Market fundamentalists would have us believe that if only we left the provisioning of all human needs to the tender mercies of unregulated markets, a cornucopia of fabulous wealth would trickle down to all. A powerful fire hose of propaganda ceaselessly proclaims this, amply funded by those whose interest lie in accumulating unlimited wealth without regard to social or environmental harm.
Friedrich Hayek, in propagating the Austrian School of economics, precursor to the Chicago School of Milton Friedman, went so far as to claim that solidarity, benevolence and a desire to work for the betterment of one’s community are “primitive instincts” and that human civilization consists of a long struggle against those ideals, and “the discipline of the market” is the provider of civilization and progress. Friedman, venerated by those made ever more wealthy and powerful through deepening corporate control of society, promoted the idea that the one and only consideration for any corporation is to maximize profits for shareholders; doing anything else would be “immoral.” So pervasive is this extremist ideology that corporations are routinely sued by “activist shareholders” for failing to extract every possible scrap of money by any means necessary, most certainly including instituting layoffs even if the company already is highly profitable.
The appalling inequality, wars, imperialism, billions without regular work, slums and a host of other ills, not least of which is global warming, are the products of allowing “markets” to determine ever more social outcomes and of making ever more human needs a commodity, even such basics as water and housing. But what of food? Along with water and shelter, nothing is more a necessity than food. Perhaps here we can find a silver lining in the corporate conquest of the world? Agriculture has made enormous strides over the past century; farms have never been so productive and a variety of foods never more available.
Nonetheless, food is a commodity in a capitalist economy. Inflation, you’ve undoubtedly noticed, has not exempted food. Food has become much more expensive over the past two years, reflected in significantly higher grocery costs and restaurant bills. In general, the corporate right-wing ideology that thoroughly dominates the mass media seldom misses a chance to blame wage increases for any incidence of inflation. Yep, it’s greedy working people who believe they should be paid a wage sufficient to actually live on in exchange for work. Seldom, if ever, is evidence presented to back these claims. Rather, it is presented as an incontestable fact of life. So it has been over the past two years of inflation that has spread around the world, as has been routine for decades.
It is as if the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic could not have anything to do with supply chain disruptions and production, or that the greed of financiers and those in the executive suites of corporations in raising prices could not be a factor. Food prices are not exempted from this pattern. So although there are several reasons behind the surge of inflation, the above factors can’t be discounted. Beyond that, there is the much broader, and more long lasting, question of food supply for the world.
What sort of “efficiency” sees billions going hungry?
Let’s try to tackle food supply first. As the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023 states, “Global hunger in 2022, measured by the prevalence of undernourishment, remained far above pre-pandemic levels.” The FAO report estimates that about 10 percent of the world’s population “faces chronic hunger” — about 122 million more people were in this category in 2022 than in 2019, before the pandemic. Using a more broad measure, more than one-quarter of the world’s population are “food insecure,” with a distinct gender bias. The report states, “Food insecurity is more prevalent among adult women than men in every region of the world, although the gap narrowed considerably at the global level from 2021 to 2022. In 2022, 27.8 percent of adult women were moderately or severely food insecure, compared with 25.4 percent of men, and the proportion of women facing severe food insecurity was 10.6 percent compared with 9.5 percent of men.”
And although the prevalence of stunting among children under five years of age due to malnutrition has declined, nonetheless the total of these unfortunate children is estimated to have been 148.1 million in 2022, or 22.3 percent of the global age cohort.
A system that leads to such inhumane, inexcusable results can’t be said to be efficient. It would be on target to say such a system is an abysmal failure. But the above numbers, appalling as they are, likely understate the actual scale of hunger. A separate FAO report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021: The world is at a critical juncture, while noting that between 720 million and 811 million people faced hunger, said far more were in a precarious position vis-à-vis food. “Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020 — that’s an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year,” this report said. One-third of the world’s people! Moreover, an even larger number of people are unable to afford a healthy diet, to which we will return.
Eric Holt-Giménez, former Food First executive director in Oakland, California, and who has taught at several universities, including the University of California, argues that the extent of world hunger is understated. In an article, “Capitalism, Food, and Social Movements: The Political Economy of Food System Transformation,” published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, said that one-seventh of the world’s population goes hungry at the same time that one and a half times more than enough food for everybody is produced. But he then explains that the estimate of one billion hungry people “is likely a gross underestimation.”
