By Jesse McLaren
“The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” — John Steinbeck, 1939
A COVID-19 outbreak at a single plant in Alberta has shut down almost half of Canada’s beef supply, and 200 million pounds of potatoes are in storage while lineups at food banks surge. British dairy farmers have thrown out a million litres of milk, and the chairman of US meat producer Tyson foods has warned that “the food supply chain is breaking.” This is not because of COVID but because of capitalism. As the National Farmers Union explained, “Excessive concentration of ownership and centralization of beef processing, supported and encouraged by our federal and provincial governments, has now put the health of workers, the beef supply and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in jeopardy.”
Before COVID-19 there was increasing recognition of the environmental unsustainability of industrialized agriculture and its contribution to the climate crisis. Now the pandemic has shown how unsustainable these plants are from a health perspective: more than 900 workers got sick at Cargill’s plant in Alberta, and thousands have been infected at Tyson plants in the US.
Much has been made of the contribution of cows to carbon emissions. But the problem in North America is not that humans rely on animal protein, because this happened for millennia in an environmentally sustainable way. As Winona LaDuke explained in All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, as recently as 1850, “50 million buffalo ranged the prairie system and left it in excellent shape. One hundred percent of all plant and animal species were present without the ‘benefit’ of fences, federal subsidies, elaborate irrigation systems, or powerful pesticides.”
But this environmentally sustainable food supply was a barrier to capital accumulation and became a target for colonization. As LaDuke explained, “during the 1880s, buffalo killing was part of military policy, and land grabbing was part of America. Treaty after treaty was signed during the great buffalo slaughters. These two policies were key to the colonization of the plains: the expansion of the cattle and beef empires and, of course, the industrialization of American agriculture…Buffalo hunters killed the buffalo and thereby destroyed the major food source for the Native people of the prairie—and then set upon their land. Feeding those whom the government had deprived of food and sustenance became a major business and a new commercial opportunity for the fledgeling western cattle industries.”
The transition from buffalo to cows was not just a transition from one source of animal protein to another, but a violent transformation of a sustainable ecosystem to an unsustainable one. As LaDuke continues, “today, a century and a half later, the environment is quite different. Industrialized agriculture has transformed land, life, and water. Forty five and a half million cattle live in this same ecosystem now, but they lack the adaptability of buffalo… The prairies today are teeming with pumps, irrigation systems, combines, and chemical additives. Much of the original ecosystem has been destroyed. The Great Plains have been stripped of their biodiversity. Cattle and other domestic livestock destroy ecosystems and limit the ecosystems’ ability to support wild species, from native birds to large mammals such as elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and antelope.”
Concentration of capital
After colonizing Indigenous land and commodifying nature, capitalism expands through the processes of the concentration and centralization of capital. By exploiting workers–that is, paying them less than the value they produce and putting the resulting surplus value towards further capitalist expansion–corporations can grow over time by concentrating capital. As Marx explained, “Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists.”
COVID-19 has revealed how individual capitalists, with support from their states, have concentrated immense wealth by exploiting workers—and how racism works to increase the rate of exploitation. The billionaire Galen Weston Jr, owner of Loblaws, profits from Ford’s freezing of the minimum wage — which disproportionately affects racialized workers concentrated in low-wage jobs. The billionaire Tyson and Cargill families profit from the criminalization of migration and programs like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, that allow the superexploitation of undocumented and migrant workers with wages even lower than the minimum wage. “Without this program and access to labour, we would not be able to keep our facility in High River operating competitively,” a Cargill spokesperson said of the TFWP in 2014.
When a COVID-19 outbreak occurred at this same facility, the company kept up production despite the risks to workers. “It’s a tragedy”, said UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse, “We asked days and days ago for that plant to be closed temporarily for two weeks, send all of the workers home with pay to isolate. That was when we were aware of 38 cases.” Now ten times as many workers are sick, and one is dead, because Cargill uses a federal program that denies migrant workers basic rights, and because the federal government doesn’t mandate paid emergency leave days—all to promote the concentration of capital.
Centralization of capital
The second process of capital accumulation is centralization, where corporations grow by cannibalizing each other. As Marx explained, “It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals…Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.”
