World food crisis, still

January 26, 2011

The world food crisis, which was hot in 2008 and then subsided temporarily, is getting worse again. It was one of the factors in Tunisia’s revolution, along with recent revolts in Algeria. The piece below, published in the June-July 2008 issue of News & Letters, is still quite germane.

World food crisis stirs revolt

by Franklin Dmitryev

In the past few months, world hunger turned to revolt, and the specter of social revolution returned to the scene. Suddenly, the rulers heard the cries of the hungry and scrambled to make a show of action with a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) summit on the food crisis–only to end up with what social movements called “Empty Policies for Empty Plates.”

After the Haitian masses erupted in revolt in April–with a week of protests by the thousands and barricades across the country, the storming of the presidential palace and the fall of the Prime Minister–UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned of “social unrest on an unprecedented scale.” Food prices in Haiti had gone up 50-100% in a year. A growing number of people had far from enough to eat, forcing some even to buy mud cookies to dull the hunger pangs.

In the 1980s Haiti produced enough rice for 95% of domestic consumption, but in 1995 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forced the country to lower barriers to heavily subsidized U.S. rice imports. Now 80% of Haiti’s rice is imported. Thousands of farmers there were driven out of production. While Haitians go hungry, the country is paying $1 million a week on IMF loans.

In a country where most of the population is poor, does not know formal employment, and lacks adequate sanitation and health care, the protests not only opposed high prices but called for an end to the UN occupation and the neoliberal “death plan,” and a UN military base was attacked.

Food prices and shortages have sparked revolt in 40 countries, from Mexico’s 75,000-strong Feb. 2007 march over tortilla prices to a risky street protest in North Korea in March 2008 over a 60% reduction of rations. Unrest has included May Day workers’ marches by the thousands over food and fuel prices, from The Philippines to Thailand, Russia to Indonesia, as well as 1,000 women in Peru banging pots on May Day to demand action on food prices.

The involvement of workers is particularly threatening to the rulers. In February, workers on strike joined the issues of food and fuel prices to working conditions in 31 municipalities of the African country Cameroon, sparking further protests. According to human rights groups, 100 people were killed in the state repression, and 2,000 arrested.


Average world food prices have doubled since 2000, accelerating sharply late last year. The FAO forecasts that prices will remain high over the next decade. Hardest hit are the 2.6 billion people who live on less than $2 a day and spend 60-80% of their incomes on food. An estimated 100 million people have been added to the rolls of the hungry, which could now exceed 950 million. Even before this crisis, 18,000 children were dying daily from hunger. In the “richest land,” the U.S., 35 million people are said to be in “food-insecure” households.

The sharp rise of food prices reflects long-term trends. Africa in particular has seen food production per person fall constantly for 40 years. In the 1960s, Africa was a net food exporter. Today, after decades of neoliberal structural adjustment programs, almost every country there is a net importer.

Mexico, the cradle of corn, became a net importer of corn, and of food, after NAFTA gutted state aid to smallholder farming and opened markets to subsidized imports of U.S. agricultural products, throwing 1.3 million farmers out of work. This transformation of world agriculture is not just a policy choice. In China, native rulers have overseen the same transformation, throwing 150 million off the land.

Once the Third World countries that gained independence departed from revolutionary mass self-activity, their course was set by capitalism’s law of development: the concentration and centralization of capital at one pole, and the growing army of the unemployed at the other pole–whose character as an army of revolt is only beginning to show itself. Capital’s concentration has resulted in the globalization of the capitalist industrial agriculture complex, increasingly supplanting “agro-ecological” farming for subsistence and domestic markets with “agro-industrial” farming of cash crops for export.

Peasants are driven off the land, not so much by “free trade,” as by the imperialistic relations of very unequal trade: the forcing down of trade barriers in poor countries, while transnational corporations receive state-capitalist subsidies, which account for 30% of farm revenue in the 30 richest countries. The same is true of factory fishing fleets, which could not profitably destroy the world’s fisheries without their estimated $50 billion in subsidies each year. Agribusiness also relies on direct or indirect superexploitation of undocumented immigrants as farm labor, as well as “contract farming,” in which the farmer owns the land but all production decisions are made by the corporation buying the crop or livestock. In some cases corporations or big landowners simply seize common or private lands.


The millions of human beings added to the rolls of the starving and the poor are the collateral damage of a class war waged by capitalists against both smallholder farming and urban and rural working classes. Ever since the global economic crisis of the 1970s, capitalists have been trying to shore up the rate of profit by finding new ways to drive down wages and benefits, while forcing workers to work harder, and more completely absorbing activities such as farming into commodity production–including turning water and common lands into commodities.

