Food As A Weapon

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Food As A Weapon

by Mark Wilson

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 3, May/June 1979, p. 4 & 42

The blatant use of food as a weapon of control and manipulation by US imperialism is surprisingly openly discussed by capitalists and their policy makers. In the words of Earl Butz, past US Secretary of Agriculture: “Food is a weapon. It is one of the principal tools in our negotiating kit.”1 Or as Senator Hubert Humphrey recently put it: “Food is power. And in a very real sense it’s our extra measure of power.”2

Food is not a new weapon to US capitalists, however. Following WWI, under Herbert Hoover’s administration, the US selectively offered and withheld food in eastern Europe in an attempt to control the “Bolshevic insurrection”.3 US food and other assistance, funneled through the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, helped prop up Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces near the end of WWII. Similar attempts to control the “Communist menace” followed WWII as the US shipped food to France and Italy to help quiet communist-led unrest.4

Following these attempts to use food as a weapon of control, the “Food for Peace” program was begun in 1954. Food for Peace, the advertising title for Public Law 480, was a program designed to provide selective food aid to hungry peoples whose support was wanted or whose opposition wasn’t, to unload US food surpluses, and to increase the dependence of recipient countries on the US. The program grew out of a longstanding problem of “overproduction” in which surpluses of agricultural produce had to be unloaded. This “crisis of overproduction” had developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s and was an important impetus behind the “New Deal”. With PL480, surpluses took on new possibilities. 

Although it was a relatively small weapon, food “aid” was used by the US in its war in southeast Asia. Nearly half of the $152 million in PL 480 Title II food aid during 1974 went to South Vietnam and selected parts of Kampuchea (Cambodia), while only about 1/6 went to all of Africa and Latin America combined. (The U.N.’s list of 32 countries most affected by the global economic crisis includes neither Vietnam nor Kampuchea.5 PL 480 Title I food aid to Chile was about $26 million in 1968 and $30 million in 1969. Following the 1970 election of Allende as President, Chile received no food aid until after the CIA-funded coup of 1973. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Pinochet, food aid was resumed and increased dramatically. 

Another blatant and often more desperate way in which food is used as a weapon is by the prevention of its production or usefulness. The massive defoliation of Vietnam was effectively used to poison agricultural land or growing crops from which food could have been produced. Cloud seeding was also used to influence monsoon patterns partly in an attempt to destroy crops. Similarly, the Cubans suspect that cloud seeding was used by the US in an attempt to affect sugar cane harvests by causing rain to fall before the moist air reached Cuba.6

By no means exhaustive, these examples illustrate the blatant ways in which food is used as a weapon. US imperialism has and will continue to count food, the prospect of it, the destruction of it, the withholding of it, as an important part of its arsenal. “Mightier than missiles” is the way the American Feed Manufacturers Association sees it, indeed, “the strongest weapon in the US arsenal”.7

In addition to the meaning of weapon as “any instrument used in combat”, a second sense of the word is “any means employed to get the better of another.” It is this latter meaning that is easier to ignore or misperceive, and it is this type of weapon to which US imperialism has increasingly turned. Popular protests and people’s growing awareness have made it more difficult — for the time being at least —  to justify the blatant use of food as a weapon. It is the less direct, more subtle form of control to which we now turn. 

“Getting the better of” others is a motive force in all stages of food production. This includes agricultural research, various forms of production manipulation, food “aid”, and ideological supports. All of these are strongly interactive and affecting each other. What follows is a sketch of just some of the issues. 

Commodity Production 

First it is important to understand that food is a commodity. Food is produced to be marketed. It can be exchanged (sold) on the market because it has use-value (i.e. it serves a need for people, it is used by people). However that alone is not sufficient; air, for example, fits this description but it is not sold on the market unless it has had labor performed on it (e.g. bottled gas, or Tokyo’s infamous fresh air in vending machines). A commodity must also have exchange-value, meaning that labor was performed to produce or prepare it and this labor (itself a commodity) must receive some pay (i.e. it is sold). Thus, having both exchange-value and use-value, the commodity (in this case, food) is produced/prepared and is sold on the market place, because in the process of selling it a profit may be realized. 

