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Régulations agricoles et formes de mobilisation sociale

“Political economists have been blinded by the apparent marginalization of land and food”

An interview with Harriet Friedmann
Harriet Friedmann, Benoît Daviron et Gilles Allaire

Notes de la rédaction

Harriet Friedman is a food system analyst, writer and lecturer. This was an undefined topic in the English literature in the 1970s, when she first studied the world wheat market for her doctorate; her goal was to understand world economy inductively and holistically. Unaware of early “commodity studies,” such as the work of Harold Innis she intuited that the emergence of a price-governed world wheat market in the late 19th century would be an intrinsically important case study, from settler farms to settler state formation, railways, finance, migration, logistics and inter-state relations. Her PhD (Harvard, 1977) turned out to cross two unrelated fields of Rural Sociology and World-Systems, and led to influential articles on farming systems and a long, fruitful collaboration with Philip McMichael on food regimes. In the early 1980s, Friedmann encountered French literature on l’agro-alimentaire, régulation, and le petit producteur marchand. Since the 1990s, she also worked with the pioneering Toronto Food Policy Council and its eventual embrace of city-regional food systems. She followed the food-farming thread from Sociology into the Centre for International Studies and the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. She is Professor Emeritus of Sociology based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, Visiting Professor of Political Economy at Carleton University (Ottawa), and formerly Visiting Professor of Agrarian, Food, and Environmental Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague (Erasmus University).


- World Market, State, and Family Farm: Social Bases of Household Production in the era of Wage Labour, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 20, No 4, October 1978, p. 545‑86.

- Agriculture and the State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agriculture (with Philip McMichael), Sociologia Ruralis XIX (2), 1989: 93‑117. (with Philip McMichael).

- International Political Economy of Food: A Global Crisis, New Left Review no 197, Jan./Feb. 1993, p. 29-57. (I think this one may use regulation theory more than the others.)

- From Colonialism to Green Capitalism: Social Movements and the Emergence of Food Regimes,” in Frederick h. Buttel and Philip d. McMichael, eds. New Directions in the Sociology of International Development. Research in Rural Sociology and Development, 11. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005, p. 227-64.

- Food Regime Analysis and Agrarian Questions: Widening the Conversation (comment on Bernstein-McMichael exchange), forthcoming, May 2016, Journal of Peasant Studies

Texte intégral

11. Could you present the core propositions of your work? Its evolution both thematically and theoretically?

2Food regime analysis began with the ambition to understand systems of inter-state power in relation to changes in class formation and international division of labor. It also aspires to understand capital in its specific configurations in relation to land and bodies, that is, to nature, including human nature. Land and food are always foundations of human society; Marx defined a mode of production as a relation of humans to nature, which in turn defines human social relations, including social classes. Property is first of all land, and rule is first of all of territory. Food is means of consumption, but it is larger than these categories of capitalist economy. It is basic to reproduction of human bodies, minds and spirits across modes of production, and to human shaping of land and landscapes.

3This is the basic starting point for food regime analysis. How is land used, where, by whom, in what relations? Who eats what, how do they get it, or fail to get it? What relations of power and accumulation shape and are shaped by the answers to these questions?

4Periodization of food regimes explicitly focuses on centrality of rule-making by a hegemonic state, and the specificity of the rules in each period. The rules become general, and work out in ways specific to the location of each state (and the legacy it carries from past regimes) within the system of states. Drawing especially on Arrighi, and the specifics of the monetary rules shaping hegemonic regimes, food regime history therefore focused on Britain as central to regulation of a specific type of state system --- a set of rival imperial blocs --- and how the mode of consumption was organized in Britain through creation of an imperially organized wheat complex in the late 19th century. The history then focused on the US as central to regulation of a different type of state system --- one that appeared to be national and emerged in tandem with the disintegration of imperial blocs. The regime of intensive accumulation was most apparent in the US and through specific mechanisms, which I called a “tension between replication and integration,” and which worked through Marshall Aid, also came to characterize Europe.

5We could only have written this at the moment when the crisis of national agricultural and food regulation was beginning in the 1980s, as the balance of forces among First, Second and Third Worlds began to give way to a new line demarcating North and South. At the time, the dynamism continued from the 1970s, with Détente between Cold War blocs, and the rising strength of peace and labour movements. These, along with initiatives from UNCTAD and the Brandt Commission, still made the “globalization” outcome seem less likely than what came to be called “neoliberalism,” a shift (even a coup) managed through the experimental and eventually successful transformation of the IMF into an enforcer of Third World debt. This made apparent the hidden international rules which had previously operated implicitly in keeping the world awash in surplus wheat and keeping prices down. As I wrote later, it allowed the rules to be named and critically reframed. “Aid” of the type of concessional sales in inconvertible currencies came to be called “dumping,” and what remained of “aid” was changed, e.g., as the World Food Programme established during the food crisis of the early 1970s, received contributions in money and multilaterally, and bought grain from local farmers in recipient countries rather than undermine their markets and farmers with foreign supply.

62. What was the influence of the Regulation Theory (RT) upon the “food regime” concept?

  • 1 Arrighi G. (1994), The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, in Verso (...)

7Food regimes share an idea of distinct phases of accumulation with a number of approaches, including Regulation Theory. Kondratiev cycles, for example, were an important starting point for world systems theory as first articulated by Wallerstein. McMichael and I were more interested in Giovani Arrighi’s approach of Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, which he was developing for several years before publishing The Long 20th century1. Briefly, Regulation Theory, which came to us mainly via Aglietta, gave us a language of “extensive” and “intensive” accumulation to understand the shift from cheapening the wage bill of industrial workers in the 19th century Britain-centred regime (one role of wheat imports within the British Empire), to incorporating the mode of consumption into accumulation itself in the last part of the 20th century, when the US was central to regime with different monetary rules and inter-state relations, and with deepening of industrial production in agriculture and ever more complex manufacturing and logistical aspects of the food system.

