Tag Archives: food sovereignty

Prison abolition meets food justice

In her article, “Radical Farmers Use Fresh Food to Fight Racial Injustice and the New Jim Crow,” Leah Penniman draws connections between the incarceration of black people, police violence, and the systematic use of hunger and malnutrition as a weapon wielded against black communities, pointing to the importance of food and land:

If we are to create a society that values black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land. I believe that black people’s collective experience with slavery and sharecropping has created an aversion to the land and a sense that the land itself is an oppressor. The truth is that without good land and good food we cannot be truly free. The Freedom Food Alliance represents one important voice among many insisting that the senseless deaths of our black brothers and sisters by all forms of violence—police shooting, diet-related illness, economic marginalization—must end.

Penniman shows how these connections are being made by grassroots organizations that link the fight for food justice with the fight against the prison-industrial-complex and the new Jim Crow.  Penniman profiles folks like Jalal Sabur of the Freedom Food Alliance, a prison abolitionist who helped connect farmers, prisoners, and their families together in networks of self-reliance and resistance.

I won’t bother summarizing or excerpting more: read the article!  It’s short, accessible, and shows how these groups are drawing lessons and inspiration from past movements, and bringing together struggles and alternatives that often remain separate.

The Absurdity of Industrial Agriculture and the Promise of Agroecology

In this 1/2-hour-long power point presentation, prominent agroecology advocate Miguel Altieri presents a critique of industrial agriculture, and the importance of agroecology.  This is a very clear introduction to the problems of contemporary industrial agriculture and the potentials of agroecology, drawn primarily from examples in North, Central and South America.

Industrial agriculture is totally unsustainable, continually depleting soil and relying on finite (and destructive) fossil fuel inputs.  Altieri dispels the myth that (only) industrial agriculture can “feed the world” because it’s more efficient.  Dead wrong: industrial monocultures are less efficient than agroecology and polycultures.  Compared to monocultures, integrated systems of animals and a diversity of plant species is proven to produce more vegetables, more protein, and more of other useful resources on the same amount of land.  Polyculture farming systems are being displaced not because they’re less efficient, but because they’re less profitable for capitalist firms and corporations that are trying to increase their control over food systems.  Altieri argues for a marriage between Western science and traditional knowledges to create sustainable, highly productive food systems.  Agroecology and agroforestry are more resilient in the face of climate change, more conducive to equitable local food production, and less reliant on water and external inputs.  In the latter part of the lecture, Altieri introduces the concept of food sovereignty, advocating for a combination of state support for agroecology (including agricultural extension programs), land reform, urban agriculture, rejection of biofuels and speculation, and grassroots social movement action (like the land reclamations of Sem Terra in Brazil).

The Garden (2008) Documentary

This documentary follows the struggle of a poor, primarily Latino community in South Central LA to save a huge community garden/farm–the largest urban farm in the U.S.  It’s among the best food documentaries I’ve seen, because it doesn’t romanticize food and it gets at the deeper issues surrounding urban farming, including poverty, gentrification, racism, development, and subsistence.  The farmers self-organized to save the farm and used court injunctions, public outreach, media campaigns, and direct action to defend the farm from destruction, after the owner decided he wanted to evict the farmers.  It was never entirely clear what the land was going to be used for instead of a garden: a soccer field?  An industrial development?  In the end, it doesn’t matter: from the point of view of capital, anything is better than people using land for subsistence.

It came out in 2008 and is available as a DVD… or as a torrent, if you’re into that.

Co-opting the Coop

Kirby, Marianne – Co-opting the Coop –  What’s the real cost of homesteading’s new hipness?

This article makes a distinction between ongoing homesteading for survival among poor and marginalized communities, and hipster homesteading that has now become cool.  Kirby argues that hipster homesteading not only ignores and erases these histories; “The mainstream appropriation of poor skills might sell books, but it might also be detrimental to the people who do depend on these skills for survival. Simply put, the appropriation of poor skills by the mainstream can end up further marginalizing already marginalized populations who still rely on those skills.”  There are some sharp critiques of hipster homesteaders in this article, but it’s not clear what the implications are, other than the idea that we should “examine our practices” and acknowledge “the idea that poor and immigrant populations might be directly involved in the broader homesteading movement, to the benefit of everyone involved”

In contrast to previous homesteading practiced by poor people, Kirby explains that contemporary urban homesteading is often “practiced by single [privileged] people and single families.”  Kirby documents an extreme case of co-optation, in which the Urban Homestead Project has copyrighted ‘urban homesteading.’  She also points to destruction of ecosystems by wildcrafters and foragers, and the appropriation and commodification of homesteading skills.

