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Food Sovereignty and the Global Food System: A Review of Fordulat #29

Photo by Tünde Havasmezői.

Amid the geopolitical and humanitarian crisis generated by the war in Ukraine, another crisis is unfolding globally which is also heavily affected by the war. Global food supply problems could cause food shortages and famine in several low-income countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Global food prices, increasing since the 2000s, had reached a highest-ever level in the spring. The important role of Ukraine and Russia in the global food system (Ukraine is among the largest grain exporters in the world, Russia has a significant role in the fertilizer industry) contributed to the unprecedented rise of global food prices. The war also reveals how important local food systems are in providing nutrition in Ukraine: people fleeing the cities are depending at the moment on food produced by small family farms. The solidarity of Romanian farmers providing Ukrainian family farms with seeds also shows the power of alternative ways of thinking outside the logic of the global food system.

The growing food crisis points to characteristics of the global food system that has emerged in relationship to the capitalist economy. The global food system’s dependence on fossil fuels, commercial seeds, and chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides), and its devastating societal effects in certain parts of the world make the system unsustainable. Rural societies in general, but more specifically small producers and rural communities in peripheral and semi-peripheral regions, are affected by the global food system in a way that is inherently unjust. The marginalization of small producers and peasant communities who lack the capacity to successfully integrate into the global food system (but are also unable to remove themselves from it ), and inequalities in access to land and natural resources caused by land concentration or land grabbing are significant consequences of the global food system. The global division of labor means that while peripheral and semi-peripheral regions more frequently specialize in the more labor-intensive and less profitable activities in the global commodity chain, core countries are generally involved with more capital and technology-intensive production and more profitable activities, reproducing global inequalities in the accumulation of capital. Liberalization of the land market in semi-peripheries and peripheries, rather than aiding small or medium farms, has tended to benefit mostly the local elite (a minority of the rural society) or multinational corporations based in core countries. In semi-peripheral Hungary, the food-processing industry and supermarkets, which realize a great amount of profit from the food commodity chain are also to a significant extent operated by foreign capital.

The global food system has negative effects on society and more broadly a damaging impact on the environment. It is a main culprit in the loss of biodiversity and a major driver of climate change. Negative environmental effects like the emergence of herbicide-resistant superweeds, the loss of pollinators, and the increasingly prevalent droughts hit back at the global food system. Requiring costly interventions in agroecosystems such as new pesticides, artificial pollination, and irrigation, they contribute to higher food prices.

The concept of food sovereignty was developed and propagated by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way). Originally rooted in autonomous peasant organizations in Latin America, the movement later became global, and now has members from Africa, Asia, North America, and Europe. La Via Campesina centers its work around claims of social justice, the right of peasants to produce food, and more equal access to lands and other resources (like water or seed). It also focuses on the localization of food systems and emphasizes the right to control one’s food and the right to access healthy, culturally appropriate food instead of producing for and consuming the products of the profit-focused global food system. Food sovereignty not only concentrates on the health of people, but the health of the environment as well, it argues for ecologically sound and sustainable agriculture.

In its thematic issue on food sovereignty (#29), the Hungarian critical journal Fordulat addresses how the operation of the global food system affects rural society and ecosystems in Hungary and discusses the struggles and strategies of small producers, including those of women who work in agriculture. The first part of the issue contains five original articles and a translation, tied together by the concept of food sovereignty and what it entails. It gathers theoretical and empirical works that show how the history of struggles of rural societies for more fair distribution of land and natural resources and environmental degradation have developed in tandem with capitalism, focusing specifically on transformations in Hungary’s agriculture. It shows how the dialectical relationship between nature, society, and the capitalist system to a large extent shapes rural life in this semi-peripheral context today. The second part of the issue presents three book reviews that reintroduce anthropological works discussing local conditions, practices, and the changing meanings of food and farming as well as resistance and struggle, amid the capitalist and socialist transformations of the food systems in peripheral and semi-peripheral places. While these books were written several decades ago, they still hold relevance for understanding struggles in these rural areas today.


