Some vaguely Marxist thoughts on the free market in food production


While reading the other day, I came across this article.  There are a couple of core ideas that come out of this article that are potentially relevant for our class discussions on Marx.

 First, there is an acknowledgment of the limits of the free market when dealing with a commodity like food.  According to the idea of marginal advantage (a core idea underlying free market policies today), a free market is efficient because it allows each region or each worker to specialize in the production of those goods it is most efficient at producing.  Kansas (so the theory goes) has soil and climate conditions that make it really efficient at producing wheat (it can produce higher yields of wheat at lower cost than, say, Maine).  So it makes sense to have Kansas grow lots and lots of wheat and then trade it with other areas similarly specialized.  The problem, as the article points out, is that things don’t really work out that way in practice.  Monocultures are highly susceptible to disease and soil exhaustion.  To maintain this efficiency, then, we need enormous inputs of fertilizer and pesticides; and to keep the production profitable, we need more or less constant innovation—e.g., genetically modified foods, and so forth.  In Marxist terms, the need for profit, which emerges out of existing property relations, drives the productive process in perverse directions, such that an activity supposedly devoted simply to producing needed goods (e.g., food) increasingly becomes a process that undermines that capacity (by poisoning the land, preventing the establishment of more sustainable local food systems, and so on).

Similarly, markets in food commodities are often really inefficient ways to distribute food.  A couple of years back, as the article points out, there was a spike in food prices.  This predictably led to countries using food as an investment.  Since prices are going up, we buy as much as we can and hold onto it until we think the price is going to peak.  I can make huge profits this way, but doing so also prevents some people from eating.

Finally—and this is an aspect of the “Manifesto” we haven’t discussed much—another interesting aspect of the article is that the relevant political and economic actors are depicted as being locked in modes of thinking that prevent forms of necessary innovation.  We are so used to capitalist thinking, even in the context of food production, that we think only in terms of growing a specific crop for cash and selling it on a free market.  But the article suggests that this model of increasingly efficient production of ever-greater yields of food may not actually have anything to do with the actual problems of global hunger.  Indeed, the suggestion is that increased food production simply leads to more waste and worse public health in wealthy and industrialized countries.  One of the implicit arguments of the article, in other words, is that existing property relations lead to modes of thinking that make it difficult for us to see the actual nature of existing problems and to develop actual solutions to them.

So read the piece and let me know what you think.


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