COVID-19 Shows Why We Must Socialize the Food System

Coronavirus has emphasized a truth we knew before the pandemic: capitalist food systems are irrational and don’t serve human needs. Socialists have to demand a food system based on social and ecological needs — one that can provide food for all.

Farm workers harvest zucchini on the Sam Accursio & Son's Farm on April 01, 2020 in Florida City, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty

The COVID-19 crisis is revealing a basic contradiction at the heart of capitalism. On the one hand, we have learned that this virus is itself a product of our capitalist agricultural system. As Rob Wallace and coauthors argue, the conditions for virus transmission are rooted in our propensity to clear-cut dense, wild forests — often the reservoirs of viruses themselves — and replace them with homogenous plantation ecologies like palm oil or livestock operations with one species of animal crowded together.

As they put it:

the entirety of the production line is organized around practices that accelerate the evolution of pathogen virulence and subsequent transmission. Growing genetic monocultures — food animals and plants with nearly identical genomes — removes immune firebreaks that in more diverse populations slow down transmission.

For example, the avian and swine influenza outbreaks of years past often have their origins in confined livestock feeding operations. COVID-19 apparently emerged in a “wet market” that combined all kinds of natural commodities, from exotic wild animals like snakes to domesticated livestock like hogs. Congregating multiple kinds of species in a small space with loads of human buyers and sellers is an excellent platform for virus transmission.

As one scholar put it, “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

On the other hand, for millions of workers across the world, a brutal ecological reality of capitalism asserts itself: we depend on money to access those same very agricultural supply chains to live. Millions of workers living paycheck to paycheck see their jobs or wages cut, forcing families to decide how much they can spend on rent versus food.

For those working-class people still with income, the experience of the epidemic has been one of nervously pacing through crowded grocery aisles, fighting with others over toilet paper, and discovering shelf after emptied shelf. Grocery supply chain experts declare that “there is plenty of food in the country,” but it is clear that “just-in-time” supply-chain capitalism is ill equipped to service all of society’s needs in a global pandemic.

The supply chains use statistical algorithms to predict consumer demand so it can be fine-tuned with production and logistics networks. These systems are geared toward saving retail corporations money on inventory (warehousing) costs, but they easily fail when demand unexpectedly spikes or “disruptions” occur in the supply chain.

And now the violence of the market is asserting itself through price spikes for basic food staples. Communities are going hungry as local food banks run short of the basics, while farmers are leaving fresh vegetables to rot in the fields and dairy producers are dumping milk down the drain because of plummeting prices and lack of demand. So much for the nimble and resilient market, supposedly the most efficient system in allocating resources.

The capitalist agri-food system is clearly irrational. The socialist demand that can move us toward a food system based on social and ecological needs should ring a familiar bell: food for all.

If the “Medicare for All” struggle has shown the popularity of the slogan “health care is a human right,” then why is food not seen the same way? The only thing preventing “food as a human right” is an industry that relies on creating artificial scarcity of food to maintain prices and profits.

A socialist approach to these problems can’t address them piecemeal, reforming agriculture on the one hand and delivering food as a human right on the other. The goal should be to revolutionize the entire food system and orient it toward social and ecological needs.

COVID-19 and the Capitalist Food System

As we discover our agricultural system is responsible for spreading the virus, we also realize how perilously dependent we all are on those very systems of food provision for survival. Both of these problems are caused by one problem: our food system as a whole is controlled by private, for-profit capitalists.

As Wallace et al. explain, the agricultural system is structured in a narrow way: “the private command of production remains entirely focused on profit.” It is the profit motive and competition that compels agricultural producers to brutally rationalize and homogenize nature in the form of the monoculture plantation or mono-species livestock operation. These not only provide perfect ecological systems for virus transmission, they also replace formerly biodiverse ecologies that tend to keep wild viruses at bay.

Yet we can’t think of these agro-industrial farms in isolation from the larger system. All these capitalist agro-industrial profits would be impossible if it were not for its main source of consumer demand: working classes all around the world dispossessed of any means of livelihood, who can only eat so long as they work for money.

As Raj Patel argued over a decade ago, we live in an “hourglass” food system where, on both ends, millions of farmers and worker-consumers are exploited by a tiny group of agro-industrial corporations in the middle, the food processors and retail giants. Working-class demand is essential to the entire system. Even the best kind of government-welfare provisions, like food stamps or the current interest in a Universal Basic Income (UBI), only ensure further cash flowing into the hands of the massive retail chains, food processors, and agribusiness companies.

