Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Agriculture and Ethical Change

  • Tony WatersEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_429-2


Personal Loyalty Family Loyalty Great Transformation Super Bowl Pickup Truck 
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Agriculture has been at the heart of the human ethical systems since 9000 BCE when plants and animals were first domesticated. The “invention” of agriculture meant that humans changed the way they looked at land, food, sharing, home life, family, gender, age, technology, and property.

Such massive changes have happened twice in human history. The first change was after 9000 BCE when hunter-gatherers settled down in farms in different parts of the world. New ethical systems emerging included new systems of social stratification, rural and urban, and professions. Many of these relations were rooted in ties of personal loyalty and fealty between unequal people. Such systems even included large agricultural empires like those of Rome, China, and the Maya. These systems were often “feudal” in nature, because personal loyalties were at the heart of social interaction. In these worlds, agricultural production and food were central to the meaning of social life even though farm families were often poor and oppressed.

However, beginning about 1500 CE, new ways of organizing food production using globe straddling agricultural markets emerged. For this to work, though, new ethics about the production and sharing of food emerged. Most importantly, food became a commodity in the market, just like any other. Food, land, and labor became exchangeable for cash in a marketplace where economic advantage was more important than personal loyalty. Food was also the same as any other commodity and could be bought and sold at market prices. This is the globalized market system, which continues to extend its tentacles into remote farming areas, even in recent years.

From the Beginning

In the beginning, all humans were hunter-gatherers. Humans subsisted by following food sources – whether they were seals in the Arctic tundra, ripening berries and herds of deer in the temperate regions, fish that runs along rivers and coasts, roots dug in the desert, or the animals and fruits of the tropical forests.

Such subsistence strategies required extensive territories to support a family or clan that moved frequently. As a result the land supported very few people per square kilometer. This is because little of the natural biomass is suitable for human consumption in the form of fruits, vegetables, fish, grains, or game. Even in the tropical forests with their towering tree canopies, much of the biomass was woody or leafy and unfit for human consumption.

With such an irregular food supply, there were times of hunger and of feast. For example, the felling of a large animal, fish run, or even a termite swarm could mean that a clan ate well for a few days before the meat spoiled or was stolen by scavenging animals. But this feast could be followed by days or even weeks of food shortage when the band might eat little. A particular type of ethical structure emerged which reflected this type of subsistence. In such societies, there is little wealth and hierarchy, and the basic unit is the clan of at most a few tens or a hundred people who shared food and worshipped a symbolic god or “totem.” Such societies were relatively egalitarian, and the only type of social stratification was that of age and gender, in which the surviving older men would receive some deference – though they still needed to walk with everyone else (Collins 1992, pp. 47–48).

Frequent movement also meant that people owned only what they carried. Strangers were rarely encountered and often perceived as potential threats. There was no fixed place of residence – rather there was a territory in which the band or clan wandered. Most important from a latter-day perspective, there was no way to store food, and what was collected, hunted, or caught was consumed quickly. The one domesticated animal the wandering bands had was the dog, which warned the group of approaching nocturnal predators (including at times other humans) and was also helpful with hunting. Constructed shelters were temporary and typically used for a few days or weeks.

Women in such bands had on average 4–5 children in a lifetime, and life expectancy among hunter-gatherers was typically pretty short – perhaps 20–25 years, largely as a result of the frequent deaths of infants, small children, and older adults during the stressful times when food was scarce. An injury also meant that if a person could not walk, they would likely die – anyone older than an infant who could not walk with the group to the next food source risked abandonment.

The First Great Transformation

About 9000 BCE a few of the wandering humans began to settle down into small villages, cultivate grains, and domesticate animals. They did this first in the Middle East, though other areas of the world soon followed. In effect, these humans stopped following the edible crops and animals and instead developed plants which produced a great deal of food suitable for humans on land which was within walking distance of a “house.” This piece of land, instead of growing woods and leaves which humans could not eat, was cleared and covered with crop-like wheat, maize, vines, fruit trees, or other crops, which were edible by humans.