Jason W. Moore’s contribution (translated by Krisztofer Bodor, Dénes Csurgó, and Annajuli Rosenfeld) opens the issue, introducing the concept of world-ecology to account for interconnected relationships among capitalist accumulation, power relations, and the environment. Moore argues that the operation of the capitalist system depends on four cheap things: labor, food, resources, and energy. The “cheapening” of food is important because it contributes to the maintenance of cheap wage labor. The main aim of modern agriculture in his understanding is to improve productivity to be able to provide a sufficient amount of cheap food, thus to produce more calories at a lower cost. To reach this goal it exploits both waged and unwaged labor (mostly of women, for example, through housework) as well as the unpaid labor of nature. Based on the exploitation of the labor of humans and nature, Moore argues, accumulation, power, and nature are interlocking and together constitute a world capitalist system he calls the world-ecology.

Moore shows that throughout the history of capitalism there have been periods when the production of cheap food became a problem in the system. Productivity started to decrease, and the price of food started to increase along with inequalities and poverty. Meanwhile, the wealth of the capitalist class accumulated. But when the increase in food prices and the impoverishment of the working class started to jeopardize the survival of the system, cheap food had to be restored through the discovery of a new frontier for capital by exploring new territories or developing new technologies. In the 19th century, this happened through the conquest of the North American frontier, while in the first half of the 20th century the “green revolution” served as a way to repair cheap food through hybridization and inventions of the chemical industry like pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.

But today the “green revolution” and technology are no longer able to increase productivity. The system is not able to provide an increasing amount of unpaid labor and energy, thus it is no longer able to restore cheap food. Neoliberal agriculture is redistributing wealth without restoring productivity in a process David Harvey has called accumulation by dispossession. The result is that the poor pay the costs of cheap food, and the wealthy enjoy the benefits. The difference between the decreasing productivity in the past and today is that this time attempts to restore productivity, along with the diminishing ability of nature to absorb waste, are undermining the possibilities of a new global accumulation regime. New forms of nature are emerging which have developed more and more resistance to capital accumulation. This shows that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to appropriate new sources of unpaid labor and energy, and that when they are appropriated, they can only be extracted in increasingly expensive, toxic, and dangerous ways.

Climate change, pesticide-resistant superweeds, and the decline of bee species are all sources of what he calls negative value. As Moore phrases it, “negative value is the barrier to capital that has accumulated in the web of life, and that is hindering the restoration of the four cheap resources (food, labor, energy, and raw materials)”.[1] This negative value cannot be externalized and thus enters directly into the costs of production, causing new challenges to capital accumulation. Moore concludes that the only solution is alternative agriculture, which questions the ontology of modern food systems. He foresees that during the 21st century, food will be the main field of class struggles in the world-ecology, where the concepts of food, nature, and value will be redefined through emancipatory and egalitarian initiatives such as the food sovereignty movement.

In the second piece, author Tamás L. Barta discusses such struggles for emancipation in a historical context, situating Hungarian agrarian movements in the context of global capitalist accumulation. At the end of the 19th century, the market had come to be dominated by cheap grain produced by large farms in the USA. This was devastating for the Hungarian economy, which was to a large extent based on grain production. The negative effects of this were suffered more profoundly by smallholder peasants than by large estates that had more capital and resources. The former could not produce cheap grain in large volumes and compete in the market. This resulted in the shrinking of the self-sufficient peasantry and forced many small landholders to turn to agrarian and industrial wage work, and some of the peasants to end up in self-exploitation or poverty. In short, the exposure of the agriculture to global capitalism made the already existing inequalities and the concentration of land more pronounced. The movements led by landless and smallholder farmers fought for a more just distribution of lands to diminish their vulnerability and to be able to become self-sustaining farmers. These peasant movements of the past have common features with today’s food sovereignty struggles throughout the world in their fight against the inequalities and exploitations caused by capitalist agriculture and the desire of the farmers to produce food in decentralized, democratic, and sustainable ways.

In the text that follows, Pál Géza Balogh, Ambrus Michels, Gusztáv Nemes, and Ágnes Szegedyné Fricz discuss the contemporary struggles of Hungarian small-scale farmers amid current challenges of the global food system. Unlike other texts in this issue, this text suggests an optimization of the market to integrate farmers and connect them with customers. The authors argue that farmers have stuck with practices that hinder them from connecting with urban customers who have the means to pay higher prices for their products. To depict how these farmers’ practices developed, they offer a historical overview of the relationships of small-scale farmers with markets and their customers. The authors show that while some small producers have held onto informal ways of vending (piacozás), and kept direct contact with customers until today, many farmers integrated into the market during the socialist period through the mediation of the state and collective farms. After the transition from socialism when agriculture faced new challenges such as losing markets in COMECON countries and low prices on the global market, smaller farms struggled to compete with larger farms and companies in the global market without the mediation of the collective farms. Some farmers realized the benefits of short food chains and aimed to directly connect to customers. But neither they nor those who managed to maintain their informal ways of vending (for example in traditional markets), are in an easy situation. It is difficult to meet the demands of customers that have been shaped by long food chains, such as good quality food for a low price, and fast and comfortable shopping.

