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 Review of ‘The Struggle for Food Sovereignty’ eds. Herrera & Lau (2015)


Peasants produce 70% of the world’s food. They constitute over half the world’s population. Yet, in a world where 3500 calories of food gets produced, per person, per day. The majority of the one billion who go hungry nonetheless, are peasants, are the food producers themselves1. Capitalism is biting the hands that feed.

The recent volume edited by Herrera and Lau, gets right to the heart of the matter – framing a comprehensive review of the global agrarian crisis within the context of a radical critique of the capitalist system itself.

Beginning with a theoretical overview provided by the eminent political economistSamir Amin, the book hilights the sheer depth of the crisis – the 2000:1 north-south productivity gap in agriculture implies that the current expansion of capitalist agriculture into the peripheral regions of the global south, necessitates mass dispossession.“Fifty million new efficient producers…on the one hand, and 3 billion [dispossessed] people on the other” (491).

Moreover, mechanization and neoliberal policies imply that the dispossessed will find neither work nor welfare in the cities. “7% growth would not even absorb a third of the labor reserves [that will be dispossessed]” (487). A “planet full of slums” (487) awaits if the expansion of the corporate food regime is allowed to continue. It is incumbent upon us therefore, to stop it.

But crises take different forms in different regions, hence, in chapters two to seven, experts on a diverse – though by no means complete – set of regions,provide detailed analyses on the terrains of struggle in their respective areas of expertise.

Joao Pedro Sedile hilights the role of finance capital in engendering the agro-fuel land grabs ravaging the Latin American countryside. Sam Moyo traces the continuities and ruptures in the centuries long alienation of Southern Africa’s peasants from their land. Erebus Wong and Jade Tsui Sit explore the (embattled) collective land tenure regime in China. Utsak Patnaik delineates the contours of the ‘triple squeeze’ – dispossession, unemployment, and debt – driving the recent string of peasant suicides in India. Remy Hererra and PoeuraTetoe explore the ‘Papua Niugini’ paradox ie. the remarkable resilience of customary land tenure in Papua, which has managed to withstand the neoliberal onslaught thanks the “vivacity of peasants’ resistance” (340-342). And finally, Gerard Choplin and members of the European Coordination of La Via Campesina, highlight the immiseration of European farmersin spite of their ‘privileged’ position in the global north.

A striking theme that emerges in these case studies is the rootedness of the problems facing diverse, spatially dispersedagrarian communities,in the imminent tendencies of the capitalist system. For instance, the agro-fuel land grab in Brazil, the ‘new scramble’ for land in Africa, and the rollback of collective property in rural China, can all be traced to the‘spatio-temporal’ fixes that capitalism uses to resolve its periodic crises of realization. Financial crises in the global north causes capital flight into “fixed assets such as land, minerals, agricultural raw materials, water” (889) and so on.

Similarly, the ‘subcontractor squeeze’ on European family farms (in which they are coerced by input providers upstream, agribusiness contractors midstream, and supermarket chains downstream) mirrors the subcontractor position that peripheral countries like Zimbabwe occupy relative to “secure enclaves [like] South Africa” (259), precisely because both stem from capitalism’s tendency toward centralization and the formation of oligopolies that can dominate smaller subcontractors in precisely this sort of way.

This continuity suggests that what Eric-Holt Gimenez, borrowing from Nancy Fraser, has called, “progressive neoliberal” proposals for reform, are not going to cut much ice. Deeper reform is necessary. Reform that goes to the ‘root’ and asks the question – might the term “capitalist agriculture” be, for all intents and purposes, an oxymoron?

One of the major strengths of the volume as a whole, is the way in which it demonstrates the power of a ‘global framework’ in addressing precisely such a question. The continuities between regions – as has been shown above – help delineate the ‘root problems’, while their specificities, give each region a ‘comparative advantage’ (no pun intended), in supplying information on a particular dimension of contemporary agrarian struggles.

For example, Latin America, owing to the ‘pink tide’, and being a region of the world in which left-led peasant movements have been especially successful, is particularly well suited to provide information on appropriate ‘peasant programs’ that bring together a wide range of constituencies in the rural sector under a unified banner for radical, progressive change. Stedile’s comprehensive list of proposals, is evidence of that.

Similarly, India, being a region where the process of land commodification has been particularly vicious, and more importantly, mixed with ‘jobless growth’ alongside ethno-religious communalism, is particularly adept at showing us the sheer depths to which the agrarian crisis can sink. As Patnaik demonstrates, this deadly cocktail has driventhree million Indian farmers to suicide, over the past twenty five years – that’s more than one suicide every five minutes! Such a striking statistic should serve as a reminder to activists everywhere, about the stakes involved in answering the Agrarian question.

Yet, it cannot be denied that the volume is far from complete, and it is perhaps slightly disturbing to see that no subsequent volume has emerged covering the many regions absent from this this volume. Southeast Asia for instance, is completely missing. And yet, it is one of the epicenters of the contemporary Agrarian crisis. Indonesia for example, is unique in that it not only features a persistence of smallholder agriculture, but such a large number of peasants that even with the most comprehensive land reform, it would be impossible to guarantee each family enough arable land to provide for self-sufficient subsistence production2. Where then does Amin’s recommendation for ‘equal access’ land tenure regimes leave us? Surely this is a major question that is yet to be answered.

The model laid out in The Struggle for Food Sovereignty – combining a radical (‘to the root’) critique of the corporate food regime, with a global framework that leverages the continuities and differences between different regions of the world, has shown its merit. Now it is up to a young generation of conscientious scholar-activists to push it forward, incorporatingneglected localities, while deriving new conclusions.

Ultimately, the tendency toward ‘perversion’ that is the defining characteristic of the capitalist system – ‘she who works owns nothing, she who owns everything does no work’ – holds in the sphere of agriculture – ‘the hands that feed go hungry’1. This contradiction cannot last. Every ‘great revolution’ in history has been a peasant revolution (France, Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam etc). As William Hinton said in 1966, “Land reform is on the agenda of mankind”.

  1. See, Holt-Giménez, E. (2017). A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of what We Eat. Monthly Review Press.
  2. See, Bissonnette, J. F., & De Koninck, R. (2017). The return of the plantation? Historical and contemporary trends in the relation between plantations and smallholdings in Southeast Asia. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(4), 918-938.

Theo V. Kenji is an aspiring agrarian sociologist and co-founder of the Radical Reading Collective at UC Irvine.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Peasants are backbone of economy and yet, they live in poverty. This book may help in understanding the problems more. A good book to be reviewed specially in these times when rulers are concentrating on industrial production leaving agriculture far behind