Dr. Holt-Giménez wrote that the total number of hungry people is underestimated because of how hunger is defined. He wrote, “This is due to the way that hunger is measured. People are only identified as hungry if they experience hunger 12 months out of the year. If they experience hunger for only 11 months out of the year, they’re not counted as hungry. Second, this measurement is based on caloric intake, and you can imagine that the required number of calories an individual must consume varies substantially according to height, gender, occupation, age, etc. The caloric intake threshold for determining hunger (around 2000 kilocalories) is fine if you sit quietly behind a computer for 8 hours a day. But most hungry people in the world are women farmers in the developing world who work under a hot sun all day long and are nursing one or more children. They need as much as 5000 kilocalories a day. Official estimates miss all of this.”
When the “magic of the market” yields waste, not cornucopia
Regardless of how we count, it should be indisputable that capitalist agriculture is a failure. Surely, even if “only” hundreds of millions of people, rather than billions, lack sufficient access to food, that is a monumental failure by any humanistic measure. Those seeking to absolve the “market” of any responsibility are quick to point elsewhere, with Malthusian-inspired whisperings that the problem is over-population a favorite. But such excuses are just that — excuses. The world’s farmers actually produce enough food for everybody on Earth. The problem is affordability and efficiency. And that brings us to food waste.
Here again we confront capitalist mantra. The “magic of the market” will ensure everybody has sufficient food, market fundamentalists tell us incessantly, as is promised for most everything else. But what if billions of people can’t afford food? What if food can’t reach those who wish to eat it? It is precisely “markets” that are behind the huge numbers of people with insufficient food. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index Report 2021 estimates that “food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totals 931 million tonnes each year,” or 17 percent of total global food production. A 2011 FAO report, however, estimated that around one-third of food produced globally was lost or wasted.
Those United Nations studies, however, may be underestimating the true extent of food waste while placing blame unduly on personal behavior. A study by six scientists led by Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh, “Losses, inefficiencies and waste in the global food system,” calculates that nearly half of the world’s food is wasted. The authors, publishing in Agricultural Systems, argue that “over-consumption of food” should be included as waste. They write, “If human over-consumption, defined as food consumption in excess of nutritional requirements, is included as an additional inefficiency, 48.4% of harvested crops were found to be lost (53.2% of energy and 42.3% of protein). Over-eating was found to be at least as large a contributor to food system losses as consumer food waste.” Human over-consumption here is defined as food consumption in excess of nutritional requirements. But, crucially, food losses before it could be eaten comprise by far most of that total: “Losses of harvested crops were also found to be substantial, with 44.0% of crop dry matter (36.9% of energy and 50.1% of protein) lost prior to human consumption,” they wrote.
That extensive crop loss is a crucial point because standard commentaries on food waste tend to place the lion’s share of the waste on consumer behavior. By blaming personal behavior, systemic causes can be conveniently ignored. And although food certainly is wasted at the consumer level, and at the retail level as well, the Agricultural Systems study, one of the few to systematically analyze food waste, indicates that agricultural production inefficiencies are where solutions need to be found. Simply increasing agricultural areas or seeking higher yields through the use of greater inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides or water) could cause more global warming, deteriorating soil quality, water scarcity and losses of biodiversity. The authors wrote:
“The results demonstrate that agricultural production inefficiencies (in both crop and livestock) are the dominant contributions to the overall losses within the food system, when considering either harvested crops or all biomass. … Both the total rate of primary production and also the percentage that is harvested have been increasing over time, in large part due to increasing crop yields. Livestock production efficiencies have also been increasing over time, but still are responsible [for] a substantial loss. … Both consumer behaviour and production practices play crucial roles in the efficiency of the food system. … The greatest rates of loss were associated with livestock production, and consequently changes in the levels of meat, dairy and egg consumption can substantially affect the overall efficiency of the food system, and associated environmental impacts (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions). It is therefore regrettable from environmental and food security perspectives that rates of meat and dairy consumption are expected to continue to increase as average incomes rise, potentially lowering efficiency of the overall food system, as well as increasing associated negative health implications (e.g. diabetes and heart disease).” [internal citations omitted]
The paper says livestock production is often not included in studies of food loss and waste, which is why its authors find higher results. Where consumer behavior comes in here is in what is consumed: “Changes to influence consumer behaviour, e.g. eating less animal products, reducing food waste, and lowering per capita consumption to be closer to nutrient requirements will all help to provide the rising global population with food security in a sustainable manner.”
