A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism – Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat
By Eric Holt-Giménez
“Industrial agriculture has destroyed up to 75 percent of the world’s agro-biodiversity, uses up to 80 percent of the planet’s freshwater, and produces up to 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.”
And that’s just its environmental impact. For many of us, this is not new. But what if we called it capitalist agriculture instead? That reframing, so central to Eric Holt-Giménez’s new book, forces us into unfamiliar territory, and sets the stage for a different kind of conversation.
After all, when was the last time you really discussed “capitalism” – outside of the classroom, that is? There’s a curious way in which, in today’s world, political economic structures are rarely questioned. Capitalism, if we think about it at all, is pretty much the natural evolution of the global economy, right? A quick Google search will tell you the use of the word peaked sometime around 1980. (In India, communism was an imminent possibility well into the ’70s. Now, it’s little more than an irrelevant sideshow.) It’s almost as if, once we dismissed the alternatives, there was nothing left to discuss.
So why do ‘foodies’ of all people, need to concern ourselves with capitalism, especially in 2018? To Holt-Giménez, the answer, of course, is because we have a capitalist food system, and it’s failing us. The author is an agroecologist, political economist and the executive director of Food First, an organisation that works to dismantle the injustices in the global food system. This book makes a compelling argument about why those injustices are rooted in capitalism.
Capitalism turns food, a life essential, into a commodity to be bought and sold. And while capitalist agriculture is adept at producing that commodity cheaply and making corporations richer, it is no good at providing living wage jobs, or sustaining healthy environments or bodies. We don’t have to look too far to find evidence of agrarian distress, water scarcity, the increasing burden of malnutrition and obesity, and more agrarian distress. We’ve been hearing, over and over, that the food system is ‘broken’, that it needs to be ‘fixed’. For Holt-Giménez, this argument is misguided. The food system isn’t broken, he says; it’s working exactly the way a capitalist food system is supposed to. And that’s what we need to understand if we want to change it.
Holt-Giménez begins by providing some background on how this system came to be – what do colonialism and slavery have to do with capitalism? What was the role of agriculture in the development of capitalism? As history lessons go, his is an engaging one, with plenty of interesting takeaways: So that’s why maize was introduced to Africa. And that’s why Britain came to depend so dearly on tea and sugar. (Hint: these foods kept workers productive, and kept capital accumulating.) He reminds us that modern agriculture was, in fact, a capitalist device. What was the Green Revolution, if not a strategic counter to the red revolutions sweeping poor countries in Asia and Latin America? The now all-pervasive ‘feed the world’ narrative – more food, more technology, by 2050 or else – is yet another capitalist device.
Holt-Giménez devotes a chapter each to labour (human capital) and land (natural capital). Sure, there is some jargon to be unpacked, and more than a few references to Karl Marx, but with his approach, this isn’t dry textbook fodder. He deftly drives home all the ways this plays out in the real world. We see why, in a capitalist framework, smallholder farmers, whose labour is so consistently undervalued, will be driven to abject poverty and debt. Especially at risk – in India and the rest of the world – are women and migrant labourers. Capitalism, Holt-Giménez writes, will go to great lengths to turn most things into private property – seeds, genetic material, water, and land. He explains why farmland has become a financial asset for speculation and hedging, and why even developing countries are participating in land grabs.
"If we had the impression that the food system is being transformed by technology, by conscious eating, or by market-based strategies for farmers, we’d be wrong."
There are more revelations within these pages. Some of us have wondered, at least fleetingly, why organic farmers charge more for products that use fewer external inputs. “A Foodie’s Guide” does the math for us, and we see why organic food is so expensive (and should be costlier still, by Holt-Giménez’s accounting). We understand why biofuels, touted as a clean, green energy source, have dangerous consequences. Why the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is actually a tragedy of commodification. Why CAFOs have become so ubiquitous. “Capitalist agriculture does all it can to make farms work like factories,” writes Holt-Giménez. So what if factory farms are hugely destructive to the environment and our health? These costs are, after all, external to the bottom line. In a capitalist system, this kind of irrationality makes perfect sense. Perhaps Marx explained it best: “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil…undermining the original source of all wealth.”
Holt-Giménez argues that widespread hunger, malnutrition and obesity are not just inescapable, but foundational to the capitalist food system. The capitalist structure is inherently inequitable, and it’s getting worse. Racism, class, and patriarchy have endured precisely because they support the control of the world’s land, labour and capital by a powerful elite, he writes. In an Indian context, we can go ahead and add caste and religious discrimination to that mix. Here’s where it gets daunting. If we want a better food system, do we have to change everything? Holt-Giménez says yes.
The author does delve into counter-movements to capitalist agriculture, like agroecology, but you won’t find neatly packaged alternatives or recipes for transformational change in “A Foodie’s Guide”. Really, it’s not what you’d call an easy read. Even the author admits that you have to stay with it. But it is an eye-opening, thought-provoking one.
In Holt-Giménez’s view, the dominant food narrative – which we’ve all pretty much bought into – has lulled us into believing that we can change the food system without changing the capitalist system it is embedded in. It’s depoliticised, he writes, and therefore defanged. And if we had the impression that the food system is being transformed by technology, by conscious eating, or by market-based strategies for farmers – yes we hoped so, actually – well, we’d be wrong.
Holt-Giménez is openly critical of the ways we ‘foodies’ think we’re making a difference. We learn why Fair Trade is only a stopgap, why food banks and composting won’t solve the problem of food waste, why voting with our forks won’t have the far-ranging impact we hope for. Were we optimistic about climate-smart agriculture, or the potential of fortified crops? Holt-Giménez tells us, in no uncertain terms, why we shouldn’t put much stock in capitalist solutions to capitalist problems.
The book forces us to think better and deeper – perhaps that’s why it can be so uncomfortable at times. Are we challenging the status quo, or just accommodating it? “A Foodie’s Guide” calls us out on our internalised assumptions, but it also calls everyone to the table to talk about them. Maybe that is the first step towards building a system that ‘works perfectly’, the way we want it to.
Amrita Gupta is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. A graduate of the NYU Food Studies program, she currently hosts and produces the Food Radio Project, a podcast focused on food systems in India. Her work has appeared in Nature inFocus, Hindustan Times, Carnegie Council, Roads & Kingdoms, Lucky Peach, Heritage Radio Network, and Food Tank. She tweets @rainb0wt00.