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An Overview of the Food and Agriculture Crisis

Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor at Cornell University, has published numerous articles and books on soil fertility and management and ecological approaches to agriculture. He was co-editor of Hungry for Profit (Monthly Review Press, 2000), and co-author, with John Bellamy Foster, of The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (Monthly Review Press, 2009). Brian Tokar is a long-time activist and author, and current director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Plainfield, Vermont. He is the author of The Green Alternative (R. & E. Miles, 1992) and Earth for Sale (South End Press, 1997), editor of two books on the politics of biotechnology, Redesigning Life? (Zed Books, 2001) and Gene Traders (Toward Freedom, 2004), and lectures widely on a variety of environmental and political topics.

“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.

The causes for the extraordinary spike in food prices in 2008, doubling over 2007 prices, brought together long-term trends, at work for decades, with a number of more recent realities.1 The most important long-term trends leading to current situation include:

  • increased diversion of corn grain and soybeans to produce meat as the world’s per capita meat consumption doubled in about forty years. As much as 95 percent of calories are lost in the conversion of grain and soybeans to meat.
  • decreased food production associated with poor countries adopting the neoliberal paradigm of letting the “free market” govern food production and distribution;
  • widespread “depeasantization,” partially caused by neoliberal “reforms” and International Monetary Fund (IMF) mandated “structural adjustments,” as conditions forced peasant farmers off the land and into urban slums, where one-sixth of humanity now lives; and
  • increasing concentration of corporate ownership and control over all aspects of food production, from seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, to the grain elevators, processing facilities, and grocery stores.2

One of the more recent causes for the crisis is the diversion of large amounts of corn, soy, and palm oil into producing agrofuels, the term adopted by critics worldwide for industrial-scale biofuels based on agricultural crops as feedstocks. Agrofuel production looked very appealing as the United States and the European Union sought to break the influence of oil producing countries and promote “greener” fuels (which are actually not particularly “green”).3 In 2008 some 30 percent of the entire corn crop in the United States was used to produce ethanol to blend with gasoline to fuel cars. Estimates of how much ethanol production contributed to the rise in food prices varied from less than 5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to upwards of 80 percent, as estimated by the World Bank.

The year 2008 also brought major crop failures, from Bangladesh to the grain exporting regions of Australia, where wheat and rice crops were devastated by drought. Scientists agree that such widespread disruptions in food production will only increase with the increasing destabilization of the earth’s climate (see discussion below). In addition, speculation at the local level (usually called hoarding) and unprecedented financial speculation in world commodity markets—an increasingly popular way to gamble as global stock markets plummeted—forced prices to much higher levels than they would have reached otherwise. With global food stocks at very low levels after several years in which consumption exceeded supply, crop failures in a few countries, and the new large-scale diversions of food into fuel production—combined with the longer-term trends—a “perfect storm” was created in which many people suffered greatly, and continue to suffer.

Although food prices have come down from their extraordinary heights of the summer of 2008, they are still considerably higher than just a few years ago. And food supplies, although ample to feed everyone if distributed equally, are still in relatively short supply. Today, approximately a billion people—close to one-sixth of humanity—suffer from continual and severe hunger. There are many more, possibly another two billion, who live in perpetual food insecurity—missing some meals and often not knowing where their next meal will come from. This means that close to half of all humans are either perpetually hungry and malnourished or suffering from varying degrees of food insecurity.

In the United States, even before the economic crisis that began in 2007 and the rapid rise in food prices in 2008, there were approximately 36 million living in hunger and food insecurity—an incredible 12 percent of the population without secure access to food in the richest country in the world, despite vast food production and ample supplies. Seventeen percent of its children under five years old, some 3.5 million, are estimated to be at high risk of cognitive and developmental damage as a result of inadequate nutrition due to hunger.4 This travesty occurring in the United States pales in comparison to the horrible conditions in the poorer regions of the world.

What are the prospects for the future? Are they really as dire as Lester Brown suggests? As we write this, a severe recession has set in around the world—deep and, perhaps, long lasting. It has already resulted in much more hunger and food insecurity in the United States and many other countries. How much worse can things get? Probably quite a bit, is the unfortunate answer.

