The Agricultural Model Killing the World

The agricultural model killing the world: an interview with Habib Ayeb and Ray Bush

In a wide-ranging interview, Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb discuss their new book, Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa. They argue that the question of our relationship with nature is now finally revealed in its starkest and most dramatic way as a climate emergency. Intensive, capitalist and extractivist agriculture has also generated the processes that have created the current pandemic.

Can you please tell us how the idea of your recent book Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia, arose?

We have been working together, on similar issues and often in collaboration for 20 years. Most of the research and critical engagement with activists and academics on agrarian issues and economic reform was grounded in our experiences in Egypt but our engagement with political struggles goes beyond this to many different countries in the Near East, especially Tunisia and Morocco and also to many cases in sub Saharan Africa. Egypt is a such a significant actor in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for so many reasons – geostrategic position, size, dictatorship, working class and peasant activism. We wanted to bring together our work on economic reform and peasant activism – remember structural adjustment in Egypt began in the countryside in 1987, four years before the 1991 Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme. But the upheavals and militant responses that were engendered by a counter-revolution that began in the mid-80s to reverse Nasser’s agrarian reforms of the 1950s and 1960s were extraordinary and mostly unreported. After the 2010 uprisings in Tunisia and 2011 in Egypt we were determined to locate the role of family farmers and small agrarian producers in the political economy of each country and in a broader global transformation of the international food system or regime.

Why is a focus on small farmers important? Can you talk about their incorporation into the world system? 

Our book makes two crucial contributions: we promote an understanding of the role of rural struggles and agrarian transformation as the context within which the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings take place and in so doing we draw on new research regarding how small farmers responded to regime change. In doing this we also contribute to the debate about food security and food sovereignty. In Tunisia family or small farmers constitute about 54% of all farmers and they farm just 11% of the agricultural area. In Egypt 91% of farmers share 50% of the total agricultural area with farms averaging less than five acres or about 1.25 feddan (one feddan is 1.038 of an acre or 0.42 hectares).

Our argument is that the local food system is a product of and also influences broad processes of local and national political economy as well as being structured by the global food regime. Egypt, for example, is second only to Indonesia in its dependency upon imported wheat and securing those imports have led to political contortions and complicity by the Egyptian state with US imperialism, subordination to Israel’s occupation in Palestine and dependence on US military assistance of at least $3 billion each year.

We think one of the strengths of the book, although something we could certainly have developed further, is the world historical account we provide of small farmer uneven incorporation into the global food system. Our broad historical analysis is very much informed by the work of the late Samir Amin. We explore how small farmers, and the agricultural sectors of Egypt and Tunisia more generally, are historically incorporated with a periodisation that approximates to the period of colonialism 1830-1956; redistributive development 1952-1970; state guided capitalism 1970-1991; neoliberalism 1985-2010 and the most recent patterns of de-development after 2000. The period of colonial transformation and imperialist intervention destroyed local patterns of food production for consumption and replaced them with the emphasis on the production of high value, and low nutritious food stuffs for export. The country’s history is in many ways a history of attempts to control the fellahin (small farmers and rural landless) and the land on which they work, since the commodification of land and labour imposed taxation on self-provisioning households and opened agricultural trade to the vagaries of international markets and unequal exchange. This happened in Egypt especially after Napoleon’s invasion in 1798 and in Tunisia after 1815 as a series of European states imposed conditions and the control of trade.

After the financial crash of 2007/2008 there was a dramatic and violent increase in food prices. Can you explain this process to us? What was its impact across the MENA region?

There has been an upward trend in global food commodity prices since 2000 but the increase was far more acute after 2007. The price of wheat rose by 130% and rice doubled in price in the first three months of 2008. Food prices were higher than at any time since the food price index was established in 1845. Prices have continued to fluctuate, and uncertainty and insecurity led to a dramatic increase in food riots 2007-2008 and MENA was no exception. Deaths in bread queues in Cairo at that time might have been understood by the Mubarak dictatorship that something needed to be done about prices and access to basic foodstuffs, however, a blind eye was turned. It is unsurprising that the revolutionary slogans in Egypt in 2011 became ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’ and in Tunisia demonstrators chanted ‘Bread, Water, No Ben Ali’.

