The food crises which mark the development of capitalist production have been accentuated with the system’s entry into decadence, and even more so in the present period of it rotting on its feet, of decomposition, often taking qualitatively different characteristics. And even if capitalism has always poisoned, starved and destroyed the environment, today, in seeking to exploit every last part of the world for its profit, its destructiveness has extended its ravages to the whole planet, which means that this system today threatens the very survival of the human race.
The absurdity of overproduction
By separating the use value of goods from their exchange value capitalism has historically cut humanity out of the very goal of productive activity. Does agriculture aim at the satisfaction of human needs? Well, in capitalism the answer is “no”! It is simply the production of commodities whose content and quality don’t matter so long as they find a place on the world market and allows the cheaper reproduction of labour power.
And with the decadence of capitalism production has been intensified to the detriment of quality. This is the harsh reality we observe in the development of agriculture since the Second World War until the present time. Following the war the watchword was: produce, produce and produce! In most of the developed countries agribusiness has seen its capacity to produce increase at an astonishing pace. The spread of agricultural machinery and chemical products was very great. In the decades 1960-1980 the intensification of agriculture was known by the misleading name of the “green revolution”. There was no consideration for ecology there! It was, in reality, a question of producing the maximum for the least cost, without much regard for the resulting quality, to face the sharper competition. But the contradictions of a system in decline could only accumulate and so increase overproduction. Produce, produce … but sell to whom? To the hungry? Certainly not! Lacking sufficient solvent markets the goods were very often destroyed or decayed where they lay.
Millions of people die of starvation in Africa and Asia, growing masses have to depend on charities in the developed countries, while numerous producers are constrained to destroy part of their product to respect their “quotas” or artificially maintain their prices.
The descent of the capitalist system into its historic crisis makes the problem worse still. On the basis of the chronic economic crisis investors greedy for profit seek to place their capital into profitable food securities (like rice or cereal), speculating and playing the market like a casino without any scruples, leaving a growing part of the world population to starve: “To give a few particularly clear figures, the price of maize has quadrupled since summer 2007, the price of grain has doubled since the beginning of 2008, and in general food prices have increased by 60% in two years in the poorer countries”. For populations in a precarious situation as in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Indonesia or the Philippines, this rise has become quite simply unbearable and has ended up provoking hunger riots at the time of what is today called the “2007-08 world food price crisis”. In a cynical farce the same scenario, exacerbated by the high use of food crops for the production of biofuel (soya, corn, rapeseed, sugar cane), was repeated in 2010, dragging the poorest into even more extreme misery.
Capitalism poisons and kills
Alongside the tragedy that it reserves for the populations of the ‘third world’, capitalism has not forgotten the exploited in the ‘developed’ countries. While agricultural production has grown considerably over the last decades, allowing the global reduction in the percentage of malnourished people, we must look at the disastrous results. The extreme intensification of agriculture with massive and uncontrolled use of chemicals has considerably depleted the soils to the extent that the nutritional value of its products and their vitamin content has been equally depleted. Recent studies tend to show a direct correlation between the utilisation of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides in crops and the obvious increase in the number of cancers and neurodegenerative diseases. Furthermore the use of sweeteners like aspartame (E951 on the labels) or glutamate in the food industry, like the spread of food dyes, has shown itself to be very harmful to health. An experiment on rats showed that it destroys nerve cells. We are not going to make a list of all the harmful substances present in our food, as that would take pages and pages.
“It is all a question of the dose”, we are told. But no study has made public or completed to show the cumulative effects of these different “doses” ingested in the same product day after day. We only have to note some of the effects of nuclear irradiation of our food: such as after the Chernobyl accident with the explosion of thyroid cancers, malformation in the population of the region following the ingestion of contaminated food. It is the same with sea food in Japan today since Fukushima. The murderous character of capitalism has well and truly taken a new dimension. To generate profit, capitalism can make its exploited swallow anything.
Echoing Engels’ approach in The condition of the working class in England, let us recall some facts which show the way present day capitalism shows its concern for the health of those it exploits: “In December 2002, the affair of the relabelling of boxes of infant formula milk that had reached its use by date. The multinational illegally imported the milk from Uruguay to put it on sale in Colombia…. El Tiempo, Saturday 7 December remarked that ‘to the 200 tons of milk seized, … can be added another 120 tons seized while in the process of relabelling to appear as if it had been produced inside the country and to hide the fact that it had passed the date fit for human consumption’.”
Among the numerous adulterated products of capitalism we find for example Norwegian salmon which, like battery hens, is full of antibiotics and even dyes to respond to the demands of the market. The concentration of drugs in their bodies is enough to make farmed salmon into a monstrous mutant species with deformed heads or notched fins…. But because a minister in the country owns several farms and firmly holds the omerta code of silence, academics have been ousted for pointing out the carcinogenic danger, even the toxicity of farmed salmon. To this we should add the tons of pollutants which are found in the sea, the PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls, used as coolants) in the rivers, radioactive waste whether buried or not. … This is without taking account of the harm from heavy metals, dioxins, asbestos carried in our food and on our tables. Water and the products of the sea, the air we breathe, the animal products we eat and cultivated land are deeply impregnated with all these sources of contamination.
There is plenty to be indignant about in this permanent food crisis across the planet, where some are starving and others are poisoned.
The anger of those who fight the aberrations of this system is profoundly justified. But, at the same time, “Controlling and reducing the level of wastage is frequently beyond the capability of the individual farmer, distributor or consumer, since it depends on market philosophies, security of power supply, quality of roads and the presence or absence of transport hubs.” Ultimately this means that looking for solutions at the local and individual level leads, in the short or medium term, to an impasse. Acting as a responsible and well informed ‘citizen’, that’s to say as an individual, can never give a solution to the immense waste that capitalism generates. The search for ‘individual’ or ‘local’ solutions carries the illusion that there could be an immediate response to the contradictions of capitalism. As we have seen the reasons are profoundly historical and political. The real fight must be carried out at this level. “Now the propagandists of capital call on us to ‘improve our eating habits’, to ‘reduce weight’ in order to prevent, to eliminate the ‘junk food’ in the schools… Not a word on raising wages! Nothing to ameliorate the material conditions of the oppressed! They talk about habits, seasonal food, or congenital illness… But they hide the real cause of humanity’s worsening nutrition: the crisis of a system that exists only for profit.”
. Following bad commercial strategies, linked to the rise in the Indian embargo on its rice: “Thailand has lost its rank as the world’s premier exporter and the country has accumulated the equivalent of one year’s consumption. Hangars of the former Bangkok airport were used to stock the rice that no-one knew where to put to prevent it decaying” (‘Thailand stifled by its rice’, Le Monde 24 June 2013).
. International Review 134, ‘Food crisis, hunger riots, only the proletarian class struggle can put an end to famine’.
. “In the period 1961 to 1999, the use of nitrogenous and phosphate fertilisers increased by 638% and 203%, respectively, while the production of pesticides increased by 854%.” Global Food Report, p 13, https://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pd...
. See journalist Marie Monique Robin’s Notre poison quotidian.
. Christian Jacquiau, Les coulisses du commerce équitable, p.142. Our translation.
. Le Monde 7 August 2013 reminds us that at Fukushima 300 tons of contaminated water is released into the Pacific every day.
. Global Food Report, p18.
. ’Mexique: l’obésité, nouveau visage de la misère sous le capitalisme’, on the ICC website June 2010.