Blog – Agro-food regimes in contemporary capitalism and food sovereignty as an alternative

To understand contemporary transformations in African agriculture, one needs to locate these both historically and globally[1]. Processes of commodification of land and commercialisation of agriculture are occurring in dramatic ways in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but have historical precursors and are embedded in global processes. Agro-food regimes are a concept used to describe and analyse periods of stability and transition in how the production and consumption of food have been governed on a world scale. In each agro-food regime, agriculture and food have shaped accumulation in the world capitalist economy in different ways. Food regime analysis historicises the world food system, drawing on regulation theory and world systems theory to argue that it has emerged not via a linear progression of agricultural modernisation but rather in distinct periods, each of which exhibits contradictions that have produced crises, transformations and transitions. Food regime analysis distinguishes three regimes in the history of world capitalism: a first regime from the 1870s to 1930s built on European colonialism; a second post-war US-dominated food regime from the 1950s to 1970s; and a third food regime from the 1980s in the period of neoliberal globalisation. 

The current corporate-dominated agro-food system has seem the expansion of industrial agriculture based on capital-intensive and mechanised mono-cropping in the grain sector, and the emergence of a globalised ‘grain-livestock complex’. Converging crises in global capitalism – in the global food system, in fuel markets, and in the global financial system –have shaped the ongoing rise of transnational corporations. A shrinking number of such corporations now control the bulk of input industries, in seed, fertilisers and agrochemicals, a situation reinforced in Africa via multilateral development interventions such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Deregulation in global financial markets has unleashed the recent wave of financialisation of the world food system with the emergence of agriculture-based derivatives as a new financial asset class.

Food sovereignty (FS) as a concept and a political movement critiques the dominant corporate agrofood system and to posits an alternative to it. FS adherents propose a vision of family farmers transforming the food system from the bottom up, as an alternative to global capitalism. In contrast to the conventional food security discourse, food sovereignty provides an explicitly political framing, centres the redistribution of land and resource rights, farmers’ control over seed and other genetic resources, land use alternatives including agroecology, and the dismantling of corporate control over global markets. In response to the growing global land grab, the idea of land sovereignty has emerged to frame the assertion of the right of working peoples to have effective access to, use of, and control over land and the benefits of its use and occupation, where land is understood as resource, territory, and landscape.

[1] This blog is an introduction to the sessions on the “Agro-food regimes in contemporary capitalism and food sovereignty as an alternative” delivered by Prof Ruth Hall during the theory workshop on the “Character of the Agrarian Question in Contemporary Africa” Jointly organised by YARA and the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape on 13-17 May, 2019 for young African academics.