Food security and war economy

14 March, 2022

The sunflower oil crisis has raised the alarm about European food security and opened the door to an agri-food war economy.
The sunflower oil crisis has raised the alarm about European food security and opened the door to an agri-food war economy.

“Food security” is moving to the forefront of the priorities of European states. The agrarian war economy that shaped the EU in the Cold War is back on the immediate agenda. Far beyond sunflower and grains, globally there will come a famine and a new international division of agri-food production; and in Europe a regression of social relations in the countryside and a new push towards the most harmful elements of the agri-food industry. Agri-food production is on the way to becoming war production.

Table of Contents

The impact of war on food in semicolonial countries

Ukraine and Russia together produce 1/3 of the world’s wheat and barley, 52% of its corn and more than 50% of its oil and sunflower seeds. As the days go by and exports are interrupted, the food crisis is spreading: today it affects over 20 countries although supplies have not yet been completely cut off. A great famine is underway.

Semi-colonial countries exporting basic foodstuffs are quickly reorganizing their tax and price structures. Morocco, whose tomatoes for the European market had been rising sharply in price, has limited exports to already active contracts. Argentina has done the same with soybean exports in anticipation of increasing the export taxes which sustain a state in permanent technical bankruptcy.

However, the impact for these countries goes beyond the respite that a rise in international prices may give them. Fertilizers will be in short supply for all. And now, without Russia as a secure supplier, unthinkable alliances are appearing – Brazil is turning to Morocco, for instance – which foreshadow an acceleration of the reorganization of the international division of labor in agri-food production.

Read also: The economic consequences of the war will not be temporary, 8/3/2022

The impact of war on food in the EU and “food sovereignty”

Waiting in the food bank cue. Orcasitas, Madrid.
Waiting in the food bank cue. Orcasitas, Madrid.

Rising prices of basic foodstuffs are not a distant future. One need only go to the market to understand how the purchasing power of wages is being reduced day by day. Fertilizer shortages are directly affecting fruit and vegetable crops. Rising grain prices directly impact a wide range of products from bread to meat and milk. Restrictions on sunflower oil drive up the price of olive oil and all processed foods.

At the industrial level, the direct impact of the war is not minor either. In Spain, sunflower oil, essential for all types of fried foods and industrial preparations, will run out in less than four weeks. The more immediate alternatives, such as corn, are also seriously restricted by the war. So the industry is pressuring the government to get Brussels to open the borders temporarily to Argentina or the USA.

Seen from the states’ point of view, the breakdown takes on an immediate dimension – through inflation and, hand in hand with it, a new wave of food poverty – but also a strategic-military one. In Macron’s own words:

We need to re-evaluate our production strategies to defend our food and protein sovereignty.

Macron, according to AFP and various media.

Not only France. The reactionary dream of food autarky is once again populating entire newspapers one country after another, from Ireland to Spain. At the forefront of these expectations, the agrarian petty bourgeoisie, suffocated by the conditions of accumulation, which sees in the implied food war economy a lifeline.

Read also: What Covid reveals about agriculture and food, 31/3/2020

The CAP from the cold war to the Green Deal

From farm to fork
From farm to fork

In 1958, the approval of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was the first great success of the European bureaucracy. Until the 2021 “catch-up funds” it was by far the largest item in the budget of the European institutions.

The main goal of the CAP – strategic self-sufficiency – responded to the main scenario of the Cold War: a land invasion from Russia. It was designed to establish a food system that would make it possible to sustain war production and massive armies in the event of a conflict with the Russian bloc.

To this end, it created a common market for food goods where there was practically all but no trade before, ensured single standardized prices for practically all products, subsidized inefficient basic productions and made it impossible to import from other regions whatever was already being produced in European territories.

From the point of view of class relations, it was a real boon for small landowners. While their equivalents in Spain or Greece were swept away in the post-war period, concentrating or abandoning their properties, in what was then called the “European Economic Community”, agricultural incomes began to rise steadily.

Multiple instruments were created for this purpose in the 1960s. The six founding states of the European Economic Community (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) eliminated internal tariffs on the most important agricultural products. They imposed common tariffs on imports while exports to the rest of the world were subsidized, which kept them competitive.

The founding states also introduced a system of “guaranteed prices,” which meant that farmers were assured of a reliable income in any situation and would not be exposed to the sharp price fluctuations of the global market. The goal: an assured income for farmers and their families.

With this, Europe succeeded in securing food supplies for its citizens in the 1970s. Prices stabilized and agricultural production and farmers’ incomes increased significantly. But this success was also accompanied by unexpected side effects: crises of overproduction, which fueled terms such as “milk lakes” and “butter mountains”, as well as the increasing share of agriculture in the EU budget.

German EU Presidency, 2020

To sum up: the CAP was the most developed and most sophisticated bloc mechanism of the Cold War. An expression of the war economy carried across national borders, it consolidated – at the cost of relatively high agricultural taxes and prices – a declining class of small agricultural landowners.

But when the Cold War ended and with it the military goal of “food sovereignty”, it lost importance in the perspective of the states and the “reforms” began.

Since the 1990s, they focused on saving farm incomes and dismantling loss-making production with as little class conflict as possible. Direct subsidies were incorporated and increased for landowners who maintained their residence in exchange for eliminating production subsidies; and new alternative economic sectors were created from Brussels, ranging from organic agriculture and livestock farming to rural tourism.