Hungry for Profit

Many of the trends discussed ten years ago in the summer issue of Monthly Review, Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (later issued in book form5) continue to this day:

  • the disruption of nutrient cycles with the spread of capitalist agriculture and the more recent move toward large-scale, factory-style animal production facilities;
  • the ecological damage caused by chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive agricultural practices;
  • the great extent of consolidation (both horizontal and vertical integration) in the input and processing sectors of the agrifood system;
  • farmers increasingly working as laborers for agribusiness, often under contract to large integrated meat-producing corporations;
  • the role of genetically modified (GM) seeds in consolidating corporate control over the input sector and farm practices overall;
  • the difficulties presented to the third world by the various provisions of the World Trade Organization;
  • the mass migration of peasants from the countryside of the third world (depeasantization), and into urban slums where there are few jobs available;
  • the extent of hunger amidst plenty in the United States, with many anti-hunger organizations focusing on the most immediate emergencies, thus leaving the deeper issue of poverty unaddressed;
  • the importance of land reform and the benefits of reducing or eliminating reliance on commercial fertilizers and pesticides;
  • and, the resulting emergence of organizations within the United States and worldwide that are not satisfied with the system and are working to develop new solutions to feed communities and protect the land.

Things have changed in the course of the last decade, of course. However, the basic trends continued and have become deeper and more ingrained in the system. For example, the many ecological disasters associated with conventional agricultural production have only gotten worse. These include pollution of groundwater and surface water with nitrates, phosphates, sediments, and pesticides; contamination of food; nutrient depletion on farms that raise crops, even while nutrient-rich wastes accumulate to dangerously polluting levels in large-scale animal production facilities; and increasing spread of antibiotic resistant microbes due to the routine use of antibiotics in factory-raised livestock. The main driving force of the agrifood system is, of course, the never ending goal of continual generation of profits. Little appears to stand in the way of a system that worships, as Rachel Carson put it, the “gods of profit and production.”

The Current Situation

This issue of Monthly Review has two parts: the first deals with the history, politics, and economics of the food and agriculture crisis—how it developed and its characteristics in selected countries. Articles in this issue by Philip McMichael, Walden Bello and Mara Baviera, Utsa Patnaik, Sophia Murphy, and Deborah Fahy Bryceson offer a mix of historical and contemporary outlooks on the underlying roots of the crisis, as seen from a variety of international perspectives.

The second part of this issue discusses the possibilities for improving systems of food and farming as well as attempts to develop more secure food supplies for all people. David Pimentel addresses questions concerning energy and agriculture while Miguel Altieri discusses better ways to grow crops, organize production, and feed people. Christina Schiavoni and William Camacaro describe how Venezuela is working to reach food sovereignty, and articles by Peter Rosset and Eric Holt-Giménez explore the struggle for food through social movements and the push for meaningful land reform.

Farming, the process of growing food and fiber crops and raising food animals, is imbedded in a larger system, often referred to as the agrifood system. This system includes all the “upstream” inputs into farming (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, fuel, implements, and so on) as well as the “downstream” sectors (purchasing farmers’ products, processing, transporting, wholesaling, and finally retailing at markets and restaurants). While everyone eats food, the share of the population that is directly involved in its production declined precipitously in the industrial world during the twentieth century. A century ago, a third of the U.S. population, some 32 million people, lived on farms.6 At the beginning of the Great Depression, there were some 6.8 million farms in the United States.7 By the early 1960s this number was reduced by half—today there are only 1.3 million farms that earn more than $1,000 per year.8 There are more prisoners (2.3 million) than farmers in the United States today. At the same time, hundreds of millions of people are still engaged in farming in the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America—it is estimated that there are about 1 billion farmers out of a total world population of over 6 billion people.

Biotech Crops

For the last fifteen years, corporations have aggressively promoted the idea that the genetic engineering of crops and seeds is the key to improving world agriculture. It is clear, however, that crops that have been genetically modified, usually by introduction of genes from other species, have so far produced no reliable increase in yields over equivalent non-GM crops.9 Since the first commercial production of GM crops in the late 1990s, opposition to this technology has united small-scale farmers, environmentalists, and public health advocates from India to southern Africa, as well as Western Europe and the United States. While over 300 million acres worldwide are currently planted in GM crops, according to industry sources, this represents only 2.6 percent of cultivated land, and is highly concentrated in North and South America. While GM acreage in China and India is expanding, most of the world’s croplands are still GM-free.10
Nearly all of the commercially grown GM crops are of two general types: either they are engineered to withstand large doses of chemical herbicides (for example, Monsanto’s well-known “Roundup Ready” varieties), or they produce one or more pesticidal proteins, derived from Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) bacteria. Recently released varieties combine both traits, a technology known as “gene stacking.” Twenty years of claims that genetic engineering will “feed the world” by making crops more resilient and healthier have time and again proved false. Instead, companies like Monsanto focus their research and development on traits that increase farmers’ dependence on proprietary chemicals, while making farming more logistically convenient, hence easier to carry out over larger acreages in increasingly mechanized farms.

