Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Vandana Shiva and Monocultures of the Mind


I'm so excited Vandana Shiva is coming to New Zealand for the food conference in February. I absolutely love her work. One of my supervisors asked me to write a bit about Shiva as I'm looking at using her writing as theory in my thesis. This is what I wrote:

Vandana Shiva is both a geneticist and an environmental activist and thinker. Her work is particularly focussed on threats to biodiversity and the impacts of biotechnology (Shiva 2005, 2012).  In Earth Democracy (2005) Shiva is outspoken against corporate globalisation which destroys grassroots democracy through “new enclosures of the commons” which are based on violence:
Instead of a culture of abundance, profit-driven profit driven globalization creates cultures of exclusion, dispossession and scarcity. In fact, globalization’s of all beings and resources into commodities robs diverse species and people of their rightful share of ecological, cultural and political space. The “ownership” of the rich is based on the “dispossession” of the poor. It is the common public resources of the poor which are privatised, and the poor who are disowned economically, politically and culturally (2005, 2).

Shiva is particularly critical of the patenting of genetics and the concept of ‘ownership’ of life and the rhetoric of ‘ownership society’ which she describes as ‘anti-life’. She argues that from this perspective living things have no intrinsic value and no integrity.  She argues that the commons are the “highest expressions of economic democracy” (2005, 3). She also describes the movement against corporate globalisation as one toward ‘Earth Democracy’ the fate of which concerns the wellbeing of all living beings on earth. She describes an intentional shift from “vicious cycles of violence in which suicidal cultures, suicidal economies and the politics of suicide feed on each other to virtuous cycles of creative non-violence in which living cultures nourish living democracies and living economies (sharing resources equitably to create meaningful livelihoods)” (2005, 5). 

Earth Democracy, then is not just a concept but incorporates diverse practice reclaiming commons, resources, livelihoods, freedoms, dignity, identity and peace – rooted locally but also interconnected with the world and universe (2005, 5).   Shiva argues that ecological security and ecological identities are our most basic and fundamental: “We are the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. And reclaiming democratic control over our food and water and our ecological survival is the necessary project for our freedom (2005, 5). Earth Democracy enables us to create living democracies of participation in decisions regarding our food, water and air, systems which are based on intrinsic worth of all aspects of the environment, including people.  It includes the “ancient wisdom and tradition of non-severability and interconnectedness” along with “the values, worldviews and actions of diverse movements working for peace, justice and sustainability” (2005, 7).

In Monocultures of the mind (2012), Shiva discusses the importance of local knowledge systems which are disappearing and being colonised by dominant Western knowledge and the globalising system. She argues that although  Western knowledge has been constructed as universal, it is actually just a globalised version of a local parochial system based in a particular culture, gender and class (2012, 9). Therefore, the common dichotomy between universal and local is misplaced when applied to Western and indigenous traditions because what is perceived as ‘universal’ is actually a local system “which has spread world wide through intellectual colonisation” (Shiva 2012, 10). Shiva argues that a genuine universal knowledge system would spread through openness, whereas the globalising system spreads through violence and misrepresentation, the first level of which is “not to see them (local/indigenous) as knowledge,” but as ‘primitive’ and unscientific (2012, 10).  This undermines local epistemologies, making them invisible and vulnerable to collapse against the force of the uniquely ‘scientific’ and universal Western.  Shiva argues this is actually less connected with knowledge than it is with power:
The models of modern science which have encouraged these perceptions were derived less from familiarity with actual scientific practice and more from familiarity with idealised versions which gave science a special epistemological status. Positivism, verificationism, falsificationism were all based on the assumption that unlike traditional, local beliefs of the world, which are socially constructed, modern scientific knowledge was thought to be determined without social mediation. (2012, 11)

