Let Them Eat Junk by Robert Albritton and published this year in the U.K. by Pluto Press and Canada by Arbeiter Ring [“left-wing politics with a rock-n- roll attitude”], is reviewed by fellow Ethiopia 2 RPCV Philip Damon. It is an impressive review of an important book.
Reviewed by Philip Damon (Ethiopia 1963–65)
To his credit, Rob Albritton never employs the tired cliché “a perfect storm” in his acid analysis of the world’s runaway food crisis. Instead, he coyly alludes in his title to the “callous indifference” of a much earlier elite of power and privilege, whose post-royalist inheritors he specifies in the subtitle: How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity. Yet he could have applied the meteorological metaphor every bit as aptly, since with a planetary population of over six billion, and the “food provisioning” for such a number having fallen under the control of a handful of “profit-mongering” corporations, there definitely appears to be some sort of storm gathering itself on the horizon. One would like to think it might be something along the lines of the history-changing revolution the book’s title calls to mind. Given the case that Rob has assembled here, however, it may well turn out to be an entirely different kind of historical outcome.
(A personal note: I refer to the author as Rob, since we all knew him as such as PCVs in Ethiopia. I knew him only a little back then, and we ended up going our distant ways-he to York University in Canada, and I to the University of Hawaii in the mid-Pacific-where our academic lives were equally distant, with his in economics and mine in the literary arts. Yet in our separate ways, this sad topic has been paramount in the minds of us both. My focus in food has been on individual responsibility-a dire need for all of us, given the shameful irresponsibility of the agribusinesses that feed us. Rob’s focus has been on the bigger picture: how did we get into this ugly fix in the first place?)
To answer this question, Rob has put together a genuinely impressive document, which is both academic and compellingly narrative in its approach. Using Marx’s Capital as a practical as well as a moral touchstone, Rob explores capitalism “from the notion of three separate levels of analysis. The most abstract level reveals capital’s basic operating principles. Mid-range theory studies the way in which these principles are manifested most characteristically or typically in different phases of capitalist development. Historical analysis studies capitalism’s actual historical process of change.” He then proceeds to apply these levels of analysis to capital’s impact on the provisioning of food-first from a general or “abstract” perspective, and then through its historical development to the main portion of the book: our current time of unfolding dietary crisis.
The thing about Rob’s prose is that it is anything but abstract. Along with his own jargon-free diction, he has a way of introducing and applying terminology from Marx and elsewhere to the story he is telling (“commodification,” “intensification,” “hands,” “use-value”) that is educational yet at the same time makes his book as compelling as a novel by Frank Norris (who is referred to) or Upton Sinclair. There is clearly a muckraking feel about the book, which drips with indignation despite the restrained tones of its factual presentation. It is organized meticulously and impeccably to such a degree that makes it unassailable to attack from any corporate “flak-hack.” Every assertion is (unobtrusively) footnoted, totaling 828 over 216 pages of text, counting the preface. The bibliography of cited works covers thirteen pages, one of which is filled with books and articles by Rob himself. And the nine-page index is as user-friendly as a reader could ask for. Nothing is unfindable there, and I expect to be using it as a handy reference for a long time to come.
(I have to say I was blown away by the extent of the research behind this book.)
Coming to it as someone who is fairly knowledgeable about the crisis due to the globalization of food, I was amazed to find nothing not here that I already knew-and a whole lot more that I didn’t. When I got to Chapter 5 (“The Health of Agriculture and Food Workers”), I was especially alert to see if there would be a reference to the spate of suicides among Indian farmers who’d been driven into debt by corporate interference-and there it was, on page 129. But what about the rest of it-that they were coerced into using GMO-Bt seeds by Monsanto, then had to buy new seeds every season and could no longer use their own? Well, once I got to Chapter 6 (“Agriculture, Food Provisioning and the Environment”), there the rest of it was, on page 162: “In India, large numbers of cotton farmers were persuaded that the increased yields that they would harvest from planting Bt cotton would help them to begin to pay off their crushing debt load. When they discovered that the Bt plants were more prone to disease and that the yields were lower, many faced debts that they could not pay. The result was a very high suicide rate among cotton farmers.” Of course I could as easily have found it by checking the index under “suicide,” where there is a reference to American farmers killing themselves too.
Bt seeds are engineered to make crops poisonous to insects, while other GMOs are resistant to herbicides, such as Roundup, another Monsanto product (Chapter 4: “The Food Regime and Consumers’ Health”), which has been shown to be deadly to American farmers, fish and beneficial insects-“and there is now evidence that weeds can develop a resistance to it.” Roundup’s main ingredient, glyposate, has “adverse effects in all five of the basic categories of toxicity: subchronic, chronic, carcenogenicity, mutagenicity and reproduction.” Yet Roundup-ready GMOs and Bt GMOs “were approved without any independent government testing, and Roundup is not included in government monitoring of pesticide residues in foods.” Indeed, the FDA has said it believes “that the corporations have performed all necessary tests to be in compliance with existing safety laws.”
