BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Costs of Farming and Eating

A chilling trend stalks humanity: the price of food. It’s climbing now as it did in 2008. How and why is this nightmare back?

Let’s, briefly, look back to three years ago. “Prices for basic foodstuffs doubled or tripled in a short period, and food riots spread beyond Mexico to many countries in the global South,” write Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar, co-editors of Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review Press, November 2010).

It is worth noting that Egypt, whose 2011 political revolution shook the world in ways big and small, is also a country where rising food prices hammered common people. Legal fictions such as Cargill and Monsanto, with the rights of human beings without the legal responsibilities, are driving this scary food trend. At the same time, corporate consolidation and concentration of farming is rising, advancing like a tsunami of greed over arable land and fresh water.

This is impacting a wide swathe of humanity, from rural peasant farmers in India to urban consumers in Oakland. We’re all in this farming and eating crisis together, a theme that runs a red line through Magdoff and Tokar’s vital book. They and their contributors focus on two connected parts of the global food and farming crisis. One part is a sober and sobering description of agricultural production and consumption: its economics, history and politics.

Walden Bello and Mara Baviera focus in part on the US federal policy to foster the growing of corn to feed cars instead of people. Is this insane or what? The answer depends on one’s class interests, by and large. Take multinational investors. For them, feeding automobiles instead of people’s bellies is a rational strategy to grow capital. For most everyone else who lacks such assets, an investment that benefits inanimate objects and harms living human beings captures the perverted logic of an irrational system that exploits people and nature for reasons of private profit.

On a related note to that marketplace priority for investors, Bello and Baviera write of another, begun during Democratic US President Clinton’s first term. “An intriguing question escaped many observers: How on earth did Mexicans, who live in the land where corn was first domesticated, become “dependent” on imports of US corn in the first place?”

The answer is simple: the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect Jan. 1, 1994. This trade pact flooded the Mexican countryside with US taxpayer-subsidized corn. That policy, in turn, has bankrupted scores of small Mexican peasant farmers.

Consequently, they have migrated to urban locales such as Mexico City or to the US. This human reality gets short shrift in a crass US policy debate over immigration reform that bigots dominate on talk radio and Fox News. The book’s second part offers prescriptions for what common folks with scant name recognition are doing to address the disaster of so-called “free-market” policies that shape how people grow and consume food.

Here, readers get a closer look at practical things that people are doing to create a more sustainable and equitable way of living and working.

Christina Schiavoni and William Camacaro survey food sovereignty policies in Venezuela. “A key strategic priority of the Bolivarian Revolution has been to restructure Venezuela’s food and agriculture system, under the framework of “food sovereignty” … a concept originating from the Vía Campesina international peasants’ network, defined, in short, as the right of people to determine their own food and agricultural policies.”

Hunger is an unnatural human condition. Further, people can and are working to end what some of the book’s contributor’s term “food insecurity.” This riveting collection of reporting and essays provides readers with useful options to think about and make social change.

Think Egypt and Tunisia. Think labor struggles at the point of production and social online networks that link dissidents up to each other, as old-school methods of face-to-face, shoes-on-the-ground contact continue.

Either or both can and does work around the world, unlike farming to grow food to expand corporate profit and market share, which puts common people and the planet’s life-support system last.

I recommend Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal for tackling a tough subject in a readable way.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2011

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