Profit is accrued by those who own and control the means of production. These people may be big capitalists in agribusiness, or smaller capitalists who are farming a medium size farm (say 500-2000 acres). They buy labor power from workers, sell the food they produce and (except for perhaps smaller family farms) make a profit because of the difference between the cost of inputs (labor, but also fuel, seeds, fertilizer, new machinery, etc.) and the price of the food that is sold. Capitalism is partly defined by this process of social and economic relations; under capitalism there is no other way. 

Commodity production and exchange in order to profit is the driving force behind food production. 

Commodity production and exchange in order to profit is the driving force behind food production. This includes agricultural research, one aspect of the food production process. Ag research is designed to maximize profits, whether it be through decreasing costs (mechanical harvesting, breeding for particular ripening times, etc.) or through creating a new commodity (seed varieties, new fertilizers, harvesting machinery, etc.) Commodity sales occur in agricultural research at three levels: labor, immediate results, and food produced. 

First, the labor power of research scientists, technicians, research administrators, etc. is bought; the labor power itself is a commodity having use-value and exchange-value with a price that fluctuates depending on supply, demand, and other factors. The capitalist buys the research person’s labor power with the hope that, in return, the immediate results of the research can be turned into a profitable commodity (be it a crop variety, a more effective pesticide, a new harvester, or a different fertilizer or technique). Finally, the food that is produced, partly as the result of the research, is a commodity. 

Viewing food production as commodity production presents us with a fundamentally different interpretation of food production research than the predominant ideology which considers the primary goal of capitalist agricultural research to be increasing the production of food in order to feed people (and only incidently but not necessarily making a profit). The two views lead to very different predictions and explanations. The example of corn breeding research is illustrative. 

The “food-is-produced-to-feed-people” position can not explain why research on corn varieties continues, as it has for the past 30-40 years, to focus almost entirely on hybrid varieties, even though virtually no geneticist today believes the theory of inheritance and gene expression on which it is based.8 If the same amount of research were being put into self-pollinated varieties as is being put into hybrids, it is likely that yields could be as high as or higher than those of hybrid varieties.9 However, hybrid corn seed production and sales is a multimillion dollar business (usually part of large and diversified trans-continental monopolies), and the source for the hybrid seed that farmers must buy each year to plant. If research on non-hybrid varieties improved their yield, farmers could save some of each year’s crop as seed for the next year, thereby not having to buy seed and lessening the control that big capital holds over them. 

It is clear from this one example (for others see, e.g. Hightower’s Hard Tomatoes Hard Times) that the drive to create, or increase the profitability of, a commodity is primary in directing the research. Increasing yield or quality only enters in as a variable that affects profitability. If it is profitable to produce, it will be produced (whether it is food, automobiles, housing, or bombs).

Dependence, Exploitation, & Control 

How, though, is agricultural research a weapon that is “employed to get the better of another”? Agricultural research, like the other parts of the food production and distribution process, is used under capitalism, by the capitalists, both to bind farmers to a dependence on various commodities and eventually to drive most of them “out of business”.

Small farmers don’t have capital, can’t compete, and are driven out.

Agricultural research is, in this way, affecting not only farmers or peasants in those Third World countries that have been penetrated by US capital, but also the farmers here in the US. The dramatic decrease in the number of farmers and corresponding increase in the amount of land controlled by agribusiness is one of the direct results of agricultural research. The specifics are different but the principle is the same for peasants and small farmers in the Third World as well. Agricultural research develops seed varieties that produce higher yields, but only under conditions of increased fertilization, insecticides and controlled irrigation. Planting, tilling, and harvesting can be done more quickly with machinery specially designed (only) for the crop and cropping pattern. To obtain these means of increasing yield, farmers need capital. Small farmers don’t have it, can’t compete, and are driven out. Those who are able to continue farming must make large capital investments, and are bound to and increasingly controlled by agribusiness through its commodities of machinery, fertilizer, seed, and pesticides. 