Also, beginning about 9000 BCE, the farmers domesticated animals like sheep, goats, cows, and chickens. Domestication had big advantages over hunting for humans; with hunting, humans hunt animals that hide. But with domesticated animals, the “meat” follows the humans who tend them. Slaughtering (or milking) one of the animals was much easier than chasing wild animals in the forest. The most important meat could be slaughtered when it was needed. Instead of wandering in the forest searching for animals to snare, trap, or spear, the “hunter” could simply slaughter one of the chickens when it came to roost at the farm in the evening!

In other words, farming and the domestication of plants and animals meant that the old order was reversed. Instead of searching nature for food and subsistence, humans bent nature to produce the food products they needed where they lived and no longer needed to follow the harvests that nature provided. Settling down meant that humans accumulated more goods than they could carry and in particular meant that food supplies could be stored, eliminating the terrible hungry periods.

With such changes, new ethics framed by the nature of agriculture emerged. The most important were ideas about the ownership of food stores and other properties. For example, who had rights to ownership, who lived in a home and hamlet, and who inherited the wealth of those who died? New ethics about the unequal distribution of property and the rights and responsibilities to protect property were created too. Who would be responsible for sharing in times of famine? What did it mean to be invited to eat at a stranger’s house? How would raiding parties be organized when there was hunger and the only food available was in a neighboring field? And who would decide how to erect defenses against raiders? Finally, who was required to work in which fields and when, and what did this assistance mean for the sharing of the harvest?

A strongly gendered division of labor in which women cared for the house and children while the patriarch was the “public” face of the family also emerged in most such societies. Patriarchy emerged to assert control over the resources that the family or clan produced.

There were more implications for social life, particularly with the development of permanent housing made from local materials (e.g., mud, sticks, stone, reeds, hides, etc.). Birth rates also increased as the time between pregnancies decreased, since it was no longer necessary to carry children until they walked. Women became pregnant more often and, as a result, more focused on child rearing; a typical average birth rate was 7–8 children per woman. Finally, a simple injury was no longer necessarily fatal since a leg wound could be tended at home and the injured person fed from the ripening fields of their family, even if they did not work.

Permanent dwellings meant also that clans began living near each other and socializing with a larger group that came to be thought of as kin-based ethnic group or what is known by the archaic term “tribe.” Such groups were organized into a homesteads, hamlets, and series of hamlets. Such groups grew quickly, because of rising birth rates, and the fact that the young and elderly survived hungry periods and simple accidents did not lead to abandonment. Older people – grandparents – became more common and honored.

It was in this first Great Transformation from a sparsely populated hunting and gathering world in which life was focused on migration to a farming world focused on the cultivation and harvest of crops that the arts, trade, law, philosophy, music, religion, and literature could be cultivated. Such new culture eventually became the basis for the wealth, power, and ethics of great agriculturally based empires like Ancient Rome, Ancient China, and Mesopotamia.

But making all this work required shifts in what was viewed as right, wrong, good, and bad, i.e., what was moral. To reinforce this, densely populated areas began to tie themselves together with shared cultural rituals. By about 5000 BCE, they began to create cities centered on a government. Such governments were controlled by powerful political figures such as kings and their courts and even emperors.

Ethics and Early Farming Communities

Starting about 9000 BCE, farming communities in places like Mesopotamia, the Indus River valley, China, and Egypt began emerging. Annual rituals marked planting, arrival of annual floods or rains, and harvest. These rituals reminded people of the centrality of agriculture to subsistence. Such rituals connected the group to the spirits that were often identified with the landmarks near where they lived and the animals the group respected. Supernatural forces were associated with weather because of the importance of timely rains for a good harvest. Specialists, i.e., shamans, who could divine or control the rains, became important figures. Concepts defining gift giving and trade also emerged, with personal gift giving regarded as the most honorable form of “exchange.” And a few people began to specialize – and become very good at – the tending of animals, horticulture, ritual, trade, rainmaking rituals, and even fighting.

Nevertheless the overall organization of each community was not like the complex economy of today, in which every family is dependent on the functioning market to survive. Rather it was what the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim (1973, pp. 64–69) called “segmented.” To illustrate, when a clump of seaweed grows on the floor of the sea, each individual leaf moves together with the waves and seems very alike. But what looks one single plant is not. Any single leaf does just fine if separated out and planted elsewhere on the sea floor. In the same way, Durkheim wrote, each independent peasant household provided for itself independently of its own needs by growing its own grain, building similar housing, and wearing similar clothing.

