Commentaries, Environment, Health September 20, 2016

Why the Food Movement is Unstoppable

by Jonathan Latham

by Jonathan Latham, PhD

In 1381, for the first and only time, the dreaded Tower of London was captured from the King of England. The forces that seized it did not belong to a foreign power; nor were they rebellious workers – they were peasants who went on to behead the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury who were, after the king, the country’s leading figures. A tad more recently, in the U.S. presidential election of 1892 a radical populist movement campaigned for wealth redistribution and profound economic reform. The populists won five states. All of them were rural.

Descent from such rebels is typically claimed by unions and groups on the political left; but, 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.

jose bove, farmer and activist
jose bove, farmer and activist

Even today, in more than a few countries, food is the organising principle behind the main challengers of existing power structures. In El Salvador, the National Coordinator of its Organic Agriculture Movement 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.

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 that is even shared worldwide. But, how realistic is it? Could the food movement be the missing vehicle for transformative social change?

The question is timely. Not long ago, the New York Times asserted that the centre 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 the food movement is being taken very seriously.

The context of that paranoia is that food movements are rapidly growing social and political phenomena almost all over the world. In the US alone, there have been surges of interest in heirloom seeds, in craft beers, in traditional bread and baking, in the demand for 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 SlowFood 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.

So whereas not so very long ago food, and even more so agriculture, were painfully unfashionable subjects, all of a sudden, individuals all over the globe have developed an often passionate interest in the products and processes of the food system.

If food regime change is in the air, the questions are: Why? Why now? And the big one: How far will it go?

The direction of the food movement

The answer to these questions comes into focus if we analyse the food movement from the perspective of five different “puzzle pieces”. If we do that we can see that there are profound reasons why the food movement is succeeding and growing.

This analysis suggests that the food movement, compared to other great social movements of the 20th Century (such as the labour, environment, civil rights, climate and feminist movements), has many of their strengths but not their weaknesses.

Further, the food movement is unexpectedly radical on account of having a distinct philosophy. This philosophy is fundamentally unique in human history and is the underlying explanation for the explosion of the food movement.

Like any significant novel philosophy, that of the food movement challenges the dominant thought patterns of its day and threatens the political and economic structures built on them. Specifically, the food movement’s philosophy exposes longstanding weaknesses in the ideas underpinning Western political establishments. In the simplest terms possible, the opposite of neoliberal ideology is not communism or socialism, it is the food movement.

The reason is that, unlike other systems of thought, food movement philosophy is based on a biological understanding of the world. While neoliberalism and socialism are ideologies, 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 and the universe.

By replacing them with an understanding based on pure biology, the food movement is therefore in a position to supply what our society lacks: mechanisms to align human needs with the needs of ecosystems and habitats.

The philosophy of the food movement even goes further, by recognising that our planetary problems and our social problems are really the same problem. The food movement therefore represents the beginnings of a historic ecological and social shift that will transform our relationships with each other and with the natural world.

1) The food movement is a leaderless movement

The first important piece of the food puzzle is to note that the food movement has no formal leaders. Its most famous members are individuals. Frances Moore Lappé, Joel Salatin, José Bové, Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, and many others, are leaders only in the sense of being thought-leaders. Unlike most leaders, including of the environment movement, or the labour movement, or the climate movement, they have all attained visibility through popular acclaim and respect for their personal deeds, their writings, or their insights. Not one of them leads in any of the conventional senses of setting goals, giving orders, deciding tactics, or standing for high office. They are neither bureaucrats nor power-brokers, but leaders in the Confucian sense of being examples and inspirations. It is a remarkable and unprecedented characteristic that the food movement is a social movement that is organic and anarchic. This not to argue it is unstructured, far from it. Rather, the food movement is self-organised. It is a food swarm and absence of formal leadership is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

2) The food movement is a grassroots movement

A second and complementary piece of the puzzle is that the food movement is far more inclusive than other social movements. 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. Essentially anyone, in any walk of life, can contribute, learn or benefit. Most do all three. Importantly too, just about any skill level or contribution can often be accommodated. To take just one example, in how many other social movements can a 14-year-old make an international splash?

This inclusiveness has various aspects that contribute significantly to its success. The first of these is that, unlike many protests, 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 rappers 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. A better analysis would conclude that anyone can find space under its broad umbrella because the food movement does not discriminate on any grounds, least of all class. It is beyond grassroots. People see what they want in it because it is for everyone.

The second aspect of its inclusivity is that the food movement has barriers to entry that are low or non-existent. This is an important reason it has grown rapidly. These porous boundaries make the food movement unusually hard to define, however, leading some people to mistakenly conclude it is non-existent.

