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Eating our way to a better world? : A plea to local, fair-trade, organic food enthusiasts

My belly is full. It seems no matter how hard I try to “eat my way to a better world”, that world never materializes. The organic and fair-trade industries are booming, Farmers Markets are the new norm, the word “locavore” was added to the Oxford Dictionary, and Michelle Obama even planted a White House garden. But agribusiness continues to consolidate power and profit, small farmers worldwide are being dispossessed in an unprecedented global land grab, over a billion people are going hungry, and agriculture’s contributions to climate change are increasing. It’s not just that change is slow, but we actually seem to be moving in the opposite direction than alternative food movements are trying to take us.

What is going on? How are we to understand this apparent paradox, and the seeming failure of our food activism? While the answers are not clear or easy, we can start by considering the main form our political action is taking, and where it is (and isn’t) getting us.

The slogan “vote with your fork” has become the hallmark of food movements. From Michael Pollan and Food Inc. to the vast majority of non-profit materials circulating on the internet and in grocery stores, we are empowered by the belief that we can change the world every time we take a bite. This idea of “ethical consumption” stems from classical market fundamentalism, which tells us that the market is a democracy where every dollar gives the right to vote. According to this logic, the social makeup is a result of interactions between billions of individual decisions, where markets simply respond to consumer desires and consumption is the primary arena of citizenship. Thus, to consume is to be political -- to be good, participatory citizens.

Yet, buying “ethical” food does nothing to address the basic political economic structures that underly the destructive global food system. It doesn’t challenge corporate power, just re-orients it towards new niche markets. It doesn’t address the trade and subsidy policies that create inequality and hunger, or the privitization of our common genetic wealth, or the massive wave of farmland enclosures. While it may be an attempt to opt-out of supporting that food system, our vote of no confidence doesn’t do much to actually change that system. To illustrate further -- even if we tripled the purchase of organics overnight, we will have done nothing to address the industrialization and corporatization of organics, or the erosion of standards to allow for all sorts of ecologically destructive practices in what is supposed to be a sustainable form of agriculture. Further, the majority of farmworkers will still be exposed to agricultural chemicals that we know are sentencing them to cancer, as we all continue to drink those chemicals in our water.

The logic of market fundamentalism that underlies much food activism essentially obscures socioeconomic structures and deflects responsibility away from the state and other regulatory institutions. Furthermore, it individualizes activism by making it about personal consumer choices. This can have the dangerous effect of starving collective political action and identities built upon common struggle.

In its worst forms, the idea of ethical consumption renders the unjustifiable gluttony of developed-world consumerism justifiable. It’s OK that we drive hummers, because we are driving to the farmers market! People can continue to consume with pleasure from a “guilt-free menu”, leaving untouched uncomfortable questions about how our lifestyles contribute more broadly to vast inequalities. In some instances, the idea of ethical consumerism does more to comfort and accommodate the individual eater, and thus solidify the structures of the current food system, than to actually challenge it.

Most of us are aware that alternative food movements have created a plethora of niche marketing opportunities that have been skillfully capitalized on by corporate food giants -- that organics and fair trade have been largely coopted (often to the determinant of more pure organic farming and small-scale direct fair-trade schemes), and that even Wal-Mart is profiting from “local” branding. But we still seem to be relying on the mechanisms and logics that are implicated in the problems we are trying to correct -- namely, markets and capitalism.

Capitalism prevents corporations from prioritizing anything above profit. Capitalism always tends towards the concentration of wealth and power. It requires dispossession and ever-expanding markets, and the subordination of all aspects of life to capital. While our efforts to develop local economy alternatives may be based on a desire to re-embed economies in systems of social and moral relations, we need to remember that exploitation is the prevailing logic of capitalism. Until we start actually talking about capitalism, and defining and creating alternatives that directly confront its logics, our alternatives will always be constrained and shaped by it. Let me re-state this a little differently -- while we need to imagine and build alternative ways of producing and distributing food, if they do not subvert the logics of capitalism, they will be subsumed by them.

This necessarily means challenging structures and forces that do not reside at the local level. The local has become the predominant space of action in alternative food movements largely because it is seen as the site to try alternatives, and to counter trends towards globalized, industrialized, commodity-trade oriented agriculture. While this is an important aspect of resistance, we also need to be mindful of tendencies to use questions of scale to sidestep the more fundamental matters of power and capital. Further, if we confine our action to the small-scale, the most we can hope to achieve is small isolated ponds of fresh food for privileged consumers in an ocean of food injustices.

On the topic of capitalist exploitation, something needs to be said about food system workers -- the people who grow, process, transport, sell and serve our food -- and their striking invisibility in alternative food movements. While we talk a lot about “supporting farmers”, we rarely ask questions about farmworkers, and much less about the people working in dangerous and sweat-shop like food processing factories or the underpaid grocery clerks. It’s estimated that 86 percent of food system workers in the US don’t make enough to live, and that they use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the country’s workforce. By failing to put food system workers at the center of the conversation about sustainability and justice in the food system, the movement effectively marginalizes working-class, non-white and immigrant groups, as well as the half of humanity that produces 70 percent of the world’s food through “peasant agriculture”.

Of course, there are strands of the food movement that are clearly challenging the logics of capitalism, and that have put workers, justice and equality at the forefront of the political struggle. Some excellent examples include Via Campesina’s articulation of the connection between food sovereignty and land rights, trade regimes, and gender relations; consumer-labor alliances based in struggles for worker justice like the Immokalee Workers Coalition; Food Not Bombs example that large networks of people can work cooperatively by consensus and without leadership to provide essential needs; and the occupation of Gill Tract in Berkeley, which is calling attention to the need for direct action to reclaim space for urban agriculture. Even “ethical consumption” is a response to feeling implicated in ecosystem crisis and networks of exploitation, and more importantly, a desire to contribute to something different. In a culture that preaches self-interest, this in itself is hopeful. Furthermore, there is a tremendous amount of creativity and energy behind the countless emerging experiments to “re-embed” agriculture, and the movement has done a lot to present positive and pleasurable alternative visions of the future. Along with other social movements, we are part of a re-orientation of values that sees joy and satisfaction in greater connection to both other people and the non-human world, implicitly or explicitly questioning the fulfillment of consumption-driven lifestyles.

But we can’t stop here. When we fail to position our strategies in a larger project of transforming the capitalist food system, we risk erecting new barriers of privilege and inequality. If justice and sustainability are truly our priorities, then we need to start having conversations about capital, individual rights and property relations that challenge our very core beliefs. We need to de-naturalize and cease to tolerate extreme power and wealth inequities. We need to get beyond the idea that politics is what we choose to put in our mouths. And we need collective action for a collective world. Our reality is not made in an individual bubble contained within the market -- we are shaped by our social relations, and must change them in order to change the world.

Do I still buy local and have a garden -- absolutely! I’m just not under the illusion that these actions alone will change the food system. And I am not disheartened by this either, because the hope for me lies in what we have so far failed to imagine -- in the possibilities of a radically fairer, more democratic and truly sustainable world.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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