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Food and the Global Political Economy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 May 2021


As part of the roundtable, “Ethics and the Future of the Global Food System,” this essay examines how the key decisions within the global system of food production are shaped by the organization of the global political economy. The understanding of the global political economy follows standard definitions that focus on the dominant market practices and the institutional structures within which those practices are embedded. I identify examples of market practices and institutional policies that structurally impair the ability of states to secure the human rights of their citizens, and explain specific issues of structural injustice raised by each example. The conclusion provides a survey of a range of alternative solutions for transforming the global political economy and creating the conditions for a more just and ecologically sustainable food system. Ultimately, our conception of human rights and the mechanisms for their protection and enforcement must change in order to address the scale and gravity of problems affecting the future of agriculture and our ability to feed the world.

Roundtable: Ethics and the Future of the Global Food System
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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1 See, for example, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009: Economic Crises—Impacts and Lessons Learned (Rome: FAO, 2009)Google Scholar; Bank, World, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, October 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and H. Charles J. Godfray, John R. Beddington, Ian R. Crute, Lawrence Haddad, David Lawrence, James F. Muir, Jules Pretty, Sherman Robinson, Sandy M. Thomas, and Toulmi, Camilla, “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People,” Science 327, no. 5967 (February 12, 2010), pp. 812–18Google Scholar. According to another influential study, agricultural production will have to increase by 60 percent by 2050 from the levels of 2005–2006. According to the same study, in developing countries the expected increase will be of the order of 77 percent. See Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Global Food Security: Challenges for the Food and Agricultural System (Paris: OECD Publishing, June 19, 2013), p. 38, Another study that discusses a range of estimates, including some of the higher-end projections, is Government Office for Science, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability (London: Government Office for Science, 2011),

2 “The State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW) Launched at FAO Headquarters,” “Land & Water,” FAO, n.d.,

3 Government Office for Science, The Future of Food and Farming, pp. 14, 54, 15.

4 Gilpin, Robert, Global Political Economy: Understanding the International Economic Order (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 1718CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Ibid., p. 129.

6 Ibid., p. 22.

7 Ibid., p. 18.

8 Ibid., pp. 38–40.

9 World Trade Organization (WTO), 2018 WTO World Trade Statistical Review (Geneva: WTO, 2017).

10 WTO talks on “agricultural domestic support” are scheduled to resume at the Twelfth Ministerial Conference, tentatively slated for June 2021. The conference's plans are available at: “Twelfth Ministerial Conference,” International Institute for Sustainable Development, n.d.,

11 Stefan Tangermann, “Farming Support: The Truth behind the Numbers,” OECD Observer 243 (May 2004), pp. 38–39.

12 Oxfam, Rigged Rules and Double Standards: Trade, Globalisation, and the Fight against Poverty (Oxford: Oxfam, 2002),;jsessionid=34F60861406798DDB883120B0A616D7A?sequence=18; and “Towards New Rules for Agricultural Markets?,” Bridges 19, no. 42, International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, December 10, 2015,

13 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems; Summary for Policymakers, ed. P. R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, et al. (IPCC, 2019),,Action%20in%20the%20near%2Dterm.

14 Ibid.

15 Sandra Díaz, Josef Settele, Eduardo Brondízio, Hien T. Ngo, Maximilien Guèze, John Agard, Almut Arneth, et al., The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Summary for Policymakers (Bonn, Germany: Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2019),

16 Ibid.

17 Olivier De Schutter, “How Not to Think of Land-Grabbing: Three Critiques of Large-Scale Investments in Farmland,” Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 2 (March 2011), pp. 249–79.

18 See, for example, James W. Nickel, Making Sense of Human Rights, 2nd ed. (Malden, Mass..: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 137–53; and U.N. General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations Treaty Series 993. Even theories that express reservations about the universality of various liberal democratic rights tend to view socioeconomic rights as relatively uncontroversial. See John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 65, 78–81; and Joshua Cohen, “Minimalism about Human Rights: The Most We Can Hope For?,” Journal of Political Philosophy 12, no. 2 (June 2004), pp. 190–213. Henry Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 18.

19 Madison Powers and Ruth Faden, Structural Injustice: Power, Advantage, and Human Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

20 See, for example, Richard Schiffman, “Hunger, Food Security, and the African Land Grab,” Ethics & International Affairs 27, no. 3 (Fall 2013), pp. 239–49; Beth Robertson and Per Pinstrup-Andersen, “Global Land Acquisition: Neo-Colonialism or Development Opportunity,” Food Security 2, no. 3 (September 2010), pp. 271–83; and Madison Powers, “Food, Fairness, and Global Markets,” in Anne Barnhill, Mark B. Budolfson, and Tyler Doggett, eds., Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 367–98.