3) The food movement is international

A third unconventional attribute of the food movement is to be 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 show 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. It might seem natural for “social movements” to be unfunded but it is in fact very rare. The climate movement has Tom Steyer, the Tea Party has the Koch brothers, Adolf Hitler’s car, chauffeur, private secretary, and of course his blackshirts, were funded by Fritz Thyssen, Henry Ford, and some of the wealthiest people in Germany. Even the labour and environment movements have dues or wealthy backers. The food movement therefore is highly unusual in owing little to philanthropic foundations or billionaire backers. Instead, it consists overwhelmingly of amateurs, individuals and small groups and whatever money they possess has followed and not led them. This is yet another powerful indication that the food movement is spontaneous, vigorous and internally driven.

5) A movement of many values

Most social movements are organised around core values: civil rights, social equality or respect for nature are common ones. What is unique about the food movement is that it has multiple values. They include human health concerns, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability, ecological sustainability, food justice and political empowerment, but even this list does not adequately capture the range of its concerns. It is a movement with many component parts.

Explaining the philosophy and synergy of the food movement

For an emergent social movement to have such unique and seemingly unconnected properties suggests the possibility of a deep explanation, and in fact there is one: 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. According to this narrative, neither have much to do with the environment or your health. This economic and depleted conceptualisation of food is an ideological extension of the current dominant Western philosophy, which is that of the European enlightenment. The chief character of this philosophy is to be atomistic and mechanistic, meaning that in the formal and official worlds of business, government, the law, education, etc., phenomena are presumed unconnected until proven otherwise, which usually means proven by science.

The evidence for this mindset is ubiquitous. The separation of government ministries: Health from Agriculture and both being distinct from Environment. The reduction of food to the status of an industrial raw material completely measurable by yield or profit is another. The same ideology also allows, in the United States, the agriculture “industry” to be exempt from most anti-pollution legislation, and doctors not to be educated in nutrition. The privileging of the health requirements and food needs of one species (humans) – and usually just a few of those – above that of all other organisms – is a fourth data point.

Citizens in “modern” nations are thus surrounded in everyday life by institutions and practices whose founding rationale is the ideology of disconnection. Thanks to our education, we come to see this state of mind as natural – even though it came into being quite recently – and also inevitable, even though until recently it was unique to Western society.

In contrast, the food movement believes in something very different, which can be summarised as follows: that the purpose of life is health and that the optimal and most just way to attain human health is to maximise the health of all organisms, with the most effective way to do that being through food.

This belief system is derived from practical experience. The food movement has internalised certain observations: the potential of compost to improve crop growth and soil function, the human health benefits of a varied diet, the successes of numerous farming systems in the absence of synthetic inputs, these are a few of those. 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.

Except for the obviously subjective ones (like taste), there is nothing unscientific about these claims.

We are familiar with the neo-Darwinist narrative of life-as-competition, but this slugfest interpretation hides a bigger and more important truth about life: that before there can be competition, there must first be at least two organisms. Life can, and often does, exist without competition, but competition cannot exist without life. In other words, the neo-Darwinist vision is wrong in that it trivialises biology. Food philosophy replaces this view with the idea that life thrives in the presence of other life. There is perfectly good evidence for this – we know, for example, that all of the tens of millions of species on earth are interdependent. Not a single species could exist if the others were removed. For example, 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, at the level of individuals, if we can look past the standard mechanistic view of biology offered by celebrated scientists like neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins, who famously called organisms “lumbering robots”, we can note that all biological organisms are in fact self-optimising and self-repairing systems. They therefore tend to maximise their own robustness and health unless, as unfortunately but commonly occurs, they are actively prevented from doing so (e.g. by a limited environment or a deficient diet).

So food philosophy envisions life in an entirely novel way. There is quite a difference between seeing nature, as the self-styled biological rationalists like to portray it, as robots slowly succumbing to the teeth and claws of vicious nature in comparison to the food view of primarily mutually beneficial interactions between vibrant and dynamic systems. The unfortunate truth for the supposed rationalists is that, as recent research into the microbiome is showing, the food philosophy view better fits the facts than does the neo-Darwinist one. Prisoners of their enlightenment ideology, the neo-Darwinists have turned the message of life on its head.

The origins of food philosophy

Food philosophy has three notable antecedents. One is philosopher Peter Singer’s famous anti-speciesist 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 animals.

The second antecedent 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 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 primarily through food. Commoner’s fourth law, which states “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 free lunches; which is why, excepting occasional shocks like meteor impacts, species diversity and biological productivity on earth have continuously risen over aeons.

