Chocolate Nations / Agriculture and Food in Crisis

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Orla Ryan / Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar


The last four years of financial crisis have sent food prices rocketing and availability plummeting as speculators' money has chased a fast buck out of subprime mortgages and into tangible commodities such as corn, rice and flour. These two books are very different but both are a response to this misery. From the "tortilla riots" of Mexico in 2007 to the developing revolutions across the Middle East now, the mass of the world's population is tired of being hungry and oppressed by neoliberalism and the people who get rich off it.

Chocolate Nations describes one end of the problem. The West African cocoa industry involves hundreds of thousands of impoverished small farmers. The structural adjustments programmes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have removed government training schemes and investment. Even replacement seedlings are too expensive for many, so ageing trees produce less every year and the major chocolate manufacturers don't want to operate in Africa. They want to buy the beans and ship them to factories close to their markets. There has been war and corruption. This is all true, and however badly written and repetitive the book is, author Orla Ryan does cover a lot of the facts. There is also a relatively detailed critical examination of fair trade.

Agriculture and Food in Crisis is made up of essays covering almost every aspect of what is wrong with 21st century capitalist food production and land use. The authors, a range of academics and activists firmly of the left, including Walden Bello, are concerned with sustainability and climate change as well as feeding the world. There is some repetition and the authors don't always agree with each other. For instance, a couple of times development of a new middle class in India and China, which is able to afford meat, is mentioned as a source of creating scarcity. However, Utsa Patnaik's piece convincingly demonstrates that meat for the middle class in the context of neoliberalism means hunger for the millions. This is not because meat production has used up the grain or driven prices up beyond their means, but because neoliberalism impoverishes the majority of people.

There are interesting pieces on South American land reform, both state-led and from below, and how the process of reclaiming land and learning to live communally when self-organised can profoundly change people. There are also the fun and important details of how people in the right environment can produce enormous amounts of food without a genetically modified crop, or even much pesticide, in sight.

The relatively new development in "land grabs", where one state aims to ensure its own food security by buying huge tracts of fertile land in another, is covered, as is the great crime against humanity that is biofuels - burning food to replace fossil fuels.

This is a very useful book. Even if we don't all come to the same conclusions we can agree with Karl Marx that those who speculate in famine will live in infamy long after we've got rid of them.

Chocolate Nations is published by Zed books £12.99. Agriculture and Food in Crisis is published by Monthly Review Press, £14.95