Grains - particularly maize, rice, and wheat - are the central component of most people's diets, but we rarely stop to think about the wider role they play in national and international policy-making, as well as global issues like food security, biotechnology, and even climate change.
But why are grains so important and ubiquitous? What political conflicts and economic processes underlie this dominance? Who controls the world's supply of grains and with what outcomes? In this timely book, Bill Winders unravels the complex story of feed and food grains in the global economy. Highlighting the importance of corporate control and divisions between grains - such as who grows them, and who consumes them - he shows how grains do not represent a unitary political and economic force. Whilst the differences between them may seem small, they can lead to competing economic interests and policy preferences with serious and, on occasions, violent geopolitical consequences.
This richly detailed and authoritative guide will be of interest to students across the social sciences, as well as anyone interested in current affairs.
Grains and the US Food Regime
From 1945 through 1975, diets around the world changed in fundamental ways, particularly in terms of grain consumption. At the beginning of the period, the diets in countries in Asia were centered on rice, and Latin American countries had diets that rested on maize. While some wheat was consumed in each of these regions, the other grains dominated diets. Yet by 1975, diets in many countries in Asia and Latin America had changed as the consumption of wheat increased dramatically. Although rice and maize were still central to Asian and Latin American diets respectively, they no longer dwarfed wheat in consumption levels.
We can see this dynamic by looking at one country in each region: Japan in Asia and Colombia in Latin America. In each of these countries, the per capita consumption of the traditional grain - rice and maize, respectively - declined substantially in the 1960s. At the same time, the per capita consumption of wheat increased - and so did US wheat imports into each country. In Japan, per capita rice consumption fell by 21 percent, from about 240 grams per day in 1961 to 189 grams per day in 1971. By contrast, per capita wheat consumption increased from 91 grams per day to 110 grams per day, which is an increase of 17 percent. Similarly, in Colombia, per capita maize consumption fell by 24 percent between 1964 and 1974, from 115 grams per day to 87 grams per day. Meanwhile, wheat consumption rose slightly from 43 grams per day to 48 grams per day between 1963 and 1973, which is an increase of almost 12 percent. More importantly for Colombia, though, was that domestic wheat production dropped precipitously by 62 percent during this period, and the country became more dependent on US wheat imports, which increased by 130 percent. We will discuss the details of the shifts in grains in Japan and Colombia later in the chapter, but for now it is important to see that significant shifts occurred.
How can we explain such shifts in grain consumption? It was driven in part by a shift in US agricultural policy and a concomitant change in the international food regime. In 1954, the US Congress passed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, often referred to as Public Law 480 (or, PL 480). This legislation created international food aid, through which the US sent subsidized food and agricultural products to other nations. The import of cheap, subsidized wheat into countries like Japan and Colombia helped to expand wheat consumption, thus contributing to a shift in diets. At the same time, however, this food aid often competed against domestically produced grains - this meant rice in Japan and maize in Colombia.
Ultimately, such shifts in national diets and consumption patterns are driven by the international food regime. A food regime is an overarching global system that governs the production, trade, and consumption of food and agriculture around the world. This includes the rules, regulations, policies, and norms that are created by national governments, as well as international agreements, institutions, and organizations. Food regimes set the market for food in the world economy and guide the shape of agricultural production and trade across the globe, and grains have been central to food regimes for the past 150 years. Two characteristics of food regimes are particularly important: the extent of national regulation and the patterns of trade in basic foodstuffs, especially grains. At times, governments have had national policies that regulated agriculture extensively, from production to prices to trade. At other times, agriculture has been regulated far less, leaving market mechanisms to influence production, prices, and trade. Similarly, grains have flowed toward powerful centers in the world economy (e.g., Europe) at some points in history, and at other points grains have flowed away from these nations to less powerful areas. Regardless of the extent of national regulation or the directions in which food flows, food regimes share an important and fundamental characteristic: a world market that influences prices, production, and the movement of grains across the globe.
Scholars have identified two food regimes. The first food regime was constructed during British world-economic dominance, from about 1860 to about 1914. The second food regime existed during US dominance, from about 1945 to 1975.1 In each instance, the country that dominated the world economy set the food regime. These two food regimes differed in terms of national regulations and international trade flows. First, in terms of the extent of national regulation, the British food regime was much more market-oriented, relying on free trade. Britain had eliminated its government support for agriculture with the repeal of the Corn Laws in the early 1840s. They constructed an international system of free trade for agriculture - and the world economy, in general - through bilateral free trade agreements. Second, the British food regime involved trade flows that saw grains flow from the periphery of the world economy to the core. That is, grain flowed from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America to Europe, particularly Britain. Some of the geographic origins of grains going to Europe were colonies and some were independent nations. But, the most powerful nations economically, politically, and militarily, tended not to export grains to the periphery.
The US food regime was quite distinct from the British food regime. The US food regime rested heavily on national regulations that influenced agricultural production and set prices. Trade barriers emerged, as well. In addition, the flow of grains was the opposite of what appeared in the British food regime: during the US food regime, grains flowed from the core of the world economy to the periphery. Nations that were powerful economically and politically exported grains to poorer nations. In particular, the US and Europe exported grains to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The importance of food regimes can be seen in their consequences. The British food regime changed the structure of agriculture in many parts of the world by imposing plantation systems to facilitate exports back to Britain. This food regime also changed production patterns of agriculture across the globe, and it altered consumption patterns, particularly in Europe and Britain. At its worst, as we will see in Chapter 4, the British food regime contributed to massive famines in places such as India, Brazil, and China. It also led to the expropriation of vast expanses of land from millions of people. Food regimes, then, have the power to shape patterns of agricultural production, trade, and consumption, thereby shaping the lives of farmers and consumers and even the ways in which societies are organized. While the US food regime rested on the national regulation of agricultural production, prices, and trade, it produced many of the same effects seen with the British food regime: changing the patterns of production and consumption around the globe, and even contributing to food insecurity in some instances. Given the strong influence and long reach that food regimes have, understanding how they form and what factors influence their shape is an important endeavor. In particular, understanding the US food regime - how it formed and spread, how it operated, how it collapsed, and the consequences it had - is important for understanding the geopolitics of grains.
This chapter first looks at the US food regime and its origins, which are to be found in national politics during the turmoil of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Then, it examines how the regime spread through international organizations and trade agreements. Next, the chapter explores the consequences of the US food regime for farmers, consumers, national policies, and societies throughout the world. Finally, the chapter closes by looking at how the US food regime collapsed, allowing for the transition to a new food regime, which is still in flux. Maize, rice, and wheat each have central roles in this history of the US food regime, which is clear in its origins.
The US Food Regime and its Origins
The US food regime regulated the production, trade, and consumption of food between about 1945 and 1975. The end years of food regimes are periods of transition, so the beginning and end are difficult to pinpoint. Nonetheless, we can look to markers such as the creation of national policies or the establishment of international agreements and organizations to mark the start and end points. During this period, the US food regime set the market for grains. The regulations and policies constituting this food regime delimited prices and had an incredibly strong influence on patterns of production, trade, and consumption. This is clear for both food grains and feed grains. After looking at the US food regime a little more closely, we will move on to explore its origins.
An Outline of the US Food Regime
In contrast to the British food regime that preceded it, the US food regime rested on the regulation of agricultural production and markets. Nations across the globe adopted, to varying degrees, a policy of supply management that centered on price supports, production controls, and export subsidies. This represented an astounding level of regulation of the market economy. Price supports generally provided minimum, guaranteed prices for farmers; production controls regulated the kinds and quantities of crops produced; and export subsidies facilitated trade below production costs, with the consequence of changing production patterns in export...