This notion that Western science is somehow objective and devoid of social influence, is something Shiva is highly critical of, along with the conception that the broader Western knowledge paradigm is superior. That Western knowledge is fashioned as scientific “assigns a kind of sacredness or social immunity to the Western system,” which is above the indigenous traditions that it excludes.
Just as intensive corporate farming practices create unsustainable biological monocultures which erode diversity, the dominant scientific paradigm “breeds a monoculture of the mind” (2012, 12) It makes local alternative knowledge systems disappear by destroying the possible conditions required for alternatives to exist.  It does this through its ‘superior’ exclusivity and through a violent separation which destroys diverse local meaning.  Shiva states that in local knowledge systems there is no artificially imposed separation between ‘resources’: “the forest and the field are in ecological continuum” and local agriculture is modelled on forest ecology and both supply food (2012, 14). In contrast the supposedly ‘scientific’ system segregates forestry from agriculture. Forestry is reduced to resources like timber and is no longer connected to food. “Knowledge giving systems which have emerged from the food giving capacities of the forest are therefore eclipsed and finally destroyed, both through neglect and aggression” (2012, 14).  Shiva uses the examples of ‘scientific management’ based on narrow commercial interests and enforced through legislation in India to illustrate her arguments on the destruction of diverse knowledge systems (2012, 18).
The existing principles of scientific forest management leads to the destruction of the tropical forest ecosystem because it is based on the objective modelling of the diversity of the living forest on the uniformity of the assembly line. Instead of society being modelled on the forest, as it is in the case of forest cultures, the forest is modelled on the factory... which transforms the forest from a renewable to a non-renewable resource. (Shiva 2012, 19)

Shiva argues that the dominant knowledge system is inherently colonising and culturally fragmenting in its effects. It alienates knowledge from wisdom.  The political implications of such a system system are fundamentally inconsistent with sustainability, equality and social justice. For these reasons it is a particularly dangevous, violent and destructive monoculture of the mind.  In the face of this reality, Shiva advocates for the democratisation of knowledge as “a central precondition for human liberation because the contemporary knowledge system excludes the humane by its very structure” (2012, 60). She envisions this democratisation involving the redefining of knowledge so that local and diverse become legitimate and indispensable, and globalisation and universalisation are conceived as abstractions which have violated this reality. This shift, according to Shiva, is:
…important to the project of human freedom because it frees knowledge from the dependency on established regimes of thought, making it simultaneously more autonomous and more authentic. Democratisation based on such an ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledge’ is both a viable and necessary component of the larger processes of democratisation because the earlier paradigm is in crisis and in spite of its power to manipulate, is unable to protect both nature and human survival. (2012, 62)

References:
Shiva, V. 2012. Monocultures of the mind: perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology. New Delhi: Natraj.

Shiva, V. 2005. Earth democracy: justice, sustainability and peace. Brooklyn: South End Press

Monday, October 27, 2014

Anarchy in the PhD: David Graeber as Theory







I'm really excited that my chief supervisor is encouraging me to use David Graeber's work as theory in my doctoral thesis. Graeber's writing is actually engaging and interesting... and doesn't require an academic dictionary to read!

A good description, certainly, requires appeal to theory, but in ethnography, theory is properly deployed in the service of description rather than the other way around. (Graeber 2009, 509)

David Graeber is a highly-regarded anthropologist and anarchist activist known for his involvement in the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ movement (Walker 2012). As Graeber points out, what has been labelled ‘anti-globalisation’ is actually only resisting the form of globalisation that only applies to capital and commodities, which undermines the sovereignty of people and enforces heavy state boundaries.  The movement is pro-globalisation in terms of human freedom and has been active in resisting imposed boundaries such as state borders (2002, 2009). He defines contemporary anarchism as a movement about reinventing democracy through practicing new forms of decentralised organization which, he notes, have often been based on examples from outside the Western tradition (2002, 9). Graeber seems to actively avoid using academic jargon, making his work widely accessible. Instead of using terms like hegemony, Graeber describes forms of oppression which are deeply internalized including racism, sexism, class bias, and homophobia, all of which are forms of violence (2009, 352).He is also known for his work on an anthropological theory of value which explains value as a model of human meaning-making, much more complex and broad than reductive economist paradigms.