What Is an Ecosocialist Response?

Clearly, the pandemic reveals a crisis in our ecological relation to food and nature. What would be a proper ecosocialist response? Wallace correctly diagnoses some problems with our agricultural system, but his solutions offer little to the masses of workers who depend on money, commodities, and grocery stores to survive.

Wallace suggests we need to completely remake agriculture, “reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first.” In another article, he lays out a list of demands that center on two core principles: prioritizing the struggles for land among rural peasant and indigenous smallholder producers, and reintegrating agricultural production with ecological principles (i.e., “agroecology”) that replace industrial-scale monocultures with more diverse crop rotations, organic fertilizers, and integrated pest management.

This style of agricultural politics is summed up with a rhetorical flourish: “Let’s braid together a new world-system, indigenous liberation, farmer autonomy, strategic rewilding, and place-specific agroecologies that, redefining biosecurity, reintroduce immune firebreaks of widely diverse varieties in livestock, poultry, and crops.”

All sounds good. Ecosocialists should always support rural smallholder and indigenous movements for what is called food and land “sovereignty.” This goes to the heart of a long history of socialist politics supporting movements for “self-determination” of oppressed peoples.

Yet a real tension in this kind of politics is that it is not clear how putting rural communities first or creating “place-specific agroecologies” will create a viable food system for the roughly 71 percent of the global labor force not engaged in agricultural work – or 55 percent of the planet currently living in cities who, despite the trendiness of urban gardening, rely on money to access the food they need to survive.

Rural smallholder agriculture is excellent at feeding local regions, but the majority of us live and rely on existing supply chains. Farmer autonomy is a critical value, but what about the autonomy of the wider set of food system workers beyond the farm? And, what about the autonomy of all of us who depend on these systems of food provision to eat?

As Marx and Engels argued, the core contradiction of capitalism is that those of us who rely on commodities to survive rely on dense networks of labor, but all the money and commodities themselves are appropriated by private actors. The goal of socialism is to take already existing socialized labor systems and socialize the control and benefits.

Thus, an ecosocialist agroecological program for the proletarianized masses needs to think more broadly than “farmer autonomy.” It must be about socializing the entire food system in a way that includes farms, but also the wider social networks of labor and production that bring food to our plates.

Socialize the Food System

Rather than simply abandoning the agro-industrial supply chains we depend upon, we need to think about how those supply chains could be reconstructed if they weren’t controlled for profit. This means confronting the fact that the existing food system contains advantages we can’t fully abandon.

Labor-saving technologies in agriculture have produced tremendous food abundance with very little labor. Industrialized countries devote miniscule portions of their labor force to agricultural labor: 1.7 percent in the United States, 2.9 percent in France, 1.9 percent in Sweden, and so on. Even in emerging economies like Brazil — clearly an agricultural powerhouse — the number is small (10.3 percent).

This does not mean agriculture is fully automated or labor-less. The coronavirus crisis is revealing how migrant farmworkers are simultaneously exploited and deemed “essential” to harvesting our fresh fruits and vegetables. Any socialist food system would need to find an equitable way to distribute this kind of labor throughout society.

As critics of this narrative will point out, countries with small agricultural workforces also import food across borders, much of which may be labor intensive, to produce on highly exploitative plantations. Leaving aside the goals of worldwide socialism, it would be untenable to argue for socialist food provision based on such exploitative labor relations.

Nevertheless, the overall trend everywhere on the planet is a shift of people out of agriculture and into the cash economy, what Farshad Araghi called “global depeasantization.” For the masses already torn from the land, socialists need a food politics concerned as much with food provision as food production.

We live in a system in which the vast majority do not directly produce food, yet some socialist thinkers argue that a “revolutionary” food system would entail all of us becoming farmers, where “nearly everyone would have some hand in growing the food they eat.”

We should be clear: farm work is incredibly hard. Most people in industrial societies lack both the desire and the enormous skills needed to perform this labor (which is why capitalist farmers rely on a surplus of exploitable migrant workers willing to accept very low wages that can be sent home as remittances).

Recall the United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs!” campaign in 2010 to offer farm jobs to US citizens, an era of mass unemployment. Only a “few dozen” serious or qualified job seekers emerged.

