Food Liberation: Why the Food Movement Is Unstoppable

Over the long run of history, the most effective opponents of excessive wealth and privilege have not normally been city dwellers, workers or unions. Instead, they have usually been those with close links to food and the land, what we would now identify as the food movement.

Even today, in more than a few countries, food is the organizing principle behind the main challengers of existing power structures. In El Salvador, the national coordinator of its Organic Agriculture Movement (MAOES) is Miguel Ramirez who recently explained:

We say that every square meter of land that is worked with agro-ecology is a liberated square meter. We see it as a tool to transform farmers’ social and economic conditions. We see it as a tool of liberation from the unsustainable capitalist agricultural model that oppresses farmers.

According to Ramirez, the Salvadoran organic agriculture movement wants much more than improved farming. It is seeking enhanced political rights, long-term ecological sustainability, social equity and popular health. Ramirez calls it “this titanic but beautiful struggle, to reclaim the lives of all Salvadorans.”

They may be small farmers, but they have a grand ambition. This ambition is even shared worldwide. But how realistic is it? Are they right to imagine food and farming are the missing vehicle for transformative social change?

The question is timely. Not long ago, The New York Times asserted that the center aisles of US supermarkets are being called “the morgue” because sales of junk food are crashing; meanwhile, an international consultant told Bloomberg magazine that “there’s complete paranoia” at major food companies where food movements are being taken very seriously.

Food movements are rapidly growing across the world. In the US alone, there have been surges of interest in heirloom seeds, in craft beers, in traditional bread and baking, in city garden plots, in organic food and in opposition to GMOs. Simultaneously, there has been a massive growth of interest in food on social media and the initiation or renewal of institutions, such as Slow Food USA and the Grange movement, to name just a few.

Even at the normally much quieter farming end of the food value chain, agribusiness has had to resort to buying up “independent” academics and social media supporters to boost the case for GMOs and pesticides.

All of a sudden, individuals all over the globe are scrutinizing the products and processes of the food system.

The Direction of the Food Movement

The food movement has a unique philosophy. Unlike all other systems of Western thought, its philosophy is based on a biological understanding of the world. It seeks to replace political and economic ideologies deeply embedded in our culture with a biologically-inspired imperative which fulfills the need to align human needs with the needs of ecosystems and habitats. It is a philosophy which recognizes that our planetary problems and our social problems are really the same problem and seeks to transform our relationships with each other and with the natural world accordingly.

For this reason, the food movement is unexpectedly radical. Its philosophy exposes longstanding weaknesses in some of the most fundamental ideas underpinning Western political establishments. So, while neoliberalism and socialism are ideological variants of enlightenment thought, the food movement is concerned with erasing (at least so far as is possible) all ideologies because all ideologies are, at bottom, impediments to an accurate understanding of the world.

This philosophy is apparent in five of its most notable qualities:

1) The food movement is a leaderless movement

The food movement has no formal leaders. Even the most famous members of the movement — such as Frances Moore Lappé, Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan — do not set goals, give orders or decide on the movement’s tactics. These individuals are not power-brokers but rather sources of inspiration. The food movement is a social movement that is organic, anarchic and self-organized. It is a food swarm, and the absence of formal leadership within it is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

2) The food movement is a grassroots movement

The food movement is also unusually inclusive. It is composed of the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, of amateurs and experts, of home cooks and celebrity chefs, farmers and gardeners, parents and writers, the employed and the unemployed. There is no upper limit to membership of the food movement. It is not defined in opposition to anything — it would include the whole world if it could — and so there is no essential sense in which it is exclusive. Exclusivity is often the Achilles heel of social movements, but though its opponents have tried to label it as elitist, for good reasons, they have not succeeded. Granted, Prince Charles is a very enthusiastic member, but so too are hip hop artists from Oakland, the landless peasant movement of Brazil, the instigators of the Mexican soda tax and the urban agriculture movements of Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. Such groups are neither elite nor elitist. The food movement reaches across class lines. It is indeed beyond grassroots.

3) The food movement is international

The food movement is international and multilingual. In each locality it assumes different forms. The Campaign for Real Ale, Via Campesina, the Zapatistas, Slow Food and Europe’s anti-GMO movement are very different, but instead of competing or quarreling, there are remarkable overlaps of purpose and vision between the parts. This was on display at last winter’s British Oxford Real Farming Conference where food producers and good food advocates from all over the world shared stages and perspectives and the effect was to complement and inspire each other.

4) The food movement is low-budget

The fourth distinguishing characteristic of the food movement is that it has little money behind it. Despite efforts by corporations, such as the Walmart Foundation, to sway the movement’s direction through multimillion-dollar donations to the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America, on the whole, the movement owes little to philanthropic foundations or billionaire backers. Instead, it consists overwhelmingly of amateurs, individuals and small groups and whatever money they possess has followed, not led them. This is an indication that the food movement is spontaneous, vigorous and internally driven.

