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Food Wars

Place of publication: London and New York

Publisher: Verso

Date of publication: 2009

Walden Bello's book The Food Wars is not a meaty book in terms of length, but it covers an issue all of us are and should be concerned with: food. Bello is certainly qualified to discuss this topic. He has a background in sociology and is currently a professor of that discipline at the University of the Philippines. With a Harvard education to his credit, as well as authorship of several other well-received books and scholarly essays, Bello knows what he is talking about. In addition, he is deeply passionate about his topic, and this comes through clearly on these pages. He discusses questions that affect all of us deeply regarding food issues, particularly in terms of the political and economic aspects of it and how these issues affect all of us globally.

His introduction gives a general overview of what is to come in the book, and it provides sufficient background information for readers who may not have the historical or contextual knowledge to understand the gravity of the situation he plans to investigate and analyze. For example he begins by explaining what happened during a two-year period to change the global food commodities industry in a short time. "From 2006 to 2008," Bello writes, "the prices of basic commodities spiraled, making essential foodstuffs unaffordable for vast numbers of people. International agencies were caught flat-footed, and the World Food Program warned that its rapidly diminishing stocks might not be able to deal with the emergency" (1). This opening statement has a dramatic effect that sounds almost as if one were reading a science fiction novel, and that may have been Bello's intended effect. For readers of all levels -- academics, students, and anyone with an interest in serious issues facing our world today -- this is an engaging and intriguing introduction into an ongoing crisis that Bello feels we should all understand and become actively involved in. It may be considered controversial by some, but no one who reads it will walk away without having some grave concerns about our global future. Much of his information in these introductory pages is drawn on the work of Oxford economist Paul Collier, whose theories he explains and dissects with patience and analytical acuity.

When not explaining theory, Bello uses stark, simple factual information to bring home his point. Describing the food crisis and its effects may have been sufficient, but Bello goes on to describe the number of countries -- at least thirty, in his estimate -- that were affected in extreme ways by the lack: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Senegal, Somalia, Uzbekistan, and Yemen (2). These are names we have all heard in the news in recent years, so the points he makes hit home. According to the author, the bulk of the suffering occurred in Haiti, where 80% of the people suffered, trying to survive on "less than two dollars a day" (3). In fact, this was where the term "Clorox hunger" got its start. This was how people described the intensity of their hunger; it burned through their intestinal walls as though liquid bleach or some other caustic element had been poured down their throats (3).

A variety of causes were said to have caused this dire situation. For example, in poorer countries, lack of knowledge, equipment, and financial means meant that they were unable to develop their agrarian industries to feed their inhabitants. In other countries, such as China and India, the author explains, the members of the middle class increased at exponential rates, and their eating habits did as well. As a result, there were insufficient food supplies to meet these demands (4). Climate change, of course, was another important factor, as the effects of global warming became known to people all over the planet. However, according to the author, the single most pivotal factor in causing what he refers to as the "food wars" was something called "structural "adjustment," and that is the main premise of the volume. This was a program, which was put in place by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund starting at the beginning of the 1980s, affected more than ninety countries, many of which had weak or unstable economies to begin with (6). Describing the "orthodox account" and the less-than-orthodox account, Bello exposes the raw truths that led to the hunger of millions of people, economic hardship, and crushing blows to countries most in need of support and assistance to take care of their inhabitants' most basic needs.

The essence of Bello's argument is based on sound historical and philosophical study. As he explains in his first chapter, "Capitalism vs. The Peasant," capitalism, which he describes as "the organization of production to extract surplus value or, broadly, profit, from workers in the production process" (19), has overtaken all other modes of food production in the world. Because of this, Bello posits, the traditional notion of self-subsistence, or of farming households taking care of their own and neighboring families, has become a thing of the past. He describes this as the "displacement of peasant agriculture by capitalist agriculture" (19) and explains that this displacement is essentially at the root of the crisis at hand. Readers who may be inclined to dismiss Bello's theories as fanatical or outrageous need only read through this first chapter to see that Bello's ideas are based on sound premises. He draws on the writings and theories of a range of thinkers from Barrington Moore to Eric Hobsbawm to convey his message.

Bello does a good job of explaining the Bretton Woods system and the concept of "embedded liberalism," a term that was coined by American political scientist John Ruggie. He explains that "the food regime that corresponded to the Bretton Woods order was one that rested on a system of agricultural and food production in the developed countries that had become capital-intensive and industrialized, mimicking the 'Fordist' organization of industry in the postwar era" (Bello 24). He goes on to explain the essence of this proposed compromise and the trend towards centralization of capital that accompanied it.

Bello's chapter on Mexico is one of the most compelling. Entitled, "Eroding the Mexican Countryside," he discusses a range of important historical events, including the history of peasant agriculture and the effects wrought in 1994 by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also explains how the structural adjustment policies that were put in place ultimately led to disaster. This disaster, Bello explains, was basically engineered, and poorer countries such as Mexico were doomed to failure. It is not lost on him that Mexicans live in the land where corn was a primary crop, only to end up being dependent on having that very crop imported from the United States. Examples like this help Bello to lay the groundwork for his arguments, ending them with examples and images that are memorable and dramatic.

Bello uses the rice crop to illustrate the restructuring of agriculture in other developing countries, such as the Philippines. Rice-consuming countries, like corn-consuming Mexico, have undergone dramatic upheavals, becoming importers of the food staple on which they are largely dependent. Building on the arguments made in previous chapters, Bello launches into an analysis of the issues that have created crisis in rice dependent countries in his chapter "Creating a Rice Crisis in the Philippines."

Using the paradigm he has set up in the first chapters, Bello continues to employ it in the second half. After painstakingly exploring the food crisis that came to exist in Mexico, and then in the Philippines, he traces similar patterns in other countries, using data from the Food and Agricultural Organization to present some very persuasive information to bolster his argument. That this trend continues to work its way around the globe is something he drives home. He discusses variations on this theme not only in Latin America and in Asia, but also in Africa. How have all these countries been transformed from having peasant-based agricultural systems into being net food importers? Bello looks at the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Southern Africa, and Central Africa, and his findings are alarmingly similar. Food emergencies are the norm in these areas, not the exception, and that is cause for global alarm.

Using this basic argumentative formula, Bello uses continues to present his case in hi chapter on the agrarian crisis in China. He paints a bleak, yet all-too-convincing picture of the state of "food insecurity" in our society. He offers solutions in his closing chapter on "Resistance and the Road to the Future," but offers no quick-fix solutions to a problem so deeply and widely entrenched in some of our poorest and neediest countries.

Conclusion

The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) reads, "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the…[continue]

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