Comments on Agriculture and Food in Crisis


Comments on Agriculture and Food in Crisis (2010, Monthly Review Press) ed. by Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar.


In the period between 2006 and 2008, a world food crisis emerged. Agriculture and Food in Crisis (2010, Monthly Review Press) is an anthology of articles describing the causes and effects of this crisis. The collection is edited by Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar. Since the book contains the works of so many authors, many views are presented. The articles contain the typical liberal problems of academic treatments of oppression. Even so, the work contains useful information on how neoliberalism intersects with the growing food crisis, especially in the Third World. Rather than looking at each author, this review comments on useful information found throughout the volume.

Global food shortages have become a major issue, especially for the poorest peoples, those living in the Third World. Food prices are rising. Over the last few years, millions have gone hungry, unable to afford basic nutrition. In the poorest countries, 125 million more people fell into extreme poverty in just the years between 2006 and 2008. Many declared a global food crisis. The World Food Program worried that food reserves would not be able to meet the urgent demand. (33) However, what was not recognized was that this food crisis is part of a larger crisis, the crisis of capitalism itself. Capitalism regularly creates artificial crises. Marx called this the anarchy of capitalist production. The current methods of agricultural production and food distribution, formed and maintained by capitalism, are crises in and of themselves. Global food production is decreasing even though current human needs are not being met, especially in the Third World. Grain and soybeans previously grown for human consumption are being diverted into industrial meat production, factory farms, to maintain profit margins and First World consumption patterns. Third World countries are compelled to accept neoliberal structural-adjustment policies, turning them into food importers. This leads to lower food production and higher food prices in the Third World. Due to depeasantificaiton, one sixth of humanity now lives in slum conditions, mostly in the megacities of the Third World. (10) The transformation of peasants into slumdwellers takes place at the same time as corporate domination of the world’s food system increases on an unprecedented scale. More than one billion people suffer from severe hunger. Nearly two billion more, almost all of the Third World, suffer from food insecurity. (12) The current systems of agriculture production and food distribution are failing at least half of the planet’s people. Yet, even with decreases in food production, the world still produces enough food to feed everyone. (13) Although this should not be taken to mean that either infinite population growth,  population and consumption levels are necessarily sustainable. The work details the grim realities of food production under capitalism today. The global poor cannot compete in terms of purchasing power with multinational corporations, global institutions, and First World states that wish to see the world’s food supply appropriated for meat production, fuel production, or simply consumed by populations in the wealthier countries. The global capitalist economy distributes wealth in a vastly uneven manner both between individuals within countries, and between countries themselves. (14) The current system is unsustainable, ecologically and socially. What most of treatments of the issue fail to understand is that the solutions to such problems require going beyond capitalism itself.

The essays describe how the neoliberal power holders interact to ensure their control of the food system. The IMF and World Bank have both created and maintained the neoliberal policies behind the food crises. Structural adjustment policies, forced upon indebted countries, have contributed to a global “capitalist transformation of the countryside.” (43) Structural adjustment means power accumulates in the hands of the few. A handful of corporations increasingly monopolize the food system. (211) The number of corporations controlling food production and distribution has contracted. Two companies control two-thirds of the world’s grain market. (211) Three companies — Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta — have cornered the commercial seeds trade, controlling 40 percent of that market. (21) These corporations have declared themselves owners of the very seeds that humanity has been forced to rely on by patenting their genetic modifications. Yet their genetically modified crops have not shown increases in yields. (23) Even so, farmers from Mexico to India find themselves forced to purchase these seeds. Once producers, Indian farmers today find themselves as consumers, forced to purchase expensive corporate-owned seeds from landlords and lenders to get by. (46) Moreover, ten companies control 75 percent of the agrochemical market. Thus dependency of growers and the power of corporations are increased. Traditional producers have little options within a global system that is increasingly rigged against them.

Truly free markets are a myth. Despite neoliberal propaganda touting the power of the free market, control of food supplies has been anything but free. Open markets by themselves are not enough for corporations to profit in the Third World. Governments must intervene to ensure and increase corporate profits. The rich countries of the First World rely on subsidizing their own population while muscling Third World states against such policies. Domestic production of food is subsidized by First World governments so too are  crops billed as ecofriendly. The 2008 Mitchell Report, a suppressed report from an economist at the World Bank, alleges that increases in biofuel production in the United States and the EU were to blame for three-fourths of the huge increase in food prices in the years between 2002 and 2008. (36) For the purported reason of “energy independence,” and to placate First Worldist environmentalists, the US government offers subsidies that promote shifting the production of corn to agrofuel, making the shift a profitable venture. (122) In addition, profits are made by exporting subsidized, non-nutritious foods from the First World to the poor countries of Third World. These corporations have had to wage campaigns with state help to change the diets of people in the Third World. For example, people in the Third World seldom consumed wheat. With wheat-producing corporations looking to expand their markets, the US government provided “charitable” wheat for countries that had never produced it. A United Nations report describes similar campaigns. First World states and their corporate allies through “massive marketing and advocacy” made “high-fat, high sugar and low-fiber fast foods and soft drinks” palatable to a new base of consumers in the Third World. Predictably, the influx of these foods and the changing of diet coincided with an “escalating trend” of non-communicable disease in poor countries. (22)