Or as Karl Marx described the French peasantry in the nineteenth century using an even more vivid metaphor, that of a bag of potatoes:

The small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions, but without entering into manifold relations with one another.…The field of production, the smallholding, admits of no division of labour in its cultivation, no application of science and, therefore, no multiplicity of development, no diversity of talents, no wealth of social relationship. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient…. The smallholding, the peasant and his family; alongside them another smallholding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village, and a few score of villages make up a [province]. In this way, the great mass of French nation is formed … much as potatoes in a sack form a sackful of potatoes. (Quoted in Waters 2007, p. 9)

French peasantry in other words produced what it itself needed, without reference to larger markets. Families planted enough wheat for their own bread, barley for their own beer, raised their own vegetables, and tended the livestock they needed to feed their family. Little food was grown for the market.

But this was not all. Often farmers were dominated by a chief or king who sought tribute from them which might be 5–20 % of their crop; so as a rule of thumb, a peasant family might plant 90 % to feed themselves and then an extra 10 % in order to satisfy their tribute obligations to the local nobles. In turn, the noble was responsible for “his” peasants in the event of famine, pestilence, invasion, or impoverishment. The relationship was a sentimental but unequal relationship, not one where labor was bought and sold. It was a moral relationship that had a past, present, and future between noble families and the peasantry.

The Ethics of the Great Agrarian Empires

Daniel Chirot (2011, p. 141) calls the implicit compromise between the relatively independent peasants on the countryside and the luxury-loving elite a “terrible dilemma,” because the peasantry gave up individual freedom, in exchange for being part of a state which provides protection from invasion and famine. The dilemma was that the subsistence peasantry became ever more productive; they became attractive to raiders and brigands seeking to steal the wealth their lands and herds produced. The first response of the farmers was to band together under the leadership of a great fighter. At first, this warrior chief was only “in charge” during times of military threat. When there was no threat, he would return to his fields and be the patriarch of his own clan. But, by about 5000 BCE, a few of these villages developed into cities that supported a permanent “court” of officials. In an implicit exchange for organizing military protection, these new “nobles” required the peasantry to surrender not only the crops but the freedom to leave the “kingdom.”

The right of the king to “his” peasants was legitimated via ideologies emphasizing the divinely ordained power of the king vis-a-vis the peasantry. Thus, even though the health of the kingdom ultimately rested on the success of the low-status peasantry, ideologies emerged that insisted that the nobility was higher and more important. The kings were even considered to be deities. In this way, farmers became “tied” to the land, i.e., they were “inalienably” connected to a particular place in a manner which meant that they could not abandon their ruler but also their ruler could not expel them from their farm.

Wherever agricultural wealth accumulated, such systems of inequality between the rulers and ruled emerged. Such systems were focused by the personal loyalties of feudalism. Typically the peasantry owed the particular king’s court a share of their crops and service in his army. In exchange the feudal lord extended protection from famine and invasion specifically to the peasants for whom he inherited responsibility. Farmers all over the world encountered this terrible dilemma in places as diverse as Ancient Mexico, Peru, China, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus River valleys. But what was lost and gained in this trade?

The peasants of course lost their freedoms to travel and criticize rulers, and the sons of the peasantry were drafted into battle. Tax loads could be heavy, too. But, this loss of liberty also protected for the peasantry from other threats, especially attack by enemies, and periodic famine. The nobility protected “their” peasantry from attack and starvation by maintaining fortresses or castles, where food was stored to distribute during famine or military siege.

Such rights and responsibilities were embedded in feudal society via ritual and religion. Rituals celebrated the connection between the peasants and their king, who was a father figure to whom the mysteries of religious faith demanded obedience. From today’s perspective, such tie seems fantastical; but they worked to tie kingdoms and even empires as large as Rome together in unequal kinship-like loyalties.

