What is the current food regime, and what are the problems? What are the main causes of global injustice, and what would be the way that food is distributed and produced?
Capitalism is a main cause for the global food crisis because capitalism treats food as a commodity. As far as capitalists are concerned, reducing hunger is not terribly interesting. The point is to maximize profit. And if the goal is to maximize profit and not to end hunger, it is very clear that what you need to do as a good capitalist is to pay your workers as little as possible, process the food as much as you can to make it as profitable as you can, and then sell as much of it as you can in conditions as close to monopoly as you can get.
That is the state of the world: in the United States, seven out of the ten worst-paying jobs are in the food system. And globally, the people most likely to be going hungry are those involved in the food system, landless laborers, and peasants.
We have perfected a machine that generates hunger. This is not a bug in the modern food system. It is a constituting feature. And a lot of it is connected to colonialism—which created both new tastes for things and new dependencies. Mozambique, for example, a place of violent food riots, doesn’t produce wheat, a crop that is not in any sense native to Mozambique. But fluffy white bread is an important part of what it is to have a dignified existence—because Portuguese colonialism created the demand for this kind of bread. We need to talk about the supply chain crisis—but where did these supply chains come from if not from five, six centuries of very structured colonial capitalism?
We need to return to crop diversification, which is demonstrably better for the soil, for the people who grow the food, and for the communities around them.
One consequence of the war in Ukraine is a global shortage of wheat.
And when the global price of wheat goes up, that means that some people in Africa will be going hungry. Of course, climate change is a key factor here—and this isn’t just the weather; it is about the intersection of weather and social systems and geophysical systems, from acute weather disasters to changing the profile of soil. And sometimes it gets very complicated: the Soviet Union, for example, had very strict crop rotations because some crops are very thirsty, and peasants knew this. Marxists are not environmentalist necessarily, but they understand that there’s a limit to exploitation of land. Under the free market, all those regulations were removed. That’s why in 2010, when there was a wildfire, these areas had the highest rates of fire and extreme heat.
Where would be a starting point to change this system of producing and commodifying food?
A first step is to decouple our food system from oil. The good news is that this means growing more local produce and more diversity. One of the reasons for monocultures of particular crops is, again, the propagation of the colonial trade system. We need to return to crop diversification, which is demonstrably better for the soil, for the people who grow the food, and for the communities around them—in terms of health, food security, and carbon sequestration.
What are other important aspects in addition to decolonializing industrial agriculture
We also need to look at how we distribute food. A government provided food system could be much more robust than letting Walmart and Carrefour and Tesco run the food system. A lot of peasant movements are talking about this: government procurement and supply management. The government sets limits and guarantees a certain price for farmers and that milk will be sold at a certain price and made available in certain ways. These initiatives are obviously under attack by the private sector because there is a profit to be made.
Some versions of the Green New Deal argue for the need to redistribute wealth from the Global North to the Global South.
Where does the return of the state actually happen?
In Belo Horizonte in Brazil, for example, there are municipalities that say: “We are going to fight hunger. We are going to end this in our city.” Very seriously, as a policy measure. There are also experiments with public restaurants to make sure that nobody goes hungry. All of this means taking on the agribusiness giants, and because they are so powerful this is very difficult. But people getting very rich by seeing others going hungry, billionaire families like the Cargills—this is politically less and less acceptable. They are saying: “We would love to get out of Russia, but unfortunately we have to stay to make sure that Russians get fed.” And of course, they are very reluctantly making billions of dollars.
Fighting capitalism through organizing is one way to change the system. What is a structural way to deal with the legacy of colonialism?
Britain took from India over the period of colonialism, compounded with interest, 65 trillion dollars. Now that’s quite a lot of money, and there’s no inkling that Britain wants to give that back. Some versions of the Green New Deal argue for exactly that: what we need is redistribution from the Global North to the Global South. And you can even think of this as a climate policy—but it has to be reparative, and not just repairing the planet.
This is very difficult to achieve politically.
But only because the politics of nationalism have blinded us to the bonds of solidarity that tie us to one another. And in a moment of increasing xenophobic nationalism and right-wing nationalism around climate change, the alternative is eco fascism. This is where we find ourselves here in the United States. I do think that there is a necessary internationalism in our organizing that’s required so that we can recognize one another’s humanity.
What would organizing change from the ground up look like?
It depends on the context, and we would need millions of experiments—but the great news is that this is already happening. A recent paper showed that eight million farmer groups are experimenting with sustainable or regenerative food systems. I am excited about this because it presents a way of thinking and engaging with the food system that is not just about the soil, but about society as a whole.
We are heading toward a situation with 830 million people chronically undernourished. And things are going to get worse.
What is the role of the state in all of this?
The state is important to stop the worst of the industrial agricultural system—whether it is stopping large-scale accumulations of land, stopping the burning of the Amazon, stopping the free ride that industrial agriculture gets, which is not only draining public funds but actively making everyone’s life worse. Why are we subsidizing these very profitable corporations with the misery of the working class? We should instead think about collective common wealth and the common good when it comes to food systems. We would all be much better off.
Are you hopeful, angry, or desperate at this point?
As a good Gramscian, I have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. We are heading toward a situation with 830 million people chronically undernourished. And things are going to get worse. The corporations show no inkling of doing anything differently. At the same time, peasants and farmers are organizing, creating movements, and building incredible resources to be able to withstand. Facing the onslaught of fascism and climate change, we have to find our dignity and our hope.
Raj Patel is Research Professor at the University of Texas and the author of the book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.