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Transcript for

Philip McMichael on the "Corporate food regime"

Matthew 0:06

Welcome to Feed a food system podcast, I’m Matthew Kessler

Samara 0:12

And I’m Samara Brock. Today we speak with emeritus professor of global development Philip McMichael who taught at Cornell University for 33 years.

Philip 0:20

I'm Philip McMichael and I'm living in Ithaca, New York, upstate New York at beautiful. Cayuga Lake.  And I am now still working with students I am basically continuing to write and try to address questions relating to the World Food order. 

Matthew 0:44

He also works with the civil society mechanism, which is part of the United Nations Committee on world food security.

Philip 0:50

So I'm very much in touch with activists and academics, and agrarianists across the world, which is a nice position to be in having just retired from the university. So my work continues.

Samara 1:04

Philip McMichael has not stopped thinking about and working on food systems issues since completing his PhD in the 1970s. In our conversation we interrogate how a sociologist reflects on power in the food system, we unpack Food Regime Theory and ask if we’re still living in what he calls the ‘corporate food regime’, and we flesh out his view of a more relocalized food system.

Matthew 1:28

A note that we recorded this conversation in December of 2021, just a few months after the UN food systems summit took place – which we also spoke about.

But first, we ask him a small question. 

Samara  1:41

There's a lot of ways to understand power. How do you think about it?

Philip  1:45

Oh, that's a big question. So power, I think, is multi dimensional, first of all, and I think the kinds of dimensions that I would be focusing on are the political dimensions, which refer to hierarchies of class, race and gender, as well as state institutions such as the police, legal systems and education. Then there are the material dimensions, such as the military, the use of military power, the power of private property, economic power, and then there's epistemic power, which refers to the way in which we see the world - the way in which we learn to see the world through education quite often. And so that concerns issues to do with the kind of narrative about food systems and about development and progress and change. And the role of technology. And then finally, the other dimension of power, of course, is collective action. And that's a very important dimension. And it represents a form of what's often called counter hegemony, and that is presenting different ways of seeing the world and acting in it. Reminding people that there are other cultures that have different ways of living. And so we need to be paying attention to that. So those are the kinds of ways I think about power, 

Samara  3:08

You’re a historical sociologist, and we'd be curious to hear about how that training has influenced how you conceptualize power, and also, if there's particular thinkers that you have drawn upon when framing your ideas around power?

Philip  3:22

Another small question. So the way in which I learned about power from my training was really focusing on world historical ordering as a kind of a key framework. And in other words, understanding the present is history, understanding the history of the world in the present, and the way in which it was organized through imperial power across the centuries and how that's changed.

So I think that there one of the most interesting dimensions is, is understanding that the concept of development, which I've been teaching for almost 40 years, I guess, but is really one of the sort of key narratives, if you like, of the modern world. And it's a fraught concept, because it's not working in a lot of places, including in the United States.

So development needs to be understood really as a project, and that's how I teach it. That's my textbook, as has been organized around the concepts of the development project, and the globalization project, two ways in which we understand the period since World War Two. And then previous to that the colonial project. So the concept of the project is to try and help students understand that development is instituted and practiced within relationships of power, which I mentioned - earlier, political, economic, material and epistemic. And so it's very important then to understand that it's not a natural process, that it's actually shaped by political relations in particular, and they can be relationships that are contested. And so when you have collective action and labor movements, or peasant movements, or women's movements or movements around race, contesting the order, that means that development itself moves ahead, shaped by those particular relationships. And it's not a single linear form of development that occurs across the world.

Matthew 5:35

So in summary, McMichael describes a development not as a natural or linear process - but as a complex transition that every country is undergoing, that’s often impacted by a historical legacy of unequal global power relations. He has authored a textbook with called Development and Social Change, which we’ll link to in the show notes if you’d like to read more.

Samara 6:00

So some listeners might be nodding along, excited to hear a more academic and critical perspective challenging the idea of a linear development. And others might want some clarification of some terms. First, Philip McMichael calls himself a historical socioloist – what is that?

