Agriculture and Food in Crisis

Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 288
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    Agriculture and Food in Crisis
    Book Description:

    The failures of free-market capitalism are perhaps nowhere more evident than in the production and distribution of food. Although modern human societies have attained unprecedented levels of wealth, a significant amount of the world's population continues to suffer from hunger or food insecurity on a daily basis. In Agriculture and Food in Crisis, Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar have assembled an exceptional collection of scholars from around the world to explore this frightening long-term trend in food production. While approaching the issue from many angles, the contributors to this volume share a focus on investigating how agricultural production is shaped by a system that is oriented around the creation of profit above all else, with food as nothing but an afterthought.As the authors make clear, it is technically possible to feed to world's people, but it is not possible to do so as long as capitalism exists. Toward that end, they examine what can be, and is being, done to create a human-centered and ecologically sound system of food production, from sustainable agriculture and organic farming on a large scale to movements for radical land reform and national food sovereignty. This book will serve as an indispensible guide to the years ahead, in which world politics will no doubt come to be increasingly understood as food politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-391-1
    Subjects: Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. 5-8)
  3. Agriculture and Food in Crisis: An Overview (pp. 9-30)

    As the fall 2006 harvest was progressing, corn prices in the United States began a rapid rise, ending the year some 50 percent higher than before. “Tortilla riots” in Mexico in early 2007 demonstrated to the world that the rise in prices was having a devastating effect on the poor. But this was only the prelude to what has been called The Great Hunger of 2008. Corn price increases continued in 2007, and were joined by most other critical food commodities—soybeans, wheat, rice, and vegetable oils—continuing through June of 2008. Following the scorching hot summer of 2010, this...

    • 1. Food Wars (pp. 33-50)

      In the years 2006–08, food shortages became a global reality, with the prices of commodities spiraling beyond the reach of vast numbers of people. International agencies were caught flatfooted, with the World Food Program warning that its rapidly diminishing food stocks might not be able to deal with the emergency.

      Owing to surging prices of rice, wheat, and vegetable oils, the food import bills of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) climbed by 37 percent from 2007 to 2008, from $17.9 million to $24.6 million, after having risen by 30 percent in 2006. By the end of 2008, the United...

    • 2. The World Food Crisis in Historical Perspective (pp. 51-68)

      The “world food crisis” of 2007–08 was the tip of an iceberg. Hunger and food crises are endemic to the modern world, and the eruption of a rapid increase in food prices provided a fresh window on this cultural fact. Much like Susan George’s well-known observation that famines represent the final stage in an extended process of deepening vulnerability and fracturing of social reproduction mechanisms, this food “crisis” represents the magnification of a long-term crisis of social reproduction stemming from colonialism, and was triggered by neoliberal capitalist development.¹

      The colonial era set in motion an extractive relation between Europe...

    • 3. Sub-Saharan Africa’s Vanishing Peasantries and the Specter of a Global Food Crisis (pp. 69-84)

      Likened to a sudden tsunami, reports of declining staple food availability and the possibility of a world food crisis first appeared in the international press in late 2007.¹ Sub-Saharan Africa, with its deepening need for disaster food relief in arid and war-torn areas, was most vulnerable. The economic viability of western donors’ food aid to the continent was increasingly being stretched. As food riots flared in various Asian and Latin American cities, urban food riots also began surfacing in Africa, alongside the perennial threat of rural famine.²

      Paradoxically, the global food price surge occurred at a time when the United...

    • 4. Origins of the Food Crisis in India and Developing Countries (pp. 85-102)

      India has had a growing problem with food output and availability for the mass of the population since the inception of neoliberal economic reforms in 1991. A deep agricultural depression and rising unemployment rates resulting from “reform” policies have made the problem especially acute over the past decade. There has been a sharp decline in per capita grain output as well as grain consumption in the economy as a whole. Income has been shifting away from the majority toward the wealthy minority and a substantial segment of the population is being forced to eat less food and wear older clothing...

    • 5. Free Trade in Agriculture: A Bad Idea Whose Time Is Done (pp. 103-120)

      The push for “free trade” in agriculture first took hold in the 1980s. It was part of a package of policies and investments that moved food and agriculture systems away from government control (too often centralized and unresponsive) toward private ownership. Ironically, private ownership has led to an even more centralized and tightly controlled food system. Local communities have been left more disempowered than they were before, and increasingly, developing country national governments have found themselves disempowered too. This essay considers what advocates of free trade promised developing countries, what actually happened, and what some alternatives might look like.


    • 6. Biofuels and the Global Food Crisis (pp. 121-138)

      In July of 2008, as world grain prices were leveling off, and bank failures were spreading across the U.S. and beyond, London’sGuardiannewspaper offered an unanticipated revelation. According to an unpublished report by a senior World Bank economist, biofuels were responsible for a 75 percent increase in global food prices over the previous six years.¹ This was in stark contrast to the U.S. government’s earlier claim that only 3 percent of recent food price rises were attributable to the use of crops to produce plant-derived fuels.

      The bank’s report further concluded that the production of ethanol from corn—along...

    • 7. The New Farm Owners: Corporate Investors and the Control of Overseas Farmland (pp. 139-154)

      Land grabbing has been going on for centuries. One has only to think of Columbus “discovering” America and the brutal expulsion of indigenous communities that this unleashed, or white colonialists taking over territories occupied by the Maori in New Zealand and by the Zulu in South Africa. It is a violent process very much alive today, from China to Peru. Hardly a day goes by without reports in the press about struggles over land, as mining companies such as Barrick Gold invade the highlands of South America or food corporations such as Dole or San Miguel swindle farmers out of...

