Capitalism and Food: Consuming Hunger

Under capitalism, we recognise a huge mistake among those wanting to see changes for the better – not that positive changes are undesirable but simply that tinkering with a mechanism (or machine) that has been invented or created erroneously can’t be the best way to fix the problem. Anyone drawn to the idea and principles of socialism will not be looking to ‘fix’ any problem caused by capitalism, whether technological, scientific, or whatever, but will be wanting and seeking, because it’s obviously necessary if the planet is to remain a viable planet for survival, the end of capitalism.

There are currently about 7,500,000,000 inhabitants of this one small planet Earth – a world we supposedly share – although some slices are considerably larger than others. The rifts we can observe around the world manifest themselves in many contrasting ways – differences of thinking both locally and globally, between urban and rural, between generations, rich and poor, oppressed and oppressors – because of how various versions of a system have been implemented and developed over the generations.

The history of London’s sewerage system beginning in mid-nineteenth century is a case in point. Before the population reached nearly 4 million, night soil was collected and carted out to nearby farms and plots, recycling natural fertiliser to enrich the growing food. The natural way, done since time immemorial and still continued on large parts of the planet today. But as the city grew and encroached further on the countryside it became unviable to continue with this system and so began the gradual fouling of the city’s water system by the sewers leading from all parts of the city into the Thames, containing not just faeces but all manner of waste including toxic run-off and emissions from factories. Within a few short years the river lost its fish, especially its salmon, and the poisoning of the water saw several cholera epidemics over the years killing thousands, both poor and rich, and the smell was often so bad that Parliament would take a few days off until the weather cooled down somewhat. Time went by and the ‘fix’ was to dredge a section of the river, to send the filth further away from a populous area. Not to cure the problem but to pass it on and export the technology worldwide.

Globally there are millions of small farmers who currently still do farm the natural, organic way. La Via Campesina, founded in South America and now spreading around the planet, and in India millions of individual farmers of small plots produce food this way and whilst they are productive they are also fighting an ongoing battle with the huge transnational agricultural companies whose priorities are profit and growth. Governments are onside with the multinationals and are doing their utmost to reallocate the land and drive millions more onto the fringes of mega-cities to scratch a living as best they can.

Now, why aren’t more people aware of this rift, vast as it is? I suggest it is as a result of another enormous rift in societies the world over – urbanisation. It has been happening for generations at different rates in different parts of the world. But why? Simple personal choice or some other force? Whether the closing of the commons in England some centuries ago or the current acquisition of land in South America, Asia and the like by government decree and international land grab, most individuals and families will move to urban environments for the hope and the chance of work after being deliberately deprived of their livelihood.

One example, described by Devinder Sharma and quoted by Colin Todhunter who writes extensively about India and agriculture, tells it as it is:

   ‘India is on a fast track to bring agriculture under corporate control … Amending the existing laws on land acquisition, water resources, seed, fertilizer, pesticides and food processing, the government is in overdrive to usher in contract farming and encourage organized retail. This is exactly as per the advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as the international financial institutes.’

Todhunter has also pointed out that, in return for up to £90 billion in loans in the 1990s India was instructed to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies and run down public agriculture institutions and offer incentives for the growing of cash crops to earn foreign exchange. According to the World Bank’s lending report, based on data compiled up to 2015, India was easily the largest recipient of its loans in the history of the institution. To push through the programme, hundreds of millions are to be shifted out of agriculture.

These facts, this knowledge, these truths must be understood in order to convince enough people globally just what the food system has become within the global capitalist system and just what it is doing to our soil. It is poisoning it and degrading it of nutrients and therefore poisoning and degrading  our food – and that includes all our food from vegetables, grain and fruit to our beer and wine, and all things made from them, processed and manufactured. And what is it doing to many of its people around the world if not negating their existence?

How vital it is to present this case especially to those who are far removed from any food production, ie farms, orchards, rivers. I recall two generations ago a child of 3 years old being taken from an inner London borough to live on the edge of a village in the Kent countryside and his reaction to a walk on a wet day along the edge of a muddy ploughed field, ‘erghhh, shit, shit!’ It may seem so obvious but growing numbers have been separated from this for so long their awareness has been lost to such things. Milk and eggs come from the supermarket, not from cows and hens.

Herbicides, pesticides, seed provenance, genetically modified organisms, contaminated water, chemical-laden soil, animals in unnatural conditions and filled with hormones, antibiotics, fish from highly contaminated rivers and seas full of plastics – there are numerous studies across continents revealing the levels of chemical contamination in our blood and urine. It seems no-one can expect to be without some level of contamination from what we eat and drink however hard one tries.

When food has to be sold for profit what is the chance of finding the healthiest food from natural soil?

This, too, has to be understood. ‘Free Markets’, the neo-liberal concept, which are anything but free for consumers, mean the freedom for huge corporations to do what they want, how they want, produce what and where they want, import and export whilst, at the same time, evading tax obligations and transferring profits to offshore havens. Plus they are allowed to freely pass on externalities to society in general and the public can freely inhale contaminated air and drink contaminated water and eat poisoned food. They pay with dirty environments and poor health. ‘Free Markets’ are global. Sad to say, we have all become victims of faux-globalisation. What some of us meant by globalisation before the term was stolen was, in fact, a huge positive indicating a return to the global commons, cooperation not destruction.

The problems caused by capitalism because of this mechanism of ‘externalities’, passing on the negatives to society to clear up and deal with (or suffer the consequences), were/are not accidental in the main, just part and parcel of capitalism’s policies. It cannot be denied now that the carbon footprint of the rich nations are excessively more than the planet can bear. It’s also obvious that if we continue as now we simply hasten the demise of the global environment and humanity. There is no fix. Our task is to explain the world order, explain and change.  Socialism has no borders. It is essentially global. It cannot be otherwise. There are no fixes and no national solutions.

The People’s Agreement adopted in Cochabamba a few years ago expresses the sentiment very well:

   ‘Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.
It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings.
And for there to be balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings.’