Food Regimes

Global Food Regimes

Food presents us a direct pathway to sustainability.
With sustainable production and socially responsible markets human needs can be balanced with those of the ecosystems upon which these depend.

With the introduction of agrarian treaties into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) [1995] the pivotal role of food in global politics has stimulated a growing range of poverty crises. Through this single act the agro-industrial hegemony has expanded its influence into the global neoliberal agenda.
This was one step too far for too many farmers, particularly for those from the Third World. On top of the strictures of ‘free trade’ under GATT- and fiscal austerities under the likes of the World Bank and the IMF – traditional farmers now faced personal dispossession, cultural annihilation and bio-piracy by giant corporations, global banks and wealthy governments. Rising resistance to the WTO was inevitable as their plight and the erosion of their domestic farm sectors became further increased.

Food Regime theory1 provides us with a political framework for historicising food’s role in capital accumulation. It examines the patterns of circulation and consumption of the overall international food system. McMichael 1 explains that food regimes comprise ‘stable periods of accumulation and associated transitional periods.’ This analysis stemmed from researching the rise and demise of the U.S. food aid programme as a ‘geo-political weapon’ in the Cold War by Friedmann 2. Food regimes, she posited, emerge out of contests among social movements and powerful institutions – a useful perspective for this discussion.

The first food regime she identifies (colonial-diasporic, 1870–1930s) encompassed the era of colonial imports to Europe – the tropical commodities such as tea, sugar and rubber from Africa, as well as the basic grains and livestock imports from settler colonies like New Zealand. These provisioned the emerging European industrial classes, and underwrote the British ‘workshop of the world’.3 Her second food regime (mercantile-industrial, 1950s–70s) began with U.S. food aid for post-war Europe (Marshal Plan, 1947-51). The huge grain surpluses created by U.S. domestic policy were subsequently re-routed to an informal empire on the strategic perimeters of the Cold War. This secured geo-political loyalty against communism while encouraging selective Third World industrialisation and food-aid dependency amongst its pseudo-imperial markets, extending market relations into the countryside.

A third, though much contested, emerging food regime suggested by McMichael (2009) focusses on the displacement of the earlier ideological ‘development project’ of the Bretton Woods Conference by the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) neo-capital ‘globalisation project’. McMichael, himself long associated with the mobilisation of peasant movements, acknowledges the role of ‘the transnational mobilisation of peasants’ in principled opposition to the ‘food from nowhere’ regime (2002), but not as a primary influence within today’s food politics. When naming the current food regime prefers the descriptor of ‘corporate’, over the ‘green capitalism’ attribute defining Friedmann’s “corporate-environmental” representation of the now-emerging food regime. 4

The WTO’s pick’n’pack neoliberalism: Enabling agri-business giants to market beyond national borders has required enforceable international treaties integrated into post-war global governance structures. Hence WTO-style free trade was born in 1995. At least three new treaties specifically targeting food production were added:

(AoA), the ‘Agreement on Agriculture’ outlining the trade concessions and commitments upon gaining market access;
(TRIPS), the ‘Agreement on [Trade-Related Aspects of] Intellectual Property’ includes the monopolisation of genetic resources; and
(SPS), the ‘Agreement on [the Application of] Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures’ recognising cross-border food safety framings of animal and plant health issues.

The issues emanating from TRIPS alone are immense and disturbing. More than denying local farmers autonomy over their own private seed production, it further refutes their right to compete on the neo-capital global playing field. This two-faced ‘bio-piracy’ 5, triggered the food sovereignty resistance movement started by La Via Campesina (LVC) 6. The movement now encompasses many other rights issues extending out from its agrarian roots.

The Problem: WTO free-trade has impacted Third World markets by crashing local food prices, forcing an ultimatum upon Third World subsistence farmers; to either migrate to city slums or commit to the ‘new Green Revolution’ industrial-inputs model, perhaps entailing world-price biasing, land titling and debt capture. Fractured families, disintegrating communities and appalling suicide rates often follow within just a few seasons.

Undoubtedly the prize for ‘most-devastated by WTO’ goes to post-war Iraq. From 10,000 years ago the ‘fertile crescent’ has been agriculturally self-sufficient. Once the U.S. rewrote its economic laws: ending all government support for farmers; lifting all tariffs on foreign imports; imposing a law preventing Iraqi farmers from saving their own seed (Order 81, 26/4/2004); and putting American agro-business executive Dan Amstutz in charge of its agricultural sector, local farming became unaffordable. Iraq is now the fourth largest market for American rice and the fifth largest market for American wheat and poultry. (Rowley, 2009) 7

The list goes on:

“Indonesia was rated among the top ten exporters of rice before the WTO came into effect. Three years later, in 1998, Indonesia had emerged as the world’s largest importer of rice. In India, the biggest producer of vegetables in the world, the import of vegetables has almost doubled in just one year – from Rs92.8 million in 2001–02 to Rs171 million in 2002–03. Far away in Peru, food imports increased dramatically in the wake of liberalization. Food imports now account for 40 per cent of the total national food consumption. (Sharma, 2006) 8

The underlying ironies are massive: the trade regimes of dominant producers, the wealthy, liberally advanced countries, use the WTO to effectively enforce the mercantilist practices of earlier imperialism – the very thing towards which Adam Smith was so critical. Instead of adjusting its economic ideology admitting the global social and environmental degradation being caused, these consequences have been re-contextualised into IFI economic development programmes such as the MDG and REDD –paradoxically intensifying the problems.

Meanwhile increased exclusion, landlessness and hunger for the poor, have expanded accumulative opportunities, reserved (increasingly) for the wealthy elite. The World Bank red-carpets such outcomes by perpetrating the solution of accumulation through market-led reform. It’s 2003 Deininger Report, Land Policies for Growth and Poverty Reduction advocates …

“private property” as the solution to the “land question”, meaning land titling to facilitate a land market in turn to facilitate accumulation on the land.’ 10 Yet inducting the poor into the formal market economy through privatising their commons is a well-argued cause of landlessness and terminal dispossession for farming populations everywhere. (Borras 2003: 380).




  1. McMichael, P. (2009). A Food Regime Genealogy. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 36(1), 139-169.
  2. Friedmann, H. (1982). The political economy of food: the rise and fall of the postwar international food order. American Journal of Sociology, 88 (Supplement), 248-286.
  3. Friedmann, H., & McMichael, P. (1989). Agriculture and the State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to present. Sociologia Ruralis, 29(2), 93-117.
  4. Friedmann, H. (2005). From Colonialism to Green Capitalism: Social Movements and the Emergence of Food Regimes. Research in Rural Sociology and Development, 11(227-64).
    Shiva, V. (2010). Earth democracy: Beyond dead democracy and killing economies. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 21(1), 83-95.
  5. LVC. (2006). Agrarian Reform in the Context of Food Sovereignty, the Right to Food and Cultural Diversity: “Land, Territory and Dignity”. Paper presented at the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, Rome.
  6. Rowley, R. (2009). The End of Farming in the Fertile Crescent Retrieved 25/04/2011, from
  7. Sharma, D. (2006). cited in: Reforming International Trade Retrieved 20/07/2015, from
  8. McMichael, P. (2007). Reframing development: global peasant movements and the new agrarian question. Canadian Journal
  9. Borras Jr., S. (2003). Questioning Market-Led Agrarian Reform: Experiences from Brazil, Colombia and South Africa. Journal of Agrarian Change, 3(3), 367-394.