Harriet Friedmann's most influential intervention in the political economy of agrarian change has been her concept of the 'food regime'. Derived from the work of the French regulationist school of political economy, food regime analysis tries to understand the governing principles underpinning the world food system. Friedmann's thinking has undergone changes over time; currently, she notes that there was a 'colonial-(settler) diasporic' food regime from the 1870s to the First World War; turbulence between the wars; and a 'mercantilist' food regime from 1945 to the early 1970s.
A question that one of my students put to me, a few months ago, then, is whether we are now living under a 'new' food regime. At the time, I was not sure; but having read some of Friedmann's more recent work, and, very importantly, the work of Philip McMichael, who has an outstanding depth of understanding of the contemporary global food system, as well as having considered, more peripherally, issues around food sovereignty, organic agriculture and the Slow Food Movement, I think I am coming around to the position that we do indeed now live within a coherent, if not contradictory, 'corporate food regime'.
The corporate food regime remains, as did the first and second food regimes, supply driven, in the sense that food production, rather than consumption, lies at its core. However, where the corporate food regime differs from previous food regimes is the role of global capital, and its organizational form, the agro-food transnational corporation, in structuring the coherence of the regime. The agro-food TNC may operate directly in food production, or indirectly control food production through its control of food inputs (seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, or water) or food markets. Thus, we are talking about companies such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco, Cargill, Monsanto, Pioneer, and the like. These companies want to buy food cheaply, to which they then 'add value', selling into monopsonistic markets, in order to generate, in absolute terms, greater profitability. Competition is intense between these firms, but not over rates of profit, as over absolute amounts of money. In order to add value, these companies seek to control the commodity chain in an effective manner, a manner that does not require actual ownership of the chain, or ownership of aspects of it. The agro-food TNC instead is able to 'regulate' the operation of the food commodity chain through its market power, so that markets operate to enhance its ability to extract surplus-value at critical points in the chain.
The agro-food commodity chain is thus not vertically integrated; and this can give the corporate food regime an appearance of disorder. Such is not, however, the case. The industrialization of food that was carried out under the mercantilist phase of global food development is carried through to its logical conclusion under the corporate food regime, with food increasingly in the North being consumed as a consequence of the cultural construction of capitalist consumer society. Foods are assembled in such a way that consumers really don't understand where the product comes from; they consume the food because of advertising, which allows capital to realize the surplus value that is created in the production process.
The corporate food regime is, critically, supported by neoconservative states in the North and, vitally, the World Trade Organization which, in the name of global free trade, is reconfiguring food production in the South as peasants become little more than sub-contracted petty commodity producers enmeshed within a corporate food regime over which they have no control. The food regime thus has a coherence, as a result of 25 years of structural adjustment in agriculture, the opening up of agriculture under the rubric of 'globalization', and the ability to undermine resistance in the North and the South by pushing producers into an ongoing crisis of social reproduction.
The corporate food regime is intricately connected to ecological unsustainability and demonstrates the inherent ecological contraditions of late capitalism. It produces crisis in the name of profit, degradation in the name of choice, and biohazards in the name of efficiency.
- ► 2013 (23)
- ► 2012 (21)
- ► 2011 (27)
- ► 2010 (41)
- ► 2009 (13)
- ► 2008 (24)
- ▼ 2007 (34)