Can Industrial Food Systems Be Ethical?


What are the effects of the industrial agro-food regime and its effects on the world both socially and ethically? Do I as a consumer have an impact on the world food system? Or is it up to the corporations? I want to examine the ways in which our various food systems impact our world. Various food regimes have had major global impacts on various social classes. From the poor to the rich, since 1870, industrial food regimes have both helped and hindered all people. Has the industrial food regime helped the world? Or has it contributed to increasing environmental destruction, quashing of local agriculture and contributed to food insecurity? Looking at Kenya, as it is “a major supplier of high-value horticultural product” (Barrett et al, 1999;162), I will draw on personal experience of my time in the Maasai Mara to bring examples of ethical farming/ an alternative agro-food regime. I will be using two primary studies, the first; The Socio-Economic and Ecological Impacts of the Agro-Industrial Food Chain on the Rural Economy in Kenya by Mary Magdalene Opondo, who studies vegetable farming in Kenya, and the second by Henry Bernstein, who outlines the history of Food Regimes in Food Regimes and Food Regime Analysis: A Selective Survey


According to Henry Bernstein in Food Regimes and Food Regime Analysis: A Selective Survey, there have been two major food regimes, and we are entering in to the world’s third regime. These food regimes are “…relatively bounded historical period[s] in which complementary expectations govern the behavior of all social actors, such as farmers, firms, and workers engaged in all aspects of food growing, manufacturing, distribution and sales, as well as government agencies, citizens and consumers.” (Bernstein, 2015;2) Additionally, Richard Le Heron states in A ‘Fresh’ Place In Food’s Space, food regimes “…link international relations of food production and consumption to forms of accumulation and regulation detectable under capitalism.” (Le Heron, 1995; 23)

The first food regime, a diaspora/colonial regime, occurred from 1870 to 1914, and “centered on European imports of wheat and meat from the ‘settler states’ of Argentina, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand: ‘cheap food’ which helped underwrite British and other European industrial growth.” (Bernstein, 2015;3). World agriculture in the nineteenth century occurred through international trade between ‘settler-states’ and European nations, leading to three new relations: the first, “complementary products based on differences in climate and social organization…”, secondly “market links to industry clearly demarcated agriculture as a capitalist economic sector” and thirdly, “the complementarity between commercial sectors of industry and agriculture, which originated in international trade and remained dependent on it, was paradoxically internalized within national organized economies.” (Bernstein, 2015;4). These three relations began the structure of which our modern day industrial food regime thrives. The first food regime ultimately “created a new class of farmers dependent on export markets…” (Bernstein, 2015;5) It also “gradually disintegrated as metropolitan agricultures increasingly competed with cheap imports and trade barriers were erected.” (Le Heron, 1995;23)

From 1945 to 1973, the second food regime, a mercantile/industrial regime, began. According to Bernstein, “the period 1945-1973 saw the extension (and completion) of the international state system with the emergence of independent states from former colonies in Asia and Africa, in the context of US hegemony in the capitalist world economy and the US dollar as the medium of international trade and financial transaction.” (Bernstein, 2015;7) Shifting from the first food regime, the second regime shifted to increased production, a larger world market, and the start of third world reliance on food under hegemonic power. A growing agro-food sector led to the “emergence of powerful agribusiness corporations, and the ongoing industrialization of farm production…” (Bernstein, 2015;8)

There are debates whether we are currently in the third food regime, or transitioning to a fourth. W.N Pritchard in The Emerging Contours of the Third Food Regime states, “one side argues that the current era is transitional, moving toward a more full fledged regime of globalized accumulation (a ‘third food regime’), in which strategies for profit capture are built around expediting internationally coordinated flows of production, commodities, and money capital.” (Pritchard, 1998;64). Bernstein however, argues that we are experiencing the third food regime, described as a corporate food regime, where “agro food corporations, having now outgrown the regime that spawned them…are the major agents attempting to regulate agro-food conditions, that is, to organize stable conditions of production and consumption which allow them to plan investment, sourcing of agricultural raw materials, and marketing.” (Bernstein, 2015;12) Additionally, Bernstein states, “the agro food sector is now focused on food-industry and services- rather than on agriculture.” (Bernstein, 2015;12). Ultimately the third, and corporate, food regime: 

“…is a key vector of the project of global development…characterized by the global de-regulation of financial relations, calibrating monetary value by credit (rather than labor) relations- as practiced through the privatizing disciplines internalized by indebted states, the corporatization of agriculture and agro-exports, and a world-scale casualization of labour…The corporate food regime exemplifies and underpins these trends, through the determination of a world price for agricultural commodities strikingly divorced from costs…the world price of the corporate food regime is universalized through liberalization (currency devaluation, reduced farm supports, and corporatization of markets) rendering farmers everywhere vulnerable to dispossession as a precondition of the construction of a world agriculture.” (Bernstein, 2000;14)

The third food regime is corporate in nature, involving multiple actors, from small-scale farmers, to middlemen and agents, to exporters, transport teams and importers. Below, a flow chart highlights the complicated nature of the third industrial food regime, and the changing networks of food supply, just in Kenya to the UK alone. The benefits of this are that rural growers can eventually have access to wholesale markets and supermarkets, providing an income. The downside of the massive spider web of networks is the instability that each part of the food system web has to face.  

