Between obesity and hunger: the capitalist food industry

Robert Albritton

Abstract


We live in a world capable, in principle, of providing a diverse and healthy diet for all, and yet one quarter of its people suffer from frequent hunger and ill health generated by a diet that is poor in quantity or quality or both. Another quarter of the world’s population eats too much food, food that is often heavy with calories and low on nutrients (colloquially called ‘junk food’). This quarter of the world’s population risks diabetes and all of the other chronic illnesses generated by obesity. Study after study in recent years has come to the conclusion that the single most important factor in human health is diet, and diet is something we can shape. 

Cheap food is important to capitalism because it allows wages to be lower (and thus profits to be higher) and yet leave workers with more disposable income available to buy other commodities. In this short essay most of my examples come from the US, because, as the most hegemonic capitalist power in the world, it has done the most to shape the global food system. But I don’t want to give the impression that there is one tightly integrated capitalist world food system. Even in the US, capitalism has not entirely subsumed the whole food system, and while there are few places in the world untouched by capitalism, its degree of hegemony may vary a great deal. Still, up to the present, capitalism has been the single strongest force shaping the global food system, and much of that shaping power has flowed outward from the US.


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