Capitalism, agribusiness and the food sovereignty alternative

June 21, 2008

Below is part two of a special feature on the global food crisis. Green Left Weekly published the first part in #750. Both parts are reprinted from The author edits

"Nowhere in the world, in no act of genocide, in no war, are so many people killed per minute, per hour and per day as those who are killed by hunger and poverty on our planet", commented then Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1998.

When food riots broke out in Haiti in April, the first country to respond was Venezuela. Within days, planes were on their way from Caracas, carrying 364 tonnes of badly needed food.

The people of Haiti are "suffering from the attacks of the empire's global capitalism", Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said. "This calls for genuine and profound solidarity from all of us. It is the least we can do for Haiti."

Venezuela's action is in the finest tradition of human solidarity. Venezuela's example should be applauded and emulated.

But aid is only a stopgap. To truly address the problem of world hunger, we must understand and then change the system that causes it.

No shortage

The starting point for our analysis must be this: there is no shortage of food in the world today.

Contrary to the 18th Century warnings of Thomas Malthus and his modern followers, study after study shows that global food production has consistently outstripped population growth, and that there is more than enough food to feed everyone.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), enough food is produced in the world to provide over 2800 calories a day to everyone — substantially more than the minimum required for good health and about 18% more calories per person than in the 1960s, despite a significant increase in total population.

The Food First Institute points out, according to a 1998 book, World Hungry: Twelve Myths, "abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today".

Despite that, the most commonly proposed solution to world hunger is new technology to increase food production. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, aims to develop "more productive and resilient varieties of Africa's major food crops ... to enable Africa's small-scale farmers to produce larger, more diverse and reliable harvests".

Similarly, the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute has initiated a public-private partnership "to increase rice production across Asia via the accelerated development and introduction of hybrid rice technologies", according to an April 4 press release.

And the president of the World Bank promised, in an April 2 statement, to help developing countries gain "access to technology and science to boost yields".

Scientific research is vitally important to the development of agriculture, but initiatives that assume in advance that new seeds and chemicals are needed are neither credible nor truly scientific. The fact that there is already enough food to feed the world shows that the food crisis is not a technical problem — it is a social and political problem.

Rather than asking how to increase production, our first question should be why, when so much food is available, are over 850 million people hungry and malnourished? Why do 18,000 children die of hunger every day?

Profit system

The answer can be stated in one sentence. The global food industry is not organised to feed the hungry; it is organised to generate profits for corporate agribusiness.

The agribusiness giants are achieving that objective very well indeed. This year, agribusiness profits are soaring above last year's levels, while hungry people from Haiti to Egypt to Senegal are taking to the streets to protest rising food prices, according to a May 6 article by Shawn Hattingh posted at MRZine.

Returns for agribusiness giants, for the first three months of 2008 alone, are soaring above last year's levels. For instance, in grain trading Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) have earned a gross profit of US$1.15 billion, up 55% from last year; Cargill's net earnings are $1.03 billion, up 86%; Bunge has earned consolidated gross profits of $867 million, up 189%.

In seeds and herbicides, Monsanto has earned gross profits of $2.23 billion, up 54% from last year. In fertilisers, Mosaic has net earnings of $520.8 million, up more than 1200%.

The companies listed above, plus a few more, are the monopoly or near-monopoly buyers and sellers of agricultural products around the world. Hattingh reports that six companies control 85% of the world trade in grain; three control 83% of cocoa; and three control 80% of the banana trade.

ADM, Cargill and Bunge control the world's corn, meaning they alone decide how much of each year's crop goes to make ethanol, sweeteners, animal feed or human food.

As the editors of 2000's Hungry for Profit wrote, "The enormous power exerted by the largest agribusiness/food corporations allows them essentially to control the cost of their raw materials purchased from farmers while at the same time keeping prices of food to the general public at high enough levels to ensure large profits."

Over the past three decades, transnational agribusiness companies have engineered a massive restructuring of global agriculture. Directly through their own market power and indirectly through governments and financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO), they have changed the way food is grown and distributed around the world.

The changes have had wonderful effects on their profits, while simultaneously making global hunger worse and food crises inevitable.

Traditional farming

Today's food crisis is a manifestation of a farm crisis that has been building for decades.

Over the past three decades, the rich countries of the North have forced poor countries to open their markets, then flooded them with subsidised food — with devastating results for Third World farming.

In the same period, Third World countries were convinced, cajoled and bullied into adopting agricultural policies that promote export crops rather than food for domestic consumption. Such policies also favour large-scale industrial agriculture requiring single-crop (monoculture) production, heavy use of water and massive quantities of fertiliser and pesticides.

Increasingly, traditional farming, organised by and for communities and families, has been pushed aside by industrial farming organised by and for agribusinesses.

That transformation is the principal obstacle to a rational agriculture that could eliminate hunger.

The focus on export agriculture has produced the absurd result that millions of people are starving in countries that export food. In India, for example, over one-fifth of the population is chronically hungry and 48% of children under five are malnourished.

According to statistics on the UN FAO's website (<>),
India exported $1.5 billion worth of milled rice and $322 million worth of wheat in 2004.

In other countries, farmland that used to grow food for domestic consumption now grows luxuries for the global North. Colombia, where 13% of the population is malnourished, produces and exports 62% of all cut flowers sold in the US.