While Rob opts not to extend the argument here, collusion among agencies of government and for-profit corporations has numerous analogues in areas other than the agricultural-industrial complex. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought to light the corrupt corporatization of former government functions by way of no-bid contracts to outfits like Halliburton, KDR and Blackwater. The economic meltdown has overwhelmed our awareness of the systematic deregulation of the reckless institutions of the financial sector. The current furor over a public option in healthcare has exposed the chokehold on Congress by the AMA, AHIP and big pharma. Prisons, schools, and even our precious national parks are being increasingly privatized. All in the name of a free market.
Instead, Rob maintains his focus on the capitalization of agriculture: because (1) food is the basic necessity of human life; (2) any system that undermines the relationship between the environment and food provisioning is unsustainable; (3) a system that has the capability of providing all members of society with the nutrients essential to health but leaves large numbers lacking in those nutrients cannot be said to meet the basic criteria of a reasonable theory of distributive justice; and (4) by applying Marx’s basic framework for understanding capitalism, we can understand why capitalism cannot effectively manage the agricultural system, and why it was not until after World War II that the American food system became substantially capitalist-i.e. post-family farm.
Rob does veer at times from the food theme to include cotton and tobacco, yet only as parallel examples of egregious corporate cynicism on a global agricultural scale. And for the reasons I’ve listed in the previous paragraph, it is the food crisis that drives the indictment of capitalism in this book. As I suggested earlier, the tactical genius of his approach lies in the way he weaves his presentation of capitalism’s “deep structures” into a narrative fabric that tells us the story of how we’ve become a world that is increasingly mal-fed on a “meatified” fat-sugar-and-salt, junk-food diet, which is (with the aid of federal subsidies) under-priced to the point of impoverishing small farmers on every continent including our own-and is essentially constituted of empty, addictive calories. While at the same time, due to corporate agricultural methods, our once fertile farmlands have been reduced to sterile dirt that is also empty of anything but chemical nutrients-which are every bit as short-term as the profits that the “stewards” of the land are reaping.
A few pages are given at the end to agents of hopeful change-a handful of Latin American “landless workers movements”-and some suggestions are also made toward a “more effective and accountable public sector” and “more accountable corporations.” Yet as incontestable as they of course are-like sermons to the choir-these “solutions” come across as being almost as ironically tongue-in-cheek in their intent as other morsels of wit that are sprinkled dryly throughout the book. He uses eye-wink phrases like “the logic of capitalism” and “the rational capitalist” to underscore horrendous acts of social injustice and environmental destruction. Early on, he says: “A rational capitalist’s loyalty cannot be to the material or ideological qualities of a thing (that is, use-value), but must always be to profit as pure quantity. For example, a truly ‘rational’ capitalist, no matter how religious, would shift production from bibles to pornography purely in response to profit signals. The penalty for breaching this loyalty to pure profit would be ultimately to lose out to the competition and to cease being a capitalist. In terms of food, a ‘rational’ capitalist will produce unhealthy food if it is more profitable than healthy food, and will utilize polluting and toxic chemical inputs as long as profits are increased by doing so.”
In that same early chapter he says, “Capital would in principle like to continually expand its profits, and in the food sector, one way of doing this is to get people to eat more. It has often been thought that this is limited by the fact that when someone is full, they will stop eating. Unfortunately the food industry has found ways of defeating what might at first seem to be a natural limitation. While there are various ways of doing this, one way is to get people to eat a lot of snacks. Snacks have the highest profit margin, and now there are people who snack nearly all the time, being limited only by waking hours. In the United States 50 percent of all eating occasions consist of snacking. This means higher profits for food corporations and larger waistlines for consumers, whose obesity is likely to make their lives more disease-prone and shorter. The food industry has dealt with the problem of underconsumption by contributing to overconsumption.”
Underconsumption is the inevitable conundrum faced by industries that are driven by profit to brutally underpay their laborers. And Rob demonstrates how this industry has managed to work around the problem: by engendering-with, of course, the support of subsidies-an overconsumption of criminally cheap, ersatz “food.” Five or six decades ago, Adele Davis declared that America was overfed and undernourished, but she and her mid-century contemporaries, Carleton Fredericks and Gaylord Hauser, could scarcely have imagined what lay in store for the country and the world. These early gadflies were followed by a lineage of visionaries such as Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet), John Robbins (Diet for a New America), and more recently by Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). Now, Let Them Eat Junk deserves an honored place on the shelf with these and other classics.
Yet it’s as if we have a culture that is as under-aware as it is over-informed, and addled by its addictions, would almost prefer to say, “Let us eat junk.”
Philip Damon writes, reads and runs — and eats locally and organically — in the Pacific Northwest.