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
October 2017

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.”