8From the RT perspective, we might say that imperial blocs coincided with extensive accumulation and that the system of national states emerging from the disintegration of empires coincided with intensive accumulation, and both regimes distributed the dominant mode differently across places.

  • 2 J.P. Bertrand, C. Laurent, V. Leclercq (1983), Le monde du soja, La Découverte/Maspéro, coll. "repè (...)

9Intensive accumulation can be seen in the postwar shift in the mode of consumption towards livestock products and processed foods; these changes in diets were implicated in the two dynamic “commodity complexes” of the food regime after WWII: the soya-maize-livestock complex (which was influenced by the beautiful book by J.P. Bertrand, C. Laurent, V. Leclercq, Le monde du soja)2, and the “durable foods complex.” These shifts occurred because of prices set by US domestic commodity programs, especially for maize, which had ripple effects through other food commodities and eventually energy and other industrial commodities. The effects of maize and soya in the rise of a large animal feed industry spread to other countries, starting with Europe under Marshall Aid, because of specific mechanisms (“aid”) made possible for the first time in history by the Bretton Woods monetary system. This was a more or less invisible and unintended effect of the specific conditions surrounding the postwar arrangements of the workings of US hegemony. Even if RT is accurate in depicting a shift from extensive to intensive accumulation, it has to work through specific institutions; these, in turn, operate within a system of power relations negotiated and instituted among unequal states. Again, Le Monde du Soja was important in breaking out of the national frame of the French literature as I knew it, though it was partial in depicting the emerging and changing geographical and commodity complex involved in livestock.

103. What are the RT limitations in this respect?

11The limit of RT for our purposes was its focus on national economy and therefore implicitly on regulation by the national state. We needed to move beyond the “international” to the “transnational” --- not vaguely “global” but specifically identifying geographical flows. The national states of RT, moreover, mainly First World (or North --- such changes in language and groupings are part of world political history). We rarely used the terms “Fordist” and Post-Fordist” --- since the terms seemed to apply only to (some) national economies whereas we were seeking to characterize historically specific dynamics of the global system. Food regime analysis seeks to analyze an evolving structured totality; the evolution proceeds through threshold shifts from stability to crisis and to a new stable regime; possibilities for shifts are finite but multiple; and much depends on agency, contingency, unanticipated outcomes, and so on.

124. Has the US rural sociology been influenced by other French speaking intellectual streams?

13The influence of RT on food regimes would have been one entry point for French theories, but little noticed by what was then an insular discipline. Our first article on food regimes was a response to an invitation from Fred Buttel to write something together for a special issue of Sociologia Ruralis he was editing. He had noticed our similar approaches to 19th century history of settler colonies. Buttel was a remarkable figure in US Rural Sociology. He made a bridge between American and European Rural Sociology. Fred influenced American rural sociology to reduce the dominant focus on tracking the inevitable decline of rural communities. Along with others, he encouraged new areas, such as Sociology/Political Economy of Agriculture, Environmental Sociology, and an international turn.

14The study of dynamics of family farms was another entry point. In my own work, I was influenced by Servolin. I think I discovered his work through a Canadian anthropologist, Jacques Chevalier, but I am not sure. I am pretty sure that not many US rural sociologists were aware of it or noticed the citations. I think other anthropologists, such as Gavin Smith, brought in Meillassoux, or perhaps I picked up those threads in the UK. It is long ago now!

  • 3 Winson A. (1994), The Intimate Commodity: food and the development of the agro-industrial complex i (...)

15A third entry point would have been the idea of “le système agro-alimentaire.” I’ll say more about that in the next question, but note that Winson’s The Intimate Commodity3 was a key text introducing the French idea to Canada, and to US rural sociologists studying commodity systems. Bill Friedland was a pioneer with his study of lettuce, and also a powerful advocate for political economy of agriculture, both in the US and in the RC40 (Research Comittee) of the International Society for Rural Sociology (which he played a key role in founding). Food regime analysis and the peasant debates in The Journal of Peasant Studies were part of a revival of political economy in US Rural Sociology. French theories informed both, but the inability or reluctance of Anglophones to read French made some of us ambassadors who were sometimes credited with work we were introducing as background to our ideas. I am grateful for the ideas that emerged within the somewhat self-contained world of French agrifood research, and hope the otherwise important outward turn will not cause its uniqueness to wither.

165. Can we explain the recent adoption of the food regime approach by French speaking researchers by specific interpersonal or inter-team links? How these links developed?

17I don’t know how widely it has been adopted or by whom exactly. I can only answer for my own connections and informal observations. Opening to food regimes seems to me part of a larger opening of French intellectual life to outside (Anglophone) perspectives. The international stream of agrifood studies has a long history, e.g., Le Monde du Soja by Bertrand, Laurent and Leclercq, helped me understand the global livestock complex. As you can see, I encountered strands of thought through distinct pathways, without knowing their connections within French thought. I encountered ideas about both agrifood systems and family farms, and both were mainly focused on France and French data. Based on my very partial and selective reading, it seems to me that part of the generational shift from Malassis to Rastoin is a turn towards the international.

18I contacted people because I had read their work --- McMichael doesn’t read French --- nothing systematic. This led to some individuals in INRA and ORSTOM in the early 1980s who gave me mimeographed copies of original studies that I carried around. I am a small person, and I still remember the weight of all that French knowledge in my suitcase. Very recently, which may be what you are asking, I met Patrick Caron during the IAASTD meeting in Costa Rica about 8 years ago, which led eventually to an invitation to Colloque Cérisy, where I met Estelle Biénabe, Patrick Caron, and Benoit Daviron, among others, and where the idea emerged to invite me to CIRAD in fall-winter 2012-13. That has given me a more coherent perspective on French research and theories, but still very eccentric!

