The biopolitics of food provisioning



Beginning with Foucault’s writing on food provisioning in the mercantile period, this paper explores how a moral economy of hunger is gradually replaced by a political economy of food security that promotes market mechanisms as a better protection against scarcity. In Western Europe the emergence of political liberalism and laissez-faire economics substantially shaped how hunger and scarcity were conceptualised and socially managed. Beyond Europe these social forces were manifest in the development of colonial plantations. Here the transformation of non-capitalist social formations into market economies – what Harvey (2003) terms ‘accumulation by dispossession’– was a foundational moment in the development of a global provisioning system that undermined the anti-scarcity strategies of some populations, while ensuring food security for others. The subsequent discovery of the ‘Global South’ hunger, together with the desire to encourage better habits and purer morals among ‘backward’ peoples, created the context in which further curative interventions, designed to consolidate a capitalist food economy, were valorised and maintained. These reflections set up the final part of the paper, where I contextualise recent efforts to present agro-biotechnologies as a pro-welfare and anti-scarcity response. Moving beyond the causes of hunger to explore its strategic function, this analysis highlights how corporate agribusiness – in partnership with the life sciences – is attempting to recondition human, animal and bacterial life in order to quicken the reproduction of capital. I term this new moment in the commercialisation of food systems accumulation by molecularisation. The paper concludes by examining how the corporate management of food folds into biopolitical strategies for managing life, including the lives of the hungry poor who are ‘let die’ as commercial interests supplant human needs.