While comprehensive analyses of the health and environmental effects of GM crops remain relatively sparse, scientists continue to reveal new information demonstrating that the technology is inherently disruptive of cellular metabolism and gene expression.11 Independent research is largely stifled by proprietary control over GM traits by companies that have every interest in suppressing systematic studies of the technology’s consequences, and independent plant breeding research at the state Land Grant universities in the United States is being largely supplanted by in-house corporate research.12 Corporate influence is exacerbated by an increasingly cozy relationship between these institutions and agribusiness corporations; for example, the president of South Dakota State University, David Chicoine, joined Monsanto’s Board of Directors, and is slated to receive significantly more income in 2009 than the $300,000 salary he receives from his University.13 Seed corporations have thoroughly corrupted the land grant university mission—directly through research grants and payments to consulting scientists, and indirectly by prohibiting most independent research on GM seeds.

The Mythology of the ‘Free Market’

The neoliberal consensus, often referred to as the Washington Consensus, maintains that the “free market” can and will take care of everything that governments in the third world once did to support agriculture and food consumption by the poor, and that government spending for these programs can be drastically reduced. What a splendid fable was spun, based on no evidence whatsoever—a fantasy as make-believe as the fairy tales told to children. This left poor countries in an especially vulnerable condition when prices for basic foods—wheat, corn, soybeans, food oils, and rice—rose on the world market.

Cartoon of predator chasing prey with caption: 'What are you complaining about, it's a level playing field'

The Washington Consensus, an ideology developed by the advanced capitalist countries, especially the United States, promotes the concepts of “free markets” and “free trade.” The dogma holds that if restrictions on markets are eliminated, both within a country and between countries, market forces will work their magic and efficiently allocate resources. This is the rehashing of an argument that goes back some two hundred years. It is the ideology of the strong and its imposition on a world scale has had devastating effects on agriculture and basic food supplies for the poor.

Governments of the South have been mistaken to follow the prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank (WB) and the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Of course, in many cases they had few alternatives to accepting the conditions imposed by these institutions, including reducing tariffs for food imports, eliminating government support for farmers (e.g., subsidies to purchase expensive imported fertilizers), breeding and distributing new crop varieties adapted to local conditions, and purchasing and storing food in government warehouses. In addition the economic advisors of many governments in the South had their training in the United States or Britain at institutions that preached the near-miraculous efficient allocation of resources and self-regulation of markets, viewing all public regulation as ill-advised and inappropriate meddling. The remarkable documentary Life and Debt demonstrates the destruction of Jamaican agriculture under the IMF-enforced opening of markets.14 The film makes it clear that there was no possibility for Jamaican farmers to compete with imports of nearly every type of agricultural product—from onions to potatoes to carrots to milk to chicken.

The ideology of comparative advantage—that everything will work out for the best if each country produces products for which they have a “comparative advantage” and imports the products for which they do not—is absolute rubbish. There are definite winners and losers in such a system, with the winners’ power to implement their desires trumping all other considerations. What the cartoon on the preceeding page  expresses visually about the “level playing field” of “free trade,” Joan Robinson has explained as follows: “When Ricardo set out the case against protection, he was supporting British economic interests. Free trade ruined Portuguese industry. Free trade for others is in the interest of the strongest competitor in world markets, and a sufficiently strong competitor has no need for protection at home.”15

The poorer countries of the world have long insisted on a “level playing field” in which all countries within the WTO abide by the same rules. They are pursuing a better deal on agriculture than they got from the WTO regarding property rights and trade in manufactured goods. This pursuit has also been in reaction to the hypocrisy of the already developed countries that help their local farmers and agribusinesses—using both direct and indirect subsidies—while demanding that Southern governments stop supporting farmers.

