Book Review

Robert Albritton Let them Eat Junk: How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity (Pluto Press, £13.99)
Reviewed by Mallory Beaudreau

With the explosion of community gardens, farmers markets, and housewives raising chickens that we have seen in the past few years, it’s no wonder that there is a burgeoning literature on the modern day food system.  Recent books are meant to enlighten and scare a concerned public about what’s on their plate.  Robert Albritton goes one step further and explains why the food we eat has become just another means to an end: in this case, the end being profit by enormous corporations.
Albritton is actually a scholar of Marx’s writings on capitalism, who wanted to apply those theories to shed light on history and historical trends.  He chose food as a particular kind of consumption because it is essential for health and reveals our biological relationship to the earth.   He addresses the question: given the basic structure of capital, how would it manage agriculture?  He argues that the current system of food provisioning fails to provide all of society with the right nutrients.  He uses Marx’s theories to explain why capitalism can’t manage the agricultural and food sector effectively.
Whereas many food books published today tend to play up the “ick” factor of slaughterhouses and fast food, he instead puts the focus on the companies in charge of processing, showing that their bottom line is incompatible with the goal of healthy food and decent wages for their workers.  If you’re looking for a cheap thrill in the form of learning what goes into your hamburger, look elsewhere.  If you’re interested in a story of how companies manipulate the consumer, particularly children, into buying what is unhealthy but extremely profitable, stick with Albritton. 
He begins with an explanation of the profit motive as a foundation to describe the tendency of capitalist companies to create more at an ever-lower production cost.  Producing so much stuff led to an age of consumerism in the United States, which then set the scene for industrial agriculture.  Although his explanation of consumerism ignores social movements in the United States, and assumes that the entire population is only interested in buying more, he has set the scene for the effects of the modern agricultural system.
He goes on to describe the many ways that our food has become less healthy for the consumer today.  There is a large breadth and range, from loss of micronutrients in our foods, to obesity, to hunger.  Albritton mostly lets the facts speak for themselves, and anyone familiar with current food literature will be familiar with these facts.  Only Albritton pushes us a little further in our thinking by reminding us that the reason food is less healthy today is that corporations, which are primarily concerned about profit, are in charge of their production and processing.
His explanations about agricultural workers, environmental damage, and the marketing of food products continue to refine his case that corporations cannot possibly manage a food system in a way that is healthy and safe for workers and consumers.  His chapter on marketing and choices is particularly interesting: he argues that current American society views the right to consume as the most precious right of all.  With that right comes the idea that consumers have choices between different products.  But, Albritton argues, these are false choices.  To have a choice between Coke and Pepsi is no choice at all.  True choices would incorporate local, more democratic solutions, which giant corporations are incapable of providing. 
Albritton does not leave you feeling completely hopeless, however.  He does finish his book with a brief overview of movements to take back the food system, from the Slow Food movement to the MST in Brazil that campaigns for land reform.  Mostly, though, Albritton seems satisfied with his conclusion that capitalism will never properly manage food without giving too much direction on how you, the average consumer, can take back control.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in Albritton’s analysis is the order of his chapters. Albritton’s explanation of capitalism is accurate, but his disdain for the system is clear, and his scathing comments may be off-putting at first for the casual reader.   Furthermore, he does not establish where the profit motive comes from or why it exists, assuming his reader will already be familiar with the concept without properly defining this term.  His chapters on capitalism also treat the economic theory in an anthropomorphic way, unfortunately lending credence to its monolithic appearance without acknowledging that ultimately greed comes from humans, not an economic system.  Treating the subject more objectively would allow the critiques to manifest anyway, as the flaws of a food-for-profit system are readily apparent. 
If, however, you begin with Part II, which describes what corporations have done to our food system, you will already be thinking about the injustice of the profit motive, and you will be prepared to read why corporations do what they do.  In fact, a second edition of this book would do well to change the order of the chapters.
The food system today is certainly broken at almost every level.  But will the knowledge of why it is broken lead to the movements necessary to change it?  That remains to be seen, as people continue to garden but don’t always advocate for systemic change.

Mallory Beaudreau is a Master's student at the London School of Economics and a food activist.