In the US, agricultural research is part of a weapon against the small farming sector; in most Third World countries the victims are the majority of people. First, Third World economies are generally based much more on food production and exchange. Increasing US control over food production exerts a very strong influence. Second, relatively more people in Third World countries are involved in food production, thus many producers are affected directly. Third, everybody has to eat and thus there is increasing control at a national level. 

While scientific research in agriculture is a large part of the food weapon, there are other aspects of food production and distribution that serve similar purposes of dominance and control. 

Market Manipulation 

The simplistic “food-is-produced-to-feed-people” view can not explain why food is destroyed or purposely not grown while people starve. As Richard Bell, past Assistant Secretary of Agriculture stated: “our primary concern is commercial exports… We can’t subordinate commercial exports to needy people.”10 The simple story is that to affect prices and profits, the US does not always produce the quantities of food it is technically capable of producing. Hunger and starvation enter into the issue, only through their effect on price and people’s ability to spend. 

Richard Bell: “Our primary concern is commercial exports… We can’t subordinate commercial exports to the needy people”

Most of the major western capitalist countries deliberately chose not to plant millions of acres of grain in 1970 and 1971, resulting in the loss of about 2 billion bushels of wheat.11Then in 1972, Earl Butz prevented the planting of another 5 million acres of wheat in the US, making a total of 62 million acres of US land purposely kept out of production. Policies of not producing food while millions of people starve are motivated out of a concern for increasing prices, lowering costs, and increasing profits, rather than feeding people. As Dan Ellerman of the National Security Council has stated: “To give food aid to countries just because people are starving is a pretty weak reason.”12 Justification for such policies comes mostly in the form of “balance of payments”-type arguments. How easy it is for us to accept this as an “explanation’: and modus-operandi is an indication of how deeply ingrained the capitalist market exchange ideology actually is. Any attempt to change that must begin with an understanding of the ways in which capitalist social relations create and are reinforced by capitalist ideology.  

Ideology and the Food Weapon

Bourgeois ideology concerning population and resources is supportive of and generated by the use of food as a weapon. First there is the view that separates production and consumption as well as ignoring the social relations thereof. This view sees food production at or near a physical maximum and hence can justify “selective” distribution. The “life boat” argument13 is one of the more explicit and better known formulations. This is a reactionary bourgeois ideology that considers US aid to the poorest de-developed Third World countries to be overloading “the boat”. Feeding starving babies leads to more survival and to population growth, which is seen as the cause of food shortage. Without detailing either the ideology or the argument (see note14) it should be clear that, from this point of view, the Third World is considered a threat deserving of harsh measures of control and the use of (food as one of many) weapons. 

A second example is the view that universalizes private ownership of and control over resources as the only “rational” solution. The “tragedy of the commons”, popularized by Garret Hardin,15 uses as a metaphor the grazing land to which people once brought their domestic animals. His claim is that such a system, in which access to the “Commons” was had by all, was doomed to failure: human nature dictates that we are all competitive; we will each individually try to graze as many of our animals as often as we can resulting in the overexploitation and ruin of the Commons. Thus, private ownership is the only way to prevent such destruction and to regulate the use of resources. This supports the private ownership of agricultural land and the distribution of its produce by ‘them that has.’ Furthermore it serves as an explanation for the very real land destruction in much of the Third World that is taking place due to overgrazing or overly intense farming. Rather than seeing the role of imperialism or national capitalism in pushing people onto smaller and more marginal land, or into continuous monoculture of nutrient-depleting crops, it becomes possible to rationalize practices as the fault of individual competition and ignorance.16

These are simplified statements of the thrust of the arguments. However, they are raised to illustrate how such ideology grows out of and reinforces capitalist social relations. Their legitimation comes from associations with science: “scientific” research which supposedly validates the ideas, popularization by natural scientists (Hardin among others); creation and development by “social scientists”; publication in scientific journals. For many, the ideological elements in the process and result can be obscured under the guise of “scientific objectivity”. It is the job of radical scientists to expose the ideology in all thinking.

