- The Contradictions of the Neoliberal Global Agri-Food System
That agriculture and food is a socially, politically, and economically important sector is difficult to deny. A country's socio-economic and political stability, its well-being, economic growth, and national security all depend upon the existence of a viable agri-food industry. Equally important is that agri-food is one of the most globalized sectors and that its globalization and concomitant economic liberalization have engendered the production of an enormous quantity of food. This production has allowed some observers to claim that the modernist goal of producing abundant and affordable food for the urban masses has been achieved. Simultaneously, however, this economic growth and the sector's equally relevant ability to produce large quantities of food have engendered a host of significant problems, including the contamination of the environment, the unsustainable use of natural resources, the enhanced exploitation of labor, and the crisis of rural communities. These and related issues are the foci of the three well-written and well-argued books discussed in this essay.
These books are part of an editorial initiative promoted by Polity Press that aims at introducing the characteristics, functioning, and recent evolution of key natural resources—such as water, land, fish, and timber—to an educated but not specialized readership. This interest reflects the importance of the topic of natural resources, as well as the development of intense scientific and political debates that have accompanied both this topic and the question of food and agriculture within it. Sharply departing from the early functionalist accounts of rural and farm life that dominated the first three post-World War II decades, since the 1980s talented scholars have produced a wealth of studies that have transformed agri-food from a relatively marginal substantive area into one of [End Page 147]the most vibrantly debated subjects in the contemporary social sciences. This production is significant not only because of its quantity, quality, empirical accuracy, and analytical sophistication, but also because it offers advanced theoretical formulations that accurately place agri-food in the context of the broader evolution of contemporary capitalism.
Contributing to this wealth of studies, Jennifer Clapp's book tackles the difficult task of providing an informed and clear overview of the complex, contradictory, and politically contested food industry. This type of analysis requires a number of skills, including the ability to adopt accurate simplifications that can translate multifaceted and intricate phenomena into relatively accessible narratives. Clapp offers an impressively concise analysis of the evolution of agri-food. Her theoretical approach centers on the illustration of food policies implemented by the United States and other relevant nation-states. This approach allows Clapp to show the essential political nature of the evolution of agri-food, as she provides a convincing argument that there is no natural or impartial dimension of the functioning of markets and the economy. Her focus on food policies allows her to reaffirm the geopolitical relevance of food along with its importance in the development of other economic sectors and, ultimately, of all society. Despite these many merits, however, the accomplishment of such a difficult task comes with a price. While she correctly highlights the powerful role played by major nation-states, her focus on policies often objectifies history by portraying the state as an independent actor whose initiatives are unaffected by the power of dominant classes and their struggles with subordinate groups.
Clapp emphasizes that the food industry produces abundant and relatively inexpensive food. But in so doing, she notes, it creates numerous social and ecological problems—such as loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation, a contribution to climate change, and the inability to deliver quality nutritional food to significant segments of the world population—that transform this industry into an eloquent example of the unsustainability of mature capitalism. Particularly relevant is the power held by transnational corporations. In current agri-food, corporations control fundamental nodes of the global production and distribution of food and are able to use this power to limit the independence of other actors, such...