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The world food system today has been critiqued and applauded. Some argue that our industrial system has increased food production allowing for more food to get on to more plates. We are in a paradox where people require cheap food in order to live, but in order to support farmers, food costs need to be more expensive. For the most part however, the industrial food regime has created more harm than good. As Farshad Araghi states in Accumulation by Displacement: Global Enclosures, Food Crisis, and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism,

“the production of value depends on the political construction of global value relations under which the value of labor power is reduced not only through rising technical efficiency in wage goods, but, more importantly, through expanding regimes of forced under consumption based on ‘overconsumption’ by capital of under reproduced ecology and labor power (including various forms of rightless labor, such as migrant labor, bonded labor, child labor, women’s labor, peasant labor, colonial labor, slave labor, etc.) While global regimes of production of absolute surplus value subsidize regimes of relative surplus value production, the latter has always dominated the field of vision of bourgeois modernity as it has relegated food regimes…” (Araghi, 2009;124)

Our world food system is based on a system of non-equitability. From the first food regime in the nineteenth century, our food has been sourced and produced under forced labor, in a system that propagates unequal distribution of both wealth and resources.  The first regime had a “…reliance on unpaid labor of men, women and children- family labor [which] allowed them to lower costs relative to farms in England and elsewhere.” (Bernstein, 2000;6) The only difference between the first food regime and our current regime is that colonialism is better hidden under the guise of capitalism and an expansive industrial system. Mary Opondo states in The Socio-Economic and Ecological Impacts of the Agro-Industrial Food Chain on the Rural Economy in Kenya, that in Kenya, “for those employing labor, access to cheap sources of labor is necessary in maintaining a competitive edge over other players.” (Opondo, 2000;36) This need for a competitive edge, by cutting down all costs, including paying labor a fair price, has a major impact on the world’s farmers. In Opondo's study, “the data on labor show that the farms are fairly labor intensive, i.e. the majority of the farms employ an average of at least two persons per ha, most of which is unpaid family labor.” (Opondo, 2000;40) Often times, because of the intense demand for the cheapest product, and the unfair place farmers have in the world economy, the farmers end up exploiting not only their labor and that of their families, but also their farms by employing environmentally-unsound practices, in an attempt to make ends meet.” (Opondo, 2000;41) Henry Bernstein states that it is not only unfair labor that is negative about our industrial food regime, but it is a regime that “generates an ever increasing, and ecologically destructive, industrialization of agricultural production, undermining conditions of human survival…” (Bernstein, 2000;15). Bernstein argues that we have an “intensive dependence on fossil fuels” (Bernstein, 2000;15), as fossil fuels account for “a third of greenhouse gas emissions…degradation of soil, destruction of biodiversity, and ultimately depletion of cultural and ecological knowledge’s about living and working with natural cycles by wiping our smallholder diversified farming.” (Bernstein, 2000;15)

Opondo in The Socio-Economic and Ecological Impacts of the Agro-Industrial Food Chain on the Rural Economy in Kenya focuses in on the impact the industrial food system has had on the Kenyan environment. Opondo states, “approximately 30% of the land in Kenya has ben affected by gradual land degradation, a scenario made worse by inappropriate land-use practices. The impact of this process has been disruption of the ecosystem, leading to soil erosion, lowering of water-tables, decline in land productivity, drought and destabilization of communities in search of food and security.” (Opondo, 2000;36 Kenya) Additionally, Opondo points to those at the top of the food system hierarchy for contributing to environmental issues, where decisions made by multinational corporations in the industrial food system, are made only to continue “reaping profits and maintaining the status quo of the dominant players; multinationals and state interests.” (Opondo, 2000;39) 