It is the job of radical scientists to expose the ideology in all thinking. 

What is to be done? 

The argument presented here is that, while food can conceivably be grown and distributed both nationally and internationally with the goal of feeding people, current capitalist political economic relations make food one of the primary weapons of exploitation and control. Strategies of opposition and change must recognize this as a long term war within which small tactical battles must be fought. A number of possibilities exist. 

First, we might seek a moratorium on the use of food as a weapon. Such an effort could attract large numbers of progressives internationally; groups with related but more specific goals already exist (e.g. the campaign against infant formula in the Third World). A large coalition of anti-imperialists and humanitarians could become a strong and influential voice. The UN could serve as a powerful force. Boycotts and bad publicity can be effective in bringing about changes in the more oppressive or exploitative conditions. 

Second, there is the task of spreading an analysis of why this problem exists, of the exploitative and destructive nature of capitalist social relations, and of the ultimate need for revolutionary social change. Others must be encouraged to face the contradictions of capitalism and to critically examine Marxist analyses of this and other problems. Using neither leftist jargon, nor liberal obfuscations, we must present clearly our perspective, rather than retreating to an elitist and condescending position that views others as either not interested in, or unable or unwilling to accept, a non-dogmatic Marxist analysis. 

Third, we must continue to educate ourselves, to probe and question more, to look deeper into the interpenetration of capitalist social relations, ideology and science.

Mark Wilson is working with a group of people whose interests include approaches to agricultural ecology. conservation. public health and health care, population, and the political economy of science. You are encouraged to contact them at Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Ave., Rm. 1104. Boston, MA 02115. 

>> Back to Vol. 11, No. 3<<


  1. Quoted in Time magazine, November 11, 1974.
  2. April 4, 1974.
  3. Cohen, Walter, (1971) “Herbert Hoover: Some Food For Thought,” Pacific Research and World Empire Telegram Ill (1).
  4. Cleaver, Harry M. (1972), “The Contradictions of the Green Revolution,” Monthly Review, June 1972:80-111.
  5. Roodkowsky, Mary (1975), “PL480: Aid for Arms and Agribusiness,” in Self Education Packet.
  6. Richard Levins, personal communication.
  7. From a 1961 American Feed Mfgr. Assoc. brochure entitled “Mightier Than Missiles”.
  8. The theory of “overdominance” has led to breeding for hybrids in which the “best” of one inbred line is mechanically crossed with the “best” of another, to produce a hybrid. “Partial dominance” or “intermediate dominance” is now believed to be the mechanism of gene expression; thus breeding research should use simple mass selection in which a few of the “best” are repeatedly bred to create a self-propogating, open-pollinated homozygote.
  9. Richard Lewontin developed this idea.
  10. Quoted in an interview with Richard Bell; from NACLA’s Latin America & Empire Report, Vol. IX, No.7, (October 1975).
  11. Gluckman, H. and R. Krushnic (1975), “U.S. Food Strategy and the Third World,” in Self Education Packet.
  12. Quoted in NACLA’s Latin America & Empire Report Vol. IX, No. 7 p.13.
  13. Vandermeer, John, “Ecological Determinism,” in Ann Arbor Science for the People (eds.), Biology as a Social Weapon, Burgess Pub. Co. Minn.
  14. 12
  15. Hardin, Garrett (1968), “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162: 1243-48.
  16. A concise summary of Hardin’s “Tragedy” may be found in Murdock and Oaten (Bioscience, Sept. 1975: 561-567) in which they quip,” ‘The Tragedy of the Privately Owned Sheep’ lacks zing”.