The Ecology of Feudalism: Elites and “Their” Countrysides

Historian William McNeill (1978) described well the ecological relationships of what became the great agricultural empires between about 4000 BCE and 1500 CE. What these agricultural empires had in common was that they had rich farm areas, which McNeill called the “engines” of demographic and economic growth, centered on a city.

Cities had three things essential to such empires: the court of the king or emperor, a priestly caste who controlled religion, and the markets with their traders. Unlike today, the cities were not centers of manufacturing and production, and the wealth of the kingdom came from the rural areas.

But still the nobility, priests, and traders had two problems. First, they could not produce enough food to feed their population and so relied on the existing countryside to send them the foodstuffs they needed to live and become wealthy. But there was a second problem, too, which was that the premodern city was dirty and had high rates of disease so more people died than were born. As a result, a continual influx of new people from the countryside was needed so that the king’s court, the priestly caste, and the marketplace could be staffed. The engine of growth – the settled rural areas – provided a solution to both problems. They had surplus population as a result of their high birth rates and sent food as a symbol of their obeisance.

The Ethics of Food and Agriculture in Feudalism

Food was the center of ethical life in feudalism whether sending tribute to the king, offering food to the spirits or gods, feeding a family member, or hosting honored guests. Food defined love, responsibility, and friendship. Those who were the “us” group supped together. “Come and eat, this is my grain, that I grew with my sweat, and it is given to you.” The food the farmer grew had special meaning beyond its role in nourishment – it was produced through the farmer’s own work and sweat and was created because the farmer gave of himself. The sweat was turned into food, which was used to nourish children, and those who the farmer loved. Or it went to guests, who were invited to eat of the rice, maize, beans, or bread that the farmer created; guests were told to “come and eat, this food is created personally by me, and I give it to you as a mark of my respect for you.” Or perhaps, “because I have grown this (rice or maize) myself, it tastes far better than what money buys!” (Waters 2007, pp. 10–12).

In agrarian societies, the agricultural cycle of planting, tilling, and harvesting structured the year. And everywhere rituals marked shifts in the weather and cropping cycles. In the temperate zones, spring festivals signaled planting. There were also special ceremonies associated with the winter and summer solstices and especially harvest festivals. The priestly caste emerged, which claimed control over dangers that threatened the crop cycle. Songs, dances, altars, religion, and artwork were created to appease gods who controlled the weather, the harvest, crop diseases, and particularly rain cycles.

Loyalty to the group was a primary ethic in traditional horticultural societies. Work groups, military groups, occupational groups, ancestor cults, and many other types of groups were organized. Ancestors buried on the land in places like China, Africa, and Europe were important too, representing the connection between the ancestors, the land, and the future. Holy days were timed to reconstitute the group; indeed, these agriculturally derived holidays are still important rituals for extended families, even in the modern world. For example, in the modern United States and Canada, this happens during the Thanksgiving holidays. In China today, this happens in the context of the spring and fall festivals when factory workers return home.

The primary unit of loyalty in subsistence societies is the extended family, i.e., what Durkheim called the “segment” and Marx sarcastically compared to a potato in a bag. As Marx and Durkheim described, tasks were delegated within this family, and the growth (or shrinkage) of the family unit was key to the family’s well-being, not the cleverness of a particular individual entrepreneur.

This also led to an ethic emphasizing that if one member of the family was fortunate and became rich or powerful, the rest of the family could call on that person to share. Modern writers sometimes call this “amoral familism” because it means that when a person does have the capacity to favor others in decisions about hiring, purchasing, and so forth, they tend to look to family first, not the “best financial deal” or the interest of a larger corporation. To call such a situation amoral or corrupt, though, belies the centrality of family loyalty in traditional agricultural communities. In such communities, ethical behavior is to serve one’s own kin first and not that of a distant modern bureaucracy.

The Second Great Transformation

The first Great Transformation gave birth to the type of agricultural society described above. There were villages, extended families, nuclear families, “tribes,” feudal systems, and the agricultural empires. Relations between the nobility and the peasantry were exploitative, but also sentimental. But then something began happening about 1500 CE in Europe to end this long era. Values and ethics shifted toward something new: Markets, money, and economic efficiency came to be a new source of both values and ethics. This of course is the world familiar to the modern readers of encyclopedias like this one; it is the world of the global marketplace in which we sell our labor to the highest bidder, in exchange for the hard cold cash needed to buy our subsistence. Or as “Ma Wilder” complained in the nostalgic Little House on the Prairie children’s books written by daughter-in-law Laura Ingalls Wilder:

“There’s not ‘but’ about!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see [our son] Royal come down to being nothing but a shopkeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man [a farmer is]. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days….

