Stuffed and Starved: Snapping the Power of Agribusiness

A review of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System, by Raj Patel. (Harper Collins, Toronto, 2007)

Review by Leo Zeilig

Leo Zeilig is a socialist activist in Johannesburg. He is a post-doctoral fellow in the Centre for Sociological Research, University of Johannesburg. This review was published in LINKS: International Journal of socialist Renewal

At the end of the 19th century huge areas of the globe were violently incorporated into the world market. Whole regions that had for generations been farmed for local consumption were transformed for the production of cash crops. In captured and occupied lands new food crops were introduced that had little or no local nutritional use: ground nuts (peanuts) in what is now Senegal and Nigeria, cocoa in Cote d’Ivoire, cotton and rubber production across thousands of square kilometres of Central Africa.

This huge first wave of marketization swept the world, pulling down the puny defences of local economies. When adverse weather patterns hit the areas of the world restructured by the world market in the last decades of the 19th century, two things tended to happen: cash crops failed leaving peasant farmers unable to afford the prices of existing stocks of grain, corn or rice. Mike Davis has explained how, “Millions died, not outside the `modern world system’ but in the very process of being dynamically conscripted into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism” (Late Victorian Holocaust, London, Verso 2001 p.9).

The ‘new’ globalization

Stuffed and Starved is the story of the second devastating wave of globalization of the world food system. The stranglehold exercised by the giants of the corporate food system determine who eats (and what they eat) and who starves. Lots of people starve — 800 million people go hungry everyday, and they live in the global North and South. So in the US, the world’s richest country, 35.1 million go hungry.

Most of Raj Patel’s story takes place from the late 1960s. The tool that was used to carve out the control of global food supply was debt. As the prices of oil rose in the early 1970s, countries in the global South needed credit to pay for increasingly expensive oil imports. With interest rates at record lows credit was cheap. Developing countries took out loans that were willingly lent, often by the banks that oil exporters had invested in. This became known as the era of the petrodollar.

But later in the 1970s the world plunged into recession, commodity prices collapsed wiping out the major sources of foreign earnings for many governments of the global South. Still locked into economic dependency, most African economies relied on the export of one or two primary products. By the mid-1970s, for example, two-thirds of exports from Ghana and Chad were coffee and cotton respectively, while the fall in copper prices meant that by 1977 Zambia, which depended on copper for half of its GDP, received no income from its most important resource. Regions already marginal to international capitalism were further marginalized. Massive areas of the world were thrown into bankruptcy.

Crisis for the economies of the global South was an opportunity for new actors on the world stage. International financial institutions (IFIs) were developed to control and regulate the economies of the South. The most important of these institutions had been founded at the end of the Second World War. The World Bank was reshaped, issuing loans from the early 1980s to Southern governments when few others would. But now these loans came with strict conditions being met, and developed into “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs).

So now loans were granted by the World Bank to repay interest on debts accumulated in the 1970s. The “conditionalities” of SAPs insisted on greater inclusion of national economies into the global market, tariffs protecting local industries where removed, labour protection scrapped and agricultural subsidies removed. All this in the name of the free market.

Now, in theory at least, these countries could be reorganized to export crops and minerals at even greater rates to earn US dollars to repay old loans. As Patel writes, “And one of the ways of applying their resources to the problem was through exporting agricultural goods… And the Global North managed to replace the old colonial instruments of command and control with newer, and cheaper, mechanisms of ‘self-imposed’ market discipline.”

In little more than a decade a new food system had been built. The instruments of global food management that had been held together since 1945 by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) no longer had cohesive power. A series of negotiations were launched with GATT members in 1984 and these launched what became known as the Uruguay round of talks. In 1995 the World Trade Organization was founded absorbing the remit of GATT, but also, crucially, a number of new domains — intellectual property, services, textiles and included a mechanism for dispute resolution that GATT had been missing.

New agreements were equally unfair, so agricultural supports continued in the form of subsidies in the developed world, while the global South was compelled to hand over these rights.

Famine and malnutrition

The cost of these policies was carried by the poor. Areas of the world which were already exposed to the fluctuations of global commodity prices were hit particularly hard. Chronic malnutrition became a stable feature of Africa. In 1991 in Zambia, in Southern Africa, chronic malnutrition (stunting) between the ages of six and fifty-nine months was 39 per cent, while in 2000 the United Nations Development Program reported that in the Southern African region 20 per cent of children under five were underweight.

Economic devastation in the 1990s left Africans consuming 25 per cent less then they had in the 1960s and spending less on education and social services than at any time since independence.

Hunger is hardwired into the system of debt and structural adjustment. Patel gives many examples. Take Malawi in 2001. Here the International Monetary Fund insisted that the government cut its grain reserves from 165,000 to 30,000 metric tons — based on the logic of cost cutting. As Malawians started to die of starvation the IMF refused to disburse US$47 million in loans to the government due to accusations of impropriety in the handling of the famine. Better people die than the market be bucked.

Mass malnutrition and famine have been the direct corollary of the reshaped global food industry.

Ownership

Patel’s book also takes us into the boardrooms of those transnational agricultural corporations that have helped power the transformation of the food industry. These corporations have seen their share of world food trade grow massively under the new rules. Patel reports that “agricultural corporations control 40 per cent of world trade in food, with twenty companies controlling the world coffee trade, six controlling 70 per cent of wheat trade, and one controlling 98 per cent of packaged tea.”