Key factors behind the food crisis reveal themselves to be aspects of the decay of capitalism, which has moved from advancing the development of forces of production to undermining the conditions needed to sustain human civilization.

Most directly, the falling rate of profit spurs capital to seek one alternative after another to productive investment, the latest being the flight to commodities futures after the collapse of the housing and credit bubbles. Speculative money in commodities futures reportedly rose from $5 billion in 2000 to $175 billion in 2007.[1] Futures allow investors to cash in on rising prices without investing in production; the huge amounts of money chasing commodities tend to drive up prices. Traders amplified this effect by hoarding food.

Industrial production of biofuels, aided by $15 billion of subsidies last year, has diverted cropland from growing human food. According to the New Statesman, “American cars now burn enough corn to cover all the import needs of the 82 nations classed by the FAO as ‘low-income food-deficit countries.'”[2]

Grain that could feed the poor is used as animal feed. The agribusiness complex is waging a concerted campaign to transform populations in capitalistically growing Third World countries such as China, India and Brazil into consumers of U.S.-style industrially processed diets. Food consumption becomes a means for the production of surplus-value, regardless of the social or health effects.

Enough food is produced today, but the trend is for increasing diversion of crops to feed cars and livestock, fueling demand growth that will outstrip production, especially as global warming worsens and farmland and water hit limits.

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. Marx grasped that this is capitalism’s inexorable dynamic:

“…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….”[3]

At the FAO summit in Rome, the U.S. pushed an agenda of eliminating trade barriers and expanding production through intensive technology–more of the same medicine that helped consolidate industrial agriculture at the expense of those who work the land.

Where last year’s UN report on Millennium Goals repeated the 1996 World Food Summit pledge to halve the number of hungry in the world by 2015, today the FAO says that will not happen–in fact, that number has been rising since then.

Protesters carrying a banner, “Stop corporate control of food,” were thrown out of the press room at the summit. Some held posters contrasting the millions going hungry with the record profits of agribusiness corporations, for instance, ADM up 55% to $1.15 billion, Monsanto up 54% to $2.23 billion, and Mosaic up over 1,100%.


Elsewhere in Rome, the June 1-4 alternative Terra Preta Forum, called by social movements across the globe, blasted the FAO summit as worse than useless. The Forum issued a Civil Society Declaration, which said in part:

“The serious and urgent food and climate crises are being used by political and economic elites as opportunities to entrench corporate control of world agriculture and the ecological commons….We, more than 100 organizations–coming from 5 continents…propose a different, sustainable way of addressing persisting ecological and food crises and climate change and forge solutions that strengthen our capacities, valorize women’s centrality in food production, protect our ecologies, and reclaim our communities, societies and economies. We reject the corporate industrial and energy-intensive model of production and consumption that is the basis of continuing crises. We affirm that the paradigm of Peoples’ Food Sovereignty forms the guiding framework for our future actions and the survival of humanity.”[4]

Food Sovereignty goes beyond demanding food as a right, posing it as a question of peoples’ self-determination in producing food as well as its availability. As a demand for masses’ control of food production, in opposition to the sway of market forces, Food Sovereignty implicitly reaches for socialism. Some organizations participating in the Forum call for “21st century socialism.”

In the works are the July 4-9 Peoples’ Action Days around the G-8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan.[5] Where this radicalism will lead is a matter of struggle, not least in the battle of ideas. Will it open up to the kind of vision of total uprooting projected by Karl Marx? Or will it be confined by the pull of the world market, commodity production and the state powers challenging U.S. dominance?

One pitfall for the movement is the myth still being spread about Marx’s attitude to peasants. We can learn from the creative new developments he brought to his insights on agriculture in the last decade of his life. His attention to “pre-capitalist” societies led to new discoveries on the Man/Woman relation, and on the multilinearity of paths to development. Communal ownership of land in those societies could serve as the point of departure for development to a new world if their revolutions were complemented by proletarian revolutions in the industrialized countries. But, as the 20th century showed, once revolutions deviated from basing themselves on the masses’ self-activity, there was no alternative to the capitalist path of “development,” which leads to today’s crises.

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.


1. “Who Is Responsible for the Global Food Crisis?” by Sinclair Stewart and Paul Waldie, May 31, 2008, Toronto Globe and Mail

2. “How the Rich Starved the World,” by Mark Lynas, April 17, 2008, New Statesman. For important movement statements, see An African Call for a Moratorium on Agrofuel Developments and Biofuels in India: will they deliver or destroy?

3. Capital, Vol. III (Vintage: 1981), pp. 948-49

4. Full statement available at

5. See announcement

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