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What's Wrong with Our Food System? Capitalism.

Our food system is working exactly as it should under capitalism.That's the problem. An interview with Food First Director Eric Holt-Gimenez.

A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat
Eric Holt-Giménez

Monthly Review Press

24 Oct 2017


When people talk about the food system being "broken", Eric Holt-Gimenez is quick to correct them.

There's nothing broken about the food system, says the executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. Over-production, hunger, wastage, slavery -- it's working exactly the way a capitalist food system should work.

It's capitalism that's the problem.

In a new book, the decades-long veteran of the global food justice movement says there's no way of substantively changing or transforming the food system, and tackling the immense problems of world hunger and labour exploitation that characterize it, without changing the economic system in which it operates. The problem with North Americans in particular is that as much as they may want to feed the hungry and create a more just and equitable world, many of them still lack a firm understanding of how the capitalist system operates and makes possible -- even necessary -- tremendous levels of suffering and exploitation.

The need to bridge that gap is what inspired him to write A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, he says. Before returning to his native US to carry on the food justice struggle there, Holt-Gimenez spent more than two decades working with peasant movements in Latin America.

"The movements in Latin America had a very clear understanding about capitalism, because they were concerned about one of the factors of production, which is land. They were all about land reform. And because they were peasant farmers they interacted directly with local markets and they understood the power of capital and how that was destroying their livelihood.

"When I came to the United States and started working with Food First about eleven years ago, I discovered this huge movement for food justice and I was very excited about it. [There's] all kinds of great things going on, CSAs [community-supported agriculture] and farmers' markets and farmers' school programs and things like that, which weren't happening in Latin America, but I saw a lot of confusion about the causes of the problems in our food system … around the political economy of the food system – who has what, who does what, who gets what, and what they do with it. It's basically because there's a tremendous lack of understanding that we have a capitalist food system. People are talking about changing the food system and food revolutions and transforming the food system, without recognizing what kind of food system we're actually dealing with."

We Need to Talk About Capitalism

"Won't the laws of supply and demand in agriculture eventually work things out? The notion that capitalist agriculture will somehow self-correct flies in the face of three hundred years of agrarian history," he writes in his book.

Until recently, it would have been difficult to make overt critiques of capitalism and get taken seriously in the United States. But when it comes to talking about capitalism, he says there's been a tremendous shift since the Wall Street financial crisis of 2007-08 and the Occupy movement which erupted in its wake.

"Prior to that, it was very difficult to talk about capitalism in the United States. If you said the word capitalism, it raised all kinds of anti-Communist red flags. And people sort of shut down. So it was very cumbersome. One had to explain concepts without using the words for those concepts. But after the Wall Street crash and with the rise and spread of the Occupy movement, not only were progressives and liberals and radicals talking about capitalism, but in fact the moderates and the extreme right were talking about capitalism."

While many of the issues that consume public discourse today (racism, sexism, inequality) predate capitalism, capitalism incorporated and intensified them, he says -- with serious consequences for the food system.

"All of these serve to reinforce a system that is exploitative, a system that has to grow or die, and has to overrun other economies and extract indefinitely whatever resources we have on the planet, and it's leading us into a dead end. The food system of course is not exempt from any of this and in fact the food system, the industrial food system, produces about 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, for example. Some of the worst and most egregious examples of labour exploitation and slavery happen within the food system. And certainly the food system is one of the places where we see the exploitation of women. Women produce most of the world's foods, and yet women and girls make up most of the world's hungry. So it's very clear that capitalism has structured in racism and sexism and of course classism."

If It's Not Broken, You Can't Fix It

Holt-Gimenez says it's important to move away from talking about fixing a broken food system. On the contrary, he says, the food system is working exactly like a capitalist food system should, if that's the sort of system that you want -- one replete with exploitation, overproduction, and inequality. But what's more, the idea of 'fixing' it suggests that it worked better at one time. And that, he warns, does not match the facts.

"When I began working with the food movement in the United States, that was a continual trope, you know the food system is broken and we've got to fix the broken food system. Well if you want to fix the broken food system, that means you think that at one time it used to work well. Tell me when that was. Was it during the period of settler-colonialism and imperial expansion, when Indigenous peoples were exterminated and dispossessed? Or was it during the period of expansion in the United States for example of cotton, where we enslaved twelve million Africans? Was it during the period of the first and second world wars, where we exploited Mexican farmers?

