Implicating Capital: Examining the Dimensions of Food Security Discourse

Introduction: Balancing the Scales

In order to conduct research into food security, researchers need to start with a broad conceptual framework for what constitutes that security and what characterizes its absence. Not only that, but researchers must also decide the scale at which to locate their investigations: food security can be examined from a global perspective, with a national focus, at the community level, or through the lens of individuals within households. While there are probably well over 200 competing definitions for food security, only two organizations have, since the late 1970s, defined the boundaries of that debate while simultaneously providing major funding for worldwide food security research, policy, and practice: the World Bank (WB) and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

These international and multilateral bodies, along with bit players like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO), and various other multinational agricultural interests, have formed the collective force behind which governmental and non-governmental food security policies have been historically transformed.

Through annual reports, research journals, conferences, and funding decisions, these institutions have framed food security discourse at various scales, starting in the 1970s at the global/national macroeconomic level, and subsequently transitioning to a position that today views food security as best examined at the local, microeconomic level. The question of whether or not these changes have been the result of a natural progression defined primarily by research/policy successes and failures, or whether they are in fact simply theoretical readjustments necessary to serve prevailing neoliberal economic practice, will be the focus of this paper.

The Background: Structural Adjustments

From an early focus on national food production, grain stockpiling, agricultural self-sufficiency, and other macroeconomic solutions to hunger, to one based on individual – usually female – microeconomic interventions, food security research has gone through a series of paradigmatic shifts of scale and ideology. A very strong argument can be made that these changes have coincided directly with the rise of neoliberal economic policies. “This discursive shift in policy […] devolves responsibility for addressing hunger increasingly upon rural women. This is in line with the construction of neoliberal subjects as entrepreneurial individuals who are responsible for accessing food from the world market as it is shaped by the international modalities of international institutions, transnational agribusiness, and the consumption demands of the wealthy and middle classes primarily located in Western countries.”

Capital’s neoliberal logic is one which globally espouses the value of commodification, government deregulation, and massive cutbacks in social spending. It is one that has driven the processes of globalization in favour of corporate and monetary interests at the expense of the global south, the environment, and democratic decision-making. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that as neoliberal theory and the national ‘structural adjustment policies’ informed by it have begun to dominate the global political and socio-economic landscape, so too has food security, as defined by the FAO and the WB, been manipulated to conform to this prevailing logic.

Driven at its core by the collection of supranational institutions mentioned above, various 'free' trade agreements, and the ideological tome known as the 'Washington Consensus', neoliberalism demands the subordination of state policy and public spending to the undemocratic dictates of international financial currents and treaty obligations. When developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries reach a crisis point – where international loans can no longer be repaid – the International Monetary Fund ‘steps in’ to ‘save’ the country from bankruptcy. In return, countries seeking IMF help must agree to agency-imposed structural adjustment programs designed to stabilise and restart their economies. The basic neoliberal tenets of these programs is the unlocking of countries' labour markets and natural resources by global corporations for exploitation; the minimisation of the size and role government; and the increased reliance on market forces to distribute resources and services. Specific ‘structural adjustments’ mandated by the IMF before a loan is granted include: privatising government-owned enterprises and government-provided services; massively reducing government spending; orienting economies to promote imports in agriculture; lifting restrictions to trade, including barriers based on social and ecological concerns; implementing higher interest rates; eliminating subsidies on consumer items such as food, fuel, and medicines; and enforcing tax increases on the middle and lower classes.

Populations in many countries have protested strongly against IMF policies, most recently in violent clashes in the streets of Athens. Nations throughout the world have witnessed ‘IMF riots’ following the removal of price subsidies for goods such as bread and gasoline. “The globalisation of markets erases borders for speculation and crime and multiplies them for human beings. Countries are obliged to erase their national borders for money to circulate, but to multiply their internal borders [in order to maintain security and social order].” In nations currently experiencing IMF ‘structural adjustment’, poverty has tripled on average, health care and educational systems have collapsed, and income inequality has become increasingly polarised.

