The Political Economy Between Our Cutlery

4 mins read

By Jana Paegle

Does funky public-school tuna (MSC-branded!) caught in Thailand sound familiar? Recognize Hungarian raspberries? Ever seen Indian grapes on discount, Brazilian mangoes sold for a penny, or Danish pork ethical rants being the source of patriotic mobilization? Ever questioned the Sumatran palm oil in Swedish chocolate? It seems as if the entire world’s food producers’ harvest is within an obscure hand’s reach from our supermarket shelves. Claiming that globalization plays some part in our food industry is an understatement, especially in the Northern hemisphere and in a country historically ravaged by famine-driven migrations to the other side of the Atlantic, and where it may snow from December to May.

Never have bloggers, influencers, chefs, and even streaming sites been as adamant about spurring our excitement for food. Before we blink, there are new superfoods on the shelf or new diets on page six. Simultaneously, WHO has stated that we are now more likely to live in a place with more overweight and obese people (nevertheless often malnourished) than those who are underweight.

The Global North is not only home to the pulse of Wall Street, the birthplace of fast-food chains like McDonald’s and to the cultural strongholds of French wine districts like Chablis or Loire. It is arguably the backdrop of our global food industry’s troublesome stewardship. Environmental scholar Eric Holt Giménez refers to these industrial poster-children; beloved chefs and enfant-terrible ‘foodies’ as the “petty food bourgeoisie” in his 2017 book “A foodie’s guide to capitalism”. Although, only making up a glossy top layer in the evermore insidious global food production pyramid.

Some of us may happily dip our spoons into an açai berry-bowl (shown to promote fatty-liver in mice according to a 2014 Lund University study), sprinkle Chinese goji berries onto our müesli (with one-third of samples containing dangerous pesticide levels according to SVT) or gulp an EU-subsidized glass of milk without reflecting on it bleeding into the hands of Hungarian oligarchs as revealed by NYT journalists in 2019. Meanwhile, in the MENA-region; in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, subsidies of bread may be the government’s carb-loaded lifeline — tip-toeing around civil unrest and mayhem. Food is thus highly, highly political, symbolizing plenty of wrongs, but also the opportunities in contemporary politics and the economy.

While trivialities like twenty-first-century ‘superfoods’ end up fetishizing youth and longevity and abate from the scientific backbone of health discourse, other food conversations rarely go beyond pesticide use or organic farming. Always circling around petty consumer consciousness or utopian smiling farmers. When peeling the layers of our global food economy, there is a real, tangible impact on the livelihoods of the farmers who grow seemingly ordinary local crops — where trend-sensitive transnational demand in a profit-seeking system may contribute to monocultures, soil depletion and price volatility as the crop becomes increasingly grown elsewhere; as the NPR addressed regarding Andean quinoa in 2016. It may even fuel drug cartels in 2021,  which VICE reporters discovered, as they lay their eyes on the (new) prize — Mexican avocados. 

This is to no surprise for Giménez, who attributes the above to industrialization going hand in hand with capitalism, where the food system bears the oldest history. Capitalism’s spatial origin story meant practically extracting wealth from farmers and food workers to feed the monopolies which control most seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation systems, food tech and retail today. Not convinced? Transatlantic slave trade, plantations or serfdom surely need no introduction.

As Swedes continue munching on nationalized holy grail tacos and gorge on privileged, “clean” poké bowls, few people question the prevailing human labor conditions and our abundant access to most foods. Who grew your corn flour? Who processed your mince? Who is serving and packaging your treats?

Looking at European agribusiness, in 2019, a Deutsche Welle documentary highlighted it profiting from housing seasonal migrant workers from Africa and Eastern Europe in poor conditions while paying slave-wages — a seemingly latent  ‘necessary evil’ deployed to productively harvest Italian tomatoes, oranges or olives. Only last year did Sweden’s biggest tabloid DN expose the berry industry; dubbed as “blood berries” reliant on Southeast-Asian pickers, also facing obstacles in light of the pandemic.

Noting the incompatibility between transnational food companies and their employees’ well-being is not rocket science. Giménez makes it clear, “the purpose of food companies [read: Nestlé. Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Axfood, Arla] is not to promote our life, health, or happiness; it is to make money for executives and shareholders”. Moreover, when Giménez addresses the divisions between field-workers, process/food-packers, retailers and restaurant workers — the “food proletariat” and those who own the means produced, he emphasizes that we should realize that there are few analogies as distinctive of labor-capital divisions. Concretely, Giménez challenges us to find someone in the commercial food-processing industry who finds their labor nice, well-paid, enjoyable or safe enough, and where the goodwill of food corporations and not self-organization or mobilization has advanced employee interests.

Just like capitalism has an imperative to grow exponentially, industrial agriculture not only stands for rights violations or deplorable human conditions, but environmentally disrupts ecosystems, makes up substantial GHG-emissions, drives epidemics — just think of the wet markets attributed to Covid-19’s origins, or bushmeat hunts by disenfranchised fishermen driving local ebola outbreaks which Nigerian researchers Omoleke, Mohammed and Saidu addressed already in 2016. Moreover, as deforestation clears room for antibiotic-fed livestock and other highly resource-intense animals crunched into burger patties — humans are paying a bill where accelerated climate change, jeopardized health and undermined social pillars are in murky ink.
There is not only despair as peasants’, herders’, fishers’ and women’s farmer’s movements currently span several hundred million members; with the shared allied platform between La Via Campesina and World March of Women e.g. declaring food sovereignty a prerequisite of women’s liberation according to Giménez. Community-based organizations and marginalized stakeholders are gathering to advance social causes, and are thus a glimmer of hope and constitute legitimate attempts at transforming our food system. Do we dare imagine its ripple effect after the pandemic?

By Jana Paegle

Cover: PhotoMix Company

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