Any revolutionary politics premised on all of us doing agricultural labor will not create the kind of mass politics we would need to actually win socialism. To follow Friedrich Engels, a return to labor-intensive local agrarianism represents a “utopian socialist” position out of step with the material conditions that confront us.

Some might argue that we should make farm work more rewarding and higher paid, but I would argue a truly socialist approach would be to ensure the most dangerous and physically exhausting forms of toil should be automated so that no one has to do it. A core question for socialists should be: What parts of these automated technologies can be repurposed to create agroecological growing systems rather than monoculture-plantation profit machines? This means a debate based not on either industrial or smallholder agroecological production, but probably a combination of both.

Can crop rotation and integrated pest management methods be combined with (non-fossil-fuel-powered) tractors and harvesting robots? Can automated agricultural production be downscaled so as to prevent the kind of habitat and biodiversity destruction blamed for pandemic virus transmission?

It’s not just labor-saving technology. The just-in-time food supply chains interrupted by panic buying still represent massive socialized planning machines that use enormous levels of data and computing power to predict exactly when you tend to buy a jar of pickles. Imagine if those logistics systems were not harnessed for giant retail firms’ profits, but for ensuring social needs are met?

We also should resist the idea that we must transition to purely local food systems. If we decarbonize transport, can we create mutually beneficial trade relations that allow communities to enjoy food even if it is not grown locally?

Consider how few people actually rely solely on foods seasonally grown in their specific region when they are available. We might debate the value of certain chicken sandwiches, but an expansive (and socialist) vision of human need would accommodate the genuine desire for fresh, delicious foods from beyond one’s specific local region.

The problem with non-local foods under capitalism is not their geographic origin, but the fact that commodity relations conceal the exploitative human and ecological conditions of their production. Socialism is about making visible — and subject to democratic control — production itself. If we could not find just and ecologically rational ways to provision lettuce to temperate regions in the winter, so be it. But we should not reject such an idea on the basis of some nostalgic idea that “local” is better for all involved.

How we might transform our capitalist agro-industrial system to a socialist one is an open question. We simply don’t consider how constraining the private, for-profit control of our food system currently is. If that system were based on human need and ecological rationality, there is no reason we should assume technology and trade couldn’t be deployed toward large-scale beneficial ends.

“Food for All”

As people lose their jobs and incomes, they are starving themselves to make sure their children eat. Like health care, food should have always been considered a fundamental human right. This means we need an ecosocialist strategy focused on a core platform of the decommodification of food. It is commodification — and the forces of competition and profit — that compel capital to design food production landscapes as if they were factories — rows of the same crop harvested assembly-line style.

The first premise of decommodification is provisioning food as a human right to everyone. Consider another vital need of humans: water. Despite efforts at privatization, many societies provision water as a public utility, either for free or below cost. When bankrupt cities like Detroit attempt to shut off water to poor households, they are rightly accused of human rights abuses.

Why can’t we also see the food system as a similar kind of public utility? Food is, of course, much different than water (although our need for it is not). Food is highly diverse: it comes in different forms and is the product of divergent cultural practices. This is not a call for centrally planned gruel rations. It is about making food — in all its cultural diversity — a public question rather than a private one.

Currently, consumers vote with their dollars to express food preferences — more money, more votes — and private food sellers make decisions based on shareholder returns.

Thus, making the food system a public utility also entails the second aspect of decommodification: democratic control. While decommodification is often seen as simply the provision of “free stuff,” basic human dignity should also include people controlling decisions that affect their lives.

What would food-system democracy look like? Sam Gindin argues for a socialist middle ground between local worker control and higher-level and democratic state planning. He proposes we could create “sectoral councils” for specific and socially important sectors like food and agriculture. These councils would ideally represent both communities in need of food provision and the workers involved in agricultural production.

These councils could inform larger-scale efforts at “ecological planning.” Wallace and others’ research shows that our food production system is highly irrational from an ecological perspective. We have no shortage of ecological scientific knowledge that could be used to inform all kinds of production. Capital simply ignores it. Ecosocialists need to argue that ecological planning must be integrated into all our production systems — and our food system is an obvious place to start.

The coronavirus crisis has revealed capitalism as a system at war with life. Deadly viruses emerge on capitalist plantations and travel through networks of money and commodity circulation. Humans not killed by the virus itself are left unable to access the food they need to live a healthy life. This crisis represents a dramatic opportunity to reimagine what our society and economy could be if organized on different terms.