Despite the heat (and the occupied pavilion at Garfield Park), the Food Justice Workshop went off without a hitch. Attendees had an excellent discussion about the current food system, possible alternatives, and strategies to resist. Here’s the worksheet that was handed out (with active hyperlinks) for your reading pleasure. And don’t forget that we’re screening Just Do It at the DAAC on July 26th. Get more info here.
Understanding the Food System
The current food system we have in the US is both the result of a century of policies and food functioning as a commodity within the capitalist economy. This food system is extremely unsustainable, relies on massive government subsidies, fossil fuels, pesticides and migrant labor. Many Americans are unaware of where their food comes from and what entities are involved along the way.
- Agribusiness – While there has been a resurgence of small farmers in recent years, most of the food grown/raised in the US s done so on a large scale by operators within Agribusiness. These growers and factory farm owners rely on huge taxpayer subsidies. For instance, in Michigan the amount of subsidies for growers between 1995 – 2011 was $4.61 Billion. Agribusiness also operates in such a way that makes it dependent on the use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Agribusiness usually engages in mono-cropping and often relies on migrant labor, which is highly exploitative.
- Food Brokers – another player in the current food system are companies that buy and see food. They have nothing to do with growing or raising food, but they often determine what price farmers will receive and see food as a commodity that is trading on Wall Street. Food Brokers determine the value of crops based on speculative capital, not on the amount of labor that went into it or the nutritional value of individual food items.
- Food Processors – These companies turn the bulk of food available in grocery stores into processed foods that are often food-like products with artificial flavoring, preservatives and other additives, which allow them to have a significant shelf life. Sometimes these companies have their own brand names such as Green Giant or operate purely in the processing realm and have nothing to do with the marketing or branding of food.
- Food Distributors – Food distributors sometimes are just involved in transporting foods. The average food item travels over 1,000 from where it is grown/raised to where it is consumed, since it relies on relatively cheap fossil fuels and the public road system. However, food distributors can also be companies like Gordon Foods, which distribute food to institutions such as schools. Companies like Gordon Foods do not generally have anything to do with growing food, but they often determine the kind of food that is provided in schools, hospitals, jails, nursing homes and other institutional settings.
- Food Policy – Food is highly regulated in the US and has been determined by the agribusiness sector. One example of this was the introduction of high fructose corn syrup into the US food system in the 1970s by Archer Daniels Midland. Since then the corn by product has infested a great deal of processed foods and contributed to a tremendous amount of poor health in the US. This was a decision made by the Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who was part of the Nixon administration. Butz, like most Ag secretaries came from agribusiness or went to work for them after working for the government. However, most food policy is determined by what is referred to as the Farm Bill. For a solid analysis of the US Farm Bill go to Food & Water Watch.
- Grocers – Most people buy their food from grocery stores, which are dominated by large chain companies like Wal-Mart, Kroger and Meijer. These grocer chains deal in high volume, which allows them to offer lower prices. However, their operations rely heavily on government subsidies, access to lots of land and tax breaks, which is why they are in suburban areas near highways or main roads. These grocery chains spend a tremendous amount on advertising and have resulted in small, family owned food stores going out of business.
- Fast Food – The fast food industry has also been a beneficiary of food policy, food subsidies, public roads and massive amounts of advertising. The fast food industry has radically altered how Americans eat, contributing to poor health and environmental destruction as is well documented in the film McLibel. The fast food industry also relies heavily on advertising. According to the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, the fast food industry spends $3 billion a year on advertising that targets children.
- Animal Cruelty – The factory farm system in the US is based on massive cruelty done to animals. Animals are essentially seen as nothing more than a commodity and are tortured, injected with growth hormones & anti-biotics to keep them alive long enough before they are slaughtered. The factory farm system is also environmentally destructive.
- Advertising, branding and Product Placement – The fast food and the thousands of processed food items consumed daily rely heavily on advertising, which costs billions of dollars annually. Fast food and processed food ads are highly deceptive and tends to target younger audiences in order to develop brand loyalty. These companies also engage in product placement in films and video games and use viral advertising as a technique. In addition, these companies engage in a great deal of sponsorship of community and sporting events that not only normalizes their products, it gives them leverage in public policy.
- Global Warming – It is also important to note that the way food is grown and distributed contributes significantly to global warming. The agribusiness system, along with the burning of fossil fuels, heavy industry, cars and the military, is one of the main causes of climate change in the last 100 years.
- GMO’s and genetic diversity – The agribusiness model isn’t interested in food diversity and would rather produce fewer types of food than the generically rich diversity that nature has given us. Agribusiness genetically modifies foods without having to label foods that are GMO and they create seeds called terminator seeds, which means that the seeds in more and more fruits and vegetables can’t be used for growing.