5) The food movement has many values

The food movement has multiple values and many component parts. It integrates concerns about human health, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability, ecological sustainability, food justice, political empowerment and more.

The Philosophy and Synergy of the Food Movement

The food movement embodies a profound philosophical shift.

The narrative dominating international food policy, especially post-1945, has been that food is a commodity (when it is not a weapon) and agriculture is a business. This conceptualization of food is an ideological extension of the current dominant Western philosophy, which is atomistic and mechanistic, so that in the formal and official worlds of business, government, the law and education, phenomena are assumed to be unconnected until proven otherwise.

This ideology allows the agriculture “industry” in the US to be exempt from most anti-pollution legislation and for doctors not to be educated in nutrition. This ideology also values the health requirements and food needs of one species (humans) — and usually just a few of those — above that of all other organisms.We are thus surrounded in everyday life by institutions and practices whose founding rationale is the ideology of disconnection.

In contrast, the food movement believes in something very different: that the purpose of life is health and that the optimal and most just way to attain human health is to maximize the health of all organisms, with one of the most effective ways to do that being through food.

This belief system is derived from practical experience. The food movement has internalized certain observations, such as the potential of compost to improve crop growth and soil function, the human health benefits of a varied diet, and the successes of numerous farming systems in the absence of synthetic inputs. It also has noted apparent powerful connections between health, agriculture, animal welfare and the environment. These connections allow for the existence of a virtuous circle in which the most ecologically healthy farms generate foods that are the healthiest and the tastiest. These farms are also the most productive. (For US examples, see here, and for an example from rice, see here.)

Food philosophy thus replaces the neo-Darwinist narrative of life-as-competition with the idea that life thrives in the presence of other life. There is perfectly good evidence for this — we know, for example, that the tens of millions of species on Earth are interdependent. Plants and algae excrete oxygen, which all animals need. Animals eat plants and algae, but excrete nitrogen and phosphorus, which all plants and algae need.

Similarly, all biological organisms are, in fact, self-optimizing and self-repairing systems. They therefore tend to maximize their own robustness and health unless, as unfortunately but commonly occurs, they are actively prevented from doing so by a limited environment or a deficient diet.

The Origins of Food Philosophy

This food philosophy has three notable antecedents. One is philosopher Peter Singer’s famous anti-speciesism argument from his book, Animal Liberation: that humans have a duty of care towards all animals, with the crucial difference being that the food movement extends Singer’s argument to all organisms, not just higher animals.

The second precedent is Gaia theory, which proposes that life forms create and enhance their own living conditions. The main difference being that food philosophy applies this thesis to every scale, notably to soils and to landscapes.

The third precedent is Barry Commoner and his four laws of ecology. His second and third laws are consistent with food philosophy. However, Commoner’s first law: “Everything is connected to everything else” needs modification. The reason is that all things are not connected equally — most connections occur through food. Commoner’s fourth law, “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is flatly contradicted by the virtuous circle of the food movement. All ecological systems generate synergies, and synergies between organisms are essentially free lunches; that is why species diversity and biological productivity on Earth have risen over the eons.

Food philosophy, therefore, represents a major split from post-enlightenment philosophy in its vision of life and biology. It doesn’t ask, as Descartes did, What does rational thought reveal about how we should live? It asks: What does nature reveal about how we should live?

We might thus summarize food philosophy as follows:

(1) Biological interactions allow synergisms of individual health and system productivity, which can be taken advantage of in good farming.

(2) Biological interactions occur primarily through food, which represents the chemical energy running through the system.

Implications of Food Philosophy for the Food Movement

The attitudes of the food movement reflect this philosophy. Since the philosophy is universal, constructive, inclusive, flexible and nonviolent, so is the movement. For example, whereas people outside of the food movement tend to see the issues of human health, food quality, animal welfare and ecological and agricultural sustainability as concerns to be solved separately (if at all), those inside the food movement are likely to see them as connected and therefore insoluble except together.

Consequently, alliances between individuals and between organizations can and do form around common goals, and the food movement emerges as a synergy between issues formerly identified as distinct, channeling a vast reservoir of positive social energy in consistent directions.

