Sunday, December 5, 2010

Stimulating dinner conversation: Three discussions about food. (Part One)

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend three food-related events: two panel discussions and a Q&A with Michael Pollan.

The first event was the Food Movements Unite panel discussion with Raj Patel, Nikki Henderson, and Nora KcKeon. The panel was organized by Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, so it wasn’t surprising that the panel focused on food access for the poor both in urban areas of the US and in developing countries around the world.

“What the corporate food system is producing in Global North and Global South… is, above all, a politics that prevents us from addressing the real causes of the problem.” ~Raj Patel

Raj Patel is a Food First Policy Fellow and has written several books including Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. Raj pointed out that, to understand the current state of the global food system, we need to understand the history of colonialism and development of the 19th century. Often referencing the book Late Victorian Holocaust by Mike Davis, Raj explained that what we now view as the Global North (of plenty) and Global South (of poverty) was not a natural evolution of these regions. Instead, the Global South and the Third World were created by violence and imperialism on the part of the Global North through, in large part, the development of the global food system.

We are now left with a food system that wreaks havoc on the environment, contributes to poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, and provides food in such novel forms that it makes people sick. Despite having reduced the number of food insecure people in the world by nearly a million since 2009, there are still an estimated 925 million people who suffer from chronic hunger [1]. Hunger and malnutrition persist even as economies improve, and food prices are fairly low, because of inequities in the structure of the food system [1]. The novel foods introduced in places like India are now thought to be responsible for the profound increase in the prevalence of diabetes. An estimated one million people in India die each year from diabetes, and health care costs for treating the disease now comprise 2% of the GDP.

“The minute we step into supermarkets, the minute that we allow ourselves to be seduced by this idea that individual consumerism will transform the planet, we have fallen into one of the traps that… corporate globalization and the corporate food system has already set for us.” ~Raj Patel

When addressing solutions to global food problems, Raj was critical of personal food choices as an avenue for change. He seemed most concerned with people making different food choices but still working within the same corporate system. Simply purchasing well-marketed products (“pro-bunny-rabbit”, to use his words) cannot solve the underlying problems stemming from inequity in the global food system or the lack of access to food for impoverished people throughout the world. Rather, we have to change the food system itself and, as Raj stated in his conclusion, we may need to change a great deal else as well.

“All hail the turnip!” ~ Raj Patel

During the question and answer session, Raj had some cautionary words for local food movements in the US. Politics and the position of a local effort in the larger global food movement need to be considered. Becoming hyper-focused on eating locally, for example, may stall the effectiveness of a food movement. Understanding the role of businesses like Walmart and McDonald’s – that they provide a social safety net in the form of cheap food – is necessary before a local movement ought to, say, work against a new Walmart in their community. It’s easy, as people with means or even as a country with means, to forget about the people who can’t afford to make choices.

“Who are you? What do you want to do? Where does your humility sit when you do this work?” ~Nikki Henderson

The second panelist was Nikki Henderson from People’s Grocery, an organization that works to bring fresh, healthy food and health education to West Oakland. Their larger concerns are food justice - the idea that people have an inherent right to healthy food - and changing the food system to prioritize access for the poor in urban areas.

Nikki told a personal story of her journey into food justice activism and described how poised we are as a movement to truly make changes. She mentioned the White House garden and the push, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, to promote fresh, healthy food. And she emphasized how important it is that we learn the history of the movements and communities in which we work, and that we collaborate across different sectors within the food movement in order to yoke the power of the people and support the leaders who could actually make the changes we are fighting for.

Unexpectedly, Nikki highlighted the Tea Party as a successful model for mobilizing people within a movement. In only two years, the Tea Party has gone from non-existent to having lawmakers in office. If all of the people working on the many important issues within food systems could come together, we too could make significant progress.

Nikki’s talk was engaging and motivating. She made me want to jump out of my seat and fix the food system all on my own. All of the panelists’ remarks are available on Vimeo, but I am sharing this one specifically because I thought it was so good.

Nikki Henderson from Food First on Vimeo.

“…the road to ending hunger in Africa leads in the same direction as the road to ending obesity, food deserts, [and] salmonella in the US, and now is the time to take it.” ~Nora McKeon

The final speaker was Nora McKeon of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the leading international organization working to assess and defeat world hunger, and author of The United Nations and Civil Society. The FAO now has a Committee on Food Security that works with governments to secure access to healthy food for all the people of the world.

Hers was a message of hope. After more than three decades of work toward food system change, she expressed optimism saying, “This is easily the most exciting moment of political opportunity that I’ve encountered in all these many years.”

Structural adjustment policies, previously required by international assistance programs, are now widely accepted as destructive. In addition to peasant farmer movements in the Global South, initially spawned as a reaction to such adjustment policies, we now have alternative food systems cropping up even in the developed world. According to Nora, the intersection of food and health as well as the influence of industrial agriculture on climate change, have also contributed to food movements becoming mainstream concerns. People are interested. At present, our best chance to substantially change food systems is by linking local and global food movements – by getting all of the people who are passionate about food systems to work together.

Who am I?

I’ve often shied away from global food issues because, frankly, they’re intimidating. It all sounds too big for me. With so many competing interests, ideas, and voices, how could I ever hope to figure out not only what is going on but also the best solutions? And how can I fight for what is right if I can’t figure out what that is?

Even through some amount of avoidance on my part, I have begun learning about the global food system, the history of exploitation and unintended consequences that led to its formation, and how our policies and practices here in the US contribute to a food system that leaves nearly a billion people starving or malnourished.

Avoiding participation in the conventional food system whenever I can, educating those around me, and speaking up when food legislation is being considered are all ways that I can contribute. And these local and national-scale efforts support even more widespread changes because, as I learned from these panelists, local and global food movements go hand-in-hand. I’m still no expert, but I’m beginning to learn that even I can contribute to the betterment of the global food system if I am willing to try; attending this panel discussion was merely a first step.

Stay tuned for commentary on The Conscientious Carnivore panel discussion and the Q&A with Michael Pollan in upcoming posts.

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