Perhaps there is more hope than what it seems when it comes to creating an ethical food system, and creating an alternative agro-food system, especially in Kenya. I visited Kenya in 2014, and worked with an NGO, Free the Children. At Pimbiniet Primary School in Kenya, the children help cultivate crops they’ve planted. Programs were launched to provide both school lunches to the kids, and to help the students learn about agriculture, leadership and teamwork. So far, the “students have picked 100 kilograms [of food]- more than enough for the school to supplement student lunches. With proceeds from the sale of surplus tomatoes and the 4,230 eggs they’ve collected from the school’s poultry, the students have helped their school earn enough money to hire three new teaching assistants.” (“Kisaruni Cares About Food Security”, 2013) One girl, Faith Cherotich returns to her elementary school, Pimbinet, to plant avocado trees. She explains, “there are insufficient means of transport, inadequate water supplies, poor communication network and shortage of pasture for livestock”, so Faith “saw the need to have it [avocados] within our community because many innocent children have been suffering for malnutrition.” (“Kisaruni Cares About Food Security”, 2013) Faith also hopes to see a future where she can help improve agriculture production, and where her community can make a stable living off of the food they produce.

In contrast to many farms in the same area in rural Kenya, as highlighted in The Socio-Economic and Ecological Impacts of the Agro-Industrial Food Chain on the Rural Economy in Kenya by Mary Opondo, the children at the schools are creating a sustainable food system that affects them positively, and at the same time are utilizing many of the same characteristics that ‘govern’ the industrial food system, and the very first food regime. 


Of course, Kenya is not homogenous. Though the children who attend Free the Children schools know they’ll have a full belly, food insecurity is an increasing issue across the globe. As Donald Puchala and Raymond Hopkins state in Toward Innovation in the Global Food Regime, “Third World agriculture lags by technological centuries, and the food security of millions of people remains in or is slipping towards extreme jeopardy.” (Puchala & Hopkins, 1978;858) Food insecurity in Kenya is high, despite the “increasing division of labor in [the] industry, whereby multinational food firms are increasingly ‘putting out’ part of their production processes in the developing countries.” (Opondo, 2000;35) Food insecurity in Kenya increased during colonial independence, where movements were responding “to the continual food shortages engendered by emphasis on export agriculture and market infrastructures.” (Hughes, 2010;33) Colonial independence occurred around the same time as the second food regime, where colonialists were already trading internationally. Then, there was an increase of third-world reliance on food security and production, while U.S hegemony increased. Laura Hughes in Conceptualizing Just Food in Alternative Agrifood Initiatives points out a definition of what food security entails, according to the U.S, where food security is “the ability of a country to procure enough food to feed its population.” (Hughes, 2010;35) Hughes then goes on to point out that this “…definition articulates food availability within world supplies, couching food security in terms of available commodities on the international market rather than regional or even national self-reliance.” (Hughes, 2010;35) In Kenya, despite an increase of industrial food system and an increase in food production, is experiencing the irony of the food system; where there is food to export, but not enough to sustain all Kenyans. Food security is then ultimately linked to the privatization of agriculture, and is now associated with corporate globalization and industrial food regimes.

Agriculture, around the world, is a high-risk market, where unpredictability of weather, market changes and buyers affect if a farmer can sell a successful crop. In Kenya, small-scale farmers are included in international trade, but still, a stated above, experience insecurity. The farmers “sell boxes of produce to agents, larger grower or exporters, in a web of non-contractual, and often very unreliable arrangements. Small growers risk committing land and labor to this enterprise, in the hope of finding a buyer who is linked to the export network.” (Barrett et al, 1999;172) One may believe that increased business and production would be beneficial to Kenyan farmers, but in the hierarchy of the industrial agro-food system, farmers are at the bottom of the ladder. Under our corporate industrial food regime and a capitalist model, the third food regime “deepen[s] longstanding processes that dispossess and marginalize peasants and agrarian communities, and create more poor consumers and more people without stable incomes to consume at all” (Bernstein, 2015;13) The distribution of food, who goes hungry, who has a stable income, who benefits, and who suffers, “is an effect of the extreme inequality of income distribution in contemporary capitalism (that is, of class relations), as well as of volatility in the prices of staple foods.” (Bernstein, 2015;15)

Opondo points out that “the integration of the rural economy in Kenya (mainly through contract farming and vegetable processing) into the global economy of the agro-industrial food chain has had the impact of making these rural landscapes part and parcel of the processes of globalization.” (Opondo, 2000;40) However, despite being part of the global economy, Kenyan farmers are not benefitting, as “the majority of the farmers often rely only on one contracted crop to earn their livelihood, they are fairly vulnerable and can be easily manipulated by the contractor, and other dominant players in the agro-industrial food chain.” (Opondo, 2000;41) Additionally, as the international system and relations of food are focused in capitalist market economics, which benefit the Western world and corporations, “food production in key Third World countries remained isolated from the benefits of the international economy.” (Puchala & Hopkins, 1978;858) 


