[R-G] submission: The (Not-So) Sudden Crisis of the Global Food Ecomony

Christopher Webb christopherswebb at yahoo.ca
Thu Jul 17 13:01:42 MDT 2008

For submission to Rad Green.

Chris Webb
Publishing Assistant, Canadian Dimension
The (Not-So) Sudden Crisis of the Global Food Ecomony
			Tony Weis
				Canadian Dimension magazine, July/August 2008http://canadiandimension.com/articles/2008/07/09/1905/

Rapidly rising food prices are casting millions of the world’s poor
into increasingly desperate circumstances of malnourishment and hunger.
Various food-centred scenes of suffering and associated social tensions
have become regular fixtures in the news in 2008: people staving off
hunger pangs by eating mud in Haiti; guarded warehouses and grain
shipments in the Philippines; export prohibitions in India; food
rationing in Pakistan; and food-price riots in more than thirty
countries across the Global South. Josette Sheeran, head of the UN’s
World Food Programme (WFP), recently likened the scale and suddenness
of this humanitarian crisis to the 2004 tsunami in Asia, while noting
that it is a crisis in which poor people still can often see “food on
shelves, but … are priced out of the market.”

A Long-Term, Slow-Motion Crisis

The current rapid rise in food prices is both a manifestation and
magnification of the contradictions of the global food economy. The
global food economy is immensely imbalanced and unstable. In 2006,
before food prices began to rise, 854 million people suffered from
chronic hunger and malnourishment, which the Food and Agricultural
Organization (FAO) described as a “covert famine.” At the same time,
the World Health Organization was calling obesity a “global epidemic,”
with the population of obese people topping one billion. The FAO
estimated that enough food was produced to feed the world
one-and-a-half times over. So, it should come as no great surprise that
millions were becoming increasingly food-insecure amidst last year’s
record grain harvest.

To appreciate the basic dynamics of the rise in prices and how these
are magnifying global consumption imbalances, we need to focus on the
system of production that dominates world trade in food, the industrial
grain-livestock complex in the temperate world, and its chief actors,
the transnational corporations (TNCs). More than half of the world’s
agro-exports and an even larger share of the world’s grain and
livestock exports come from a very small number of countries, like the
U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia and France, which together
represent less than two per cent of the world’s farmers. The flipside
of this is the precarious dependence upon grain imports in most of the
world’s poorest countries.

On a global scale, the “Big Three” cereals alone (maize, rice and
wheat) account for roughly 85 per cent of the world’s total grain
harvest by volume, and roughly half of all plant-based calories (with
soy, an oilseed, fast becoming the fourth great basic crop). The
combination of improved strains of the Big Three and other key crops,
plus an enormous rise in external inputs since the 1950s, brought about
a rough tripling of world grain production over a time when world
population was merely doubling. Amidst this increasing production and
demand, inflation-adjusted prices of the Big Three cereals declined by
sixty per cent from 1960 to 2000 — and from 1974 to 2005, the decline
in world market prices for a total food index was even greater: an
astonishing 75 per cent.

Industrial monocultures are inextricably linked to soaring
farm-animal populations (growing much faster than the human population)
and more meat-intensive consumption patterns, a relentless trend linked
closely to affluence. The per-capita consumption of animal flesh on a
global scale has roughly doubled in the past half century alone. Today,
the “Big Three” livestock species (pigs, chickens and cattle) account
for almost ninety per cent of all animal flesh produced in the world,
and these animals are being increasingly reared in factory-like
conditions and consume an expanding share of the world’s cereals and
oilseeds, while large percentages of plant protein, carbohydrates and
fibre are lost as crops are cycled through animals to produce food.

This trajectory clearly reflects some of the most elemental
tendencies of industrial capitalism: the drives to standardize
production systems, substitute technology for labour and achieve
economies of scale. But it also entails a host of biophysical problems,
as soil biochemistry, insects, weeds and plant and animal pathogens do
not willingly cooperate with this radical simplification of life.

