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New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Food Fights

October 12, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Devon G. Pena, Ecology, Politics

Hunger Politics and the Struggle for Autonomy and Resistance

by Devon G. Peña

The political project to homogenize and control the global food system dominated by a handful of multinational corporations and powerful nation states is capitalist at its core and manifest source. This reflects the culmination of five decades of American policies that made food into political weaponry, as Harry Cleaver presciently observed way back in 1977. Food as political weaponry became official US policy during the Nixon Administration when Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, declared that food was indeed part of the toolkit of American “diplomacy.”  Butz announced this policy in 1974 with the simple statement: “Food is a weapon.”

This policy has also involved the imposition of the American corporate agribusiness model of high-input scaled-up monocultures, and more recently of the endless iteration of products delivered by the proponents of the biotechnology and transgenics paradigm. We have covered this aspect over the years — e.g., in reports on the Gates Foundation and its Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the various transgenic crops marketed by Monsanto through our GEO Watch Series.

By the time Butz declared food as political weaponry, indigenous and other marginalized communities were well on their way toward the current epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and myriad other health problems directly linked to the destruction of their food sovereignty and place-based agroecosystems and the imposition of modern westernized diets amidst other forms of structural violence linked to capitalist maldevelopment.

What the Food Fights series proposes to do is examine the two-sided nature of these political conflicts and struggles. Capitalist agriculture is not the only political project around. There is an alterNative political project, fostered and circulated among the world’s communities, that focuses on rebuilding or protecting local place-based agri-food systems.

This includes overarching commitments by indigenous and traditional farmers to protect native land race crops, regenerate traditional agroecosystems, and engage in affiliated struggles for genuine “land to the tiller” practices to resist and reverse the concentration of agricultural land under the Green Revolution and now under the current land and crop genome grabs across the Global South by the corporate and governmental sectors from the USA, Europe, China, and other globalizing capitalist nations.

These varied alterNative struggles are collectively known as the food sovereignty movement and intersect with the broader global environmental justice movements that seek ecological democracy or environmental self-determination for marginalized communities of the poor and First Nations across the planet. These movements conjoin the sociocultural and ecological sides of sustainability with resilience. They do so by addressing the inequities of class, race, gender, and other capitalist-inscribed differences that rationalize exploitation and environmental degradation and risk, and then linking these to struggles for the autonomy of the common, the place-based communities that are today actively rebuilding local solidarity economies.

These struggles are highly complex and widespread: The iconic example is of course the global grassroots network, La Via Campesina. But there are numerous other forms of movement organization, community-building, and circulation of struggle in the creation of these autonomous food-based solidarity economies. The work of the South Central Farmers Feeding Families in Los Angeles and now Buttonwillow is also an iconic example of the intersection of environmental justice with food sovereignty. We are already creating or regenerating the post-capitalist food system!

There are also a wide array of bioregional and other geographically-distinct yet overlapping terrains of struggle. The series will envision how alterNative struggles represent strategies and organizational forms that are at once bioregional and post-capitalist. We will explore how the rise of local place-grounded communities of resistance, practicing their constituent power by creating spaces of autonomy, are effectively challenging the long immoral arc of the Age of Empire and its perverse use of food as political weaponry.

For us, food is a source of political creativity rather than political weaponry. It is an act of creation and reproduction rather than of destruction for accumulation (of monetized wealth). It is an existential condition expressed by the right of all organisms to have access to water and food to live and flourish rather than a death-meting privilege ruled by the eternal “natural” law of the so-called free market. It is a collective and interdependent rather than an individualist and independent endeavor. It is a community rather than commodity relationship. It is relationship as collaboration and regeneration rather than exploitation and degradation.

We are dedicated to the idea of alterNative food ethics: The diversity of indigenous, decolonial, self- and place-healing practices producing and sharing food as conviviality and exercising our obligations to serve as respectful self-restraining fellow co-inhabitants of Earth, our only home. Here we focus on the debate between locavorism (eating locally) and cosmovorism (eating globally). I am arguing against an emerging dominant perspective that deceptively makes the case that eating globally can sometimes be more “sustainable” than eating locally.

The debate as currently framed from conventional and even alternative food security vantage points is astonishingly ethnocentric because it dismisses the diverse voices of the food sovereignty movement on the issue of precisely the choices that people want to construct. Food sovereignty advocates reject the export-oriented cash crop model that privileges American consumer preferences and demand for winter-season organic kiwi, avocados, or heirloom tomatoes.