So who really has the power? The supermarket? The company? The consumer? Hazel Barrett et al. in Globalization and the Changing Networks of Food Supply: The Importation of Fresh Horticultural Produce from Kenya into the UK argues that it is supermarkets are “in a powerful position to influence what is actually grown in Africa, how it is grown, and by whom.” (Barrett et al, 1999;161). Barrett et al. also states that though “new food networks are evolving to satisfy both the consumer and the producer, but they are mediated and controlled by the multiple retailers through the regulatory power vested in them.” (Barrett et al, 1999;173) Mary Opondo, in believes that it is actually the contractor and/or who holds power especially in regards to environmental protection, as “both the contractor and the government have a greater control…. influencing more ecological change than the farmer, since they occupy a privileged position in the realm of decision making.” (Opondo, 2000;36) Both beliefs, are valid, as the supermarkets, government and contractors are high up on the hierarchy of the food supply network, as seen in Figure 1, but the food networks “…are evolving to satisfy both the consumer and the producer, but they are mediated and controlled by the multiple retailers through the regulatory power vested in them.” (Barrett et al, 1999;173). It is clear that there is no one agent that holds all of the power; instead, we have a food system with multiple roles that form an ever-evolving hierarchy.  Opondo posits that ultimately “…the major actors involved in the manufacturing process occupy different hierarchical positions on the agro-industrial food chain, and this is basically determined by their access to labor expertise, raw material inputs and markets for either their products or labor.” (Opondo, 2000;36) In a harsh criticism of power hierarchy in the food system, Robert Paarlberg in Shifting and Sharing Adjustment Burdens: The Role of the Industrial Food Importing Nations, states that “most world food trade takes place entirely among the rich…industrial food importing nations make a dubious contribution to the stability and security of the world food system…they seek to shift adjustment burdens onto other, to enjoy something of a free ride.” (Paarlberg, 1978;655) 


The industrial food system has changed our world. From large scale farming, to increased international trade, even the most rural areas are becoming more and more connected to the international market, having access to a worldwide economy, and ideally creating a sustainable income. From the very first food regime, the goal was to expand global trade and link international markets. However, the regime was based on colonialism and exploitation. The second and third food regimes resulted in expanding of the international marketplace, free trade, and corporate/industrial regimes that benefit from capitalism.

I personally benefit from the industrial food system, where my dinner consists of high quality food from all over the world. It seems as though industrial and ethical do not go hand in hand. As the third industrial/corporate food regime rose, wealth concentrated in the West, and the third-world continued to struggle. In Kenya specifically, workers and small-scale farmers do not reap from their harvest. Food insecurity threatens the lives of many across the globe, but because of power being held by a few at the top of the agricultural hierarchy.

So, can there be an ethical industrial food system, or is the phrase simply an oxymoron? I believe that there could be a possibility of a fourth food regime, where consumers, the major players in the food hierarchy and governments come together to choose an alternative industrial agro-food system. In instances like the schools in Kenya, alternative food systems are helping educate the future generation, and helping alleviate food insecurity. Are we at a fourth food regime? No. Unfortunately, there are too many social and ethical ramifications that the industrial food regime causes.


Araghi, F. (2009). Accumulation by Displacement: Global Enclosures, Food Crisis, and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 32(1), 113-146.

Barrett, H. R., Ilbery, B. W., Brown, A. W., & Binns, T. (1999). Globalization and the Changing Networks of Food Supply: The Importation of Fresh Horticultural Produce from Kenya into the UK. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 24(2), 159-174.

Bernstein, H. (2015, April). Food Regimes and Food Regime Analysis: A Selective Survey. In Land Grabbing, Conflict and Agrarian‐environmental Transformations: Perspectives from East and Southeast Asia. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from

F. (2013, March 5). Kisaruni Cares About Food Security. Retrieved April 20, 2016, from

Hughes, L. (2010). Conceptualizing Just Food in Alternative Agrifood Initiatives. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 33(1/2), 30-63.

Opondo, M. M. (2000). The Socio-economic and Ecological Impacts of the Agro-industrial Food Chain on the Rural Economy in Kenya. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment Ambio, 29(1), 35.

Paarlberg, R. L. (1978). Shifting and sharing adjustment burdens: The role of the industrial food importing nations. International Organization Int. Org., 32(03), 655.

Pritchard, W. N. (1998). The Emerging Contours of the Third Food Regime: Evidence from Australian Dairy and Wheat Sectors. Economic Geography, 74(1), 64-74.

Puchala, D. J., & Hopkins, R. F. (1978). Toward innovation in the global food regime. International Organization Int. Org., 32(03), 855.