Like every philosophy, food philosophy implies practical consequences. It becomes the task of a food system, or any sub-part of it – such as a farm – to maximise the positive aspects of each component, so that the circle can become ever more virtuous. By the same token, the food movement believes in the existence of a downward spiral – biological impoverishments such as those that result in dust bowls. Such negative possibilities could be safely ignored were it not the case that many governments and certain businesses seem determined, even enthusiastic, to plunge headlong into them.

Food philosophy therefore represents a major split from post-enlightenment philosophy in its vision of life and biology – which for most practical purposes represents the universe we live in. In so doing it highlights how much the enlightenment was not so enlightened. Enlightenment philosophers used the foundational statement “I think therefore I am” as the justification for effectively disregarding all previous thought. They then adopted the premise that only the tools of logic and deductive reasoning could extend this thought and tell us how to achieve true knowledge and spend our time. But this core presumption was wrong. As the influential philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend put it, enlightenment ideas are “philosophical tumours” that exemplify “the poverty of abstract philosophical reasoning”.

Food philosophy is thus in the pre-enlightenment tradition of principles deduced from real world experience. It doesn’t ask: what does rational thought reveal about how we should live. It asks: what does nature reveal about how we should live? This is why food philosophy is not a different ideology from neoliberalism or communism; rather, it is the absence of ideology. So while neoliberalism and communism and socialism are products of the enlightenment, food philosophy is not, because it gathers its evidence as directly as possible from the natural world.

To the extent it can be simplified, we might summarise food philosophy approximately as follows:

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

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

This philosophy is significant in two ways. First, it explains, in general, the form, structure, and composition of the food movement.

Secondly, it predicts the likely impact of the food movement on the food system and society as a whole.

Implications of food philosophy for the food movement

The distinctive features of the food movement can be seen to stem from this philosophy.

The first feature explained by its philosophy is the self-organising and leaderless nature of the food movement. Its members act as if they were reading from an invisible script, which in a sense they are. It also goes far in explaining the lack of money. The philosophy generates values and values are often the most powerful long term motivator of human behaviour.

The attitudes of the food movement also reflect the philosophy. Since the philosophy (see points 1) and 2) above) is universal, constructive, inclusive, flexible, and non-violent, so is the movement.

To take a more detailed example, whereas people outside of the food movement (with their enlightenment hats on) 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 food movement are likely to see them as connected and therefore insoluble except together.

As people begin to see these issues as connected, those who enter the orbit of the food movement are likely to move deeper into it. Someone who begins by buying free range eggs, perhaps for reasons of ethics, moves on to keeping chickens and perhaps to sourcing other meats more ethically or more locally. People attracted to flavourful meat or produce are likely to expand their interests into animal welfare or become locavores, and so on. This is why the food movement is deepening and growing.

This same reasoning around the connectedness of food issues also creates an important presumption: that anyone who advances one of these goals automatically advances the rest. Consequently, alliances between individuals and between organisations are likely to form around the common goals, and so the food movement emerges as a synergy between issues formerly identified as distinct, channeling a vast reservoir of positive social energy in consistent directions.

These are explanations for formation and growth of the social movement, but the food movement does not exist for its own sake; like any social movement, it aspires to solve society-sized problems. When the food movement tackles an issue, the features noted above can become enormous assets.

There is usually no actual decision (because typically there is no leader), instead, the philosophy leads its members to use whatever resources are at hand in the most appropriate manner. 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 orders. 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; 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.

Following once again its own philosophy, food is also a guide to action. Using its enlightenment rationalisations, a government can instruct people, for example, 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 both 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.

In consequence, time and again the arguments of the food movement: over GMO safety, the benefits of organic food, the dangers of antibiotics in animal farming, food additives, GMO labeling, and so forth, have gained traction out in the public domain (though not always yet in public policy). The combination of solid logic and practical power is hard to resist. Through its philosophy, therefore, the food movement is succeeding both in building itself and winning practical victories as it does so.

Thus one can begin to see how food issues are the organizing principle for a grand social movement. Indeed, the successes of the food movement are now sufficiently evident that major parts of the old environment movement, plus the health and wellness movements, and even parts of the labour 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.