The trend in prices was attributed to increased demand from India and China as incomes grew and populations expanded and that there was an increased integration of energy and food prices. However, a couple of things need to be clarified. The price of food in MENA is in direct relation to the underdevelopment and underinvestment in smallholder agriculture. This did not just happen in 2008. It was foregrounded by decades of impoverishment of small-scale farmers and increased state and private capital invested instead, in large scale US-type farm model schemes of capital and water intensive export crops especially horticultural.  Gross investment in agriculture fell across MENA 1980-1992. In Algeria it fell from 37% to 28% in Egypt from 31% to 23% and in Morocco from 23% to 22%. The celebrated years of economic opening and reform – infitah – were marked by years of agricultural neglect. The end of cheap food globally has particularly impacted economies that are less able to defend and advance small farmer livelihoods and this is something our book exposes. Food producers (and near landless farmers) are the first to suffer from hunger.

Your book places rural struggles at the heart of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution – many authors have argued that in fact it was the urban poor who led the uprisings in both countries. Why are they wrong?

It is not that authors who emphasise the leading role of the urban poor in the uprisings are wrong, it is that most commentary on the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings have ignored rural producers and near landless. It is as if the countryside had absolutely no role in the uprisings at all. This is not only factually incorrect, but it is also to misunderstand the historical background to the uprisings. It also reflects a laziness among commentators who are either orientalist – they imagine its simply impossible for Arabs and North African’s to desire democracy, or it was just too inconvenient to travel beyond the city of Cairo, and why bother anyway when it’s only the working class that can lead an uprising against repression?

We argue the importance of documenting rural conflicts and political protest and not to see the struggles that took place as a snapshot of a riot or demonstration, albeit one that lasted many weeks. We argue the need to have a historical account of protest in Egypt and Tunisia over the last 35 years which alone allows for a sense of class formation and class struggles, and the spatial dimension to them that explains the roles played by family farmers and the transformation of the agrarian sector that has so immiserated small-holders and landless.

The ousting of Mubarak and Ben Ali can only be explained by the failure of the political economies of each country and the failures of the agricultural sectors within them. That failure, the persistence of rural underdevelopment, poverty and immense social and economic deprivation generated political protests that challenged both regimes.

Consider a formative, earlier period, for example: a few years before the bread riot in Tunisia in 1984, after an unprecedented rise of bread and food prices, Egypt had food riots of its own in 1977.  President Sadat was forced to rescind bread price rises and while President Mubarak was mindful of not repeating those riots in the 1990s he put in place a draconian land reform that removed rights to land in perpetuity for one million tenants (add six million if you include an estimate of affected family members).  We called this a counter-revolution as Law 96 of 1992, which had a five-year transition period, led to immense conflict between owners and tenants. The countryside became militarised as protests to the lack of tenure, increase in rents, lack of security of access to land which had been farmed for generations, combined with broader economic reforms of an end to credit, co-operatives and markets. More than a hundred deaths, 900 injuries and 1,500 arrests helped keep the lid on rural protest throughout the country between 1998 and 2000. During this time there was also a dramatic increase in the number of farms of less than one acre as a concentration and centralisation of land holdings accelerated and with it rural poverty.

We argue that this background is essential to understand and comprehend how farmers after 2010 occupied land, as in areas close to Alexandria on the northern coast and in Dakhalia This was  land that had been taken by historical landlords, state bureaucrats and the military and which farmers reclaimed. Such occupations became short-lived, but they were part of the essential ‘revolutionary’ spontaneity of the uprisings.

The book openly uses a Marxist approach to analyse the region.  How does this approach help us understand agrarian changes in Egypt and Tunisia?