21 For example, the number of large-scale global acquisitions nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, and the land area grew by nearly 300 percent. See Kerstin Nolte, Wytske Chamberlain, and Markus Giger, International Land Deals for Agriculture: Fresh Insights from the Land Matrix; Analytical Report II (Bern: Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, 2016), Areas of most recent expansion include South America and Romania. See Nienke Busscher, Constanza Parra, and Frank Vanclay, “Environmental Justice Implications of Land Grabbing for Industrial Agriculture and Forestry in Argentina,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 63, no. 3 (2020), pp. 500–522,; and Vasile Burja, Attila Tamas-Szora, and Julian Bogdan Dobra, “Land Concentration, Land Grabbing and Sustainable Development of Agriculture in Romania,” Sustainability 12, no. 5 (2020), p. 2137.

22 Sophia Murphy, David Burch, and Jennifer Clapp, Cereal Secrets: The World's Largest Grain Traders and Global Agriculture (Oxford: Oxfam International, August 3, 2012),

23 United States Department of Agriculture, Packers and Stockyards Division: Annual Report 2018 (Washington, D.C.: USDA),

24 For these changes between the mid-1990s and 2018, and an account of the dizzying array of mergers resulting in market consolidation across every part of the global agricultural sector since the early 1980s, see Jennifer Clapp, Food, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2020), pp.107–128.

25 Koen De Backer and Sébastien Miroudot, “Mapping Global Value Chains” (OECD Trade Policy Papers No. 159, OECD Publishing, December 19, 2013),

26 Thomas L. Sporleder and Michael A. Boland, “Exclusivity of Agrifood Supply Chains: Seven Fundamental Economic Characteristics,” International Food and Agribusiness Management Review 14, no. 5 (2011), pp. 27–51.

27 James M. MacDonald and Penni Korb, Agricultural Contracting Update: Contracts in 2008, Economic Information Bulletin No. 72 (Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, February 2011).

28 “Broiler Chicken Industry Key Facts 2019,” National Chicken Council, n.d.,

29 Gary Gereffi, Global Value Chains and Development: Redefining the Contours of 21st Century Capitalism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 137–75.

30 Sporleder and Boland, “Exclusivity of Agrifood Supply Chains.”

31 Mark Wever, Petronella Maria Wognum, Jacques H. Trienekens, and Simon Willem Frederik Omta, “Supply Chain-Wide Consequences of Transaction Risks and Their Contractual Solutions: Towards an Extended Transaction Cost Economics Framework,” Journal of Supply Chain Management 48, no. 1 (January 2012), pp. 73–91.

32 C. Robert Taylor and David A. Domina, “Restoring Economic Health to Contract Poultry Production” (report prepared for the Joint U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture/GIPSA Public Workshop on Competition Issues in the Poultry Industry, Normal, Alabama, May 21, 2010),

33 Stephen Martinez, Vertical Coordination in the Pork and Broiler Industries: Implications for Pork and Chicken Products, Agricultural Economic Report No. AER-777 (Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, April 1999),

34 Ibid.

35 Douglas H. Constance, “The Southern Model of Broiler Production and Its Global Implications,” Culture & Agriculture 30, no. 1–2 (November 2008), pp. 17–31.

36 Ibid.

37 Larry L. Burmeister, “Lagoons, Litter and the Law: CAFO Regulation as Social Risk Politics,” Southern Rural Sociology 18, no. 2 (January 2002), pp. 56–87; and Pew Environment Group, Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America (Philadelphia: Pew Environment Group, July 27, 2011),

38 World Bank, World Development Report 2008; and Per Pinstrup-Anderson and Derrill D. Watson II, Food Policy for Developing Countries: The Role of Government in Global, National, and Local Food Systems (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011), pp. 178–79.

39 Marc F. Bellemare and Jeffrey R. Bloem, “Does Contract Farming Improve Welfare? A Review,” World Development 112 (December 2018), pp. 259–71.; and Martin Prowse, Contract Farming in Developing Countries—A Review (Paris: Agence Française de Développement, February 2012),

40 The standard argument is that the sector serves two major functions. It directs funds from savers and potential investors to companies and borrowers who need capital for socially beneficial productive activities, and it plays an essential role in risk management; for example, by vetting creditworthy enterprises and weeding out inefficient practices.

41 Brooke Harrington, Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016).

42 Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019).

43 Nicholas Shaxson, The Finance Curse: How Global Finance Is Making Us All Poorer (London: Penguin Random House, 2018), pp. 63–66.