Another problem Kirby cites is that “Rising costs from the commodification of poor skills can also leave poor people who still rely on these skills further marginalized,” such as designer chicken coops.  More broadly, she argues that increased demand will lead to skyrocketing prices, placing essentials out of reach of poor people who have been relying on them.

In terms of policy, she points to government attempts to regulate the ‘wrong’ kind of homesteading, policing forms of subsistence that don’t look pretty or gentrified.  She contrasts Denise Morrison, who relied on her garden for subsistence and medicine, to hipster homesteaders.  Morrison’s garden was destroyed for looking untidy, while “the cool kids are lauded for their revolutionary interest in a gentrified version of subsistence farming.”

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements

Katz, Sandor – The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.  White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2006.

I was really impressed with this book.  Katz discusses a huge variety of ‘alternative’ food movements, struggles, and practices and contrasts them to the contemporary status quo of industrial agriculture.

A constant theme, discussed from numerous angles, is the way the state and capitalism work together to produce contemporary industrial agriculture, creating regulations and restrictions that are often reactions to health and safety disasters caused by large-scale industrial agriculture itself.  These regulations tend to further disadvantage food production and processing that are small-scale, traditional, ecological, non-scientific, and local.  So not only has industrial agriculture disconnected us from food and land with disastrous economic, social, and environmental consequences, but many forms of reconnection are made difficult or impossible through policies, laws, and regulations.

Another constant in this book is Katz’s generous interpretations and non-dogmatic style, in a way that doesn’t lapse into liberal pluralism.  Katz’s own radicalism comes through in this book, and it’s clear how he lives out some of what he’s writing about “the food-related political activism that I feel most passionate about is an extension of this sensual pursuit in that it seeks to revive local production and exchange, and to redevelop community food sovereignty” (xvi).  His vision also privileges autonomy and prefiguration: “It’s important to hold social institutions accountable because they exert so much power, but ultimately no institution can bestow upon us the worlds we dream.  Nothing is more revolutionary than actively seeking to embody and manifest the ideals we hold” (xviii).  He is critical of colonialism, the state, capitalism, heteronormativity, and private property—but he doesn’t condense this into an ideology: he is able to highlight the value and promise of what people are doing, sometimes pointing out the limitations and contradictions, without being dismissive.  He also continually wards off moralism, explaining, for example, that while the global food systems is oppressive and food transportation is totally unsustainable, he still loves pineapples and lychees.  The analytical point is that it’s a question of degrees, not absolutes: “The scandal of our contemporary food system is that not just a few exotic luxuries but virtually everthing—including the most basic and mundane staples—is transported such vast distances, traveling thousiands of miles from producers to consumers” (6).

The book is organized into ten different themes: localization, seed saving, land preservation and reclamation, slow food, raw food, healing food, invasive species, vegetarianism and humane meat, wildcrafting and dumpstering, and water politics.

I was reading this book for it’s ‘method,’ which proved to be trickier than many academic books, which basically just spell out their methodology, often in its own little chapter or section.  Katz, like most non-academic writers, doesn’t cite certain claims and he doesn’t feel the need to explain his method as academics do.  In a way, this is refreshing: he does explain, in a more general way, what allowed him to write this book and learn what he has learned.  That is the real uniqueness of this book: he draws on two years of traveling and visiting with all kinds of alternative foodies, and his much longer-standing personal experience and practice with alternative food and farming.  He visited food co-ops, farmers’ markets, community spaces, and farms (xv).  He draws on statistics, history, economic arguments, and (most importantly) his own experiences and travels to contrast the industrial food system to alternative practices.  Katz mixes his own experiences with statistics and history to contextualize the practices he is talking about, and explain their significance, promise, difficulties, and so on.  In the academy, he would probably say he’s mixing ethnography, auto-ethnography, history, political economy, and a bit of statistics.  His historical, economic, and statistical claims are drawn from secondary sources, and most of his ‘original’ research (the insights not drawn from other books and reports) is generated from his own travels and experience.  He often cites his statistics (often drawing on USDA stats, for example) but doesn’t feel the need to cite other (often contested) claims.