Philip  6:16

Well, I'll try and put it very quickly. A conventional sociologist tends to examine society in the present, just to put it briefly, Historical sociologists attempt to understand the rise and formation of societies. And to take that a little bit further the kind of training I received under Immanuel Wallerstein, who was probably the world's most famous sociologist in the 70s, and 80s, and 90s, who coined the concept of the modern world system, capitalist world system and talked about the way in which from the 16th century, the world was ordered by two relationships. One was a system of states that were in competition with one another. And an international division of labor was the other. So within the international division of labor, some states were core states, some states were peripheral states and some in between, like the middle class, so to speak. So, historical sociologist is a person who attempts to examine how modernization modern societies have come to be, and to examine the various dimensions, depending on their proclivities and the various dimensions of those processes. In my case, my focus has been political economic, that is rapidly becoming politically ecological. Now, given the kinds of dangers that we face. So, so I think that's probably the quickest way of expressing it. 

Samara  7:56

Philip McMichael draws from thinkers like the Italian economist and sociologist Giovanni Arrighi and the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, when thinking about power. They both use the framework of ‘hegemony’.

Philip  8:09

Arrighi was working with that particular framework. Market rule is a form of hegemony, insofar as it's, it's adopted, widely often under the influence of powerful states. So the British adopted the imperialism of free trade in the 19th century. And because Britain was so powerful economically across the world, and militarily, other states began to join in and practice the same kind of system that the British was imparting across the world  So hegemony in that sense, is a is a way of representing, what's best, for national economies and firms and states in the world economy. 

Matthew 8:56

We asked Philip to expand on what he means hegemony, as a shorthand to decide what’s best?

Philip  9:02

It's a way of representing what is the most favorable way of organizing a society or organizing world societies. In the case of, say, world system theory. So it's an elaboration of a set of understandings about how societies should organize themselves, how they should proceed, in terms of addressing what's best for members of society, and how economic development should take place. So hegemony is an exercise of power within the society, as to how the society should be organized, and run. Counter hegemony is the alternative essentially, and that is the attempt by collective action from below to reformulate how society should be organized, and how should society run. And typically, that's a more democratic way of representing social life.

Samara 10:12

So, put simply, hegemony is the process of a dominant class establishing and reinforcing norms that come to be accepted as the natural way of doing things, but which are largely of benefit only to the ruling class

Matthew  10:28

So you've been sharing how you understand power. And I think we'll use this as a frame and a background to, to now apply it to food.  Can you first share a story or identify a time when you started to think about how power operates in the food system?

Philip  10:45

Well, yes, that's  an interesting question. Because when I was doing my PhD in Binghamton University in the 1970s, I was looking at the agrarian question in Australia in the 19th century, and then the politics of that as part of the British Empire. And so I was kind of skirting around that the issue of food because Australia was really a wool exporting society until the mid 19 century. But then I started looking a little bit at the way in which a wheat culture developed in Australia. But it wasn't really so much about power, it's just as understanding how settler agriculture began to form. And obviously, it's become very important now.

But it wasn't until really the 1980s that I read Sidney Mintz’s book of Sweetness and Power, which is about the role of sugar in the making of the modern world. And that really opened my eyes to the power of a tropical product such as sugar, which was once really the food of the aristocracy prior to the 18th century, there was until later on that sugar plantations in the late 18th and 19th centuries began to become so significant in the world. Significant in part because they were providing a caloric fuel, in sweeteners for the European Working class to get by on incredibly long, hard working days in factories that were emerging at the time. So so that was the first encounter that I had with food as power because it essentially powered the industrial workforce.

Matthew 12:41

Sidney Mintz book Sweetness and power also influenced how I think about food. We’ll link to it in the show notes.

Philip 12:45

The big issue there that Mintz kind of developed was the relationship between slavery and the formation of a wage labor force in Europe and the fact that this particular commodity was produced by slaves on plantations under extremely brutish conditions. So that was really about imperial power, and the way in which sugar began to shape modern consumption. And of course, one can run through how sugar then became a preservative in the 20th century, and is now a biofuel in the 21st century. So it embodies different sets of relationships across time, all of which have a particular power dimension.