Industrial monocultures using heavy machinery effectively mine the
soil, as bare ground between planted rows and mechanized ploughing,
planting and spraying increase susceptibility to soil erosion and
nutrient loss and create further problems with compaction. The loss of
soil fertility means that industrial monocultures require the regular
application of external sources of key nutrients, the biggest of which
is synthetic nutrients. One clear indication of this dependence is the
fact that, while global grain yields per hectare grew by a factor of
2.4 between 1950 and 1990, synthetic fertilizer use grew by a factor of
ten. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer represents a large share of world
fertilizer consumption, and after nitrogen the next most important soil
nutrients lost are phosphorous and potassium, also replaced from a
non-renewable base.

Further, because large-scale biological homogenization increases
vulnerability to the rapid spread of pests, weeds and disease,
industrial monocultures are dependent on a range of petrochemical-based
pesticides and herbicides, while animal factories depend upon a growing
volume of pharmaceuticals. All of these tend to have a treadmill
effect, adding up to a diffuse but momentous toxic burden.

The ecological costs don’t end there. Industrial agriculture is also
implicated in: the overdraft of rivers, streams and underground water
supplies; the salinization of over-irrigated soils; the risks
associated with genetic contamination where GMOs have been introduced;
a host of pollution problems and the immeasurable suffering associated
with factory farming; disease threats like avian flu and mad-cow
disease; and large greenhouse-gas emissions.

Low-priced industrial foods bear no relation to the myriad costs to
humans, animals and even the biophysical foundations of agriculture
itself. Externalities represent an implicit subsidy to industrial
agriculture, long compounded by the billions of dollars in explicit
government subsidies concentrated on the largest farmers in the world’s
agro-industrial heartlands.

The pressure to substitute labour with technology is part of a
process in which value and decision-making in industrial agricultural
systems have moved away from farms and farm communities. Agro-input
corporations like Bayer, BASF, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta
control increasing shares of global markets in chemicals, fertilizers,
seeds and animal pharmaceuticals, and weave together input usage.
Industrial methods are also entwined with rising “food miles” and the
disarticulation of agricultural systems from place, culture and season,
not to mention the increasing dominance of massive, corporate
connections between farmers and consumers, from processors and
distributors like Altria, Nestle, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland to
retailers ranging from Wal-Mart to McDonald’s.

Farmers in the world’s agro-industrial heartlands, like Canada, have
found themselves trapped in a long-term rising-cost, falling-price
squeeze. This has reduced margins, led to heavy debt loads and
bankruptcies, and sped the concentration of landholding. The
distortions of this system have also been increasingly projected
outward, de-stabilizing more labour-intensive, low-input and biodiverse
farming systems. In the 1960s, the world’s low-income countries
collectively ran a considerable net agro-trade surplus, importing very
little food. However, dependence on cheap, industrialized food imports
was sown through aid, subsidized dumping and the distorted measure of
efficiency, deflating the earnings of small, domestically-oriented
producers ever since.

As dependence on food imports deepened with the economic
prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in
the 1980s and 1990s and the onset of the World Trade Organization in
1995, the accompanying “logic” was that food security was best ensured
by liberalizing markets to cheap imports and maximizing the generation
of foreign exchange by exporting according to comparative advantage —
the so-called “free-market approach to food security.” This counsel
came in spite of the fact that the earnings from major tropical
agro-exports like sugar, cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil and
groundnuts — which dominated the best agricultural land since colonial
times — were mired in precipitous, long-term declines.

Today, the world’s low-income countries collectively run a sizable
net agro-trade deficit, projected by the FAO to grow considerably in
the coming decades. This picture is made much worse — and more uneven,
yet — by climate change. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change warned that increasing climatic variability and change
will severely compromise agricultural productivity in many of the
world’s poorest countries, including much of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In sum, the contradictions of the global food economy constitute a
multi-dimensional crisis that was, until recently, unfolding in slow

The Quickening Crisis

Steadily falling food prices accompanying expanding global food
production have long been the veritable trump card of industrial
capitalist agriculture, helping to brace it against the dislocation and
social tensions induced. But the recent rise in global food prices
marks the beginning of a new era of acute instability, with the rising
costs and scarcity of fossil energy and derivatives being the proximate
trigger, pulling industrial agriculture in two basic and opposed ways.