We can sum up this rather complex state of affairs by saying that food is a highly successful rallying point. It serves well because food is simultaneously a novel 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 organising principle for individuals to act around. Food succeeds as a conceptual framing because it is simultaneously anthropocentric and truthful, and it succeeds as an organising principle because food fruitfully highlights the practical biophysical linkages between issues. So while most frames are artificial mental constructs that have zero underlying biological or physical substance, the frame used by the food movement also precisely reflects the key biological reality that a universal daily requirement of all humanity, is food. Good 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 the book 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 rationalise – rather than ditch – the concept of human exceptionalism, which dated back at least to the Bible’s authorisation of Man’s dominion over the earth. At a stroke, Singer destroyed the arguments for treating animals badly and provided a perfect example of how enlightenment rationalisations 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 ideas 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. Much of standard economics, large parts of biology such as neo-Darwinism (selfish genes) and genetic determinism, reductionist biology and medicine, which at present are the centrepieces of Western education, will come to be seen in their proper light, which is as largely irrelevant to the functioning of whole systems. These are the “philosophical tumours” that stand in the way of human development. 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.

Enlightenment thought arose in tandem with industrialising societies. Enlightenment thinkers laid the groundwork for a meritocratic and commercial society to replace feudalism, but the grand irony is that they did not themselves gain acceptance solely on merit. Rather, they were selected for their usefulness. Their ideas justified the necessary concepts the new society came to rely on: mechanisation, individualism, and competition. Enlightenment philosophers were largely establishment figures giving form to establishment thought. Nowadays their ideas are used for preserving this order, but since the intellectual flaws of that understanding are increasingly manifesting as ecological crisis and social disorder, the same process is happening in reverse.

But the question has long been what will take their place? As I was completing this essay I consulted The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Even in 1946, Russell saw that a satisfactory philosophical resolution to the problem of how to reconcile power and the benefits of social cohesion with individual liberty was yet to be reached. At the very end of introducing modern philosophy he writes that the scientific enterprise tips the balance towards power, but is itself “a form of madness” in that it prioritises means over ends. Without a philosophical antidote this imbalance will become “dangerous”. He concludes “To achieve this a new philosophy will be needed”.

Enlightenment ideas have been developing for almost 400 years. They are largely mistaken, but they were also mistaken when they were conceived. There are two good reasons why no overhaul took place, even at the heights of the social movements of the 1960s or the environment movement in the 1970s. The first is that no adequate philosophical replacement was available. The second is nakedly political. No political force or social movement was previously in place to force the issue. The food movement, however, fulfills both requirements, and so the pieces are finally in place for a peaceful social revolution of thought and action.

The final analysis

This essay has attempted to understand how and why a successful social movement can arise, and even be called a social movement, when it lacks essentially all of the traditional props and attributes of social movements – strong leadership, organisational structures, formal outreach programs, money, and so forth.

This analysis attributes the success of the food movement largely to factors internal to itself. Its members share an infectious vision which is constructive, convivial, classless, raceless, international, and which embraces the whole world. That vision rests on a novel and harmonious philosophy. It is also deeply realistic because it is biological in nature; so while the remainder of society is naively getting further out of touch with the natural world by adopting ever fancier communications devices, internet apps, high speed travel, Pokemon Go, and so forth, the food movement is busy getting in touch with that world and being successful in working with it.

One issue largely missing from this analysis, however, is the imperative of confronting climate change. The food movement did not come together to solve this issue. Nevertheless, many in the food movement believe it has the tools to largely solve the problem. The reasons are simple. First, perhaps as much as 50% 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 creating 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 two recent reports show, the food system desired by the food movement can make our atmospheric carbon problem manageable and perhaps solve it completely.

This information seems not to have penetrated the mainstream climate movement. Climate leaders seem to believe solutions must be technical or social: but windmills, solar power, electric cars, dams, divestment, infrastructure protests, etc., are largely symbolic actions. Unlike reducing demand for energy by reforming and localising the food system or storing carbon in living soils, such “solutions” do not necessarily reduce overall use of fossil fuels nor prevent the release of greenhouse gases from disturbed ecosystems. Worse, as resource-intensive ways of generating and storing energy, technofix solutions have many negative consequences of their own.

Hopefully sooner, rather than later, the well-meaning but misled climate movement will come to understand the (typically enlightenment) error of singling out specific forms of pollution (CO2 or methane) and join with the food liberation movement. If not, the food movement may solve climate change without them.

In the ultimate analysis, the growth of the food movement is the people’s response to the failing ideas of the enlightenment. It represents a tectonic realignment of the forces underlying our society and a clash of ideas more profound than anything seen since the collapse of feudalism and the emergence of the industrial revolution. The outcome of this clash will determine not only the future of our society, but also whether our descendents get to live on a planet recognisable to us today. The portents are excellent. The food movement is prevailing because it takes advantage of the synergies and potentials inherent in biological systems, whereas the ideas of the enlightenment ignore, deny, and suppress these potentialities. It will indeed be a beautiful struggle to turn these portents into reality.

