Thought for food

Issue: 134

Dave Sewell

Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar (eds), Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review, 2010), £14.95

When prices for many basic foods spiked in 2007 and 2008, thousands rioted in more than 30 countries from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso. In Haiti the riots drove President Réné Préval from office; in Egypt they were a key act in the prologue to the current revolution.

It took the world’s intellectual establishment by surprise. By 2009 Scientific American was running articles with titles such as “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” After all, there can be few more serious failures of any social order than an inability to feed the population—as the Bolsheviks knew when they made the demand for “peace, bread and land” one of their main slogans in the Russian Revolution of 1917. This collection of essays is a serious attempt to theorise the crisis in the global food economy for the left.

What emerges is a powerful narrative of the struggle over control of food production over the last three decades. Mainstream debate about the food crisis tends to fall into one of two camps: either complacently situating its causes outside of the global economy and hoping for a technological fix to usher in a new Green Revolution, or channelling 19th century doom-monger Thomas Malthus to scaremonger about population growth.

So this book provides invaluable ammunition to demonstrate the centrality of social and economic factors to the problem of feeding the world. The subjugation of agriculture to the forces of the market is creating scarcity even where there should be plenty, and undermining the possibilities for sustaining food production into the 21st century.

Chief among the villains of the piece are the trio of international financial institutions. The World Trade Organisation has forced many developing countries to drop tariffs and subsidies for food producers in order to facilitate global competition, meaning that, instead of food for domestic consumption, farmers are encouraged to focus on cash crops for export. Increasingly, this includes the biofuels demanded by the US and EU. And the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, with their structural adjustment programmes of privatisation and austerity, have removed the safety nets for small farmers, who then struggle to compete with global agribusiness.

The result has been to push developing countries around the world from food sufficiency to dependence on imports from world markets. When prices on world markets go up, there is less to fall back on. And the fluctuations are made worse by agribusinesses that hoard grain as prices go up and dump it as they go down.

Far from helping alleviate shortages, technology has accelerated the centralisation and corporatisation of agriculture. From patented GM seeds to oil-based fertilisers and pesticides, small farmers have to buy inputs from agribusiness at prices dictated by the latter. This pushes thousands into deep debt and often, ultimately, off the land altogether. Most infamously, these debts have driven many thousands of small farmers to suicide in the last decade in Indian states such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

These developments have been among those devastating peasant communities and driven millions of people off the land and into urban slums. But far from proclaiming the death of the peasantry, this book offers inspiring glimpses of its bitter fight to survive. We are shown the battles of Paraguayan villagers against the soy mafia, and the mass occupations and seizures of land organised by Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST). Many of the contributors champion the demand of the international peasant federation, La Via Campesina, for “food sovereignty”, which it defines as “the people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”.

But if there is a criticism to be made of the book it is that where it promises “conflict, resistance and renewal”, it delivers pretty solidly on the conflict but only very tentatively on the resistance and renewal.

The weaker essays set their sights far lower in terms of challenging the system. So a chapter on free trade in agriculture ends with a celebration of the growth of Fair Trade brands and the observation that “appropriately regulated, markets can be a wonderful way to give voice and power to local communities”. The chapter on the vanishing peasantry of Sub-Saharan Africa concludes that the “continent needs enlightened donors and African governments willing to substitute food aid and food imports for equitable investments in African smallholder agriculture”.

Even the best essays, which thoroughly discredit the market-driven system and give a platform to those fighting back against it, do more to tantalise than to satisfy, raising more questions than they answer. Walden Bello and others take Marx to task for prematurely writing the peasantry out of history. That’s fine, but it raises the question of how we are to fit it back in? What of the urban poor whose riots forced the question of food onto the agenda?

There is welcome discussion of agricultural reforms in Cuba and Venezuela, and the work of grassroots peasant organisations in trying to develop sustainable farming techniques. But, if big agribusiness and the world financial organisations are driving the crisis, surely the biggest question is, how are they to be defeated and food sovereignty be made a reality for the world’s population?

Agriculture and Food in Crisis is a powerful and well-researched contribution to the search for an answer to those questions. But it is hard to read it without feeling like that search is only just beginning.