A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please. You’ll be free and independent son, on a farm. (Wilder 1935, pp. 367, 370, quoted in Waters 2007, p. 5)

As Ma Wilder knows, the older ethic of family loyalty is turned on its head in the new world, and cash becomes the ethical imperative for our capacity to eat. Land and labor become “alienable” in the new world, meaning that each can be sold separately. You must become a person who values time as money and opportunity to “truckle,” rather than relationships and independence. Land becomes defined in terms of market productivity, separate from the people who may or may not live there. You come to define good in the way Benjamin Franklin did:

Remember that time is money. The man that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and…sits idle, on half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. (Weber and Kalberg 2002, pp. 13–16)

So how did the ethic of cold hard impersonal cash described by Franklin become so important in the older farming world, where sentimental relationships were so central? After all, to create this new world, the older ethics of personalism, paternalism, feudalism, and tributary payments need to disappear and be replaced by the new ethic. How did this happen?

The Rebellion of the Rich Against the Poor

The classical sociologist Karl Polanyi (1944) describes the second Great Transformation, when traditional agricultural society became the modern market economy. Polanyi describes the second Great Transformation as beginning in England in about 1500 CE, when the rural areas began to be transformed. Polanyi writes that traditional peasant farmers were changed from being decent farmers taking care of their own families to being labor, which could be bought and sold on the open market, particularly in the new industrializing cities. Polanyi calls this a “revolution” because it upended the old unequal relationship between the feudal lord and peasant and replaced it with a world where cash, labor, land, and product could be bought and sold. He blames this change on the nobility who profited when they abandoned their responsibilities to protect “their” peasants and sold the land the peasants had considered theirs since “time immemorial” to the highest bidder. Polanyi wrote about The Great Transformation, which he called the “revolution of the rich against the poor” (1944, p. 35):

The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. … The fabric of society was being disrupted; desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, … wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of [urban] beggars and thieves. (1944, p. 36)

A new type of severe urban poverty emerged in the nineteenth century from this dispossession, even as the world became richer as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Farmers who had feudal rights to farmland since “time immemorial” were pushed off the land that produced food and into the cities where they became urban factory workers. Planting decisions were determined by the needs of the marketplace for food, raw wool, cotton, and linen needed by the textile mills. The final word was with the price-setting commodity brokers, not the farmers.

In nineteenth-century Europe, this change often meant the land was shifted to raising sheep for the wool needed in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. In India and the southern United States, vast tracts were planted to cotton. In other places, and at other times, central governments and capitalist farmers created farms for wheat, maize, and other grains which were sold into markets and purchased by the wageworkers in the rapidly growing industrial cities. The point Polanyi made was that peasants who had had rights vis-a-vis old feudal lords in the “terrible dilemma” lost much in a world torn asunder, where the old ethics were traded for new ones. The old subsistence peasantry suffered being decent but poor farmers, but the new urban wage laborer lived or died at the whim of the industrial labor market described by writers like Polanyi (and Charles Dickens) who saw them become “a mob of beggars and thieves,” in cities like nineteenth-century London.

In feudalism, land, and the food it produced since “time immemorial,” was inalienable from the peasants who lived on it – meaning that feudal landlords could not kick the peasants off when they sold the land. There also was no such thing as “title.” As a result the peasants could also not sell “their” land rights nor borrow money from a bank using the land as collateral. In the older system of feudalism, the peasantry and the land were the same inalienable unit. And indeed the king might “sell” the lands (complete with peasants) to another noble, or the land might be captured in a war, but irrespective of this, the older morality of feudalism prevailed, i.e., the peasants and their heirs remained on the land, alive and producing for their own consumption and payment of tribute.