“Free” for multi-national corporations but not for farmers
Food waste is not inevitable, nor is it necessarily a consequence of basic human failure, even allowing for consumer- and retail-level waste. Dr. Holt-Giménez, the former Food First executive director who was quoted earlier in this article, states that food waste is a part of capitalism, resulting from the consequences of relentless competition. He wrote in his “Capitalism, food, and social movements” article: “It’s often said that reducing food waste can eliminate hunger. While this is conceptually true, it overlooks the influence of our capitalist food system. Food waste is part of that system. Industrial agriculture, capitalist agriculture, has to overproduce in order to stay in the market, and food waste is a consequence.” Capitalist agriculture particularly is susceptible to overproduction because farmers are induced to produce more when crop prices fall because they need to cover heavy fixed costs and are also induced to produce more in good years to make up for the inevitable bad harvest years, Dr. Holt-Giménez wrote. Farmers can’t plant less in bad years nor move their farms.
Compounding all these inequalities is national inequality. Global South countries, where impoverished farmers and hungry populations are found in large numbers, are on the wrong side of imperialist dynamics. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are two primary vehicles for domination and plunder. As South governments fall into debt, they take loans that always come with the same requirements to privatize public assets (which can be sold far below market value to multi-national corporations waiting to pounce); cut social safety nets; drastically reduce the scope of government services; eliminate regulations; and open economies wide to multi-national capital, even if that means the destruction of local industry and agriculture. This results in more debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and the IMF still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws. Subsidized food from the North is exported to the South under World Bank and IMF diktats or under so-called “free trade” agreements, bankrupting South farmers who can’t compete with Northern capital.
As only one example, almost five million Mexican family farmers were displaced in the first two decades of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the number of Mexicans living under the poverty line increased by 14 million. Subsidized corn from the United States flooded Mexico, sold below the costs of small Mexican farmers. Corn imports from the U.S. increased fivefold and pork imports from the U.S. increased by more than 20 times, according to a Truthout report by David Bacon. As a result, Mexican farmers forced off their land either became seasonal workers on growing agribusiness farms, sought work in the cities or migrated north.
Under “free trade” agreements, agricultural overproduction in the North is subsidized with tax dollars to dump the surplus in the South, Dr. Holt-Giménez wrote. “Essentially the public is coerced into destroying the food systems of Global South so that Big Grain can make its money. … In the 1970s, the Global South generated about a billion dollar surplus annually from food production. Toward the end of the century, this changed to an annual deficit of approximately 11 billion dollars.”
Yes, Africans starve but North agribusiness profits
Plenty of other examples other than Mexico could be cited, but in the interest of saving space further examples will be limited to two African countries. The dictated terms of World Bank and IMF loans, known by those lenders as “structural adjustment programs,” forces small farmers to be more integrated into global food markets to their detriment. The programs “meant indebted countries across the Global South had to convert from prioritising indigenous crops that the local population depended on, to producing cash crops for export,” Adele Walton of Progressive International wrote. “As a result, local populations and farmers became more vulnerable to food scarcity — due to the negative ecological effects and decline in food accessibility.”
Ms. Watson’s article, “Capitalism is causing the food crisis, not war,” explicates this with the examples of Zambia and Kenya. The structural-adjustment agenda included the privatization and liberalization of the seed system, leading to a decline in support for farmer cooperatives. Zambian farmers were forced to prioritize maize as a cash crop, lessening local crop variety and thus resulting in fewer food sources. “[C]orporate control of agriculture is weakening food security,” Ms. Watson wrote. “Seed systems have gone from being cooperative-led (which gives farmers more agency and fair prices) to being corporate-led (which prioritises profits).” Most Zambia smallholder farmers don’t have the resources to buy seeds at the commercial price. With more farmers forced to grow cash crops, which can be more susceptible to weather changes, about half of Zambians are reported to be unable to meet minimum calorie requirements.
Kenyan farmers have fared no better under this onslaught of imposed capitalist agriculture. Overuse of chemical fertilizers is causing land degradation that hurts food production. “As in Zambia, the disastrous legacy of [structural adjustment programs] is to blame,” Ms. Watson wrote. “In 1980, Kenya was one of the first countries to receive a structural adjustment loan from the World Bank. It was conditional on reducing essential subsidies for farmer inputs, such as fertilisers. This process instigated a shift towards farming cash crops for export, such as tea, coffee and tobacco, instead of farming key staples for the local population, such as maize, wheat and rice.”
