Review History

Let’s Get This Bread

About: Alessandro Stanziani, Capital Terre, une histoire longue du monde d’après (XIIe-XXIe siècle), Payot

by Michael C. Behrent & Jean Bérard , 26 October 2023
with the support of

Alessandro Stanziani recounts the long story of how agriculture embraced capitalism and productivism, from the transformation of seeds and species to producers’ farms, by way of peasant expropriation and the chemistry of fertilizers and pesticides.

In France, the share of food in household consumer expenses has gone from 34.6 % in 1960 to 20.4 % in 2014 [1], while the share of farmworkers in the total workforce went from 7.1% in 1981 to 1.5 % in 2019. [2] What do we learn from these numbers? Do they tell the happy story of industrial society’s emancipation from food constraints—that we now produce more food with little labor? Yet the contemporary food situation is beset with troubling questions. Does what we eat poison us? Does meat production render us complicit in the torture of animals in slaughterhouses and in the rise of CO2 emissions, just as spreading palm oil on our bread makes us complicit in deforestation and the expulsion of farmers? Do not climate change, soil degradation, and the disappearance of insects threaten not only cheap food, but food production itself?

Alessandro Stanziani’s book provides lucid insight into present-day anxieties by retracing the history of “the relationship between food, farming, the environment, and inequality” (30). Starting with his title—the need to think about the future and our “next” world—he suggests that the history of the now-dominant forms of food production makes it clear that the time for change has come. His demonstration connects the analysis of three key historical moments to his thoughts (in the conclusion) about what must change.

Labor power

The first moment runs from the twelfth century until the 1870s. This longue durée refers not to the shift from a stagnant world to a world of growth, but, on the contrary, to a continuous period of slow growth (51) in production and population, during which great crises, like the fourteenth-century Black Death, constitute exceptions. This form of growth persisted deep into the so-called contemporary period. During this longue durée, it makes little sense to single out western Europe.

How should one characterize this form of growth? Population growth went hand-in-hand with growth in production and cultivated area. Increasingly scarce local resources, resulting from deforestation, led to the quest for colonial resources (33). Technical innovation slowly transformed this form of production: heavy carriages, open fields, the integration of farming and pastures, triennial crop rotation, and better animal harnesses. “In China, under the Song (beginning in 960 CE), the agricultural area doubled, thanks to major technological innovations and the regulatory role of the state” (49). Stanziani shows that there exist no “civilizations of rice, wheat, or corn that are isolated from one another, nor self-sufficient farming, nor grains or seeds that had to wait for modernity.” Plant genetics and archaeological digs make it possible to understand the slow adaptation, blending, and evolution of seeds. Their circulation participates in a global and colonial history, which turns the dominant political powers into powers that can impose specific crops, such as sugar (98).

Agriculture was weak in capital and founded on human labor power. This does not mean that energy sources found in preindustrial economies—wood, coal, wind, water, and river power—were lacking. They, too, participated in this longue durée. On the one hand, “in China, too, windmills were widespread during Antiquity. They were used as energy sources, for transporting agricultural goods as well for manufacturing.” On the other hand, “water mills and, more generally, hydraulic wheels reached their apex during the nineteenth century” (60). Yet the fundamental source of energy remained human labor.

The book shows the impact of climate variations between the Medieval Optimum and the Little Ice Age (from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century). Declining temperatures led to population displacements and epidemic, war, and famine. They could be seen in the “acute social tensions of the seventeenth century” (111): a bad harvest could be devastating for peasants, while a decade of bad harvests threatened the Khmer, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires. [3] These analyses make it possible to characterize two features of exercising power in agricultural societies. First, Stanziani emphasizes trade. For example, “from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, trade flourished between Russia, Central Asia, India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Khanates that descended from Tamerlane” (50). But he also shows that it is pointless to transpose onto the longue durée the idea of a market driven by supply and demand, of labor power as well as of merchandise. This first regime of agricultural growth was based on scarce labor power. Dominant powers did not, however, seek to attract more labor through better wages. Political power was key to labor coercion. Through goods, too, “market discipline was tied to public order,” through such means as stocking and trade restrictions during periods of food scarcity.

