The Agrarian Transition

Advocate, Teacher, Researcher and Author Eric Holt-Giménez Discusses the Global Food System, Economics & Peasant Farmers

Eric Holt-Giménez

Eric Holt-Giménez

Since 2006 scholar and activist Eric Holt-Giménez has been executive director of Food First (Institute for Food and Development Policy), a people’s think tank founded by Frances Moore Lappé in 1975. As a leading critic of the global food system his work is grounded in a quarter-century of experience working in Latin America with peasant farmers in the agroecology movement. His latest book, and the central focus of this interview, is A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Holt-Giménez, who is of Basque and Puerto Rican heritage and the son of farmworkers, grew up milking cows and pitching hay on Marin County, California, dairy farms. He studied rural education and biology at the University of Oregon and Evergreen State College and later earned his M.Sc. in international development (UC Davis, 1981) and Ph.D. in environmental studies (UC Santa Cruz, 2002).

On his first project in Mexico after college, Holt-Giménez was charged with teaching sustainable agriculture to impoverished subsistence farmers, but quickly realized that he could learn a lot more from them. There he witnessed the impact of larger social and political forces on small farmers through the Green Revolution, which was getting them hooked on a treadmill of purchased inputs and imposing a farming system that was destructive to their land and well-being. A visit by several Mayan farmers from Guatemala to hold a field course on restoring degraded land marked a critical turning point for both Holt-Giménez and the peasant farmers. That encounter helped launch the Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer) movement through which untold numbers of small farmers around Latin America created more productive and ecologically sound, innovative farming systems, increased their livelihoods and amplified their voice.

Holt-Giménez’s Ph.D. dissertation on that movement formed the basis for his book Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. He also co-authored, with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck, Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice and is the editor of Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food System. His writing has appeared in prominent newspapers, and he has a blog on Huffington Post. He also teaches internationally at the graduate level.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a two-part interview with Eric Holt-Giménez. Look for the second part of the interview in the March issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Understanding the Food System

ACRES U.S.A. What motivated you to write A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism?

ERIC HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. I saw that many people in the food movement thought that we could transform the food system without addressing the capitalist system in which it was embedded. But the minute you realize it’s a capitalist food system, you recognize that’s impossible. The goal of the food system is to make money. It works like any other capitalist enterprise on the basis of commodities and profit. Food just happens to be the commodity being used to make that profit. Does that mean we have to change capitalism first before we can change the food system? I think the answer is no because food is different. The food system is located at the point of primary productivity, and it undergirds all of the other sectors. That puts the food movement in a strategic position to be able to influence and transform the larger political economic system.

ACRES U.S.A. In this country we’ve been persuaded that capitalism is the only economic system that’s aligned with progress. Is it compatible with progress?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. It depends on how we define progress. If you define progress as an increase in GDP, then you should celebrate every time a hurricane destroys billions of dollars of houses, goods, roads and livelihoods because fixing those things is going to increase the GDP. Whether they really get fixed is irrelevant. The point is that money is being spent. For banking institutions in this country, progress after the financial crash has been fantastic. They’ve grown by something like 40 percent. That shows up on the balance sheet as economic progress, but wages have been stagnant. So who is that progress for? Can we consider global warming as progress?

ACRES U.S.A. It seems that we have two different food systems, the industrial capitalist food system and something else.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Even today, when we live under rampant, unbridled neoliberal capitalism that privatizes everything, one of the reasons our society still works is because of all the socialism in people’s lives.

ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the manifestations of this socialism and other non-capitalist systems in our society?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. The first thing to recognize is that it’s always a mix. We’ve paid for a huge public sector — like infrastructure and roads and schools. The army is completely socialistic. If we didn’t have the public sphere and socialized goods, and we didn’t engage in mutual aid without monetary exchange, the capitalist system would crash tomorrow. Clearly, this mix is toxic. The monopolies and oligopolies that rule the Earth are exacerbating inequities and destroying the planet. As long as the market controls everything, then whoever has the most market power will make all the rules. So how can we strategically remove the market imperative over our social decision-making to the point where we have a much different society? This is happening around the world in different ways. For example, the Chinese import soy from South America, not because they can’t grow their own soy, but because they don’t want to use their water for growing soy. They would rather use Latin American water so they made a social and environmental decision not to produce their own soy and instead to buy it from Argentina. Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil are called the “Republic of Soy.” They have 755 million acres of soy — and those countries do not have any control over capitalism. If there’s an opportunity to make a profit, no one can tell them no. It doesn’t matter if they destroy the aquifer and uproot millions of small farmers, or that they store their profits in offshore banks and other investments. That’s the logic of capital. What we want to do is impose a social logic over the logic of capital.

