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Theoretical Framework

Food regime analysis was first introduced by agrarian sociologist Harriet Friedmann in 1987, but it is an article Friedmann wrote with Philip McMichael in 1989, which appeared for the first time in Sociologia Ruralis in 1989, titled ‘Agriculture and the State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to the Present’, which can be considered the seminal work of food regime theory. Since its first formulation, food regime analysis has been applied to innumerable global phenomena related to food, and it has proven to be ‘one of the most durable perspectives in agrarian studies’.[1]

A simple definition of ‘food regime’ is given by Friedmann, who describes the concept as a ‘rule-governed structure of production and consumption of food on a world scale’.[2] According to Friedmann, the food regime is ‘partly about international relations of food, and partly about the world food economy’.[3]

Food regime analysis draws heavily on political science and sociological literature. First of all, the Friedmann-McMichael food regime theory owes much to the international relations concept of an ‘international regime’ that, in the words of Stephen Krasner, is a set of explicit or implicit ‘principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue area’.[4] The first to talk about ‘food regime’ were the two international regime theorists Donald J. Puchala and Raymond F. Hopkins.[5] They write that the post-war food regime was the result of the creation of international food organizations (e.g. the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO]), the growth of the USA as a supplier of grain to the world market, and the diffusion of new farming practices.[6]

In her first article on food regimes of 1982 (here she uses the expression ‘international food order’), Friedmann asserts that the Hopkins and Puchala study is ambiguous about the relation between international power and international economy and that it overemphasizes production and distribution.[7] Thus, in her later works, she draws insights from Aglietta’s French Regulation Theory and Wallerstein’s World Systems perspective in order to formulate her original concept of food regimes. The regulationists see the history of capitalism as a succession of phases, each distinguished by certain historically developed, socio-institutionally defined structural forms that give rise, so long as they are maintained, to distinctive economic trends and patterns.[8] At the basis of the World Systems perspective, is the idea that the organization of geographic spaces is the result of a long historical process, and the unit of analysis is not the single state but the ‘world system’, that is a historical, social system of interdependent parts that form a bound structure and operate according to distinctive rules.[9] By combining these two theories, the food regime approach has tried to develop a world-historical perspective of the transformation of international relations of food and has conceptualized the logic of world systems ‘as being as much or more political-epochal rather than mainly economic-cyclical’.[10] [11] It can therefore be argued that the key innovation of this theory has been the capability to situate the dynamics of the agri-food sector in a world-historical perspective.

Friedmann and McMichael identified three global food regimes in history. The first food regime covers the period between 1870 and 1930,[12] when, within a general rhetoric of free trade and the system of the gold standard, European countries imported cheap tropical products such as sugar, coffee, tea, and tropical oils, from their colonies and from settler states like the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in exchange for capital and manufactured goods.[13] The second food regime started in the 1950s and lasted until the 1973 food crisis. This regime saw the emergence of the USA as the new world agricultural power, thanks to the results of agricultural policy implemented after the economic depression in the 1930s that increased American production, thus generating food surpluses. In order to dispose of agricultural surpluses, ‘food aid’ was created as a policy instrument. Foreign economic aid was based on the role of the dollar under the Bretton Woods monetary system. Within this system, the USA started to distribute food surpluses to countries or regions that were facing food shortages, such as Europe with the Marshall Plan or Japan, as we will see in detail in the following paragraphs. Food aid was not only a solution to the domestic agricultural situation; it also served as a foreign policy tool. Particularly in the context of Cold War rivalry with the USSR, it was used as an instrument of containment, by strengthening ties with recipient countries.[14] The second food regime entered into crisis in 1973, when the world faced the biggest food crisis since 1945. In 1972, in the climate of detente, the USA and the USSR made a deal over the sale of wheat and other grain commodities. This deal created an unexpected shortage of grain on the international market, noticeably pushing food prices up.[15] As such, the main feature of the second food regime - food surpluses - disappeared. There is some debate in the literature about the contours of the third food regime.[16] However, a number of main features have been identified: (1) an increased global trading of food; (2) the development of new biotechnology; (3) consumers’ fragmentation and dietary change; (4) deregulation of the farm sector, promoted by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and WTO.[17] However, two characteristics deeply distinguish this regime from the previous one: (1) the emergence of new centres of food production in developing countries (mostly in Latin America and Asia), the so-called new agricultural countries (NACs); and (2) the creation of new commercial relations led by transnational agribusiness corporations that have undercut the ability of single states to regulate their domestic agriculture and trade.[18]

This historical framework offered by food regime theory provides a notable theoretical advantage, which is to focus on the historicity of political and economic factors that characterize a particular food regime. The theory is thus particularly useful for examining the origin of Japanese food dependence from an international and long-term perspective, and for understanding the structure of the international food system and the ways in which Japan is linked to it.

  • [1] Buttel, ‘Some Reflections’, 23.
  • [2] Friedmann, ‘The Political Economy of Food’, 30—31.
  • [3] Ibid., 31.
  • [4] Krasner, ‘Structural Causes’, 185—205.
  • [5] Hopkins and Puchala, ‘International Regimes’, 61—93.
  • [6] Ibid., 76.
  • [7] Friedmann, ‘The Political Economy of Food’, 254.
  • [8] Aglietta, Regulation et crises du capitalisme.
  • [9] Wallerstein, The Modern World System.
  • [10] Buttel, ‘Some Reflections’, 24.
  • [11] In their first article (1989), Friedmann and McMichael talked about only two historical foodregimes, the pre-war and the post-war food regimes. Philip McMichael supposed the emergence ofa third food regime in (1992), and its main characteristics have been analysed in later studies. See:Friedmann, ‘From Colonialism to Green Capitalism’, 227—264; McMichael, ‘GlobalDevelopment’, 265—299; Pechlaner and Otero. ‘The Neoliberal Food Regime’, 179—208.
  • [12] In this chapter, I make use ofMcMichael’s periodization. Friedmann (2005) prefers to date thefirst food regime between 1870 and 1914, others between 1860 and 1914. See: Winders, ‘TheVanishing Free Market’, 315—344.
  • [13] Friedmann, ‘From Colonialism’, 242.
  • [14] Friedmann, ‘The Political Economy of Food’, 39-42.
  • [15] Luttrell, The Russian Wheat Deal.
  • [16] See: Friedmann, ‘From Colonialism’; McMichael, ‘A Food Regime Genealogy’, 139-169;Pechlaner and Otero, ‘The Neoliberal Food Regime’; Pritchard, ‘The Long Hangover’, 297-307.
  • [17] Le Heron, Globalized Agriculture, 144.
  • [18] McMichael, ‘Tensions’, 343-365
 
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