Current Opinion: Which Way for the Food Movement

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Current Opinion: Which Way for the Food Movement

by the Editorial Collective, Ann Arbor SftP

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 3, May/June 1979, p. 46–47

Remember the environmental movement? It actually began quite early with the publication of Silent Spring, in which Rachel Carson publicized the dramatic ecological consequences of the use and misuse of pesticides. But it did not gain any significant momentum until we realized that not only sparrows and condors were being killed, but our own personal environment was being made unfit for life. It was a true emergency. We would have to clean up the environment or perish. But, it became scary for certain elements in society when people began realizing that the cause of environmental degradation was internal to the basic structure of our society. The problems of pollution in the workplace, collectively known as problems of occupational safety and health, brought working class struggles directly in line with the environmental movement, and underlined the sweeping changes that would have to come about if we were to “save our environment.” 

But, as you recall, it got coopted. The capitalist propaganda machines churned out “reality” for us and we were supposed to believe that “people cause pollution” and each individual simply had to do his or her part to clean up the environment. The root causes of the environmental crisis were ignored, and folks reverted to individualistic attempts at changing their own lifestyles to be more in accord with what Time magazine thought was environmentally sound. The revolutionary potential of the environmental crisis was lost in the mindless rhetoric of individual solutions. 

Remember the food movement? It too began quite a while ago. It picked up momentum in the mid-seventies when we realized that not only were Third World babies starving, but the additives and preservatives routinely added to our food frequently were poisoning a very personal environment, our own bodies. Suddenly the food issue was no longer just the moral issue of people starving in a world of plenty, but also a question of our own health. And it even became clear that the reason that Third World babies starved was intimately related to the reason that our food was filled with sometimes dangerous chemicals. It all had something to do with corporations and profits. 

The food issue is now coming to a head. The various pieces of the issue are being brought together and analyzed as one problem. Concern about producing healthy food for our bodies is being coupled with concern for the Honduran baby who died because exported bananas were produced by a U.S. corporation on land that could have produced food for the people. Rapid expansion of junk food concessions is seen as part of the same problem that caused U.S.-sponsored military dictatorships in places like Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, making the world safe for the production of Chiquita bananas and Gulf and Western sugar. Consumer concerns over rapidly rising food prices are being coupled with farmers’ demands for parity. The struggles of migrant workers are seen to be against the same enemy that creates over-processed, sometimes nutritionally worthless food. The food issue is turning into one that could unite large numbers of people from many walks of life. It is the issue that could wake people up to the systematic problems of a decaying social structure. It could be the most revolutionizing force since the presence of British troops in Boston. 

Or could it? The above paragraph represents the optimistic view. To be frank, we could have written a quite pessimistic account, given past history. Will the food issue go the way of the environmental crisis? Isn’t the propaganda machine already at work, convincing us that we should not look for radical solutions? Have we already been isolated from one another’? Do some of us march with Oxfam and others organize the local health food coop? When we lobby for reasonable food pricing, do we also demand justice for farm workers? When we work for parity for farmers do we work for human rights for undocumented workers? Or are we all isolated, working as individuals and small collectives, easily partitioned by government guardians and even more easily swayed and coopted by the lure of legal reform? 

It is our opinion that the food issue is, or could be, a revolutionary issue, that we should take the initiative in tying together the various strands of the issue and struggle against the fragmentation that inevitably leads to weakness and cooptation. If we work at a continual synthesis of the various currents in the food movement we may avoid seeing another potential revolutionary issue stagnate in the empty promise of reform. 

But a true synthesis is much more than comradely support for each others’ activities. It must be an analysis of the interrelationships among the various activities, how each activity relates to each other activity, and ultimately how each contributes to the total movement. Inevitably, if such an analysis is done honestly and responsibly it will raise questions about which activities contribute most significantly to the overall struggle. Whether we call it searching out the primary contradiction or just deciding where it makes most sense to put our energies, a detailed synthetic analysis of the food issue as a whole may force some of us into changing our focus. We may find ourselves writing less about health foods and walking picket lines with migrant farmworkers more. We may spend less time in community canning and more time at union meetings of cannery workers. We may do less organic gardening and more serious fighting against the power of agribusiness. 

But one thing is clear. Unless we can meaningfully unite all of the current fragments of the food movement, the movement itself is likely to remain fragmented, reformist and thus ultimately powerless.

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