44 Thomas Tørsløv, Ludvig Wier, and Gabriel Zucman, “The Missing Profit of Nations” (working paper 24701, revised April 20, 2020, National Bureau of Economic Research),

45 How much tax competition reduces the revenue to various types of countries (for example, as categorized by GDP) is a matter of ongoing controversy, but there is widespread agreement that some countries are adversely affected, and that most countries experience a loss in capacity to regulate their own economies due to the hypermobility of global capital. See Dev Kar and Sarah Freitas, “Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries: 2001–2010,” Global Financial Integrity, December 15, 2012, Good discussions of both normative and empirical issues are found in Philipp Genschel, “Globalization, Tax Competition and the Welfare State,” Politics & Society 30, no. 2 (June 2002), pp. 245–72; Peter Dietsch, “Tax Competition and Its Effects on Domestic and Global Justice,” in Ayelet Banai, Miriam Ronzoni, and Christian Schemmel, eds., Social Justice, Global Dynamics: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives (Oxford: Routledge, 2011); and Gabriel Zucman, The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens, trans. Teresa Lavender and intro. Thomas Piketty (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

46 Research in this area is still in its infancy, largely because so many of these activities are not publicly disclosed or disclosed in nontransparent ways. For the best, most up-to-date, and wide-ranging account of how the shadow banking system works in relation to agriculture, see Jennifer Clapp, Food, pp. 141–76.

47 A list of pension funds and university endowment funds that have direct investments in farmland is available in the article “The Global Farmland Grab by Pension Funds Needs to Stop” (GRAIN, November 13, 2018, This regularly updated, partial list does not include ownership stakes in derivatives or other investment portfolios that include farmland assets.

48 Bank for International Statistics, Semi-Annual Derivative Statistics, June 2017; and Credit Suisse, Global Wealth Report, 2016.

49 For a discussion of the ways finance-driven speculation crowds out productive investments and innovation, see Mariana Mazzucato, “Financing Innovation: Creative Destruction vs. Destructive Creation,” Industrial and Corporate Change 22, no. 4 (August 2013), pp. 851–67. For a critique from an ecological perspective, see Tim Hayward, Global Justice and Finance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 54–70.

50 See, for example, Dani Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. xx, 65–66, 165–70; and Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Joseph E. Stiglitz: Biographical,” Nobel Prize, last updated December 2002, The phrase “market fundamentalism” has been popularized by George Soros, who likened the curious faith placed in largely self-regulating, or at the very least socially beneficial, markets to the fervor and faith characteristic of a religious movement. George Soros, On Globalization (New York: Public Affairs, 2002).

51 The neoliberal political project has been characterized in various, though not necessarily incompatible, ways. Quinn Slobodian describes neoliberalism—what I take to be the policy and institutional expression of market-fundamentalist ideas—as a political project aimed at breaking barriers to international capital flow and putting the brakes on incipient distributive justice movements, especially those originating in the Global South. See Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018). David Harvey argues that neoliberalism is a “political project to reestablish conditions for capital accumulation and restore the power of economic elites.” David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 19. He documents in great detail the scope of activism and the stated aims of advocacy groups and philanthropists in the United States from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. Ibid., pp. 43–54.

52 Thatcher's frequent use of the phrase “there is no alternative” to free market capitalism in her public speeches is now memorialized in the acronym, TINA. See Nick Robinson, “Economy: There is no alternative (TINA) is back,” BBC News, March 7, 2013.

53 Keynes, John Maynard, A Tract on Monetary Reform (London: MacMillan, 1923), p. 80Google Scholar.

54 Stiglitz, Joseph, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 218Google Scholar.

55 Magdoff, Fred, “Ecological Civilization,” Monthly Review 62, no. 8 (January 2011), pp. 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 20.

56 Ronzoni, Miriam, “The Global Order: A Case of Background Injustice? A Practice-Dependent Account,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 37, no. 3 (Summer 2009), pp. 229–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57 Pogge, Thomas, World Poverty and Human Rights, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2008), pp. 5876Google Scholar.

58 For a discussion of the reciprocal rights claims of states, grounded in the responsibilities of each state for the human rights of its own citizens in relation to climate change, see Powers, Madison, “Ethical Challenges Posed by Climate Change: An Overview,” in Miller, Dale E. and Eggleston, Ben, eds., Moral Theory and Climate Change: Ethical Perspectives on a Warming Planet (London: Routledge, 2020), pp. 3557CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For similar arguments regarding socioeconomic matters, see Ronzoni, Miriam and Valentini, Laura, “Global Justice and the Role of the State: A Critical Survey,” in Brooks, Thom, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Global Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 1535Google Scholar.

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