As a result of farmers having to struggle, if they can afford it, to obtain agricultural inputs that were free before the IMF dictation, 3.5 million people in Kenya are already suffering crisis levels of hunger, with projections that the number will rise to 5 million, according to a report by Save the Children and Oxfam. Ms. Watson concludes, “Structural adjustment has made Kenya into a food exporter [while] malnutrition remains high.”
It is not simply a lack of food that is a problem; the unaffordability of healthy food adds to health problems. In an examination of 11 African countries, the FAO 2023 Food Security report noted that “The cost of a healthy diet exceeds average food expenditure for low- and middle-income households in both high- and low-food-budget countries in the 11 countries analysed. Low-income households living in peri-urban and rural areas are especially disadvantaged, as they would need to more than double their current expenditure on food to secure a healthy diet.” Around the world, there are a staggering 3 billion people who cannot afford a healthy diet, according to the UN’s Food Waste Index Report 2021.
Low incomes also make it extremely difficult for farmers in Africa, and elsewhere in the Global South, to keep their farms and livelihoods. Smallholder farmers, who are mostly women, produce over half of the world’s food, according to Dr. Holt-Giménez. But they are at the mercy of predatory capitalist practices, he writes:
“Although poor peasant farmers produce most of the world’s food, most of them are going hungry. Their parcels of land are too small. What they get paid for the products is too low. They sell it off right away as soon as they harvest because they’re poor and need money. Six months later, they’re buying back food at higher prices, but they don’t have enough money, and so they go hungry. The women and girls who feed most of the world make up 70 percent of the world’s hungry. And these small farms are getting smaller. … [W]e are condemning most of these women farmers to poverty because their farms are too small.”
As many of those struggling small farmers are Africans, they are seen as financial opportunities by the corporations of the advanced capitalist countries. Africa draws most of the attention when global hunger is discussed, although most of the world’s hungry are in Asia-Pacific, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. That attention is not for altruistic reasons, Dr. Holt-Giménez says:
“There is a reason for the high profile given to the issue of hunger in Africa relative to that in Asia. The approach to end hunger routinely proffered is the Green Revolution: produce more food with more chemicals and high-yielding seed varieties. Asia already had a Green Revolution and is consequently saturated with chemical fertilizers, GMOs, and modern farming machinery. While this transition has not eliminated hunger in the region, it has saturated the market for machinery, chemicals, and industrial seed. However, Africa is a wide-open market for a Green Revolution, and there is substantial money to be made selling these technologies. And while I think it’s important to talk about the issue of hunger in Africa, I think this is why hunger in this region receives much more attention relative to Asia.”
You pay more so the vampire squid can profit more
Let’s return to price inflation, something everybody who eats has experienced in the past two years. This round of food inflation is not the first in recent times; there was a noticeable rise in food prices in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Food prices were said to have increased 80 percent in 18 months, with the number of hungry estimated at more than one billion. After a fall in prices, 2011 saw another round of price rises. Financial speculation was behind much of this, Murray Worthy of the World Development Movement reports. By 2011, he wrote:
“Financial speculators now dominate the market, holding over 60 per cent of some markets compared to just 12 per cent 15 years ago. In the last 5 years alone, the total assets of financial speculators in these markets have nearly doubled from $65 billion in 2006 to $126 billion in 2011. This money is purely speculative, with none of it being invested in agriculture, yet it is now 20 times more than the total amount of aid money given globally for agriculture. Led to prices no longer being driven by supply and demand for food, but by the sentiments of financial speculators and the performance of their other investments. Created huge inflationary pressure in the market, forcing food prices up. The consequences have been devastating. In the last six months of 2010 alone, 44 million people were pushed into extreme poverty by rising food prices.”
“Future contracts,” the devices frequently used by investment banks and other financial speculators to profiteer on food, were created as a hedge in the 19th century for farmers as some protection against the volatility of commodity food pricing by enabling them to lock in a specific price for their crops. The Roosevelt administration enacted regulations to limit positions in a series of acts in the 1930s to curb speculation that had begun, but the regulations were weakened in the 1990s and early 2000s, in part in response to lobbying by Goldman Sachs.