If this article was useful to you please consider sharing it with your networks.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Comments 21
  • I read this with great interest. My friend Jacqueline Freeman, a bee person who appeared in the film Queen of the Sun, said some years ago that testing of brix will begin to happen in grocery stores. The higher the brix in fruits and vegetables, the better the taste and the longer they can rest without rotting. Her farm is biodynamic and includes animals. She is also a poet. So many needs of a food provider converge if this trend continues. Her farm is Friendly Haven Rise.

    Cheers, and thanks for posting.

  • Very perceptive article. Thank you, Jonathan.
    As for connecting the Food Movement with the Environmental Movement, Cows Save The Planet (2013), by Judith D. Schwartz, does a wonderful job of connecting our food animals, rotational grazing, and climate change.

    And The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith, does a nice job of demolishing the vegan argument, from her point of view as a former vegan.

    Honoring our food animals as part of the food chain is essential to the Food Movement.

  • I love this piece, so much to chew on here! Another reason the food movement is unstoppable: culture trumps politics. Sharing food is the ultimate act of culture – of love and family – of healing, as so many people are experiencing first hand. The corporations own politics and they used to control culture but there is no way to convince people to stop knowing what they know. It’s all connected yes, and the food movement is already winning.

  • Highly provocative in the best sense for the best of reasons. Thank you Jonathan. I hope your article will get wide circulation and discussion.

  • Thank you for the wonderful article. The system thinking behind food philosophies largely reflects the Taoist philosophy that “Nature and Human are One”, and “All life is interconnected.” While actively promoting sustainable food movement in China, I feel that it is much easier to convert the Chinese people from the industrial agricultural mindset to ecological farming given the underpinning traditional philosophies.
    Also I think the food movement ultimately will collapse the current financial system as well, which leads to only larger inequality. Ultimately, starting from food movement, we will achieve a better future with sharing and recycled economy, with sustainable foods and living styles, and autonomous community-based societies, like what’s described in E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful.

  • Thank you for such a clear and wonderful article. I agree with you completely, especially about the climate movement. Sadly some of them appear entranced with the prospect of synthetic meat not realising that animals, together with plants, are part of the vast nested systems that run the planet and that we need to restore, not replace with vats.

  • While the article is thorough much of it interesting, heartening, thoughtful, and well backed up with facts, there is a very foolish idea somewhere in its core which worries me deeply as it is not only wrong, and one I have seen too much in recent years, but also an idea which can seriously weaken a movement while masquerading as a strength. To wit:

    “While neoliberalism and socialism are ideologies, 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 and the universe.”

    This is deeply wrong. An ideology is a theory of the (political) world, much as relativity is a theory of the physical world and both natural selection and Lamarckism are or were theories of the biological world (Lamarckism being a theory that was false). Certainly the question of just how good a fit to reality an ideology is or is capable of being is much murkier in political and social issues than in physics, and just as no map is ever actually the territory it represents and no scientific model ever fully describes reality, no ideology is really comprehensive. But we use maps, they are very useful.
    Everyone lives in the world, and if people encounter physical or biological or social things in the world they will inevitably acquire tacit mental models of how those things work. If they don’t know the scientific theories about those things, their mental models will often be wrong, and may well be internally contradictory. Similarly, everyone has a tacit ideology, some way of thinking about how the social and political world works. This is still an ideology, merely unacknowledged; anyone claiming not to have an ideology is deluding themselves.

    The main differences between that and having an explicit ideology is that tacit ideologies, not being recognized, can’t be examined. Explicit ideologies may be wrong, but they can at least be evaluated, criticized, revised, checked for internal contradictions and consistency. Implicit ideologies are often merely an incoherent bundle of knee-jerk prejudices with little relationship to one another.

    When it comes to a movement, being explicitly anti-ideology is both more foolish and more dangerous than at an individual level. It is more foolish because a movement is inherently political and social and must have some sort of political and social goals; this article is to a fair extent precisely laying out a vision for the food movement’s ideology, while simultaneously contradicting itself by disavowing the very idea of ideology. That the vision suggested represents a pluralistic ideology does not stop it from being an ideology at all.
    It is more dangerous because being consciously anti-ideology means a movement both leaves itself open to co-optation and insists on not clarifying confused thinking. If you insist that you don’t have an ideology, then you have nothing to say when someone comes along and corporatizes your tacitly anti-corporate movement, nothing to say when someone builds a hierarchy for your tacitly non-hierarchical movement, nothing to say when somebody centralizes your tacitly decentralized movement. If you have no ideology, no guiding principles you insist on, then sabotage is just another kind of pluralism–drawing lines that say “No! Our movement must not do this!” is ideology. The neoliberal ruin of the British Labour party by Tony Blair et al., among other social democratic parties in Europe, not to mention many once strong but now compromised “inside the beltway” American environmental groups, were all accomplished very much to the tune of “We must not be ideological!”