The COVID crisis has highlighted the severe degree of centralization that threatens our food supply. As the authors of Uncertain Harvest: the Future of Food on a Warming Planet explained, “Just four multi-billion dollar corporations (Cargill, JBS, Maple Leaf and Olymel) control nearly all of Canada’s meat production; 80 per cent of the retail grocery market is owned by only five companies (Loblaws, Sobeys/Safeway, Costco, Metro and Walmart), and just a handful of companies (Bayer, ChemChina, Corteva and BASF) control more than 60 per cent of global seed and pesticide sales. Throughout the food chain, extreme corporate concentration has seen the slice of the economic pie grow dramatically in these companies’ favour, while only the largest farm operations have been able to stay profitable.”
As a result of extreme centralization, the outbreak at one facility in Alberta has thrown the supply of beef across Canada into crisis. The same is happening in the US, where thousands of meatpackers have been infected at a few Tyson plants. According to John Tyson, “the food supply chain is vulnerable. As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain. As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.” In response, Trump used the Defence Production Act to force the plants to reopen, even if that means they will also produce more COVID as well.
But millions of pounds of meat have not disappeared. The problem is not a lack of supply by farmers across the country, but Tyson’s stranglehold over processing that makes the food supply vulnerable–which is a symptom of centralization of capital, not a symptom of COVID. As the author of The Meat Racket explained, “this is 100% a symptom of consolidation. We don’t have a crisis of supply right now. We have a crisis in processing. And the virus is exposing the profound fragility that comes with this kind of consolidation.”
Crisis of overproduction
For most of human history, people went hungry because of the lack of food. But only capitalism has produced starvation in the midst of plenty – with malnutrition disproportionately impacting Indigenous, migrant and racialized communities. The pandemic is intertwined with an economic crisis, resulting in greater numbers of people relying on foodbanks. While the rational response would be to improve food distribution, the capitalist response to the food crisis is to destroy food and food producers.
As Marx explained, “In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce…And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”
COVID is exposing the absurd conditions that Marx explained in the 1840s, and that Steinbeck described in the 1930s. Canada has 200 million pounds of potatoes that are just sitting in storage. “There’s a shelf life on that and they will deteriorate and eventually rot,” said the manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association in Manitoba. As Tyson announced, “Millions of animals—chickens, pigs and cattle—will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.” Meanwhile dairy farmers in the UK poured a million litres of milk down the drain in April. As one farmer said, “It is utterly desperate. There is a need for milk—homeless people, hospitals. There are starving people in the world and this is just so frustrating.”
Capitalist crises lead to the destruction of food and to the destruction of small food producers, accelerating the process of centralization of capital. The current beef crisis, exacerbated by Cargill’s near monopoly over food, is the product of prior crises and the way the government intervened. As the National Farmers Union explained, “Today’s government must not make the same kind of mistakes as during the BSE Mad Cow crisis when the giant packers pocketed support program money and put hundreds of family farms out of business.” But the same is happening today, from Trudeau’s corporate bailouts to Trump supporting Tyson.
Hungry for justice
Capitalism is supposedly based on balancing supply and demand. But there is no lack of demand, people are hungry. There is no lack of supply, farmers are producing meat, milk and potatoes. But while people are going hungry, meat producers have to depopulate their animals, dairy farmers have to dump milk, and potatoes are rotting in storage. This is not because of a natural virus but an unnatural economic system that compels capitalists to exploit workers, regardless of the health consequences.
As Marx wrote, “Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”
Despite nearly a thousand infections in the largest outbreak of the country, Cargill has reopened production, threatening more premature death. The Alberta Federation of Labour, UFCW and United Nurses of Alberta rallied outside in protest.
Calls for dietary change only focus on individual consumption, but we need to transform our entire ecosystem and restore it to its original caretakers. This starts by supporting Indigenous communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis, who have the traditions and knowledge to restore an ecosystem based on sustainability. Community attempts to distribute food can make a small difference locally, but the climate crisis, the COVID crisis and the economic crisis show that we need massive transformation in our global system of production. This starts by supporting workers on the frontlines of the COVID crisis, fighting for migrant justice and decent work including paid emergency leave.
Through the process of supporting Indigenous rights to the land and workers rights at the point of production, we can imagine a world free from colonization, free from concentration and centralization of capital and its reliance on racism, free from the absurdity of crises of overproduction, where food is produced and distributed based on need and not profit.
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