A natural response from the poor countries has been to request that the developed countries stop subsidizing their agriculture and, thus, help level the playing field. Direct subsidies, often based on production quantity or acreage of specific crops, allow farmers in the United States, Europe, and Japan to sell below their costs of production. But there are also many alternative ways to help production and exports of crops other than direct subsidies for production—for example, “green” payments to farmers for using more ecologically sound practices and subsidized crop or income insurance. Even crops that are not directly subsidized by government programs may thereby gain easier access into foreign markets. In the seemingly failed Doha Round of WTO negotiations, the developing countries have insisted on the right to maintain tariffs on imported foods if needed to protect local production. The United States and European Union, however, want to eliminate tariffs, while retaining their own crop subsidy programs.

The Transnational Push: Consolidation and Control

The consolidation, both vertically and horizontally, of the agrifood system outside of actual farming (inputs, purchasing, exporting, processing, and retailing) has continued in the United States and Europe. For examples of how far horizontal consolidation has gone, in 2007 the four largest beef packers in the United States controlled about 84 percent of the market and close to 50 percent of all supermarket food was sold by five corporations, with Wal-Mart far-and-away the largest. In addition, sectors of the agrifood system in the wealthy countries have made significant inroads into the economies of Eastern Europe and the South. A report for the Grocery Manufacturers Association in the United States put it clearly: “The case for global expansion is quite simple. As domestic markets are saturated, global expansion is one way to achieve sustainable, double-digit growth.”16 Assuming that your goal is to maximize profits, it is hard to argue with that logic. Seed companies and chemical companies such as Monsanto (which is both) have aggressively entered new markets and have developed strong footholds in a number of countries, especially Brazil. Transnational processing and export companies as well as supermarkets have also entered the poor countries.

In 2008, the Ottawa-based ETC Group (formerly Rural Advancement Foundation International: RAFI) released their latest in a series of comprehensive surveys of corporate concentration in the global food, agrochemical, and seed sectors.17 As in all their previous reports, dating back to 1996, this latest work demonstrates a further narrowing of control in all these areas. The pace of mergers and acquisitions in the food industry rose to $4.5 trillion in 2007, having almost doubled every two years since the beginning of this century.

Perhaps the fastest pace of consolidation is in the seed sector, where three companies, Monsanto, DuPont, and the Swiss conglomerate, Syngenta—all heavily invested in GM technologies—now control 47 percent of the global market in proprietary seeds, and almost 40 percent of the total commercial seed market. This is the latest manifestation of a pattern first documented in the late 1990s, when Monsanto and other GM companies began investing tens of billions of dollars in acquiring key national and international seed companies. These three companies, along with Bayer, Dow, and others, are also central players in the global agrochemicals market. The top six pesticide firms control three-quarters of this sector, and the top ten represent an overwhelming 89 percent share. While food and beverage manufacturing is still a more dispersed undertaking, ten companies, starting with Nestle, Kraft, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, now control 26 percent of this sector, and the top hundred companies control three-quarters of all the world’s packaged foods. In the retail sector, one hundred companies control about 35 percent of grocery sales, of which 40 percent is controlled by the top ten, including Wal-Mart, Kroger, the French company Carrefour, and the British Tesco. Corporate consolidations and alliances with other corporations have proceeded to the point where there are discernable chains linking almost all parts of the agrifood industry.18

Corporations that pioneered factory-scale animal production in the United States, displacing many independent hog, cattle, and poultry farmers, are now also producing abroad. They achieve low costs of production by: (a) having very large facilities; (b) controlling and providing all the feed and veterinary medicines; (c) mandating that the people raising the animals (the “farmers”) be essentially laborers under contracts favorable to the corporation, following strict procedures and protocol; (d) passing on responsibility for manure and other waste; and (e) locating contracted factory farms near their own processing facilities. Smithfield, a Virginia-based Fortune 500 corporation, has used its power and connections to expand into Eastern Europe.19 In the space of a few years, about 90 percent of Romania’s and 56 percent of Poland’s hog farmers were put out of business because of competition from Smithfield—creating social as well as environmental havoc. In addition, frozen pork products are exported to West Africa—Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, and the Ivory Coast—where local producers are also put out of business. Smithfield receives export incentive funds from Poland and sells its pork at about half the price of local producers in the Ivory Coast.