The great industrial transformation

Part two deals with the rapid acceleration of agricultural productivism between 1870 and 1970. In northern countries, its symptoms are well known: greater yields, a decline in the agricultural labor force, the growing importance of machines, farm concentration, and major capital investments. The book connects this history to the biological and chemical transformations produced by the industrialization of farming. Beginning in 1840, nitrates were imported from Chile, before the chemical industry was producing artificial fertilizers, which the German company BASF introduced during the interwar years. Agricultural production was increasingly dependent on fossil fuels to run machines and produce chemical fertilizer. Another aspect of industrialization concerns the control of seeds and plants. It consisted, first, in technological control, made possible by the production of hybrid seeds, beginning with corn before extending to other plants. Yet it also consisted in economic and political control, which made farmers dependent on seed suppliers who were protected by property rights. The United States was at the forefront of this movement during the interwar years and, even more assertively, after 1945, when selling seed became tied to development policies aimed at “ensuring [the country’s] political and economic domination” (169).

As with fertilizers, the standardization of seeds quickly led to warnings. Research “proving that the ecosystem had weakened due to these changes … and that standardized plants and animals were more vulnerable to climate-related and environmental threats” (p. 169) was ignored. This was only exacerbated by the fact that new seeds require fertilizers and antiparasitics, in perfect—or fatal—symbiosis with the chemical industry (174). In India, new rice seeds, produced in conditions that led to disease and debt for small producers, resulted in high yields followed by low yields, the concentration of landed property, and the marginalization of peasant knowledge (179).

The enclosure of livestock made land available for cereal crops. Certain varieties of productive wheats, which are rich in gluten that respond well to fertilizers, and which are well adapted to industrial kneading and bread-making, became dominant, riding on the global rise in dough consumption (and of instant noodles). In the North, meat consumption has grown since the mid-nineteenth century, with particularly rapid acceleration in the second half of the twentieth century that also extended to the South. The standardization of species, intensive recourse to chemical and veterinary products controlled by major corporations, battery farming’s need for electricity and heating, and the concentration of large farms turned livestock farming into “one of the primary sources of pollution and environmental destruction throughout the world” (195).

The generalization of vaccines made it possible, in the West, to eradicate the major animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans (210). But “while Europeans sought to limit the importation of new epizootic diseases, they were untroubled when it was they who spread them, particularly in colonial settings”: the cattle plague arrived in India thanks to the British, and in Ethiopia thanks to the Italians. “Moreover, colonial policies adopted to stop these diseases wound up having the opposite effect. For example, in South Africa, transhumance was prohibited—thus prohibiting, by the same token, a local remedy for epizootic diseases” (209). The timeline of the transformation of different forms of agriculture is not the same. The labor force’s role remains key in southern countries. Yet a notable characteristic of this century is the gradual extension of this mode of operation. Hence “the decline of African corn, associated with polyculture, and the rise of new, hybrid, monocultural corn, constitutes the most noteworthy trend in African agricultural settings in the second half of the twentieth century” (176).

Colonial and neocolonial relationships, connected to liberalization and the conversion of agriculture in southern countries to export-oriented monocultures, have had catastrophic effects. Forced labor and famine remain pervasive, though in new forms (219). Mike Davis has described the “tropical genocides” of the late nineteenth century, caused by years of drought due to the El Niño climate phenomenon and the entry of China, India, and Brazil into the global trade in cereals. [4] These market famines caused eight to ten million deaths in India, 20 million deaths in China, and a million in Brazil between 1876 and 1879. Stanziani extends his argument to explain climate contingencies of the twentieth century, which occurred first in the 1920s, 40s, and 50s, then again in the 1970s. These famines were tied to development policies that integrated agricultural production into global trade circuits of cacao, rubber, cotton, palm oil, and coffee.

The dominance of speculation

Stanziani calls the final moment “high globalization,” extending from the 1970s to the present. It can be analyzed in terms that testify to the financialized neoliberalization of every sector of the economy: market deregulation, the crisis of the welfare state, the creation of giant corporations, and the generalization of speculation (245). Thus “Cargill, ADM, Bunge, Dreyfus, and Glencore control around three quarters of the global trade in cereals.” Agricultural goods have become speculative assets: “currently, 2% of the transactions on raw materials markets correspond to trade in real products” (246). Speculation leads to price volatility, which can trigger, as in 2008, food riots in southern countries affected by sudden increases. Speculation extends to land itself (250-251). In 2016, 300 transactions related to 30 million hectares in 70 countries, at the expense of commonly held land—at times, speculators had no intent to put this land to immediate agricultural use. These changes gave rise to resistance and violence. NGOs attempted to propose alternative models (such as Via Campesina and Ekta Parishad in India). The fact remains that “peasants are everywhere being kicked off their land” (259) and “the rights of indigenous peoples are officially recognized but violated in practice” (254).

