Political-Economy of the Global Food and Agriculture System
by Philip McMichael
This essay addresses the world-historical conditions underlying the present crisis of the global agri-food system and its contributions to the combined climate and biodiversity emergency. It is framed through the lens of a succession of international food regimes, from the mid-19th century to the present day, focusing on key food complexes such as wheat, animal protein and processed foods. It traces how these have evolved through three distinctive world food orders, as industrial agriculture has deepened its grip on diets, species and planetary health, intensifying processes of enclosure, human displacement, and corporate monopolization via financialization and digitalization. The remainder of the essay situates the 2007-08 world ‘food crisis’ in a long-standing global agrarian crisis (of public supports and cheap food dumping in southern markets), conversion of food crops to fuel crops, and rising land acquisitions for speculation and/or profit, as context for an ongoing recognition and development of highly plausible alternatives.
Crisis and Resolution
The crisis of a ‘broken’ global food system is expressed in multiple ways. The food-price spikes of 2007-08 followed the exhaustion of productivity gains from the green revolution in the 1960s-1980s (Clapp 2016, p. 173). Exporting countries ceased trading, revealing the limits of food-import dependency, and world hunger rose toward a billion people, primarily in the global South (FAO 2008, p. 12). Biofuel mandates in the US and the EU raised global corn prices by at least one-third (Berthelot 2008, p. 27), underscoring the global conversion of land from food to fuel crops. This also heralded the takeover of commodity agriculture by financial interests decoupled from the food system per se. Meanwhile, farming expenditure in the global South, as a share of public expenditures, fell 50 percent between 1980 and 2004. And the 10 countries accounting for almost 70 per cent of the world’s hungry received only 20 per cent of all agricultural aid, according to OECD and FAO data (McMichael and Schneider 2011, p. 121). Finally, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019) reported, in the words of the Chair, Sir Robert Watson: ‘The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.’
Under these circumstances, any future solutions depend on farming system principles geared to restoring ecosystem health with polycultures, organic fertilizer and integrated pest management to replace agro-chemicals, efficient water use, seed sharing, and energy conversion rather than energy consumption. As the World Bank-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development Report observed markets fail to adequately value social and environmental harm, concluding: ‘business as usual is no longer an option’ (IAASTD 2008, p. 20). In response, IPES-Food experts propose:
whether the starting point is industrial agriculture or subsistence-style farming… the agro-ecological alternative is high-tech and knowledge intensive – it requires complex synergies to be built and sustained between different crop varieties and species, and between different farming systems (mixed crop-livestock systems, for instance) … [new evidence] shows the huge potential of these systems to succeed where industrial systems are failing – namely in reconciling concerns such as food security, environmental and livelihood resistance, nutritional adequacy and social equity (De Schutter and Frison 2017).
This vision embodies a ‘multi-functionality’ principle. Enshrined programmatically in the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as ‘environmental governance,’ multifunctionality via non-industrial farming is understood and practised as a restorative and regenerative principle, where agriculture is embedded in ecological cycles (cf Hart et al 2016). Rather than designate separate spaces to conserve biodiversity and waste sinks, it integrates ecological repair and reproduction into the practice of farming itself (Perfecto, Vandermeer and Wright 2009). And its ‘labor-driven intensification emerges as a strategic … development trajectory’ (Ploeg 2009, p. 48). As the Coordination Paysanne Européene noted: ‘maintaining the number of people working in agriculture is not a sign of economic ‘backwardness’ but an added value’ (2003). In other words, it well may be that to retain ecological and landscape intimacy and real sustainability, the large-scale standard of corporate agriculture will yield to smaller-scale landscape farming practices in an ecologically challenged future (cf Hart et al 2016). Research by Ploeg (2019) and Da Via’ (2012) shows a European family farming ‘peasantry’ is robust, cooperative (with seed and labour sharing), productive, with an enduring provisioning relation with urban consumers – embracing ‘food from somewhere’ rather than ‘food from nowhere.’
The international peasant coalition, under the leadership of the 200 million-strong La Vía Campesina (LVC) movement, first politicized the corporate claim for global ‘food security,’ at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. Noting that ‘the massive movement of food around the world is forcing the increased movement of people,’ LVC proposed an alternative form of food security, namely ‘food sovereignty.’ They advocated national control over food security and farming systems, in turn respecting local farming knowledges and food cuisines. The strategy was to reverse structural adjustment policies dismantling domestic farming protections, now universalized via WTO liberalization of the corporate food trade. The demand for peasant and family farmer rights to land, as well as to produce food, complemented proposals to redirect huge energy, farm and export subsidies from agribusiness to local farming systems.
Proliferation of programs and policies instituting various forms of ‘food sovereignty’ attests to the salience of protecting and deploying local food systems to address food security and nutrition for citizens rather than relatively affluent global consumers[i] (Trauger 2014, Schiavoni 2017, Wittman and Blesh 2017, Chappell 2018). For example:
Across the Caribbean, food imports have become a budget-busting problem, prompting one of the world’s most fertile regions to reclaim its agricultural past. But instead of turning to big agribusinesses, officials are recruiting everyone they can to combat the cost of imports, which have roughly doubled in price over the past decade. In Jamaica, Haiti, the Bahamas and elsewhere, local farm-to-table production is not a restaurant sales pitch: it is a government motto (Cave 2013, p. 6).
Food provisioning is the Achilles heel of government: ‘failure to provide (food) security undermines the very reason for existence of the political system’ (Lagi et al. 2011, p. 2). Here, the ‘food sovereignty’ concept is no empty slogan, its power stemming from the evident shortcomings of a state system embedded in a food regime in which land and its uses are up for (extra-territorial) grabs.
[i] ‘The 1986 World Bank Report ‘Poverty and Hunger’ induced an important shift in how food security was to be deployed since it redefined food security as linked, not only to national food production, but also to individual purchasing power’ (Jarosz 2014, p.171).
About The Author
Prof Philip McMichael, PhD
Philip McMichael is a Professor of Global Development at Cornell University. He has authored Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective (Sage, 2017, 6th edition), Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions (Fernwood, 2013), and the award-winning Settlers and the Agrarian Question (Cambridge University Press, 1984), and edited Contesting Development. Critical Struggles for Social Change (Routledge, 2010), and co-edited Finance or Food? The Role of Cultures, Values and Ethics in Land Use Negotiations, with Hilde Bjørkhaug, and Bruce Muirhead (University of Toronto Press, 2020). He has served as President of the Sociology of Food & Agriculture Research Committee of the International Rural Sociological Association (1998-2002), works with the Civil Society Mechanism in the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), and has consulted with UNRISD, the FAO, and IPES, and collaborated with La Vía Campesina and the IPC for Food Sovereignty.