196. What was the initial question of the food regime approach: Place of agriculture in capitalism? International food trade geopolitics? Evolution of agricultural policies?

20Note that the title of the original article in 1989 was “Agriculture and the State System.” McMichael and I saw agriculture as a neglected aspect of world systems and other approaches to history of global capital and shifts in inter-state power. It was also, at least in English, neglected in theories of class including RT (again in English). We sensed that agriculture was very important to specific constellations of power, accumulation and class that defined specific periods. Our first aim was to shift attention to a neglected dimension. Over time, we have come in different ways to understand agriculture, food, agrofood capital, and food and farm related social movements as a lens for viewing the entire capitalist system and its manifold crises. Two things we had always included in some way came to the fore for each of us in 2005. First, the centrality of food became important not only to the reproduction of the proletariat but also to new concerns for governments and populations about quality of food and health effects of bad food. Second, the centrality of agriculture came to the fore through a new importance of land for capital; land had been left to farmers and governments in the food regime through the 1970s. So it was never simply about agriculture or food, but always about a new way of looking at world economy, world power, and global class formation, a way to track the movement of people and capital from one country (or country in formation) to another.

217. What are the structures and the actors of a food regime?

  • 4 "The Political Economy of Food: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar International Food Order", in M. B (...)

22I can define (or describe) a food regime as a rule-based structure constellated out of many possible structures during a prolonged crisis of the initial structure. The rules, like any hegemony, work best when they are implicit. It is a sign of regime crisis when the rules become explicit and named --- e.g., when food aid in the form of government-to-government disposal of surplus stocks at negotiated prices and exchange rates, which was a key form of international shipments during the postwar regime, became named as dumping; they always fit the simple technical definition of selling abroad at prices lower than the cost of production at home, but when anyone tried to point that out before the 1990s, they were accused of assigning motives, or of depriving needy people, etc. My first memory of an enthusiastic French response to that argument was to my 1982 article in a special issue of American Journal of Sociology called Marxist Inquiries4; of course, the editors liked it, but I received lots of skepticism from many of my circles. The main point about “naming and (re)framing” key practices of the regime is that it is key to challenging hegemony. It is a sign that the regime is losing its grip on the minds of actors.

23A food regime always consists of a specific combination of emergent classes, inter-state power relations, and leading sectors of accumulation. Classes are related in an historical rather than conceptual way. Of course, direct exploitation by a ruling class is an issue, for workers by capitalists and also arguably for peasants by landlords and states, as the latter were defined by my early mentor Eric Wolf in 1966. But some classes are related through the global regime --- e.g., as Sidney Mintz elegantly demonstrated, enslaved African sugar workers in the Americas were related to industrial workers whose cheap calories came from this new wage food in the 18th and early 19th centuries; this connection was understood at the time by those English workers who called themselves “wage slaves” and who supported abolition of slavery. Similarly, what is called the industrial revolution located in Northern England, was anticipated in its labour process by the time discipline and technical division of labour in Cuban sugar plantations. Even more important, perhaps, is that the textile factories of England depended on a (sub)tropical raw material – cotton -- produced through enslaved labour in the US South and a variety of non-wage forms in Asia and Africa; they displaced artisans not only by efficiencies but also by substituting imported cotton for a domestic wool and flax. In a later regime, when displaced farmers were drawn into an industrial labour force, only the French idea of agro-alimentaire captured the reality that a growing share of wage labour consisted of emerging agrifood industries, such as processed foods and meatpacking, and eventually food retail and restaurants. Thus, the structures of regimes and regime transitions shape the experiences of actors in different parts of the world and of nations. This is a strong structural argument, of course, as the early food regime approach tended to be. As it evolved, McMichael and I, and many others who took it up, found ways to make agency central, for instance, in focusing on social movements. But it was there from the beginning in the multiple possibilities for exiting from each regime crisis or transition.

24Perhaps the most important difference between food regimes and RT is the emphasis on distinct periods of inter-state power. Inter-state power was organized first as rival imperial blocs, later as a system of national states constituted partly through the breakup of those empires --- beginning with India in 1947 --- as each new state took a seat at the United Nations. Eventually in the next regime crisis, all states ambiguously and unstably gave over economic regulatory power to corporations through various trade and investment agreements. Crucially, the military remained. As if US officials had read Arrighi’s choices of state action for a declining hegemon, they took the military option, which of course, accelerates relative economic decline.

25Leading sectors of accumulation are partly about specific crops, but the regime shapes and is shaped by leading sectors in the whole economy during the period. For instance, wheat in the 19th century was made possible by --- and itself made profitable --- the vast expansion of railways and steam ships. Finally, leading sectors do not simply replace one another but layer one on the other: wheat “hangs over” as one writer put it, into subsequent regimes, but ceases to be central. These leading agricultural sectors, moreover, are linked to the most dynamic sources of accumulation: wheat to railways in the 19th century; livestock and feedgrains (maize and soya) to the chemical industry in the 20th century; and palm oil, maize, soya, livestock and others to a reconstituted “life sector” based on genetic technologies, including seeds, agrichemicals, energy and pharmaceuticals.