"If you want to fix it, what do you want to go back to? I think that that's really important to distinguish. We can't go back to anything. What it was before, was not good. It was not bucolic. And what we have to do is really change everything. If you want to transform the food system, we've got to transform capitalism into something else. And that really intimidates people."

For Holt-Gimenez, the deep connection between the food system and capitalism is a challenge, but one that offers hope and potential too. Because capitalism and the modern food system evolved together, he says, the food system may be vulnerable to capitalism but that also means that capitalism is vulnerable to the food system. Perhaps, therefore, "we can use the food system to change everything," he suggests.

But how do we do that?

"Well I think we're already doing that in many ways. Many of the very practical things that the food movement is doing, which appear to have no political content, actually do, and we just have to realize that and take political responsibility for what we're doing."

Organic agriculture, urban gardens, climate smart agriculture -- few people think of these as radical political acts, he says. But they are in many ways, because they represent new ways of people organizing their livelihoods in response to the failures of capitalism. It's important for people to start recognizing and acknowledging the political nature of these actions, he says, and to use them in building political movements.

"The food movement is very fragmented, very divided, and that's no mistake. We have to address those things which divide us, because otherwise we'll never find a way to be a powerful enough movement to create the political will that we need to change the rules, and to change the institutions, not just the practices. There's reasons why we haven't done this so far, because we're actually divided. There's structures which divide us … racism, classism, sexism, I could go on. So we have to take these things on. It means that dismantling racism in the food system or in the food movement or within our own organizations or within ourselves, is not extra work. It is the work. If we don't dismantle these oppressions and come to terms with them, we'll never be able to build a powerful movement."

A Food System Shaped by Racism and Sexism

If you're able to go to your neighbourhood grocery and pick up the foods you want when you want them, you might think the food system is fairly functional. The work of food justice advocates like Holt-Gimenez reminds us that it's not, and that the very people who should have the greatest food security in fact have the least.

"The populations for whom the food system is working very badly are the people who work in the food system. The men and women who pick our crops, who process our food, even those who prepare our food in fancy restaurants in the back of the house and those who sell us our food in the big grocery chain stores are the most exploited people, and the worst waged, and are the people with the highest levels of food insecurity," he explains.

"The farmers who produce most of the world's food are not the large-scale Canadian grain farmers or large-scale soy and corn farmers in the US, or the big hog producers. No. Most of the world's food is actually produced by peasant women who also make up most of the world's hungry … these are the people who are most negatively impacted by our capitalist food system, and it's a significant percentage of the world's population. We're talking about a third of humanity."

Food insecurity and injustice is deeply shaped by race, gender, and other equity considerations.

"[T]he food system is still sexist," he explains. "During the 2009 global food and economic crisis one to two baby boys per 1,000 births died, who would have otherwise lived in a non-crisis. But the figure for baby girls was seven to eight extra deaths, per 1,000 births. So that in the 21st century baby girls die at four- to eight-times the rate as baby boys during a time of crisis, I think is a fairly graphic and terrible example of how our food system is sexist."

His book provides numerous similar examples, including several demonstrating the effects of racism on the food system.

"Statistics from the United States confirm the persistence of racial caste in the food system," he writes. "In 1910 African Americans owned 16 million acres of farmland. But by 1997 … fewer than 20,000 black farmers owned just 2 million acres of land. The rate of black land loss has been twice that of white land loss and today less than 1 million acres are farmed. According to the USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture, of the country's 2.1 million farmers, only 8 percent are farmers of color and only half of those are owners of land … people of color tend to earn less than $10,000 in annual sales, produce only 3 percent of agricultural value, and farm just 2.8 percent of farm acreage."

"While white farmers dominate as operator-owners, farmworkers and food workers -- from field to fork -- are overwhelmingly people of color. Most are paid poverty wages, have inordinately high levels of food insecurity, and experience nearly twice the levels of wage theft as do white workers. While white food workers have an average annual income of $25,024, workers of color earn only $19,349 a year. White workers hold nearly 75 percent of the managerial positions in the food system. Latinos hold 13 percent and black and Asian workers 6.5 percent."

