Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Food Wars / Walden Bello -- London: Verso, 2009.

From 2006 to 2008 food prices around the world rose drastically. Oxford economist Paul Collier argued that this had a three-fold cause: (1) an increase in demand from a more prosperous Asia, (2) the European ban on genetically modified foods, and (3) North American production of Ethanol instead of food. In The Food Wars, Walden Bello argues that the rise in food prices is "a manifestation of what may be the lat stage of the displacement of peasant agriculture by capitalist agriculture."

While Bello offers his as an alternative account to Collier's account, the two are not without some commonalities. What distinguishes them is that while Collier must surely find the rise in food prices unfortunate for the world's poor, he does not criticize the forces behind the price increase. Bello is, on the other hand, deeply critical of them. He points to the global, neo-liberal commodification of food and the significant subsidies for food production by the United States and Europe. Neo-liberalism opened markets in Asia, Africa, and South America to European and American agribusinesses, while subsidies allowed these agribusinesses to flood markets with food that is cheaper than what can be grown locally. Overproduction resulted in dumping which damaged local farmers.

The recent rise in food prices was merely the result of the global financial collapse which caused agribusinesses to withdraw from their developing world markets. Without strong, local peasant production of food, prices rose sharply.

While passionately presented, key inferences in Bello's argument seem weak. He provides a good deal of support for claims that capitalist food production has undermined peasant food production, but he does not demonstrate that there has been a decline in food exports causing a supply crisis. Indeed, his work would have been better had he not introduced it with a discussion of the rise in food prices. After all, his aims are larger than explaining a recent price fluctuation. The Food Wars seeks to compare two modes of food production: the international capitalist model and the local peasant model. The former offers profits for agribusiness, while the latter offers food security for people in developing countries. That much seems true and well supported by Bello's book.

After introducing the two models, Bello offers us four chapters on how capitalism has undermined peasant farming in Mexico, the Philippines, Africa, and China. Each tells a slightly different story, but contributes to the theme of the conflict between the two modes of production. Bello discusses the dangers of agrofuels, both for the planet and for peasant farmers in another chapter, and he concludes his work by describing what he believes is an international peasant movement (Via Campesina) that is becoming increasingly conscious of its revolutionary role. Disregarding certain framing and tangential points (e.g., the rise in food prices), Bello's work is a valuable examination of international food production and the plight of billions of people.

The primary weakness of Bello's work is his insufficient examination of the resource limits that the world is now facing. Everywhere, water resources are becoming fully exploited and annual conventional oil production is likely to begin a long decline. The former will restrict industrial growth and pit local capitalists against peasant farmers. The latter will make the North American model of petrochemical food production unsustainable. A fuller analysis of these forces would yield a much more prescient treatment of future "food wars" than what we have from Bello.

Even with these shortcomings, The Food Wars is a valuable and informative work on one of the worlds most important topics.

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