The authors argue that alternative food systems and the emerging preferences of well-off urban consumers who seek healthy, small-scale, and sustainable food and would be willing to pay a higher price, could be a solution to the problems of small producers.

While this would seem to be a great match between small farmers and conscious urban customers, most farmers, in reality, do not participate in such alternative food systems, and cannot reach these customers. According to the authors, the reason for this is that farmers are following practices that survive from earlier times, making it hard for them to present their goods as desirable to urban customers. Geographical location also makes it hard for farmers to physically meet with these potential customers. To address the difficulties of bridging the cultural and geographical distance between small producers and urban customers, the authors suggest establishing “bridging organizations” embedded in both worlds. They discuss two such initiatives: Szövetség az Élő Tiszáért (The Association for a Living Tisza River Basin) and Nyíregyházi Kosárközösség (The Nyíregyháza Basket Association). These two organizations have managed to connect small-scale farmers and urban customers through establishing farmer’s markets in urban spaces or organizing food basket communities, respectively. To give a hand to farmers in meeting demands of urban customers, the authors propose a plausible strategy for small-scale farmers to sell their products for a fair price and survive in the market. However, questions arise about how close this strategy brings small producers to food sovereignty. The authors admit that this model does not consider low-income customers, who fall behind in accessing healthy and cheap food. There is also the question of how local these practices actually are, given that they produce food for the urban middle class instead of local communities.

The 4th piece, by the feminist activist Herstory Collective, discusses the food-sovereignty movement in the context of capitalist accumulation in rural Hungary from a feminist perspective. It emphasizes the need for an activist space that reflects on gender and food sovereignty at the same time. The Herstory Collective points out that it is usually women who carry the majority of the burden of food supply and reproductive work in rural families or communities. Through a historical overview of the Hungarian green movement, they propose that narratives of food sovereignty and, more generally, the green movement in Hungary, fail to reflect on the role gender plays in the realities of alternative food practices and in the needs and perspectives of women who are part of the food sovereignty movement. Through the presentation of the history of the Hungarian feminist movement, they show that the feminist movement has similarly tended to be insensitive to green issues and to the role women play in food provisioning.

Drawing on empirical research, the authors give us insight into the problems, strategies, and struggles of women living and/or farming in rural areas of Hungary. They admit that for this study they were able to mostly reach middle-class, non-Roma women, and express their intentions to include a wider range of perspectives in the future. The authors found that those local women and mothers in rural areas who were coordinating or participating in food sovereignty initiatives such as community-supported agriculture, were unable to escape the oppression of structural forces and the negative consequences of inadequate welfare institutions. They conclude that without the integration of feminist perspectives into the food sovereignty or green movement, the inequalities that affect women will be reproduced even in these progressive spaces. To address these issues, the authors aim to create an activist space that integrates the goals of the green, feminist, and solidarity movements, and that unfolds and reflects the everyday experiences, needs, and realities of women who are involved in the food sovereignty movement and/or in self-sufficient farming in rural Hungary. While this piece is a comprehensive assessment of the Hungarian scene, it might have been worth mentioning that in the Via Campesina movement’s global discourse, women and feminist perspectives play a significant role in the thematization of food sovereignty. It would be fruitful to take a closer look at why the Hungarian movement is not interested in this aspect, and in general, to involve more semi-peripheral and peripheral references when trying to understand the role gender plays in food sovereignty in the Hungarian context.

Building on Moore’s framework to understand the dual pressure of the capitalist system on society and the environment, the next article examines an agricultural producer organization [2] in Szentes, in Southeast Hungary, and its integration into the global food system. The transition from socialism had left many farmers struggling, experts and the EU promoted farmers’ cooperation via non-profit organizations to help producers integrate into the market. Authors Izóra Gál, Melinda Mihály, and Gábor Dániel Velkey found that although the producer organization in Szentes, which originated in a cooperative organization from the socialist period, managed to integrate farmers into the global food system, this was only manageable through the exploitation of the human workforce, nature, and themselves, and it could not solve the problem of decreasing profitability for the small farmers. The organization relied primarily on the local cheap workforce. Among those who were working for the producer organization’s packing plant and the horticulture farms, vulnerable groups such as Roma and non-Roma women (those who were caring for small children or were retired) and Roma men were overrepresented. The most vulnerable among the workers were those mostly Roma seasonal migrant workers who came from more disadvantaged parts of Hungary in the North. In contrast, the majority of producer organization members were older non-Roma men.