Samara  13:24

So you brought up food regimes theory, which you developed along with Harriet Friedman in the late 1980s. Can you explain to us what a food regime is?

Philip  13:35

Well, I don't want to end up reifying it. But a food regime, to me is a concept that helps us to establish the role of food provisioning on a world scale in the formation of modern states to put it really quickly. Having said that, I think then the big dimension is to look at the three different food regimes that have been identified as embodying different forms of empire, across time since the late 19th century, up to the present day.

So the British food regime British centered food regime was based on classical imperialism and the way in which the British offshored their food back in the 1840s, to the settler colonies, and by the late 19th century, sufficient shipments of wheat and meat in particular, back to Europe, from the settler colonies - Australia, New Zealand, North America, South America, that those products were now commanding a world price. And so they represented a world food economy, essentially a world system of food provisioning. And they were beginning to displace tropical foods such as sugar, coffee, cocoa, etc. And so they represented the sort of modernization of agriculture. But at the same time, the establishment of this global provisioning system.

Matthew 15:12

Though scholars debate the exact dates, the first food regime has stretched from approximately the 1840s to the beginning of the first world war, where the seeds of the modern agricultural system were sown.

Philip 15:24

The second food regime was centered on the United States after World War Two. And it was an empire in its own way, it was a cold war empire. And in this case, the key elements were twofold. Firstly, the US after the Depression had established a commodity stabilization scheme, whereby the government was subsidizing specific commodities like wheat, and soy, in particular. So those commodities were being over produced in the United States and the American government in the 1950s decided to pass them on to strategic states on the perimeter of the Cold War, such as Japan, Korea, Mexico, Israel, Pakistan, Egypt, Colombia, etc. So those surpluses, those food surpluses were sold to those countries at very cheap prices. And that in turn, helped to feed their emerging industrial labor classes. And so it was an interesting way in which the food aid program or the food aid regime of the United States managed to encourage a set of key industrializing states in the third world as bastions of American power and against the communists in China and in Russia, 

Samara 16:49

While some have championed this food regime for its success at feeding undernourished populations, others criticize the way that food aid programs have affected economies and politics in these countries. Dr Rejoice Chipuriro recently wrote an essay for TABLE about food aid in Southern Africa that touches on some of these criticisms. You can find the essay on our website."

Philip 17:11

The second dimension was the export of the Green Revolution, which is a technology that was established in Mexico in the 1940s. And by the early 1960s the US was exporting that technology to Asia, in particular. And so that was a part of the second food regime, the US centered food regime insofar as it represented the export of new agricultural technology, much of which had actually been developed after World War Two, when the US reconstructed Europe and established agri-businesses in Europe to help Europe get back on its feet and modernize or industrialize its agriculture. So that was the second food regime.

And that international process, set up a tension between elaborating national states, which was the big deal after World War Two economic nationalism. The new deal ,the American New Deal, all of those projects were an attempt to - and decolonization of course - or attempt to elaborate a world system of nation states as countries in the non-European world began to gain and gain their independence in particular, in Asia and Africa at the time. Latin America was much earlier than that. So there was this national moment that the United States was sponsoring across the world. And at the same time, that very process of sponsoring across the world. And at the same time that very process of sponsoring was also elaborating transnational relationships and early, early multi-national firms were emerging as part of the process of elaborating this international framework.

Matthew 18:55

So the second food regime began around the end of the second world war and lasted for several decades into 1970s. This followed the United States’ hegemony on the global food system, where the US established its influence both through trade and subsidies, but also with new agricultural technology.