Our approach is grounded in historical materialism and in understanding the importance of exploitative class relations that generates wealth for some and impoverishment for others. In doing so we employ the importance of the longue durée. This explores long-term historical processes and structures, rather than a focus only on events despite how momentous they may be. We trace the political and economic structures that have emerged in the MENA and our two country cases that have influenced rural livelihoods of peasants. Our approach is global allowing (national) case studies to reveal how changes in the international food regimes have impacted peasant producers, exploitative relations of production in capitalism and how conditions for resistance (class struggle) emerge and change to topple repressive regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali.

We offer a contribution to the development of the ways in which world food systems theory and dependency theory continue to offer the most appropriate analytical frame to locate the class dynamics that shape food politics in Egypt and Tunisia. Food system analysis explains the spread and deepening concentration and centralisation of agri-capital and how food regimes change over time. It is an analytical frame that helps explain the role of commercial agriculture in state formation and transformation. And our use of world food regime or systems analysis helps us explore how and why food as a commodity determines peoples uneven access to the means of life and how this changes over time. The food regime is an analytical frame that is rooted in an historical analysis of commercial agriculture that has been inextricably linked to state formation in Europe and the US, to colonialism and imperialism but the commercialisation of agriculture has also promoted forms of resistance that we document.

Our analysis, as mentioned earlier, is influenced by Samir Amin as he provided a model to explain both the persistence of underdevelopment in the Third World and what an alternative to late capitalism might look like.  Our Marxism highlights the contrast between patterns of capital accumulation in the North or centre and that in the periphery or Third World. We document how and why a system of ‘self-centred’ capital accumulation in the imperial triad of the US, EU and Japan is not replicated in the MENA. The history of the triad has been the pattern of capital accumulation that had produced capital goods and consumer goods and it has managed to do so premised on colonial expansion from the 14th century. In contrast the Third World produces export crops and commodities for the purchase of luxury goods by a small and influential bourgeoisie that exploits and impoverishes small farmers and workers.

The book also details the impact of imperialism on the region – in the wars and dispossessions. Can you speak about the impact of this imperialism in your case-studies?

It must always be remembered that the MENA region has experienced the highest number of international wars and civil conflict in any region of the world. MENA accounts for 40% of total global battle related deaths since 1946 and 60% of all casualties since 2000. Much of that conflict is the result of direct US and NATO military intervention and indirectly by the arms trade and Western funding of local reactionary surrogate forces. In Tunisia French imperialism has clearly been felt through unwavering support and until the very last moment, to the Ben Ali regime, considered to be the only one capable of limiting migration and the supposed terrorist risks towards the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

In Egypt, the imperial triad considers the brutal dictator General Sisi an ally to be funded with military hardware used for violent repression of any local dissent and as a regional policeman at ease with defending Israeli settler colonialism and occupation in Palestine. US imperial outreach has also been pervasive and less overt with the role play by USAID in Egypt’s economic reform programme. For many years in the 1990s, USAID occupied several floors in the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation advancing and promoting private sector growth for either local elites or foreign investors. USAID financed the Egyptian Agricultural Production and Credit Project 1986-1999 to the tune of $775 million and still failed to sustain export growth and poverty reduction.

You speak of the need for an alternative to food security built through capital intensive export-oriented agriculture. Can you talk about this alternative – what would it look like?

Our work is a direct critique of a trade-based theory of food security which remains a dominant trope. Instead, we argue for a strategy that develops and delivers an agenda of food sovereignty. There is no single definition of this, and neither should there be given different historical circumstances and possibilities. However, we do argue that food sovereignty offers a comprehensive peasant path to social control and decision making over food related issues and with them a democratic transition to the socialisation of the means of production. We argue that food sovereignty creates the necessary conditions for what Amin called national sovereign projects and in this we argue for the need for an agenda of radical transformation: a re-appropriation of what is private. This, of course, is dependent upon a political constituency to deliver it and at the moment, while we highlight glimpses of this in our two cases, we are a long way from deepening class alliances against landlords and with urban-based workers to resist entrenched neo-liberal agendas and class forces.

