Food politics: striving for a radical social critique or just looking for a good lunch?

The enormous interest that exists today in food preparation, sophisticated recipes, ethnic cuisine, health food, celebrity chefs, organic produce, café culture, and eating in general has given us the word ‘foodie’ to describe the food-obsessed amateur gourmet. Along with this burgeoning food fascination has come the rise of food politics. This is a very different politics from the disquiet about Third World hunger which seemed so widespread in the 1970s and early 1980s. Today, in the wealthy countries of the world, that concern with justice for others appears to have given way to a concern with the food we ourselves consume.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, interest in the politics of food was galvanised by the ‘GE free’ campaign, with key events including the destruction of a genetically engineered potato crop in March 1999, a Royal Commission which sat in 2000-2001, a march of 10,000 people through central Auckland in September 2001, and the Corngate scandal which blew up during the 2002 election. Here was food as politics like never before, the very nature of what ends up on our plates and in our mouths as a topic of intense and highly polarised public debate.

I remember a comment at a public meeting on GE, when someone in the audience remarked “I don’t care what anyone else does as long as I can get organic food.” That comment sticks in my mind because it epitomises a problem at the heart of food politics. It isn’t primarily about environmental ethics or the power of agri-business or health inequalities – despite the tireless efforts of particular activists, modern-day food politics has never been convincingly framed in terms of justice. So, does food politics today simply mirror the dominant individualism, self-interest and self-indulgence of the times?

Consuming food is, undoubtedly, a very intimate and personal act. One can’t possibly take the self out of the act of eating. Consequently, as Julie Guthman has written, “heightened anxiety about the constitution of foods underlies much of the new politics of consumption” (p.1175). In this very personal context, according to Guthman, the politics of food is dominated by four recurring themes, as follows:

Consumer choice. Knowledge about what we put in our mouths is often seen as the key to food politics: it is hoped that knowing where our food comes from, how it has been produced and how it has been traded (eg, organic methods, local production, produce labelling and fair trading) will lead to better, more ethical decisions by the consumer. However, as Guthman has observed among her own university students, “the readers of Fast Food Nation … appear not to be calling for tighter regulation or better wages, but more knowledge” (p.1176). The pathway now being taken is drawing on the logic of the citizen as consumer through a “proliferation of food standards and labels” which has “further legitimated the devolution of regulatory responsibility to individual consumers” (pp.1176-7).

Localism. Guthman notes that, among activists, “there is wide agreement that the local could be both a rational and effective scale of [food] governance and provisioning”, with the local seen as “a coherent site of resistance against a placeless global” (p.1177). As a counter to this perspective, Guthman suggests that although the local is understood to be the place of caring and community, it puts a boundary around the world to be cared for, it is inward looking, and therefore it is non-political. Issues of cash crop production in west Africa or hunger in Haiti, for example, disappear off the agenda.

Entrepreneurialism. The frequent argument that farmers should switch to organic production because it generates premium prices is an explicit reliance on the market to solve problems of food quality, the impact of GE produce, chemical residues, and so on. This producer-oriented standpoint remains entirely silent on the question of how those on low incomes can obtain the best quality food.

Self-improvement. Healthy eating campaigns and the provision of nutritional information, Guthman notes, have a long history as “a form of social improvement” though often, nowadays, with “the idea of giving children the ability to … conform to normative body sizes” (p.1177). Gardening is similarly seen as an ‘empowering’ activity with abundant projects instituted for school students, prisoners and low-income communities. Guthman argues that these attempts at improvement say more about those who establish such projects in the apparent desire to shape citizens in a certain image (metaphorically and literally).

As may be apparent from the notes above, Guthman makes sense of the features of food politics through a critique of neoliberalism. While she does not in any way claim that the four themes are “unambiguously bad”, they are seen to shape “the rhetoric and practice” of what is politically possible (p.1176). Furthermore, as Guthman readily accepts, the various responses do not inevitably emerge from an unreflective acceptance of neoliberal approaches to governance. Some grassroots approaches to production and consumption have arisen in response to the very real failures of the state to act as an effective regulator (perhaps in itself due to the capture of the bureaucracy by agri-business and agri-technology interests).

It is true that a focus on consumer choice and localism can fail to provide any sort of analysis of the present state of affairs, and thus can drain food politics of any radical challenge to the status quo. Food politics then becomes little more than a search for a healthier diet, an appendix to the ‘New Age’ dread of mortality. But this depoliticisation does not necessarily happen and so I believe Guthman is, ultimately, much too critical of grassroots attempts to construct a different future. Some approaches really are informed by a new social vision; and how on earth is such a vision to become a reality but by taking one step at a time? I would suggest that an alternative understanding of food politics could be found in the mutualism and anti-statism of anarchist thinking that has long been influential in radical environmentalist circles, especially through the social ecology of Murray Bookchin. Bookchin’s left-libertarianism might well look like neoliberalism if one didn’t look too carefully.

But then again, when a onetime hippie sells a majority share in his ‘Cascadian Farm’ organics company and it ends up as a division of global food giant General Mills (as Stephen Shapin recounts in this New Yorker article), there is not a hint of regret for a lost ‘counterculture’ – these are business decisions that are all about market share, profit and growth. Clearly, while Guthman’s neoliberal critique does not provide a complete description of food politics, it certainly cannot be set aside.

More important, though, is Guthman’s broader warning to activists. She is undoubtedly correct in saying that neoliberalism severely limits what activists (in any context) are able to achieve because it “limits the arguable, the fundable, the organisable, the scale of effective action” (p.1180). To combat these limitations, activists must look beyond the neoliberal frames that so dominate the thinking in every direction we look. To make any real progress, grassroots organising and action must be carried on in the light of a recognition of the ideology of power, an analysis of the structures of power, and an understanding of what needs to change. Only then can change begin. But it will only be one step at a time.

Julie Guthman (2006) Neoliberalism and the making of food politics in California. Geoforum, 39, 1171-1183.



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