Unraveling the World Food Economy: Jennifer Clapp’s Food

It’s been a busy week-and-a-half here in Piedmont, one filled with classes on cheese tasting with an eccentric professor (apparently most cheeses have a cauliflower aroma); nine hours spent learning about the finer points of swirling, smelling, and sipping wine; a trip up to Torino for Fulbright research and a stroll around the Porta Palazzo market; hours glued to the websites of La Repubblica and the New York Times, tracking the Italian elections with disappointment; keeping up-to-date with il Papa’s last public audience at St. Peter’s and helicopter ride to Castel Gandolfo; and studying the beer-brewing process and the role of salt in cured meat technology for an upcoming exam.

Before time got away from me, I wanted to write up a brief little diddy to let y’all know about a book I read for class last week: Food by Jennifer Clapp. Dr. Clapp—who holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and who sits on the faculty at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo—spent last week in Pollenzo as a visiting professor for a seminar called “Inside the World Food Economy.”


“Inside the Global Food Economy” was, for me, the most enlightening class we’ve had thus far. As a liberal arts-degreed girl who steered clear of the Econ Scream at Penn, I didn’t come into this program well-versed in topics like commodities markets, futures contracts, concentration ratios, and the theory of comparative advantage. That being said, I found Dr. Clapp’s book to be a clear-cut examination of how our food economy has grown to global dimensions in the recent past, and how power in the global food economy has been concentrated in the hands of relatively few players.

As I now understand it, a combination of post-war U.S. farm policies, the rise of neoliberal trade attitudes in the 1980s, and gains in power by transnational food processing and retailing corporations has drastically changed the food economy, making it volatile and vulnerable to crises and causing serious ecological consequences.

Clapp unpacks how we the food economy got global more coherently in Food: “Four key forces have been behind the expansion of the world food economy: state-led global expansion of both the industrial agricultural model and the transnational trade in food, agricultural trade liberalization, the rise of transnational corporate actors in all aspects of the food and agricultural sector, and the intensification of the financialization of food, such that food commodities have become increasingly like any other financial product bought and sold by investors.”

That last bit about the commodification of food was what I found most interesting—and most frightening. Treating food like any other commodity belies the fact that it is absolutely fundamental to human life, that it nourishes us. In Food, Clapp explores how globalizing the food economy has increased both the physical and mental distance we have to our food, and the issues that such distancing creates.

Food also gets into the nitty-gritty of global agricultural trade by providing an in-depth look at the 1994 Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades, exemplifying how liberalization of trade has benefited rich countries at the great expense of developing countries.

Though all of this doesn’t sound too encouraging (and is definitely anger-inducing), Clapp’s book isn’t all doom and gloom. The last chapter of Food takes a look at alternative food movements, like fair trade and the food sovereignty campaign, that are pushing to challenge the dominant system, stirring a little bit of hope into this sharp and straightforward précis.

If you’re at all interested in better understanding how the everyday stuff of what we eat for dinner is affected by the global food economy, check out Food—it’s a worthy read for all eaters. [For Penn people—I checked Franklin and Van Pelt has a copy!]


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