From the July-August 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Eugene Walker
“All labor is originally first directed towards the appropriation and production of food.”
—Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III
War and famine have gone together for millennia. Today, with Russia’s war on Ukraine, a food crisis is emerging globally with lightning speed.
There are other wars as well where hunger and starvation have become the reality: Yemen, devastated by war for seven years; South Sudan, wounded by civil war since independence; Ethiopia’s Tigray region, ravaged by war; Syria, with dictator Bashar al-Assad’s continual war on his own people. The specter of widespread famine is the reality.
This food crisis was not caused by war alone. Climate change—from widespread drought to oppressive heat and severe flooding—has been causing havoc, including destroying harvests in regions around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year, has disrupted food supply chains, including transportation. It raised prices for staples, resulting in hunger for tens of millions as economies in many areas of the world, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, are mired in debt, with some near economic collapse.
These simultaneous crises of war, climate change and pandemic have left tens of millions of people around the world in the midst of famine.
Capitalism, with its agricultural-industrial system of commodity food production for the world market, laid the basis for a permanent food crisis. Indeed, this economic-political-social system of capitalism—in both its private and state forms—is the cause of, and suffers from the consequences of, these multiple, linked crises of war, COVID, and climate (whose effects are creating climate chaos rather than mere change).
There is radical opposition to this perfect storm of capitalist crises. Significant sections of the population, including many who produce food, are resisting, protesting surging food prices, posing alternative ways of organizing food production, demanding change now so the worst effects of climate change can be avoided. It is such protests and self-organization, not capitalist agriculture in permanent crisis, that can provide a viable path forward.
WAR ON UKRAINE WORSENS FOOD CRISIS
Until the war, Ukraine and Russia supplied 30% of world wheat exports. Some 14 African countries import at least half their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Eritrea depends on them for all its wheat, Egypt 82%, Lebanon 81%, Turkey 79%. The UN said 36 countries count on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports. Ukraine had also exported significant amounts of the world’s supply of barley, rapeseed and sunflower seeds.
For weeks, Russia has blockaded Ukraine ports from shipping grain, and occupied much of the land Ukraine used for grain production. Not only are wheat and other staples not being shipped or planted for future harvest, but the prices of grains, fuel and fertilizers have increased dramatically. In the first month after Russia’s invasion, wheat prices increased by 21%, barley by 33% and some fertilizers by 40%.
Higher fertilizer prices hit farmers in the developing world especially hard. Avocado, corn and coffee farms in South America, coconut and palm plantations in Southeast Asia are costlier to cultivate and farmers are cutting back on production.
The UN. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that global food prices are 30% higher than a year ago with the global food price index reaching an all-time high.
COVID AND GLOBAL HUNGER
“No Work, No Food: Pandemic Deepens Global Hunger,” read a New York Times headline, describing the effect of COVID on the food crisis. Millions lost their livelihood. With little to no money for food, and with the pandemic contributing to a surge in food prices, hunger and outright starvation occurred.
“The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” a report prepared by several UN agencies after the first year of the pandemic, noted: “In many parts of the world, the pandemic has triggered brutal recessions and jeopardized access to food . . . [H]unger shot up in both absolute and proportional terms, outpacing population growth.”
In addition to the surge of Africans facing hunger, more than half the undernourished people—418 million—live in Asia, while 60 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Report’s conclusion was clear: world hunger was dramatically worse in the pandemic year.
Emily Farr, of the humanitarian organization Oxfam, made stark observations from the report: the figures “are a somber reminder of how broken our global food and economic systems are. More than half the world’s population did not have social protection to cope with the adverse effects of the pandemic. Small farmers were forced to watch their crops rot during the pandemic, even when global food prices rose by 40%, while the biggest food companies have amassed over $10 billion of additional revenues last year.”
While the origin of COVID-19 appears to stem from its transmission to humans, likely from a wild animal market in Wuhan, the danger of future pandemics lies much deeper than a wild animal market. Global capitalism’s demand for production and more production has turned all of nature into a giant arena of commodification. Continual human encroachment into animal habitats, frequently driven by agro-industrial production processes, is laying the ground for future pandemics, for zoonosis—diseases of animals jumping to humans.
CLIMATE CHAOS LEADS TO HUNGER & DEATH
“Right now, 80% of the world’s hungry people live in areas prone to natural disasters and extreme weather, which creates exactly the right conditions for hunger to take hold.”
—World Food Program
The peoples of the Horn of Africa are living in an historic drought now entering its fourth season. In Somalia, almost a third of children younger than five are experiencing acute malnutrition. Across East Africa some 13 million are suffering from severe hunger. About seven million livestock in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have died since last fall, while seasonal harvests are the lowest in decades.
