excerpted from A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore
Welcome to the fifth post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.
To those with a romantic view of where their food comes from, meat appears to be a raw ingredient rather than a processed one. Yet the industrial labor techniques of simplification, compartmentalization, and specialization first developed in sugar production have found their way into meat production too. Feed and oilseed crops, made possible in the Global South partly by the spread of the Green Revolution, form part of what Weis terms “the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex.” The creation of markets for uniform grain and meat commodities—such as the Chicago Board of Trade—made it possible for these commodities to become not only cheap food but the backing for financial instruments. These instruments in turn require the uniformity, homogenization, and industrialization of the crops they transform. Such industry demands the invention of new veterinary practices—from intensive breeding to hormonal supplementation to antibiotic use to concentrated animal feeding operations—which have had globally transformative effects on the quality of food, soil, water, and air. Raw meat in the supermarket is, in other words, cooked up by a sophisticated and intensive arm of capitalism’s ecology.
One result is a meat-production system that can turn a fertile egg and a nine-pound (four-kilogram) bag of feed into a five pound (two-kilogram) chicken in five weeks. Turkey production times almost halved between 1970 and 2000, down to twenty weeks from egg to thirty-five-pound (sixteen-kilogram) bird. Other animals have seen similar advances from a combination of breeding, concentrated feeding operations, and global supply chains. Half of the world’s pork is eaten in China, and its feed import sources are a planetary affair. As are the consequences: 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are from livestock production. One pound (about half a kilogram) of beef requires 1,799 gallons (6,810 liters) of water and seven pounds (three kilograms) of feed to produce.
The environmental consequences of meat production are, of course, external to the profit calculus of the industrial food system. This is one of the reasons why meat is so cheap. Cheap labor is another. The danger is to see “factory farming” as an environmental question and “factory production” as a social question. Given the centrality of cheap labor power in the US neoliberal meat-packing sector, we might also point out the centrality of Latino immigrants. The delivery of this cheap work was made possible by class restructuring on two fronts. One, in the United States, was a strong movement in the 1980s by newly aggressive meat-packing firms—such as Hormel—to destroy union power and replace unionized workers with low-wage immigrant labor. The other was the destabilization of Mexico’s agrarian order after 1994 by NAFTA, which resulted in flows of cheap immigrant labor, unemployed workers displaced by capitalism’s ecology from one side of the US border to the other.
Despite the considerable environmental and governmental subsidies afforded the meat industry, many people are unable to afford its products. For them the private sector and the international development community have offered an alternative: improved nutrition of industrially produced plant-based food. This is more than a little ironic: industrialization and the Green Revolution bred nutrition out of many of the staples in the food system. Those nutrients were casualties of the drive to maximize the yield, shelf life, and consumer acceptability of a standardized commodity. Reintroducing them is a means of increasing the profitability of an ultraprocessed food substance. In a way, the logic of cheap meat production comes full circle, with additives in food designed not to produce profitable animal flesh but to sustain cheap human labor, which, in its turn, will produce more profit further down the line.
Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.