I’ll take that to go

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Because I started this semester without a lot of background knowledge on new food activism, I was excited about our blog assignments as a way to supplement our readings and discussion and hopefully catch up to the general level of experience and expertise of my classmates. I found that the course material centered around the activists: for instance, how farming has been constructed in a number of meaningful ways throughout American history, the ways in which activists have engaged in protest, responses to the urban/rural divide, and emerging trends in new food activism. Where my blog fit into our course was in returning to the core issues that originally sparked anger and action. I was generally attracted to unfolding news stories that spoke to themes we were discussing in class. That way, I could read up on the most current articulations of the advances and setbacks of food activism as a way of tapping into the issues that inspired American food activists in the first place.

For the sake of narrowing the focus of my blog, the topic I had originally settled on had to do with inequality and food justice within the United States. I have been fortunate enough to have had an incredible amount of international exposure to all sorts of lifeworlds, including extreme poverty. Before this class, when I thought of food activism, I would immediately picture a malnourished child with a distended belly in rural Africa. Using my blog as a tool of self-teaching, I wanted to take advantage of this class’s emphasis on domestic issues and use an anthropological lens to examine these same issues of inequality in my own backyard, so to speak. While I delved into a wider range of issues than I had originally expected, I was able to do some exploring on government policy (including school lunches and the obesity epidemic). I have also taken a couple of nutrition courses during my time at Tufts and knew only vaguely about terms like “food deserts” or the fact that there is a correlation between low-income neighborhoods, minorities, and malnutrition. Issues of inequality are core concepts in new food activism, and the area of engagement that was most exciting to me throughout the semester.

I also included some entries that looked at issues of unequal access and the impact of the environment on food systems from a global perspective. This included American food aid in resource-poor areas of the world, the potentially useful impact of GMOs in developing countries. One of the most valuable aspect of my internet research was comparing the successes of other countries to the American food systems and discourses. This included Korea’s version of the Right to Know Act and Hungarian responses to the obesity epidemic. In general, I thought it was important to focus on what is currently being done well and to think about ways to expand those models. It is easy enough to criticize, but can be more of a challenge to point out the practical positives and advocate for what works. And that, in my opinion, is what the food activism movement really needs to be doing.

I had a moment in one of our first classes in which I realized just how much catch-up work I had to do in order to engage in the readings and debates with my well-informed classmates. We were throwing some ideas around about big agriculture (or “big ag,” as I now know to call it) and I had to ask what “Monsanto” was. I was embarrassed not to know who or what was causing my classmates to speak with such obvious disdain. Since then, I have worked to educate myself and now understand the demonization of this company and the threat posed by the ideas it represents. One trend that was impossible to ignore through my introduction to food activism is that values and practices in relation to food have spun out of control on a domestic and global level. It is up to activists to face the seemingly impossible challenge of revolutionizing a broken system that is currently driven by profit rather than goals like improved health, equal rights, and respect of natural resources.

I also think, though, that my relative inexperience with new food activism was occasionally an asset and helped me bring a critical eye to our discussions and texts. For example, the blog post I wrote about the benefits of GMOs in the developing world was one I was proud of. The gist of this argument was that scientific technology can in fact be an innovative answer to famine and nutrition-related suffering in resource-poor areas. An equally important takeaway is that activists in new food movements can also suffer from black-and-white thinking, and that blind condemnation of an entire approach (GMOs) because of the practices of some (like Monsanto) is close-minded and damaging. Although I often felt out of my league in this course, I am grateful to have had this whirlwind introduction to new food activism that drew from texts, class discussions, and my own self-teaching for my blog and because of pure curiosity. Most importantly, I realized upon reflection that I learned to value my classmates as model activists. Excluding for a moment the incredible guest speakers who came in to share their work with us, I was able to get first-hand perspectives on everything from dumpster diving to delivering a calf from the unexpected resource of my peers.

Despite the heartening examples of engagement around me, one of my most significant and troubling takeaways from my involvement in the course and my blog is the question of practical solutions. It quickly became apparent that new food activism is concentrated within a handful of incredible inspiring and dedicated individuals and communities. Often I had moments while I was doing readings when I would stop and say “Yes! They’re doing it exactly right! That’s the kind of change that needs to be recognized and expanded!” Realistically, though, the college graduates who educate themselves in agriculture and show their passion for creating change by getting their hands dirty are anomalies. While watching the documentary “The Garden” was moving and seemed like a potentially scalable model for urban areas across the United States, the fact is that you do not often see South Central Farms cropping up. It’s possible that I am just impatient, but to me the food activism movement is different than other social movements I have studied. It takes more than just ideological shifts and the dissolution of information to make a quantifiable impact on indicators like nutrition and environmental destruction; change will come when a radical shift and values (and therefore consumer demand) can reshape deep-set economic, social, and political patterns.