Another aspect in the penetration of agricultural products from food-exporting countries of the North has been successful long-term efforts to change the diets of the people of the South. The transformation of third world people’s diets toward non-traditional foods was encouraged by both governments—for example, the United States P.L. 480 program which shipped “charity” wheat to countries that had never grown the crop, partially to get them used to the new food—and by corporations desiring to sell more of their products abroad. A United Nations World Health Organization report has described the effects of the push of the transnational food corporations into the third world on the consumption habits and health of people.

Massive marketing and advocacy of Western values and products including high-fat, high sugar and low-fibre fast foods and soft drinks are carried out by multinational corporations through modern mass media and other sales promotions. These marketing efforts especially target youth, and obviously have a better feasibility to modify the dietary behaviour of urban than rural population because global communication reaches first the areas of large residential density… The dietary transition is associated with the escalating trends of NCDs [noncommunicable diseases].20

The result of this penetration of the South by the agricultural input, processing, and retailing sectors and the introduction of large-scale farming (whether operated by local citizens or foreign persons or corporations) is to throw more people off the land and promote migration to city slums. The latest trend is toward the outright control of farmland by transnational corporations and foreign governments aiming to grow food to supply the “home” country or produce crops for export.

The International Scramble for Land (and Water)

In the wake of the 2008 drastic increase in prices—and questions about future availability—nations are scrambling to insure a food supply for their citizens by leasing or outright purchase of land in foreign countries. “In Africa they are calling it the land grab, or the new colonialism. Countries hungry to secure their food supplies—including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, South Korea (the world’s third biggest importer of corn), China, India, Libya, and Egypt—are at the forefront of a frantic rush to gobble up farmland all around the world, but mainly in cash-starved Africa.”21 Although China, India, and Korea are part of this search for land abroad, many of the countries trying to gain access to land are in arid regions—Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. For a country with a water shortage, importing food is equivalent to importing water. It takes approximately 1,000 pounds of water to grow one pound of wheat and the ratio is similar for other grains.

Although a deal with the Philippines may fall through, China owns land in Algeria and Zimbabwe. Uganda has sold some two million acres to Egypt to produce corn and wheat. Saudi Arabia has purchased land in Ethiopia and is in negotiations together with other Arab countries to purchase a million acres of farmland in Pakistan. “It estimated that 20 million hectares of land—twice the size of Germany’s croplands—have been sold since 2006 in more than four dozen land deals, mainly in Africa. So far, most of the buyers are a mix of private investors, US private equity houses such as Sanlam Private Equity, the Saudi Kingdom Zephyr fund, the UK’s CDC and sovereign wealth funds.”22 One of the most aggressive players is the UK-based Emergent Asset Management, which is seeking African farmland to grow the oil seed shrub jatropha, among other crops. The New York Times quoted the fund’s founder as seeking African land because it is cheap, offers a diversity of microclimates for growing crops, and labor and sea transport are readily available.23

Farm Workers and Urban Migrations

The poor condition of farm workers is one of many tragedies of our agrifood system—from exposure to pesticides, to lack of sanitary facilities, and clean water, to low pay, to air pollution, etc. Whether in the sugar cane fields of Brazil, the new commercial estates of Africa, the oil palm plantations of Malaysia, or the tomato fields of Florida, farm workers have very little bargaining power and are treated poorly. This includes the workers in the meat and poultry processing facilities that work under unsanitary and harsh conditions. These abysmal working conditions for farm labor, in addition to the difficult conditions for small farmers, have helped to fuel the mass migrations to city slums.

The migration out of the countryside and into the slums in the cities of the global South—where there are few jobs—is continuing (see Deborah Fahy Bryceson’s article in this issue). The rural to urban migrations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are a result of harsh conditions in the countryside. People are pushed off the land at an accelerating pace as farmers and the general population become more integrated into world markets and find themselves at the mercy of market forces. When they move to the slums people join the “informal economy” and struggle for existence. As a reporter from Lagos, Nigeria ended his story “The really disturbing thing about Lagos’ pickers and vendors is that their lives have essentially nothing to do with ours. They scavenge an existence beyond the margins of macroeconomics. They are, in the harsh terms of globalization, superfluous.”24

A Wall Street Journal article described the situation in India: “Across India, poor migrants keep streaming into cities like Lucknow, many of which are woefully mismanaged and ill-equipped to handle the influx. India has at least 41 cities with more than one million people, up from 23 two decades ago. A half dozen others will soon join the megacity list. Urban experts say the risk is now rising that some of these cities could face the same fate as Mumbai and Calcutta, which became synonymous with poverty and decay in the 1970s and 1980s.”25

Prospects for Food Production as Climate Changes

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning report documented an unprecedented convergence of findings from hundreds of studies of the earth’s changing climate, including tens of thousands of distinct data sets in numerous independent fields of inquiry. Not only did the report demonstrate that the evidence for the role of human activity in altering the earth’s climate is “unequivocal,” but it confirmed that the ecological and human consequences of those alterations are already being felt in literally thousands of different ways.26 Perhaps most disturbing are the near- and medium-term consequences for global agriculture.

