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“Understanding the political economy of what we eat”: Communist Review on A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism


A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat
280 pp, $25 pbk, ISBN 978-1-58367-659-2
By Eric Holt-Giménez

Reviewed by Martin Levy, Communist Review, Summer 2018

Eric Holt-Giménez is the executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, and has written extensively on the global food crisis, the expansion of agrofuels, land issues and social movements for food justice and sovereignty. He previously worked as an agroecologist in Central America and Mexico for over 20 years.

Do foodies need to understand capitalism? Yes, he says. Most people in the food movement are too busy trying to cope with the immediate problems of the food system, concentrating on just a few issues, rather than dealing with it as a whole. Furthermore, the combination of globalisation, the demise of the old left and the spread of new movements, while opening the left to issues of gender, environment, ethnicity and race, has in affluent countries produced a generation of somewhat class-blind activists with little interest in how the economic system actually works.

Yet it is the capitalist domination of the food system that is at the root of so many of its problems. The author not only exposes and explains that, but at the same time provides a basic introduction to Marxist economics of capitalism, as seen through the lens of the food system. It is largely directed to a North American audience, but there are lessons for all of us today.

Too often, food and agriculture have been left out of left-wing political discourse, as if peripheral to the class struggle. But actually, they are crucial. Family and peasant farmers need to be able to feed themselves and their families, while workers need nutritious diets too. However, capitalism needs a supply of landless labourers who have nothing to sell but their labour power – kept as low as possible by reducing food costs – while seeing opportunities for profiteering not only in the food system but in enclosing, buying and selling agricultural land. This also links with today’s environmental crisis and Marx’s comments about the “metabolic rift” between humanity and the environment.

In ‘How Our Capitalist System Came to Be’, Holt-Giménez starts by covering the same ground as Marx’s historical description of primitive accumulation” in Capital, while showing how Britain ceased to be self-sufficient in food production, with the diet shifting to items such as maize, sugar, rice and tea, imported from the colonies. Slavery was crucial to the establishment of this first global food regime. The second such regime started in the 1950s, when the massive agricultural overproduction in the advanced capitalist countries was used as ‘food aid’ to ‘underdeveloped countries’, in part to steer them away from the Soviet Union, but also to open up their grain markets, to the detriment of local farmers who could not compete. Former colonies now became dependent on the Global North for food, confirming the Western notion that they needed to be ‘developed’.

The next stage, the ‘Green Revolution’, was a campaign to spread industrial agriculture into the Global South. New high-yielding dwarf hybrids of American wheat, together with new breeding techniques for rice and maize, and the general spread of irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides, are claimed to have saved a billion people from hunger. Actually, by displacing local varieties of the cereal crops, and because farmers needed capital to pay for the seeds, irrigation, fertiliser and pesticides, the Green Revolution created as many hungry people as it saved, driving people off the land into shanty-towns or into slash-and-burn of tropical forests. Anyone looking for reasons for the current migration crisis should start here.

Today we have a corporate food regime characterised by monopoly market power and mega-profits of agrifood corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Coca-Cola, Tesco, Carrefour, Walmart and Amazon. They dominate Western government policies and determine the rules set by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Industrial agriculture has destroyed up to 75% of the world’s agrobiodiversity, uses up to 80% of the planet’s fresh water, and produces up to 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The system can’t be fixed: it needs to be replaced.

In Chapter 2, ‘Food, A Special Commodity’, Holt-Giménez again draws on Marx’s Capital, discussing commodity, use value, exchange value, socially necessary labour time, surplus value – absolute and relative – and capital concentration. Food, he says, is a special commodity, because we can’t live long without it – though capitalism treats it as just another commodity. Farm workers and food workers around the world are generally superexploited, as wages are too low to support them and their families at the average standard of living. Absolute surplus value is increased by extending the working day for migrant labourers at the same pay; relative surplus value is increased by technological change which has drastically reduced the growing time of animals on factory farms.

“Why is organic so expensive?” is the wrong question, says Holt-Giménez. It should be “Why isn’t organic more expensive?”, and the reason for that is that the exchange value of a commodity is largely determined by the socially necessary labour time to produce the conventional equivalent. He points out that large-scale farming and low values of socially necessary labour time have nothing to do with sustainability, as even large mechanised organic farms use large amounts of petroleum, over-apply organic pesticides and fertilisers, and ship their products thousands of miles. Small commercial and peasants farmers don’t actually compete with the capital-intensive farms but instead survive by finding niche markets.

It is in this chapter that we come to what seems to me the author’s central objective (pp 70, 71, 80):

“Though we are not likely to lose the commodity form of products any time soon, we can work to change the relation between use and exchange values, and we can work to change the terms of socially necessary labour time (and working conditions) to make a more sustainable and equitable system that reduces the exploitation of workers and does not pass off on society the social costs … that the producers ought to bear.” “We will have to change the way we value the labour in our food ….” “Substantive changes to the food system will affect the entire economic system. Perhaps this is precisely what we need.”

This seems like a clear statement of the need for socialism.

Chapter 3, ‘Land and Property’,  discusses private land, public land (‘the commons’) and the rest – “open access”. The last, the author says, is actually a frontier, where resources are in dispute. These areas, eg the rainforests in Central America and Indonesia, are being grabbed, privatised, commodified, traded and speculated on in world markets. This speculation in land is a direct consequence of the massive corporate accumulation of capital, constantly seeking new areas for profitable investment. The result is that land throughout the world is becoming “financialised”, more important as a financial asset than for agricultural production. When farmers operate land owned by international investors, their vision is short-term and their only incentive is to pump out more production, whatever the environmental consequences.