Despite their less unfortunate position compared to the local cheap workforce, the small producer members of the producer organization struggled to increase productivity and support a decent livelihood. In general, their living conditions were insecure. Despite their efforts, the exploitation of nature was present as well: some elements of the organization’s production were degrading to the environment (such as the food production technology that works without soil, which is more productive and profitable but damaging to the environment). This case shows that although this collective initiative helped smaller farmers to survive in the short term within the system of cheap food, it offered little long-term sustainable promise for small producers, local communities, or the environment.

In the article that follows, Bálint Balázs, Lili Balogh, and Katalin Réthy discuss the different interpretations, actors, initiatives, and possibilities of the practice of agroecology in Hungary, as well as barriers to it. They start by surveying the most typical interpretations of agroecology, which are quite diverse. First, agroecology is a scientific discipline that evolved from the relationship between agricultural studies and ecology. Second, it is a complex of agricultural practices. Third, it is a movement. The general understanding of agroecology is food systems that are alternatives to industrial agriculture, and that are based on sustainable practices, local communities, social justice, and democratic decision-making. Agroecology is thus a political claim put forth by civic and peasant movements that aim not only to change the food system but the whole political-economic system in which the food system is embedded.

After touching on these various interpretations, the authors discuss the interpretations of agroecology active in Hungary. They found that while elements of agroecology as an academic discipline, agricultural practice, or movement are present, holistic interpretations that reach across disciplines and sectors are rare, making communication and collaboration difficult between the scientific community, decision-makers, civil society, and farmers.

The structural barriers to the practice of agroecology are quite significant as well. For example, the authors show that in mainstream agricultural policy, agroecology is only used as a buzzword while for the most part the focus remains on improving productivity and competitiveness through technology (precision agriculture) and irrigation. They argue that a more comprehensive translation of the scientific findings of agroecology, and communication across the spheres of science, policymaking, and civil society would be also necessary. The authors conclude by pointing to a potential platform for organizing these different actors. The Hungarian Agroecological Network (Magyarországi Agroökológiai Hálózat), founded by actors who are already committed to agroecology, is working towards achieving agroecology in Hungary through knowledge production, knowledge transfer, and advocacy.

Book reviews: Useful anthropological approaches

The second part of the issue presents reviews of books by three anthropologists. First, Sándor Kozák reviews Sidney Mintz’s 1986 book Sweetness and Power, which discusses how sugar changed the way modern people eat and how it was produced by the mechanisms of accumulation and exploitation of humans and nature throughout history. Focusing on the development of the division of labor on the world market, Mintz shows the significant role played by the exploitation of enslaved people of African descent in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Besides discussing the political economy of sugar, he analyzes the way the meaning of sugar changed throughout time. As sugar became an everyday food of modern societies it also became a tool of political-economic control. From a luxury good, a symbol of power, that was only accessible to a few, sugar first became the desired, essential, and cheap food of the proletarian, and finally the cheap, fast, and nourishing food of the 21st-century, that feeds an efficient and productive workforce. As Mintz shows, the embeddedness of sugar in the logic of the exploitation of the capitalist and colonial system, and the cultural implications of sugar point to the conclusion that in many ways the history of sugar illustrates the history of capitalism.

Next, Zsófia Ádám offers a review of Eric Wolf’s 1999 book Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Wolf’s book discusses 20th century peasant rebellions in Algeria, China, Cuba, Mexico, Russia, and Vietnam. What these societies have in common is the way peasants were dispossessed of their relative autonomy and their capacity for a self-sufficient life by their exposure to global capitalism, which made them vulnerable to the global market. The capitalist transformation not only affected peasants’ access to natural resources but also caused the unraveling of social structures that provided minimal safety for their well-being. This often contributed to their transformation from peasants into wage workers either at larger agricultural estates or in industrial settings. Wolf’s analysis of the regional and local conditions that led to the resistance of peasants in these societies against the system can help us understand what catalyzes resistance in the wake of the growing land concentration, food, and climate crisis. Ádám points out that the book’s important lesson is that resistance often happened when the unraveling of the “traditional” institutions couldn’t provide safety anymore, while farmers couldn’t benefit from entering the market either.