Much of this concentration is a relatively recent phenomenon that has led directly to higher prices for consumers.

Though the giants of agribusiness compete against one another they are happy to join other players in the food game — up and down the distribution, pesticide and processing chain. So food giant Cargill has partnered with Monsanto, sharing its logistical and processing expertise with an organization that specializes in pesticides and seeds.

Resistance

Stuffed and Starved would be a gloomy read if there wasn’t another side to the story. While Patel tells of the despair that the reconfigured food system has wrought on peasant farmers and rural communities around the world — suicide rates, for example, in one area of rural southern India was 58 per 100,000 for men and 148 per 100,000 for women — he also speaks of resistance. The greatest of these struggles has been organized by the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST).

Over the last thirty years Brazil has seen the massive expropriation of land as a result of the restructuring of global food production. Militants in the MST have reoccupied land, farmed it, set up “settlements” and brought legal action against state governments and multinationals, becoming what Noam Chomsky has labelled “the world’s most important social movement.”

Out of this resistance, some of the landless have transformed themselves and established democratic forms of self-rule.

The post-sub-prime bubble

Since Patel’s book was published the changes he describes have accelerated. The UN recently reported that 121 countries have “crisis-level hunger” that has come from the rapid increase in food prices. The media explains that these prices rises are caused by the expansion of biofuels and the finite supply of oil — this is, largely, nonsense. Huge amounts of capital, measured in the tens of trillions, have been moved by speculators and investors from the sub-prime cash-cow that recently imploded to other commodities, principally food and oil. This has had the effect of driving up prices. This money has been invested in futures/derivatives contracts, in Chicago, New York and London, where wheat, rice, corn and cooking-oil prices are set every day.

Many of those involved are familiar to us. To avoid regulation stock market investor Warren Buffett (listed as the world’s richest man), Bill Gates and Richard Branson have brought huge chunks of the global food industry — often from food giants such as Cargill and ADM. Though there is competition between the billionaires investing in food, there is, crucially, collaboration that furthers their combined interests. Stuffed and Starved helps to explain how we have arrived here.

Resisting the market

What can we do? To the huge profits of the multinationals and the global food crisis Patel refuses to advocate simply consumer activism, it is not enough to be”label vigilantes,” he writes. The challenges posed by the transnational corporate control of the food industry are too great.

Rather Patel points to other alternatives. The book describes several important local initiatives that directly confront the power of the food industry. The MST is one, but another is the People’s Grocery in West Oakland, San Francisco. Directly inspired by the community activism of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, the People’s Grocery seeks to provide cheap, locally produced fruit and vegetables that pulls in community gardens and a grassroots support base. Other initiatives include community supported agriculture (CSA) that involves weekly deliveries of organic and seasonal food from producers to consumers across the United States. These projects, though unstable in the context of the overwhelming domination of big corporate supermarket chains, have expanded in recent years.

The book concludes with a list of individual and global actions to combat the power of the food industry, as Raj says correctly: “Some will require international cooperation for change. Some will be up to us as individuals.”

Both are difficult. But the solution is not simply buying “fair trade” products, though they are better than the alternatives for giving farmers more a “margin of dignity and income from a food system that holds them in contempt.” Patel argues that initiatives like fair trade are a fragile band-aid on an intolerable system. Rather he looks to move beyond the “honey trap” of ethical consumerism that sees solutions only through the consumption power of, mostly, Northern shoppers through the market.

Snapping the market

In place of these answers Stuffed and Starved offers far more radical solutions. For example “worker-owned cooperatives” that promise economic democracy but will only be achievable after prolonged struggles by trade unionists and farm workers in the North and South. These changes must be combined with what Patel describes as “profound and comprehensive rural change” and a “living wage for all.” These political and economic struggles re linked, so the Southern poor will see their fight for land and dignity as identical to those struggling to take back control of their lives, and shape the food system, in the North. This, Patel tells us, can only happen when the power of agribusinesses is “snapped.”

Practical solutions to the food crisis must combine local initiatives to re-establish control over our food, and a political and economic program for the total control of food production. This was the original project of the Black Panthers, their community action only made sense and was sustained to a large extent by an understanding of the need for control of food production as part of the transformation of society — the socialization of all production and the suppression of the market.

Patel’s book already hints at the risks of attempting to transform only a corner of our globe, while the rest remains under the dominion of the market. The MST settlements find it is “easier to continue and reproduce themselves when the call of the cities is faint.” The best settlements have been those further away from towns and cities, but “it is not possible … to seal off a community from influences of the modern world.” The market encroaches, but not by some invisible logic. When these alternatives become too challenging, governments, armies and multinational corporations will attempt to break them.

Practical solutions insist on a bigger politics. Sustaining the local campaigns, settlements and incremental projects that Stuffed and Starved rightly celebrates demands a political alternative that sees the suppression of the market mechanism in food production. But who will be the agents of this transformation?

Part of the political answer lies in the extraordinary protests that have broken out around the world in response to increases in food prices and basic commodities. These have often, patronizingly, been called “food riots” but are frequently well organized protests, bringing in an array of organizations and including strike movements that have challenged governments. These movements have the potential to reverse the control of the food system by the market’s billionaires, transnationals and governments. Stuffed and Starved will be a vital part of learning how the world food system works and how it can be beaten.

Related Reading

Climate and Capitalism also recommends the Stuffed and Starved website maintained by author Raj Patel

Posted in Books & Reports, Food and Farming
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