Holt-Giménez praises the attempts of indigenous communities and peasant farmers in Latin America to resist corporate land grabs, and points to the loss of the commons and the public sphere – that part of society where decisions are made by citizens engaged in political discussion and civic activity, and where public goods are shared. Any project for reconstructing public and common property must, he says, work to recapture and strengthen the public sphere.

In Chapter 4, ‘Capitalism, Food and Agriculture’, he points out that, while selling to farmers and trading in farm products can be pretty lucrative (eg as futures), farming itself presents certain obstacles to capitalist investment. First there are environmental risks,  made worse by climate change; then there is the tendency to overproduction, which lowers prices, forcing farmers to produce more,  which lowers prices still further. Then farmers can’t simply cut their losses if they are losing money and move to an overseas ‘free enterprise zone’, nor can they withhold perishable products to drive up the cost. But most importantly, there is the disjuncture between  labour time and production time, which means that the capitalist would have to invest up-front, and then wait for natural processes to take their course before realising a profit.

Capitalism gets round this by (a) specific contract farming, where the farmer takes the whole risk, and (b) by  appropriationism and substitutionism. On the production side, capitalism appropriates on-farm, sustainable, labour processes by replacing them with  synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and genetically-engineered seeds. On the distribution side, capitalism substitutes direct producer- consumer relations with a complex of buyers, packers and shippers, and breaks down farm products into basic ingredients to be  reassembled into industrial products. Nonetheless, the food system still falls victim to capitalism’s recurrent crises, requiring  government subsidies, intervention to buy up excess produce, or encouragement to  farmers to ‘set aside’ land.

It is in this chapter that the author expands on Marx’s “metabolic rift” caused by urban concentration, where nutrients are not returned to the countryside. Nowadays, it is not just the depletion of soil fertility, requiring wholesale reliance on synthetic fertilisers, but the contamination of rivers, aquifers and streams by fertilisers, pesticides and the waste products of factory farming. Furthermore,  agriculture, livestock and other related land uses (such as deforestation) are responsible for just under a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Quoting Fred Magdoff, the author advocates (p 135) a “rational agriculture”, which

“would be carried out by individual farmers or farmer associations (cooperatives) and have as its purpose to supply the entire population with a sufficient quantity, quality and variety of food while managing farms and fields in ways that are humane to animals and minimise ecological disturbances.”

Rational agriculture, closely linked to agroecology – the science and practice of sustainable agriculture – reverses appropriationism and substitutionism by bringing the labour processes and producerconsumer relations back to the farm and community, intensifying production time rather than shortening it and reducing or reversing they metabolic rift by recycling and conserving  nutrients, conserving water and fixing carbon. It requires the break-up of large industrial plantations and repopulation of the countryside.

Chapter 5, ‘Power and Privilege in the Food System’, looks at issues of gender, race and class. There is a parallel here to Mary Davis’s arguments in Women & Class that the oppression of women is essential to the maintenance of capitalist society.  Superexploitation in the food system is also facilitated by the long history of racism, which derives from colonialism and imperialism, with the treatment of people of colour as inferior. Class means not just capitalist, wage workers and peasants, but even  owner-farmers who are more like ‘food serfs’ or are highly leveraged. Holt-Giménez argues that these issues of race, gender and class provide the basis for building alliances to change the food system, which also means transforming capitalism.

Chapter 6, ‘Food, Capitalism, Crises and Solutions’, looks at the level of hunger in the world. The Rome Declaration of the 1996 World Food Summit aimed to cut the absolute number of hungry people from 840m to 420m by 2015. The Millennium Declaration in 2000 changed the goal to halving the proportion of hungry people in developing countries only, and moving the baseline to the year 1990, which allowed inclusion of China’s impressive accomplishments of the 1990s – though China was not part of the Millennium Declaration. Because of population growth, this meant that the ‘acceptable’ number of hungry people rose to 591m. But then the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation misrepresented the true picture of world hunger, by only counting those whose caloric intake is inadequate to cover the needs of a sedentary lifestyle over one year – ignoring the needs of physical labour and those who go hungry 11  months out of 12. Holt-Giménez estimates that the true number of hungry people in the world today is between 1.5bn and 2.5bn, and rising.

Examining a number of neoliberal and reformist proposals coming out of the corporate food regime, the author criticises so-called ‘sustainable intensification’, ‘climate-smart seeds’ (pushed by Syngenta and the Gates Foundation, which plan to help  mallholders by pushing most of them out of agriculture), biofortification (“nowhere … does anyone ask why farmers are nutrient poor”), fortification and nutritionism (“people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food, not because science hasn’t figured out what to feed them”), food waste (“turning food waste into a commodity or donating it to food banks does nothing to address the cause”) and “the new  agrifoods transition” (direct manipulation of DNA, “to make any kind of lifeform”, and corporations investing in ‘digital architecture’,  collecting and analysing massive amounts of satellite information about environment, soil etc, and selling it to farmers to allow inputs with precision). Against this he promotes agroecology as “a means and a barrier to the expansion of capitalist agriculture”.

The conclusion of the book calls for “Changing Everything”. Noting a division in the food movement between ‘progressive’ (= food  justice) and ‘radical’ (= food sovereignty) approaches, he calls for tactical and strategic alliances to build a strong social movement, not  only within the food movement but outside it.

Given the intended North American audience, and the global scope of this book, the  application of its insights to socialist strategy in a single country like Britain will require some further consideration. Nonetheless this is highly recommended.

A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat

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