The IMF and WB themselves do not deny the disturbing effects that this aspect of globalisation can have on Third World societies. Instead, neoliberal officials claim that ‘at some point’ in the future these policies will lead to a prosperous ‘rebound’ that will benefit the local and global economy. This almost shamanistic prediction is based on the assumption that once an economy has gone through the difficult ‘transitional stages’ necessary to strengthen its credit and capital reserves, the liberalized market will facilitate and encourage capital to ‘trickle down’ to less affluent segments of the population.

It is increasingly assumed by the WB, FAO, and other food security policy-makers that this very same trickle down process, and the neoliberal development theories linked to it, will be the key to ensuring individual access to food going forward. “Food security is understood as no different from mainstream development issues and thus is constructed as requiring the same remedies of structural adjustment, trade liberalization, and integration into global capital markets as a way to meet national food needs. Food is deeply commodified in this definition.”

The commodification and enclosure of the foodscape by capital poses serious challenges for ensuring long-term, sustainable food security for a majority of the global population.

The Neoliberal Food Security Connection

As governments and their social safety nets are dismantled and individuals are increasingly forced to fend for themselves as isolated actors in the global market, so too has the scale and definition of food security research witnessed a relocation away from strong national food policies to a focus on improving market access for individuals.

Battles between food-first approaches to food security research and competing systems such as the livelihoods framework illustrate, though imperfectly, the conflict between making food security an individual matter of market access and examining the larger institutional environments and economic systems in which hunger continually occurs. Though a livelihoods framework can illuminate micro and regional systemic and institutional barriers to access, etc., it tends to still leave larger, macro barriers unexamined and thus does not often implicate neoliberal economic theory. “Taken together, the political economy of hunger, the changing discourse of food security, and the construction of food security at the scale of “the poor” focuses attention upon individuals’ lack of purchasing power or access rather than addressing the capitalist political economy and the unequal relations of production and consumption in the workings of the global food system.”

This picture of food security research as being driven by a clear ideological agenda is often obscured by the fact that the latest trends in examining local food security – with a focus on individual poverty alleviation – is often accompanied by research that is increasingly conducted in participatory and inclusive ways. Ostensibly, examples such as providing ownership over the research agenda to primary stakeholders and including women in the discussion are actually the antithesis of global market logic. However, because these research methods tend to be conducted within a larger policy and funding framework which conceptualizes hunger as being intimately tied to economic development, ‘good governance’, and is tied to international development theory and practice, a strong distinction needs to be drawn between what are generally democratic and progressive research methods and mainstream outcomes which judge successes in improving individual, household, and community food security in terms of how much projects and policies successfully integrate stakeholders into the market. “This paradox does not mean that a focus upon the poorest and most vulnerable is not effective, but indicates that as international food security policy places an increasing emphasis upon the individuated acquisition of food in the global market as the desired response to hunger, socioeconomic inequality within and among nations is increasing.”


There should not be much dispute that the global food distribution and production system needs to be relocated – away from profit, away from commodification, away from environmental degradation and heavy industrial, chemical and financial inputs. Reforming the food system in this way would go a long way towards improving rural and urban livelihoods by ensuring better forms of investment (i.e., in human capital, not financial capital), more democratic decision-making (i.e., local, grassroots, community-based consensus decision-making instead of the type of decision-making that takes place thousands of miles away in corporate board rooms), and  by encouraging and rewarding alternative agricultural practices which have already been proven to be both environmentally responsible and more productive.

There is also no doubt that food security research needs to be conducted in an open, democratic, and radical manner in order to effectively challenge the assumptions of free market orthodoxy. It needs to incorporate issues of class, gender, and race. Research should be conducted with a local focus on the poor and most marginalized members of society. Shared ownership over the research agenda, a livelihoods framework, and an equally inclusive method of evaluation are all essential. Research with a strong focus on local sustainability can help counteract the growth-based logic of neoliberal ‘solutions’ to hunger. However, all of these preconditions for truly radical food security research can still be made to work in favour of capital if they are not also firmly supported by an equally radical critique of macroeconomic realities and systems. After all, hunger exists within developed economies governed by neoliberal technocrats just as surely as it exists in Sub-Saharan Africa.

That hunger is common to all nations is a reality that global elites and their champions of neoliberal economic theory would rather be ignored.

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