    Ultimately, the reason for insisting on not being “ideological” in the United States is mainly lack of courage. A person or movement may want to do something new that is at odds with the establishment view, but they don’t quite have the guts or intellectual rigor to break with the establishment more broadly and look open-mindedly at any other groups that may have broken with the establishment. Instead they continue to accept that anyone else the powers that be have denounced, must be in the wrong and have only (unlike their own group) disagreed because they are “ideological”. In US vernacular, the insult “ideological” means “breaking with political or economic orthodoxy”. The problem is that no matter how much you insist that you’re different, that unlike those other people you’re not naughty and “ideological”–if your project is of any use at all, the establishment will sure consider it “ideological” no matter your denials. Insisting on anti-ideology is in the end rejecting the possibility of allies. After all, one wouldn’t want to be caught co-operating with those dirty “ideological” people the establishment (that we’re fighting) has told us are bad. Ironically, due to a failure of nerve one ends up weakening one’s own position.

    Rejecting ideology is rejecting the idea of principle and coherent models in the political, social and economic arena. This is foolish, incoherent, and self-harming.

    • Thanks very much for this comment. I think its very useful and well put. I would relate it to Mr Qiu. The theory of politics of the food movement is that it should mirror the natural world, thus it is like Taoism. The practical difference between that and having no ideology is zero. However, most people claiming not to have ideologies are fooling either themselves or their audience.The purpose of this article nevertheless was to make explicit the politics of the food movement and explain its “non-ideology”. Thank you for the great critique.

    • I would like to respectfully disagree with Mr. Purple Library Guy. Ideology does not exactly equal moral or ecological principles. This argument itself stems from a kind of Marxist outlook that likes to collapse Life and Ideology as one and the same. To propose that all thoughts towards the material or social conditions of reality are a form of ideology (or politics) is to melt those words into near-meaninglessness. To put it another way, ideology cannot be everything, else we would lack even the necessary foil to co-originate the thought form called ideology. Ideology is a (usually rigid) mental construct about the way things “should be,” developed among hierarchical groups of people (even ostensibly non-hierarchical groups like anarchists) that comes from “the head,” from a dualistic mind-matter abstraction. Ideology sees the world as a problem to be solved, a “to-do list” to be conquered, a population to be won-over. Most of us westerners and westernized people live as if the center of the universe is inside our own cranium, behind the eyes and between the ears. Everything else, including our own bodies, orbits this spot, existing on a spectrum of abstraction, in varying degrees of gross materiality. This material world we believe to be “out there,” something to be controlled, manipulated or ignored. This is ideology – the belief that these isolated thought forms are the true basis of reality, the logical extension of which can only be fear of- and the need to control the so called ‘material’ world.
      A truly ecological consciousness, (and I don’t mean the ideology of environmentalism or the academics of environmental science) is rooted in our direct participation in our bodies and in a more-than-cognitive connection to the rest of the world. At its core this non-ideology of the living is an inching towards the freedom and experience of the world’s (and the self’s) unbroken wholeness and out from under the mental slavery to our belief that the outside world is a collection of disorganized, separate, lifeless and malleable parts (as envisioned by ideologies, be it Marxism, capitalism, Christianity, science or what have you). As they say in the design toolkit called permaculture, “everything is connected” and the people coming to food have begun to realize this. The term intersectionality describes the (usually political) consciousness that arises in this knowing – that what we stand for is something greater than the separate issues of justice, health, environment, peace, inclusion, economic fairness that our ring-leaders would like to keep us entrenched in. What food has become an excellent intersection for is the rich possibilities for totally different ways of relating to ourselves and our surroundings.
      I do not argue that the food movement does not also dance with ideology, for there are people of all religions and political stripes within it, many of whom have come to food for ideological reasons, nor that participation in the movement spells the end of ideological thinking. Only an individual can decolonize their mind when they are ready to (food can help though!). And I do not argue that a person “should” or “must” abandon or ignore ideology – the tenor of our era asks that many of us will thoughtfully engage ideologies of all kinds, careful to observe how this engagement shapes our own minds and our way of relating to self and other. The harder we cling to our ideologies (i.e. fears), the harder it will be to drop them the moment we understand they have kept us out of allegiance with other people and the rest of life.
      Yes, anyone in the so-called food movement (and anyone else too) can benefit from paying very close attention to how their experiences are being continually co-opted and scripted by capitalism, scientism and any other of the rampant ideologies that surround us. Opting out of these fearful, controlling stories is the big challenge of the mature adult in our world and the task of lifetimes.
      And yes people are organizing around food and will continue to, just as the whole of the world from the atom to the cosmos is self-organizing into a matrix of organic patterns that often defy our limited comprehension. But the food movement is not singular political organization – a controlling pattern. People are coming into it from diverse backgrounds, motivations and interest levels, and so they will each guard their integrity- and the integrity of the whole – in different ways as their blossoming consciousness guides them.
      Yes, the situation is urgent with climate change, pollution, disease, deforestation and more. But we need not rush into this emergency, scared out of our senses (and into our heads). Emergencies tend to help dictators, authoritarians, capitalists and exploiters create the controlling story and to gain and consolidate power, as the rest of us run in circles. That would not do. There cannot be a master narrative that unilaterally and efficiently decides the direction and purity of the movement. While it looks messy to the ideological control freaks (like OWS did), this is perhaps the only way for people to stand tall in their authentic truth, rather than simply parroting the words, emotions and fears of demagogues and whipper-snappers. The movement as a whole cannot be rigorously guarded for purity precisely because it is not a unified movement – it is boundary-less. It is perhaps at best a concurrence of movements all converging on a similar point. It is as Latham writes, an organic, “leaderless swarm” of individuals and communities of diverse value orientations. Its strength and resilience is not in it’s ideological purity but in it’s widespread stable footing, its connection to the earth, its tenacious grassroots, its diversity and inclusivity. It is windborne, mycelial, rhisomatic and sporulating! A swarm like this cannot be fully co-opted precisely because its oceanic, organic, leaderless patterning downplays ideology in favor of the the real. There are people coming together around things that can be felt, sensed known and experienced outside of the mind. The people of the food movement, no matter their politics or ideology tend to enjoy the deep love of life; the feel of good health in their own bodies and in those of animals; the sweat, blood, hard work, the vigor and fatigue, their strong bodies and stable cores; a good night’s sleep; familiarity with birth and death, the taste and smell and touch and sound of the whole food landscape; the full experiences of clean water and air, peaceful surroundings, festivals and community gatherings; the intrinsic satisfaction of caring for this very basic thing that is a mirror of all of life. It is a reordering of the capitalist or Marxist fuss over belongings and who should possesses them, asking instead “what do we belong to?” Consciously enacted, these things can undermine the realm of ideology because they are precisely immanent, cthonic, earthy and transpersonal. They do not emanate from the head – from the isolated ego prison – they arise in the vast, mysterious coevolution of body-self and world. This is how potent the possibility for true liberation can be in our movement toward good food.