Philip  19:15

So that then set the terms for the third food regime that emerged somewhere in the 1980s, and 1990s, which I've called the corporate food regime. Not a state centered, but a collective state centered in a way, insofar as the World Trade Organization in 1995. Elaborated a set of rules, in member states all signed on. Elaborated set of rules were agrarian sectors within states as this kind of National Domestic agriculture's had to in the third world in the Global South had to lower their protections, if not eliminate them altogether, so that an international trade and investment system could be established to elaborate a global corporate centered food system. And that, of course, is changing now in various ways. 

But it's a way of actually going back to my comment about power, showing that these three different periods were elaborated, as forms of empire, a classical empire under the British, Cold War empire with the US, and a market food empire that was instituted by the World Trade Organization in the 1990s.

So that’s a quick kind of summary of the three the three moments it's a way of periodising using the modern world, it's a way of showing that world capitalism didn't evolve in a linear, straightforward direction, that it involves different sets of power relationships, different kinds of Imperial structures, and, of course, different ways of organizing and modernizing, if you like or industrializing foodstuffs.

Samara  21:09

Thinking about Food regimes has become important as a framework to understand the global food system, but Philip McMichael stresses that we need to understand the food regime not as a theory, but as a method of analysis.

Philip  21:23

if you understand food regime, if you think about food regime as a theory, it can become very reified, and you can say that, you know, the food regime just plops down across time and space. And that's it. I know that's a crude way of putting it. But the point about calling it a method is to emphasize that we really are talking about historicization of the way in which global food provisioning emerged and has changed substantially across time and space. And one way to do that, it's not the only way to do it. But one way to do that is to periodize to talk about particular political or geopolitical conjunctures, where a particular form of power is dominant. 

Matthew  22:06

Philip sees elements of the corporate food regime still in our food system today. The principles remain the same, but the mechanisms that powerful actors use have evolved based on new and emerging technologies. 

Philip  22:21

The dominant principle, in the third food regime – the corporate food regime is, of course, the the way in which agri businesses has established all kinds of privileges and incredible subsidies to the tune of almost $500 billion dollars a year from governments across the world to maintain and extend its power.  Then the emergent relationships, referred to say in the second food regime, I mentioned the internationalization through the Green Revolution and through food aid, in that process, beginning to anticipate a global, a truly global economy in the third Food regime, the emergent relations. And the second thing is the rise of digitalization, and how that whole process of elaborating bio digital relationships in agriculture is ceding power to very powerful digital companies. And I'm here I'm thinking of Google and Amazon, etc, as well as, you know, Blockchain, data firms that are beginning to map the world with satellite image imagery. So that every square mile of the world's land is being mapped very closely according to weather patterns and soils and topography. So that means that knowledge about local landscapes is being squirreled away through the elaboration of these datasets, these huge datasets, they become a new form of power, in terms of removing knowledge from the local from local farmers, and storing it in blockchains, etc.

That's another development that I think is transforming what I like to call the corporate food regime because it's becoming much more than simply agribusiness is becoming a financial and a digital reality that areas of financial power and digital power that complementing if you like, agribusiness, power, so it may still be referred to as some kind of corporate food regime, but not just agribusiness. But we'll see.

Matthew  24:48

I’ll continue off of their reflections about the increasing financialization and digitalization of the corporate food regime. I'm curious, what do you think are the major implications of this? How do you think this will impact different landscapes, different people, different cultures? Will that happen evenly or unevenly?

Philip  25:10

Well, I think that it's there's sort of a double process probably going on. And that is that insofar as the world's land is being mapped digitally, it suggests some some kind of leveling process, if you like, or a sense of all of the world is now subject to a single dataset, so to speak, or a single principal, data principal. But it doesn't mean that that data will be used necessarily evenly across the world. And this is not one of my areas of strength. I'm just beginning to learn about this and try to understand what it all means. I guess I would add a caveat that I'm not necessarily opposed to the collection and elaboration of such data. Depends on who controls it. I mean, I think that's the big issue. So power becomes a very important part of the story. And what I'm concerned about is that the data is being stored in blockchains, that that are becoming the property of the digital companies and the financier is who support those companies. And essentially, that means its its knowledge of landscapes, is being monopolized by people who never farmed in their lives.

