The Food Wars

Bello, Walden
Verso, London, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-84467-331-5, 176 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Shepherd, Patrick

Somewhat sensationalist, The Food Wars is inspiring and charged with energy. It left me wanting to grab a flat cap and pitchfork and march down the halls of the WTO headquarters shouting about food sovereignty, small-scale farming, diversity, and equality.

Walden Bello puts forward a compelling argument that the current food crisis is a crisis of production brought about by the rapid growth in the agro-fuel industry and capitalist agriculture, with neo-liberal agendas forced upon developing countries as a condition of debt relief and aid that began in the 1980s. He also discredits theories that increased demand in China, lack of commercial farming in Africa, and scepticism about the large-scale use of genetically modified crops have played a significant role in increasing food prices and creating supply shortages. The solution that Bello suggests may lie in reduced-scale peasant-style farming on a global scale.

The book is divided into seven concise chapters with podcast-style sound-bite headings like 'Capitalism versus the Peasant', 'Destroying African Agriculture', and 'Eroding the Mexican Countryside'. For a factual book on agricultural policy, the language is quite visceral and certainly stirs the imagination. The paragraphs are trim and easy to follow, and each chapter is summarised with a short conclusion.

In this book Bello has condensed a complicated topic into an accessible, enjoyable read without compromising on substance - a rare achievement in development literature. There is a well-plotted chronology that takes us briefly back to the late nineteenth century, when the seeds of the first international food regime were sown under the free-trade policies of the British Empire. In those early days, Western family-farm-based agriculture provided sustenance to metropolitan economies, while in the South capitalist plantation agriculture was being used to produce tropical food for export. We are then whisked forward 100 years and taken through various case studies of the destruction of agricultural prosperity in Mexico, the Philippines, Africa, and China.

The content is well researched but the presentation is certainly not objective. The usual suspects, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank, and the IMF, are depicted as unscrupulous villains throughout. In Mexico, Bello explores how the 'homeland of maize' became a maize-importing economy. He suggests that free-market policies promoted by the World Bank, the IMF, and Washington in the 1980s are to blame. In the early 1980s Mexico was massively in debt and turned to the Northern money-men for help. What it got was a multi-billion-dollar bailout and a set of ground rules that included low trade tariffs and the dislocation of government support to institutions that did not support the neo-liberal doctrine. They called these ground rules 'structural adjustment', and Bello argues that agricultural transformation was a central theme. The idea was that privatisation would boost efficiency by lowering the land-to-man ratio. In reality, millions of peasants lost their land, agricultural funding dried up, and imports of heavily subsidised US maize (corn) killed off trade in local produce. Bello unravels a similar story with rice in the Philippines.

In Africa, Bello depicts the 'usual villains' as cold-blooded surgeons performing obscene experiments in the cavities of governance. He describes the 1960s decolonialised Africa as a bountiful net exporter that, struggling with debt, becomes seduced by the perverse whims of the World Bank and the IMF. 'Structural adjustment' was their scalpel. In Latin America and Asia the banks confined themselves to supervising the privatisation of agricultural production. In Africa, where the governments were weaker, Bello claims that they were so involved that in some cases they were even dictating the course of grain sales and fertiliser distribution. As in all the other scenarios, the idea was to make the continent's economy more efficient, while pushing it towards export-oriented agriculture to draw in foreign exchange to service the debt 'to eat the spider that swallowed the fly'. This did not go to plan, and what is left is a continent rich in fertile soil and biodiversity that is ravaged with famine and imports 25 per cent of its food at a time when food prices are rocketing.

In the chapter entitled 'The agrarian crisis in China', Bello describes how under 60 years of communism China enjoyed an impressive level of food self-sufficiency. This is now being phased out, as China's interests move away from agriculture and focus more on capitalist markets and export-oriented industrialisation - a phenomenon that is raising the level of inequality between rural and urban populations. Bello argues that the displacement of core agriculture will make China more dependent on international food markets and may lead to rising food prices in the future, but that there is little evidence to suggest it has already done so. His immediate concern is the 'Chinese carnivore'. He suggests that the increased 'meatification' of the Chinese diet is posing an environmental threat as huge soybean plantations spring up across Latin America to feed Chinese livestock. This, combined with a mind-boggling rate of expansion in agro-fuel production, is ravishing one of the planet's biggest carbon sinks - doing nothing to combat climate change.

In the penultimate chapter we see this issue of agro-fuels dovetailed with that of food insecurity. There are multiple case studies illustrating the unprecedented lengths to which countries are going in order to secure food supplies and land for agro-fuel production. One of the most alarming is a 99-year land-lease deal between by a Korean firm to secure 3,000,000 acres of land in Madagascar for agro-fuel and food production. States are increasingly looking beyond their borders for ways to feed themselves. The casualties of this will be millions of displaced people, a substantial loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and, as in Brazil, the use of slave-like working conditions on sugar-cane plantations in a bid to keep costs down in part to compete with heavily subsidised US agro-fuel production.

In the final chapter - 'Resistance and the road to the future' - Bello paints a striking picture of several pro-food sovereignty organisations, including La Via Campesina, an international movement which coordinates peasant organisations to challenge agricultural policies and the neo-liberal system. Its members have been involved in many radical protests, and Bello devotes several pages to their heroic and sometimes fatal exploits. There is Lee Kyung Hae, a Korean farmer who lost his farm to trade-liberalisation policies. In protest at the 2003 ministerial meeting of the WTO in Canc n, Kyung committed suicide and thus became a symbol of the WTO's oppression of peasants and small farmers. Another member was Jos Bov , a former French presidential candidate and La Via Campesina spokesman. Bello describes how in 1999 Bov led a protest against multinationals and 'food production that wants to dominate the world' by dismantling a half-complete McDonald's in his home town and dragging the door frames through the streets with his tractor.

The Food Wars effectively exposes the flaws in neo-liberal, capitalist, commercial farming and does offer practical solutions based on reduced consumption, greater efficiency, and small-farmer practices applied on a global scale. However, its idealistic utopian arguments should - dare I say it - be taken with a pinch of salt.