By Liam Hysjulien
While there is not enough time in the day to write about all of the current food problems—especially the upcoming global food crisis—I would like to provide two snippets of my recent writing on food (expected to be published else forthcoming). The first is a book review I wrote on the exceptionally well-researched book by the good folks at the Monthly Review Press, Agriculture and Food in Crisis. Next, I continue my critique into the need for a more in-depth understanding of class and inequality in the US food movement. I will provide links to these entire pieces as they become available.
While the first half of Magdoff and Tokar’s volume deals with the contradictions and conflicts laden throughout our current agriculture model, the second half of the book focuses on areas of resistance and social change. The chapter by Peter Rosset discusses the need for land reform in creating alternative models for the establishment of global food security. Rosset suggests that global food production can be understood in terms of a dichotomy between industrialized agriculture, on the one hand, and small-scale farmers producing food for “local and national markets.” Over the last couple of decades, a coalition of farmers, peasants, and rural workers have banded together to form the global alliance, La Vía Campesina. In addition to promoting rights for landless rural workers, La Vía Campesina has “proposed an alternative policy paradigm called food sovereignty”. As one-sixth of the world currently suffers from food insecurity, food sovereignty proposes the radical idea that access to safe, nutritious, and healthy food, along with agricultural land, is a basic human right for all people. As Rosset concludes, the language of food sovereignty rests upon the reality that land reforms are not only necessary for the continuation of rural and peasant communities, but also the foundation for creating social and environmentally viable agricultural practices.
Furthermore, Jules Pretty concludes the volume by discussing the ability of ecological agriculture to feed a growing global population. In the same way in which Illich describes radical monopoly as “reflect[ing] the industrial institutionalization of values,” Pretty posits that great progress in industrialized farming has led to “hundreds of millions of people…hungry and malnourished.” For Pretty, along with many of the writers in the volume, the focus rests on changing the future of agriculture toward sustainable and just systems of producing and distributing food. Instead of seeing agriculture and food as merely an industrialized commodity, the future of food resides in a change in agriculture that “clearly benefits poor people and environments in developing countries.” Already, as Pretty argues, the current model of global food production is failing to feed the current 6.7 billion people, and a “massive and multifaceted effort” will be needed to solve future problems of hunger, health, and food security.
If we are going to be serious about addressing the problems of food in this country, we need to discuss class inequality, the stripping of social welfare programs, and the erosion of a middle-class base. Food choices, especially the ones deemed poor or nutritionally low, are not only the byproducts of choice but the realities of a society where growing inequalities have become coupled with limited upward mobility. When Madden writes, “America has always been the land of plenty, but we have plenty of plenty,” I wonder if we are both talking about the same country.
Americans have plenty of access to low-priced commodities, but—and this is especially apt when discussing cheap food—the plenty that we value bends considerably more toward cheap goods. And this is not merely Americans making poor food-purchasing choices, but instead the underlying reality of a market-based system predicated on low costs and declining wages. As Truthout contributor Dave Johnson remarks, we are living in a country where “[m]any people are finding it harder to just to get by and stay even, and expect that things will get worse for their kids”. We are seeing the ramifications that emerge from a society wedded to the notion that growing inequality and cheapness at all cost is somehow economically viable. Americans could probably spend more money on food, learn how to grow their own food, and strengthen family and community bonds through cooking and shared meals—all things I value in my own life—but where are the time and resources for such endeavors? Unless you are of that top 1% of earners benefiting from the last three decades of supply-side economics, you are engaged in financial self-survival—community-building through food be damned.
Are we really a society of plenty when real median income hasn’t changed over the last 14 years? And while we may spend less on food than people in other countries, we do spend considerably more on education and health care than our European counterparts. As a 2005 New Yorker article on the amount of hours that Americans work noted, “Americans spend more hours at the office than Europeans, they spend fewer hours on tasks in the home: things like cooking, cleaning, and child care” . In this era of fleeting job security and decreasing social safety nets, we work more, eat worse, and socialize less. And obviously we have choices in all this—the poorness of our choices seem to be an emphasis of the current food movement—but the realities of slowing down, enjoying the simplicity of a home-cooked meal, and eating more expensively now to save on future healthcare costs, run contrary to the values of our capitalist system.