And that makes me think of a very quick comment that a terrific recent book called seeds of power by Amalia Leguizamón. About the Argentinian soy frontier, that some being expanded to feed Chinese pigs. And she points out that people making the decisions about the soy friends here are sitting in air conditioned offices with information technology and high tech. But out on the frontier mothers mobilizing to try to make it clear that the soy frontier is actually poisoning their children. And so there's this disconnect between the local and the urban, if you like, and or the global. And what it means, I think, is that the organization of food production, and the management of land is being undertaken, basically, from a distance to put it really quickly by people who don't necessarily have it who don't have any relationship to that land except, you know, through to digital relationships.

Samara 27:33

According to Philip McMichael, new technologies do have the potential to reduce resource use in agriculture, but he is concerned these technologies might further shift power away from the people working on the land.

Philip 27:45

So, I think that the follow up your question, the point of elaborating such data, is to assist what's called precision agriculture, where each acre of land can be distinguished as requiring so much, or being able to cope with so much agrichemicals - how much water it needs, and so forth. So that the whole idea is to try to ensure that food production on a large scale is managed in such a way as to reduce the toxicity of the land, and of course, the food that's produced on the land.

And I think the big point here is that we're talking about monocultures. We're not talking about biodiversity or polyculture. Agriculture, we're talking about monoculture. So you know, critics argue this is a form of greenwashing. It's a way of attempting to improve and make more sustainable the food production across the world that's internationalized. It’s an attempt to rectify some of the grossest environmental depredations across the world. But it's not addressing the issue of who has access to the land, who has knowledge, across the centuries about how particular landscapes operate, who knows about polyculture that is biodiversity agriculture, where you plant various sets of crops, to to anticipate drought or, you know, different weather patterns, so that some crops may not survive and other but others will. So that kind of seed knowledge is so important at the local level. And of course, it's being undercut, undermined, erased, essentially, by the movement of the knowledge away from the land into high tech offices to put it really quickly. So it's an interesting conundrum.

Matthew  29:43

Another important question is whether actors with such different visions of food futures can still come together and find common ground

Philip  29:51

And you know, in some of my work, I've tried to argue that both of these sides if you want to call them sides, need to need to meet at some at some level and recognize that healthier agroecological methods where you farm with nature rather than against nature and farming against nature means you have to use manufactured seeds and agrochemicals, fertilizers etc, to, to grow, to grow these crops rather than to attempt to establish agro ecological methods where food production takes place in such a way as to replenish soils and water cycles, etc, rather than to undermine them.

And of course, Tom Phillpotts book Precarious bounty, which just came out last year is a wonderful study of the undermining of the soils in the Midwest in the United States. And the fact that industrial agriculture in the US is on a precipice. A nd at the same time, what he's doing is he's pointing out that small and medium farmers are beginning to recognize that they need to disengage from - commodified inputs such as chemicals, fertilizers, purchase seeds, etc, and attempt to return to a much more ecological form of farming. Which means developing poly cultural methods. So, so I mean, I think that this is an issue that we're going to be struggling with for some time. And in fact, the International Panel of Experts on food have labeled this The long food movement, arguing that there's this contestation between high tech and low tech, low input, agro ecological methods, that's going to shape how the future food system is going to evolve.

Samara  31:41

You mentioned a lot of trends and other factors that shape each food regime. Is there a who doing the shaping? Is it something purposeful that certain actors are doing to these systems?

Philip  31:55

I think your question Samara makes a lot of sense. Now, because we’ve just witnessed in September of this year, the United Nations elaborating a food systems summit on the 23rd of September, in a partnership with the World Economic Forum, which represents the world’s 30,000 largest corporations, and meets regularly every year in Davos in January. And what I think was going on, there was a an attempt to organize a different way of governing the world food system, through essentially, corporate power, to put it really quickly. And so it’s not really about individuals so much as as sets of, of people who are representing powerful groups, such as philanthropists, the gates and the Rockefeller Foundations, for example, corporate agribusiness firms, food retailers, etc.   