ACRES U.S.A. How is capital different than money?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Capital is essentially wealth seeking more wealth. Capital is almost a verb — it’s a process. Money is simply an expression of wealth. It’s used for exchange. With money, you can buy commodities. Then you sell those commodities and get more money. Otherwise, why would you even bother buying and selling commodities? The fact that more wealth is realized as profit is what capital is.

ACRES U.S.A. Where does wealth come from?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Combining labor and capital with raw materials or natural resources creates wealth. In the study of capitalism, which is called political economy, we ask questions about the distribution of the wealth. Who gets to decide how wealth is distributed? Who does what? Who owns what? Who gets what, and what do they do with it?

ACRES U.S.A. Those are the sorts of questions that we never seem to talk about.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Pretty much we don’t. We gripe about it.

ACRES U.S.A. Why do you call Food First “the people’s think tank?”

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Frances Moore Lappé started Food First 42 years ago on the heels of her revolutionary book Diet for a Small Planet. In defiance of all the experts, this young female graduate student had the insight that people are going hungry because they can’t afford to buy food, not because there’s not enough food. And she also said we are eating too high on the food chain, and that’s going to come back to haunt us.

ACRES U.S.A. How severe was global hunger when Moore Lappé wrote that book?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. One in seven people were going hungry then. That’s also the proportion of people who are going hungry today, if not more. Moore Lappé founded Food First to look into the why of hunger. Why are so many people poor? Why are most of the people who are going hungry farmers? Why are they mostly women? How is food insecurity constructed? How does it come about? No one has a gene for food insecurity. As Food First began looking into these impolitic questions, they found that people around the world were fighting back and forming social movements against the corporate food regime. These were people being dispossessed of their land, and what they needed to grow food and feed themselves, or being poisoned by toxic, highly processed food and coming down with diet-related diseases.

ACRES U.S.A. Is industrial agriculture necessary to feed the world?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. We’re taught by the capitalist media that industrial agriculture — the Monsantos, Syngentas, Cargills and Bayers — feeds the world, but that’s a myth. It does not. Industrial agriculture only feeds about 25 to 30 percent of the world. And only about 15 percent of the food produced globally even crosses borders. When you look behind those claims about industrial agriculture, the first thing that jumps out is that the people who feed the world are actually very poor peasants. About 2 billion of them produce nearly three-quarters of the world’s food on about a quarter of the Earth’s farmland. The problem is that these farmers don’t have enough land or access to water and other resources. They often go hungry themselves. When they harvest their crop, they sell it right away. That’s the worst time to sell because everybody else is selling. They need money so they don’t keep enough food for themselves. Six months later, when the price of food is high, they run out and have to buy food. That’s when they go hungry. And 70 percent of the hungry people of the world are poor farmers, and most of these are women and girls.

ACRES U.S.A. Why are  these women farmers so impoverished?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. One can’t escape the conclusion that this is part of patriarchy. Why is it that peasant farmers are paid the worst? Why do they have the smallest pieces of land? And why are they mostly women? Frankly, it’s because you can do this to women. If we were to facilitate peasant women’s access to more food-producing resources and to education and equal rights, very quickly they would be able to feed themselves as well as everybody else.

ACRES U.S.A. So what’s behind the slogan that we have to feed the world, and where is it taking us?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. We produce one and a half times more than enough to feed every man, woman and child on the planet. When Cargill, Bayer or Syngenta say they need to expand the use of GMOs or the other latest technologies so they can feed the world, they’re really talking about capturing the market that’s still controlled by the peasantry. To get those markets they have to knock out the peasantry. The World Bank report on agriculture clearly lays out how they intend to move most of the peasantry off the land. Some calculations propose that around 50,000 mega-farms on the best land and all the best resources could probably feed the world (though not very sustainably). But that would displace the 2 billion peasant farmers. Where are they going to go? Those industrial mega-farms won’t be providing many jobs, and there’s no new industrial revolution to sop up all this labor. So this would be condemning almost a third of humanity to abject misery. Think about the social and political ramifications. But if industrial agriculture is allowed to continue expanding, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

ACRES U.S.A. That’s horrifyingly dystopian. We never seem to consider where all this is headed.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. No, I don’t think people follow it out to the logical conclusion. What’s happening is called the agrarian transition. It involves the expansion of capital into the countryside and the demographic transitions which result from that. It has been going on for over 200 years.