Summaries of important chapters

Below I summarized Chapters 1 and 3 because they’re most relevant to my own work, but every chapter is worth reading and they’re all interconnected by themes and struggles.  In particular, I would go back to chapters 2 (on seed saving), 4 slow food) 6 (food and healing) and 7 (plant prohibitions).

Chap 1 – Local and Seasonal Food vs. Constant Convenience Consumerism

Katz starts with an economic argument: traditional local food systems recirculate money locally, creating a multiplier effect: “a dollar spent on a local grower’s produce will continue to circulate locally and multiply its benefits through economic stimulation” (1).  In contrast, the global industrial system transfers wealth to middle-men: “Rather than paying for food itself, we are paying for an elaborate system for getting it to the right place, at the right time, in the right processed form, and in the right package” (2).  He suggests that arguments about ‘feeding the world’ abstract from communities, constituting food production as a problem for technicians and specialists (3).

He takes on some of the primary arguments in favour of conventional agriculture: that it’s more efficient and produces higher yields.  The problem comes down to how efficiency is conceived and measured, he says.  Whereas industrial agriculture’s efficiency is measured in terms of production per unit of labour (and other things are externalized), it is not more efficient in terms of production per unit of land: small-scale intensive ecological agriculture tends to produce much higher (and diverse) yields per acre of land (4).

Another argument is the celebration of cheap food in the US.  It’s true, but “Food is this cheap in our country because the people whose labour is involved are paid virtually nothing, and many of food’s true costs are hidden” (4).  The environmental externalities are too huge to calculate, but it’s clear that industrial food is dependent upon huge amounts of energy for production and transportation (5).

He also discusses ‘free trade’ here, arguing that it’s actually forced trade.  He links US subsidies to the dumping of surpluses on poorer countries (9).  “Globalization contributes to world hunger rather than alleviating it… large-scale global food producers undersell local producers, thereby undermining community food security and creating dependence” (10).  In contrast, actual free trade between people is constrained by powerful economic actors, because large retailers demand and reproduce oligopolies and monopolies (11).

He discusses CSAs as alternatives to all this, as a way to link local consumers and producers directly (11).  CSAs allow farmers to make decisions based on what’s best for the farm as a whole, knowing they’re supported, rather than catering to demands of retailers (12).

He discusses food regulations that make it difficult to do local production and sale of food.  Regulations around sanitation and hygiene tend to require large, expensive facilities, which automatically exclude small-scale, non-professional producers.  They abstract from scale, he argues, creating universal regulations that end up privileging large-scale producers.  But the problem in the first place (e.g. E coli from cider) was produced by scale in the first place: large-scale operations designed to maximize profit ended up creating unsafe production facilities (14).

He’s also critical of organic labeling: “What something isn’t (full of chemicals) doesn’t tell us much about what that thing is.  Whether a food is “organic” or not, the same food-chain questions of origin, distance traveled, and connection apply” (18).  Organic has nothing to do (necessarily) with community-based food production, and it has become corporatized (19): “‘organic’ has changed from an ethic of holistic thinking and eco-integration to a law subject to lobbying and loopholes” (22); it speaks to the distance between farmer and eater.

He discusses privilege, foregrounding the question: “how can we work to undermine the structures that give me privilege in the first place?” (23).  In terms of class, he points out how poor communities often don’t have access to healthy food, pointing to efforts to improve access (food justice), such as the People’s Grocery, a mobile grocery store (23).

