Magdoff, Fred, Bellamy, John, Foster, and Buttel, Frederick H., eds. Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
Reviewed by Erin Royster
From biotechnology to farm workers movements to the origins of capitalism, Hungry for Profit covers a variety of topics relevant to today’s food and agriculture crisis. What makes this collection of thirteen essays different from other such collections is that each issue is examined within a radical, socialist critique of capitalism.
“The capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture,” wrote Marx. The editors use this quotation to describe the moral of the book.
One of the most appealing aspects of Hungry for Profit is that most of the authors stay away from tedious economic data and policy analysis, instead focusing on the general trends and social consequences of capitalism to describe the current state of agriculture.
At the same time, author Philip McMichael contributes a thorough, fact-based analysis of global food politics, explaining how “Global regulatory agencies like the WTO threaten to entrench (Northern) agribusiness power at the expense of farmers across the world, intensifying the de-stabilization of rural communities and further compromise local food security.”
More impressive still are authors, Middendorf, Skladany, Ransom, and Busch who manage to escape the popular wholesale rejection of technology in their anaylses of agricultural biotechnologies. Instead, they state, “the new biotechnologies are potentially beneficial to society, but not unless the institutional basis for technology choice are democratized.”
On a more historical bent, editors Foster and Magdoff discuss Marx’s analysis of the work of early soil scientists Justus von Liebig and James Anderson that led him to conclude that the “conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property [is] the inalieable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.”
Ellen Meiksins Wood contributes another important history lesson in “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism.”Arguing that agrarian capitalism emerged before industrial capitalism, she states “The emergence of the market as a determinant of social reproduction presupposed its penetration into the production of life’s most basic necessity, food.”
While Hungry for Profit is surely a remedy to the dearth of current radical literature focusing on the state of agriculture today, its purely socialist critique fails to address all of the necessary components of “a more environmentally sound and humane food system,” which the authors advocate. Given the editors do recognize that “the job of creating a just and environmentally sound food system cannot be separated from the creation of a just and environmentally sound society,” they fall just short of presenting a truly radical and imaginative picture of what that food system and society would look like. Further, they fail completely to present a vision of the political process by which we might all agree (or not) on such a food system, without which, the chances of getting there are slim.