Super-size that commodity

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A review of ‘A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism’

Don’t expect a whole lot of taste when you sit down to a plateful of commodities.

That might be a fitting but unintended lesson for foodies who work through the new book by Eric Holt-Giménez. A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism will reward a careful reader with lots of insights – but it won’t do much for the taste buds.

While A Foodie’s Guide is lacking in recipes or menu ideas, it shines in helping us to understand the struggles of the men and women who work in the farms and packing plants. Likewise, it explains why major capitalists have typically shown little interest in direct involvement in agriculture – preferring to make their money selling farm inputs, trading farm commodities, or turning farm products into the thousands of refined products that fill supermarket shelves.

Fictitious commodities

Karl Polanyi famously described land, labour and money as “fictitious commodities”. Land and labour in particular come in for lengthy discussion in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. In the process, Holt-Giménez also effectively unmasks the myth of the free market.

“Markets have been around a long time,” he writes, “but before the nineteenth century did not organize society as they do today.” He shows how capitalism in England arose concurrently with vigorous state intervention which drove people off their small farms and into the industrial labour pool. Meanwhile overseas both the slave trade and settler colonialism were opening critical parts of global markets, which were anything but “free”.

Nevertheless the takeover of food production by capitalism has been far from complete.

“Today, despite centuries of capitalism, large-scale capitalist agriculture produces less than a third of the world’s food supply, made possible in large part by multibillion-dollar subsidies and insurance programs. Peasants and smallholders still feed most people in the world, though they cultivate less than a quarter of the arable land.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide To Capitalism, Monthly Review Press and FoodFirst Books, citing a report in GRAIN, May 2014)

There are a lot of reasons for this incomplete transition, but many are related to two of the “fictitious commodities”. Let’s start with land.

While land is the most important “means of production” in agriculture, land is of course much more than that. For people throughout history, land has been home, land has been the base of culture, land has been sacred. Even today, people go to great lengths to avoid having their lands swallowed up by capitalist agriculture – especially since this transition typically results in widespread consolidation of farms, leaving most former farmers to try to earn a living as landless labourers.

Autumn colours in the Northumberland Hills north of Lake Ontario, Canada

Likewise labour is much more than a commodity. An hour of labour is a handy abstraction that can be fed into an economist’s formula, but the labourer is a flesh-and-blood human being with complex motivations and aspirations. Holt-Giménez offers a good primer in Marxist theory here, showing why it has always been difficult for capitalists to extract surplus value directly from the labour of farmers. He also builds on the concept of the “cost of reproduction” in explaining why, in those sectors of farming that do depend on wage labour, most of the wage labourers are immigrants.

Before people can be hired at wages, they need to be born, cared for as infants, fed through childhood, provided with some level of education. These “costs of reproduction” are substantial and unavoidable. A capitalist cannot draw surplus value from labour unless some segment of society pays those “costs of reproduction”, but it is in the narrow economic self-interest of capitalists to ensure that someone else pays. Consider, for example, the many Walmart employees who rely on food stamps to feed their families. Since Walmart doesn’t want to pay a high enough wage to cover the “cost of reproduction” for the next generation of workers, a big chunk of that bill goes to taxpayers.

In industrialized countries, the farm workers who pick fruit and vegetables or work in packing plants tend to be immigrants on temporary work permits. This allows the capitalist food system to pass off the costs of reproduction, not to domestic taxpayers, but to the immigrants’ countries of origin:

“the cost of what it takes to feed, raise, care for and educate a worker from birth to working age (the costs of reproduction) are assumed by the immigrants’ countries of origin and is free to their employers in the rich nations, such as the United States and the nations of Western Europe. The low cost of immigrant labor works like a tremendous subsidy, imparting value to crops and agricultural land. This value is captured by capitalists across the food chain, but not by the worker.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism)

Farmstead in the Black Hills, South Dakota, USA

The persistence of the family farm

In the US a large majority of farms, including massive farms which raise monoculture crops using huge machinery, are run by individual families rather than corporations. Although they own much of their land, these farmers typically work long hours at what amounts to less than minimum wage, and many depend on at least some non-farm salary or wage income to pay the bills. Again, there are clear limitations in a capitalist food system’s ability to extract surplus value directly from these hours of labour.