Food sovereignty is an alternative to the corporate food regime where communities shape decision making agendas instead of ubiquitous corporations.  That transition is not straightforward but in many ways, it is in motion with all the setback that might be expected and some that might not. This is the subject of another book perhaps, but we might argue that the struggles that we document, and which are documented by others elsewhere on the planet indicate a transition to a 4th food regime. This is a regime where the unrivalled corporate control of food production, distribution and exchange is regularly challenged, where food protests and riots are more systemic highlighting anger at and the need for substitutes for global pricing, inequality driven by global trade, expansion of land grabbing, dispossession and depeasantisation and a greater recognition of links between rural and urban class struggles to counter corporate controls and power of local elites.

These struggles will help promote sovereign national projects that promote degrees (moments) of delinking from deleterious international markets, consolidation of peasant and worker demands for access to food at affordable prices and agendas for ‘sovereign’ states to work with other states in solidarity as an incremental strategy for socialism.

Linked to this is the vital – indeed, perhaps the central question of our time – the relationship between people and planet. You employ Marx’s notion of the metabolic rift. Please describe the term and why it is important for our struggle to rebuild our world today?

In a modest way we advance the recent important arguments that Marx and Marxism examines on how human activity impacts on a natural world. The natural world cannot be envisaged or understood without analysing how patterns of capital accumulation are systemically entwined with ‘nature’. Nature is not separate from people and people are not separate from nature – capitalism creates and transforms a particular type of environment. For Marx, capitalist development disturbed a metabolic ‘interaction between man and the earth’ and in so doing added to the range of more overt class conditions that create the conditions for the downfall of capitalism.

The question of our relationship with nature is now, finally for many, revealed in its starkest and most dramatic way as a climate emergency. We have indicated how capitalism in general and in its particular form in Egypt and Tunisia through the world food system have created conditions for the emergency. We highlight accelerating rates of rural poverty in MENA and the links and drivers of that from the global, national and local food systems. We have highlighted how intensive, capitalist and extractivist agriculture generates the processes that have created the current pandemic for which there are already tragically heavy human losses.

We argue that there is the need to reread the agrarian question, both in its dynamic relationships with the social and economic rights of small peasantry and their places in production relationships, and in its relationship, from cause to effect, with climate change. It is this careful reading of the different (interconnected) links between agrarian questions and ecological questions, considered in their various dimensions, that we tried to explore in the two case studies of Tunisia and Egypt. However, these questions deserve more space. Maybe a new book.

Many people are drawing the link between the climate crisis, capitalism and Covid-19 outbreak. Could you describe how, in your opinion, these issues are intimately linked and how it connects to some of the arguments in your work?

We have known for some time and thanks to numerous works and publications including those of Rob Wallace (Big Farms Make Big Flu, Monthly Review Press 2016) that the intensive, industrial and extractivist agricultural model, and the feedback loops of social and economic injustice that the model draws on and intensifies, has incontestably created an irreversible rupture of the ecological chain, whose consequences turn out to be absolutely dramatic.

It is now indisputable that the multiplication of viruses, including Covid-19 at the origin of the terrible current pandemic, is explained, among other things, by the extraordinary development of intensive and industrial farming, the considerable reduction in natural prairies and grazing, mono-forestry and the excessive use of pesticides, antibiotics and other phytosanitary products. Thus, the link between intensive agriculture, upstream of the mechanisms of accumulation by dispossession, the exclusion of peasantry and local knowledge and the destruction of biodiversity, on the one hand, and the appearance of pandemics with viral origins is now well established. In short, the agricultural model that is intended to feed the world is now killing it. The space between wild species and human settlements has been so reduced that microbes that may live in animals have crossed to people, and their living spaces, transforming what have been ‘benign animal microbes into deadly pathogens’. This is succinctly explained by Sonia Shah (‘The microbes, the animals and usLe Monde Diplomatique March 2020).