Strong critique of Neoliberal ideology
Graeber argues that Neoliberal ideology has been particularly effective in making itself seem natural and inevitable they combine the presumably natural desire to own things (2009, 729). In his book Debt, the firsty 5000 years, Graeber critiques the assumptions made by Neoliberal thinkers and economists make, dating back to Adam Smith. He talks about ‘the myth of barter’: economists often talk about money as a common-sense alternative to the old fashioned barter societies which were difficult and messy, however Graeber states that anthropologists have never discovered any such ‘barter society’. Bartering only really occurred between potentially enemy tribes. Within tribes complex kinship relationships meant gifting and exchanges rich in social meaning that take personal relationships into account and that functional ancient credit systems proceeded money by thousands of years (2011, 34-50).  Graeber exposes the religion of Adam Smith showing how his myth of a separate economic world has now become economic common sense. He also describes a false dichotomy of market and state as the trap of the 20th century. Markets and state are constructed as opposites, and the only possible options. Actually, he argues, stateless societies tend to be those without markets and history shows that markets are almost always created by, dependent on, and reinforced by states, they require states and government has almost always been involved in big money systems (2011, 71). The only known historical markets which were relatively ‘free’ of state intervention were ancient Islamic ones that functioned precisely because of Islam’s ban of ursury (lending money for interest) (2011, 321).  Graeber claims that economists agree that neoliberal ‘markets’ aren’t real: they are mathematical models imagining a self-contained world where everyone has the same motivation, knowledge and self-interest (2011, 114), this fits with Smith, Hobbes and Locke’s imaginary world where 30-40 year old men immerge from the earth fully formed and must decide whether to kill or trade with one-another (210). Graeber describes the economic perspective of turning human relations into mathematics as inherently violent (2011, 14). He argues that economic laws are not rational but theological, based on the Christian assumption of self-interest, that we are all sinners (2011, 332, 333) and that “any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons” (2011, 385). He claims that it is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it primarily been organised around free-labour, and that it’s not about freedom (2011, 350, 351).

Critiques of the state
From an anarchist perspective such as Graeber’s, the coercive force of the state is everywhere. Most of all, it adheres in anything large, heavy, and economically valuable that cannot easily be hidden away. Nations are seen as purely imaginary constructs which become "real" when they threaten to send in the army (2009, 283). Graeber describes the ontology of the market and state as one that uses language to assert its power as if it were a natural or scientific law and discusses how this conception of ‘forces’ may stem from the Western language being based on nouns: static objects relying on largely invisible forces to demonstrate obvious movement.  He claims that the while the state and the market operate on ontologies of violence, that the activists he has worked with operate on an entirely different ontology: one of imagination. The former is continually engaged in destruction and maintaining lopsided power dynamics while the latter is continuously in the process of creation (2009, 511, 512). He perceives the wider movement of the “left” as one based on the premise that human beings actively create the world we live in, therefore there is no reason we should not be able to create one we actually like:  “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (2009, 515).

Violence and Privilege
Graeber sees violence as the only form of human interaction that could possibly not be considered communication as one does not have to consider the other person very much to hit them, violence is connected with disconnection.  He echoes feminist theorists, constructing patriarchy as violence against women and describes how the underprivileged are constantly engaged in interpretive labour, imagining how the more-privileged see things: “victims of structural violence do indeed tend to care about their beneficiaries far more than those beneficiaries care about them. In fact, this might well be the single most powerful force preserving such relations-aside from the violence itself” (2009, 517).  He suggests developing a new language in which what was traditionally conceived as “women’s work” is considered the primary form of labour, “and other forms merely variants” (2009, 523).  Graeber uses the term ‘alienation’, drawing on Marx’s concept that alienation occurs when we lose control over the essentially human capacity to create things and the situationist critique of consumer-capitalism as alienating (533). He describes the activist preference for Situationalist theorists over postmodernist. One critique of the Situationalists is that they didn’t write much about oppression like racism and sexism. Graeber argues that this may be precisely what is so powerful about their work:
If we imagine capitalism as a game, then it is one thing to bewail the fate of the losers, or to point out that most players will lose, or even that the rules are written so unfairly that certain categories of player are hound to lose. It is quite another to say that the game destroys the souls even of those who win. To say the latter is to say the game is simply pointless. Even the prize is bad (2009, 526).
‘Freedom’, in without the market, could not possibly be a series of isolated choices, instead, Graeber reconstructs freedom as the ability to choose one’s commitments to others (531).