26In the complex and open historical engagements leading to the creation of a regime, many actors are involved. Most are trying to solve the problems created for them by the crisis of the old regime --- e.g., Britain’s effort to reinstitute the gold standard in the 1920s when the world wheat market collapsed. Others are experimenting with new solutions which may work or may not, may become part of a new food regime or not; one that did work in the 1930s (though there were certainly other contenders in that turbulent period) were the commodity support programs of the US New Deal. After WWII, they were able to spread in forms adapted to each evolving national context because of two key factors: first the exclusion of agriculture from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, so that national farm subsidies became possible and (because of the implicit rules instituted by the US) necessary; and second, the convergence of interests among key actors---US state wanting to dispose of surpluses and its ability to use them politically abroad, US farmers, newly independent, postcolonial states wanting cheap food to encourage cheap wages, European states wanting to protect and support their own farmers. Both factors depended on US hegemony, which was real hegemony, satisfying key actors and establishing a new common sense of what is normal.

278. How were the crises in the 1970’s and in the 2000’s interpreted by the food regime theorists?

28I can’t discuss the many people who have taken up food regime analysis in various places and in different ways. I am certainly not aware of all of them. However, I haven’t seen much if any disagreement about the crisis of the 1970s. The difference is whether a new food regime has consolidated. McMichael and I began to diverge on this question in 2005 when he first claimed that a corporate food regime had consolidated. In the same volume, I considered the possibility of a corporate-environmental food regime. In my view, of course biased, the full complexity of food regimes leads to an appreciation of the fluidity of possibilities --- class restructuring (especially unequal diets, mainly in quality), shifts in power, and the possibility that capital could reform itself by adopting selected innovations or accommodating demands by “new” social movements of environment, health, and consumers. To do this, I reinterpreted food regime history through the lens of social movements --- surplus workers who migrated to become settlers created the first food regime; farmers of a new type created in the first regime led the movements that shaped the second food regime; and now social movements responding to unanticipated problems of the second regime might lead to a reconstruction of accumulation, power and classes --- not a just or sustainable one, but perhaps one that could stabilize for a few decades. Eleven years later, I still don’t know. For his part, McMichael focused on the undeniable centrality of land, once again directly appropriated by capital and integrated into increasingly dominant financial capital.

29Some things can be said about capital. Capitalist sectors and firms within them have changed with concentration and centralization of capital. On one side, mergers and acquisitions beginning in the 1980s led to the disconnection of corporations linked through the chemical-mechanical technologies of the US-centred food regime, and led some of them to reconfigure into a self-styled “life sector” led by pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals had been a growing part of the intensive livestock complex, to treat the diseases of confined animals and to allow for larger production of antibiotic and other drugs. With the intellectual property rules created by TRIPs in the WTO and the generalization of new US laws allowing patenting, seeds --- which had earlier been left to governments and farmers --- became a site of accumulation and political contestation. The Life Sector is a formidable, dynamic sector of accumulation, based on genetic technologies which have replaced physics as the most dynamic for capital, and have reconfigured the disciplines of chemistry and biology, including the applied areas of agronomy, animal breeding, etc. As genetics links with information technologies and nano-technologies, the possibilities intensify for capital accumulation, and also introduce new contradictions between states, inter-state power, and capital.

30Other things can be said about “alternative” practices of growing, cooking, organizing markets and logistics. These are profuse, diverse, and diffuse. Everywhere I go, I am taken to see creative experiments combining survival strategies (escape from poverty, from pesticide poisoning, etc.) with visionary ways of transforming foodgetting in natural and social ways, and governance of our common affairs (governance is a word revived for this period of state or “government” crisis). These are always particular to place, from urban farming in Toronto, to agroforestry outside Rio de Janeiro, to “key farmers” in Hebei province of China. This is why they can be seen as “alternative” to the standardizing, homogenizing industrial ways of organizing formerly diverse agricultures and diets which evolved in each place in mutual relation; maize, beans and squash form a complex of crops which are good for soils and for human bodies, as are wheat, lentils, olives and vines, as are rice, fish, ducks and vegetables. In contrast to distance and durability, which are the tendencies of industrial food, they reconstruct proximity and seasonality rarely as “alternative” but as part of a direction of movement that reverses the movement of industrial systems. Artisanal methods of food preservation are updated with new technologies and collaborative methods of farming are updated with ecological knowledge and social commitment. I put “alternative” in scare quotes because I think it leads away from the search for potential convergences into a transformed system. Since they partly de-commodify, and close natural and social cycles that were broken to create profit opportunities for capital, it is hard to see how they could constellate into a new food regime for capital. But each part can be appropriated and combined instead with existing industrial techniques.

31It is a contest, a dance of creativity and appropriation, to see how different projects to “intensify ecologically” will play out between capital and agro-ecological experiments of every kind. Unlike some commentators, I can see how innovations are appropriated by capital to reform itself and create a corporate-environmental food regime. That might prevent these from constellating with others into a new system. Meanwhile, what socio-technical transition theorists call “the landscape” of the regime --- finance, climate change, population health, species death, and more --- suggest ever greater instability of capitalist organization as a whole. The future remains in play.

329. How do you understand the global relevance of the notion of food regime?

33It is astonishing that political economists have been as blinded as everyone else by the apparent marginalization of land and food inherited from the US-centred food regime. There are many dimensions to this. One is quantification and measurement: agriculture seemed more or less taken care of, as the numbers of farmers fell to tiny proportions of the population, especially if “farm” was defined by size of land or of revenue, even by degree of specialization. For Marxists and others have often understood agriculture and food as overcoming limits of nature to mimic industry. They accept the dominant view of capital and treat critics of industrial agriculture as unrealistic in light of population growth, itself caused by this immense increase in production of calories.