Of course viruses do not choose their victims, but the ability of people and communities to protect themselves depends mainly on the means they can mobilize and the conditions of their access to the various resources and services, including public health and medical resources and services. In these kinds of extreme situations, impoverished, marginalized and dispossessed peasants, deprived of their resources and their own food ‘security’, are particularly exposed to the risks of the pandemic.

Food sovereignty we argue, based on small scale farming and food oriented agriculture is the only way to achieve the vital and urgent necessities: feeding people – at affordable prices, protecting natural resources, enriching biodiversity, limiting or reducing climate change processes to secure the livelihoods for the next generation. Focus on industrial and export-oriented agriculture does not do that.

Finally, do you remain hopeful about the struggles in MENA and elsewhere, to refigure global political economy in the interests of the rural and urban poor?

There is always optimism that capitalism can be transformed by the social classes that have generated the wealth for capitalists. The contemporary balance of class forces in Tunisia is more favourable to social democratic reform and improved rural livelihoods than in Egypt where repression is greater than at any time in its history. There is much hope for progressive transformation in Algeria, at least while initiatives continue to be made from the street. However, the word of caution now is the same as it was after 2011. This is the problem of transforming street protest into a seizure and transformation of state power, nowhere is there a programme to do this but it is precisely that absence that made the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia so powerful and effective in removing heads of state, but not in removing, and transforming, these bestial peripheral capitalist regimes.

Habib Ayeb is a writer, filmmaker and activist. He is professor of geography at Université Paris 8 and a contributor to Ray Bush is a member of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS) advisory board and member of the Review of African Political Economy’s Editorial Working Group. Their book, Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, can be purchased here.


  1. Very important and informative interview driving in direction of the need to shift the analysis, knowledge and organisation of smallholders and rural people towards food sovereignty. The issue of smallholder organisation and mobilisation should take account of the fact that organised street protest could topple important leaders but not the structures – thus much of the change was reversed. I think the importance of smallholder as sovereign food producers is important also for provision of employment in the country side and for conducting production, as emphasised in the interview, in a sound agro-ecological direction thus addressing as well climate change issues. The Marxist approach based on Samir Amin”s is strong but can it capture the dynamic changes unfolding in agriculture and rural area’s where history and driving forces also are different? And maybe different in a way that might ask for approaches to understanding that can to a larger extent dwell with an attempt to understand this diversity? Thank you for sharing your important research of long due in Egypt and Tunisia.

  2. Bush and Ayeb argue that ‘it is not that authors who emphasise the leading role of the urban poor in the uprisings are wrong, it is that most commentary on the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings have ignored rural producers and near landless. It is as if the countryside had absolutely no role in the uprisings at all. This is not only factually incorrect, but it is also to misunderstand the historical background to the uprisings’.

    As someone who has written a good deal on popular protest in Africa (and elsewhere) – including in the projects section of the RoAPE website – I would agree with them. But it takes more protracted and careful field research to ‘see’ and understand the involvement of peasants and rural workers in popular protest than it does to ‘see’ and understand the dynamics of urban protest, not least because the latter is usually better covered by the national and international press. Kjell Havnejuk asks if a Marxist approach can capture the dynamic changes unfolding in agriculture and rural areas where history and driving forces also are different? Demonstrably, it can.

    Readers of RoAPE may be interested to know that, together with two colleagues who have worked in South Asia and Latin America respectively over many years, I am currently working on a book that is intended both as a celebration of and as a critique of Eric Wolf’s ‘Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century’. It involves an attempt to chart the development of rural unrest across the world in the 50 years since Wolf’s great oeuvre, and to explain its roots in the complex and diverse, yet ultimately common, history of late 20th and early 21st century capitalism. The approach adopted is explicitly Marxist and we are excited as it slowly reveals the major contours of half a century of change as the ‘uneven yet combined’ process of capital accumulation on a world scale has taken place. Routledge has agreed to publish it and we hope to have the text in shape before the end of this year. . .


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