REVIEW: Hungry for Profit
Hungry, hungry agribusiness
An interdisciplinary analysis of the corporate food system

Reviewed by Constantine Markides

Details:

Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment.

Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel, eds. Monthly Review Press, 2000
ISBN 1-58367-046-5; 248 pp; $19.00

July 16, 2004: Hungry for Profit is no bedside reading, unless you enjoy drifting off to a historical analysis of agribusiness or Maoist land reform. But for anyone outraged, distressed, or merely concerned at the increasing control of corporations over food production and supply, Hungry for Profit may be a good book to go with your morning coffee. The editors, Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick Buttel, have brought together essays from almost two dozen authors in an effort to present a comprehensive picture of what is wrong with today’s global food system, how it came to be this way, and what can be done about it.

The editors are primarily interested in the relationship between capitalism and food production, a union they find both unsound and dangerous. The first essay argues against the notion that capitalism originated in cities where, unfettered by religion and custom, humans cheerfully trucked and bartered their way into a newly-liberated Homo economicus identity. The essay’s author, Ellen Meiskins Wood, argues that capitalism in fact emerged from changing property relations in the countryside and required a major upheaval of social relations. In England, the ruling classes could not coerce peasants into slaving away for their superiors' benefit as easily as could the monarchs of continental Europe.

But land ownership was more concentrated in England than in other parts of Europe—in France the peasants owned much of the land—and so the landlords could demand greater productivity from their tenants, in effect pitting them against one another. Wood suggests that this new demand for productivity had its roots in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, in which Locke defines property as the “natural” right of those "improving" the land, which is to say putting it to productive and profitable use. Later this would also provide a high-minded justification for expelling the native peoples of America: to arriving Europeans, the Indians were not obviously exploiting the land, therefore they had no right to it.

Not all of Hungry for Profit is so heady, and it gets easier as you move along, like stretching a cramp. Many of the essays focus on contemporary affairs rather than history and theory: farm workers and the unsavory role that contractors have played in mediating their work conditions; the role of grassroots organizations such as the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the Rural Development Center, and The Land Institute; the flight of displaced peoples around the world from country to city and the related growth of popular land reform movements; the forced transition of Cuban agriculture to organic methods.

One of the more lucid and engaging essays, “Want Amid Plenty,” by Janet Poppendieck, warns that an overemphasis on alleviating hunger through acts of charity such as soup kitchens and fund-drives can often unwittingly benefit those seeking to eliminate federal and state social services. “The people who want more inequality are getting it, and well-meaning people are responding to the resulting deprivation by handing out more and more pantry bags and dishing up more and more soup. It is time to find ways to shift the discourse from undernutrition to unfairness, from hunger to inequality” (p. 201). The essay could well be titled “Hungry from Profit.”

One essay looks at food and politics with respect to the policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is a history in which the economic powers force free trade—along with moral rebukes—upon resistant developing countries, but only after having already brought their own industries to market dominance through the use of protectionist policies.

In case after case of 20th-century economic expansion and change, agribusiness was the beneficiary. During the Depression years, the U.S. barred agricultural imports, protecting U.S. food producers from lower foreign prices, in turn leading to a surplus which was then sent abroad under a cheap food aid program. Protectionism benefited large grain companies like Cargill and Continental. Later, under the Marshall Plan and the 'Green Revolution,' the U.S. agribusiness model was exported to Europe and to selected Third World nations. In 1997, the WTO ruled against an EU ban on importing cattle that had been given one of Monsanto’s recombinant growth hormones.

Several essays deal with biotechnology and the rise of ‘seed piracy,’ ‘genome control,’ and the now infamous ‘Terminator gene,’ that creature of life-affirming scientific inspiration that causes plants to produce sterile seeds. Genetically engineered crops are the froth and foam of contemporary agricultural debate. And they are very much with us—in us, in fact. Half of the soybean produced globally and a third of the corn is genetically engineered. High fructose corn syrup, that ubiquitous sweetener that leads off the ingredients list on so many plastic wrappers and aluminum cans, is made by applying a biotech-produced enzyme to corn.

As several authors point out, biotechnology is not inherently harmful. But if the technology is in the fists of huge corporations that demand short-term profits and that treat environmental destruction as ‘externalities’ best left to their public relations departments, then biotech will assuredly lead to bio-wreck. Ironically enough, the same companies that promoted the virtues of the Green Revolution—industrial agriculture on speed—as the cure to global hunger are now promoting a new Biotech Revolution to alleviate the environmental degradation caused by the Green Revolution. The logic is by now morbidly familiar.

Hungry for Profit may seem formidably academic in its analyses, and you may have to shield your eyes from occasionally barbarous jargon (‘depeasantization,’ ‘proletarianization,’ etc.) but there’s a good bit of meat in this book. You just have to work through some gristle to get to it.

Constantine Markides is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Maine. He can be reached at cons76@yahoo.com