Food sovereignty movements are focused more on transforming the sociocultural and ecological wrecking ball of Global North organic cosmovorism back into resilient local agri-food systems that can meet the principle of autosuficiencia alimentaria (local food self-sufficiency). For many of the world’s peoples it makes no sense to be displaced from multigenerational ancestral agroecosystems created by culture and nature together for the self-provisioning of food in exchange for a low-wage starvation  job on land ravished by a monoculture mass producer of organic strawberries for privileged, i.e., spoiled and gluttonous, American consumers.

Locavorism as First-World Fetish?

A recent article in the influential Foreign Policy journal begins with the following statement:

With supermarket chains from Whole Foods to Safeway trumpeting their healthy produce from farmers just down the road, buying local and eating non-genetically modified organic food is surely the best thing for you and the planet. And that’s something government should get behind, right? Actually, no — these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world’s poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics über alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the “cosmovore” — cosmopolitan consumers of the world’s food. [Emphasis added]

“First World food fetishes.” “Cosmovore.” What a mouthful. These two ideas present a fundamentally flawed argument about the political and ecological sources of hunger in the USA and the Two-Thirds World. The logic is flawed in several ways.

We first need to remind the “experts” and pundits that local food WAS a Two-Thirds World invention, that is, until the wrecking ball of the Green Revolution regrettably dismissed and devalued the deep agroecological and ethnoecological knowledge of indigenous farmers. The advent of a return to local foods in the USA was actually largely inspired by the persistence of local food systems and localized cuisines outside the USA and by the rise of movements like La Via Campesina well before the term (or the concepts behind) locavorism became fashionable.

The people of the Two-Thirds World do not need enlightened assistance from the likes of American and European agricultural experts. They do not need anyone telling them what is or is not terrible.  Reparations for past crimes against the foundations of local agrobiodiversity? Bring it on. Now that would be the type of justice needed before the peoples of Earth engage in reconciliation with Empires past and present.

The “fetish” surrounding food does not spring from locavores asserting unreasonable demands to fulfill their preferences for foods that satiate some privileged appetite for local and organic produce. The real underlying fetishism of food is that the capitalist system transforms food into a commodity — a wooden-headed thing with a price. Pay or starve. There is no uglier fetishism that the tyranny of the dances with prices imposed by global commodity chains that are created and operated for the benefit of and by the very same forces that habitually use food as political weaponry.

As for the hungry poor of the world becoming “cosmovores,” well, USA consumers have already colonized the entire planet to serve our table so we can have avocados from Mexico and Chile during the winter. Now take a careful look and see where that has gotten us and the rest of the planet? Climate change? Land degradation? Loss of biocultural diversity? Displacement of indigenous peoples and erasure of their ecological wisdom? Extirpation of native land races? Damage to the genomes of humanity’s key cultivars? Production for cash crop exports instead of local food needs? The patenting of living organisms? Increasing hunger? Diminished control by women of their reproductive cycles and health? Do we really need a longer list of some of the consequences of the American version of organic and yet predatory cosmovorism? And we want to continue spreading this “good food is global” gospel?

The Two-Thirds World response in a nutshell? “Go back to eating your own landscapes with all the crops you like. We choose to be self-provisioning and to not go hungry any longer so you can happily eat organic fruits and vegetables in the winter!” But this is not just about the triumph of organic cosmovorism over food sovereignty’s insistence on the need for local self-sufficiency as a fundamental principle. The author of the Foreign Policy article, Charles Kenny, also goes on to celebrate the Transgenics Revolution, or Second Green Revolution as some pundits call it. So, this is not about global organics, but transgenic cosmovorism?

Kenny celebrates the advent of so-called GMO (Genetically-Modified Organism) crops, a term I have long rejected as inaccurate since all plants and animals that are part of our agri-food systems were genetically-modified through millenniums of human practice based on selective breeding and cross-breeding. The extraordinary diversity of land race maize, for example, is a consequence of local practices and place-based iterations of varieties originally developed from a relative of a wild grass that was modified by farmers over generations, continuing to this day, to eliminate the wild grass’s shattering qualities and to increase the yield, durability, and nutritional value.

I prefer the term genetically-engineered organisms (GEOs) to emphasize the basic difference between conventional cross-breeding and hybridization and transgenics: The recombinant DNA technology used by biotechnologists crosses the boundaries between plants, animals, micro-organisms, and viruses. The practices that created all the world’s crops from wild relatives do not violate these boundaries.

This is an important distinction because the very source of threats to this agro-biodiversity is exactly the biotechnology proposed by Kenny as the appropriate, more pragmatic, and unbiased approach to ending hunger in the Global South.  That one of the centers of this Transgenics Revolution has failed to resolve hunger in its own communities, the USA itself, is of course not mentioned.
Kenny’s article is rather disingenuous and misleading on several points. In the article, the author asserts that The World Health Organization (WHO) recently found that “no effects on human health have been shown” from eating transgenic foods. However, and this is a big caveat, the WHO report notes that while there is no evidence, yet, of adverse impacts on human health from the consumption of GEO foods, the agency also suggests that more independent (third party) research on risks is called for.