That brings me to one of the unresolved questions I am looking forward to exploring after this course ends. Looking past the committed pockets of mindful activists, it is important to ground my broader understanding of the food activism movement in the reality of our society. That fact is that most people don’t know enough, can’t do enough, and/or don’t care enough. On the one hand, thousands of Americans do not have the power to make decisions about what and how they eat. However, though I have both physical and financial access to high-quality, nutritious, environmentally responsible foods, I don’t always make decisions that correlate with the goals of the food activism movement. Why is it that the far-reaching consequences of our actions, like warnings of imminent environmental disaster, can be so easy to ignore? I returned to this question in a number of blog posts, and hope to keep looking out for answers as I move forward.

What confuses me even more is the idea that maybe the successful models we studied aren’t mean to be expanded; that preserving the value in concepts like localness necessarily means keeping them small, restricted, and even exclusive. I am glad that I was assigned Amy Trubek’s The Taste of Place for my book review because she addresses this particular concern. I enjoyed the fact that Trubek fearlessly advocated for the adoption of terroir as one of the pillars of the food activism movement. It was occasionally frustrating that the texts we discussed in class shied away from recommending solutions, and Trubek closed her argument by asserting that terroir should be incorporated into consumption decisions as both a value and a practice. However, I felt that she neglected to acknowledge the elitism and exclusivity inherent in terroir.

The place of privilege in new food activism has been one that I have grappled with throughout the semester. As I discussed on my blog, buzzwords like “organic” are part of a discourse that both excludes and is presumed to exclude. What I mean is that the concentration of new food activism within institutions like Whole Foods, which have become the center of mass yuppie participation in responsible consumerism, perpetuate both the performance and the reality of elitism. While it is important to commend efforts like the community garden we visited in Medford, which brought the taste of an orange to kids whose families can’t afford to buy fruits and vegetables, the sense I’ve gotten is that this movement is carried on the backs of the people who can afford to care.

I know that I will not stop thinking about this course after it is over, and it has led to an immense amount of critical thinking about my own role in the movement and my decisions outside of the classroom. That being said, I am ending the semester with historical perspective, anthropological and anecdotal understandings of what it means to engage in food activism, and a better conception of the issues and paradoxes at hand. Equally important is the long list of questions that remain unanswered and that I hope to keep exploring as I make choices about who I am as an active and informed, food-consuming citizen. I have hope for where the movement is headed, exemplified by groundbreaking initiatives like the Boston Public Market. I also feel concern for the parts of our country and world that remain untouched by food activism. While this movement appears to be disjointed, scattered, and experimental, it also seems to be picking up speed and I am excited to keep following its thread.

 

Sources:

 Trubek, Amy. The Taste of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Image taken from http://www.ciw-online.org/

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Ignorance is bliss

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Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Peter DeFazio, of California and Oregon respectively, are pushing a new bill called the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. Either companies label their products that contain genetically engineered ingredients or the FDA will slap a “misbranded” classification on the product (Satran, “Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Taken On By Congress In Right-To-Know Act”).

There are a number of levels on which to examine this development: first, will the food activism movement’s reputation as part of the leftist, idealist, even hippie agenda prevent conservative politicians from backing this bill? Or will the importance of empowering the consumer take precedence over party lines? Glancing over to the conservative side of this issue (a perspective that I am now realizing has been markedly neglected throughout my exploration of new food activism), a blogger at “Young, Hip, and Conservative” would like to point out that liberals don’t “deserve credit for accepting science that compliments their worldview” and are unwilling to accept positive scientific breakthroughs about GMOs (Michael, “GMO phobia is pseudoscience”). To me, this blogger is only affirming the damaging political divide currently wreaking havoc on our democratic system and seems to only be interested in opposition. One can only hope that this bill can withstand such extremism and go under consideration in as objective a manner as possible.

Second, what does the Right to Know actually accomplish? I’m envisioning a significant portion of Americans suddenly and inescapably faced with the knowledge that they are buying r-BST dairy products. If you can’t afford an alternative or live in an area with limited resources, awareness could even prove to be damaging. While I am lucky enough to have access to both information and organic products, I can’t pretend to understand what it is like to be denied choice in the foods you eat. However, I would argue that empowerment through understanding (and labeling) is the first step to agency. I’ll end on Joel Salatin’s eloquent rally against the practices of companies like Monsanto: “A culture that views animals and plants as inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated … will view its citizens the same way. And other cultures the same way.” In the same vein, the Right to Know bill is built on the principle of treating people like humans and not like consumers, and hopefully will hold companies accountable to this idea.

Satran, Joe. Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Taken On By Congress In Right-To-Know Act.” The Huffington Post 25 April 2013 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/25/genetically-engineered-food_n_3149418.html 

Michael. “GMO phobia is pseudoscience.” Young, Hip, and Conservative. 26 September 2012

http://www.younghipandconservative.com/2012/09/gmo-phobia-is-pseudoscience.html

Maisto, Michelle.“Is GMO labeling a he-said, she-said debate?” Forbes19 December 2011

http://www.forbes.com/sites/michellemaisto/2011/12/19/is-gmo-labeling-a-he-said-she-said-debate/

“New bill would require genetically modified food labeling in US.”RT 26 April 2013 http://rt.com/usa/mandatory-gmo-food-labeling-417/

Image taken from www.nongmoproject.org

Is “organic” too locally-minded?

