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How Foodies Can Understand Capitalism and Farm-to-Table Justice

Food
How Foodies Can Understand Capitalism and Farm-to-Table Justice
Pixabay

By Nancy Matsumoto

A new book aimed at the socially conscious food activist explores how our food system can be a place for transformation through an alliance between the progressive and radical wings of the food movement.


As advocates for a just food system, most of us try to live by our beliefs. Shopping at the farmers markets: Check. Buying local and grass-fed: Check. We rail against Big Food, yet don't dare, or bother, to look too far beneath the surface when we shop at Whole Foods or order from the organic aisle of Fresh Direct. We are walking, kale-stuffed characters out of Portlandia, better-intentioned than informed. After all, what are we really doing to change the system?

If this undercurrent of low-level guilt is one you've experienced, you might be a target of Eric Holt-Gimenez's new book, A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. The book, by and large, delivers on its goal of serving as a political economic toolkit for the food movement. It's Capitalism 101 for the socially conscious, would-be food activist.

Holt-Gimenez, who is executive director of Food First, describes the rise of the capitalist food system from the first societies to domesticate plants and animals to the financialization of the farm and rampant corporate consolidations. Our food system, he argues, is one in which a few global companies now control every link of the food chain—from the land on which mega-farms are developed to food retailers. With each new merger, these monopolies drive more rural farmers off the land, increasing economic and environmental injustice.

But A Foodie's Guide does offer up some hope and includes a call to action, as well. Holt-Gimenez believes our food system can be a place for systemic transformation through an alliance between the progressive and radical wings of the food movement—marrying things like community-supported agriculture and food hubs with the food sovereignty movement.

He believes these broad-based alliances, pulling in disparate groups such as women and people of color and what he calls the food proletariat, can mimic the once powerful alliance that existed between unions and the radical Left that agitated for change in the 1930s.

Yet even Holt-Gimenez admits that bringing down a capitalist system that now appears to be at its peak can seem daunting, as it did to him when he worked with a peasant-led agroecology movement in Latin America in the 1970s.

Bridging theory and action, as grassroots organizations such as Indivisible have done, requires organization at the local level and engagement in party politics. To change the food system from within, we need to understand the complex set of policies that uphold it: the U.S. Farm Bill.

Johns Hopkins University political science professor Adam Sheingate, who has written about the evolution of the Farm Bill, sees it as "a political regime in decay." Traditionally the bill addressed the needs of both rural farmers and urban dwellers. It offered fat subsidies to farmers, represented increasingly by single-crop lobbyists, and a federal nutrition program to address hunger among the urban poor.

But as critics of the industrial food system have gained traction—raising health and environmental concerns from the Left and calling for cuts in SNAP nutrition assistance from the Right—cracks and fissures, Sheingate said, have appeared.

A decaying regime, he said, whether viewed through the lens of the Farm Bill, or the mechanisms of the increasingly predatory capitalist structure through which it operates, opens up opportunity for resistance and change.

The concept of "food democracy" as an antidote or form of resistance could be useful, Sheingate suggested. He defined this as the condition in which people actively participate in shaping the food system in ways that extend beyond their behavior as consumers. The question it raises, however, is to what degree can consumers be motivated to push for food system change? Or is consumption just too easily co-opted by capitalism?

First, let's look at the idea of voting with one's fork. We like to think that opting for grass-fed beef, skipping meat altogether or going vegan are all forms of resistance. But to Sheingate such practices are more feel-good than change-making. "Voting is already a limited form of political engagement," shaped by wealth, education, and race, he said. Voting with one's fork simply reproduces those inequalities. The idea that consumption is based on choice is a lie; the poor, he said, "can only buy the cheapest, least healthy foods."

Similarly, Holt-Gimenez wrote that institutions and movements we might think of as effective, and perhaps even progressive, largely serve to prop up the status quo. Anti-food waste initiatives, for example, have accepted the capitalist tradition of overproduction rather than working to prevent excess food from flooding the market in the first place.

Meanwhile, Big Philanthropy—embodied in the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations—along with the USDA, World Bank and the IMF believes in the power of technology and entrepreneurship and promotes capital-intensive agriculture and global markets as a way to end poverty and hunger. Like the Green Revolution that exported the U.S. industrial agricultural model in the mid-20th century, the ultimate result of such practices, Holt-Gimenez asserted, is to drive small farmers off the land.

A better path of resistance, both Holt-Gimenez and Sheingate agree, is activism at the grassroots level. Local food policy councils—born of corporate and federal systems' inability to address inequities on the ground—have become a bright spot in the food justice movement. These organizations can work to address issues ranging from urban agriculture to improving food and climate resilience. The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins counts 280 food policy councils across North America.

As the FPC movement has shown us, pushing back against a capitalist food system is within our control, even if it means just small daily acts. "When I plant a garden in my backyard, am I engaging in an act of resistance?" Sheingate asked rhetorically. "When I go to a farmers market in Baltimore, one of the more diverse places in the city, am I overcoming the hypersegregation of the city? Does that constitute an act of resistance?"

One clue to where to go from here, Sheingate suggested, may come from trying to understand what it is about food that makes it different from other platforms for political resistance. There are other anti-capitalist movements growing in cities across the country, Sheingate pointed out, "but I don't see people coming together and forming knitting circles as a way to change the world."

Food is a kind of paradox, he concludes, on the one hand, a hyper-concentrated system that is the epitome of capitalism, yet on the other, one whose very excesses and injustices have created cracks and fissures that show us the possibilities for a different, more just, system.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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