Food Movements Unite!

A crisis, wrote Antonio Gramsci, happens when the old refuses to die and the new cannot be born. The corporate food regime may not be dying, but it is cracking, as new food systems struggle to be born.

The food riots of 2008 that swept through the Global South returned with runaway food-price inflation in 2010–2011, this time sparking full-scale rebellions in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. Unable to control price inflation or contain rebellion, the oligopolies of the corporate food regime are trapped in a classic crisis of capital accumulation. Monsanto Company—voted company of the year by Forbes magazine in 2008—has saturated its Northern markets. Its new gene-stacked products are performing poorly and the expiration of its patent on Roundup has opened the door to Chinese competition. In the face of precipitously falling profits and stock values, the seed giant—along with 16 other monopolies—is trying to use the food crisis as a lever to break open markets of the Global South. This help comes in the form of public-private partnerships of government aid campaigns like the US’s “Feed the Future” initiative, and projects to prepare food-deficit countries for the spread of GMOs, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

The global recession has exacerbated the desperate conditions of the so-named “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BOP): the world’s poor living on less than US $2/day—70% of whom are peasant farmers. With the food crisis as their rationale, the world’s agrifoods monopolies are jockeying to capture the BOP market. Even though the poor do not spend much individually, they number over 2.5 billion and as a market sector are growing at the rate of 8% a year. In the Global North, retail giants like Kroger, Walmart, and Tesco are scrambling over each other to acquire cheap urban land in the inner cities of the US. Having saturated the rural and suburban markets, these corporations are expanding their operations through tax breaks, government stimulus monies, and political support from First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to “eradicate food deserts.” But this terminology is deceiving. In fact, the food dollars from these areas are significant. In West Oakland, California, 50,000 low-income residents spend over half a million dollars a year on food —dollars that if recycled through locally owned retail could contribute significantly to community economic development. The term food desert, like the term unused land in the Global South, is used to justify the corporate expansion into land and economies where people make their livelihoods. Like the infamous Wall Street bailouts of 2008, the “solutions” to the global food crisis are actually designed to solve the financial problems of the world’s oligopolies.

But the global food crisis is more than the tragic increase in the number of hungry people and the pandemic of diet-related diseases. It is more than the violence of land and resource grabs, the loss of rural livelihoods, and the abuse of food workers. It is more than the cyclical crises of capital accumulation experienced by the world’s agrifood monopolies. The food crisis is a political crisis.

For this reason, ending the crisis requires more than simply producing more food or making healthier choices. Ending the food crisis is a political project requiring social, economic, and political organization for transformative change. Many food movement organizations are well aware of this, others increasingly so.

Security, justice sovereignty
Some actors within the global food movement have a radical critique of the corporate food regime, calling for food sovereignty and structural, redistributive reforms including land, water, and markets. Others advance a progressive food justice agenda, calling for access to healthy food by marginalized groups defined by race, gender, and economic status. Family-farm, sustainable-agriculture advocates and those seeking quality and authenticity in the food system also fall in this progressive camp. While progressives focus more on localizing production and improving access to good, healthy food, radicals direct their energy at changing regime structures and creating politically enabling conditions for more equitable and sustainable food systems. Both overlap significantly in their approaches. Radicals and progressives are the arms and legs of the same food movement.

Time for Transformation
Clearly, without profound changes to the regime we will continue to experience cycles of free-market liberalization and mild regime reform, plunging the world’s food systems into ever-graver crises. While food system reforms — such as localizing food assistance, increasing aid to agriculture in the Global South, increasing food stamps, and funding organic agricultural research — are certainly needed and long overdue, they don’t alter the balance of power within the food system and, in some cases, may even reinforce the status quo.

Progressive projects are tremendously energetic, creative, and diverse, but can also be locally focused and issue rather than system driven. For example, the movement to improve access to food in low-income urban communities addresses a pressing need. But the causes of nutritional deficiency among underserved communities go beyond the location of grocery stores. The abysmal wages, unemployment, skewed patterns of ownership and inner-city blight, and the economic devastation that has been historically visited on these communities are the result of structural racism, globalization, and class struggles lost. No amount of fresh produce will fix urban America’s food, and class can’t be ignored or willed away. An honest and committed effort to the original food justice principles of antiracism and equity within the food movement is just as important as working for justice in the broader food system. Addressing the rights of women, labor, and immigrants is essential for strengthening movements for food justice. Rural-urban and North-South divides must also be addressed in practice and in policy for the food movement to unite in a significant way.

In this regard, the progressive trend of the food movement is pivotal: If progressive organizations build their primary alliances with reformist institutions from within the corporate food regime, the regime will be strengthened, and the food movement will be weakened. In this scenario, we are unlikely to see substantive changes to the status quo. However, if progressive and radical organizations find ways to build strategic alliances between them, the food movement will be strengthened. A united food movement has a much higher likelihood of pressuring legislators, bringing about reforms, and moving our food systems toward true transformation.

Another food system is possible; the political convergence of the world’s food movements will bring it to life.

Adapted from an article which first appeared in Eric Holt-Giménez, Food Movements Unite! Strategies to transform our food system, Food First Books, 2011.

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