Sunday, December 3, 2017

Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat

"A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism," By Eric Holt-Gimenez, 2017

This is a pretty hard-core investigation of the capitalist food system in the world, as structured by capitalist relations. The author is the director of "Food First," an organization that focuses on food as a right, not as a privilege or a commodity as it is treated by capital.

The popular connection to 'foodie-ism' is the plethora of cooking shows or competitions, from the relatively sedate and kind "British Baking Show" to the vicious encounters in the U.S.-based "Hell's Kitchen."  Farm-to-table restaurants, international fusion cooking, localism, organics, exotic ingredients, vegetable gardening, vegan and vegetarian foods, tipping practices, CSAs, 'voting with your fork,' animal cruelty - these are all topics that U.S. 'foodies' are supposed to be interested in, but they are not focused on here.  Holt-Gimenez is more interested in looking at what is behind the cover. But he does not look at the topics of the dying oceans or meat diets in any detail, which are both central to capitalist food systems.

Cuban farmer practicing Agro-Ecology supported by the State
Holt-Gimenez is interested in explaining the mechanics of why the food system is structured the way it is.  For instance, mono-crop farming, the use of toxic pesticides, cattle feed-lots and industrial meat production, artificial fertilizers, GMO seeds, the promotion of large farms and contract farming, agro-fuels, the overabundance of cheap and unhealthy food - are all directly related to the profit system.  He points out that to oppose these problems the 'food movement' is split up into so many causes that it cannot have a major impact.  This of course is the problem with the Left as a whole, which is addicted to single-issuism across the board.  Holt-Gimenez hopes that once people take a step back and look at food, they will see that anti-capitalism and what can only be described as a socialist solution will become the tie that binds all these causes together.  He seems to be saying that if you are afraid to holistically talk about capitalist functioning, then you are not serious.

In the course of the book he explains the concepts of the 'commodity,' 'enclosure of the commons,' 'surplus value,' 'super-exploitation of labor,' 'land rent,' 'export economy,' 'capital,' 'externalities,' 'bio-diversity,' 'debt,' 'soil fertility,' 'socially necessary labor time,' 'use value,' 'over-accumulation' and 'agro-ecology.'

Of most interest is Holt-Gimenez's insistence, as a Marxist, that small farms and small farming techniques are superior to large farming because of the nature of agriculture, which is different than industrial production.  He calls food a 'special commodity.'  70% of world food production still comes out of peasant and small producers and he thinks this will continue.  Small farms are more labor intensive, but are able to be more productive and ecological because of this.  In the U.S. this points to the re-population of rural areas that capital has de-populated, as massive International Harvester combines have replaced people.  The benefits of small farming include soil & water conservation, high agro-biodiversity and rural employment - none of which have a market price.  Corporations are now buying out smaller organic firms and are diluting the benefits of what was once higher quality and more sustainable food through their large-scale industrial methods. According to Holt-Gimenez, 3/4s of the world's food is produced on 1/4 of the world's arable land.  This long 'persistence of the peasantry' confounds normal rules, which is why, at this point, capital prefers farmers to take the risks, while the capitalist firms reap most of the profits as suppliers, middle-men and retailers.  

Which is why in the U.S., farmer suicides are at a record high - double that of military veterans according to the Guardian.  This is like India, where 5,600+ farmers committed suicide in 2014 and over 18,000 in 2004, as the pressure on both is the same.  

The misnamed but much lauded 1960s 'Green Revolution' prompted by Norman Borlaug and the Ford & Rockefeller Foundations was actually a way for capital to dispossess farmers and control and subsequently profit from agriculture throughout the world.  The IMF, the World Bank, the various trade agreements like NAFTA, USAID, USDA, the World Food Program and billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates all continue to promote capitalist agriculture for oligopolies like Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, Syngenta and Coca-Cola.  This process is not going to stop on its own.

Like slavery, cheap Latino, black and African labor provides a human subsidy to U.S. food production, but this should not be a secret to anyone.  Besides labor, land is the key issue in agriculture, which even includes the 'land' growing veggies in buildings in Brooklyn, NY.   Holt-Gimenez discusses 3 types of land ownership - private, public and common property.  Capital wants everything to be privatized and can tolerate only those things that are public that it cannot profit from.  It essentially wants to get rid of all 'common property,' as NAFTA did to the Mexican ejidos when Gotari legislated them out of existence in 1991.  Land rents are only going up, as 'land' is not an increasing commodity, except insofar as habitats are destroyed - rain forests, woods, marshes, tidelands, prairies and savannahs.  This is why heavy real-estate debt and increasing land prices are inevitable in a market economy.  This results in larger and larger farms and more debt for farmers.  Capital needs the power of the state to promote their program, which is why the U.S. Farm Bill becomes the template by which capital controls agricultural land in the U.S.    

Ultimately Holt-Gimenez promotes the methods of 'agro-ecology,' which is being practiced in Cuba and many other places, even the U.S.  This is essentially adopting many indigenous farming practices - polyculture, biomass instead of toxic pesticides, natural manures, small scale agriculture - as the real substitute for capitalist farming methods.  And to accomplish this, common ownership and control would be the only way to block capital from continuing to ruin the land, the health of the population and the farmers and farm workers who provide food for us all.  Like all the other interconnected struggles against capital, this has to be incorporated into any socialist transitional program.  A unity of workers and small farmers is part of that strategy.  That, after all, is what the hammer and sickle meant.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
December 3, 2017   

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