A food regime analysis of the ‘world food crisis’


The food regime concept is a key to unlock not only structured moments and transitions in the history of capitalist food relations, but also the history of capitalism itself. It is not about food per se, but about the relations within which food is produced, and through which capitalism is produced and reproduced. It provides, then, a fruitful perspective on the so-called ‘world food crisis’ of 2007–2008. This paper argues that the crisis stems from a long-term cycle of fossil-fuel dependence of industrial capitalism, combined with the inflation-producing effects of current biofuel offsets and financial speculation, and the concentration and centralization of agribusiness capital stemming from the enabling conjunctural policies of the corporate food regime. Rising costs, related to peak oil and fuel crop substitutes, combine with monopoly pricing by agribusiness to inflate food prices, globally transmitted under the liberalized terms of finance and trade associated with neoliberal policies.

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  1. 1.

    Here I am raising the question about the scope and content of ‘food regimes,’ through and beyond the extant definition: ‘a rule-governed structure of production and consumption of food on a world scale’ (Friedmann 1993, pp. 30–31). But the rules tend to be implicit (Idem.), and as such express practices embedded in social and political relations, structures of accumulation (Arrighi 1994) and institutions—depending on the historical period under examination. Through a derived Braudelian perspective we can observe relatively ‘stable pattern(s) of production and power’ (Idem.) at different removes across time and space.

  2. 2.

    Braudel’s longue dureé was of course geographical time. I would only modify this to refer to the time–space of capitalism, in reorganizing the global social and ecological geographies.

  3. 3.

    Note that transmission of world prices of commodities to domestic prices is not complete, mainly because of US dollar depreciation against a range of currencies (FAO 2008, p. 10).

  4. 4.

    Rising hunger rates, across the global South, are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. As of mid-2009, roughly 14% of humanity (almost 1 billion) is considered hungry or malnourished, especially women. The majority of the hungry (65%) are in India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. While global food prices peaked in 2008, staple foods still cost more than 25% on average than in 2007.

  5. 5.

    The New York Times editorialized: ‘The rise in food prices is partly because of uncontrollable forces—including rising energy costs and the growth of the middle class in China and India. This has increased demand for animal protein, which requires large amounts of grain. But the rich world is exacerbating these effects by supporting the production of biofuels’ (2008 April 9, p. A26).

  6. 6.

    There is some debate about whether and to what extent speculation has affected food prices (see, eg, Wahl 2008; Ambler-Edwards et al 2009; IATP 2008; Cha and McCrummen 2008).

  7. 7.

    The Wall Street Journal reported that, in January, ‘China said it would require producers of pork, eggs and other farm goods to seek government permission before raising prices. …Thailand is taking similar steps on instant noodles and cooking oil, while Russia is trying to cap prices on certain types of bread, eggs and milk. Elsewhere, Mexico is trying to control the price of tortillas, and Venezuela is capping prices on staples including milk and sugar. Malaysia is setting up a National Price Council to monitor food costs and is planning stockpiles of major foods…’ (Barta 2008).

  8. 8.

    From my own point of view, it has traced the construction and reconstruction of world food orders, with distinct organizing principles (empire to state to market) across the periods of British, United States, and neo-liberal political-economic hegemony (McMichael 2005). Each period embodied institutional structures and rules governing the organization of food production, circulation and consumption relations, expressed in turn in a world price for food. And each period has included contradictory relations whose maturity has signaled the demise of that food regime, and an unstable process of transition. A widely-considered question is: at what point are we today?

  9. 9.

    ‘Agrofuels’ alerts us to the agricultural dimensions of what are conventionally termed ‘biofuels’, as if such fuels represented life, as opposed to competition for scarce crop land, de-forestation, and so on. Here I am distinguishing (land-displacing and forest-destroying) commercial agrofuels from local biofuels, long an integral part of agro-ecology and peasant farming, and still an important ingredient of food and energy sovereignty.

  10. 10.

    For an extended discussion of the market episteme, see Da Costa and McMichael (2007).

  11. 11.

    ‘Metabolic rift’ is Marx’s term for the separation of social production from its natural biological base, reducing nutrient recycling in and through soil and water, and extends to reconstituting energy sources as commodified inputs (cf. Foster 2000).

  12. 12.

    See Fangione et al. (2008).

  13. 13.

    It is generally acknowledged that over the past century aggregate global grain yields have kept pace with, and even exceeded, population growth (cf. Evans 2009, p. 20; Kaufman 2009, p. 51).

  14. 14.

    This narrative is not simply about peasants having no place in a modern world, whether because they are inefficient, or cultural throwbacks, but also about socially-constructed hunger under neo-liberalism, represented as ‘population overshoot.’

  15. 15.

