Large Banner Ad
Small Banner Ad

July 29, 2009

The Geopolitics of Food

Maxim Daniel Pollack

Maxim Daniel Pollack(I) Food Security vs. Food Sovereignty

In the 21st century, global climate change will dominate every aspect of human life on this planet. Political, economic and social constructs will reflect our ability or inability to adapt to the changing planet.

The geopolitical implications of climate change are huge. As the average global temperature increases ecological and economic systems will interact in new and complex ways.

By the end of the 21st century oil will no longer be a viable source of energy, too scarce to power major societies. In the future, wars will not be fought over oil, but over natural resources much more fundamental to human life, namely water, and all the wonderful things that come with a fresh water supply, namely food.

In preparation for potential "climate wars" (Gywnne Dyer), Western powers have begun to quietly arrange for the "food security" of their populations. These preparations for a pseudo-apocalyptic 21st century in which runaway climate change has led to global food shortages are born not out of cynicism or hysterical dooms-day panic, but more likely a clear-eyed understanding of their own fundamental and ideological opposition to the type of capitalist reform needed to save humanity and the planet from cataclysmic change.

In the 21st century "food security" will preoccupy governments and policy-makers around the globe as increasing populations (thanks to modern technology) clash with decreasing food supply (thanks to global warming, also a by-product our unsustainable modern life-style).

Already the oil rich but food poor United Arab Emirates has begun to prepare for the future by buying large tracts of dependable agricultural land in Africa which it hopes can secure its domestic population with food for years to come, hence, "food security."

This is a typically capitalist solution in that those with (oil) money benefit at the expense of those without. It also may be wildly optimistic. In a 21st century marked by massive population growth and food shortage, will starving Africans' (or other indigenous populations) devotion to the capitalistic concept of "property rights" out weigh their desire to eat?

Will the Third World allow the First World to steal their food in the same way that we currently steal (or buy) their oil and other natural resources? It seems likely that in the 21st century, the Global Northern concept of "food security" will clash violently with the Global Southern concept of "food sovereignty."

(II) Globalization is unsustainable

"Until the 1990s, one of the turning point decades of modern history, traditional village patterns survived, met personal needs and fulfilled community functions, protected to some extent by isolation and benign neglect. No longer protected by the benign neglect of isolation after the 1990s, searching for new ways to defend local wealth and traditions for the future, community members turned a set of communal traditions, spiritual beliefs, and ways of partnering with the land into a platform -- food sovereignty." -Wayne Roberts, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food (2008)

Food sovereignty is not really a new idea.

As the European colonial system collapsed in Africa, Asia and South America in the mid-20th century, newly liberated nations of the self-actualized "Third World" sought "agrarian reform" to assert sovereignty over their natural resources for the first time, with limited success.

The new super-power, the United States, successfully subverted the dangerous specter of democracy abroad, installing pliant dictatorships friendly to American investment and ownership around the globe.

Imperialist mechanisms for exploiting the "underdeveloped" but resource rich nations of the Global South were institutionalized at the Breton Woods conference in 1944 with the formation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Together with the World Trade Organization, these institutions of "corporate globalization" have systematically undermined democracy and marginalized sovereignty in the Third World with predictable results.

The 20th century marked an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the "former colonies" of the Global South to the current imperialist superpower.

Twentieth century globalization, powered by cheap oil, was more subtle and nuanced than the old colonial system, bank loans and free trade replaced military occupation (for the most part), but the result was much the same: lavish and unsustainable consumption in the North and grinding poverty elsewhere.

Globalization is unsustainable.

Neo-colonial corporate globalization is powered by fossil fuels, but the world's oil supply has peaked and oil prices will only continue to rise until oil is almost completely abandoned as a major source of fuel.

In a perfect world modern society would be powered by renewable and environmentally sustainable sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal.

Unfortunately, if our current state of (in)action is any indication, the capitalist economy of North America will most likely be powered in the 21st century by nuclear energy, characterized by unfathomable cost over-runs and unpredictable environmental consequences.

"In order to replace the entire world's fossil fuels, more than 2000 new nuclear facilities would have to be built--an endeavor that would assail the ecology of the planet and its people" (Frank Smecker, The Nuclear Goliath, Z Magazine, April, 2009).

Nuclear and renewable energy combined cannot replace the energy we currently get from fossil fuels. It seems clear that the term "low-energy" will be an accurate description of post-fossil fuel human existence. As globalization runs out of steam, there will be enormous opportunities for the Third World to reassert sovereignty over their natural resources, in some instances, for the first time since Christopher Columbus. Can the current "neo-colonial" global economic system survive the 21st century?

