I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid my parents always stressed the importance of eating to be big and strong. My grandma would say something like “Do you see how big and strong your dad is? That’s because I made sure he ate lots of vegetables from the garden as a baby”. However, I have to admit that I wasn’t very hard to convince. All I had to do was turn on the television on a Saturday morning and see Popeye eat a can of spinach before having a full battleship with canons bulge from his biceps. Looking back on it, I don’t think that even Samuel Clemens could have produced more satirical imagery. At that moment my 7-year-old mind was convinced that food power was simply what turned boys into big, strong men. Nevertheless, Popeye’s battleship was also symbolizing two truths about food that I wouldn’t learn until much later. Food is force. Food is control.
For centuries food has been the world’s greatest weapon. Don’t believe me? Just consider Napoleon. In both the invasions of Portugal and Russia, Napoleon’s Grand Army was stymied by much weaker adversaries. They were defeated not by rifles or canons, but by ‘scorched earth’ tactics that starved the French army into retreat. Such tactics are illegal today but that doesn’t mean that food isn’t still being used in the arsenal of political agendas. In fact, though perhaps a bit more insidiously, food’s power to control is stronger than ever. The price of food, where and how it’s produced, and its distribution are all indicative of the global and domestic order. Therefore, one can extrapolate that these food factors are part of what underpins our institutions, the most important of which being the market economy.
Food sovereignty isn’t just about controlling food production. It’s up against an entire global system. Sure, within a ‘democratic’ system there’s room for local, contextual victories of food sovereignty (which mostly are won by those privileged enough to make choices of social value over economic value) but gaining control on a larger scale is an entirely different matter. Super markets themselves are institutions that manage our behavior. They tell us how we should consume and how to assimilate consuming into our lifestyles. However, the supermarket only exists because of a larger, pre-existing system, that being the global economy. Thus, the intentions of the supermarket must fall in line with those of the economy. There are many examples of the veracity of this but we’ll continue on with supermarkets.
Why are we so dependent upon supermarkets for our food? Maybe it’s because dependency is a mechanism of control. In The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg explains how the expansion of capitalism requires the control of labor and production. A way this is done is by making people dependent upon those in power for their food, which brings me back to my grandmother’s statement in the opening paragraph. She was referring to gardening in the 1930-60’s when eating local and organic was the way of life for poor, black people in southern Louisiana. Most local economic activity was embedded in social relations and cultural tradition. The limited employment opportunities for minorities during this period necessitated this type of lifestyle (I’m sure living in a rural area contributed as well) but as these populations were tapped as emerging markets and sources of capital, that way of life was disrupted. Some may argue that since the Civil Rights Movement occurred in America during the 60’s this transition is simply a corollary of greater class mobility. I remain unconvinced.
To the contrary, it seems that as one moves up the social hierarchy the more access one has to healthy, organic foods and the more time and disposable income one has to produce their own food. I see the loss of control of food production in North America’s minority communities simply as a mechanism of population management to contribute to the wellbeing of the state much in the way that deliberate nationalization of commerce uprooted 14th century feudal systems for the harnessing the nation’s resources (Polanyi 2001). Expansion of industry requires labor and labor produces wages and markets over subsistence.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that job opportunities or institutions that facilitate food consumption in a busy lifestyle are bad. I’m trying to show that interests of large institutional systems beyond supermarkets manipulate lifestyles and food choices. The history of this connection makes me wonder if there’s benefit in acknowledging an intermediary step to the food sovereignty movement.
To demand food sovereignty is really to demand sovereignty over our entire socio-economic being and that simply isn’t a reality for many. Intermediary victories are needed in this long-term war because the core of any food movement is the desire to gain access to healthy food and that need has to be addressed sooner than one can anticipate to achieve universal food sovereignty. Further, healthy food is important to people who may not have an interests in food sovereignty.
Most crucially, Food sovereignty is up against a powerful corporatist structure. It will succeed only if it attacks the system in piecemeal and initially works within the system. This figure, adapted from How the Other Half Dies by Susan George, illustrates the links between government and food corporations as well as the power they exert on disunited consumers at the periphery. It not only shows the need for a unified consumer base but it also conveys to me that food sovereignty must do the hard work of taking steps to be expressed within existing power structures. I put forth this idea with the understanding that structure doesn’t proceed the process that constructs it; the two are identical. Thus in achieving food sovereignty we mustn’t forget that any system can be manipulated and the food sovereignty movement will only be enduring if the process of understanding the current unjust system is just as important as the process of developing a more equitable one; the two are identical.