People living in the tropics and subtropics, where most of the world’s remaining subsistence farmers are located, are already experiencing a world of increasingly uncertain rainfall, persistent droughts, coastal flooding, loss of wetlands and fisheries, and increasingly scarce fresh water supplies. The IPCC predicts that severely increased flooding will most immediately affect residents of the major river deltas of Asia and Africa. Furthermore, the sixth of the world’s population, including a large number in South East Asia, that depends on water from glacial runoff, may see a brief increase in the size and volume of their freshwater lakes as glaciers melt, but eventually the loss of the glaciers will become a life-threatening reality for those people as well.

The data points strongly toward a worldwide decrease in crop productivity if global temperatures rise more than 5˚F (2.7˚C)—well within the range of current predictions—although crop yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by half as soon as 2020.27 In Africa alone, between 75 million and 250 million people will be exposed to “increased water stress.” Prolonged and severe “megadroughts” are projected to occur in places as diverse as West Africa, North China, and California,28 while a ten-year drought is occurring in Australia with drastic effects on its agriculture. In addition, the rise in temperature may already be adversely affecting some crops—with higher night temperatures increasing nighttime respiration by rice (and perhaps other crops), resulting in the loss of metabolic energy produced by photosynthesis during the previous day. The IPCC report affirms that those populations with “high exposure, high sensitivity and/or low adaptive capacity” will bear the greatest burdens; those who contribute the least to the problem of global warming will continue to face the severest consequences.29

And finally, as the sea level rises in response to melting ice sheets in Iceland and Antarctica, coastal croplands and home villages for literally millions of people will be inundated. And even before this happens coastal aquifers needed for drinking water and irrigation will become contaminated by saltwater intrusion.

Ecologically Sound Production of Food for People

Numerous studies in the past several years have demonstrated that high yields of crops can be grown by using ecologically sound methods—including, but not limited to, organic farming (see articles by Altieri and Pimentel in this issue). Instead of relying on methods of industrial agriculture that use large quantities of energy derived from fossil fuels—for example, to produce fertilizers and pesticides and for traction—agroecological approaches rely more on building healthy soils and greater diversity in crops and animals while relying on few inputs from off the farm. Employing ecologically sound practices is not sufficient, however, to guarantee food security, as even large supplies do not guarantee food availability to all people. The huge numbers of hungry and malnourished in the United States graphically illustrate this point. In addition, few national governments promise a right to food access. (See the article by Schiavoni and Camacaro in this issue for a review of how the government and people of Venezuela are making advances in this area.)

The fight for access to land and national food sovereignty is of especially great importance. In response to both production issues and the precarious nature of small farmers’ existence, the need for land reform, as well as for a sufficient and varied diet for all people, a number of movements and organizations have sprung up and are working under difficult conditions. (See articles by Peter Rosset and Eric Holt-Giménez in this issue.)

To answer the question posed at the beginning: while perhaps not endangering civilization, it is certainly quite possible that food shortages will get worse and cause major disruptions and instability in many countries and regions. To avert a humanitarian catastrophe of major proportions, new agrifood systems (food production and access to food) are desperately needed—to meet the needs of a growing world population, to ensure food security to all people, and to do so in environmentally sound ways. Relying on large-scale highly mechanized production systems based on using vast quantities of fossil fuels is no answer to this problem. For in addition to producing more food, one of the important issues is how to productively employ people in rural areas in order to slow the migration to cities that do not have enough work possibilities. And from an ecological point of view (as well as humanitarian), it makes more sense to promote smaller-scale units of production using as many local resources as possible and as few inputs based on fossil fuel as possible—especially those that must be imported. Although still minuscule in relation to the overall agrifood system, in the United States and Europe there are many successful examples of farmers using ecological agricultural approaches and directly selling in ways that bypass the larger traditional markets. However, relying on markets (whether through supposed schemes of “comparative advantage” between countries or an individual’s purchasing power) as the basis for food distribution provides no answer to the crisis. An economic system that holds that food is a human right must supplant the current capitalist one in which food is a commodity, just like any other.