As a result, speculation increased dramatically, with disastrous effects on food supply and pricing. “The number of derivative contracts in commodities increased by more than 500 per cent between 2002 and mid-2008,” wrote Tim Jones of the World Development Movement in an article titled “The great hunger lottery: How banking speculation causes food crises.” Speculators came to dominate long positions in food commodities. “For instance, speculators held 65 per cent of long maize contracts, 68 per cent of soybeans and 80 per cent of wheat, Mr. Jones wrote. “As early as April 2006, Merrill Lynch estimated that speculation was causing commodity prices to trade at 50 per cent higher than if they were based on fundamental supply and demand alone.” This is highly profitable for the speculators. Goldman Sachs, the vampire squid with tentacles jamming into wherever a dollar can be extracted, made about $5 billion from commodities trading in 2009 and Royal Bank of Scotland is estimated to have more than $1 billion. Mr. Jones continued:
“[T]he situation was probably best summarised by the famous businessman George Soros, himself no stranger to financial speculation. In an interview with Stern Magazine published in the summer of 2008, Soros reflected on the nature of the crisis: ‘every speculation is also rooted in reality. … Speculators create the bubble that lies above everything. Their expectations, their gambling on futures help drive up prices, and their business distorts prices, which is especially true for commodities. It is like hoarding food in the midst of a famine, only to make profits on rising prices. That should not be possible.’ ”
In a rational world, it would not be possible. Speculation, nonetheless, has only accelerated since then. The FAO Food Price Index rose 58 percent during 2021 and the first half of 2022, remaining well above pre-pandemic prices even with some easing. Although the war in Ukraine and pandemic-era supply chain bottlenecks contribute to food price inflation, speculation plays a large role in driving up prices. “While soaring food prices threaten food security globally, large food trading firms are profiting,” wrote Sophie van Huellen of the University of Manchester. “These companies bet on the direction of food prices by storing or trading substantial amounts of goods — making big financial gains as a result.”
A former U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission officer, Michael Greenberger, estimates that as much as 25 percent, possibly more, of the price of wheat “is dictated by deregulated speculative activity” involving futures markets and related derivatives. He said, “We’re in a market where speculators are driving prices up.”
If it’s a commodity, it for profit not your stomach
What to do? In the long run, ceasing to make food a commodity, possible only with the abolishment of the capitalist system, is necessary. That won’t be happening in the near future, so we do need practical solutions that can conceivably begin to be implemented today. The FAO, in its 2023 Food Security report, offers only tepid liberal band-aids, such as building rural infrastructure and using “behavioural science” as “an essential innovation … to develop evidence-based approaches.” Nothing wrong with those goals, but they do not touch root causes.
A much more comprehensive set of ideas has been put forth in a report commissioned by WWF Netherlands written by six authors led by Eva Gladek. “[S]imply ensuring a sufficient level of food production will not address the more entrenched impacts and humanitarian imbalances within the food system,” the report states. “All of these systemic failures present opportunities for transitioning the food system in a direction where it provides fully for the needs of people without infringing on key limits. … We can produce sufficient food, even for a much larger population, if structural changes are made to how we approach both production and consumption.”
Although not putting forth concrete proposals to accomplish the following goals, the report does detail four main challenges to a transition to a sustainable and resilient food system. These are: 1. Adaptive capacity and resilience must be built into both biophysical aspects of the system (through the preservation of biodiversity, maintenance of healthy soil systems, maintenance of buffering capacity in water bodies, etc.) and socioeconomic aspects of the system (knowledge transfer, development or organizational capacity, elimination of poverty cycles, etc.). 2. Adequate nutrition for the world’s population, including reducing food waste; shifting to lower-impact, less-resource-intensive food sources; prioritizing food production over non-food uses; improving economic access to food; and improving farmer productivity in the developing world. 3. Remaining within planetary boundaries in all of the key biophysical impact areas across the entire life cycle of food production, consumption and disposal, including investing in the development of new sustainable agricultural techniques. 4. Structurally supporting the livelihoods and well-being of people working within it; it should be possible to fully nourish and support oneself and earn a reasonable living wage in exchange for average work hours within the food system.
Can those worthy goals be accomplished under capitalism, under which food, water and other necessities of life are commodities to be bought and sold by the highest bidders, regardless of social or environmental impact? Certainly we should try, but it is more than reasonable to question whether it is possible under the current global economic régime.
I have written this numerous times but it can’t be stressed too much that capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the biggest and most powerful financiers and industrialists. Capitalist markets are not impassive entities sitting loftily in the clouds, dispassionately sorting out winners and losers. And as those powerful financiers and industrialists can call on the immense power of the most powerful national governments, and the host of multilateral institutions, including but not only the World Bank and IMF, that enforce those interests with force and are also able to rely on the structures of global capitalism that enforce and intensify inequality, we should not expect results different from what we have. How many lives should be lost for someone’s profit?
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