p.54). The peasant as producer of their own food can be independent from the market in a way in which a proletarian, who has to sell their labour to survive, cannot be. They are therefore in a position to withdraw resources from capitalism by refusing to participate in the market. Here, Russi gives the example of peasants giving olive oil rather than money in exchange for help with the olive harvest, and thus ‘effectively challeng[ing] the worldview behind the patterning of the current economic system’ (HC, p.103). These are also of course the communities which could be imagined as adopting the communal right to food projected in Hungry for Change.

It is clear that the defence of peasant communities from the depredations of capitalism and the struggle for land reform are both a necessary part of any potential alternative food system, but it is less obvious how the vision in either of these books for a return to pre-capitalist peasant farming is a sufficient answer to the crisis of the food system. It is not entirely clear in either work whether the ideal of communal peasant production is supposed to apply only to existing peasant communities, or whether it is equally applicable to the West, where capitalism has long transformed the peasantry into the proletariat. While the focus of Hungry for Change in particular is on the developing world, both works are clear that the food system in the West is a large part of the problem. It is also the case, of course, that the audience for both books, published as they are in English in London and Ontario respectively, will be predominantly Western. The question of what campaigners in the West should be doing about the food system, and what we should be aiming for, therefore cannot be ducked, but it is the point at which the weaknesses of the arguments in both works are exposed.

For Akram-Lodhi, the problems of capitalism and food express themselves in the West in ‘the 500 million around the world who are clinically obese, the 1.5 billion people who are overweight’ (HfC, p.4). This version of the common trope that a billion people underconsume while another billion overconsume is repeated a number of times, and is amplified by a story of a college student who put on weight during her first year because the food available to her in her hall of residence was poor but calorific. Akram-Lodhi is by no means the first writer on the food system to hang his book on this convenient hook but it is not necessarily a good precedent to follow. There is of course no direct causal relationship between obesity in the West and starvation in the developing world,[iii] and the repetition of this neat little paradox only serves to strengthen two unfortunate ideas: that the basic problem is that there is not enough food to go round, and that fat working-class people take up too many resources and need a dose of austerity.

A further effect is that, if the problem is identified as how people eat, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the solution lies not in the system but in individuals changing their behaviour. Thus for all his analysis of the food system as a system, with structural effects which determine how different communities across the world behave around food, Akram-Lodhi’s prescription for his Western readers is profoundly personal: ‘We must change ourselves if the world is to change … Our tastes must be transformed. We must reject high fructose corn syrup-based calorie- and chemical-intensive processed foods and our excessive love of meat …’ (HfC, p.168). Hungry Capital has nothing so explicit but does end with a call for planning to encourage small shops to survive in Western high streets and a shout out to ‘forms of politicization of the consumer’ (HC, p.99).

The difficulty with these conclusions is that they do not represent a sufficient solution to the systemic problems identified. Capitalism can survive very well relying on consumers with sufficient money and time switching to lower-calorie foods which take longer to cook. Capitalist businesses will even sell the lifestyle to them. The idea that individuals can make small changes to withdraw resources from the system comes from a failure to understand the totality of the system, and the way in which capitalism by its very nature extends into all areas of life, even those where people are trying to live by a different ideology. It is this very tendency of capitalism to expand which these works identify in describing what has been happening to agriculture. The conclusions, that this can be overcome by individual paradigm shifts, do not follow from the analysis of the problem.

In the end, both Hungry for Change and Hungry Capital suffer from a problem common to those who identify serious systemic problems within capitalism but do not want to consider that to overcome them it might be necessary to overthrow the system. This is not to say that struggles for improvements within the system, such as land reform, are pointless, as clearly they are valuable and necessary. It is also true that trying to live in a less consumerist way can be empowering as a way of expressing dissent from the mainstream capitalist ideology. What this will not do, however, is overthrow capitalism on its own. In Hungry Capital, Russi appears to take the view that all sorts of small actions, like bartering labour for olive oil, can be revolutionary, and points out that the flashpoints for the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia included food issues. This is true, but it does not mean that any activity around food is essentially revolutionary. What it tells us is that food prices can be, as they always have been, a trigger for revolt,but that ultimately if we want to oppose the system, we have to be prepared to get out onto the streets and bring it down.

Notes

[i] See for example Fred Pearce, Peoplequake(Transworld 2010), p.90: ‘Many people I know regard the green revolution as a disaster. They say it has tied billions of the world’s peasants to a marketised, globalised, mechanised, energy-guzzling, climate-warming, biodiversity-destroying way of feeding the world. I see their point. And it might have been done differently. But would they prefer billions starving?’

[ii] Peter Rosset, ‘Fixing our Global Food System: Food Sovereignty and Redistributive Land Reform’, Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar (eds.), Agriculture and Food in Crisis. Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (New York 2010), pp.189-205, p.200.

[iii] In 2004, Compassion in World Farming developed a computer model to see what the effects would be on world hunger if Westerners ate a less resource-intensive diet. They found that the reduction in a 50% shift would reduce childhood malnutrition in the developing world by less than 3%; Mark Gold, Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat (CWF 2004), p.34.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 

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