Every country must do its utmost to encourage food security for everyone as well as food sovereignty for the nation as a whole—producing most, if not all, of the food they need, doing so by relying to the greatest extent on local resources, while furthering the empowerment of those who grow our food. Restructuring the agrifood system must take place with encouragement and active involvement of national, regional, and local governments. However, it is clear that peasant groups and other organizations working on these economic and social aims will continue to play a critical role in the transformation of the world’s agrifood system. The landless need access to land and water and a variety of practical supports to get started and to be able to flourish as farmers. If farmers want to join together into cooperatives or work independently, it should be their decision. 

“Food for people, not for profit” must be the slogan of the new agrifood systems.


  1. Fred Magdoff, “The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions,” Monthly Review 60, no. 1 (May 2008).
  2. For more on these specific problems, see articles in this issue by Utsa Patnaik, Sophia Murphy, and Deborah Fahy Bryceson, respectively.
  3. Fred Magdoff, “The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels,” Monthly Review 60, no. 3 (July-August 2008).
  4. Mary Clare Jalonick, “For Lack of Food, 17 Percent of Us Children Under 5 Risk Cognitive, Developmental Damage,” Associated Press, May 5, 2009.
  5. Fred Magdoff, Frederick Buttel, and John Bellamy Foster (eds.), Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
  6. Cited in Elizabeth Henderson, Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1999), 12.
  7. USDA data, cited in Helena Norberg Hodge, et al., Bringing the Food Economy Home (London: Zed Books, 2002), 7.
  8. The 2007 Census of Agriculture, Farm Numbers, National Agricultural Statistics Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.
  9. Doug Gurian-Sherman, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009).
  10. See, for example, Friends of the Earth Europe, “Undoing the ISAAA Myths on GM Crops” (Brussels: Friends of the Earth, February 11, 2009; received via e-mail).
  11. See, for example, Allison Wilson, et al., Genome ScramblingMyth or Reality? Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants (Oxford: Econexus, October 2004), available from, and Jeffrey Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods (Fairfield, Iowa: Yes Books, 2007).
  12. Andrew Pollack “Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research,” New York Times, February 29, 2009.
  13. Alan Guebert, “Big biz and the Big U,” Farm and Food File for week beginning April 26, 2009.
  14. See for information about this documentary.
  15. Joan Robinson, “What are the Questions?,” in Collected Economic Papers, Vol. 5 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979), 1-29.
  16. The Food, Beverage, and Consumer Products Industry: Achieving Superior Financial Performance in a Challenging Economy—2008 (PricewaterhouseCoopers).
  17. ETC Group, Who Owns Nature? Corporate Power and the Final Frontier in the Commodification of Life (Ottawa: ETC Group, November 2008).
  18. Mary Hendrickson and Bill Heffernan have followed consolidation in the food system. For papers and charts, including those outlining three separate food chains see the The Food Circles Networking Project’s Web site.
  19. Doreen Carvajal and Stephen Castle, “A U.S. Hog Giant Transforms Eastern Europe,” New York Times, May 6, 2009.
  20. Ulla Uusitalo, Pirjo Pietninen, and Pekka Puska, “Dietary Transition in Developing Countries: Challenges for Chronic Disease Prevention,” in Globalization, Diets, and Noncommunicable Diseases (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2002).
  21. Margareta Pagano, “Land grab: The race for the world’s farmland,” Independent (UK), May 3, 2009.
  22. Ibid. See also Julian Borger, “Rich countries launch great land grab to safeguard food supply,” The Guardian, November 22, 2008.
  23. Diana B. Henriques, “Food Is Gold, So Billions Invested in Farming,” New York Times, June 5, 2008.
  24. G. Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Legacy of Lagos,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2006.
  25. Patrick Barta and Krishna Pokharel, “Megacities Threaten to Choke India,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2009.
  27. Data from the IPCC Working Group II Report, titled “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,”
  28. Richard Black, “West Africa faces ‘megadroughts,’” BBC, April 16, 2009.
  29. IPCC, “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulerability,” 393.
2009, Volume 61, Issue 03 (July-August)
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