Amid the joy of local, seasonal ingredients and tides of young people with dirt freshly lodged under their fingernails, it feels unkind to point to the bigger problems within the food system. But it’s worth tempering an optimism of the will with a pessimism of the intellect. Despite the food movement’s gains over the past decade, it’s hard not to feel the latter outweighing the former.
For every White House organic garden, there’s an appointee to the US Trade Representative’s office from the pesticide industry. Sasha and Malia may be getting good grub, but the global South still gets stuck with chemicals.
Harvests remain strong, and people still go hungry. This isn’t because of population growth—there’s enough produced to feed everyone on a Small Planet’s diet. But the economics of crop production have increasingly left concerns about human eating in the dust.
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First, we’re growing more crops than ever before not for direct human consumption, or even animal feed, but as biofuels, to keep cars on the road. Already, more than a tenth of the world’s total coarse grain output is used for fuel, and the OECD predicts that within a decade a third of all sugar cane grown on earth will be used not for sweetening but for combustion.
Luckily, there’s reason for optimism of the will here. La Via Campesina has taken aim at agrofuels in its small farmers Cooling Down the Planet campaign. The group has refuted agribusiness greenwash in the best way: by showing, with real living practice, exactly how to meet the climate crisis.
Yet, on the down side again, the only thing worse than burning food is speculating on it. As economist Jayati Ghosh has pointed out, one consequence of the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act has been unregulated commodity futures trading reaching the $9 trillion mark at the end of 2007. There’s plenty of debate among economists about whether this has led to higher prices or increased price fluctuation. But there’s an emerging consensus that as crops are folded into various unregulated commodity indexes, the fate of food prices is becoming tethered to the moods of the broader world of commodities. The question of what, if anything, sits in the bowls of the poorest people has less to do with the availability of food than with the price of oil.
We’ve seen the global food movement take up cudgels against climate change, land speculation and agrofuels. Spurred by today’s multiple crises, capitalism has nonetheless accelerated its search for profit and found new ways of wringing money from our daily bread. A truly democratic food system will need to rewrite the rules of the financial system. That can’t happen without naming and confronting capitalism as the enemy of food sovereignty.
Of course, a sound ideological footing matters little if ideas aren’t turned into practice. We need concrete ways of growing, eating and sharing food that make people’s lives better. And perhaps the greatest reason to be optimistic is that, from Detroit to Malawi, we’re seeing more and more movements experimenting with new ways of doing precisely that.