Academic journal article Borderlands

Neo-Liberal Discourse and the Global Food Crisis

Academic journal article Borderlands

Neo-Liberal Discourse and the Global Food Crisis

Article excerpt

Introduction

Early 2008 saw unprecedented increases in the cost of staple food commodities during what was soon to be dubbed the 'global food crisis'. Stark United Nations (UN) calculations added 100 million people to the ranks of the already 800 million starving globally as a result of the 55% increase in food prices from June 2007 to 2008 (World Food Programme 2008). The urban poor of the South could no longer be ignored by world leaders and the media, as food riots broke out across the globe, toppling the Haitian government and pushing several others towards breaking point. (1) While the unrest in cities drew immediate attention and concern, their eruption was only symptomatic of the malaise in traditional agrarian societies as a result of the displacement and social dislocation born of the process of neo-liberal reform.

The neo-liberal era of the last thirty years has had a tremendous impact on agricultural producers, particularly in the South, as the rural support structures of the developmentalist state have been dismantled. The Third World debt crisis of the 1980s effectively consecrated the real meaning of neo-liberalism, namely protecting Western financial interests by all means necessary, thus mandating the imposition of structural adjustment and exposing developing nations and farmers to the disciplines of financial markets (Weis 2007). The absence of state supports in the South (2) has forced farmers into the 'corporate controlled web of inputs in industrial agriculture' (Weis 2007, p. 138). (3) The enforcement of intellectual property rights for key inputs has in fact meant the extraction of lucrative rent profits flowing from the South to the North. (4) The rising costs of production and the creation of private property land markets have forced many small holders off the land and into teeming urban slums in a process dubbed by Harvey 'accumulation by dispossession' (2005, p. 159). This process of neo-liberalization has been built upon fundamental imbalances of power within the supranational institutions of trade and finance. The enforcement of trade rules by the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been disparate as regards North-South interests (5) while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have made loans dependent on neo-liberal structural adjustment, capital liberalization and the servicing of debts to New York investment banks (Harvey 2005).

The food crisis of 2008 and beyond draws critical attention to the neo-liberal trajectory of agriculture. Energy price spikes, market volatility and intense speculation in food commodities crucially underline questions of the sustainability of intensified production and the vulnerability of populations across the world to the tempestuous character of financial markets. The obvious failure of the neo-liberal development policy of export-led growth, advocated by supra-national institutions like the IMF and World Bank, (6) and the direct implication of the financial systems of the West, would seem to highlight the specific imbalance of North-South relations in the neo-liberal project. While images of crisis and distant suffering are familiar to the Western lens, the direct correlation between the centers of finance and investment and the world's poor is a critical fissure in the discourse of neo-liberal development. This article is concerned with the question of how neo-liberal discourse attempts to navigate this challenge.

In undertaking this task I have selected a wide body of texts (42 in total (7)) from international institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Food Program, World Bank and IMF, and media including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post, all from between March and August of 2008. It should be clear from my introduction of neo-liberalism that texts emanating from the World Bank and IMF would likely be predisposed to a neo-liberal emphasis, however I maintain that tracking discursive reconfigurations is of great value. …

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