Human economies
Graeber discusses an anthropological perspective on diverse economies, where everything is very connected, as opposed to the neoliberal ‘market’ economy which is about disconnection. He states that all human relations are based on reciprocity but that not all human interactions are about exchange, only some are (2011, 98, 122). In many societies, to cancel ones debts with another person indicates wanting to cut all ties (and is quite rude unless you are strangers).  Graeber claims that “primitive” money was not used as exchange but to mediate gifts and that what he calls social currencies and human economies are primarily about the rearranging, creation, destruction of things not the accumulation of wealth (2011, 124, 130). Whereas the neoliberal ‘market’ puts a price on people and strips them of inherent value, “In a human economy, each person is unique and of comparable value” (2011, 158). In human economies, money is a way of acknowledging pricelessness of things of meaning which expresses how much we cannot buy and sell human beings and even unique personal possessions. The most functioning free-markets, such as the ancient Islamic ones, where ursury was banned, are actually about cooperation not competition and exhibit codes of honour, trust and mutual aid more typical of human economies  (2011, 208, 385)

Graeber redefines communism as a fundamental part of human society: “from each according to his needs, to each according to his abilities” (2011, 98). He argues that we all act like communists most of the time, in being considerate and helpful, and that capitalism is actually built on a bedrock of communism.  Money is constructed in different ways, as: a tool, credit and debit, measurement, trust, a way of comparing, somewhere in between a commodity and a debt token, a symbolic IOU (2011, 75). Graeber also describes money as something like magic: it only works if we believe in it (2011, 342).  He uses anthropological examples to illustrate that more egalitarian societies than ours exist and that slipping into hierarchy is not inevitable, but must always be guarded against (2011, 116).  He looks at the historical connection between property and slavery, and claims that Ancient Greeks would see the difference between a slave and an indebted wage-labourer as a legal nicety, at best (2011, 211). He describes corporations as inherently violent “structures designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit” (2011, 320).  He describes a contemporary middle class crisis of inclusion in which everyone is encouraged to grab a chunk of the profits of their own exploitation (2011, 376), but despite this dominant ideology which treats the basis of sociality itself (reciprocity, debt and communism) as abusive, demonic and criminal, people continue to love one-another (2011, 379).

References
Graeber, D. 2002. The new anarchists. The New Left Review, 13.
Graeber, D. 2009. Direct action: an ethnography. Oakland: AK Press
Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: the first 5000 years
Walker, H. 2012. On anarchist anthropology. Anthropology of this century, 3.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

You can permaculture anything, so how about a thesis?

Permaculture is not just about gardening, as many people seem to think. I just completed a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) which was very little to do with gardening. I have learnt that permaculture is a good system for designing good systems. It involves a whole lot of principles that can be applied to just about anything, and since I'm doing this PhD thing, I thought I would experiment with applying it to my research. The following is a presentation I did for the PDC.


First of all, I sang a song, because that's an appropriate thing to do, right? It's a song about the Monsanto because that is one of the nasty things that motivated me to look for positive alternatives, so it's totally relevant.




Wait, what is food sovereignty?


So that sounds like it has a lot to do with permaculture to begin with...


Then I tried some funky mind-mapping (not my strong-point), because in permaculture there is this thing with interconnectedness and stuff.


Then I tried looking at the permaculture principles in light of my research


And this thing, which, as it turned out, was totally compatible with my notes already:


And then there's the permaculture flower:


So through this process I realised that I was doing this whole research thing backwards (as I usually do things), so I ended with the question that I should have probably started with:


Thursday, April 10, 2014

The problem with 'nutrition'



One minute coffee is good for you, the next it’s bad, blueberries will save you from cancer, no, they won’t, red wine will.  Chocolate is a health food, sugar is the devil. After studying food and nutrition formally and informally for the past decade, I could tell you a thing or two, but the things I can tell you won’t make any sense unless I clarify something first: there is a problem with the way we have been taught to think about nutrition.  Actually, there are a few inter-related problems. I will do my best to explain them.

The body complex
Now, here’s the main thing: the body is incredibly complex, probably more complex than we even realise. We seem to simultaneously know too much and not very much at all: it's very confusing. Nutritional research usually works in one of two ways: 1) controllable experiments on rats, 2) much much more variable studies of human beings. The main problem with this is that the much more scientific studies of rats are hard to extrapolate to humans, because we are not rats, and more importantly, because we do not live in controlled environments. The research on actual human beings can hardly tell us anything because there are so many factors that unless something is really obviously good or bad for us the difference is not statistically significant. The other problem with the latter is that correlation is probably a much more major factor than we’d like to think, eg: people who drink a glass of red-wine a day are probably eating more ‘healthy’ bourgeois food like vegetables than people who are drinking five beers a day.