The idea, with the Green Deal, was to maintain and develop that line in a new CAP, easing in the long term direct state expenditure, concentrating ownership and generally promoting the scales of capital that would make profitable the new type of “low-emission” farms promoted by the Commission.

On the class level this meant: tightening the already tight noose around the neck of the agrarian petty bourgeoisie, increasing the percentage of wages going to food among workers – especially in meat and dairy – and making profitable the “green capitals” that were taking an interest in the new “bio” and “ecological” production at scale.

The new legislation, approved last December, was due to come into force in 2023.

Read also: Meat and dairy, the new luxury products of the Green Deal, 21/5/2021 

The new CAP, food sovereignty and the war economy.

Demonstration of farmers in Don Benito in 2019 which opened the wave of mobilizations of the agrarian petty bourgeoisie in Spain.
Demonstration of farmers in Don Benito in 2019 which opened the wave of mobilizations of the agrarian petty bourgeoisie in Spain.

Less than a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the agri-food branch of the Commission was a hotbed. No one intended to reopen the policy debate by calling into question the balances between states, which are in turn balances between classes within each state.

But strategic-military considerations prevailed: “We must keep a close eye on the goals of these policies in the context of food security,” said Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. Julien Denormandie, French agriculture minister and therefore current president of the Council of EU agriculture ministers, assured journalists that “the Commission will evaluate these strategies to see if they need to be adjusted in the light of the political vision of European agri-food sovereignty”.

“Food security” was already on the table. The first blow of the pandemic had mobilized the agrarian petty bourgeoisie and it had found an echo in part of the state bureaucracy. So the Commission had already incorporated an “observatory on food security” and a contingency mechanism “for all types of crises” into its agrifood strategy as a way of overcoming reluctance.

But what is coming can hardly be treated as a temporary crisis. The agri-food sector will not take the shape required by the leap forward of European militarism with contingency mechanisms.

The most aggressive contradiction of the Green Deal

We come to the alimentary materialization of one of the most important contradictions of the Green Deal. The deal is nothing but a transfer of income from labor to capital conveyed through a technological change. But unlike other technological changes, the shift to the new capital-intensive green technologies does not increase but rather decreases the physical productivity of labor.

The essence of the Green Deal: increasing productivity in terms of profit while decreasing productivity in physical terms is a contradiction which necessarily leads to mass poverty.

In global terms this means that in order to increase productivity in terms of capital profit, the income suction from workers cannot be contained in relative terms. That is to say, it is not only that the workers will lose “percentage of the pie” but that they will lose the pie in absolute terms. What is more, they will lose more than they would if that same transfer were articulated as a direct levy, as a direct tax against their income going directly to capital.

But what is a direct and brutal attack for the workers –which we already saw in electricity and energy before the war broke out- also generates distortions in industries and capacities of national capitals and states as a whole.

This is why now sections of the bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie pushing for booming militarism are arguing that the terms of the new green CAP “could hamper agricultural productivity and thus Europe’s food security.” The first to break the deck and propose a halt to the “Farm to fork” and “Biodiversity” strategies have been the European People’s Party in the Parliament, Croatia in the Council and the confederation of smallholders in the corridors. Both Socialdemocrats and Liberals are waiting but, as Macron’s declarations point out, they are asking for assurances.

The European Commission flatly refused to do so… but the alternatives also undermine their approaches and point to where the outlets will be. Several countries, including Spain, asked for derogations in the EU rules on maximum residue limits (MRLs) for pesticides, as well as a relaxation of the rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in order to be able to source from the US; and Hungary and Bulgaria banned the export of their cereal production to other European countries.

In the medium term, we can say bye-bye to the drastic reduction of pesticides or the expected ban on glyphosate at the end of this year. Either the EU relaxes rules to allow an increase in physical productivity by, among other things, increasing health risks, or the European agricultural market will be at clear risk of fragmentation, with states intervening and stopping exports to ensure supplies to local industries. And that is not good either for the capital invested or for a national capital that already thinks in war-strategic terms.

Food as war production and the change of relations between classes in the countryside

We are seeing the contradictions of the Green Deal rising to a higher level. The original approach was intended to restore (capital) growth at the expense of the increasingly challenged ability of the majority of the population to consume basic goods.

But now, the same impulse, the same urges of capital that led to the Green Deal point towards militarism. And militarism in the end requires the subordination of production to the preparation of war, that is to say, the passage of essential sectors to a regime increasingly similar to that of the war economy. And that in food means a treatment similar to that of arms production: diversion of resources through taxes, “planned” production according to (military) interests and profitability guaranteed by the state.

This perspective means, also, a change of social relations in the countryside in favor of an agrarian petty bourgeoisie which, not surprisingly, is excited and identifies its symbols with those of its Ukrainian peers who open for them the doors to a new prosperity.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, as an increasingly subdued labor power, lie the workers, both in the countryside – under a new labor framework of European minimums already outlined in “Farm to fork” – and in the city, paying a growing percentage of their income in basic food.

A policy of organization and a class strategy for the workers as a whole in the countryside is more urgent than ever.

(To be continued)

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