  • Jonathan, while I disagree on some of the “tenets” of the food philosophy that you propose. In general, I think we are on the same page, and I value your voice. I completely agree that local food movements will be the driver of the “grand social movement”.
    I definitely take exception to one of the first paragraphs you write, “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.” How did you arrive at this hypothesis? Please show me that data? Have you studied the labor movement? Have you read any of Howard Zinn’s work? Furthermore, the current urban ag movement, and “city dwellers” are essential aspects of the food movement.

    You ask, “Could the food movement be the missing vehicle for transformative social change?” YES, ABSOLUTELY, the movement just doesn’t know it yet, they think it is about the food. Which brings me to something I have been thinking and writing about, is the food movement actually a movement? You say this yourself in #5 a large array of values. So rather than being a movement is this better referred to an emerging food ethic. With the large array of interests and values that different facets of “the movement” have can we really be a movement? Or is this just the foundation of a societal change based on an emerging food ethic….so whether you are a vegan from Florida, an organic dairy farmer from Vermont, an African American sprout grower from Chicago or a Biodynamic rice grower from India…. there is a common value or ethic that drives as you say a larger social movement, one with implications way beyond food.

    Anyway the bottom line is it is not about the food or the food movement it is about a bio-centric approach to life that values human beings and the planet over profit. A new sustainable social order, and economy based on the real world not neo-liberal capitalism.

  • Great article. I agree your theories and research.

    The one part I found lacking was any mention of
    the current backlash against sugar in foods.

    With the recent JAMA publication of “The Sugar
    Papers” implicating big sugar with conspiring to
    cover up the science on Sept. 12th,
    coupled with a worldwide obesity pandemic, and
    as you describe “the morgue” in the middle of the
    grocery store now stocked with 84% of all processed
    food containing sugar…. You now have the stage
    set for what many are describing as sugar’s “tobacco
    moment”. The revolt against sugar has all 5 of your
    ingredients and it might just lead the food revolution
    to the next level.