    • 8. The Globalization of Agribusiness and Developing World Food Systems (pp. 155-170)

      The issue of the global concentration of agribusiness is crucial to the future of the food systems of developing (and poor, non-developing) countries. These countries have been a target of corporate investments from the outset of the industrial food system. This process has been uneven—at different times corporate investment has focused on one or another part of the food system. Today, this uneven and often uncoordinated foray of metropolitan corporate capital is still subjugating the agriculture and domestic food markets of many developing countries, particularly smaller, peripheral ones undergoing rapid urbanization, to the needs of global agribusiness. For some...

    • 9. The Battle for Sustainable Agriculture in Paraguay (pp. 173-188)

      When Paraguay elected Fernando Lugo, its first non-Colorado Party president in more than sixty years, thousands of Paraguayans flooded the city streets to celebrate. Two years later, the sector of Paraguayan society that had the most to gain from this transfer of power was back on their feet, though not in celebration. On March 25, 2010, thousands of Paraguayancampesinos(peasant farmers) marched through the streets of the capital city of Asunción, demanding that Lugo follow through on promises to enact agrarian reform and create health and educational programs for rural communities.

      While campesino organizations helped form the coalition that...

    • 10. Fixing Our Global Food System: Food Sovereignty and Redistributive Land Reform (pp. 189-206)

      The recent world food price crisis highlights what many have thought for a long time: the world’s food and agriculture system is broken. Few winners remain in the aftermath of the severe crisis, in which prices for basic food commodities (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans) increased dramatically in 2007 and 2008, only to fall rapidly in the second half of 2008. Although down from their high points, commodity prices are still about double those of the early 2000s. Consumer prices in all countries have remained high, while farmers failed to benefit much from the price hikes, due to high prices for...

    • 11. From Food Crisis to Food Sovereignty: The Challenge of Social Movements (pp. 207-224)

      The current global food crisis—decades in the making—is a crushing indictment against capitalist agriculture and the corporate monopolies that dominate the world’s food systems. The role of the industrial agrifood complex in creating the crisis (through the monopolization of input industries, industrial farming, processing, and retailing) and the self-serving neoliberal solutions proposed by the world’s multilateral institutions and leading industrial countries are being met with skepticism, disillusion, and indifference by a general public more concerned with the global economic downturn than with the food crisis. Neoliberal retrenchment has met growing resistance by those most affected by the crisis—...

    • 12. Do Increased Energy Costs Offer Opportunities for a New Agriculture? (pp. 225-240)

      One of the great missteps in most of the future energy scenarios propagated in the popular media is the notion that we can transition to “alternative, renewable energy” and thereby “wean ourselves from Mideast oil.” The underlying assumptions in this scenario seem to be that energy supply is an isolated challenge that can be solved without major systemic changes, that we can meet that challenge by simply switching from one energy source to another—from fossil fuels to wind, solar, biofuels or a host of other alternatives—and that our current industrial culture and economy then can continue on the...

    • 13. Reducing Energy Inputs in the Agricultural Production System (pp. 241-252)

      Oil, natural gas, coal, and other mined fuels provide the United States with nearly all of its energy needs at a cost of $700 billion per year.¹ Since more than 90 percent of its oil deposits have been depleted, the United States now imports over 70 percent of its oil at an annual cost of $400 billion.² United States agriculture is driven almost entirely by these non-renewable energy sources. Each person in the country on a per capita consumption basis requires approximately 2,000 liters per year in oil equivalents to supply his/her total food, which accounts for about 19 percent...

    • 14. Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty (pp. 253-266)

      Global forces are challenging the ability of developing countries to feed themselves. A number of countries have organized their economies around a competitive export-oriented agricultural sector, based mainly on monocultures. While it may be argued that agricultural exports of crops such as soybeans from Brazil make significant contributions to the national economies by bringing in much-needed hard currency, this type of industrial agriculture also brings economic dependence and a variety of environmental and social problems. These include negative impacts on public health, ecosystem integrity, food quality, and in many cases disruption of traditional rural livelihoods, while accelerating indebtedness among thousands...

    • 15. The Venezuelan Effort to Build a New Food and Agriculture System (pp. 267-282)

      In April 2008, as people around the world took to the streets to protest the global food crisis and the lack of political will to address it, a crowd of a different nature gathered in Venezuela. Afro-Venezuelan cacao farmers and artisanal fishermen of the coastal community of Chuao came together to witness their president pledge that the food crisis would not hinder Venezuela’s advancements in food and agriculture. “There is a food crisis in the world, but Venezuela is not going to fall into that crisis,” said Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías. “You can be sure of that. Actually, we...

    • 16. Can Ecological Agriculture Feed Nine Billion People? (pp. 283-298)

      Something is wrong with our agricultural and food systems.¹ Despite great progress in increasing productivity in the last century, hundreds of millions of people remain hungry and malnourished. Further hundreds of millions eat too much, or consume the wrong kinds of food, and it is making them ill. The health of the environment suffers too, as degradation of soil and water seems to accompany many of the agricultural systems we have developed in recent years. Can nothing be done, or is it time for the expansion of an agriculture founded on sound science and ecological principles and in harmony with...

  6. About the Authors (pp. 299-302)
  7. Notes (pp. 303-334)
  8. INDEX (pp. 335-348)


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