First, industrial agriculture is being conceived of as a
technological fix for the shortage of liquid fuel posed by declining
oil reserves. Many governments, led by the U.S., are pouring billions
of dollars in subsidies into biofuels, and along with an emerging
legion of corporate, auto and big-farmer interests are enthusiastically
touting the potential of biofuels in future energy security (biofuel
subsidies was also a key plank in Stephen Harper’s climate policy).
However, increasing attention has been focused on the exceptionally
poor energetic budgets of most of the “first generation” biofuels, like
maize ethanol, when fossil-energy inputs (i.e. fertilizer,
agro-chemicals, farm machinery, irrigation systems,
fermenting/distilling, etc.) are weighed against biofuel outputs.
“Second generation” biofuels are seen to hold the promise of better
input-yield ratios, but these could still only substitute a modest
share of current levels of oil consumption, and as yet represent a very
small land area and investment relative to first-generation biofuels.

Though a dubious proposition, posing biofuels as a large-scale
alternative to fossil fuels entails earmarking absolutely massive
volumes of cereal grains. Here, the U.S. is front and centre, with
forty per cent of world maize production and more than half of the
world’s maize exports. The U.S. is now devoting more than one fifth of
its maize harvest to biofuel production, even though this replaces only
a miniscule fraction of its overall oil consumption. On a global scale,
the share of global cereal production devoted to biofuels grew by
fifteen per cent from 2006 to 2007 alone, and this trend is projected
to continue rising, with the EU, China and India all having set
ambitious targets for oil substitution with biofuels — even as the UN
Special Rapporteur on Human Rights recently described biofuels as a
“crime against humanity.”

The second major implication of rising costs and scarcity of fossil
energy and derivatives is their reverberation throughout the food
system. As oil and gas prices rise, the implicit subsidy they provide
to industrial agriculture falls, making significantly higher food
prices inevitable — particularly as this pressure intersects with the
growing draw on global grain supplies by biofuels and livestock

Yet, despite the mounting social tensions surrounding food, and the
converging problems of peak oil, climate change, soil degradation and
water shortages, the quickening crisis of industrial agriculture is not
yet de-stabilizing the dominant actors (TNCs) and their imperatives of
profit maximization, which direct the global food economy. Industrial
grain and livestock production is still in the midst of a fossilized
boom (Australia notwithstanding), with the profits of agro-input and
agro-food TNCs growing as food insecurity worsens. Related to this
obscene dynamic are rising speculative capital flows into “hot”
agricultural commodities, which some critics have blamed for pushing
food prices higher still.

So, we can expect more regressive outcomes in the short term. Hence
there is an urgent need for short-term emergency assistance. But beyond
short-term band-aids, as in any systemic crisis there is hope of
heightened consciousness, and that people may begin to see the systemic
contradictions more clearly. While the heads of the World Bank and WTO
recently claimed that the current problems stem from insufficient trade
liberalization and insist that rising food prices point to the need to
renew the stalled round of WTO negotiations, such ideological
abstractions about the benefits of market integration to the world’s
poor ring more hollow than ever.

In the longer-term, hopefully, in eroding the viability of farming
by way of massive monocultures and factory farms and food durables
traveling ever-greater distances with huge corporations directing the
system, the biophysical crisis of industrial agriculture will create
new spaces for progressive transformations. In these de-stabilizing
spaces, various producer and consumer movements working both to
challenge the dominant system and construct more equitable,
(re-)localized and ecologically rational alternatives are likely to
find increasingly fertile and common ground.

At the core of the struggles to build alternatives will be questions
of how to redistribute land, prevent its re-accumulation and foster
equitable and stable agrarian livelihoods. Agrarian reform is much more
probable in many parts of the Global South, where it is typically
discussed, than in heavily industrialized and de-populated rural
landscapes like Canada. But as the system of industrial capitalist
agriculture breaks down, it will become increasingly evident that
agrarian reform is urgent here, too.

Further Reading

For further sources and discussion on this “long-term, slow-motion crisis,” see: Tony Weis, The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming (Zed Books, 2007)

For a big-picture context, see also: Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System (HarperCollins, 2008). More from this fabulous scholar, writer and activist at rajpatel.org.

The ETC Group provides an excellent resource for tracking the
concentration of corporate power in agriculture in its Oligopoly, Inc.
reports, available at etcgroup.org.

The wildly regressive current dynamics are described in a recent report from GRAIN, entitled “Making a Killing from Hunger.” Find it here grain.org/articles/?id=39.

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