Review in Journal of Peasant Studies

Hungry for Change
Farmers, Food Justice and the Agrarian Question

By A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi  

At the heart of this little book is the agrarian question, which asks ‘whether or not capital and capitalist relations of production are or are not transforming agriculture, and if so, how’ (1). At a time when the global subsistence crisis grows more stark, peasant-based movements like La Vía Campesina grow more vocal, and global institutions like the World Bank turn their attention toward food and rural poverty, Akram-Lodhi makes a compelling case for why the agrarian question must remain at the centre of analyses of the current global food regime. To ignore it, he suggests, would be to risk obscuring and replicating the very mechanisms that have created today’s global subsistence crisis. We cannot adequately understand the twin problems of hunger and obesity, poverty and wealth, without uncovering the insidious ways that capital, states and global institutions have structured markets to facilitate the dispossession of the peasantry throughout the world. ‘Money has been used in food markets for thousands of years and has not produced the depth and breadth of the inequality that we see today’, Akram-Lodhi writes, ‘which implies that we need to look beyond the interaction of money and markets if we are to understand how the inequities of the contemporary food regime have become established’ (30).

Despite the extensive history of the agrarian question, Hungry for Change says an awful lot in its succinct 194 pages. It begins with a short introduction to the global subsistence crisis, followed by chapters on food entitlements, the parameters of the agrarian question, the ‘engineering’ of peasant market dependence and differentiation in the Global South, peasant resistance and the failure of twentieth-century pro-poor redistributive land reform, the Green Revolution, the state’s complicity in the development of a global capitalist food regime, and the rise of agro-food corporations (particularly retailers). The final chapters outline ‘two contrasting visions … out of this crisis’ (2), namely those of the World Bank and La Vía Campesina, as well as Akram-Lodhi’s criticisms and responses to each.

As a whole, the book is an ambitious and formidable synthesis of the wide literature on the agrarian question and its links to the current global food crisis. It skillfully draws on literature across the fields of traditional political economy, history, anthropology and development studies, among others. However, it is also built on the personal interactions Akram-Lodhi has had with the rural poor via his extensive teaching and research career to date, giving readers a frank, fascinating look at the ways in which the privileged worlds of academia and development collide with the everyday experiences of rural hunger and poverty. He does not shy away from writing in a subjective manner (a style indicative of Fernwood Publishing’s readable, political books aimed at multiple audiences), which may not please all readers but is arguably welcome in the wider literature on the agrarian question.

Those well versed in agrarian political economy or familiar with Akram-Lodhi and Cristobal Kay’s (2010a, 2010b) two-part survey of the agrarian question will recognize that some of the nuances and complexities of the debates have been smoothed over. But make no mistake: while the book covers well-trod territory, it is organized in a refreshing manner around specific people and places. Each chapter introduces a handful of characters whose experiences illustrate a particular concept or period of agrarian transition. Some are obviously historical, like Emiliano Zapata and Friedrich Engels, while others he has personally met. For example, Chapter One introduces readers to Noor Mohammed, an extremely poor sharecropper in rural Pakistan; his landlord Haji Shahrukh Khan, whose control over the land and its distribution is historically conditioned by British imperialism; and also Jessica Carson, an undergraduate student at a Canadian university whose food options are circumscribed by agro-food corporations. Akram-Lodhi uses these characters, and others, to illustrate the concept of entitlements (Sen 1983). These characters and their stories allow Akram-Lodhi to skillfully recapitulate his arguments. For example, in Chapter Two he reminds us that ‘peasant class differentiation, which separates Qing Youzi [a successful Chinese fish farmer] from Sam Naimisi [a small-scale Ugandan coffee farmer], Grace Muchengi [a poor subsistence farmer in eastern Kenya] and Noor Mohammed [the aforementioned sharecropper], is the key to understanding change in the countryside and the development of capitalism in agriculture’ (46-7). Using characters to stand in for various theories and historical processes makes Hungry for Change ideal for use at the undergraduate level, but the trade-off is that the book is best read as a whole instead of piecemeal.