In the final book review, Mátyás Domschitz discusses Martha Lampland’s 1995 book: The Object of Labor, which follows the life of a collective farm in rural Hungary during the socialist period. Lampland focuses on the meaning and value of labor amid the political and economic transformations of this period. She argues that the capitalist economy had started to influence peasant communities before the socialist period and that collectivization did not stop all aspects of capitalist transformation. In fact, she argues, socialist era policies had a major effect on the commodification of labor and the value of labor. The market-friendly policies of the Kádár regime (from the second half of the 1960s) allowed collective farms to operate in a more market-like manner and encouraged people in Hungary to take part in the so-called second economy. One aspect of the second economy was “háztáji”, a private agricultural economic activity that made it possible for individuals to maximize their profit out of the collective farms. Lampland explains that although individualism and utilitarianism became widespread in the community, people still associated values with labor irrespective of the value generated through the market. Autonomy, self-governance, and sovereignty over one’s work were important values that people could enjoy in the second economy and were a way to resist the experience of an all dominating state. Because these values weren’t present in the wage-labor connected to collective farms, it led to the loss of commitment to laboring for the collective farm and in general less than positive attitudes towards labor in the collective agricultural sector more broadly. Domschitz concludes that the lesson of Lampland’s book is that the capitalist transformation has been a long process, and can’t be understood as a sudden change that started with the democratic transition in 1989. She also shows how these social, political, and economic transformations are tied to and produce interpretations and meanings of labor that were important for people.

Some final thoughts

The concept of the Anthropocene is increasingly used to define the age in which we live because humans have modified the Earth and ecosystems so much that proponents argue we should call it a distinct geological era. But while the transformation of ecosystems is undeniable (enough to make thinking about climate change or loss of biodiversity imperative), the articles in this issue of Fordulat help to show that it is capitalism that is responsible for transforming both ecosystems and society, rather than humanity in general. The central role of capitalism has led some leftist thinkers, including Jason W. Moore and Andreas Malm to argue that the more accurate term to define this era would be Capitalocene. So, what are the possibilities for resistance in the Capitalocene?

As this issue shows, food sovereignty and agroecology are values and practices that can build this resistance, as they recognize the dual exploitation of humans and nature in the global food system, as well as the need to emancipate both from the logic of capital accumulation. This issue also takes stock of weaknesses in the existing movement in Hungary, emphasizing that women and minorities are more vulnerable to the negative effects of the system, yet not fully integrated into the analyses and actions of the movements. Emancipation for humans and nature would not only require transforming the food system but imagining life far from the logic of capital accumulation. This struggle is, as Jason W. Moore wrote, also an ontological one, as asks for the reinterpretation of the meaning of labor, nature, food, and life.

The issue deals with this complex and difficult topic in a sophisticated and novel manner, to a large extent focusing on the global structural processes. It introduces important and gap-filling perspectives to the food-sovereignty scene (regarding both research and activism). However, it left some questions peculiar to the Eastern European context slightly unanswered, which to me showed possible limitations of relying on English language sources, which was prevalent in some of the texts. Perhaps a little bit more attention to Eastern European literature would have helped to situate the specificities of the region (for example the consequences of EU membership and subsidies for agriculture).

It is also important to understand and emphasize the differences in the way resistance can form in different settings throughout the world. The food sovereignty movements in Eastern Europe are in their formative stage, and while there are many lessons that Eastern Europe can learn from the peripheries and other semi-peripheries, the resistance against the global food system has to be built on existing practices in the region. There are many practices and ideas in Eastern Europe, for example, food self-provisioning or the ideal of self-sufficiency. These may not be openly political but are practices and identities that are operating outside the global food system. This issue presents some of these practices and tries to find links to the food-sovereignty movement, and which is the best way to start.

[1] Translation from Hungarian by the author.

[2] Producer organization (TÉSZ: Termelői Értékesítő Szervezet)

Veronika Fabók has a background in environmental sociology, social anthropology and ecology. She is interested in the cultural and structural processes that are influencing the relationship between nature and society. Her current work is dealing with the integration of local environmental knowledge and climate data.