In 2006–08, food shortages became a global reality, with the prices of commodities spiraling beyond the reach of vast numbers of people. International agencies were caught flatfooted, with the World Food Program warning that its rapidly diminishing food stocks might not be able to deal with the emergency.
The “world food crisis” of 2007–08 was the tip of an iceberg. Hunger and food crises are endemic to the modern world, and the eruption of a rapid increase in food prices provided a fresh window on this cultural fact. Much like Susan George’s well-known observation that famines represent the final stage in an extended process of deepening vulnerability and fracturing of social reproduction mechanisms, this food “crisis” represents the magnification of a long-term crisis of social reproduction stemming from colonialism, and was triggered by neoliberal capitalist development.
Likened to a sudden tsunami, reports of declining staple food availability and the possibility of a world food crisis first appeared in the international press in late 2007.1 Sub-Saharan Africa, with its deepening need for disaster food relief in arid and war-torn areas, was most vulnerable. The economic viability of western donors’ food aid to the continent was increasingly being stretched. As food riots flared in various Asian and Latin American cities, urban food riots also began surfacing in Africa, alongside the perennial threat of rural famine.
India has had a growing problem with food output and availability for the mass of the population since the inception of neoliberal economic reforms in 1991. A deep agricultural depression and rising unemployment rates resulting from “reform” policies have made the problem especially acute over the past decade. There has been a sharp decline in per capita grain output as well as grain consumption in the economy as a whole. Income has been shifting away from the majority towards the wealthy minority and a substantial segment of the population is being forced to eat less food and wear older clothing than before. This is exacerbated by the current global depression, which is further constraining mass consumption because of rising unemployment.
The push for “free trade” in agriculture first took hold in the 1980s. It was part of a package of policies and investments that moved food and agriculture systems away from government control (too often centralized and unresponsive) toward private ownership. Ironically, private ownership has led to an even more centralized and tightly controlled food system. Local communities have been left more disempowered than they were before, and, increasingly, developing country national governments have found themselves disempowered, too. This essay considers what advocates of free trade promised developing countries, what actually happened, and what some alternatives might look like.
Oil, natural gas, coal, and other mined fuels provide the United States with nearly all of its energy needs at a cost $700 billion per year.1 Since more than 90 percent of its oil deposits have been depleted, the United States now imports over 70 percent of its oil at an annual cost of $400 billion.2 United States agriculture is driven almost entirely by these non-renewable energy sources. Each person in the country on a per capita consumption basis requires approximately 2,000 liters per year in oil equivalents to supply his/her total food, which accounts for about 19 percent of the total national energy use. Farming — that portion of the agricultural/food system in which food is produced — requires about 7 percent and food processing and packaging consume an additional 7 percent, while transportation and preparation use 5 percent of total energy in the United States.
Global forces are challenging the ability of developing countries to feed themselves. A number of countries have organized their economies around a competitive export-oriented agricultural sector, based mainly on monocultures. It may be argued that agricultural exports of crops such as soybeans from Brazil make significant contributions to the national economies by bringing in hard currency that can be used to purchase other goods from abroad. However, this type of industrial agriculture also brings a variety of economic, environmental, and social problems, including negative impacts on public health, ecosystem integrity, food quality, and in many cases disruption of traditional rural livelihoods, while accelerating indebtedness among thousands of farmers.
The recent world food price crisis highlights what many have thought for a long time: the world’s food and agriculture system is broken. Few winners remain in the aftermath of the severe crisis, in which prices for basic food commodities (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans) increased dramatically in 2007 and 2008, only to fall rapidly in the second half of 2008. Although down from their high points, commodity prices are still about double those of the early 2000s. Consumer prices in all countries have remained high, while farmers failed to benefit much from the price hikes, due to high prices for agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, and they are now hurt by falling crop prices.1 The real people in the system, whether family farmers or peasants, or the rest of us who just consume food, can’t ever win, it seems. It is always the middlemen — an ever smaller array of global corporations — that “make the killing” in terms of windfall profits.