    All the best.

  • Thanks Jonathan Latham for this interesting article. I totally agree with this essay!

    I’ve noticed the same (but then in my social circle) that everyone is getting more and more concerned about what they eat and how it impacts.
    It differs from person to person how they see the impact. Most people view it kinda egoistic and see it how it impacts them.
    Others look at aspects of saving animals and going vegan.
    Others do it for the climate.

    I really like this movement especially versus companies like McDonalds, and other fast food changes that don’t give a shit on any aspect I mentioned above.
    The best way to stop them is vote with our wallets. If we just stop eating there they will have to change. Problem is since I moved to live in a capital it is getting
    harder and harder to find healthy/ethical companies where you can buy food (fast). If you want to be healthy in a capital like warsaw nowadays you need to cook yourself.

  • Once the food movement is connected to the seed movement, the question of climate change has a chance to be answered. More diversity, more adaptation to change is possible. Join a million seedsavers working to save and create the diversity we will need.

  • Great article Jonathan Latham!
    I prefer talking about philosophy rather than ideology. I agree with Purple library Guy that we need a frame of reference or thought to understand the world and specially the living world. Epigenetics provides this new philosophy
    of biology and is largely Lamarckian.

  • I came across a recent indicator of the power of the food movement. Here is a snippet of Mrs Clinton’s words from a 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs, as released by Wikileaks. (first attachment)
    Mr Blenkiron had noted the US pivot to Asia, saying “But I guess we have a training issue with the EU” to which Mrs Clinton replied “Yes”, and he further noted the incomprehensibility of Europe. Mrs Clinton offered information on the political and military situation, then…

    “But on the trade and regulatory harmonization, we are very serious about that and something that I strongly supported. The discussions are ongoing. It will come down, as it often does, to agriculture, particularly French agriculture, and we’ll just have to see how much we can get done by that process. And there is no doubt that if we can make progress on the trade regulatory front it would be good for the Europeans.”

    I deduced this must related to the powerful French resistance to GM crops, and perhaps their associated pesticides. Perhaps others know more?

  • Terrific article! Readers may be interested in current exhibit at the Vermont Historical Society’s Heritage Galleries on the roots of the good food movement in the Green Mountain State’s late 1960s-1970s back to the land movement:
    Best regards- Frank

  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article! Very well written. I strongly support the food movement and hope this article is well circulated so people can be properly educated on the topic. I think getting the word out and educating people on this topic is extremely important! Thank you for writing this interesting article!

  • I enjoyed reading this article! It is very informing for people who do not know much about the topic. I support the food movement and hope people will change the way they eat. There is no specific leader of this movement, but we are all the leaders and each and every one of us can create change. Overall, great article!

  • What a fascinating read! The food movement has a strong purpose to replace what our society lacks and that includes the mechanisms that align human needs with the needs of our ecosystems and habitats! It is incredible to see that such a change can occur without a formal leader. As the article states, “absence of formal leadership is not a sign of weakness but of strength”. I enjoyed learning that the food movement does not discriminate on any grounds. It is thoroughly composed of urban and rural, rich and poor, amateurs and experts, home cooks and professional chefs, farmers, gardeners and parents. The food movement has the absolute potential to touch lives worldwide and significantly change the perception of food.

  • Thank you Jonathan for such a great piece of work. The food movement conceptualised as a solution to answer the most challenging aspects of our lives is a very inspiring idea. However, in praxis, the apparent non-investment requirement and other local agro-activities still lead to a minority engagement that need long time to be adopted by a larger group of population. Until that happens, probably most of our natural resources might have run out of patience and resilience. Movements such as Veganism or Slow Food proposed by great thinkers decades ago are still a side dish for the general public. In my opinion, the bringing of awareness is in conflict with the common search for comfortable lifestyles that we call a civilised evolution. Indirectly, Food movement requires people to work hard and actively connect with the Earth, which may be not of interest of the brainwashed younger and not that young generations.

    As regards Food movement and communism, theoretically and practically talking, food sovereignty was reached by that time in those countries, basically fuelled by cooperative food design (except for the monopolised control) that aimed to benefit all, the people and the planet. They also culturally and socially promoted higher nature connection. That is the other side of the coin.

    Another aspect to mention, is the importance to reduce our consumption habits that is being promoted by the big food industry and adapt our menu to the seasonal produce. I know people who grow their food, but still they need to purchase the most of the items in stores, since it is personally hard to work all that land and care for the harvest without machines and under the whimsical destiny of the climate change.

    My major concern is the real implementation of this wonderful idea not being compromised by the desires of the gourmet niche and the elitist interests.

Leave a comment