Matthew 33:00

Philip argued that the Food Systems Summit was especially interesting because it marked  a shift away from simple corporate power towards stakeholder power. But it didn’t necessarily follow a path of bottom-up governance, since there was only a select group of stakeholders involved.

Philip 33:18

The Founding Chair of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab basically elaborated a theory of the great reset, in what what he's been arguing for some time, he's very clever man, is that shareholder capitalism is not necessarily socially responsible. Whereas stakeholder capitalism can be more responsible to different stakeholders within society. On the face of it, that's a fairly liberal, you know, view perspective. And the thing is that the UN Food System Summit in September of 2021 had a very selective set of stakeholders. And what was most evident was that the farmer voice was marginalized. This is initially when it first was beginning to be organized in 2020. The UN's committee on World Food Security was also marginalized. And that's a an agency that's been around for decades, and has been part of the process of governing the global food system. And they are being ignored.  And I've been working with them since 2010. In the civil society mechanism that represents frontline agrarians, the voice of farmers, the voice of progressive NGOs, who are working with farming communities, who know what's going on, on the ground. And so that section of the United Nations was being ignored in the elaboration of this new food system Summit, which was extraordinary. So and then, of course, the human rights dimension was also not part of the original organization or elaboration of the the way in which the summit was going to take place. 

Matthew 35:05

This is a different understanding of the UNFSS than our previous guest, Joachim von Braun, Chair of the Scientific Group put forward. You can visit the episode to hear more about his take on the inclusive dialogue process . Philip McMichael disagrees with this position.

Philip 35:24

So the worldwide protests that followed from the civil society movements, the agrarian movements, the Human Rights Movements, indigenous peoples movements, etc, was so strong and effective, so organized, and here’s counter hegemony coming in, that they they did begin to include at some level, but in a selective way, these voices. They weren’t dominant, of course, at all.

And at the same time, the Science Policy Initiative was established, to give voice to a set of independent scientists across the world who would be providing scientific advice to governments about how to develop more sustainable forms of agriculture. And here, of course, I think, digitalization and precision agriculture and climate smart agriculture, all of which I've said, at the moment, don't, don't alter the power relationships on the ground, don't include farmer voices, and farmer knowledges of course, and this is where I'm going with the scientific group, that this was an entire set of independent scientists who were set up to advise governments from the findings of the discussions, or recommendations from the food system Summit, at the expense of inviting the people who are actually farming the land. And here we're talking about.

You know, this figure is disputed, bu up to, you know, two thirds of the world's food as provided by small producers. And, of course, one of the consequences of the kind of maneuvering to elaborate a global form of governance that is dominated by corporations of different kinds, is at the expense of those voices. And in a way, it suggests that not only are those voices being erased, but also those kinds of farming cultures being erased in the long term. And so that's why this is such an important moment in the world food system.

And, of course, in the food regime, that it's very difficult to predict how this is going to go.

Matthew  37:40

You've been laying out the maybe simplified the hegemony, perhaps more corporate power, the financers investors, agribusiness technologists, then you have the counter hegemony, where you've laid out the civil society organizations, the indigenous peoples’ movements, perhaps various food sovereignty movements. I wonder how aligned all of their interests are? Do you see more alignment within the hegemony or within the counter hegemony in the type of vision and future they'd like to promote?

Philip  38:11

Well, I think in the corporate realm, the role of finance in digitalization is altering the power relationships. As I mentioned, as a kind of alluded to this, that decisions that are being made are not being made simply by agri businesses, let's say, but by other powerful actors, such as digital companies, such as financiers, and that's been going on for some time, but I think it's reached a kind of a crisis point in a way, which I think was relatively effectively hidden to the public by the Food System Summit, because most people across the world didn't really know it was going on. But the the opposition from the agrarians across the world. They knew about it, and were very aware of it. So I think that within the the most powerful grouping, I'm sure there's some contention about how to get how to move forward. But I'm not studying that right now. Just reading the reading about it occasionally, I think within the oppositional group, the counter hegemonic group, there are of course differences, I think, you know, there are differences between, you know, hardcore agro-ecologists on the one hand, and other more reform, reformist regenerative types who wants to move towards a more ecological agriculture but are not necessarily disengaging from the market system in terms of various inputs.