Being guided by a food philosophy causes its members to use whatever resources are at hand in the most appropriate manner. They do not await orders. They develop arguments, write letters, make calls, avoid products, share information and so on, wherever they perceive the need or opportunity to be greatest, just as the workers of an ant or bee colony do whatever job appears in front of them without explicit instructions. To the multinational corporations who are its targets, movement activity may feel like a piranha feeding frenzy. Blood is scented; arguments are sharpened; protests register on social media; more attackers arrive; the target howls; opportunistic journalists pile in (and maybe some legislators too), until finally the target agrees to amend, label or remove the offending product, ingredient or publication. These are food swarms and they are what direct democracy looks like. Similarly, a government can instruct people that irradiated or GMO food is safe to eat. But it cannot make them eat it.

Resistance based on food logic is always likely to beat enlightenment logic when the subject is food because it is both rational and relatively easy for the people to form their own opinions and spend their money elsewhere. The food system is perhaps the one domain where the people retain this power, certainly more than they do in any other domain of public life.

The successes of the food movement are now sufficiently evident so that major parts of the old environmental movement, plus the health and wellness movements, and even parts of the labor movement have begun to reframe their activities as coming from a food system perspective. Some have largely migrated into the food movement altogether. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is much better known to the public and has been more successful through its food connections than through its union ones. To a significant degree, once-separate social movements are converging to become branches of the food movement.

In other words, food is a highly successful rallying point. It serves well because food is not only a conceptual framing for much of human affairs that is strongly distinct from the standard enlightenment framings of economics and social Darwinism, but also because it acts as a potent organizing principle for individuals to act around. The frame used by the food movement precisely reflects the key biological reality that a universal daily requirement of all humanity is food. And the same is true for other species. Thus, our good food also needs good food, and so on ad (almost) infinitum. Anyone who adopts that devastating logic has a huge advantage, not only in understanding how the world really works, but also in acting on that information.

How Will the Food Movement Impact Society?

Ideas are the currency of power. Philosopher Peter Singer wrote Animal Liberation in 1975. It spawned the international animal rights movement and drove society-wide debates on the human usage of animals for research and in agriculture. Forty years later, the increasing popularity of veganism shows his ideas are still gathering momentum. Singer’s achievement was to show that enlightenment thinkers had attempted to rationalize — rather than ditch — the concept of human exceptionalism, which dated back at least to the Bible’s authorization of the dominion of “man” over the Earth. At a stroke, Singer destroyed the arguments for treating animals badly and provided a perfect example of how enlightenment rationalizations have functioned to constrain modern thought, and most particularly, the human potential to do good.

Because they go far beyond our treatment of sentient animals and extend to all organisms, the implications of food philosophy are significantly more profound and far-reaching than those of Peter Singer. Food philosophy is an intellectual key to overthrowing mechanistic reductionist society. To the many individuals who suspect that enlightenment thought is the engine driving our societies over an ecological cliff, food philosophy offers the conceptual way out, and just as the food movement is feeding and growing as a consequence of its philosophy, so also the expansion of the food movement will in turn enable this philosophy to challenge existing political systems.

In just this way, enlightenment thinkers laid the groundwork for a meritocratic and commercial society to replace feudalism and their ideas justified the necessary concepts that the founders of the new society came to rely on: mechanization, individualism and competition. Nowadays, their ideas are used for preserving this order, even as the intellectual flaws of that understanding are increasingly manifesting as ecological crises, not least in the form of global climate change — a crisis that the food movement could play a critical role in addressing.

Confronting Climate Change

The food movement did not come together to solve the issue of climate change but many in the food movement believe they have the tools to largely solve the problem. The reasons are simple. First, perhaps as much as 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions result from the activities of the industrial food sector. Secondly, carbon can easily be removed from the air and stored in soil and in the process create the type of soil actively desired by organic and agroecological farmers. These farmers are still developing their techniques for carbon sequestration, but anecdotal evidence suggests that soil sequestration can combine with food production to store many tons of carbon per acre per year. Thus, as a recent report suggests, the food system desired by the food movement can make our atmospheric carbon problem manageable and perhaps solve it completely.

The leaders of the mainstream climate movement, however, seem to believe climate solutions must be technical or social, but windmills, solar power, electric cars, dams, divestment, and infrastructure protests are largely symbolic actions. Unlike reducing demand for energy by reforming and localizing the food system or storing carbon in soil, they do not necessarily reduce overall use of fossil fuels and do nothing to prevent the loss of greenhouse gases from ecosystems. Worse, as resource-inefficient ways of generating and storing energy, technofix solutions have the effect of increasing other forms of pollution.

Hopefully sooner, rather than later, the well-meaning but misled climate movement will come to understand the error of singling out individual forms of pollution, like carbon dioxide or methane, and become the next social movement to join the food liberation movement.

In any event, the food movement is going to continue to grow, and its vision will force a social and intellectual transformation of our society. The benefits of this transformation will be immense.

Jonathan Latham edits Independent Science News.