According to John Madeley's 2000 Hungry for Trade, Kenya was self-sufficient in food until about 25 years ago. Today it imports 80% of its food. Eighty percent of its exports are other agricultural products.

The shift to industrial agriculture has driven millions of people off the land and into unemployment and poverty in the immense slums that now surround many of the world's cities.

The people who best know the land are being separated from it; their farms enclosed into gigantic outdoor factories that produce only for export. Hundreds of millions of people now must depend on food grown thousands of miles away, because their homeland agriculture has been transformed to meet the needs of corporations.

As recent months have shown, the entire system is fragile: India's decision to rebuild its rice stocks made food unaffordable for millions half a world away.

If the purpose of agriculture is to feed people, the changes to global agriculture in the past 30 years make no sense. Industrial farming in the Third World has produced increasing amounts of food, but at the cost of driving millions off the land and into lives of chronic hunger — and at the cost of poisoning air and water, and steadily decreasing the ability of the soil to deliver the food we need.

As an April 10 editorial points out, the latest agricultural research — including more than a decade of concrete experience in Cuba — proves that small and mid-sized farms using sustainable agro-ecological methods are much more productive and vastly less damaging to the environment than huge industrial farms.

Industrial farming continues not because it is more productive, but because it has been able, until now, to deliver uniform products in predictable quantities, bred specifically to resist damage during shipment to distant markets.

That's where the profit is, and profit is what counts.

Food sovereignty

These changes have not gone unchallenged. One of the most important developments in the past 15 years has been the emergence of La Via Campesina, an umbrella body that encompasses more than 120 small farmers' and peasants' organisations in 56 countries.

La Vía Campesina initially advanced its program as a challenge to the 1996 UN World Food Summit on global hunger. The participants in that meeting promised (and did nothing to achieve) the elimination of hunger and malnutrition by guaranteeing "sustainable food security for all people".

Outside the doors, La Via Campesina proposed "food sovereignty" as an alternative to food security. Simple access to food is not enough, they argued. What is needed is access to land, water and resources, and the people affected must have the right to know and to decide about food policies.

World hunger, it argued, can only be ended by re-establishing small and mid-sized family farms as the key elements of food production.

The central demand of the food sovereignty movement is that food should be treated primarily as a source of nutrition for the communities and countries where it is grown. In opposition to free-trade, agroexport policies, it urges a focus on domestic consumption and self-sufficiency.

Contrary to the assertions of some critics, food sovereignty is not a call for economic isolationism or a return to an idealised rural past. Rather, it is a program for the defence and extension of human rights, land reform, and protection of the earth against capitalist ecocide.

La Via Campesina's call included demands such as:

• Guarantee everyone access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity;
• Give landless and farming people — especially women — ownership and control of the land they work and return territories to indigenous peoples;
• Ensure the care and use of natural resources, especially land, water and seeds;
• End dependence on chemical inputs, cash-crop monocultures and intensive, industrialised production;
• End the use of food as a weapon. Stop the displacement, forced urbanization and repression of peasants;
• Oppose WTO, World Bank and IMF policies that facilitate the control of multinational corporations over agriculture;
• Regulate and tax speculative capital and enforce a strict code of conduct on transnational corporations;
• Guarantee peasants and small farmers, and rural women in particular, direct input into formulating agricultural policies at all levels. (Visit <> for the full statement.)

Such demands constitute a powerful agrarian program for the 21st Century. Left movements worldwide should give full support to it and to the campaigns for land reform and against the industrialisation and globalisation of food and farming.

Within that framework, we in the global North can and must demand that our governments stop all activities that weaken or damage Third World farming.

There must be a stop to using food for fuel. La Via Campesina said clearly in a February 14 statement: "Industrial agrofuels are an economic, social and environmental nonsense. Their development should be halted and agricultural production should focus on food as a priority."

Third World debts should also be cancelled. Ending that cash drain, immediately and unconditionally, would provide essential resources to feed the hungry now and rebuild domestic farming over time.

The WTO needs to get out of agriculture. The regressive food policies that have been imposed on poor countries by the World Bank and IMF are codified and enforced by the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture.

As Afsar Jafri of Focus on the Global South wrote in a November 7, 2005 article, the AoA is "biased in favour of capital-intensive, corporate agribusiness-driven and export-oriented agriculture."

That's not surprising, since the US official who drafted and then negotiated it was a former vice-president of agribusiness giant Cargill.

The AoA should be abolished, and Third World countries should have the right to unilaterally cancel liberalisation policies imposed through the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, as well as through bilateral free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and its Central American equivalent.

Self determination

All this points towards the need for self-determination for the global South. The US is attempting to destabilise and overthrow the anti-imperialist governments that are grouped in the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA — a Latin American "fair trade" bloc based on the principles of solidarity over competition) — Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada.

This continues a long history of actions by the First World to prevent Third World countries from asserting control over their own destinies. Organising against such interventions "in the belly of the monster" is thus a key component of the fight to win global food sovereignty.

More than a century ago, Karl Marx wrote in Capital that despite its support for technical improvements, "the capitalist system works against a rational agriculture ... a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system".

Today's food and farm crises completely confirm that judgment. A system that puts profit ahead of human needs has driven millions of producers off the land and undermined the Earth's productivity while poisoning its air and water. It has condemned nearly a billion people to chronic hunger and malnutrition.

The food and farm crisis are rooted in an irrational, anti-human system. To feed the world, urban and rural working people must join hands to sweep that system away.

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