In April 2008, as people around the world took to the streets to protest the global food crisis and the lack of political will to address it, a crowd of a different nature gathered in Venezuela. Afro-Venezuelan cacao farmers and artisanal fishermen of the coastal community of Chuao came together to witness their president pledge that the food crisis would not hinder Venezuela’s advancements in food and agriculture. “There is a food crisis in the world, but Venezuela is not going to fall into that crisis,” said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías. “You can be sure of that. Actually, we are going to help other nations who are facing this crisis.”1 He then went on to describe Venezuela’s most recent developments in food and agriculture, as well as the work that still lay ahead. This was one of several weekly addresses that Chávez had dedicated to food and agriculture as the world food crisis unfolded.
The current global food crisis — decades in the making — is a crushing indictment against capitalist agriculture and the corporate monopolies that dominate the world’s food systems. The role of the industrial agrifood complex in creating the crisis (through the monopolization of input industries, industrial farming, processing, and retailing) and the self-serving neoliberal solutions proposed by the world’s multilateral institutions and leading industrial countries are being met with skepticism, disillusion, and indifference by a general public more concerned with the global economic downturn than with the food crisis. Neoliberal retrenchment has met growing resistance by those most affected by the crisis — the world’s smallholder farmers.
The grim state of the U.S. economy in early 2009 was brought into sharp relief by economic data released at the end of April. Industrial production in the first quarter of this year dropped by an annual rate of 20 percent, while manufacturing capacity utilization (the operating rate of manufacturing plant and equipment) sank to 65.8 percent in March, the lowest level since the Federal Reserve Board series was introduced in 1948 (industrial capacity utilization as a whole is currently at 69.3 percent, its lowest point since that measurement began in 1967).
As a rule, crime and social protest rise in periods of economic crisis in capitalist society. During times of economic and social instability, the well-to-do become increasingly fearful of the general population, more disposed to adopt harsh measures to safeguard their positions at the apex of the social pyramid. The slowdown in the economic growth rate of U.S. capitalism beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s—converging with the emergence of radical social protest around the same period—was accompanied by a rapid rise in public safety spending as a share of civilian government expenditures. So significant was this shift that we can speak of a crowding out of welfare state spending (health, education, social services) by penal state spending (law enforcement, courts, and prisons) in the United States during the last third of a century.
The current financial crisis marks a series of turning points in the history of the North American auto industry.1 First, the iconic “Big Three” have been downsized to “The Detroit Three.” Once the global symbol of U.S. productivism and consumerism, they now teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and, in the process, profound questions are being raised about the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs more generally. Second, the auto unions, themselves once emblematic of what workers could achieve within capitalism, have been reduced to lobbying to save “their” companies, and a decades-long trend in private-sector labor negotiations has now confirmed collective bargaining as having shifted from demands by workers to demands on workers. This highlights the broader crisis of labor: if labor cannot find a way to renew itself it could fade into irrelevancy. And third, the environment—which the industry so rapaciously disregarded and the unions so short-sightedly ignored—seems to have forced itself onto the agenda. In coming to grips with both the threats and opportunities provided by this historic moment, the following points are crucial.
When Paraguay elected Fernando Lugo, its first non-Colorado Party president in more than sixty years, the mood was elated. In the streets of Asuncion that night in April 2008, “Grandmothers, wrapped in the Paraguayan flag, danced with children in the streets, and cried at the top of their lungs that this [was] the moment they’d been waiting for their whole lives.”1 While Lugo’s election was a clear victory for the social movements that united to elect him, movement leaders knew that this was just the beginning. As Worker Party and Indigenous Farmer organizer Tomás Zayas told me the previous year: “Lugo will not solve our problems. If Lugo is elected, it will be a door, an opening, through which we can add to our movement and demands.”
One of the main accomplishments of the Israeli government’s bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter was to inspire new vitality within leftist and peace groups in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation. This wave of activity has continued after the supposed ceasefire, with demonstrations and direct actions from New York to Los Angeles, Paris, Jaffa, and Tel Aviv. Most noteworthy has been a coming out of sorts of an increasingly large and vocal segment of the Jewish world that is not only opposed to the Israeli government’s wars and military occupations, but critical of Zionism itself.