Seemingly the opposite of drought, but closely related, are the monsoons in Bangladesh and India. Climate change is reportedly making India’s monsoon seasons more chaotic. Bangladesh and India have just experienced one of the most intense monsoons in a century, with millions made homeless.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that current warming levels of about one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) have already cut into yields of staples like wheat, sorghum and rice. By the end of the century as much as 30% of current agricultural land could become unsuitable for farming.
CAPITALIST FOOD PRODUCTION = REPEATING FOOD CRISES
…instead of a conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property, as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations, we have the exploitation and squandering of the powers of the earth.…
—Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III
For more than a century and a half, a growing capitalist industrial agricultural process has done battle with age-old subsistence farming, pushing aside peasantry in the name of “efficiency,” increased harvests, food for an increasing globalized market. In doing so it has made whole countries, indeed continents, dependent upon importation of basic foodstuffs.
Regions that had once been self-sufficient in food production now find themselves tied to global food chains that are increasingly vulnerable to shocks—war, pandemics, and climate change—reaching chaotic proportions. It is not that the growing number of food-import dependent countries do not farm. They do. But rather than “agro-ecological” farming for subsistence and domestic markets, they increasingly participate in “agro-industrial” farming of cash crops for export. Instead of food being produced as a use-value for nourishing human life, it is produced as an exchange-value for profit.
As News & Letters wrote during the 2008 capitalist global food crisis:
“Food consumption becomes a means for the production of surplus-value, regardless of the social or health effects. . . . Precisely because capitalism’s dynamic is to produce maximum surplus-value, and because value is congealed labor, capitalist agriculture squeezes the most output possible from labor, though that means reckless waste of land, water and fossil fuel energy; though it means that that most basic human need, food, is denied to human beings and used to fill cars and cows; though it is held off the market in hopes of higher profits while millions grow desperate; though today’s production undermines the conditions for future farming.” (“World food crisis stirs revolt,” N&L June-July 2008).
At the dawn of the capitalist agricultural production processes, Marx foretold the dialectic of capitalist agriculture: “[A]ll progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. . . Capitalist production only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” (Capital, Vol. I).
Today’s food crisis may be global in its effect, but it threatens to become a famine of enormous depth in the global South—particularly Africa and southeast Asia. What can be done?
FOOD PROTESTS AND ECOLOGICAL SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION
“We are already seeing riots in Sri Lanka and protests in Tunisia, Pakistan and Peru, and we’ve had destabilization take place in places like Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad. This is only a sign of things to come.”
—David Beasley, director of the UN World Food Program
While Mr. Beasley may call protests “riots” and he and many of the business and political elites and rulers surely fear “destabilization,” it is such demonstrations and protests that can become the ground for the uprooting social transformation that humanity needs.
Surging food prices as well as other higher costs of living have sparked protests in many regions of the world:
* Chile—Thousands of students took to Santiago’s streets demanding higher food stipends. More than half a million students receive about $41 a month, and are demanding a raise.
* Greece—Thousands of workers joined May Day rallies to protest soaring energy and food prices. “Everything has risen. Electricity has risen, gas has risen, necessities have risen. It’s chaotic. We can’t get paid fast enough to pay something else. We are trying with every means to cut out what is (not) necessary to pay these things,” —Pantelis Iordanou, a car body painter.
* Iran—Protests began in May, sparked when the government cut subsidies, causing price hikes by as much as 300% for a variety of flour-based staples. The government also raised prices of some other basic goods such as cooking oil and dairy products. In June, Iranian pensioners protested the soaring cost of living.
* Peru—In April, people spread road blockades throughout the country over rising costs, with inflation at the highest rate in a quarter of a century. President Pedro Castillo declared a curfew in Lima to try to stifle dissent, which thousands defied, taking to the streets in protests that turned violent.
* Ecuador—Since June 13, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has maintained a national strike demanding that the government of Guillermo Lasso attend to a 10-point petition. Among the points: regulation of the price of agricultural products; renegotiation with banks of the debts of four million families; and, centrally, a reduction in fuel prices. Between May 2020 and October 2021, the price of diesel rose 90% and gasoline 46%. (See “Ecuador’s Indigenous fight for means of life,” page 1.)
* UK—In London, thousands of workers marched to denounce the increase in the cost of living and the inaction of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government, they said, has focused on benefiting the rich. Unions state that workers have lost a third of their purchasing power since 2008, the biggest drop in real wages in almost two centuries. A wave of strikes followed, beginning with railway workers.
Capitalism is a system of contradictions, including continuing food crises that have reached a global level. Our conclusion from “World food crisis stirs revolt” still stands:
What both the objective crisis and the subjective movements point to is that capitalism is now moving backwards, destroying the conditions for human survival. The only thing that can tear us away from capital’s awful momentum toward climate chaos and destruction of civilization’s material basis, of which food production is the main pillar, is a new, many-sided path of development through revolution in permanence.