A new book by economist Frank Ackerman, Can We Afford the Future?: The Economics of a Warming World (Zed, 2009), presents an important and startling thesis: “As the climate science debate is reaching closure, the climate economics debate is heating up. The controversial issue now is the fear that overly ambitious climate initiatives could hurt the economy”(6). With climate-change skeptics losing influence, mainstream economists—always the ultimate ideological defenders of the capitalist system—are stepping into the breach to ensure inaction on global warming. Armed with cost-benefit analyses, they report that saving the planet for its inhabitants may be all very well and good… but it is simply too expensive for the capitalist economy to afford.
“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?,” asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.
In 2008 people woke up to a tsunami of hunger sweeping the world. Although the prospect of rising hunger has loomed on the horizon for years, the present crisis seemed to come out of the blue without warning. Food riots spread through many countries in the global South as people tried to obtain a portion of what appeared to be a rapidly shrinking supply of food, and many governments were destabilized.
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.