The spate of industrial fires across food production and packaging facilities in the United States sparked a conspiratorial reading of events. A pattern of fire during an existing food crisis and a growing awareness of the tenuousness of food supply chains has led to suggestions that these are not random events but planned sabotage that extends central control of food processing systems and forces consumers into a food serfdom. Equally, there are suggestions that this is simply a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon and that the extent of fires in production and processing facilities have always been relatively high.
There is some truth in both views that exposes wider currents. The US and other Western governments have helped produce extremely centralised, monopolised agricultural structures over the past 40 years that have encouraged factory farming methods, massive distribution centres and fragile supply chains that can easily buckle when inputs become less reliable. The conspiracy isn’t in the fires themselves, but in the structures and systems that are now increasingly ragged as their patterns of production and distribution are disrupted. Fires are a symptom rather than a cause of a network of policymakers, politicians and corporations that have industrialised, stratified and massified farming and food, subsidising monoculture and externalising pollution. While the NFPA say that in these fires there is “nothing to see here”, there is something to see in a food system over reliant on JIT transportation and distribution chains and one that is currently reformed by the same regimes that caused this over reliance and subsequent crises in the first place.
McMichael’s food regime analysis provides a window into the transformations of agriculture over the 20th and 21st centuries. From the late 19th century emerges the industrialisation and rationalisation of agriculture in British colonies and the USA (in conjunction with wider industrialisation) and the creation of nascent trade networks based on colonial relations. In the mid-20th century under US hegemony, a broad system of food aid (forming part of Cold War geopolitics) spread American agricultural methods across developing and developed countries, securing trade relations and allowing for the marketisation of land and food from American agricultural surpluses. This extended the rationalisation of farming practices, diminishing agricultural sectors as a secondary element in national economies and encouraging greater urbanisation as a result.
From the late 20th century, a third regime has emerged, deepening international integration. “Incorporating new regions into animal protein chains (e.g., China and Brazil), consolidating differentiated supply chains including a ‘supermarket revolution’ for privileged consumers of fresh fruits and vegetables, and fish, and generating populations of displaced slum-dwellers as small farmers leave the land. Part of this conjuncture includes an emerging global food/fuel agricultural complex, now in tension with various forms of localism”. In particular the endpoint of the Green Revolution sits in this regime, as agribusiness and chemical corporations dominate food production, from seed ownership to fertiliser trade. Agricultural productivity became focused not on resiliency and variety, but on intensive production and monocultural expansion.
The genealogy of food regimes shows the advance of agriculture from the predominant economic activity and defining mode of production to its submergence within industrial activity and globalisation of trade. National economy as a marker of food security and local production was practically eliminated as agricultural productivity was synonymous with intensive farming practices and spot prices in international trading and financial transactions. Agriculture as an economic input has been streamlined and restructured to increase output-per-acre, following the model of Earl Butz’s “‘go big or go home’ by borrowing capital to expand their holdings”, thus focusing almost entirely on grain crops and factory feedlots to increase corn, soybean, seed oil, dairy, beef and egg production beyond the limits of animal or soil lifecycles.
A metabolic rift has surfaced which is growing wider and deeper. “‘Petro-farming’ the metabolic rift, by extending inputs of inorganic fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides along with mechanisation, increasing farm demand for carbon-emitting fuels and inputs, in addition to releasing soil carbon to the atmosphere along with even more damaging nitrous oxide from fertiliser use, and from livestock waste in factory farming. The agro-industrial model, aided by states enclosing common and peasant lands for agro-industrial estates, has deepened its
global presence via a second, private phase of the Green Revolution, targeting feed crops, livestock, fruits and vegetables, and now agro-fuels”.
There needn’t be a conspiracy to burn down processing factories. These food systems are already living on borrowed time. Fires will only exacerbate the underlying problem – a food system reliant on non-organic inputs to maintain soil productivity and intensive forms of animal husbandry. This is a system that is fragile, easily tipped into crisis by localised world events. The war in Ukraine has produced a crisis in grain procurement. Lockdowns in China have limited the export of fertiliser. Ongoing supply chain issues are increasing the costs of shipping and export. These issues conflagrate entirely because the underlying premise of modern agriculture allows them to.
The “United States Corporation” is at the heart of this, both in the localised conflicts and in the wider issues of agricultural intensification leading wide-scale decimation. They have prevented fuel exports to allow for transportation of food, as well as having substantial control over farming equipment through US patent ownership of chips in tractors and harvesters. At the national level, due to the Butz model of farm growth through indebtedness, US harvests and meat production are falling into crisis levels as citrus greening in Floridian orange groves, droughts in the Midwest and bird flu have created shortages in crops and meat products. Intensive methods of production and husbandry are now being devastated as they created the conditions (close living quarters as vectors for disease/pests, over-farming of specific breeds like Holstein cattle, cumulative farm foreclosures due to unsustainable debt levels) for their own destruction.