 

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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

http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2013/apr/11/barack-obama-budget-us-food-aid

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

http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/10/19/eat-organic-slogans-dont-belong-in-africa/

Image taken from http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/jul/18/us-multinationals-control-food-aid

Meat makes the world go round

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As I’m collecting more information and building up my own opinions on food movements, I get really excited when I hear about the ways people are doing things right. It’s easy to critique and to recognize the environmental and social crises that the United States faces, but can be difficult to recognize a successful example of working against food injustice and environmental insecurity on a large scale. So when I was on a road trip to Maine this weekend, driving past McDonalds after Friendly’s after Burger King (just because I’m in a car doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat vegetables!), I started to think about the mass quantities of meat we eat and began to investigate trends in other parts of the world.

 

A correlation that’s important to address is the rise of meat consumption as a nation grows wealthier. One nation that’s responding to this unfolding crisis in remarkable ways is South Korea. On the one hand, as my Korean friend explained to me, it’s common for restaurants in Korea to give the consumer access to a wealth of information about where their meat comes from. She explained that going out to eat was accompanied by informed decision-making and attempts to raise consciousness about the choice to eat meat—citing fun facts like the farm that the animal was raised on, their diet, and even their name. This may sound like a scene out of “Portlandia” (do I really need to know the name of the cow before I eat it?) but represents a radically different attitude toward meat consumption. In my experiences as a meat-eater, a vegetarian, and a life-long American, it is generally unacceptable within our culture of consumption to think too hard about the fact that your steak once lived. Even acknowledging what tendons and other identifying body parts are taboo and can gross people out. In other countries I’ve visited and eaten in, such as Cambodia, people are happy to eat every and any part of an animal—organs and all. Americans use coded language and a careful set of justifying practices to turn raw slabs of cow flesh into appetizing hamburger dinners.

 

But Korea is working on more than just mindfulness about meat. Mark Bittman of the New York Times writes that one of the most significant and harmful aspects of the meat industry is the waste that the animals leave behind in mass quantities, and that Korea has been “experimenting with using animal waste to generate electricity” (Bittman, “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler”). To me, Korea seems like a model for how to address the economic and sociocultural factors that are propelling the meat industry forward around the world.

 

And these efforts are certainly needed. The Telegraph reported in October of last year that China’s rate of meat-eating had doubled that of the United States. Doubled. In addition to all of the various ways in which the meat industry affects the United States detrimentally, the situation in China looks even more bleak. James Rice of Tyson farms remarks, “In China, there are 700 million people and there is no room to move them. The faster you move them to the cities, the more you increase pollution, and the more problems you have growing food” (Moore, “China now eats twice as much meat as the United States”). Providing for the rising demand for meat products would involve mass relocation, a level of suffering that we don’t have to face stateside (yet).

 

Now that meat has established itself as a core part of any meal for most Americans, what could be done to change the way people think about and understand the consequences of their daily bacon? One of the most compelling arguments I’ve encountered was Jonathan Safran Foer’s conviction in Eating Animals that vegetarianism is a “spectrum:” in order to make the idea of having a positive impact on the environment more accessible, one can engage in this arena of food activism by eliminating even one meal of meat a week from one’s diet. This is the dogma that I’ve embraced, my own food philosophy, and I feel I can balance restriction with active citizenship easily. As silly as this sounds, I think introducing more inclusive language and labels is crucial to appealing to the American public—something along the lines of “conscious omnivore” instead of the unfortunately politicized “vegetarian.” One of the most difficult battles in coming years will be fought through education, rather than by governments or corporations, and it’s time to introduce the necessity of cutting back on meat consumption.

 

Bittman, Mark. “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler.” The New York Times 27 January 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html?pagewanted=all

 

Moore, Malcolm. “China now eats twice as much meat as the United States.” The Telegraph 12 October 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9605048/China-now-eats-twice-as-much-meat-as-the-United-States.html

 

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009

 

Image taken from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html?pagewanted=all

The devil inside my tomato

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This week’s issue of the Tufts Observer included an article called “Frankenfoods: Free Trade and the GMO debate.” I’m still soaking up information about the landscape of food production and activism, but one clear message that has emerged through my participation in this class is that Monsanto is a synonym for “ultimate evil.” This article, however, brings up a side of GMOs that I had never heard of–the social justice-oriented side, that uses growing technologies to benefit rather than harm humanity. Kim writes, “BioCassava Plus is a project dedicated to genetically modifying the cassava…to augment the ;levels of beta-carotene, iron, and protein in a new breed of cassava that could potentially save over millions of lives” (Kim 9). These projects harness stigmatized ways of altering produce in a way that is objectively beneficial -apparently, making up our minds about the relationship between food and chemicals depends on the context of nutrition and consumption in a given society. To me, these GMO projects seem like an integral part of new food movements (rather than what activists should be fighting against), and I am looking forward to adding more nuance to the way I think about altering natural foods. 

Kim, Justin.  “Frankenfoods: Free Trade and the GMO debate.” Tufts Observer 2013:8-9. Print.

Image taken from http://www.rawfoodlife.com/10_reasons_why_no_GMO.html