Various cases surrounding agriculture and food in Indonesia have been emerging in the past 68 years since the independence of Indonesia. Deforestation and social conflict with indigenous communities due to the expansion of oil palm plantation in Borneo and Sumatra, importation of million tonnes of rice that threatens rice price stability that precipitate to rice farmers in Java, the emergence of Monsanto, a multinational corporation, and its transgenic maize in Indonesia, a plan to open up Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) in Papua and its consequences on the local ecology, and the case of conflict between land owners and peasants in Karawang — they all sum up to the extent to which capitalism has rooted in Indonesia’s agri-food sector. Food capitalism is a system whereby food and agricultural products are acquired through market mechanism and operated on the basis of profit seeking and capital accumulation. Though appear in different forms, food capitalism is absolutely not a new thing, as it has been with us even since the era of Dutch colonialism.  This narrative attempts to review the evolution of food capitalism in Indonesia and the world, how it impacted the farmers, consumers and the environment, and what we can do, through activism, to move against the grasp of capitalism. 

Three food regimes in the world

The history of food capitalism cannot be separated from the global dynamics, ever since the era of Industrial Revolution in Europe. Harriet Friedmann and Phil McMichael, two renowned sociologists from North America, divide the development of global capitalism since that era until now into three regimes, put it simply: the regime of food colonialism, food industrialism, and food neoliberalism. 

Industrial Revolution created a condition within Europeans in which rural farmers moved to cities to work at factories, bringing about a decline in agricultural land and deficit of food in the urban areas. Their best hope for food was to transport them from colonies in the other part of the world. This era, in the capitalistic framework, is known as the food colonialism regime (1800s to 1930s). This era is characterized with massive exploitation of land in the colonies, such as Australia, United States and tropical regions, along with an increasing export of these products to Europe. In many places, there is a shift in the agricultural paradigm, from subsistence to global commercialization of food. 

In our archipelago, this colonialism is apparent in what was known as kulturstelsel, or cultivation system, whereby the government of the Dutch East Indies aimed at replacing subsistence staple crops with high-value cash crops such as sugarcane , coffee and rubber. With this system, peasants would have to share their time, energy and land to grow staple crops on the one hand, and cash crops on the other. It intensified the farming practices and more-or-less damaged their soil. Peasants would also have to pay ridiculously high taxes for their crops.

In Europe, a continuing economic crisis at the end of the 19th century, followed by the first and second World War, triggered a restructuring of the world’s economy and agricultural systems. United States of America became a new hegemony through world financial system on the basis of US Dollar and its advance agricultural technology known as the Green Revolution. Whilst this new monetary system strengthened US position in Europe, agricultural industrialization put its claws on the newly developing countries in the global south.

The Green Revolution began with the development of high yielding wheat varieties by Norman Borlaug, an agronomist. From then on, the seed of industrialization spread across the world, as it was applied to various staple commodities (maize, rice and potato). These modern varieties were characterized by their responsiveness to chemical fertilizer, fast-growing traits and their higher capacity to absorb water. With these traits, High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) were able to produce three-fold from their local counterparts. Yet, they also came with a problem: that HYVs was not only about seeds, but also a full package of capital intensive technology consisting of seeds, chemical fertilizer, pesticide, intensive irrigation system and machinery. This becomes the foundation for food industrialization.

By nature, the capitalization of farming systems brings excess to an increasing social inequality among farmers. Intensive agriculture results in capital accumulation. Large-scale farmers receive high-end technology, and thus result in higher profits. In contrast, peasants would not have the capacity to increase their production, and thus, during crop failure, these farmers would be likely to fall into debts, or sell what’s left of their land to larger farmers, convert into farm laborers or factory workers in the cities. 

In Indonesia, the Green Revolution could finally enter the farm gate when Soeharto opened its door to foreign investment in the early 1970s. The United Nations FAO, in collaboration with USAid, opened up agricultural aid through HYVs of rice,  construction of national fertilizer factories, and pesticide packages. Ten years after the revolution was held up, data shows that 5% of farm businesses hold more than 90% of farmland in the rural areas. 

The same holds true in the US, whereby heavy subsidies were being given by the government to massively produce wheat, maize and soybean, creating a situation where a small proportion of companies grew large and dominated the sector – Monsanto, Cargill, Novartis and Syngenta, to name a few. The dawn of a new food regime was what’s left in the corner. 

The 1973 oil crisis due to OPEC’s oil monopoly hit US domination really hard — this and the cold war. Businesses began to realize that relying on the policy of a country is not necessarily a good strategy. Large companies in the US began to invest in other countries, from which Multi-National Corporations (MNCs), companies that were no longer tied to limits provided in one’s country, started to take prominence. Regional and international negotiation rounds, such as through the WTO and AFTA, mandated one thing, and one thing only, that nations should cut off every distortion to international trade — tax, subsidies, policies, and leave all up to market mechanism. This is the era of food neoliberalism.

Reflecting on countries such as the US and Mexico, food neoliberalism has done what it takes to strangle our agricultural sector from two sides. On one hand, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides are produced and owned by a handful of large corporations. Through lobbying, these companies are able to set price, place patents on their products and put their hands on every farmer that tries to violate. On the other hand, retail giants control the market side of the sector and, to some extent, influence consumer’s willingness to spend. Farmers, notably smaller ones, are the ones that suffer the most. It is too often that peasants are not able to benefit from their farming practices because either their crops are paid below the reasonable price or their debts cannot cover the increasing cost of production. Yet, consumers are also at the brink of this catastrophe, as we are swayed with empty calories and junk food, or simply oblivious from what we buy in the market. It is interesting to see that most of the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) are produced by no more than 10 MNCs in the world (see Figure). So how do we escape from this trap? 

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One thing that is of importance is that in the 21st century, capitalism is not necessarily as strong as centuries ago. Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, terms the society in this century as a risk society – a society that is more sensitive to information, more critical, and pay more attention to the risk of all forms of modernization – they are also willing to organize for change. As the negative impact of food capitalism begins to submerge, grass root movements also begin to take action against the domination of MNCs. And they’re also ‘multi-nationals’. For example, La Via Campesina (in Indonesia it’s represented by Indonesia’s Farmer Union) that fights for food sovereignty and the rights of the peasants, Slow Food Movement that comes as a response to the creeping fast-food industry, Fair Trade Movement that voices a fairer trade, to local initiatives such as farmers’ market, Community-Supported Agriculture, organic communities, all of which grow in abundance. These movements are no longer dominated by peasants and marginal communities, but also by middle-class of the urbane. 

One concrete step to fight capitalism is through what is known as the community economy – an economic activity founded not on the basis of market mechanism alone. We can start by doing small things:  buying local products, doing groceries in the wet market, grow your own food and exchange with your community, or use less money. You can also speak up your concern over food capitalism, and spread the ideas to your closest friends, or via social media. Even more, get involved in your community grass root movements, and start to get networked

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