ACRES U.S.A. Few Americans are knowledgeable about what you call the first  agrarian  transition, during which English peasants were pushed out of countryside and an early form of industrial agriculture replaced them. What should we know about it?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Agriculture played a very important role in the emergence of capitalism. We tend to think about the steam engine and the satanic mills of Manchester as what brought about capitalism, but it could never have happened without the agrarian transition. The Industrial Revolution displaced people from the countryside and created a large reserve army of labor. These people weren’t paid enough, and there weren’t enough jobs. Even people who were working in these low-paid jobs in Britain had to steal in order to survive so Britain filled its jails. Then they got rid of their convicts through indentured servitude. In 1776, when the United States was formed, the new republic decided to stop accepting prisoners. By 1788 Britain had to send them on to Australia. Why did they have so many prisoners? They were poor people who had been criminalized. They were poor for several reasons. First, the peas- ant relations of production had been destroyed to move surplus labor from the countryside to the city to work in manufacturing. And second, they wanted people to stop growing food and produce sheep for wool. But the peasantry was incapable and unwilling to produce the wool, which the manufacturers wanted for their factories. So they moved the peasants off their land and put sheep on it. That process was called the enclosures because the commons, which the peasantry had used from time immemorial under agreements with the lords of the manors, were enclosed to raise sheep on this land. But the commons were essential to the survival of rural communities. The peasants grazed their livestock there and hunted there and got firewood, medicinal  plants,  building  materials  and  other  kinds  of things there.

ACRES U.S.A. What about the fields where the peasants grew crops? Were they pushed off that land, too?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Previously the peasants could pay the lord of the manor for the use of arable land with bags of grain without any money changing hands. That was called ground rent. But now taxes were levied, and peasants had to go to work because they didn’t have money. That was the whole point. They were coerced off the land and into factories. The peasants who remain have to produce food cheaply, so the wages can be low in the factories for the takeoff of the Industrial Revolution. When peasants can’t make it under these new conditions, the land gets consolidated into larger and larger parcels by whoever can buy them out. This is incredibly devastating for the people in the countryside.

ACRES U.S.A. Hasn’t the same kind of process happened in the rural United Sates and elsewhere to dispossess small farmers?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. It should sound familiar because in the expansion of capitalism this dynamic between farming and industry has remained the same. After capital empties the countryside of most of its peasantry, then over a period of time, capital invests in and industrializes the countryside. But the peasantry, despite all of the travails and suffering visited upon them, refuses to disappear. This has been repeated around the world, with variants of genocide and enslavement. Yet today there are as many peasants as 100 years ago, though with the larger total population the percentage of peasants is smaller. Along with this process of de-peasantization, there’s also a counter-process of re-peasantization. People go back to the countryside because they have nowhere else to go. They’re not going back as gentry or to seek their fortune. They go back because industry is unable to absorb all of this labor. This is getting much worse because there aren’t enough jobs.

ACRES U.S.A. When peasants migrate to the shantytowns of the huge, crowded cities, I’m imagining that they are unable to grow food for their own subsistence.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Actually when the poor are forced to the cities, you get an explosion of urban and peri-urban farming. Even today, 15 percent of the world’s food is grown with urban agriculture.

ACRES U.S.A. I wasn’t aware of that. Going back to the United States, what were the salient events and policy decisions that led millions of families to quit farming and leave rural areas, particularly after World War II?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. In World War II, the theaters of the war were Europe and the Pacific. Countries in those regions were destroyed and had to rebuild. The United States came through unscathed. When the soldiers came home, we converted the tremendous productive capacity of the war machine for peacetime. Factories built tractors instead of tanks. Instead of using nitrates to make bombs, they turned them into fertilizer. They took the poisons that were used for defoliants and poison gas, and made pesticides. Men were going to work in factories; women were going back to the home. Who was going to run the farm? Farms had to get bigger and more mechanized. During the war Mexicans were imported to the U.S. under the Bracero Program to work the fields; without them, we couldn’t have fought the war. That program continued because we needed more and more labor. This is when we got the supermarket industry and freeways and more cars, and we increased production far beyond what we needed. All of this fed into cyclical crises of overproduction. The United States loaned money to other governments, so they would buy the new things that we were producing. First, we sold our surplus food to Europe, through the Marshall Plan. The we loaned them money to buy our farm machinery and chemical inputs, But before long Europe rebuilt the countryside and started to feed themselves, and they didn’t need our food or farm inputs anymore. After a while, Europe was producing more food than they needed, too, and they needed export markets, just like United States had. That’s where the concept of development comes in. After World War II, the United States produced much more than we could possibly consume, so we had to export it. Exporting all this food was a tremendous boon for the United States so we decided to open up markets in the Third World. First, we get in the door with food aid. By giving away surplus food, you destroy local food economies because local farmers can’t compete with free food. Once you’ve done that, you can replace their markets and production system with your own. We produce more tractors and fertilizer and other inputs than our farmers can use so we have to export that, too. The way you get people to buy your products is to extend loans to them. And this is development.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you arguing that this was the motivation for the Green Revolution in Asia and other regions of the world?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Beyond question. Rockefeller and Ford were the financial architects of the Green Revolution. Rockefeller needs to sell more petroleum products. People aren’t buying enough fertilizers and diesel. And Ford has more tractors than he can sell. They’ve got a crisis of accumulation so they have to open up new markets. They sent Carl Sauer, a very esteemed UC Berkeley anthropologist, down to Mexico to tell them how they can save Mexico from hunger and improve its production systems. But when he comes back, he says, “I would suggest that you leave them alone. You can cause more harm than good. They have a rich millennial culture of maize and beans, with thousands of varieties. The ejido systems were doing quite well at producing food. Mexico has some infrastructural problems, but basically is self-sufficient.” Of course, they fired him and hired Norman Borlaug, the crop scientist from Iowa. He went down there and said, “Oh heck, we can fix this.” And they launched their crop-breeding program for high-yielding varieties and dwarf wheat. The Green Revolution has a long history with many strange biological and ecological missteps. But what’s often forgotten in the relentless discourse of saving the world from hunger is that agribusiness was having a crisis of accumulation and had to open up new markets. To do that, they had to destroy the existing farming and market systems. That’s what the Green Revolution was really about. It stumbled a couple times and had to be rescued by the World Bank, but it’s been incredibly successful at opening up markets and it’s spread like a cancer over the entire world.