Media sucks
The media particularly suck at reporting science, especially relation to nutrition, for example: this neuro-psych experiment looking at people's behavior after consuming a serotonin-decreasing drink resulted in media reports that cheese and chocolate help people make better decisions.  Obviously this is not science, by any stretch, but it makes a good story because people like the idea that cheese and chocolate are good for you.



People’s bodies are different
Yes, we are all biologically and genetically very similar, but we are also very different. Partly this is to do with lifestyle, and the way our different digestive systems have experienced life so far, partly it's to do with the way our immune systems, as well as endocrine and other bodily systems interact with our digestive system and the food coming into our bodies.  It's well known that not everyone can digest or tolerate gluten or dairy or peanuts or a plethora of other things.  Suffice to say, nutritional advice is often given out as if it is relevant to everyone, all the time.  This makes absolutely no sense.




Nutrition has become a moral issue
There is a naughty and nice list when it comes to nutrition.  Fat tends to be considered immoral and sinful along with almost anything else that is indulgent and delicious.  Apparently 'callories' are bad (so getting energy from food = bad?). It used to be common knowledge that cholesterol was evil, but actually it's a very important substance in human health, wait a minute: there are good and bad types of cholesterol (actually LDL and HDL are lipoproteins, not cholesterol as such - public health advice tends to treat people as if they are stupid).  This puritan religious discourse continues: healthy food is hard work and morally good. This is echoed in advertising and is absolutely ludicrous.  Perhaps we will reach a kind of healthy-heaven if we use trim dressing. Perhaps we will burn in hell with all the other lovers of saturated fat and the chocolate biscuits that give you devil's horns.  I very much doubt it, but the moral value of nutrition is something that most people take for granted.  People who over-eat or are obese are considered to have no self-control and are blatantly discriminated against. People who are skinny must be morally superior, especially women, after all, there is only one ideal image of feminine beauty that we should all revere, and Barbie doesn't eat at all.




Nutritional value means different things
I was quite confused when a friend of mine once remarked that mushrooms have no "nutritional value".  It turns out that they aren't particularly high in calories (not morally bad?), they aren't a great source of macro-nutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), but they are nutritionally very complex and are a source of lots of things like potassium and vitamin B6, so how, exactly, don't they have nutritional value? Sometimes nutritional value is just talking about calories, other times it's talking about other things we know about that might be "good for you".




‘Nutritionism’ 
Nutritionism, as described by Scrinis, is the focus on the constituents of food, on vitamins, fiber, minerals, amino acids, types of fat, anti-oxidant and so on, rather than focusing on whole foods.  This reductionism is great for selling vitamin supplements and for advertising products but it's not actually very helpful for people who are trying to decide what to eat or to understand healthy food.  One obvious problem with this goes back to the body/health/food being so very complex.  Identifying vitamin C and Omega three may be helpful in situations where there is a problem with deficiency, but supplementing is inferior, in practice, to consuming whole foods.  Supplements are often dubious in quality and sometimes taking a substance in isolation is actually more harmful than taking it in a complex form.  Vitamin C, for example, is commonly known as ascorbic acid, but that is only the name of the most active component of a whole lot of things that are naturally found together. It didn't surprise me when the research came out a few years ago that Vitamin C didn't help treat the common cold, the experiments on mice were using only ascorbic acid.  Whole foods contain a whole lot of complex things that we are just beginning to understand. We know of hundreds of important compounds like vitamins and minerals, but there is a lot we don't know.   Remember:  Nutritionism is only one fragmented western perspective on food/health. It does not integrate well with other views.



Things keep changing
Not only do the chances of coffee saving you from Alzheimer's or giving you cancer seem to change from week to week, every five minutes there's a new super-food from the amazon that will probably cure all your problems, and make you a more morally superior person.  Aside from the constant instability in the nutritional landscape, our food has actually changed.  Wild fruits, before we selectively bred them for hundreds of years, were lower in sugars and higher in protein and micro-nutrients.  We have never-before had access to so much energy in the form of processed grains and processed oils. Chances are, our bodies, which are still very similar to how they were 10,000 years ago, don't really know how to deal with this stuff.