He discusses localization and seasonality on a more personal level, arguing that it requires us to adjust expectations and orient to what’s growing here right now: “we can learn to love what grows abundantly and easily around us” (28).  He discusses Cuba here (28-9) as well as the practice of growing your own food: “the seasonality of food—the fact that most fruits and vegetables come into season for a very limited period—makes it all the more special.  The luscious, fleeting ripeness becomes something to anticipate, something to savor, something to eat more of while you can, something to preserve for future enjoyment, something to remember, and something to look forward to again when the cycle repeats itself” (31).  He discusses examples from his own life here, and the continual disconnect that people often have from what’s in season if they don’t actually garden themselves (32).  This isn’t just about cultivating your own little garden in solitude: “Bring  a spirit of solidarity and outreach into your gardening practice by sharing your bounty, sharing your skills, and building community around the rewards and challenges of small-scale local food production” (34).


Chap 3 – Holding our Ground: Land and Labor Struggles

Katz begins this chapter with access to land, linking lack of access to historical oppression: “The histories of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, colonialism, and many other forms of oppression are long sagas in which people have been systematically torn from the specific ecological niches that previously sustained them, the unique places that are the basis of culture and its glorious diversity” (79) and with a clear attack on private property: “The earth is our mother.  We all come from the mother, and to her we shall return.  We are of the earth; it is absurd to imagine that we can “own” it, even in small pieces (79).  Analytically, he continually returns to the idea that “real estate determines culture” in this chapter:

Real estate determines culture when indigenous peoples, carrying on age-old subsistence lifestyles connected to the land where they live, are supplanted by land ownership.  Real estate determines culture when productive small farms are forced to sell their land because their modest agricultural learning’s cannot keep pace with rising property-tax rates and competing demands for cgolf courses, malls, and subdivisions.  Real estate determines culture when urban community gardens, which brough vitality and activity to their neighbourhoods, are doomed by their successes and auctionied off to the highest bidder” (80).

Katz discusses enclosures in Europe and North America, before moving onto “movements struggling to retain and reclaim land for growing food” (81).  He starts with indigenous peoples in North America, focusing on Winona LaDuke and the White Earth Land Recovery Project (81).  As context he discusses the allotment act in the U.S.: the forced subdivision and sale of indigenous territories.  The White Earth Reservation was divided into 80-acre parcels, which had no connection to traditional land tenure.  Furthermore, when property owners couldn’t pay their taxes, the state confiscated the property (82).  Katz (and in Katz’s interpretation, LaDuke), want to ensure settlers that the struggle for indigenous land and territory is not a threat to settlers: “there is plenty of land for us all,” he writes, “and existing native claims amount to less than one-third of the U.S. landmass” (83).  At the same time, he does (very briefly) discuss settler obligations: “For thos of us more recently transplanted ot this land and seeking to develop deeper connection to it, our actions must respect the lives and lands of the earlier inhabitants.  How can we value native foods without supporting the land claims of native people?” (83).

He also discusses the landless peasant movement (MST) in Brazil and its successful reclamation of 20 million acres for 350,000 families (84) and the Zapatistas (86).  Historically, the US has attempted to encourage land concentration, propping up dictoators and supporting coups in Latin America to discourage land reform (85).

After reviewing these global examples, he refocuses on North America, and the U.S. in particular.  Each day, 9000 acres are taken out of food production: some is paved for suburbs, some becomes expensive estates, and some is left fallow (87).  The only kind of farm that has consistently grown in the U.S. are those with 2000+ acres: “The globalized food commodity system rewards economies, of scale, and the U.S. program of agricultural subsidies reinforces this by providing cash incentives—corporate welfare—for large-scale, industrial style production” (87).  Housing and retailing often provide a better return on land investment than farms, so they are consistently destroyed.  He discusses a case study here, where Michael Ableman tried to fight the closure of Fairview Gardens (88-9).  Ableman couldn’t afford to buy the farm, but was able to organize a land trust to create the Center for Urban Agriculture and buy the farm (90).

Katz also discusses the question of intergenerational farming, noting the aging population of farmers.  He points to WWOOFing and other apprenticeship programs that link prospective farmers to farmers with farmland (91).  The best way to create a next generation of farmers, he says, is to make farming viable.  He points to the Salatins as an example of a thriving family farm.