(III) Capitalist expansion

"In 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO) came into effect with new kinds of rules on food, fishing, farming and related issues. Through most of the Global North, the WTO is synonymous with free trade, usually of cheap imports that put Northern workers out of a job. Through most of the Global South, the WTO means a package of 'neo-liberal' changes that threaten core cultural values, as well as survival and economic needs." -Wayne Roberts, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food (2008)

In the last decade of the 20th century neo-colonialism evolved again, from globalization to "neoliberalism," a highly sophisticated system of capitalist expansion in which Third World debt was leveraged by the global financial institutions to open exciting new markets "in the darkest corners of the world," and through foreign investment, expose them to international capitalist exploitation.

The legacy of colonialism has left much of the world with massive unserviceable debt. These debts, which limit development and conveniently perpetuate the "status quo," are considered highly odious by the vast majority of civil society.

Nevertheless, embracing neoliberal policies, the US dominated IMF was able to force underdeveloped countries to implement unpopular economic "structural adjustments" by making debt relief and financial aid contingent on massive privatization and deregulation of national industries, again, with predictable results.

These changes led to massive foreign investment and ownership of valuable natural resources, and yet another massive transfer of wealth from the Third to the First World as transnational corporations exploited markets previously under government protection.

This new loss of sovereignty with its corresponding labor and environmental degradation led to political instability and declining standards of living. In other words, the structural adjustments were (considered by Washington) a resounding success and had largely achieved their desired effects: the near total marginalization of substantive democracy in the Global South.

(IV) A global paradox

It is hard to over-estimate the devastating effects that neoliberal policies have had on the Third World.

Globalization has created a paradoxical world in which the countries with the most natural resources are most likely to go without. To understand Third World hunger, it is important to understand that the root of the problem is not a lack of food, but a lack of sovereignty.

For example, even with today's rapidly expanding world population, most Third World countries produce enough food, if equally redistributed, to feed their domestic populations.

India is a "developing nation" with an estimated population of over one billion people. Sadly, about 20% (approximately 212 million people) are considered to be "undernourished."

According to The State of Food Insecurity in the World, a 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the "available calories per person" in India is 2440 per day. (The average adult requires approximately 2000 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight.)

If you take the number of calories produced every day by Indian agriculture and divide it by the Indian population (1 billion), you discover an interesting paradox: India actually produces enough food to feed its massive population! So why are there over 200 million hungry people in India? Hunger is best understood not as a resource problem, but as a policy problem. If resources were distributed equitably everyone could eat.

As the climate changes, the "global bread-baskets" will move farther away from the equator, with major geopolitical implications. Equitable redistribution of food and other resources will need to be organized on an international scale, but it should be clear that the solutions to global food shortages depend on maximizing food sovereignty and minimizing the destructive influence of the IMF and the other institutions of corporate globalization that undermine democracy and increase economic inequality.


"Capitalism has provoked an ecological crisis by subordinating the necessary conditions for life on this planet to the domination of the market and profit. Each year, the world consumes a third more than what the planet is capable of regenerating. At this rate of wastage by the capitalist system, we are going to need two planets by the year 2030." - Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) Summit of the America's Statement (2009)

On April 17, 2009 the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), an economic and social alliance of seven Latin American countries (Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela) issued a joint statement denouncing the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago as "inadequate and unacceptable."

The ALBA nations publicly denounced the U.S. led summit because it "offers no answers to the issue of the global economic crisis," and offers no real change, only more of the same.

As an alternative, the ALBA countries propose a "system in harmony with our Mother Earth rather than the looting of our natural resources" based on "solidarity and complementarity and not competition."

The ALBA statement recognizes that "capitalism is destroying humanity and the planet," and that "solutions to the energy, food and climate change crises have to be integral and interdependent. For example, generalising the use of agrofuels can only impact negatively on the price of food and in the utilisation of essential resources such as water, land and forests."

The First World is not only responsible for the current economic crisis (due to unsustainable financial policies), it is also responsible for the current climate crisis (due to unsustainable energy consumption).

In regards to climate change, ALBA states that "the developed countries have an ecological debt to the world, because they are responsible for 70% of historic emissions of carbon accumulated in the atmosphere since 1750."

As an alternative to the "Washington Consensus" of neoliberal global economic policy, characterized by privatized, deregulated capitalist markets which seek to undermine sovereign interests and marginalize democracy, Latin American countries have proposed "a system of peace based on social justice and not on imperialist wars" which "restores the human condition of our societies and peoples rather than reducing them to simple consumers or commodities."

The advent of a "second European Union" in Latin America is a huge step forward in the global struggle against imperialism.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the leading proponent of a "Bolivarian alternative" to the "Monroe doctrine" (the ideological justification for American hegemony in Latin America) has recently attempted to assert Venezuelan food sovereignty by "ordering the expropriation of a U.S.-owned rice plant and threatening to seize food companies that don't sell enough products at official prices that are meant to stem inflation.