Good nutrition is a privilege
Ironically, the cheapest foods now, are the more processed. A century ago only the wealthy could regularly afford white bread, now it's mostly the domain of the poor.  Bread has become somethings almost mythical: soft and light, like a cloud, and totally unlike any other food ever known in human history.  While the middle and upper-classes can afford to buy whole-grain sourdough with only four ingredients or, better yet, go gluten free, there are plenty of people who make do with processed sausages and the budget-brand loaf.  While some can afford to drink their glass of red wine and eat a variety of vegetables, other people learn that vegetables spoil quickly and that red-wine is best consumed by the cask in order to forget how terrible life can be.  Moral judgement when it comes to nutrition is a privilege.  'Healthy food' is a privilege, and in a 'developed' country we have the vague idea that there are thousands or millions of people in the world worse-off than us, and there are.  While there are many people in the world who would be grateful for any calories at all, the wealthy are watching their waste-lines and trying not to cave-in to temptation because the over-processing of food has left a legacy of over-fed and under-nourished people.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Feeding People: problems with how we think about poverty

There's a woman in our small town who feeds people. She makes soup and Jam and drops it off on the door steps of people who need it. It's the old people who know, and they tell her: so and so is struggling this week, they could do with some help. She often comes home to find a bag of apples on her door step or other seasonal produce. She also finds the containers returned to her door-step, cleaned. She says it's like Christmas, she's so excited to find those cleaned containers. She doesn't know how they know to return them. They just do. She feeds people because her family has always done it. Where she comes from the haves feed the have-nots. That's just what's done. They don't seem to have that culture so much in New Zealand, she says.

The other day a woman came up to her on the street.  "Are you feeding people?" the woman asked. "Now why would you think a thing like that?" The woman who feeds people replied. "You're feeding people. I know you are, " the response came in a snarl. "You shouldn't feed people. You should stop. You know why? Because if you feed them the drug addict parents don't need to spend their money on their kids food. They can go right ahead and spend their money on drugs. You shouldn't let them. They should have to spend their money on feeding their kids."

"Come here," said the woman who feeds people. She gestured with her finger. "Come closer." She didn't want to yell, she kept her composure, as she always does. The other woman leaned in. "I don't care what you think. I don't care what you say about those parents, you know, I don't care about any of that. The only thing I care about is that those kids get fed, so you tell me not to feed people, I don't give a damn." Then she went right on with her day.

There's a problem with how we think about poverty in this country. There's a big problem.  People like to think that there isn't real poverty in New Zealand but there is. There are hungry children living in cold, damp, drafty housing. There are kids going to school with no lunch because after the bills are paid there's nothing left over - if the bills can be paid at all. The bills have all gone up: rent, power and especially food. While the minimum wage and benefits have only moved sluggishly, everything else has sky-rocketed. We do have a problem with poverty in New Zealand and it's only getting worse. The Salvation Army is on the news imploring people to vote for the political parties that are going to do something about it. They have too many people waiting in line outside their food banks.

We'd like to think there's no real poverty - not like in other countries. We'd like to think that anyone who is struggling to get by is just not trying hard enough - not working hard enough. We'd like to believe that with a bit of hard work and kiwi ingenuity, anyone can get to the top. We'd like to think that poor people are just not budgeting properly, that they're making bad choices, that they're degenerates, wasting their money on cigarettes and alcohol, that they're drug addicts, and maybe sometimes they are, because when you have very few choices and a crushing tonne of social pressure those "bad choices" seem like they might make the present just a little bit more bearable. I can't believe the lack of empathy that people show people who are less privileged than themselves, all that ugly, hateful, beneficiary bashing all the simplistic judgments and advice: they should just... Just what? Has it not occurred to us that if the problem was that simple to solve we would have solved it by now? If it was such a simple choice, people wouldn't choose poverty, would they?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is 'Food Sovereignty' Relevant in New Zealand?


This is one of the major questions I'm currently pondering in my thesis looking at food sovereignty in New Zealand: Is the term relevant here, and how is it relevant?  It is rarely used here, even among food activists, local food producers and people involved in community food initiatives, but the people who have heard of it, who I have spoken to, resonate with it, and the people who haven't heard of it are interested to find out more.

