ratios of food production

I am currently making my way through Jason W. Moore’s 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. In the final substantive chapter, entitled ‘The Long Green Revolution: The Life and Times of Cheap Food in the Long Twentieth Century’, Moore continues the book’s trend of analysing what he argues are the necessary moments of appropriation that couple any movement of capitalist exploitation. Whilst exploitation is related to forms of paid labour, appropriation is related to forms of unpaid labour. Capitalist accumulation, Moore argues, necessitates moments of exploitation to be couple with moments of appropriation. There are a number of examples of unpaid labour that have been necessary for capitalist expansion and accumulation: slave labour, reproductive labour, and the labour of the non-human (whether non-human animals or land). One of capitalism’s central production dynamics is, of course, that of food production, production which is differentially distributed along class lines, generating food regimes and subjecting others to hunger regimes. Moore highlights a worrying statistical trend in relation to the efficiency of food production in the past eighty years:

It took about 2.5 calories of energy to deliver a calorie of food in the 1930s. The ratio then moved sharply upwards, to 7.5:1 in the 1950s, and 10:1 by the early 1970s. By the twenty-first century, fifteen-to-twenty calories were needed to deliver one calorie of food from farm to table, considerably more for globally sourced fruit. (Moore, 2015: 252)

Surely, this raises more than just questions about the “sustainability” of current food production practices. It also pushes against those issues of the differential distribution of what food is produced (i.e. the allocation of food and hunger regimes along class lines) as well as the feasibility of continuing to intensify industrialised-corporatised agricultural production. “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally” doesn’t seem to come close to a substantial response to this glaring failure of capitalist production.


Acker, T.L., et. al., ‘Energy Inefficiency in Industrial Agriculture’, Energy Sources, Part B, 8, 4 (2013), 420-430

Canning, P. et. al., ‘Energy Use in the U.S. Food System’, Economic Research Report Number 94 (Washington: United States Department of Agriculture, 2010)

Moore, Jason W., Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015)

Steinhart, J.S., and Steinhart, C.E., ‘Energy Use in the U.S. Food System,’ Science, 184, 4134 (1974), 307-316

Pimental, D., et. al., ‘Food Production and the Energy Crisis,’ Science, 182 (1973), 443-449