Wide use of subsidisation has further distorted agricultural production, furthering the metabolic rift. US subsidies have concentrated on corn, soy, wheat and rice as key grains while “specialty crops” (primarily fruits and vegetables) have received little subsidy except in key growing areas like Florida. This has encouraged overconsumption as well as the expansion of food processing as corn oils and syrups have become a key ingredient in snack foods. As a result, ultra-processed foods “make up 58.5 percent of the average American’s diet”. The subsidies also create distortions in the productivity and health of soil, as monocultural intensity and factory farming require substantial fertiliser inputs for the former and produce high levels of manure run off that pollutes the water table in the latter. Similar distortions from subsidisation have been seen in the UK, where grain overproduction has resulted despite the land not being conducive to such intense production.
It should be remembered that the United States Corporation isn’t simply a national phenomenon, but a structural element of modern food regimes. The USC is international in scope, alongside other bodies like the WTO, WEF and various global summits/committees that delineate global trade and regulate agricultural practices. Through initiatives like the Green Revolution and the financialisation of farming, these organisation’s influence has expanded alongside that of agribusiness, providing the regulatory framework through which seed patenting, fertiliser monopolisation and technologisation of farming equipment has grown. The Agreement on Agriculture that came out of the WTO is but one example, where food pricing systems are ranked and enforced, with tariffs banned while direct payments are allowed. This mechanism has meant much greater price volatility as subsidised corporate farms can flood the market with artificially cheap products and competing countries have no effective means of preventing this other than adopting the very methods of monocultural intensification that caused oversupply in the first place. Corporations like Monsanto and Cargill are symbiotic with this international framework, using its influence to expand GMO seeding into developing countries (particularly India) and maintain tight control of the food supply chain.
From this symbiosis a new food regime is emerging that furthers internationalisation and corporate control within the context of environmental crises. This fourth food regime maintains the rationalisation and globalisation of agriculture while increasing what is called stakeholdership across food supply chains. Groups like the WEF and the UN’s Food Systems Summit have borne witness to stakeholdership in practice. The third food regime was characterised by corporate control of inputs, particularly fertiliser and seeds, as well as a system of subsidies that encouraged their use via intensification. “In eroding the possibility of territorial food systems, largely with member state consent, this regime has granted transnational food corporations both trade and investment privileges, in the name of ‘feeding the world’”.
What stakeholdership does then is implant this very ethos into the whole supply chain, providing greater direct control over consumption decisions and holding arbitrary power on the allowability of certain farm practices, particularly those that supposedly contribute greatest to climate change like beef and dairy production. In this model, international organisations’ decision-making ability is commitological, with each committee having equal representation of public and state entities, private organisations and civil society groups. What this in effect means is the elevation of corporate and NGO interests alongside those of sovereign entities.
“Who are these other, non-governmental stakeholders? The WEF, best known for its annual meeting of high-net-worth individuals in Davos, Switzerland, describes itself as an international organization for public-private cooperation. WEF partners include some of the biggest companies in oil (Saudi Aramco, Shell, Chevron, BP), food (Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé), technology (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple) and pharmaceuticals (AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna). Instead of corporations serving many stakeholders, in the multi-stakeholder model of global governance, corporations are promoted to being official stakeholders in global decision-making, while governments are relegated to being one of many stakeholders”.
In terms of what the Great Reset and stakeholdership mean for food, we can see the beginning sketches of a fourth food regime in the EAT-Lancet Commission report. The report defines planetary boundaries for agricultural production which cannot be breached if countries are going to meet climate targets set out in the Paris Climate Accords. Framing this within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it lays down dietary limits that effectively eliminates red meat and most white meat consumption, and replaces these protein sources with substantially heightened nut harvesting, soybean consumption and unsaturated fats through seed oils, as well as suggesting that lab-grown protein could be another alternative in the future. In terms of agricultural practices it recommends a continuity of methods, with cumulative reductions in phosphorous and nitrogen inputs and significant rewilding projects to remove half of the earth from agricultural practices and the human footprint.
There are significant caveats and oversights in the report though. They fail to note (except near the beginning of the report with a short sentence) the degraded protein profile of grains relative to animal products, they don’t seriously investigate the negative effects of seed oils, they repeat myths around saturated fat intake and they give only cursory mentions to alternative farming practices such as silvopasture, rotational grazing or mixed farming, instead centring global flows of food commodities and increased “seed variety” (which further entrenches the power of agribusiness) as the norm. Such oversights are glaring when they recommend supplementation of iron and zinc for children and pregnant women in developing countries (particularly Africa where such nutrients are severely lacking) in lieu of red meat or dairy. This again entrenches corporate power, which is egregious considering the corruption and lies present in the supplementation industry, who vastly exaggerate the benefits of their products and whose environmental impact is hardly negligible. Finally, the lack of analysis of food miles and transportation’s contribution to unsustainable food practices and pollution (which contributes 14% of global emissions and 27% of US emissions) suggests that globalisation, rather than food sovereignty, is the prevailing hegemony surrounding this reports recommendations.
