Political economy

Political economy is broad frame of academic analysis dating to the 1800s  that addresses the power, political and economic relations among different actors in society. It offers a long-standing critique of the dominant approaches to capitalism and more recently neo-liberalism.

Clapp and Fuchs (2009) describe 3 types of power: a) instrumental, a direct action, usually based on control over resources (money, materials, land, food); b) discursive, the ability to influence discource; c) structural, controlling the institutional forms and agendas of decision making.

According to Harvey (2005:2,3, 76),  neoliberalism is “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutionalized framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.”

In practice, this means  that maximizing market transactions is a priority and produces,  “deregulation, privatization, and the withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision.” “As the state withdraws from welfare provision and diminishes its role in arenas such as health care, public education, and social services … it leaves larger and larger segments of the population exposed to impoverishment. The social safety net is reduced to a minimum in favor of a system that emphasizes personal responsibility."

In the Canadian food system, the withdrawal of the state from market intervention dates to the late 60s, early 70s, when political rhetoric began to blame the state for market failures in food and agriculture (see Hedley, 2017 for a history).

Within political economy lie many sub-frames, a few of which are highlighted here.

Metabolic Rift

(adapted from MacRae et al., 2016)

Many food system problems are in part the wider story of rural-urban antagonism within capitalism (Foster & Magdoff, 1998, Foster, 1999; Friedmann, 2000; Moore 2000, 2011; Clark & York, 2008; Schneider & McMichael, 2010). Marx’s theory of metabolic rift explains such antagonism as the separation of social production from its natural biological base, tangibly seen in the separation of production from consumption and the marked division of labour between town and country (Foster & Magdoff, 1998; Friedmann, 2000; Moore, 2000). The metabolic rift framework helps explain the link between problems of soil infertility and environmental degradation and increasingly long-distance global agricultural trade (Schneider & McMichael, 2010).

In Marx’s conception, the mechanism of the metabolic rift is the movement of soil nutrients—in the form of grain or other fruits of the land—to towns, where they end up in urban sewage and in the environment as human organic waste (or “humanure”), which should, but typically does not, go back to re-fertilize the land (Foster & Magdoff, 1998, Foster, 1999; Schneider & McMichael, 2010). When people are removed from the land (e.g. migrate to the cities), the “humanure” goes away too, thus breaking the human-nature-metabolic cycle. The urban “Sanitation Revolution”, while markedly improving public health, also cemented the separation of humanure from production (Ashley, Cordell, & Mavinic, 2011). Marx focused only on soil as matter, ignoring that soil is indeed a living organism, with health and fertility dependent on a complex soil food web and metabolic reactions between living and non-living components (Schneider & McMichael, 2010). However, our more current understanding of soil reinforces Marx’s basic concept.

Food Regime Theory

Food regime theory is useful to gain further understanding of the wider geopolitical and economic context of international trade and whose interests it serves (see AHV 2009 26(4), especially Pritchard 2009). To this point, three regimes have been posited. The first had its stable period from 1870 to 1917, the second one, between1947 and 1973, and a third one has supposedly been running since the late 1980s. The characteristics and nature of the third food regime have been the subject of a large, still ongoing, debate (McMichael, 2005; Friedmann, 2005, 2009; Burch & Lawrence, 2009; Campbell, 2009; Holt-Gimenez & Shattuck, 2011).

Friedmann (2000), elaborating on some of her earlier food regime work (Friedmann & McMichael, 1989), shows how the mobility of capital, labour and global outsourcing, resulting from world markets, disrupts the material cycles of local ecosystems (including food nutrient cycles). She highlights that during the nineteenth century, the transformation of local ecologies was not only caused by the trade of food commodities, but also by the arrival of new settlers. New settlers bring cultural diets and farming practices which, once they interact with species invasions and global trade, amplify the vicious circle of dependence on export-oriented agricultural models. This socio-cultural dimension enhances the disruption of local agro-ecosystems linked with global trade and together these phenomena deepen the metabolic rift.

During the second food regime[1] (Friedmann & McMichael, 1989), governments heavily subsidized production with little attention to who would consume the outputs. This triggered another wave of subsidy interventions to find customers for the increased production. Such interventions were consistent with conceptions of a golden era of agricultural science and technology development. They contributed to the era of cheap and excess food on a global scale (though not necessarily within every locality). All of this became elements of what we now know as the modern industrial food system, which was consolidated during this second food regime. Some scholars have identified an emerging third food regime, the corporate food regime (Burch & Lawrence, 2009; McMichael, 2009; Holt-Giminez & Shattuck, 2011).

Commodity Chain Analysis

Proposed by Hopkins and Wallerstein (1986) as a more specific dimension of World Systems Theory, “a commodity chain is a network of labor and production processes whose end result is a finished commodity”.  The approach reflects an understanding of capitalism as a “widespread commodification of processes – not merely exchange processes, but production processes, distribution processes and investment processes – that had previously been conducted other than via a market." (Wallerstein, 1983:15).  It involves all the links, relationships and processes in the chain, from inputs to final end product.

Commodity fetishism (adapted from Watson, 2020)

Food commodification has led to commodity fetishism, which refers to the consumer's ability to demonstrate psychological and physical distance from the food system while prioritizing emotions and desires (Jaffe and Gertler, 2006). This phenomenon is class-based  whereby those with higher economic status fetishize and associate a higher status to certain foods that only the elite have the financial resources to attain (Johnston, 2008).

One specific version of commodity fetishism is "superfoods". "Superfoods" and unquestionning acceptance of their claims has harmful effects on many nations' economies. The events that connect superfoods to economic problems tend to follow a prescribed sequence. First, an arbitrary and often dubious health claim is attached to an exotic food item, an item atypical to the North American diet. Next, media (and the internet) support these claims and trigger mass adoption of the superfood fad diet, especially with elites. Then, the countries that produce these products revamp their agricultural industries to produce the superfood. This  then floods the market, driving down buying prices for farmers, and when the fad ends, as they inevitably all do, the livelihoods of many farmers are lost as are the investments they put into transitioning their farms to grow superfoods (Shin et al, 2018). It can also wreck havoc on domestic market prices and contribute to food insecurity in the country of origin. Examples include moringa in Bangladesh in the 70s and again in the 80s (Reuteman, 2011), quinoa in Bolivia and Peru in 2011 (Blythman, 2013) and teff in Ethiopia.  Fortunately in the last case, the government learned from earlier superfood trends and managed to stabilize teff's market price through the a policy similar to Canada's supply management (Shin et al, 2018).