First World government policies have turned food production upside down. Mexico was the first country to domesticate corn. Corn was a staple of Mexico’s ancient indigenous cultures. Corn only reached the “old world” after contact with European explorers and settlers. Yet by 2007, Mexico was dependent on importing its corn from the United States. According to one set of authors in the volume, this is the result of IMF and World Bank structural-adjustment polices that began in the 1980s. The result was trade liberalization, land privatization of formerly-collective land, and elimination of various government protections for peasants that had been in place since the Mexican Revolution. NAFTA further solidified this shift. Mexico, traditionally a country with a rich tradition of food production, soon became a net importer of its food. (40)

The neoliberal impact on food production and distribution has resulted in vast demographic changes in the Third World. Depeasantization and its correlate slumification have been major trends over the last decade. Modern primitive accumulation drives peasants from their land to undeveloped urban areas. In Marx’s day, capitalism forced the peasantry into the factories of new urban production zones. Migration to cities today does not correspond to any industrial need. Thus, today’s peasants are driven into informal slum economies. (27) Nearly one-sixth of humanity lives in slums. The peasants who migrate to the slums essentially drop out of the economy, they are cut off from society. The slumification of the peasantry correlates with an increase of corporate control of agriculture as well as the massive increase in the number of people facing food insecurity. Depeasantization takes other forms as well. In the countryside, farmer suicides have increased dramatically. In rural Maharashtra India, suicide rates tripled from 1995 to 2005. Some 150,000 Indian farmers took their lives over the last few years alone. (46) The depeasantization and slummification that results, in part, from neoliberal control of the food supply has created a vast, new social and geographic base for revolution. The course of future revolutions will surely be imprinted by the neoliberal food policies.

There are numerous suggestions about how to challenge the neoliberal control of the global food supply. “NGOs will save the world,” say many liberals. Since the 1980s, the number of “development-oriented” NGOs in the Third World has increased dramatically. NGOs have attracted vast sums of investment from foreign donors by creating the impression that NGOs are less corrupt, more innovative, more efficient, and closer to the community than states and corporations. NGOs advocates claim that NGOs allow knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices to travel between various “social worlds,” allowing these disparate groups to “unite,” to offer alternatives to current agricultural practices. (276) Having to satisfy the interests of foreign donors and the local elites, NGOs do little to challenge the economic system as such. NGOs’ focus on their local projects rather than the broader social change necessary to solve the problem and protect such gains. NGOs end up as social bandaids that fail to offer any real alternative to the system. Instead NGOs form a pillar of the system within those communities most oppressed by the system. NGOs, consciously or not, often come to occupy the social space ripe for revolutionary activism and the creation of the revolutionary institutions of New Power. NGOs come to compete with and block New Power. Thus, despite themselves, NGOs end up serving the very system they criticize. Other recommendations in the volume end up reinventing the wheel. For example, two authors advise that looking to certain aspects of centuries-old traditional food production practices can inform new agricultural practices that do not rely on corporate agrochemicals or monoculture. The current system of food distribution is inefficient. Currently, food items travel an average of 1,300 miles before reaching someone’s plate. (47) Keeping food production close to its consumers is one part of the solution, a solution pioneered, in part, by past socialist societies. Decentralization combined with collectivism of agricultural was part of the socialist model pursued in China during the Cultural Revolution. Self-reliance was pushed by China’s people’s communes. However, it is hard to see how such recommendations could be implemented without a revolutionary, proletarian state dedicated to protecting such localization from neoliberal domination.

The essays emphasize not only today’s aspects of imperial control, but also the continuity with imperialism’s past. The extractive policies of the colonial era share commonalities with the neoliberal policies of today. Just as in the past, raw materials flowed from the Third World to the First World, where they were transformed into finished goods, today, the First World has transformed the Third World into a “world farm.” (51) The wealthy countries of the First World, representing a minority of global consumers, feed, quite literally, on the labor and resources of the Third World. Today’s imperialism, like earlier forms, transfers power and wealth to the top, leaving the vast majority impoverished. The solution is not found within a system driven by profit and expansion. The nature of capitalism is to place profit above the vast majority of humanity. Capitalism’s nature is to continually expand even if the consequences threaten humanity and the Earth itself. Just as the bourgeois state is not the answer, neither can NGOs and small-scale community organizations upend the extractive relationship between the First World and the Third World that drives the modern food system. The best intentions of liberals do little to really solve the crisis facing the global poor. The crises caused by today’s capitalist agriculture and food systems require revolutionary change. A real solution requires an alternative system that serves the interests of the poor and the Earth itself. The people of the Third World suffer. The earth suffers. The system is rotten. No one should starve. No one should go hungry. Food production should empower, not exploit the people. The answer is not reformism of any kind. Oppression leads to resistance. In response to the global food crisis, popular eruptions occurred in dozens of countries, from Bangladesh to Mexico. In Haiti, riots in 2008 led to the ousting of the prime minister. These policies also led to reinvigorated resistance movements across Mexico, notably the Zapatistas and the Popular Revolutionary Army. However, to truly restructure global society, we need global people’s war waged by the poor of the Third World led by the most advanced revolutionary science, Leading Light Communism.