34Food itself is statistically defined as quantities of calories. That made sense in the Annales School, since long sequences of grain prices were unique indicators of whatever one want to study, and since everyone knew that grain in trade (and therefore subject to prices) was only part of what people ate, not only of grain but of all sorts of plants and animals, cultivated and gathered, for most of history. But once monocultural grain fields displace everything else, all the other plants and animals, cultivated and wild, are pushed aside. This impoverishes the earth and human bodies. Suddenly there are crises of plant and animal diseases, and crises of nutrition due to deficiency of “micronutrients”. In my view, the specific qualities of “food” inherited from a succession of regimes are now in question; discourses of “empty calories” and “nutrition transition” (from mixed, fresh diets to “junk foods” reflect a different aspect of reality from discourses of “feeding 9 billion.”

  • 5 Shiva V (1993), Monocultures of the mind: Perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology, Palgrave (...)

35Fruits and vegetables, the main sources of micronutrients, are abundant in mixed farming systems and are available in some seasons to be gathered in hedges, forests, and waters. But the variety of fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens disappear from diets, for instance when the Green Revolution pushed everything but rice out of fields and extended fields into forests and wetlands. When more people, whether on specialized farms or displaced from farms, had to buy food, they often could afford only rice. Vegetables which had formerly been abundant and more or less freely available, became expensive. So did lentils relative to rice, which became more abundant --- and showed higher yield per hectare since it is the only thing grown. Hungry bodies need first to buy calories, and the food regime did indeed solve the problem of too few calories. But it created a new problem of diets so simplified for the poor that they caused deficiency diseases. Since food is at the bottom of the supposed “hierarchy of needs,” and fortunately has been solved in aggregate due to productive agriculture, the main question until very recently, was distribution --- presumably also of grains. Shiva called it “monoculture of the mind”5.

36The food regime of the 1950s and 60s create chronic surpluses of grain, unevenly distributed, which caused chronic price suppression until 1973. Grain was cheap because it was subsidized in the US and supplies were managed by governments that could afford it, and sent at reduced rates to governments that wanted to receive it for various reasons, no matter the effect on domestic farmers or on cultural diets. After decades of world wars and a economic crisis in between, people and governments wanted enough grain and animal products to be healthy. They failed to consider what might happen after several decades when the apple or mango tree in everyone’s garden might no longer be there; the garden might no longer be there. There were bread lines in the Great Depression in the US because bread was scarce; apples weren’t and no on stood in line for them. During the postwar regime, the horticultural areas surrounding cities in the US and other countries were destroyed by suburban expansion from one side and monocultural grain and livestock operations from the other. Domestic life changed as women entered the work force and retail (supermarkets) and services (restaurants) grew to fill the domestic cooking gap with industrially produced edible commodities.

37As for so many things, be careful what you wish for. There was lots of grain, so much that subsidies later directed it to solve energy shortages. Then there was a shortage, especially as class divisions led grain to be grown to feed cars and airplanes as well as animals for the relatively privileged rather than direct consumption for the poor. The poor cannot afford much else. As unemployment grows, they cannot afford grain. Finally, prices rise, and stocks shrink, as finance packages traded grains and soya with oil and minerals in such creative investment instruments as Commodity Index Funds.

38The assumptions that food is grain and that enough grain can be produced, lingers long past the regime. Investment in land, which the regime had left to farmers along with risks of weather, in the crisis came to be interesting to financial capital --- and to the rich in an increasingly unequal and unstable world. Health problems of industrial foods offer profit opportunities to agrifood corporations, which can offer “functional foods” and vitamin supplements along with more of the edible commodities that lead to dietary deficiencies. Enclosure of the last remaining peasantries accompanies real estate booms in global cities, which drive up housing costs and drive out the poor who continue to arrive from near and far.

39I see no stable constellation of power and accumulation, but an increasingly chaotic economy dominated by financial speculation, and politics dominated by disintegrating and recomposing classes, mostly of people on the move, and often, especially in agriculture, of non-citizen workers with few or no rights, so unstable. Also whatever stable relations are sustained, for instance, by circular migration and remittances between global cities and villages across the world, are extremely difficult to stabilize in any place or any sector.

40This seems to go past food regimes! But I could expand how regime concepts lead to this interpretation of unfolding crisis, perhaps in a book!

4110 How do you identify and analyze a food regime crisis? What are the main forces for food regime transformation?  Is the initial question of the food regime approach still relevant? Is “food” still relevant in relation for example to the “bioeconomy project”?

42Each regime emerges with contradictions, which are not apparent or important at the outset, but which over the course of the regime make it vulnerable. One sign of crisis is that actions of key actors can no longer rely on predictable outcomes of their actions. Note that predictability does not mean everyone likes it, just that everyone accepts it as normal. During the regime, actors emerge, such as commodity specific lobbies (as well as inherited farm organizations not organized by crop) and Ministries of Agriculture which create policies that over the course of the regime define what is normal and what groups are important to the policies. These lock in interests even when they no longer serve, since a change of institutions always hurts some individuals and ideas.

43A second sign of crisis is that key institutions of the regime are challenged ideologically, often by naming what was implicit and reframing it in a new and critical way. It was hard to see the role of the gold standard until it stopped working for organized, vocal actors, such as US farm movements. It was hard to reframe “aid” (sounds good) as “dumping” (sounds bad) as long as farmers in key countries, states in donating and receiving countries, workers getting used to cheap food, etc. liked the way things worked. It stopped working for all those groups by the 1980s, but institutions built up during the regime are often locked-in --- farm lobbies, state agencies and their officials which are organized around farm programs, other states which benefit from cheap or free food to distribute to key populations, charities whose staff work in these programs, etc.