But of course such corporate capture, under the guise of stakeholdership, is entirely compatible with consumption patterns that favour plant-based foods. The vegan industry is highly profitable as it minimises agricultural inputs to easily controlled monocultural methods for soybean and dent corn production, with many agribusinesses holding patents on grain seed varieties which means they effectively control how and when farmers plant seeds. Alongside insect protein and lab-grown meat, these methods present international economies of scale with all inputs controllable and an international regulatory/coercive framework that enforces consumer decisions emanating from this “Great Food Transformation”. The lack of mention of organic foods or local production in the EAT-Lancet report or in the similar Rockefeller Foundation “Reset the Table” paper is indicative. “In other words, their versions of ‘healthy diet’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ do not include any of the basic criteria for a truly healthy, nutritious, sustainable and regenerative food supply”.
Land ownership feeds into this regime, as agricultural land is treated as a financial asset, with various oligarchs buying agricultural land to rent back to farmers, using their growing land value as an investment base for riskier strategies. It also acts as a base for experimentation in the strategies supported by the EAT-Lancet Commission and the WEF, with large agribusinesses owning farmland and implementing patented seed sowing and forms of food processing. Similarly, Bill Gates vast ownership of land allows for his foundation’s advocacy to be put into practice, from patented agricultural techniques to rewilding.
What this spells is a post-farm future, where agricultural land is monopolised by food corporations and foundations with a limited, low-paid workforce (primarily migrants as most Western farming systems have become reliant on them) and a tightly-controlled supply chain where consumption decisions are made at the point of production. As the EAT-Lancet report blatantly states, they are crafting universal principles through which all food systems will be judged and rationalised. The fact these commissions and organisations vastly overstate the negative impacts of farming (particularly methane) and ignore organic agricultural production and livestock rearing practices reveals much. The issue isn’t the climate, but rather controlling what was once described as the frontier or hinterland, the naturally uncontrollable landscape beyond the mass control of cities and suburbs.
“Microbial and other types of lab-made foods may well have a role to play in future food systems and may be inevitable if the global population continues to increase as predicted. But many food safety and quality issues would need to be considered first, and the suggestion of a complete shift in what we perceive as food, in order to accommodate them, ignores so much of the deeper cultural meaning behind food and farming for many people”. The emerging fourth food regime is based entirely on the separation of food from culture, the full commoditisation of food as the apotheosis of intensive, industrial agriculture. And this separation is producing a battle line between cultures. On one side, the technophilic dreams of the WEF and its desire for mass urbanisation, rural decimation and demographic control through food systems. On the other, a vast, fragmented rural populace that maintains its autonomy. These battle lines have already been drawn, as Stratfor’s report for the Gates Foundation made clear when it labelled organic farmers and environmental activists as enemies of the foundation’s mission. There is no reconciliation between these diverging worldviews.
“That raising of food prices and the lack of affordability, then, are not simply a result of the Russian offensive in Ukraine and the subsequent reactions to it, nor is it even the result of climate change and increasing instances of drought… Instead, it could be more so the result of multinational corporate monopolies, disastrous policies, and the tightening of production and exports which all caused the crisis to be years, even decades, in the making”. The failures of mass intensive farming are coming thick and fast, from soil degradation and drought to water pollution and disease spread in factory-farmed animals. Food and energy crises are developing and it is opening space for the nightmare alternative presented by the Great Reset and United States Corporation – more control, more globalisation and more destruction as rural livelihoods and landscapes are thrown away, fenced off by Bayer or Unilever.
To face this nightmare, local systems of farming and food consumption are necessary to foster autonomy and weather crises. “The main argument for agrarianism is strictly pragmatic. We have to be able to feed our citizens—or, rather, our citizens have to be able to feed themselves. And, right now, we can’t. That is the most urgent economic crisis in America today. It may not seem like it, because the supply chain hasn’t collapsed, and the markets haven’t crashed. But if they do, the United States will become a third world country overnight”.
There are many who brag that the Green Revolution and industrialisation of agriculture have made farming a secondary activity, requiring a tiny workforce and leaving others to not toil on the land. But what have we replaced it with? We have an economy premised on nothing. We trade nothing and consume nothing. We have projects premised on autonomy (like crypto) that reproduce this very dynamic: buying, selling and owning nothing. Agriculture meanwhile is the production of something. It integrates us within nature and removes us from the massification and homogenisation of cities.
“If we are right, it will be necessary to go literally beyond the Pale. Outside the stockades we have built – the city walls, the original marker in stone or wood that first separated ‘man’ from ‘nature’. Beyond the gates, out into the wilderness, is where we are headed. And there we shall make for the higher ground for, as Jeffers wrote, ‘when the cities lie at the monster’s feet / There are left the mountains’”. Within this, agriculture must be seen as another cultural exegesis of modernity, another means of exit beyond the gates.