    Araghi (1995) has documented cycles of peasantization and de-peasantization for the post-WWII era. Conservative estimates from the FAO are that 20–30 million peasants have been displaced during the WTO regime, and in Mexico, upwards of 2 million campesinos have left the land under the destabilizing effects of NAFTA (Madeley 2000, p. 75; Carlsen 2003).

  16. 16.

    Araghi, skeptical of the notion of a food-aid regime, claims this was an ‘aid-based food order of an exceptionally reformist period of world capitalism’ (Araghi 2003, p. 51). I argue that in this, as in other regime moments, a particular geo-political configuration organized a set of production and circulation relations of food that maintained capitalism’s empire (McMichael 2005). That is, the materiality and/or expression of value relations are subject to specific socio-political configurations of the wage relation in the politics of the state system.

  17. 17.

    Colloquially it has been called the ‘neoliberal food regime’ (Pechlaner and Otero 2008), but in fact this designation obscures the subsidized agricultural surpluses of the North versus the liberalized and unprotected agricultures of the South.

  18. 18.

    Between 1983 and 2003, the FAO recorded 408 import surges in 102 countries for rice alone, in Africa, and Central America in particular: ‘it was due in part to these floods of imports that the high prices of today had such a fatal effect in some countries’ (Paasch 2008, p. 5).

  19. 19.

    Food riots certainly address public forms of food provisioning, but not wage setting.

  20. 20.

    This is a moment of crisis in this regime—in Friedmann’s language, implicit subsidy practices (rendered ‘implicit’ by the WTO box system), are likely to become more explicit as the global South continues to paralyze the Doha Development Round (by refusing to negotiate so long as these subsidies are in place), and as taxpayers question corporate subsidies for an increasingly destructive form of industrial agriculture/agrofuels.

  21. 21.

    Cf. Amin (2004).

  22. 22.

    The EU’s CAP reform fully embraced the US model of decoupling payments to producers, as it phased out export subsidies. As Aileen Kwa noted, ‘Internal prices are now much lower, especially on grains….when these grains are exported, decoupled payments are effectively the new generation of export subsidies’ (2007).

  23. 23.

    Under NAFTA, the Mexican government followed the U.S./EU policy of privileging the price-form by eliminating the floor price for, and obligation to purchase (under CONASUPO), staple crops such as maize and beans, replacing these guarantees with direct-assistance to farmers under PROCAMPO. Removal of price supports exposed campesinos to commodity markets controlled by the transnational grain traders, reducing real market maize prices to campesinos by 46.2% between 1993 and 1999 as U.S. corn shipments to Mexico grew 15-fold (Public Citizen 2001, pp. 17, 24).

  24. 24.

    Note that Malawi subsequently reversed this situation by reinstating fertilizer subsidies, against the advice of Britain and the U.S., ‘contributing to a broader reappraisal of the crucial role of agriculture in alleviating poverty in Africa and the pivotal importance of public investments in the basics of a farm economy’ (Dugger 2007).

  25. 25.

    Nadal remarks: ‘Today conglomerates like ADM, Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Syngenta have so much control over markets and infrastructure that they can manage stocks, invest ingrain futures and manipulate prices on a world scale so that they can obtain huge profits. But neither the WTO nor the FAO are interested in tackling this problem’ (2008).

  26. 26.

    U.S. government subsidies for agrofuels will approach $100 billion for 2006–2012 (Leahy 2008).

  27. 27.

    Note that plans to produce jatropha in Africa via small scale producers are up against international trading standards, which privilege corporate actors, managing global commodities (patented varieties). Thus, a Southern African Development Community (SADC) biofuel feasibility study claimed small-scale projects will negatively affect standards (GRAIN 2007, 42).

  28. 28.

    Kneen (2002).

  29. 29.

    Some (Pritchard, this Issue) would argue that the ‘corporate food regime’ represents a hybrid formation, an atavism of the food aid regime insofar as the Agreement on Agriculture institutionalized dumping, concealing its origins in colored boxes, and, with the collapse of Doha, moving towards a fully neo-liberal regime in which agricultural trade is fully liberalized. The ‘food crisis’ appears to have interrupted this process given the unilateral moves to regulate trade and outsource food production by states no longer confident that ‘food security’ via the world market is viable.

  30. 30.

    See, for example, the UK’s Gallagher Report (2008).


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Thanks are due to Don Nonini for his comments on an earlier version of this paper, and to Hugh Campbell for his comments on the next version. Thanks are also due to three anonymous reviewers of a subsequent version, and to Harriet Friedmann.

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McMichael, P. A food regime analysis of the ‘world food crisis’. Agric Hum Values 26, 281 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-009-9218-5

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  • Food regime
  • Value relations
  • Social reproduction
  • Agrofuels
  • De-peasantization