Neoliberalism is a political ideology which posits that the state’s primary job should be to facilitate economic growth through deregulation, and that if left unchecked capitalist economies will naturally provide for the public good (Harvey, 20). This logic lends itself to enclosing and privatizing common lands, dismantling regulations that protect workers and the environment, and defunding public services like food stamps (McClintock, 147-171). Neoliberal policies have supported the consolidation of wealth and power in the food system by American agribusiness, food retail, and agrochemical companies such as Monsanto, ADM, Cargill and Walmart (Holt-Giménez, 2).
Neoliberal food policies include: deregulating competition between supermarkets (which the Federal Trade Commission did in the 1980s see Eisenhauer, 154), defunding food stamps (which Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s, see Imhoff, 101), restricting food assistance eligibility (prevalent in national and local governments from 1996 to 2002 and again under the Trump administration, see Imhoff, 101), and privatizing hunger relief. Neoliberalism also entails “Free Trade Agreements” which remove protections for farmers who sell to their local or domestic communities. As an example, the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed between Mexico, Canada, and the United States in 1993. Imhoff notes that US corn exports to Mexico increased by 400 percent in the years following NAFTA (Imhoff, 101). Unable to compete with US subsidized corn, it is estimated that two million Mexican farmers left agriculture and were displaced in the wake of NAFTA (Imhoff, 101).
Communities of color, in particular, have had to confront the impacts of neoliberal deregulation (Alkon, 29). When competition between supermarkets became more intense in the 1970s, many supermarkets pulled out of Black and Hispanic neighborhoods which they redlined as “unprofitable” and “dangerous” (this racist trend is called “supermarket redlining” see Eisenhauer, 125). Today communities of color experience greater barriers to supermarket access, in part due to the legacy of supermarket redlining (see Eisenhauer, Reese and food apartheid ).Due to the persistence of the Black-white wage gap and myriad other manifestations of structural racism, Black Americans experience greater food insecurity than white Americans and are therefore disproportionately impacted by the defunding of food stamps.
In the place of robust public social services (which neoliberal policies defund), the private sector is expected to provide heath care, food assistance, and education equitably. Unfortunately access to these resources remains uneven, and even well intentioned non-profits seeking to “fix hunger” and increase food assistance in areas of need confront major barriers to efficacy because they cannot fix the structural economic inequalities which perpetuate poverty and hunger (Alkon, 30). While these efforts should not be undervalued, the private sector can’t redistribute political power, dismantle systemic racism, fix the wage gap, fund affordable housing policy, or address any of the other myriad structural inequities which influence food security or food sovereignty.
Critics of neoliberal policies since the 1980s would point out that deregulating competition and weakening antitrust laws leads to consolidation and puts smaller farms, restaurants, and grocery stores out of business while monopoly chains like Walmart take over the food retail market (Alkon, 28).
Global food processing and retail is highly monopolized.
- Just four companies control 60% of global seed sales (source)
- 3 companies control 70% of agrochemical sales (Mooney, 6)
- 4 firms control 75% of beef slaughter, 70% of pork slaughter, and 53% of chicken slaughter (Mooney, 41)
Neoliberalism has provided an ideological excuse for the weakening of monopoly laws and labor protection laws. Agribusinesses wield immense political clout and operate in the free market with impunity due to their unbridled lobbying efforts. As a result of this influence, these corporations get away with underpaying and undervaluing the health and wellbeing of their employees because protecting worker’s health is framed under neoliberalism as “bad for the economy ” (Alkon, 28). Supporting the goals of food sovereignty will require the dismantling of a system that favors profit over people.
Sources/ more reading:
Alkon, A. H. (2014). Food justice and the challenge to neoliberalism. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 14(2), 27-40.
Buck, M. (2013). On Violence, Primitive Accumulation, and Crisis in the Neoliberal Food System. The Neoliberal Regime in the Agri-Food Sector: Crisis, Resilience, and Restructuring.
Eisenhauer E. (2001). “In poor health: Supermarket redlining and urban nutrition.” GeoJournal, 53(2), pp. 154
Harvey, D. (2007). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, USA.
Holt-Giménez, Eric. (2010). “Food Security, Food Justice, or Food Sovereignty?”. Food First. Retrieved from: https://international.uiowa.edu/sites/international.uiowa.edu/files/file_uploads/FoodMovementsWinter2010bckgrndr.pdf
Hubbard, Kristina. (2019). “The Sobering Details Behind the Latest Seed Monopoly Chart”. Civil Eats. Retrieved from: https://civileats.com/2019/01/11/the-sobering-details-behind-the-latest-seed-monopoly-chart/
McClintock, Nathan. (2014) “Radical, Reformist, and Garden-Variety Neoliberal: Coming to Terms with Urban Agriculture’s Contradictions.” Local Environment: Subversive and Interstitial Food Spaces 19.2: 147–171. Web.
Mooney, Pat (2017). Too Big To Feed. IPES-FOOD. Retrieved from: http://www.ipes-food.org/_img/upload/files/Concentration_FullReport.pdf
Patel, Raj (2012). Stuffed and Starved. Melville House Publishing, New York.
Passel, J.S. (2009). A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://pewresearch.org/pubs/1190/portrait-unauthorized-immigrants-states
Reese Ashanté M. (2019). Black food geographies: race, self-reliance, and food access in Washington, D.C. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.