Tag Archives: agro-food systems

Scarcity, Violence and the Global Political Economy.

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt, of Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

In this round-table, part of the Surplus symposium, and chaired by Dr Alex Colas of the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, Sue Branford (Latin America Bureau), Anna Stavrianakis (Sussex University) and Eric Swyngedouw (Manchester University) looked at surplus and excess in agro-food systems, land-grabs, militarism and water.

Eric started the debate exploring the paradox of water, the most abundant biochemical component on the planet, lack of access to which is the number one cause of death. The scarcity of water does not exist in nature, and Eric argued that through the socially organised metabolism of nature (upon which the circulation of capital is predicated), natural products acquire social, economic and political significance: they become a commodity.

Just as water has become commoditised so has land, leading to an intensification of land-grabs, according to Sue Branford, who brought the audience’s attention to the focus on the global food system, under which up to 1 billion people go hungry. The system was imposed by the IMF on the developing world, obliging them to remove trade barriers and let multinational companies in before they could access money. This enabled the developed world to deal with the problem of surplus production by flooding the developing markets with cheap produce. It also opened the way for multinationals who, in countries such as Brazil where Sue spent many years, systematically bought all the local seed companies, obliging local farmers to purchase hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides from them. Like Eric, Sue drew attention to the paradox that these changes created: productivity and world trade increased (leading to the vast variety of foods that we see in our supermarkets), yet mechanisation introduced by multinational companies meant that fewer labourers were needed and many previously agricultural areas, such as the Argentine Pampas, have become ghost towns, as the local people lose work and move away, often to urban centres in search of work.

A further paradox which has arisen from this situation is that as land-grabs have led to an increase in agricultural exports as land is turned to use for exportable crops such as soya (which the developed world purchases as animal feed to ensure a consistent supply of cheap meat for ourselves), developing countries have become increasingly reliant on imported food and vulnerable to the fluctuations in international market prices which means that sometimes staple foods are prohibitively expensive, leading to hungry populations.

Sue described the current situation as “corporate imperialism”, albeit that the national governments are sometimes working in alliance with the corporations to conduct land-grabs in other states, such as the ProSavanna project in which the governments of Mozambique, Brazil and Japan will work in partnership to provide food security for Mozambique. Sue drew a very clear distinction between food security and food sovereignty, claiming that in reality food security enhances the status quo, whereas food sovereignty gives local people control over which crops are grown, how they are distributed, and the structural changes which are necessary. It also challenges some of the established “truths” about development, such as that in developed countries less that 5 per cent of the population work in food cultivation. Sue explained that the current “If” campaign by a coalition of development NGOs, is (wrongly) focussed on food security rather than sovereignty, and has failed to consult with local people.

Anna Stavrianakis highlighted the significant role that the arms trade and military spending have played in the economic crisis, and contrasted this with the notable absence of proposed solutions to the crisis. Using the example of Greece, Anna explained that arms purchases were central to the creation of debt problems, with no other area of spending having contributed so heavily. Yet arms purchases have not been identified as a possible savings area under any of the proposed austerity measures. Anna claimed that military spending is inherently wasteful as it is research and development of new technologies subsidised with public money, and then allows the new technologies to be privatised by arms companies.

Looking at military spending globally, Anna questioned whether we are at the beginning of a global transition. In 2012, military spending fell for the first time since 1998, by 0.5 per cent in real terms. This was mainly due to cuts by countries in the global north. However, Anna suggests that this decrease in military spending will be offset by an increase in spending in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. China increased military spending by 7.8 per cent in 2012, although it is worth noting that in absolute terms it remains well below military spending by the US.

Summing up the round-table, Eric said that excess is how we sustain the behemoth of capitalism. Capitalism needs to continually move beyond its own boundaries. The current crisis has been caused by an excess of capital, rather than a lack of it.

Listen to the round table on podcast.