44Forces for transformation come from outside and inside the regime. This has always been so. The main actors locking in the present regime were created during an earlier regime or in response to its crisis. They usually try to get it to work again. Others introduce new practices, relations, and ideas to solve new problems created by the regime. These come increasingly to be understood as aiming towards something very different, a transformation to agro-ecology, for instance. But new practices, ideas, and relations could instead be part of a regime reform, leading perhaps to what I have called “a corporate-environmental food regime.” Large, chemical intensive, indebted conventional farmers in the US, for instance, are beginning to reduce input costs with practices such as cover cropping. This could lead in the direction of closed loop farming, or it could simply be a temporary method of survival. Agrifood corporations, especially since 2008, seem to be shifting from resisting sustainability to a concerted effort to define it on their terms. Selling chemicals is less important if the chemicals can be introduced into proprietary seeds and they can sell packages of inputs with advisory services, insurance, and so on. All of these could reduce nitrogen and other pollution from industrial farms. Therefore, contrary to some proclamations by activists and analysts, including McMichael, I am not convinced that capital cannot renew accumulation with a regime that does less ecological damage.

45Therefore, yes, I think a bio-economy is possible, though there are many, many problems, such as massive unemployment, unequal consumption of quality and junk foods among increasingly unequal social classes, and chronic health problems, as well as little understood disruptions of climate change and species death, and more immediately of cascading financial crises. The bio-economy has to include a political project of some kind. Is universal health care a continuing basis for government legitimacy, or can states can get away with not having one, or letting existing ones decay? If it is crucial for legitimacy, are diet-related chronic illnesses of aging populations fiscally affordable? How this inherited dilemma is “solved” will determine whether health problems of individuals can be turned into ever greater sources of profit for manufacturers of genetically targeted foods, makers of individual electronic health monitors, and private insurance companies. Or whether governments save social/public health care systems by altering diets and even using measures such as taxation to change the content of edible commodities. Like innovations in agronomy and marketing, changes in health practices and ideas are part of a dance of creativity and appropriation.

46Yet if this dance does not resolve in the consolidation of a corporate-environmental food regime, the challenge is how to observe and interpret epochal changes. For instance, it is possible that expectations of states by their citizens, colliding with uncontrollable movements of people displaced by new enclosures and resource wars, are a flash point in the dissolution not only of the European Union but also of the whole system of national states created by the Treaty of Westphalia 250 years ago. Food and health and ecosystem damage and employment may be other flash points --- hunger, disease, wars. These are increasing quickly and unpredictably and not respecting border; they are, beyond the control of customs or immigration officials.

47On the other side, the one I spend most of my time now observing, there is reason to hope for a positive resolution of the crisis --- a transformation not to a new food regime, a positive (if turbulent and prolonged) exit from capitalism as we know it. However, this can no longer be the mission of a proletariat. Instead ideas from ecology such as “emergence” and “transformability” are more adequate. Just as the serfs did not destroy feudalism and usher in a new mode of production, so workers as a class cannot destroy capitalism or even transform it. Human beings are transforming ourselves through new practices and new technologies. This involves combining new relations and ways of knowing with recovery of old relations and ways of knowing. The latter have been destroyed, or almost, by capital, statemaking, and other institutions. Modern institutions have found ever more effective ways to turn a diverse earth system into territorial jurisdictions of rule and monocultural landscapes and societies. In my view, any way of looking at the possibilities for emergence of something new that does not focus on food and land is missing the keys to human society. Foodgetting is the way that humans organize our life in our earthly habitat and all its distinct and interconnected parts; everything else builds on it, and theories that deny or ignore this, only confuse.

4811. What do you think today of the periodization of history in terms of three food regimes?

49Periods are the way I make sense of the flow of history. If history is more like a river than a canal, then periods are like whirlpools, slowing the stream and patterning the flow. Surely, no period exists with fixed temporal boundaries --- beginning and ending dates --- comparable to the fixed borders of national states. Instead, I have a deeply historical (and materialist) view of emergence and dissolution of regimes. Each element of a regime has its own history, reaching back into the past, and each element constellated into the regime unfolds distinctly in each place. Think of currents in the river, flowing into the whirlpool, changing, and leaving it on the other side.

50For instance, consider just one element of the US-centred food regime, increase in consumption of meat. The desire for meat may well extend into the class based distribution systems of early civilizations, or perhaps farther back into the now fashionable idea of the Paleolithic diet (which no doubt varied from meat-centric Arctic to plant based tropical forest ecosystems). Meat certainly became identified with class diets when hunting was restricted by those who enclosed forests in Europe. In the UK-centred regime, meat imports to England were second to wheat, and improved devastated working class diets as people left enclosed villages. By contrast, meat consumption in the US-centred regime was led by (over)supply sponsored by subsidies. Oversupply of meat resulted from oversupply of grains by government subsidies designed to keep maize farmers going. The cheap grain supported the rise of a feedgrains industry. (Subsidies have their own histories before becoming central to a regime). The feedgrain industry in turn required a protein crop to complement the maize; soya (an Asian crop) had already been introduced (also with subsidies) to provide a stable oil to the margarine industry, and expanded when feed industries demanded more soya. Maize and soya eventually became a simplified rotation dominating agricultural landscapes, all to feed livestock. These feedstuffs made possible the confinement of massive numbers of animals, which in turn increased the outlets for subsidized feeds, and the feed-livestock industries became mutually reinforcing spiral of livestock which changed diets and ideas about food. Moreover, byproducts of the maize-soy-livestock complex were High Fructose Corn Syrup, and maize and soya oils. These in turn permitted the production of processed foods in advance of demand. The new industrial categories of sweeteners and fats then became substitutable raw materials for a growing proportion of what we gloss as “food.” All these ingredients could be replaced later by, say, palm oil or aspartame.

  • 6 McMichael, P. (1990), "Incorporating Comparison within a World-Historical Perspective: An Alternati (...)