But in addition to selling “upstream” inputs like hybrid and GMO seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery, the capitalist food system dominates the “downstream” process of trading commodities, processing foods, and distributing them via supermarket shelves. An important recent development in this regard is contract farming, which Holt-Giménez refers to as “a modern version of sharecropping and tenant farming”.

A large corporation contracts to buy, for example, a chicken farmer’s entire output of chickens, at a fixed price:

“Through a market-specification contract, the firm guarantees the producer a buyer, based on agreements regarding price and quality, and with a resource-providing contract the firm also provides production inputs (like fertilizer, hatchlings, or technical assistance). If the firm provides all the inputs and buys all of the product, it essentially controls the production process while the farmer basically provides land and labor ….”

The corporation buying the chickens gets the chance to dominate the chicken market, without the heavy investment of buying land and buildings and hiring the workforce. Meanwhile farmers with purchase contracts in hand can go to the bank for operating loans, but they lose control over most decisions about production on their own land. And they bear the risk of losing their entire investment – which often means losing their home as well – if the corporation decides the next year to cancel the contract, drop the price paid for chicken, or raise the price of chicken feed.

Contract farming dominates the poultry industry in the US and the pork market is now rapidly undergoing “chickenization”. Holt–Giménez adds that “The World Bank considers contract farming to be the primary means for linking peasant farmers to the global market and promotes it widely in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”

Farm field in springtime, western North Dakota, USA

Feeding a hungry world

In North America the conventional wisdom holds that only industrial capitalist agriculture has the ability to provide food for the billions of people in today’s world. Yet on a per hectare basis, monoculture agribusiness has been far less productive than many traditional intensive agricultures.

“Because peasant-style farming usually takes place on smaller farms, the total output is less than capitalist or entrepreneurial farms. However, their total output per unit of land (tons/hectare; bushels/acre) tends to be higher. This is why, as capitalist agriculture converts peasant-style farms to entrepreneurial and capitalist farms, there is often a drop in productivity ….”

Marxist political-economic theory provides a useful basis for Holt-Giménez’ explorations of many aspects of global food systems. Among the topics he covers are the great benefits of the Green Revolution to companies marketing seeds and fertilizers, along with the great costs to peasants who were driven off their lands, and potentially catastrophic damages to the ecological web.

But an over-reliance on this theory, in my opinion, leads to an oversimplification of some of our current challenges. This is most significant in Holt-Giménez’s discussions of the overlapping issues of food waste and the failure to distribute farm outputs fairly.

In recent decades there has been a constant surplus of food available on world markets, while hundreds of millions of people have suffered serious malnutrition. At the same time we are often told that approximately 40% of the world’s food goes to waste. Surely there should be an easy way to distribute food more justly, avoid waste, and solve chronic hunger, no?

Yet it is not clear what proportion of food waste is unavoidable, given the vagaries of weather that may cause a bumper crop one year in one area, or rapid increases in harvest-destroying pests in response to ecological changes. It is easy to think that 40% waste is far too high – but could we reasonably expect to cut food waste to 5%, 10% or 20%? That’s a question that Holt-Giménez doesn’t delve into.

On the other hand he does pin food waste very directly on capitalist modes of production. “The defining characteristic of capitalism is its tendency to overproduce. The food system is no exception.” He adds, “The key to ending food waste is to end overproduction.”

Yet if food waste is cut back through a lowering of production, that in itself is of no help to those who are going hungry.

Holt-Giménez writes “Farmers are nutrient-deficient because they don’t have enough land to grow a balanced diet. These are political, not technical problems.” Yes, access to land is a critical political issue – but can we be sure that the answers are only political, and not in part technical as well? After all, famines predated capitalism, and have occurred in widely varying economic contexts even in the past century.

Particularly for the coming generations, climatic shifts may create enormous food insecurities even for those with access to (formerly sufficient) land. As George Monbiot notes in The Guardian this week, rapid loss of topsoil on a world scale, combined with water scarcity and rising temperatures, is likely to have serious impacts on agricultural production. Facing these challenges, farming knowledge and techniques that used to work very well may require serious adaptation. So the answers are not likely to be political or technical, but political and technical.

These critiques aside, Holt-Giménez has produced an excellent guidebook for the loose collection of interests often called “the food movement”. With a good grasp of the way capitalism distorts food production, plus an understanding of the class struggles that permeate the global food business, foodies stand a chance of turning the food movement into an effective force for change.