ACRES U.S.A. I was intrigued by the questions you raised about why the Gates Foundation and U.S. AID are focusing on Africa when there are so many more hungry people in Asia.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. They already had the Green Revolution in Asia. The markets are saturated there, and people are still going hungry. And now, they’re being poisoned. So who are you going to save from hunger? Well, let’s save people from hunger where we can open up new markets, not where markets are already established. They use all kinds of excuses and rationalizations, like now it’s Africa’s turn because it never got a chance for the Green Revolution. But that’s not true. Every year for 20 years, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) dedicated a third of its budget to trying to start the Green Revolution in Africa. It failed because Africa’s conditions are not amenable to Green Revolution techniques. Now they’re doing it again. It’s a revolution that just won’t go away.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it fair to make such a stark division between industrial and peasant agriculture?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. When I divide agriculture into two camps, it’s not exactly accurate. Industrial agriculture is monocultural and highly monolithic with just a few monopoly corporations controlling it. That’s not only a social problem, but also presents environmental problems of many dimensions. On the other hand, after 200 years of capitalist expansion, many different kinds of the small family farming and peasant agricultural systems still survive. For the most part, these farmers are not living well, but they’re still there. And unlike industrial agriculture, there’s a lot of diversity and variation.

ACRES U.S.A. The Environmental Working Group condemns federal farm subsidies for enriching industrial-scale farms (and wealthy absentee landowners) and driving overproduction. How does your view differ from EWG’s analysis?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. The Environmental Working Group has been very energetically articulating the dominant environmentalist discourse on farm subsidies. This is disturbing because I think they know it’s not true, but they’re so committed to that narrative that it’s impossible for them to change. You produce too much corn, the prices go down, and farmers go broke. You have to then prop them up with subsidies, but it’s never enough. The reason we have subsidies is because of overproduction. We don’t have overproduction because of subsidies. And subsidies don’t just go to big farms; they also go to small farms and other family farms. And if you take those subsidies away, those farmers will go broke and then agricultural land will concentrate even more in larger farms in fewer and fewer hands. We overproduce because we got rid of supply management and price floor. When prices are low, farmers produce more because they still have to cover their high fixed costs, and their margins are slim. They also have to lay out a lot of money at the beginning of the year for up-front costs. They’re betting that the crop and the price will be good. Very often, the price is not. And if it isn’t, they’ve got to pay those production debts the next year. So they produce more because they need to cover those costs. As more food is produced, the price goes down and farmers produce more, trying to arm their way out of debt. It’s a vicious cycle. And even when prices are good farmers will produce all they can because one year in five, they can actually make some money. You’ve got to cover the costs from those other years. But if agriculture didn’t overproduce, the grain companies, processors and livestock industries wouldn’t be able to buy their grain cheap. They get most of the food dollar that way, which is why they’re so powerful. Overproduction cheapens grain, even as it drives out farmers and consolidates farms into larger and larger hands and creates incredible environmental problems, such as the algal blooms and big die-offs in the growing dead zones due to over-application of nitrogen. Our taxes pay for subsidies so that they can buy their grain cheap. If we were to impose a parity price that gave family farmers a fair price for their product and allowed them to make a dignified living, they wouldn’t have to exploit their land this way.