51To follow this specific thread is to reveal two things about periodization. First, everything has an origin before it is constellated into the regime. Second, every element of the regime continues to unfold during and after the crisis of the regime. This way of thinking is what McMichael has beautifully described as the historical method of “incorporated comparison,” a way of understanding the unfolding of parts and wholes in mutual relation, without reducing part to whole or whole to part.6

52What I offer in this indirect answer to your question is a method of inquiry rather than a conclusion to the inquiry. Since the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, we can be reasonably confident about the outlines of past food regimes --- though of course, there is much to alter and rethink from various national, sectorial, class, and other angles. As to the emergence of a new regime, we are better off thinking of questions, ready always to revise as situations unfold, ready always to listen and consider multiple possibilities in a situation in flux.

5312. How do you characterize the current situation in the agro-food sector? What about the role of international organizations, states, enterprises and social movements? What are the differences between your analysis and Philip McMichael’s one?

54Here is how McMichael and I agree: Land and food have returned to the centre of accumulation and politics in a way not possible during the US-centred food regime, but in a way reminiscent of the Britain-centred food regime. Financial capitalist accumulation has brought land and food back into the centre, but institutions of the regime cannot cope.

55I note more changes. Genetic technologies linked with nano and information technologies are reshaping everything about human relations to nature and how they are used determines what new relations we have to each other and to ruling institutions. Supermarkets are deeply implicated in every consumer commodity complex, and at the same time with finance and real estate. The so-called Life Sector, which emerged from mergers and acquisitions beginning in the 1980s and continuing as I write, includes new commodities, especially seeds, subordinating many formerly separate aspects of agrifood economy and indeed of life. Does this mean a profitable spiral of new health problems solved by new drugs, devices, or techniques? A profitable spiral of land enclosures creating ever more consumers of durable foods out of people once participating in local commerce and cuisines?

56McMichael would probably focus his reply on land grabs, climate change, and biofuels, and I would agree with him --- it is a matter of selection for brief answers. The point is that food and agriculture/land are now central to many contradictions of capital and therefore probably (not automatically) to their solution. Our views diverge in relation to social movements.

  • 7 McKeon N (2015), "Global food governance in an era of crisis: Lessons from the United Nations Commi (...)

57For McMichael, the “farmer-led food sovereignty movement” is the only way forward. However, as Bernstein has argued, the epochal confrontation between a corporate food regime and a food sovereignty movement suspiciously substitutes the lost idea of capital versus working class. I agree with Bernstein that it condenses the complex restructurings of capital, sectors, classes and places into the manifest, but too simple, fact that corporations presently have huge power; since it was given by states, and depends on stable relations of many kinds, this corporate power may not endure. International organizations are trying to adapt and to balance corporate capture with civil society participation. The Civil Society Mechanism of the Committee on Food Security is perhaps the most developed of these experiments in changing inter-state governance, as Nora McKeon shows in Global Food Governance7.

58For all the fascinating and inspiring resonance of the idea of food sovereignty, it is difficult to see this aspirational idea and networked movement matching the coherence of the old socialist movement (with all its splits and complications in the 19th century). Nor should it, nor does McMichael claim that it does. But the opposition he makes suggests a solidity of this relatively new movement which makes it different --- networked, and overlapping with others, such as indigenous networks, and growing agronomic movements such as permaculture. The term “sovereignty” is usually but not always distinguished from sovereign states, and advocates rightly insist that it is an evolving idea, with practices rooted in places and shared across places. It is early to judge how all this will unfold.

59Changes in food and farming are everywhere are growing in number, diversity, and ways of connecting with wider social and technical changes. They are more emergent that confrontational, even though moments of confrontation against specific practices, such as GMOs, are part of it. And land appropriation and despoliation by mining as well as agriculture involves both intense resistance and violent repression. How will changes in food and farming and forests and waters connect --- or not --- with networks of communication, of distributed energy, of “3-D printing” or the “makers revolution”? Food system innovators connect with these at various points, which need to be theorized. From the other side, the geeks who love computers and open source rarely think even about what they eat, much less how food is grown, how land is organized, abused or respected. This is a bridge for researchers and activists to build and to cross. It is a connection ready to make. To interpret experiments in new ways to live may change the way we think.

60I think a hopeful outcome is possible, but it will not come easily. The duration of transition as well as its success would depend on how wisely people draw on resources for collaboration in daily life. The actors of this transition are reconfiguring ideas, practices and relationships, for example in collaborative, sharing networks and solidarity economies. These include, as van der Ploeg and his colleagues put it, nested markets8. It means changing knowledge, reshaping indigenous, technical, foodgetting, psychological, and scientific (including especially ecological) knowledge into pathways that are participatory, respectful and collaborative.

6113. Some critics point out that the initial promoters of the food regime approach were all located in neo-European countries (USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand)? Did this situation create a “bias” or a “twist” compare to European or Third Word perspectives?

  • 9 Magnan A., 2016. When Wheat was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Grain Trade. University of (...)

62It is interesting to reflect on this possible origin of the food regime perspective. Rather than bias, I see it as one perspective among many that are needed. Magnan has altered my understanding of food regimes by looking at the shift from a Britain-centric to a US-centric regime from a Canadian perspective. When Wheat was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Grain Trade, published this year9, shows the subtlety of economic and political mechanisms through which a second tier exporter (which had been much larger in the earlier regime) could function in relation to the hegemonic power and to unfair rules. The Canadian role in price formation, standards, and more played a key role in reproducing the regime. At the same time Canada was quietly allowed exemption from some constraining regime rules, for instance, to export to China and the Soviet Union.