"Poverty results in high levels of food insecurity for people of color. Of the 50 million food-insecure people in the United States, 10.6 percent are white, 26.1 percent are black, 23.7 percent are Latino, and 23 percent are Native American. Even restaurant workers -- an occupation dominated by people of color … are twice as food insecure as the national average."

Obesity and diet-related disease are also disproportionately prevalent among African Americans and Latinos, he notes.

While some have put their faith in new technologies to improve the food system, the ability of science to contribute to a secure and equitable global food system can also be perverted by capitalism, he warns.

"It's not just 'technology'. What kind of technology? Which technologies? Developed by who, for whom? And the same thing with science. What kind of science? Because in fact there are many technologies and many kinds of science -- like the science of agroecology for example, and all of the different techniques which farmers have developed within the science of agroecology -- which I think are very hopeful and very positive and very productive and very sustainable and restorative. [They are] about restoring the ecological functions to the farms and to the planet.

"But there are other types of science which are in the service of capitalism and certainly privileged by capitalism and by a number of our governments, that are quite destructive, both to the environment, and to our health. And when we tend to talk about science and technology this is what everybody tends to think about. But there's more than just one kind. I think we have to be very discerning about not only who's doing what, but why are they doing it? What is the driving force behind it?

"The driving force behind GMOs and the new information technologies and CRISPR and all these things is capitalism, it's profit, it's not about saving the world at all. We produce one and a half times enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet right now. We produce enough food to feed ten or eleven billion people, which is where we expect the population to top off sometime around 2050. So we're even overproducing food at this time. Why are we doing this? We're doing it because that's the way capitalism works. It overproduces things. It exploits the planet's resources and its people. The science which is exalted and lauded as 'science', is basically a science for capitalism. But there's a lot of other science out there which doesn't do that, and which we really need to pay attention to."

What corporate technology has to do with ending hunger is questionable, he says in his book, "especially since hunger could be wiped out rapidly by distributing wealth and income more evenly."

The Status Quo Is Not Sustainable

Grim facts aside, how do we deal with the expectations that many Americans (and others) have grown up with? It's one thing to talk about fair trade and economic justice; another thing to confront the sense of entitlement that expects fresh strawberries or oranges on demand.

Holt-Gimenez says reality will soon become the biggest check on entitlement.

"I think people are going to be increasingly frustrated with capitalism as we move on because those things are going to become increasingly unavailable to more and more of the population. And I think that reality will be the biggest check on what are essentially ecologically unreasonable expectations."

It's when that reality starts to hit home, he says, that people on a large-scale will start looking more seriously at the social, political and economic alternatives to capitalism and the status quo. At the same time, he points out, basic education about the food system is essential.

"If people are conditioned to think that winter strawberries, even if they are organic, that come into North America in the middle of winter are somehow sustainable, when they've been traveling for 2,000 miles and are wrapped in a Cello Pak or something like this, that's just not sustainable at all. So there's a certain amount of education around sustainability and a certain amount of planetary responsibility that people will have to take.

"Yes, I'm sorry that we have a system that is inherently unsustainable and destructive to people and the planet, and I'm sorry that we're so accustomed to this. But we have to realize that this level of economic privilege is not only destroying the world for everybody else, but it's destroying it for us too, and we just have to cut back on our consumption. That's the biggest driver of climate change: consumption. This endless expansion of consumption and production just can't go on.

"The people of the global north and the developed and industrial societies, are just going to have to realize that everybody can't live like them, and in fact they can't live like that either. That's where the degrowth movement comes in, I think we have a lot to learn from the global degrowth movement. And the whole issue of equity is extremely important. We can't keep overconsuming things in the north and underconsuming everything in the south and expect to have a sustainable planet and that there isn't going to be massive violent political consequences from this. We're already seeing tremendous migrations out of areas where, because of climate change that have exacerbated political and economic conditions, that people are moving, trying to figure out a way to survive, and this has caused all kinds of social and political turmoil both in the south and in the north. It's just absolutely unsustainable. So I think that we do really have to take responsibility for that, particularly those of us in the north who are privileged… the consumption of the one percent is destroying the planet for everybody else."