ACRES U.S.A. Why don’t agribusiness and food corporations do the actual farming?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. They do everything but. On the upstream side they supply inputs and seed and tractors and fertilizer and irrigation. And on the downstream side they take the product and process and market it to us, the consumer. That’s where most of the money is made. Only something like 15 or 17 percent of the food dollar goes to the farmer. One of the reasons these corporations don’t farm is that farming presents certain obstacles to the way capital works. The farmer has to invest all this capital just to put a seed in the ground. During the six months that the crop sits there growing, that capital is tied up for the farmer. But capital is only capital — is only making money — when labor is being added to it. The farmer has to wait until harvest for the crop to be turned into a commodity that can be marketed. That also creates difficulties for market response because when the price is down, you want to be producing less. When the price goes up, you want to be producing more, as a good capitalist.

ACRES U.S.A. Just-in-time production doesn’t work in agriculture.

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. No. You can’t even slow down the assembly line in agriculture. It’s not like producing shoes so you’re stuck.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there other characteristics of agriculture that make the actual farming unattractive for capital?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Capital also doesn’t like slow growing cycles, the vagaries of the weather or biological risks. They want the farmer to take those risks. You see this really clearly in the way production of hogs and chickens is organized. In the contract poultry industry the farmers own the land (or the bank does). The industry loans them the money for the building and then rents them the birds and sells them the feed, the hormones, antibiotics and everything else. It takes absolutely none of the risk of the chickens dying; they are left to the farmer. There are different ways of then charging the farmer for the risks. You can sell them insurance. You can sell them mega data information systems. You can sell them farm futures and create derivatives from that to speculate with the price of food. All the speculation being done with commodities is one of the things that led to the last financial crash and last food price crisis.

ACRES U.S.A. What other opportunities have financial services found in the agricultural sector?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Financialization has invaded agriculture both in terms of the product and the futures markets and through the financialization of land. Most farmers don’t own their land outright; they have a mortgage on it. And at least in the Midwest, most farmers lease most of their land. With the land that they have a loan on, banks can sell their loans, repackage them with other loans and sell them again. These packages can get cut up and repackaged again in different ways and sold again. The process is infinite. So little particles of wealth from land mortgages are continually being traded at the speed of light on a global level. This can pump up or deflate the value of that land. Very often, the market price of land is worth much more than what you can produce on it, agriculturally. (Sometimes it’s the other way around.) That introduces tremendous uncertainty into farming systems. With financial speculation of land, the horizon that farmers are looking at is seconds, rather than several generations. That’s not a good way to think about stewardship of the land. Banks are also encouraging farmers to sell their mortgages in order to be able to buy the new technologies coming down the pike for the next agrarian transition, things like big data, CRISPR technologies and satellite information systems. You’ll need a lot more money to buy these things. Where’s the money going to come from? From your land.

ACRES U.S.A. The technology treadmill is one of the salient pressures in the lives of many farmers. Isn’t some of this technology desirable and beneficial for farmers?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Of course, farmers would like to have more environmental information. The problem is that the type of information that’s being collected, packaged, sold and transmitted from satellites down to tractors is what suits the industry and larger and larger farms. On a 100-acre farm you can walk around and stick your hand in the soil pretty much all over the place. You don’t need a satellite telling you, at the resolution of a centimeter, what your NPK is and how much fertilizer to release. It’s a different story on a 100,000-acre farm, where you need to mechanize the environmental knowledge that way. And there are also other ways of dealing with fertility besides buying chemical fertilizers and other ways of building in resilience besides buying disaster insurance. Smaller farmers can use agroecological practices to build in diversity and whole-farm resilience that giant farms cannot and don’t want to use because of the labor cost. Those giant farms’ concept of diversity is that this year we grow soy, and next year we grow corn.

ACRES U.S.A. You stress how the logic of our capitalist agricultural system drives farmers to degrade their soil, use up water resources and pollute the environment. If U.S. agriculture operated under a system of supply management with parity prices would farmers more readily adopt regenerative agricultural practices?

HOLT-GIMÉNEZ. Most farmers want to conserve their land. They don’t want to exploit and mine the soil, but they’re caught in a treadmill where if they don’t exploit the land, they go broke. And they very often end up going broke anyway. If we were to lay out sound agroecological parameters upon which to base a fair supply management system to avoid overproduction, I think you would find farmers converting to agroecology and organic. They could save money and conserve their soil.

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