The term 'food sovereignty' came out of the Via Campensina conferences in 1993 and 1996. Via Campesina are an  international peasant movement representing small farmers, migrant workers and indigenous people who want to have/protect the right to grow food. They were disillusioned with 'food security' (a term that is commonly used here) because the United Nations was working with big corporations like Monsanto to grow many tonnes of genetically modified corn for 'food security'. These big companies tend to push indigenous people off their land, exploit migrant workers and sue small farmers for saving seeds which are contaminated with the corporation's patented DNA. Not food security at all, just mass production.

Via Campesina deliberately constructed 'food sovereignty' to be about people and communities having the access to land to grow food. It is constructed so as to avoid being co-opted by corporations or other large, powerful organisations. It embodies principles of both social and environmental justice, check them out here.

So there is a bunch of academic research on food sovereignty in all sorts of places from disenfranchised indigenous people in South America to the ethnic minorities in the United States, from the anti GE movement in the EU to food struggles Malawi. This is a global movement so it makes sense that it would be relevant in Aotearoa, although there is very little literature. I have come across one publication looking at the term in New Zealand, so far, which focuses on Te Waka Kai Ora, the Maori organics organisation, and there are a bunch of non-academic references including Facebook groups and websites.  The question of privilege arises because some of the academic criticism of food sovereignty complains that the movement glorifies people's empowerment over food rather than addressing the reality that most of the world's rural poor don't have a choice outside of subsistence living.  In 'developed' countries it is more clearly a choice. I want to have a discussion about this, what do you think:


  • Is food sovereignty relevant in New Zealand? 
  • Do we have a food sovereignty movement?
  • What does food sovereignty mean in NZ and what does it look like?
  • How is it relevant?
  • How do we deal with the uncomfortable issues around privilege? 
  • In using the term are we co-opting a peasant movement to suit our relatively privileged ethics?
  • We do have real poverty in New Zealand and it often comes with social alienation. How can the food sovereignty movement (if there is one) address this? 
Please join in the discussion by posting a comment below.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Food, freedom and privilege



Right at the start of the Cold War the US and the USSR squabbled over how to construct human rights for the United Nations. The USSR wanted to talk about positive rights, eg: the right to have food, whereas the US only wanted rights worded in the negative: freedom from hunger.  It is a concise summary of the perspectives of these two very different empires.  It is an interesting thing to consider: what is more important, freedom to or freedom from? Are they even that different?

Freedom has been a recurring theme in my research so far.  There is a strongly held belief that people should have the freedom to choose what to eat, and in order to do that, they need the freedom to know what's in their food.  It has come up, recently, in relation to GM food and labeling. For years activists have been calling for compulsory labeling of GM ingredients but this seems to be an unpopular policy choice for businesses. I can see how it might be hard to institute. It is a shame that this freedom is considered little more than an inconvenience by corporate interests. Tracking down every last ingredient could be costly and time-consuming, not to mention things like GM animal feed which might have residue in the product.  The longer we don't have food labeling, the more difficult it will be to separate the contaminants.  So here there is both a demand for the freedom from GM and the freedom to have knowledge that might make that possible.

Food sovereignty has been closely connected to the anti GM/GE movement in Europe, and it's just one of the many food freedom issues. One of the great things about local food (yes, that's a value judgement) is that it takes freedom to a whole different level. If you know the woman baking your bread, the family who milk the cows that produce your milk and the group of people who make your pesto you can have an idea or their integrity and the integrity of the product. Of course, this analogy just reeks of privilege. There are plenty of people out there who can't afford pesto.

Which brings me to my next point. Freedom is a privilege. I'm really not saying that it should be, but unfortunately it often is. The freedom to easily participate in society is something many people can't afford and too often these are the people who crowd our prison system. Food freedom is a middle-class luxury too much of the time.  Farmers markets are mostly populated by well-dressed (if sometimes eccentric) white folk.

Whaingaroa is somewhat of a bubble, where class and privilege seem to break down a bit more than usual.  Lots of people here are on low incomes but have a high quality of life because they can grow their own food, share, and participate in community activities.  I know foragers and people who want to plant as many public fruit trees as possible. It's easy to help out in someone's garden and then share lunch with them or take home some of the harvest.  These are the invisible (and nontaxable) things that can overcome issues monetary privilege. It's certainly not the default world, but maybe it's a step in the direction of positive food freedom.