Is “organic” too locally-minded?



My coursework with New Food Activism has been predominantly focused on issues of food access and consumption patterns within the cultural context of the United States. It’s certainly relevant to look domestically, and to examine the practical applications of buzz words like “slow food,” “terroir,” and “organic.” What I wanted to look into this week is the feasibility of these facets of the new food movement in developing countries. When could we expect to see CSAs emerge in Bangladesh? Do these models fit everywhere, and should we be trying to replicate them?

So far, an ugly trend in developing countries is continued dependence on American-produced food aid. Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, said to The Guardian that flying in red-white-and-blue stamped sacks of corn and wheat can “deprive local farmers of the incentives and opportunities to develop their own livelihoods” (Provost, Barack Obama budget calls for sweeping overhaul of US food aid”). Aid has proven to be ineffective, and people are still starving. American-supported programs are even harmful in their insistence on US production, both in terms of environmental impact and disempowerment of farmers in developing countries. So why don’t we just take what we’ve learned from the centuries-long American food movement and implement it in regions of extreme food insecurity?

In fact, application of the same activist slogans and ideologies in other contexts have the potential to be seriously detrimental. Robert Paalberg, an expert on agriculture practices, argues in an interview with National Post that GMOs and other unnatural interventions could be what struggling farmers in developing countries need most. An overlooked solution in combating starvation is giving people the tools to produce more effectively. Paalberg explains, “They need access to nitrogen fertilizer, they need access to seeds that have been improved either by conventional breeding or by genetic engineering or by both” (Hamilton, “Food activists’ ‘Eat Organic’ slogans spelling disaster in Africa, author warns”). A key potential area for American intervention would be investing in these technologies, rather than delivering USA-made grains. So what does this mean for the food movement, which has clearly denounced the use of environmentally damaging chemicals to boost crop returns? What’s clear from this article is that the issue of using technologies to influence food production is not black and white.

Paalberg criticizes food activists in developed countries who campaign against companies or policies that encourage the use of science in agriculture. He explains, “Food activists may think they are helping the planet but too often they limit their view to ‘the kind of food system we should have in the San Francisco Bay Area, or dietary changes needed to fight obesity” (Hamilton, “Food activists’ ‘Eat Organic’ slogans spelling disaster in Africa, author warns”). These technologies are needed in contexts where the norm involves underweight children and astronomically high food prices. Although I understand the American food movement’s sentiment (it’s both convenient and satisfying to make an enemy out of actors like Monsanto) these issues need to be approached with a more nuanced and even anthropological understanding. Paarlberg advocates for a second Green Revolution, one that emphasizes partnerships between farmers and production-boosting strategies in Africa. Anthropologists could have a key role in examining the realities and consequences of scientific development, and relaying their findings back to activists in wealthy countries. The reason applied anthropology could be particularly useful is to justify scientific intervention by looking at the big picture: markets and access routes, production, histories, movement, and culturally-grounded perceptions, for instance. The impending agricultural revolution in the developing world needs documentation and explanation to the well-established and well-meaning Western dissenters.

One take-away for me from this course and my internet explorations is that new food activism is often targeted toward Americans who can afford to participate. Given the crises of unequal access and environmental impact in the developing world, it’s time to start developing a new model and ideology that actively deviate from hierarchical systems in place in the United States. As a global community, and with the help of intermediaries like anthropologists, we can identify both common goals and divergences. For example, the value of eating locally is resonant across borders because of the looming environmental crisis that inextricably impacts food production and consumption. What’s crucial, too, is promoting localness in the design of solutions—and straying from blind promotion of context-specific food philosophies.

Provost, Claire. “Barack Obama budget calls for sweeping overhaul of food aid.” The Guardian 11 April 2013

Hamilton, Graeme. “Food activists’ ‘Eat Organic’ slogans spelling disaster in Africa, author warns.” National Post 19 October 2012

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