How the emergence of capitalist world-economy shaped food production and consumption patterns?

Food Anatomy © By Julia Rothman, Source

In their book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason Moore (2017) concluded seven important things which commodified by the capitalism. In the chapter called “Cheap Food” they conclude that the ’transformation of food systems’ is main thing that had been processed, by capitalism and still it is going to process it. Until the sixteen century, all systems implemented by previous civilizations share two main characteristics: “a system of agricultural productivity premised on land rather than labour, and a system of controlling food surplus through politics rather than the market.”(2017, p. 139) However, capitalist agriculture changed these two characteristics and transformed agricultural relations in a different dimension with proletarianization and implementation of free market. This capitalistic relations raised the need for more cheap food. Cheapness of the food is wanted because capitalistic relations focuses only on profit and for that, labour should be cheap. They need “cheap food to feed urban workers and their families not just to prevent riots but also to keep work cheap.”(p. 140) In that essay, I will try to conclude how the production and trade of foodstuffs played an important role in shaping the capitalist world-economy in the early modern period, while conversely the advent of capitalism shaped food production and consumption patterns.

It can be said that development of capitalism had started in 13th century, with the change of labour relationships and change in the control mechanism from political to market. Italian case would be appropriate for the inspection of that period. According to Maurice Aymard, these changes resembles ‘transformations’ and they should be considered ‘indispensable prerequisites’ for the modern era (1982, p. 132). Italian case is primary example of the capitalist need of cheap food and supply of it. It was the first time the food was commodified. In that time, Italy was not a single state, there were different states in different regions. In northern and central parts, there were city states which were called communi. Because of expropriation of the peasantry and increase in the concentration of landholdings in the large landowners, the change in the landholding system was happened (Aymard, 1982). In the new one, the land was divided in a small units with short-term and lifetime lease. High agricultural development in region caused production of different and varied types of crops, aimed for different purposes i.e. hemp, linen, silk, vineyards, olive trees, fruit trees… All of these developments enabled rationalisation of control, which seems vey capitalistic: investing on the land and crop which is more valuable in the market. Peasantry in the countryside, on the other side, become more subordinate to the urban interests: the interests of landholders living in cities, who own estates in countryside in which peasants work. The people who controlled trade in the city made money by marketing items in the city. These people also controlled both ends of commodity chain, consumption and production. All of these facts show us that economic relationships were capitalistic nature.

Rise of the importance of the money in that period is another important step for the development of capitalistic relations. Before early modern period, feudal agriculture system was primary in the Europe. This type of agriculture was based on subsistence economy. However, in 1200s, relation between peasants and lords has been changed. Before that change, peasants had been serfs, which were hereditary legal staff lives on specific land and they had been forbidden to leave that land, however, in 1200s, they were legally freed. With that change, peasants were obliged to pay rent to landlord, this transformed the whole system in a money-oriented manner. Previously, landlords had to care peasantry because they had been legally owned by them, however since peasants were freed, landlords stopped taking care of them. In the 14th century, serfdom generally declined in European mainland. This caused the start of periods of hunger, poverty and major famines. All of these shows us the change from the feudal mode of production to early-capitalist one cannot be understood without understanding the rise of money-oriented relationships.

Agricultural Revolution was important step stone of advent of modern capitalist economy. It was happened between mid-17th and late-19th century in Britain. According to Eric Hobsbawm (1999), there are two reasons of the prominence of agriculture in Britain. First, during that time, Free Trade had not been in Britain, so agriculture was primary source of nation’s food. Additionally, transportation costs and technology were not eligible to serve food for the bulk of the nation. Secondly, prominence of landed interests in political and social life. Landownership was ‘the price of entry into high politics’ In addition to that reasons, Hobsbawm (1999) asserts the Industrial Revolution caused essential changes on the land. Implementation of technical and commercial methods in agriculture resulted more production: methods of soil quality improvement, land reclaiming from sea, development of gardening methods can be mentioned for that. Also, land enclosure, can be identified as the privatisation process of common lands, started disappearance of small farmers by beginning of 18th century, these farmers became laborers on large lands owned by high class nobility who lived in cities. Hobsbawm concludes it like that:

Enclosures were merely the most dramatic and, as it were, official and political aspect of a general process by which farms grew larger, farmers relatively fewer, and the villagers more landless. “

(1999, p. 80)

As a result of that agricultural revolution, landless villagers started to settle in cities and became workforce of Industrial Revolution. This can be called proletarianization of people who live villages, with low wages. Marxian alienation theory became more understandable if we look the relationships between labour and capital during that time. As a result of these revolutions, the world shifted in a modern capitalistic era: the economic relationships updated in a new kind of dimension of capitalism, that is why it can be called step stone of modern capitalist economy.

To sum up, the transformation of proletarianization of labour and implementation of free market caused essential changes among societies. Capitalism transformed us a highly-rational beings, as ‘homo economicus’. However, with Weberian explanation, we became enclosed behind the grates of ‘the iron cage’ of rationalisation. The rationalisation in agriculture and food, which is the most essential thing for human lives, caused alienation of humankind from its nature, because the food is very natural thing of humankind for sustain their lives, it should not be a commodity which produced only and solely to earn profit.


Aymard, M. (1982). From Feudalism to Capitalism in Italy: The Case That Doesn’t Fit. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 6(2), 131–208. Retrieved from

Hobsbawm, E. J. (1999). Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day. Penguin Books Limited.

Patel, R., & Moore, J. W. (2017). A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. University of California Press.

Weber, M. (2005). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Taylor & Francis.