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Food WarsThe Food Wars

Review by Stuart Barlow

As famine once again threatens Africa, and food prices soar as a result of crop failures and drought, it has never been more urgent to expose the capitalist model of industrial agriculture, which is failing to feed the world.

Walden Bello is a leading critic of economic globalisation. He tackles, head-on, the consequences of the displacement of small farmers and peasant farmers by agri-business and capitalist agricultural methods.

He points out that there is a crisis of legitimacy for the the failed capitalist model, and challenges the claim that it leads to increased output.

Peasant and small farmer agriculture, serving local and regional markets, would offer a more viable model to achieve food sovereignty in developing countries and a more sustainable approach to organising the production of food everywhere in the future, he says.

Bello describes how global capitalism has driven world agriculture into crisis, in the search for profit and how the implementation of 'structural adjustment', 'free trade' and other IMF/World Bank policies has devastated agriculture in developing countries.

This drive to extract profit is illustrated with a shocking description of the capitalist transformation of the Mexican countryside, which has displaced 15 million people. The World Bank’s "market led agrarian policies" in Bello’s own country, the Philippines, has seen peasant farmers replaced with capitalist landlords, turning it from a net exporter to a net importer of food. He shows how the agricultural base of the whole continent of Africa has been destroyed by 'neo-liberal doctrines'. Self-sufficiency in food has been replaced by hunger and famine with almost every country in Africa now a net importer of food.

Bello’s strength is that he not only describes the current crisis, but recognises that its foundations, and the resulting process of displacement, can be traced back to the dawn of capitalism itself.

It starts with the commodification of land and labour following the enclosure of common land at the beginning of 17th century in England, and the subsequent growth in the "commercially motivated aristocrat and the large tenant farmer". With the expansion of capitalism, and imperialism, this process was repeated around the world in the 19th century.

Today it is the transnational corporation that is the driving force behind an integrated system of export-orientated production of meat and grain, dominated by large industrial farms with global supply chains.

The corporations drive technological development, including genetic modification and the development of new and expensive fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides.

As Bello rightly points out, this has left the people of the Third World marginalised as consumers and producers, with essential foodstuffs becoming unaffordable for hundreds of millions of people across the world.

Bello is convinced however, that all is not lost, and he lists the many international movements of small farmers and peasants resisting corporate globalisation.

He recognises the need to "move beyond the economics of narrow efficiency, in which the key criterion is the reduction of unit cost, never mind the social and ecological destabilization… this process brings about. An effective economics, rather, strengthens social solidarity by subordinating the operations of the market to the values of equity, justice, and community by enlarging the sphere of democratic decision making."

The debate that is needed, which Bello does not tackle, is about the mechanism we need to bring about this economic transformation. It will not be enough only to challenge the power of the transnationals; we must also revolutionise the national and international state bodies whose current role is to enforce the globalisation process.

3 September 2009

The Food Wars, Walden Bello, Verso, paperback, £7.99

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