This essay outlines the ‘biophysical contradictions’ and crises of legitimacy that the globalising industrial food system is now confronting. It argues that the system has become oligarchic by nature and is incapable of resolving these contradictions and crises within its own terms of continued geographical expansion and technological change, the dialectic of ‘plunder and productivity’. I argue that only a much more democratic food system can achieve lasting environmental sustainability and global social justice; and that developments in food sovereignty from around the world offer much promise towards these ends.
As in other spheres of human life, the most clearly apparent legacy of the era of neoliberal capitalism in food and agriculture is sharply rising inequality (Duménil and Lévy 2001: 578; Harvey 2005; Guthman 2011: 62). It is no exaggeration to categorise the global food system as oligarchic, even plutocratic, with a small number of giant transnational corporations controlling the sectors of research and development, proprietary seed, agri-chemicals, grain trading, meat packing, food processing and, increasingly, retailing, to the detriment of most producers and consumers alike (Patel 2007: 12-15). The system is designed to meet the needs of corporations for profit and capital accumulation, with the goals of human health and ecosystem integrity being secondary or tertiary considerations.
On one level, the plutocratic global food system faces a crisis of legitimacy, as the perversity of its operation, and the extent of its dysfunctionality, becomes more widely known. A crisis of legitimacy does not, however, translate into a systemic crisis, as long as the circuits of production and consumption can continue to be closed, enabling the system to expand and capital accumulation to persist. On another level, the system is confronted by a series of ‘accelerating biophysical contradictions’ (Weis 2010) which have the very real capacity to undermine its continued conditions of existence.
The conclusion to be drawn from the above discussion is that industrialising capitalist agriculture finds itself at a serious impasse; and yet its promoters in Northern governments apparently find themselves capable only of urging its continuation and expansion because their worldview is so constrained by orthodox economics, and the vested interests of large corporations, that they cannot see any alternative. Further, the ‘long waves’ of capitalist expansion over centuries have in turn rested on a series of agricultural revolutions, beginning with the first English agricultural revolution of the ‘long seventeenth century’; succeeded by the second English agricultural revolution of the nineteenth century, and most recently the industrialisation of agriculture, led by the USA, in the twentieth (Moore 2010: 403). These revolutions have played this enabling role by bringing about, through a combination of outright ‘plunder’ (in the form of the dispossession of indigenous peoples of their land and resources) and technologically-driven productivity gains, an ‘ecological surplus’, with ‘cheap food’ at its centre, that has managed to restrain the cost of labour relative to other factors of production, and so enable sustained profitability (Gutham 2011: 54; Moore 2010: 392-3).
The trouble is that as capitalist industrial agriculture encounters its biophysical contradictions in the form of a series of planetary boundaries and a steadily widening ‘ecological rift’ between humanity and nature (Foster et al 2011: 76-79; Rockstrom et al 2009), and as the global capitalist system as a whole now appears to be stagnating and entering a period of crisis, no new agricultural revolution, and thus no new ‘ecological surplus’, is in sight. Large hopes have been, and continue to be, placed in genetically modified organisms, but the evidence to date reveals a disappointing ‘failure to yield’ (Sherman 2009). The current era of cheap food may be drawing to a close, thus elevating the current crisis into a truly systemic, ‘epochal’ one, and intensifying the uncertainties and risks of the decades ahead (Moore 2010: 398).
Together, these pillars represent a pathway to a democratic food system. In transitioning away from the destructive oligarchy and plutocracy of market-led industrialised agriculture and agri-food regimes, the democratisation of food systems is a pre-condition to making them sustainable, fair and resilient. Many regions in North America have years of experience with democratic governance of their food systems via Food Policy Councils, and these models are now being embraced and adapted elsewhere (Food First 2009). At the global level, the reformed Committee on World Food Security offers the possibility of a more inclusive space for policy formation; and La Via Campesina have articulated a powerful framework for the protection of peasant and family farmers in their draft Declaration on Peasants’ Rights (La Via Campesina 2009). The food sovereignty movement has momentum: can it shift the power of vested interests?
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