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What Covid reveals about agriculture and food

31 March, 2020 · News> Global situation

Border closures have jeopardized this summer’s harvest. Newspapers and news reports from all over Europe are already warning of a possible supply crisis and some states, such as France, are calling on the confined population to march into the countryside as volunteers. The unmentionable becomes even more evident: under the current system agricultural production is dysfunctional for the alimentary needs of the great majority of the population.

Spanish farmers say that they lack workers for the April harvest of watermelons, peaches and cherries . Strawberries alone would require 8,000 more workers than are available… because they are migrant seasonal workers who come and go for the harvest. In Britain they fear food shortages for the same reasons. And these are not isolated examples. We have seen this before in Italy , where due to border closures, farmers lamented the absence of 370,000 foreign laborers, and in Germany , where the employers tried to bring refugees to the countryside. In France, the same government asked those who are now unemployed because of confinement to work as day laborers for the “great army of French agriculture” to supply the cities. They needed 200,000, they got 150,000 volunteers … who will work below the minimum wage.

Day labourers’ camp in Italy

If the agrarian petty bourgeoisie has obtained its labor power from migrant workers, it is because the wages they could pay to fruit pickers, for example, were not enough to cover the cost of living in Spain. Only if they were spent in countries where the purchasing power of those wages was higher, would it be worth accepting such work. In other words, before the epidemic, the lack of workers did not lead to higher wages either. Instead, petty owners and businesses organized, hand in hand with the state, a whole complex flow of migrant workers. Now, without the migrants. Today, with that flow cut off by the closing of borders, they are back at square one: with this level of wages… there are no willing workers.

Because, lest we forget, agricultural wages are simply paltry. Although it now seems to have happened months ago, February in Spain was marked by farmers’ demonstrations, the rural petty bourgeoisie, demanding to be able to pay salaries below the minimum wage. Meanwhile in Italy the agricultural workers’ camps, where there is even a lack of running water, were already becoming real “sanitary bombs” with the epidemic.

In other words: there is a lack of workers, but those who are there are paid so little that their conditions are miserable, and they become potential victims of this or any other epidemic. But… if workers are missing, why don’t they raise their salaries?

Why is agriculture only profitable on starvation wages?

Gross value added by sector between 1930 and 2000 in Spain

Under capitalism, the share of profits that a sector receives tends to correspond to the percentage that its capitalization represents in relation to total capital. The basic problem of the agricultural sector is that it soon finds a limit to the productive absorption of capital. If the vineyards are trellised (supporting latticework to align the plants) and the harvest is automated, profitability will rise. But this can only be done once. If the owner of a cereal plot who already has the number of harvesters he needs, tries to capitalize by investing in another one, he will surely neither save costs – on the contrary – nor increase the amount of product. The limit of profitable capitalization is very low and only rises when there are really important innovations: greenhouses for tropical fruit, the change from dry to irrigated land, incorporation of desalination plants, extension of the trellis for mechanized harvesting, new forms of beating the olive tree… that is, sporadically and in general, demanding a concentration of fields to make them profitable.

But while the owner of a small farm is waiting for some new technology to give him breathing space, agricultural production services have invested massive amounts in creating networks of refrigerated warehouses and fleets of trucks, opening markets where they sell the fresh vegetables thousands of kilometers away and making them the main sources of demand. In other words, they have become increasingly productive for the capital invested in them: they produce more profits and increase their output. And logically they take a bigger and bigger slice of the total profit pie. A profit that, in turn, tends to decrease for the food sector as a whole (production, industry and services) with respect to other more “cutting-edge” industries, such as “advanced services”. And all this within a framework in which the average returns on capital are very low (which is why credit interest rates were already negative) and in which the growth of national capital in the central countries as a whole has been creeping up for ten years. To sum up: the agricultural owner is entitled to less and less of a piece of a total cake that is hardly growing. And there is nothing to suggest that this will change significantly for him, if not for the worse.

The only way for smallholders, the agrarian petty bourgeoisie, to maintain a return on investment is to increase exploitation in absolute terms, hence the miserable wages of day laborers, the hiring of irregular migrants without legal rights, and the thousands of daily abuses throughout Europe and America.

Why the food industry makes you eat increasingly worse

Migrant day laborers picking fruit in a greenhouse in Hereford, Great Britain.

Since the ability to use capital in a profitable way is what makes a business successful, it is normal for incentives in the agricultural sector to focus on industry and services. The use for which larger amounts of capital can still be useful is to increase product shelf life to facilitate logistics and reduce transport and storage costs while increasing availability over longer distances. This means more industrial food, more ready-made food and new ways of preservation.

The widespread consumption of “ultra-processed” food in the US and other countries, the spread of a culture in which most workers do not actually cook, but heat and prepare foods previously processed by industry, does not come out of the blue. The problem is that processed food dramatically increases health risks. And it’s not just in the Anglo-Saxon world and its sphere of influence. Latin countries, so proud of their gastronomic culture, have for decades been replacing almost entirely the consumption of pasteurized milk (the “fresh” one) with ultra-pasteurized milk, which delays its expiration date. No one thought that anything important was lost in the change. Yet it seems to be the case. Let’s not even talk about replacing traditional olive oil with cheap fats and palm oil by increasing the consumption of industrially produced foods such as cookies or oil cakes.

About vegetables… in the city we buy them green and tasteless, with the skin full of varied insecticides that nobody knows how to wash away. Insecticides are supposed to reduce crop losses… but today a large part is left unharvested because the prices don’t even pay the wages of the workers, or because there is always a part of the crop that doesn’t fit in the measurements or the characteristics that allow its standardization for international sale. In the EU alone, 88 million metric tons of food are wasted each year.

Agrarian capitalism leads to such miserable wages that it forces owners to literally look outside the market for workers, to squander crops and to increasingly unhealthy diets that become the basis for real social epidemics. Can there be a clearer example of the dissociation between growth and development that characterizes the decadence of the system?

Why not make food healthy and free?

Workers from “Agromania”, an agricultural workers’ cooperative.

Agricultural and food production has become dysfunctional even within the parameters of the system itself. If agriculture and the food sector are increasingly regulated, subsidized and financialized, it is simply because capitalism does not even work to meet social food needs and the system itself has to prop it up by accumulating band-aids… that do not fix its own underlying dynamics.

But we’re seeing something else with this epidemic. Something very different from the “great army of agriculture” organized by the French state. In the few places where there are day laborers’ cooperatives, as in Caserta, Italy , the workers offer free harvest collection, if the food is distributed for free as well. Obviously, the solution will not come from isolated initiatives.

But experience shows where the solution to all this antisocial and anti-historical chaos lies: to decommodify production , to attack capitalist relations from day one, to begin to overcome the absurd logic that leads to rewarding the use of capital over and above the satisfaction of human needs. To affirm, instead of capital, the criterion of “to each according to his needs” of consumption in quantity and quality.

Providing food to each one according to their needs, not only in quantity but in quality, is very much possible and its cost in hours of social work, minimal over the total we do collectively today. True food abundance -healthy and varied food for everyone around the world and in sufficient quantity- is possible by de-commercializing and de-decommodifying production… all production from day one.