One exception might be Chapter Six, a particularly strong section about rice that spans the temporal and geographic distance between the nineteenth- and twenty-first-century American south and Haiti. In contrast with earlier chapters that illustrate peasant class differentiation within specific places and regions, Chapter Six goes global to show how the United States employed trade and agricultural policies to address and soften its own farming crises from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, a process that made it possible for some large-scale family farms to survive, but disproportionately benefitted the emerging and even larger industrial capitalist rice farms by creating import dependence in places like Haiti (108). The second half of the chapter tells the compelling story of Maxime Auxilaire, whose family grew rice in Haiti until the 1990s when the influx of cheap American (‘Miami’) rice finally forced them to sell their land. Not long after, Maxime’s father died en route to the United States looking for work, and in 2001 Maxime began working a waged job unloading Miami rice in the town of Saint-Marc (119). Such are the cruel - but not coincidental - trajectories of the current global food regime.

The final two chapters see Akram-Lodhi shift gears, moving from explanations of the development of capitalism in agriculture toward potential solutions to the global subsistence crisis. He begins by outlining two very different approaches to the crisis by the World Bank and La Vía Campesina. Unsurprisingly, the World Bank plays the villain here, embodied by former Bank president Robert Zoellick, despite Akram-Lodhi’s acknowledgement of ‘quite divergent views’ (145) within the institution. Nevertheless, he argues that the advice laid out in the 2008 World development report ‘would not necessarily establish pathways out of rural poverty but rather consolidate the access of emerging proto-capitalist farmers subordinated within food supply chains dominated by agro-food corporate interests’ (148). While certainly correct, this analysis is unlikely to surprise many readers of this journal.

More interesting is his critique of La Vía Campesina. Akram-Lodhi is clearly sympathetic to the perspectives and general goals of the movement, but he argues that they do not have an adequate answer to the agrarian question, and thus, ‘forging ahead with the development of a post-capitalist alternative’ will bring to light the tensions that exist within a ‘diverse membership’ with ‘differing degrees of insertion into or protection from capitalist social and economic conditions’ (152). His critique echoes the cautions raised by Saturnino M. Borras, Jr., who has shown that class-based differences within La Vía Campesina have caused significant ‘fall-outs’ within the movement (2008, 274-7), but also Marc Edelman, who has highlighted the contradictions between the movement’s ‘anti-subsidy stance’ and visions of food sovereignty (2005, 339).

In the final chapter, Akram-Lodhi tries to avoid a clichéd epilogue-of-hope model by striking a balance between the idealism of envisioning post-capitalist food regimes and the overwhelming nature of critique by outlining what he believes are the concrete ways to move forward. Instead of wholeheartedly adopting La Vía Campesina’s approach, he has instead introduced the concept of ‘agrarian sovereignty’, which he describes as ‘a more sharply defined idea of food sovereignty’ (157). Foremost amongst his suggestions for agrarian sovereignty are a renewed focus on land reform that redistributes not just land but also - critically - wealth toward the poor (161-4), the replacement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) with an International Trade Organization (ITO) as envisioned by John Maynard Keynes and Hans Singer (166-7), and a cultural revolution of personal food preferences toward local, ecological tastes and suitability (167-9). While these suggestions will probably elicit a wide variety of responses from readers, the first two are much more clearly articulated than the third, especially since ecologies and environments figure so little in the book until the end.

This section of the book is both inspiring and frustrating: inspiring for the author’s insistence that analyses of the agrarian question must move into the realm of action, and frustrating because readers are left with some unanswered questions, though that is inevitable in any study. One absence that strikes me as particularly relevant for readers of The Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS) is land grabbing. Akram-Lodhi does not give the contemporary phenomenon more than a cursory mention (139), which seems a peculiar omission considering the emphasis he places on land reform as a necessary step to challenging capitalism’s continuous entrenchment in agriculture. This is undoubtedly an absence born of decisions about the book’s length and readability, but those who have been following the work of the JPS as part of the Land Deal Politics Initiative (Borras et al. 2011) will likely wish to have seen more interaction with that growing body of work.

Overall, however, there is little to critique in this excellent volume. Hungry for Change offers a wonderfully bite-sized introduction to the agrarian question in both its historical and contemporary forms that challenges academics and activists alike to think deeply and critically about the current global food regime and its overhaul.-Hayley Goodchild PhD Candidate, Department of History, McMaster University for The Journal of Peasant Studies, Nov 2013.

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