Chavez accused U.S.-based Cargill Inc. and other companies of flouting price caps on basic foodstuffs by producing less of those products" (The Associated Press, March 5, 2009).

Corporate tactics undermine "state control over Venezuela's economy" (in other words, democracy). "I'm calling on Venezuela's private sector to understand that a socialist revolution has arrived," Chavez said, a day after announcing plans to expropriate a Cargill rice processing plant and threatening to nationalize Empresas Polar, Venezuela's largest food producer.

The era of American hegemony in the Global South is coming to an end.

In 1953 the United Fruit Company and the CIA worked together in a successful campaign to topple the popular democratic government of Guatemala and replace it with a friendly military dictatorship. The crime of the democratic government had been a moderate agrarian reform plan, in other words, an unacceptable attempt to assert food sovereignty against American interests. With the formation of ALBA the era of the United Fruit Company is finally over.

Lain American "21st century socialism" is characterized by participatory democracy, economic sovereignty and environmental sustainability. The "Bolivarian" governments of South America have inspired democracy movements throughout the Third World.

(VI) Food Sovereignty in Canada

As the rest of the world struggles for independence and sustainable development through national sovereignty and international co-operation, what can we do in the Global North to promote social justice and environmental sustainability?

According to Wayne Roberts, director of the Community Food Security Coalition of Canada, "whether it is caused by lack of money or sheer lack of food, hunger can be overcome when governments empower citizens."

Local food is the key to sustainable food policy. Buying "fair trade" products, although not local, promote social justice abroad.

The Canadian government needs to empower citizens with community gardens and city farms which can supply healthy, organic food to urban populations. When it comes to progressive food policy, Canada can learn a lot from the Cuban "garden revolution" of the 1990s.

Cuban production of vegetables from city farms "tripled during the 1990s, and city farms now grow enough to meet the minimal nutrition needs of the population" (Roberts).

City farms "moved food closer to the people" (reducing Cuba's carbon "foot-print") and made Cuban food more nutritious through "organic gardening methods" (in sharp contrast to the pesticide heavy Canadian agro-business).

In the early 1990s Cuba experienced a massive economic contraction, euphemistically referred to as the "special period."

Cuba rapidly transitioned from a "high-energy" to a "low-energy" society, with detrimental effects on the national standard of living.

The garden revolution was a surprisingly clairvoyant campaign to "end hunger in the face of energy shortage" which resulted in the conversion of Cuban agriculture to sustainable, low-energy, organic (urban) farming. The special period brought great hardship to the Cuban people, but it also had at least one obvious benefit. It stimulated creative food policy solutions adapted to the realities of the (low-energy) 21st century.

Cuba now has one of the most sustainable food systems in the world, because Cuban food is increasingly local and organic, reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Cuban communities now have excellent "food security."

When global oil supplies "peak" and Canada transitions into a "low-energy" 21st century economy, Canada will have its own "special period" in which we will be forced to adapt to changing realities.

It should be clear by now that the suburban lifestyle is unsustainable in the long run. The personal automobile will no longer dominate our way of life. No matter how "fuel efficient" or "electric" your car is, over 90% of the energy consumed is being used to move the car, and not the person, an unaffordable waste for modern society.

Every major Canadian city and provincial capital will need a subway system (powered by "green" energy). This, more than anything else, will ensure the future growth and vitality of Canadian cities.

In the 21st century Canadian communities will begin a process of "relocalization" in which people will begin to once again live where they work and grow food where they live. Food will no longer be shipped to Canada from Brazil. Regional agriculture will need to be expanded to supply food to high density areas such as the GTA.

There is no shortage of good ideas, but if we follow the "Harper Agenda" with its "market driven solutions" to food and energy paucity, the results will be a highly stratified society marked by hunger and poverty levels previously unknown to the First World.

Food is too precious a "commodity" to be left to market forces.

Around the globe, Third World countries have begun to declare their "food sovereignty" from the destructive forces of corporate globalization.

There is no reason why Canada can't do the same.

If Canadians can embrace "participatory democracy" with consultative community involvement, if we invest in infrastructure (public transit and public gardens) and renewable sources of energy, if we reject globalization and empower citizens with creative solutions, Canada can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Max Pollack is a doctor, Maritimer and "21st century socialist," but not necessarily in that order. He lives in Cabbagetown, Toronto, Ontario.

  • Think green before you print
  • Respond to the editor
  • Email
  • Delicious
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • StumbleUpon
Subscribe to the E-bulletin

M. Elmasry

Subscribe to our YouTube Channel