Food as a Commodity

By Fred Magdoff (2012)


there is a critical contradiction when any basic human need is produced and sold as a commodity, whether we are considering food, health care, drinking water, or shelter.

Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.

For many millennia following the origin of our species, humans were hunters and gatherers— an existence that one might think of as tenuous. However, judging from archeological evidence as well as recent examples, hunters and gatherers generally ate a diverse diet that supplied adequate nutrition. For example, studies in the 1960s and ‘70s of the !Kung of southern Africa, foragers for literally thousands of years, indicate that although they ate meat that they hunted, about two-thirds of their food was plant-based—nuts (supplying more than one-third of caloric intake), fruits, roots, and berries—and their diet provided approximately 2,400 calories a day. The groups of hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, with everyone participating in the provisioning of food.

Agriculture, which developed some seven to ten thousand years ago, provided surplus food that allowed the development of cities and the hierarchies and civilizations that went along with them—farmers, artisans, priests, kings, warriors, scribes, and other functionaries. But just because there was a surplus did not mean that people were better nourished than hunter- gatherers. In fact, the narrowing of available foods used from the wide variety in the hunter- gatherers’ diets, along with the reliance primarily on grains to provide calories, is thought to have caused a decrease in the health of early agriculturalists—as indicated by their decreased height compared that of hunter-gatherers. In these agricultural societies surplus food production was mainly appropriated for the use of the non-food producing classes. Most pre- capitalist agricultural societies had many producers relative to non-productive classes.

Production for the purpose of sale and profit, instead of production for use, is a defining characteristic of capitalism and essentially all commodity exchanges take place in markets. During the early stages of capitalism, when most people still lived and worked on the land, a large portion of food was produced to be consumed locally in the rural areas and did not exist as a commodity. However, farmers near growing cities and/or near water transport shipped food to the industrializing urban centers.

More and more of the natural world, including water supplies and the very genes of life, are being brought under private control with the aim of making profits, rather than to supply the needs of people.

However, there is a critical contradiction when any basic human need is produced and sold as a commodity, whether we are considering food, health care, drinking water, or shelter.

When food—a basic necessity for human health and survival that is currently produced in sufficient quantity to feed everyone in the world a basic nutritious diet—is a commodity, the results are routine hunger, malnutrition, premature deaths, and famines when tight supplies result in exceptionally high prices. There are examples of farmers and the public organizing alternative ways to grow food for people instead of the market—such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in which people purchase (frequently on a sliding scale according to ability to pay) a share of the produce during grown during the season. These types of arrangements between farmers and the public are encouraging because they demonstrate an alternate approach to food. However, the only way to guarantee that food reaches all people in sufficient quantity and quality is to develop a new system that considers food a human right and no longer considers it a commodity. Only then will we be able to fulfill the slogan, “Food for People, Not for Profit.”

Capitalist agriculture is a contemporary phenomenon. It does not pay respect to the land, the people, or the community: only to monetary income. This has left our food system broken and inequalities around the world. In countries around the world, people eat foods that do not provide adequate nourishment while growing nourishing foods for those who can afford to essentially pay them to starve. This primarily stems from the lack of understanding about the humans on the other end of our dinner plates. Alternative ways forward, such as CSAs mentioned in this piece, encourage not only connection to one’s food, but also connection to one’s community and the natural climate in which one lives and what it can provide. Eating local does so much more than reduce our carbon footprint; it allows us to begin to bring our footprint into a small enough scope that we can see where we are stepping, rather than haphazardly smashing the entire globe with our clumsy, unintentional feet.