And, I mean, that's probably an issue of gradualism. I think that over time, all of those kind of hegemonic groups will move towards attempting to elaborate an agroecological vision.

But in the meantime, I think that there has to be some kind of rapprochement between the two sides, if only along the lines of small farmers, engaging with ecological scientists, for example, to help them understand more their systems of production, and the relationships on the land, etc, particularly under changing climatic conditions, drought, etc, those kinds of things are going to be very important.

Samara 40:19

Philip McMichael says there are several examples today of how agriculture could be done differently, in ways that – as he says - challenge the current hegemony.

Philip 40:29

There are some very inspiring developments that I think, represent a counter-hegemonic movement, that represent a vision of agriculture that can be effective into the rest of the world. And I'm thinking there of, for example, the zero budget, natural farming movement in the south of India, in which hundreds and 1000s of farmers are letting go of credit. They're not buying agro inputs and fertilizers and etc. They're reverting to a more ecological zero budget and natural ecological farming system. And what's so interesting about that is that local states have been very supportive. And so I think that the example that such movements might set can be very powerful in counter hegemonic terms.

And another example, of course, is the word Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, that developed a way of occupying - legally occupying unused land that was enabled by the 1988 Brazilian Constitution that if land was owned, but not used for social purposes, it could be occupied and taken over. And they, of course, have been doing that for the last couple of decades. And what President Lula did was establish, I think, a fantastic model of the Zero Hunger campaign where he agreed to provide a market for the staple foods that the landless workers who were now in occupied land were producing. And then that food was distributed to the Brazilian poor. So that was an example of the state stepping in and assisting. An active process of resettling the land with small farmers who had many of whom had been dispossessed and moved to the cities, and now were in a position to be able to move back to the land.

So, those are, those are a couple of examples of the way in which different ways in which occupying land and, or using land ecologically, can establish examples that can be repeated elsewhere.

Matthew 42:33

Philip stresses that programs like these and models like Community Supported Agriculture – where consumers invest in the farmers in the beginning of the season and enjoy the harvest later in the season - have the potential to grow in scale, scope and impact if they were more broadly supported by governments.

But it’s worth noting that some of our previous guests disagree that we should be trying to localize and revitalize small scale agriculture.

Philip 42:58

There's no funding, there's no subsidies for this kind of project. And that's why I mentioned the huge subsidies that agribusiness gets from governments that could be redirected in such a way as to support small scale, local agriculture's and the reterritorialization of domestic agriculture, which is one of the issues that the civil society movement has been pushing for.

Samara 43:24

So in a lot of what you're saying, there's an assumption that re-territorialization and relocalization of food systems would help to create more equitable systems. We did an interesting conversation with Elena Lazos Chavero in our last season, talking about sort of her research that has looked at how that might not be the case, in certain circumstances. That there's inequitable power relations that can arise in localized food systems. And I just wanted to ask you your thoughts on that?

Philip  43:57

Yeah, I mean, I think that's a that's a good point that it's no panacea to relocalize. But the principle I think of localization is the important issue. And that means, of course, what I've been mentioning, and that is the ability of public institutions to support that kind of relocalization. And if that's done in a progressive way, of course, it may may help to address those kinds of local inequalities because of the unequal distribution of land, etc. Again, it's a hard one to, to address. In the immediate time, it's a process, I think, and it it depends on the ability of a counter hegemonic movement to really press on governments to take their responsibilities seriously, to their citizens in an age in which a process of deterritorialization has become the mode of action  and the mode of power in the global food system where increasingly, pension funds and other financial houses are buying up land across the world for speculation because food prices are not going down. And so what's what's happening is that nation states are losing their control over their own territories.

