Food Justice


 

 

Eight years ago, I watched the infamous food movement documentary Food Inc. (2009); a documentary film directed by Robert Kenner that shines a light on the corporate control of agriculture in the United States, and highlights the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in often disturbing ways. One of the experts featured in the film was author Michael Pollan. Over the years, I have often referred to Pollan's perspective and enchanting writing on agriculture, and have even seen him as an inspiration in my own study of the anthropology of food and it's movement. In the introduction of the Botany of Desire (2001) Pollan describes evolutionary biology in a way so poetic that I have re-read and re-read his words dozens of times over the years:

"[…] We're prone to overestimate our own agency in nature. Many of the activities humans like to thin they undertake for their own good purposes--inventing agriculture, outlawing certain plants, writing books in praise of others--are mere contingencies as far as nature is concerned...Our grammar might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject. That's why it makes just as much sense of think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees" (p. xxi).

 

In the introduction of Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman's Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (2011), Pollan's name and work is mentioned within the first two pages. The authors critique Pollan directly:

Feminist social scientists use the term positionality to refer to the understanding that our lived experiences, particularly those of race, class, and gender, shape our worldviews. The food movement narrative is largely created by, and resonates most deeply with, white and middle class individuals. For example, Michael Pollan's recently offered list of food rules (2007) is intended to guide consumers toward eating practices aligned with the food movement. However, when Pollan begins his first rule by telling us not to "eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," he ignores the fact that "our great-great grandmothers come from a wide variety of social and economic contexts that may have informed their perceptions of food quite differently. Some were enslaved, transported across the ocean, and forced to subsist on the overflow from the master's table (p. 3).

What sets Food Justice apart from the Food Movement is a consideration of the implications of systemic racism, class barrier, and biased corporate powers on our food system at large. To view Food Inc. through a Food Justice lens would be to ask not why diabetes is on the rise, but who is disproportionately affected by diabetes. We could become less concerned with the mere presence of the biological hazards of industrial animal agriculture and more concerned about who is disproportionately affected by these hazards. Within the whitened discourse of the Food Movement, there seems to be a prevalent concern over monocultures: corn, soybeans, wheat. But perhaps a more pertinent concern should be over who harvests the corn, who processes the corn, who offers the feed to the cattle, who performs their slaughter, and who cooks the meat. Within the context of industrial agriculture in the United States, this who tends to be the disenfranchised; a disproportionate population of people of color who thanklessly cater to the fundamental infrastructure of our civilization—the production of food.

These questions are relevant to defining Food Justice because they are asking the reader to consider the presence of varied, different, unique, and valid worldviews within the realm of food and culture. From this perspective, Food Justice can be seen as a methodology, in which we use a model of reflexive justice to approach these issues.  When we can intentionally and compassionately take into consideration disparate perspectives on justice, we can develop more robust and comprehensive approaches to addressing injustice in our food systems.

I believe that it is crucial for anyone in the justice movement to deeply consider different positionalities, different perspectives, and different values. Not only to consider them, but to receive them with full respect. When we speak of agriculture, we are speaking of a practice that has been employed for thousands of years, by thousands of cultures, in an incalculable amount of ways. There is great power in food; it keeps us alive. At the same time, memories of food can bring us great joy. Food brings our families and friends together. What more healing place to begin to atone for injustice than within the realm of food.

 

References

Agyeman J., Bullard R. and Evans B. (2003). Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. Earthscan/MIT Press, London 

Alkon, A. H., and Agyeman, J. (2011). Introduction: The Food Movement as Polyculture. 

Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. (pp. 1-20).  Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Code, J. (2014). Muck and Mind: Encountering Biodynamic Agriculture. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books

DePuis, E. M., Harrison, J. L., & Goodman, D. (2011). Just Food? Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. (p. 283-307). Boston, MA: MIT Press.  

Environmental Protection Agency. (2017, November 16th). Environmental Justice. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice

Smith, L. T. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies. New York, NY: Zed Books.

Omi, M., and Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. London: Routledge.

Peña, D. (2017) Lecture given at Naropa University on October 23rd, 2017.  

Pollan, M. (2001). The Botany of Desire. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.

Ramazanoglu, C., & Holland, J. (2002). Feminist Methodology : Challenges and Choices. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.