My review of the WHO report reveals that Kenny misrepresents the report and the UN organization instead makes the following assertion:

Gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes, used in creating GMOs, were to be transferred. Although the probability of transfer is low, the use of technology without antibiotic resistance genes has been encouraged by a recent FAO/WHO expert panel.

Encouraging transgenic food crops that avoid the use of antibiotic resistance genes is an existing policy for many reasons and Kenny fails to acknowledge that fact among other objections that pose scientifically-based arguments against the risks posed by GEOs. Also Kenny fails to mention the fierce debates over and the diverse movements aligned against transgenics on the basis of arguments related to the social side of “sustainability.” In response to a frequently asked question about the legal implications of transgenic crops and their associated patenting regime, which many critics see as directly threatening the autonomy of plant breeders and seed savers, the WHO declares that

intellectual property rights are likely to be an element in the debate on GM foods, with an impact on the rights of farmers. Intellectual property rights (IPRs), especially patenting obligations of the TRIPS Agreement (an agreement under the World Trade Organization concerning trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights) have been discussed in the light of their consequences on the further availability of a diversity of crops. In the context of the related subject of the use of gene technology in medicine, WHO has reviewed the conflict between IPRs and an equal access to genetic resources and the sharing of benefits. The review has considered potential problems of monopolization….

This does not sound like a complete endorsement of transgenic crops and the issue of seed savers and plant breeders rights continues to be of tremendous valid concern to people and farmers in the Global South. At the very least, Kenny should have reported on the full WHO position instead of selecting only those parts that resonated with his own conclusions and assumptions.

The fight over food is far from over. What seems clear at this point is that a wide variety of so-called experts and pundits are constantly peddling half-truths and outright distortions or misstatements of fact. The ethical and environmental and health bottom line is this: We are still in the earliest stages of the predictive ecology of transgenics but the food sovereignty movement will not abandon the quest for local food self-sufficiency. It will not forsake and forgo adoption of diversity as resilience for an uncertain top-down corporate-driven process of upscaled transgenic monocultures that will surely lead to the extinction of our planet’s most vital life-affirming asset — biocultural diversity. It will not cede the ethical ground of self-reliance and diversity as keys to resilience to the Global North corporate and consumer beneficiaries of transgenic cosmovorism.

A truly science-based public policy on this issue would embrace the Precautionary Principle and ban these GEOs until the risks have been thoroughly evaluated. But this is not just about the reduction of the risks to public health or threats to the environment including non-GEO crops. This is also about autonomy and the self-reliance of farmers and local land-based communities. The promotion of commercial agricultural biotechnology proceeds without all the evidence necessary for a decision on how to use (or not use) technologies that affect all organisms on the planet, and it proceeds with little regard for the creativity, resilience, and adaptability of local farming communities across the planet.

The beauty of the idea of locavorism in the USA and the rest of the Global North is that we would as consumers and producers stop changing the foods that local and native peoples co-evolved with. We would encourage their autonomy because they have already decided that they embrace agroecology and want to produce for the sake of their own food self-sufficiency.  How can we be against that demand for the basic liberty to decide what the land around you produces and to what aims?

This basically means that locavorism in the Global North allows us to stop exporting environmental violence to other people’s local places. We would end our privileged regime of exporting so-called negative externalities to other ecosystems across the planet and this would obviously likely require that we become better stewards of our own local ecosystems, which is a good thing. We would then perhaps reduce our overall ecological footprint on the planet by not exporting environmental violence.

Whether the issue is transgenics or cosmovorism, the food sovereignty movement offers an ethic derived from the deep ecology of the agroecology paradigm. This model is grounded in the principle of local food self-sufficiency as a basic human right and declares that this capacity can only be attained through the restoration of place-based commons, which are the heritage landscapes and ancestral ecosystems that local cultures have co-evolved with.  At stake is nothing less than the autonomy of local place-based communities and the resilience of ecosystems, and this is both a human and an Earth right.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

1 Comments to “Food Fights”


  1. To Devon Pena,
    Great to read your awesome writing! Keep up the good work! I was a student in your Global Sustainability class at Colorado College. It was the best class ever! With Melissa Crabtree and others.
    I wrote a book you might be interested in. Let me know if you get this and I’ll send you one. It is called Local Wild Life: Turtle Lake Refuge’s Recipes for Living Deep. You can find me at turtlelakerefuge.org Blessings, Katrina Blair

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