Challenging the Dominant Food Narrative

Holt-Gimenez spends the latter part of his book criticizing what he calls the 'dominant food narrative'. What he means by that, he says, is that we need to think critically about who is shaping the progress narratives we hear; who is shaping the agenda and whose important voices are being left out.

"This hegemonic food discourse not only reflects the dominant ideology of the corporate food regime, it avoids addressing how the capitalist food system is inextricably based on the oppression and exploitation of women, people of color, and workers. Worse, this dominant food narrative lulls us into the magical belief that somehow we can change the food system without changing the capitalist system in which it is historically embedded. This is the political fetishization of food," he writes in A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism.

When we spoke, he explained this idea further.

"The dominant food narrative is basically a narrative which has been developed by what we euphemistically call, in the United States, thought leaders," he explains. "These tend to be white men with enough privilege to engage in intellectual activities for a living, who interpret what they think is happening on the ground, what they think is happening with the system, and their voices are privileged. Unfortunately what that does, and has done, is it has erased the importance of race, class and gender to a tremendous degree from the food movement narrative. Even when these thought leaders assimilate that discourse around race and gender and to some extent class, it's a very weak discourse because they're not the ones living it.

"The food movement is very much judged and understood by this discourse. And so you have a tremendous privileging of people who talk about the good food movement, and organic, and very much all within the realm of the capitalist food system. Whereas the voices from the people who are really on the front lines, facing hunger, facing poverty, facing diet-related disease, are not heard.

"That has to stop. There's tremendous leadership on the front lines based on these very difficult experiences, based on the experiences of resistance, based on the experiences of the construction on the ground of different kinds of food systems. These are where the real lessons are, and this is really where the hope is. I think that that's especially important, because if you look at the capitalist food system and you analyze the numbers and see that we're going in the wrong direction with climate change, and the wrong direction with food security, and the wrong directions with regards to controlling the genetic manipulation of everything, one can get pretty depressed. The cure for this depression, this sort of political and social depression, is to ally oneself with those for whom giving up hope is not an option. Those are the people on the front lines. We need to support their leadership, and we need to amplify their voices. Because they're the ones that are going to help us do this."

Some examples of movements that are doing this, which he explores in his book, include La Via Campesina (an international peasant movement of about 200 million) and the World March of Women, both of which have established alliances in recognition of the interrelationship of food sovereignty and women's liberation.

"These are the types of strategic alliances, based on rolling back, resisting and rolling back these oppressions, that we really need to pay attention to and really need to support. There's a tremendous amount to learn from these movements," he says.

What Are Our Chances for Change?

When it comes to our chances for turning around the problems inherent in our food system, Holt-Gimenez is grimly realistic, yet hopeful.

"I think anybody who's really paying attention has to be fairly pessimistic. I mean this doesn't look good. We're going the wrong way on climate change. The recent rise of neo-nazism and fascism and certainly the United States having a predatory lunatic in the White House, no one can be optimistic about, unless you're (unaware). But that doesn't mean that we have to lose hope.

"Hope and optimism are two entirely different things. Optimism means you do things because you are confident about the outcome – you are optimistic about the outcome. That's very difficult today. We don't know how things are going to work out. The most committed of us really don't know how things are going to work out. But hope means you do things because it's the right thing to do. And you hope that it's going to work. That's why I say we have to ally ourselves with those for whom giving up hope is not an option, because anybody who takes a good look at the facts is going to become very pessimistic and runs the risk of losing hope. So this is why we really need to build strong alliances with people on the front lines who can't afford to lose hope at a time like this."

In addition to not losing hope, he says, there are very practical things that anyone can do to start turning the situation around.

"I think people need to start close to home. Start in your neighbourhood. Start growing a garden, if you can. Reach out to other people who are doing that. Start a food policy council, so you can start to change the rules locally around your food system so you can incentivize sustainable and equitable forms of consumption and production at the local level, because it's very difficult to do at the national level. Begin to establish alliances. Cross-institutional alliances, cross-organizational alliances. Assume the politics of your food. Everybody can do that.

"I'd like to encourage people to get involved, and to really do the hard work of building alliances. Don't give up. We can't afford it."

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