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Book reviews

Food, Jennifer Clapp, Polity Press, 2012, 200 pages

  • Danielle Dolgoy

Corps de l’article

Many of the items in your fridge and pantry have travelled farther and longer than you on your most exotic vacation. Foodstuffs that make up your weekly grocery list may be laced with as many chemicals and synthetics as your medicine cabinet. Your stock portfolio probably has had more contact with the food you eat than the stock boy at your grocery store. In case you haven’t heard, there is something rotten in the food supply. Food, by Jennifer Clapp, is a comprehensive analysis of our global food system: its scientific, economic, and political underpinnings.

The world food economy as we know it took shape in the second half of the 20th century when international trade deals, domestic agricultural policy, and scientific advances in food production fostered the relatively unfettered growth of food corporations and financial institutions at the cost of the world’s poorest people. Clapp, who holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics, is Professor in the Faculty of Environment and Resource Studies and Chair in Global Environmental Governance at the University of Waterloo. Her book is organized historically, beginning with an overview of the development of the globalization of agricultural products, explaining how scientific breakthroughs in agriculture such as Norman Borlaug’s dwarf wheat were heralded as saviours of the agriculture-based economies of developing countries. Clapp then demonstrates how post-World War II American policy, both foreign and domestic, reverberated in food trade and food aid across the globe for decades. She argues that one of the most influential outcomes of the Green Revolution was the legacy of cross breeding and hybridization. Another outcome was genetically modified (GM) seeds, which are still relatively new and debated. The European Union (EU) has essentially banned their use and import through strict labelling legislation, while in much of the developing world GM seeds have been welcomed as the solution to drought and flood, which threaten agriculturally based economies. Many of the submissions at the latest meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) at the Doha Conference, in December 2012, support these arguments.

In the chapter on trade rules, Clapp explains how international treaties such as the United Nations World Food Programme’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) were created to balance inequalities between industrialized and developing countries. Nonetheless, these imbalances have persisted and grown as rich countries continue to subsidize their farmers and as poor countries are forced to import what their farmers already produce. Farmers grow crops that are transported out of their countries and sold internationally on commodities markets. Essentially, these farmers are growing food that will never make it to their own kitchens. And so it goes throughout Clapp’s book as she calls attention to certain diplomatic and economic actions and policies while assessing their impact on the world food economy.

In the chapters “Transnational Corporations” and “Financialization of Food,” we see how the fates of all farmers are tied to the rise and fall of the US dollar. As trade of agricultural commodities morphs into hedging and commodities-futures trading, the only thing that stands between farmers and the next food crisis, as Clapp describes it, is the regulation of markets. Of course, there are ongoing efforts to reform the global food system. Amid growing concerns over industrial agriculture’s carbon emissions, many farmers, civic organizations, and governments are considering more ecological approaches, including those that privilege traditional techniques and crops over imported petroleum-reliant methods.

Jennifer Clapp draws from her vast knowledge of economics, politics, and the environment to write insightfully about the events that contributed to the development of the world food economy. If you are not a student or scholar of economics or environmental science, the task of piecing together different events and their impacts on the global food system may present a daunting challenge. However, Clapp articulates clearly the factors that led to global food crises, environmental degradation, and economic recessions. Ultimately, this book appeals to corporations to recognize their role as leaders and assume greater corporate social responsibility. Only then may the use of GM seeds promote greater food security around the world. Industry leaders and governments must take up global food-justice advocacy and fair-trade practices to help developing countries cope with climate change. In her conclusion, Clapp returns to the grocery store, reminding us that the actions and choices of individual growers and eaters may seem worlds apart from the big corporations, but that these actions matter because they, like the stock boy at your local grocery store, help form the global system.

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