Quantcast

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

Food
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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Tim P. Whitby / 21st Century Fox / Getty Images

The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.

Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.

The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
A protest march against the Line 3 pipeline in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 18, 2018. Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

By Collin Rees

We know that people power can stop dangerous fossil fuel projects like the proposed Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in Minnesota, because we've proved it over and over again — and recently we've had two more big wins.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Scientists released a study showing that a million species are at risk for extinction, but it was largely ignored by the corporate news media. Danny Perez Photography / Flickr / CC

By Julia Conley

Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.

Read More Show Less
DoneGood

By Cullen Schwarz

Ethical shopping is a somewhat new phenomenon. We're far more familiar with the "tried and tested" methods of doing good, like donating our money or time.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

Summer is fast approaching, which means it's time to stock up on sunscreen to ward off the harmful effects of sun exposure. Not all sunscreens are created equally, however.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.

Read More Show Less
Flooding in Winfield, Missouri this month. Jonathan Rehg / Getty Images

President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.

"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.

Read More Show Less
Reed Hoffmann / Getty Images

Violent tornadoes tore through Missouri Wednesday night, killing three and causing "extensive damage" to the state's capital of Jefferson City, The New York Times reported.

"There was a lot of devastation throughout the state," Governor Mike Parson said at a Thursday morning press conference, as NPR reported. "We were very fortunate last night that we didn't have more injuries than what we had, and we didn't have more fatalities across the state. But three is too many."

Read More Show Less