But the advent of capitalism with the separation of subsistence peasants from their farms introduced new incentives to the nobles who held legal title to the land, to move the “landless” peasants off. And indeed, this was the “Great Transformation” and “revolution of the rich against the poor” that Polanyi wrote about. For example, when cotton, flax, and wool in great quantities were demanded at the textile mills, peasants were foreclosed on. For example, in nineteenth-century Scotland, peasant land was given to the production of single cash crops, for example, sheep for wool, flax for linen, or wheat to make the bread sold to factory workers. Similar programs that required the alienation of land from the subsistence peasants occurred around the world and, indeed, continue today in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia where subsistence peasantries persist (Waters 2007, pp. 155–214).

But this new ethic means that land is a commodity, which is bought and sold, and produces what the market demands, rather than what farm families need to eat during the following year. What is more, the peasants who moved into the urban labor market must rethink what work means. Is it work to independently feed you and your family? Or is it work for the generation of money? Benjamin Franklin’s ethic said that money was important for its own sake, and human labor was money as measured with a stopwatch. Labor no longer meant producing personally to feed family, neighbors, nobility, or guests either. It meant truckling to other people to make a living – and as much cash as possible. “Subsistence” means buying food from the box or bin of a middleman who does not grow anything, but squeezes profit out of what others produced by “truckling” to other people rather than laboring in the earth, that most honorable of profession!

Thus, the new ethical system emerging after 1500 CE in Europe assumed that land, labor, capital, and commodity were bought and sold in the open marketplace for cash. A “spirit of capitalism” emerged, and food became only one element in a global economy, in which farms were simply capitalist factories in the field.

Watching this transformation in 1787, Thomas Jefferson framed this term in explicitly moral terms:

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God…Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. [Corruption of morals] is the mark set on those, who….depend …on the casualties and caprice of customers…. (Jefferson 1787, pp. 164–165 quoted in Waters 2007, p. 4)

Most importantly, farming and all other economic activity were no longer like that uncomplicated seaweed growing on the floor of the sea, or a bag of potatoes, but a finely tuned watch in which many elements were key. As for the old nobility, the new markets asked them to remove the peasantry from the land so it could be put to the most efficient economic use. They did this through evictions and foreclosure using bankers, the sheriff, and the army. In the process the old nobility and their capitalist successors no longer saw itself as benevolent patriarchal figures, but as hard-nosed businessmen for whom time, land, and production were cash. Former nobles came to see themselves as plantation owners with an interest in squeezing capitalist profit out of their investment in the land and labor.

So the new ethic is the marketplace Jefferson and Ma Wilder disdained as immoral. Food is no longer seen as the stuff of life, and farms sell their entire crop to a local grain or cotton dealer. Food is just another commodity, interchangeable with any other. This is fundamentally different from the older subsistence ethic, which valued food production on a farm above all others and in which food was assumed to be essential to social, psychological, and physiological sustenance.

The American writer Mark Twain described this change in ethical outlook most succinctly, when he described his protagonist Huckleberry Finn, the ne’er do well son of the town drunk, in the following way:

Huck was always willing to take a hand in any enterprise that offered entertainment and required no capital, for he had a troublesome superabundance of that sort of time which is not money. (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

The Emergence of the Modern Capitalist Middle Class

But this complex marketplace also permitted the emergence of the middle class which seeks its meals not from hunting and gathering, as did all of our remote ancestors before about 9000 BCE, or by farming as our more recent ancestors did until recently, but from the vast global marketplace. People still need food, but few grow much themselves, and they instead happily “truckle” for jobs in the labor market and for food at a nearby supermarket. As Polanyi put it, the ethical transformation is as great as when a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. Farmers and consumers become reliant on the price setting undertaken at the Chicago Board of Trade, where global grain prices are set. This market system is very successful in its own way; where before about 90 % of the people produced food for everyone living in countryside and city, in the modern United States, farmers make up less than 2 % of the population and are able to produce enough for the other 98 % to eat and even more for export into world markets.