63Perhaps “neo-Europes” are the source of this idea because of our recent origins in the regimes of sugar and wheat, and our immediate and lingering crises centred on those sectors. These settler colonies became “independent” so that they could borrow money to finance railways, which at once expanded national territory and sponsored accumulation of capital. The settler-colonial project was central to the Britain-centred regime, which linked all these countries and others --- both Europe and what Giovani Arrighi called “colonies of rule” which later became the Third World and even later The South. It created huge classes of specialized family farmers who suffered most severely during the regime crisis when export markets collapsed. Those farmers organized themselves well, and their political strength was decisive in defining the shape of the new regime that finally emerged after depression and world war.

64However, hegemony differentiates “neo-Europes” or European settler colonies. American farmers were most decisive since the US got to define the rules, especially monetary and trade rules (e.g., excluding agriculture from GATT), which gave the US an export advantage it had not had in the old regime. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil,) took advantage of the regime crisis to form the Cairns Group, which pushed against the US to removal the subsidies that only the hegemon could afford (even in crisis, as long as the dollar remains de facto world currency). Cairns countries had never subsidized in the same way domestically and certainly not in exports.

  • 10 Otero G, 2012. The neoliberal food regime in Latin America: state, agribusiness transnational corpo (...)
  • 11 Maluf RS, 1998. Economic development and the food question in Latin America. Food Policy 23(2), 155 (...)

65As for the Third World, Gerardo Otero is at least one researcher who uses food regime analysis to understand Latin America10. John Wilkinson and Renato Maluf11 in Brazil do, too, and Daviron for African trade. No doubt there are others there and in other places. But the question should be answered conceptually, starting with language: the category Third World (as one of three “worlds”) rose and fell in tandem with the food regime, because both depended on the same conditions of decolonization; likewise, the new term South (North-South) arose in the 1970s, partly I think through UNCTAD, certainly in the Brandt Commission Report North-South in the early 1980s, all during Détente in the Cold War, which included grain trade deals that triggered regime crisis.

66One of my more accessible and widely read articles appeared in Third World Quarterly in the 1990s. In that article, I took the perspective of the Third World as a whole to describe the three main complexes of the food regime. This does not say what happened in any country, but offers questions to ask about how the history of any country fits, alters, or diverges from the general tendencies. The wheat complex led to a shift in staple food for many countries, and import dependence for most. The livestock complex led to displacement of export markets for sugar and tropical oils, which many states had inherited from colonial specialization. The durable foods complex led to a drastic change in diets toward industrial “cuisine,” itself related to intensification of proletarianization, or at least increased dependence of farmers and rural populations on food markets integrated into global supply chains.

67I am proud of seeing early on that sovereign debt and structural adjustment, the key to the general crisis, were forcing a shift to exports of what were called “non-traditional” (in effect, non-colonial) crops such as fresh fruits and vegetables and fish. I think this was helpful in integrating deep tendencies of regime and of crisis. It allowed for each country to be understood in its specific historical trajectory within the regime and the crisis. A complete food regime analysis, if such a thing were possible, would include both general tendencies (formation and reformation of regions and sectors) and how the history, geography, and culture of each place is shaped by and shapes the regime and its contradictions. For instance, supermarket organized supply chains of fresh produce began early in Kenya, but all countries are affected by the existence of these growing supply chains, even --- perhaps especially --- those that are marginalized by them.

6814. The answers you gave to our more or less naïve questions, allows us to understand better the origin of food regimes concept and in your view how Land and food have returned to the centre of accumulation and politics. We thanks you very much.

69This has been a fascinating invitation to reflect on issues from a new perspective. I would be happy to engage in further discussion with readers, including those wishing to tolerate my creative use of French language.

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1 Arrighi G. (1994), The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, in Verso and Arrighi, G. and Silver, B. (1999), Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, Minnesota.

2 J.P. Bertrand, C. Laurent, V. Leclercq (1983), Le monde du soja, La Découverte/Maspéro, coll. "repères", 127p.

3 Winson A. (1994), The Intimate Commodity: food and the development of the agro-industrial complex in Canada, University of Toronto Press.

4 "The Political Economy of Food: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar International Food Order", in M. Burawoy and T. Skocpol (eds)., Marxist Inquiries: Studies of Labour, Class and States, supplement to vol. 88, American Journal of Sociology, 1982, p. S248‑86

5 Shiva V (1993), Monocultures of the mind: Perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology, Palgrave Macmillan.

6 McMichael, P. (1990), "Incorporating Comparison within a World-Historical Perspective: An Alternative Comparative Method", American Sociological Review 55(3), p. 385-397

7 McKeon N (2015), "Global food governance in an era of crisis: Lessons from the United Nations Committee on World Food Security", Canadian Food Studies/La Revue canadienne des études sur l'alimentation 2(2), 328-334.

8 Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Ye Jingzhong, and Sergio Schneider. 2012. Rural development through the construction of new, nested, markets: comparative perspectives from China, Brazil and the European Union. The Journal Of Peasant Studies 39 (1),

9 Magnan A., 2016. When Wheat was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Grain Trade. University of British Columbia Press, 216p.

10 Otero G, 2012. The neoliberal food regime in Latin America: state, agribusiness transnational corporations and biotechnology. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d'études du développement 33(3), 282-294.

11 Maluf RS, 1998. Economic development and the food question in Latin America. Food Policy 23(2), 155-172 Wilkinson J&S Herrera, 2010. Biofuels in Brazil: debates and impacts. The Journal of Peasant Studies 37(4), 749-768..

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Harriet Friedmann, Benoît Daviron et Gilles Allaire, « “Political economists have been blinded by the apparent marginalization of land and food” »Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 20 | 2e semestre/ Autumn 2016, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2016, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Harriet Friedmann

Benoît Daviron

Gilles Allaire

Directeur de recherche, INRA, US-ODR,

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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