Clapp and Cohen Book CoverSetting the Global Dinner Table: Exploring the Limits of the Marketization of Food Security. In Jennifer Clapp and Marc J. Cohen, eds., The Global Food Crisis: Governance Challenges and Opportunities. (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009).


The current global food crisis rekindles concerns about the future of food security. Before the ascendency of global neoliberalism in the 1980s, the state played a central role in the provision of food security, as grain reserves, public agricultural investment, and extension services were viewed as the central elements of national food security strategies. Since the 1980s, however, food security has increasingly been subject to the discipline of the market. Countries were advised to specialize in production for export markets, taking advantage of niche products, and using their comparative advantage to specialize. Food security, it was felt, could be guaranteed through global food markets rather than national grain reserves.

As a technology-based strategy for expanding agricultural production, biotechnology builds on the nearly three-decade old trend towards marketization of food security. Unlike the Green Revolution, which was largely directed by the public sector and financed by non-governmental organizations, the current “gene revolution” is almost exclusively a privately-funded and directed affair. Nevertheless, proponents of agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) point to the current global food crisis as a prima facie case illustrating the necessity of the agbiotech fix. Evoking the specter of neomaltusian horrors, they argue that only agricultural biotechnology can feed the world’s growing population, and raising questions about the wisdom or necessity of the technology is akin to condemning the world’s poor to a Hobbesian existence.

In this paper, I argue that the discursive construction of agricultural biotechnology as a panacea for the problems of hunger, malnutrition, and underdevelopment is fundamentally misguided. Indeed, the roots of the global food crisis undermine the applicability of a simple technical solution. Based on the recognition that the current crisis is social, political, and perhaps above all economic in nature, I argue that any effective response to the crisis must be similarly broad in scope. Although it may be part of the solution, agricultural biotechnology alone cannot resolve the current crisis. What is needed is more than a simple technical fix, but a fundamental reconsideration of the marketization of food security guided by the state.

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