And so I mean, I think it's a it's really a big question of how movements can encourage states to become much more interventionist with funding and support, scientific support, infrastructural support and so forth, to reestablish vibrant, democratic, domestic food systems. 

Matthew 45:44

Philip McMichael sees this as a pivotal time where several futures are possible.

Philip  45:50

Right now, I think we're seeing in a way the corporate sector is involved in a kind of a last gasp attempt to retain its power with its consolidated over the last 30 or 40 years. And its’ managde to establish a certain power over governments such that they are going along with them. So the UN entering into this Faustian bargain with the World Economic Forum, the representative of the corporate sector. And Klaus Schwab, the founder argues that corporations are the trustees of society. I mean, that means that states giving up their obligations to address human rights and the social contract and, you know, civil wellbeing, etc. So, I mean, it's a very difficult issue. And, you know, it's, it's, it's certainly true that localization doesn't necessarily immediately turn into a very democratic setup. think that we're at a point where people are getting exercised about these kinds of issues. And in fact, I mean, the rise of nationalism, I mean, it's a left wing and a right wing form of nationalism is a response to globalization and the way in which elites have enrich themselves and people are being forced off the land and into cities with no jobs or having to migrate. And that's creating, recreating kind of racist relationships, etc, across the world. So it's a, it's a very, it's a very interesting and very threatening environment or moment that we're in. And I think that it opens up the possibility of people gaining, you know, more understanding of what needs to happen to establish a more sustainable, and democratic world.

Samara  47:36 

So does one side win or do the sides come together in some sort of reconciliation? 

Philip  47:40

That's really hard question, Samara. Because, the powerful side right now is constituted by so many different agents, so to speak, and then there are states and there are various different kinds of corporations, and so forth. So it's, it's very hard to say how those, that set of actors, powerful actors can come together to begin to acknowledge and embrace more agroecological methods. And I think that the one thing I was mentioning earlier that the examples that are springing up around the world, of small farming cultures that are practicing these kinds of forms of agriculture that are much healthier in all ways. They that kind of example, is very important to helping to change the story, and encourage recognition on the part of the industrial sector of agriculture, that these kinds of methods are effective and can work.

Samara 48:42

We asked Philip a final question about the power of academia. He has co-develoepd programs and curriculum and written textbooks that have helped shaped the thinking of 10s of thousands of students over the last decades.

Matthew  48:54

I'm curious how you think of the role of academia, in relation to power in the food system? And how do you think of the role of yourself as a teacher and a mentor to students as well?

Philip 49:10

My impact on students, by and large, has been to help them to recognize that the narrative of development is not about some kind of natural progress, that humanity will make that in fact, development is a very political phenomenon. And it's shaped by power relationships that I talked about earlier. And so, so that's the first point that we need to look at the world not as some kind of natural emergence or process, but that the inequalities that we see in the world, of course, are not because some people are naturally poor, or some cultures are naturally poor. But in fact, some peoples in some cultures have not been allowed to participate, have been exploited, across time.

The second part of it, I think, is to help students to transcend what I would call commodity fetishism in the sense that helping them to understand where their food comes from, and the conditions under which it's grown. And that, of course, is the point of food regime analysis that helps us to understand that the provisioning of foodstuffs on a global scale has to do with decisions that are made, within particular power conjunctions or setups.

Matthew 50:35

That wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. A big thank you to Philip McMichael for joining us and to you for listening.

Samara 50:43

Please take a minute and rate and review us wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what your favorite episodes are.

Matthew 50:50

We’re wrapping up our theme on power in the food systems in just a few episodes and then we’ll be taking a short break with the podcast. You can stay up to date with all of other activities at TABLE by subscribing to our newsletter Fodder, found on our website:

Samara 51:07

TABLE is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Wageningen University.

Matthew 51:15

This episode was edited by Ingrid Reiser of Azote and Matthew Kessler. Music by Blue dot sessions. Stay tuned for a new episode on power with Philip McMichael in a couple weeks.