From the standpoint of biotechnology, high globalization represents the shift from hybrids to GMOs. The latter are contemporaneous with warnings about the dangerous effects of standardization and the “quest for old varieties that can restore a degree of biodiversity.” But the prevailing trend is toward “accentuating hybridization” and “modifying the genetic sequences of plants” (277). Thus “in Latin America, the percentage of land sowed with highly productive wheat hybrids went from 11% in 1970 to 90% in 1998.” In Asia, hybrid rice went from taking up 10% of land in 1970 to 65% in 1998. GMOs have put “science to the service of inequality” (283). They have triggered opposition that has resulted in some bans, but the powerful economic and political support they enjoy ensures that they continue to spread. In the United States in 2013, 90% of cotton and corn and 93% of soybeans are transgenic (286). GMOs reproduce characteristics associated with seed hybrids: dependent producers, rising yields followed by declining yields, and the imperative of expanding farmland. Development pushes resources to their limit. This is particularly true of water. In sub-Saharan Africa, 180,000 children a year die due to a lack of decontaminated water (266). Fertilizers and pesticides consume large quantities of energy (50% of the energy used for wheat production) at a time when agriculture itself is expected to resolve its fossil fuel problem: biofuels represent a new “strategy of capitalist accumulation” (269).

The sustained growth in livestock farming, even as the middle classes in northern countries have started turning from beef to poultry, continues to be based on race selection, irrigation, and growing use of anabolic steroids and antibiotics. Thus “70% of once wooded lands in Amazonia are now used as pasture” (291). Animal meals, which had been banned for cattle due to mad cow disease, are used for fish farming—another ecological disaster: “the greatest mangrove forest in the world, in Bangladesh, is slowly dying, as it is invaded by shrimp farming, plastic waste, and water pollution” (293). Hunger in poor countries is caused by new connections between climate change, which causes longer periods of flooding and drought, and wars and population displacements. At the same time, food is wasted—in the North, when it is consumed; in the South, when it is produced and preserved, which occurs if infrastructure is not adapted to new production levels.

How can dilapidation be banned?

Clearly, we need a new world. In its final chapter and conclusion, the book considers the “foundations of the political philosophy of economics.” It explores, by way of Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss’s reflections on the possibility of a universally valid social-natural contract. [5] How can political institutions be conceived that are able to put an end to the “dilapidation” of “Earth-capital”? Stanziani rejects the idea of a return to past worlds and formulates a set of proposals for the future: ban financial speculation on food products, ban the acquisition of vast territories, let cooperatives play a major role, ban plant patents, resume basic, public agronomic research, and extend the protections of the welfare state to all workers, regardless of their nationality.

These proposals have in common with other solutions formulated on this scale that it is not easy (at least for now) to imagine the political and social circumstances that might lead to their implementation. Even so, it is necessary to consider and defend them, for a reason that, at the end of this long trajectory, can be simply stated: the earth is both our primary resource and, under financialized agricultural productivism, a form of capital that is inscribed in the property, productive, and speculative relations that contribute to its use in the most intense, rapid, and profitable ways possible—in short, to its depletion and destruction.

Alessandro Stanziani, Capital Terre, une histoire longue du monde d’après (XIIe-XXIe siècle), Payot, 2021. 432 p., 23 €.

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by Michael C. Behrent & Jean Bérard, 26 October 2023

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Michael C. Behrent & Jean Bérard, « Let’s Get This Bread », Books and Ideas , 26 October 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Brigitte Larochette and Joan Sanchez-Gonzalez, “Cinquante ans de consommation alimentaire: une croissance modérée, mais de profonds changements,” INSEE Première, n°1568, September 2015.

[2Olivier Chardon, Yves Jauneau, and Joëlle Vidalenc, “Les agriculteurs: de moins en moins nombreux et de plus en plus d’hommes”, INSEE Focus, n°212, October 2020.

[3Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Yale University Press, 2013.

[4Mike Davis, Génocides tropicaux. Catastrophes naturelles et famines coloniales (1870-1900). Aux origines du sous-développement, Paris, La Découverte, 2003.

[5Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Réflexions sur la liberté ,” Le regard éloigné, Paris, Plon, 1983.

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