In this vast global marketplace, almost everyone (except Huck Finn) sells his or her labor for cash, not for love of family, or even a local noble. Today’s farmers grow food and receive cash back to purchase their own food from the local supermarket, just like the rest of us. In this new world the ethics of the marketplace where “time is money” dominate. This applies equally to the modern capitalist farm, the modern capitalist consumer, and the modern capitalist grocery store, which all negotiate for market advantage, rather than appealing to the romantic, agriculturally based ethics Thomas Jefferson and Ma Ingalls asserted. In this vast market system, people who are strangers to each other work and produce in a fashion which benefits and feeds a vast network of people. And again, this market has advantages: The new system is extraordinarily productive, far more than the farmers like Ma Wilder who only raised what they ate, raised what they wore, and kept wood for their own warmth, and little else.

Food, Agriculture, and the Spirit of Capitalism

The ethic of the underlying metamorphosis is the spirit of capitalism which sociologist Max Weber described in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s spirit of capitalism reflects the view that money and cash trumps all other considerations in modern social life – particularly those of the traditional farm where there was a close personal connection between the producer of food and those who ate. Instead, time is money and vice versa – work is not about family loyalty, sentiment, or love. Ethics are about business and profit where a close connection between work and cash is mediated by the modern businessman and where spreadsheets describing cash flow drive patterns of consumption, production, and distribution. Ironically, in the new world, only a layabout like Huck Finn can anymore afford the luxury of “a superabundance of that sort of time that has no money.” In such a world, food, even with all its cultural and ritual significance, becomes just another alienable commodity. It no longer matters who produced the grain, just that it is grain, in the same way the production of a computer is just an anonymous computer. The person who grew the grain is as irrelevant to the final user, as the person who assembled an iPad.

So the modern capitalist farm is a factory in the field, with the same ethical imperative for profit-making a textile or iPad factory has. From an ethical perspective, today’s farmer is a businessman, not the romantic figure Jefferson wrote about. And yet Jefferson’s romance still holds a place in the modern imagination; food production is still often privileged with special legal protections. Such protections often draw on nostalgia for the old days when farm work was sacred and more honorable than that of a truckling shopkeeper. Ultimately such ethical reasoning is still closely connected to the personalistic and paternalistic logic of feudalism, in which the role of the food-producing farmer as the base of society is honored. In this context there are continuing political demands for agricultural crop supports supplied as cash to support vast corporate-owned “family” farms, and aid for the poor is provided in the form of “food” stamps rather than cash. This reflects an ethic drawing on nostalgia for Jefferson’s idealized farmer and the responsibilities of the king to provide succor to “his” peasants in times of food shortages and especially famine.

Thus, food aid for the poor is still protected in special ways in modern capitalist countries. For example, in the United States, to assist the poor, the federal government issues “food stamps” in the form of ATM cards. In African refugee camps, surplus food harvested and bagged in the United States and Europe is personalized by stamping it with the flag of the donor and then shipped at great expense around the world, even when cheap food stocks are often available in nearby markets.

The special place the modern farmer plays in the popular imagination was illustrated, in a strange place, when the most popular television commercial played during the 2013 Super Bowl football game in the United States advertised a Dodge Ram pickup truck. The truck, made in the factories of Detroit, and sold for about $30,000, was praised by having the popular broadcaster Paul Harvey read a poem in the commercial asserting “So on the Eighth Day, God Made a Farmer,” reflecting the special place that farmers have in America’s cultural imagination, even in suburbs and cities where the Super Bowl is watched. Ironically the four-door air-conditioned pickup truck was almost incidental to the commercial – which described the multitude of tasks that a subsistence farmer would do with horses, cows, fields, and machinery. The implication of the commercial was that, as Jefferson wrote, the farmer is indeed still the most exalted creature of God.


Since the Agricultural Revolution began about 9000 BCE, food and agriculture have ordered relations between human beings. This entry is about the role that farming and food plays in ordering ethical behavior, with respect to issues like loyalty, sharing of food, the allocation of land, social hierarchy, and markets. Most critically, food and agriculture help define who is the “us” of the group who will be fed and who is the “them” for whom there is no obligation to feed. This entry explains how these needs changed during the two Great Transformations of human history, i.e., the transition from hunting and gathering societies to farming communities, which began about 9000 BCE, and the second, which began only about 500 years ago, when most humans began abandoning farms, for the modern market-oriented society of today.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyCalifornia State UniversityChicoUSA