Tuesday, July 10, 2007

AgriAmericanism: Deconstructing Development

Nezua's post at Feministe is an exemplary exercise in bandito fusion philosophy, splicing proletariat outrage with dead-eyed analysis of the interlocking systems and mindsets that keep the machine running. As he lays out his wrath on the McDonald's-industrial complex he spares no cog its comeuppance, checking off each complicit part like a name on a hit-list: the corporations that peddle biased consumption manuals to public schools in lieu of textbooks, the policy-makers who won't shell out enough for said schools to afford anything else, the culture of competition that crowns greed, the government that subsidizes corporate obesity-mills and watches the health system sink, and the bloody carnivorism of the meat industry (in case you haven't been paying attention – meat is still murder).

And yet for all of the indubitably righteous fire he spits, Nezua still lets agribusiness off easy. The crooks he's out to expose are not just profiting from the deaths of American animals (non-human and otherwise), but also from the starvation of the world's poor. The very lexicon of economic development is an arsenal of loaded words, all triggers squeezed tightly by the white-collar kings of multinational capitalism. Think about the measures of economic development used by the World Bank, the IMF. They ask us to observe GNPs per capita, population stability, labor force structures, urbanization, consumption per capita, infrastructure – rhetorically constructing a metric of evaluation where the amount of money generated, or in the best cases, how it is made and distributed, is all we need to know to see if a country is “growing”.

But what about hunger? Is it possible we have built systems, repeatedly cited studies, that claim to measure material progress without even ensuring that the basic material necessities are accessible? Most frequently, GNP per capita is the end of the discussion. The UN's Human Development Index at least factors in life expectancy, which would result in some indirect acknowledgment that malnourishment and starvation are not signs of a healthy economy. Even the most progressive measures of development tend to include “caloric intake” only at the end of a long list of social conditions. But caloric intake doesn't venture to ask what is being eaten – how many billions are malnourished even as their country “develops”? In India, the middle class was growing and multinational fast food providers were making a killing – all evidenced by the blossoming fast food industry, which was growing at a voracious annual rate of 40% as 2005 approached. Yet through those trends over 25% of India's population was malnourished. That number had remained disturbingly consistent throughout the past decade.

Even when some of that developing dough does trickle down to the pockets of the poor, malnourishment isn't staved off. In much of the global South, fruits, vegetables and other sources of vital nutrients are luxury items for the wealthy. This is because the agribusinesses that buy up huge proportions of the arable land in the developing world export their products to the lucrative markets in developed nations, leaving only enough behind for choice consumers to bid for. During the Irish Potato Famine, Ireland was still sending wheat and grain to England. During the 1984 famine, Ethiopia was shipping green beans to Great Britain. The structures of colonial domination have ossified, not withered, under globalization, their durability a distressing testament to the uninterrupted history of exploitation that is still being written.

The huge amount of food, and especially meat, that Americans eat takes a toll on the world, just like our European compatriots in neo-colonialism. Foreign agribusinesses make a convincing investment for the developing world – they need the big ticket revenue to pay back their debts. And oftentimes, their unwanted competition is impossible to eschew: there are political and economic costs for the opponents of neo-liberalism's fetish for open borders. Large scale production sees agribusinesses purchasing arable land in hectares, out of the hands of local farmers who could grow vital crops to feed their countrymen. Instead, the vast majority of the land is used to grow feed for short-lived livestock headed for American slaughterhouses. Agribiz giants like Monsanto and Cargill claim to be bringing business opportunities to farmers in the developing world. But if the political economy of agriculture is such that there is no market for affordable, nutritious food in the workers' country, then the scant wages handed down to them are even less likely to add up to proper food on the dinner table. The dominance of feed production in Third World agriculture is a deathtrap, solidifying the structures of starvation so that the ever-increasing First World demands for dairy, poultry, eggs, and meat can be satisfied. Monsanto made billions marketing fodder plants to poor farmers in the developing world. How many mouths did they feed?

The economic discourse on food politics still favors overlooking the factors that matter. Monsanto expects accolades for decrying the fall in global food production (despite their careful cultivation of the feed market's eclipse of the food market), proposing to export its bio-foods as a solution. But what good does food production do if the food must be exported immediately? If too few farmers own land independently of agribusiness, how can they hope to take advantage of miracle crops? The solution to starvation is not to make a global underclass of poor who barely subsist on FrankenFoods meant to obscure the inhuman results of multinational exploitation. The solution is to empower local farmers to produce the food their malnourished nations need. Protecting local agriculture from multinational meddling is crucial, as is encouraging governments to prioritize measures like decreases in starvation and malnourishment over GNP. Such a solution would only be feasible if the giant debts that much of the developing world labors under are lifted.

Forget Fast Food Nation. This is Fast Food Empire, agri-imperialism with millions of casualties. The equitable participation of people in their own economies, and the equitable distribution of goods by those economies cannot be achieved in the developing world so long as our machinations for McWorld domination continue to take economic self-determination off the table. The political process must be part of this battleground, the opposition to NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO, and the maintenance of debt must grow into alliance that will not indulge at the expense of the world's starving poor. But in influencing corporate politics our wallets are our ballots. We must change our habits of consumption, refusing to patronize fast-food, rejecting the meat industry – hitting agri-business where it hurts. And we must rework the lexical Orwellianism of development rhetoric: record “development” and stagnant rates of malnourishment should never be coexistent, as they were so recently in India and are in so many countries. We must demand a humanitarian development of discourse that takes the material improvement of lives and the fostering of human capacities and freedoms as its central task. The economic engines of the developing world can longer be fetishized at the expense of those they serve.


Andrew said...

Check out "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen for an interesting perspective on how to appropriate the development lexicon and turn it toward good ends. Takes a pretty comprehensive look at some of the dominant ethical theories that underlie development rhetoric and lays out his own alternative ethical approach to evaluating a countries "development". Sometimes I feel like the whole vocabulary should just be abandoned, but Sen makes a good case for salvaging certain aspects of it.

Nick J. Sciullo said...

This is an excellent post Matthew. For more information on the feminist implications of the 2002 Farm Bill, please see my article "'This Woman's Work' in a 'Man's World': A Feminist Analysis of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002." This article may be found in Volume 28, Number 2 (2006) of the Whitter Law Review. It is available on both LexisNexis and Westlaw.

There are certainly problems with agribusiness and with the way in which this country develops farm policy.

The effects of these policies are seen on an international scale and it is important to recognize both the domestic and international impacts of our policy choices.