In an important section, he discusses racism in the rural US, pointing out that 97% of farms are operated by white people, discussing the history of slavery, emancipation, and sharecropping that produced continuing dependence and poverty (93-4).  The USDA has historically denied African-American farmers access to credit due to racism, and attempts at financial restitution have largely failed, despite a successful lawsuit against the USDA (94-5).  He also discusses queer farming and rural living, which tends to be excluded from agrarian visions that privilege the heterosexual nuclear family (95).  At the same time, “queers have often been the first in the family to escape the farm, and the countryside, in search of other queers and queer culture in cities” (95).  Unfortunately, he concludes this chapter without saying much about any actual practices that would address heteronormativity and racism in farming: “any postmodern rural renaissance in the United States needs to be expansive, embracing multiculturalism and evolving identities.  If we want to get real about community-based food production, we have to encourage more folks to get involves in it—all kinds of people—and embrace whomever chooses to follow that calling and that path” (96).

The chapter moves onto urban food production, where he discusses soil contamination and soil remediation (96-7), Victory Gardens in the U.S. and urban farming in Cuba (97), and other examples to foreground the promise and significance of urban farming and gardening.  Often these gardens are just a way of growing food for oneself and others, and it’s rare that urban farms can generate income if land payments are factored in; however, some are viable: “by partnering with nonprofit organizations, public agencies, generous benefactors, land trusts, or land outside the city, some urban farms have been able to generate income to fairly compensate the farmers” (98).  Other urban gardens are hosted by schools and housing developments (99).  He also briefly discusses permaculture (100) and urban farm animals (101).  He also covers the legacy of guerrilla gardening and points out that it often results in established community gardens (106).  He focuses in on a struggle to save a community garden in New York, linking it again to real estate and land values: “developers like large, continuous areas to work with, an housing is a more tangible good than gardens and is more likely to bring financial gain to the owners of the properties… gardens are regarded as an inefficient use of land once more lucrative opportunities develop” (107).  The gardeners organized petitions, lawsuits, rallies and direct action.  Eventually the City was pressured into negotiations, and a celebrity bought the land and donated it to a public land trust (109).  He also discusses a large farm in LA that served poor immigrant communities in 14 acres of garden plots, which was partially bulldozed and the struggle was ongoing as the book went to press (109-112).

Finally, he discusses struggles around farm labour.  He points to pesticide poisoning and other forms of exploitation faced by farm workers (113-4).  He discusses boycotts and fairtrade as tactics to address exploitative conditions, while highlighting the limits of fair trade: though fair trade projects create on a limited scale a more benevolent model of trade, they do not really alter or challenge a global trading system that favors big players and disempowers small growers and farm workers… our consumption of luxury imports—‘fair trade’ or not—encourages dependency on global trade rather than food security and food sovereignty (115).

Growing Food and Justice: Dismantling Racism through Sustainable Food Systems

Morales, Alfonso. “Growing Food and Justice: Dismantling Racism Through Sustainable Food Systems.” In Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, 149–176. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

This article explores food justice in communities of colour, focusing on the emergence Growing Food and Justice Initiative (GFJI), a coalition of groups working on antiracist food justice.  In addition the article begins by placing food justice in historical context of industrial food, racialized suburbanization (white flight) and its implications for food deserts, the medicalization/individualization of food, and the emergence of community food security–which gave rise to the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) in 1995.  He situates food justice as an antiracist response to community food security, driven by people of colour.  He sees this as building on the work of community food security and its ‘systems-focused thinking’ that addresses roots of food insecurity.  By the same token, he suggests that the antiracist GFJI–spearheaded by communities of colour–complemented the CFSC.

The CFSC is “the dominant private, nonprofit organization in the field of CFS” (community food security), (152) and he suggests that it has had important impacts on federal policy (153).  It exists in “dynamic tension” with the GFJI, which works “to promote individual and organizational empowerment through training, networking, and creating a supportive community” (156).  In terms of both farmers and eaters, people of colour are some of the most marginalized (158).  By taking an explicitly racialized approach, then, the food justice movement helps avoid the colorblindness of the food movement (158).

He discusses a conference held by the GFJI which linked the problems faced by poor households (hunger, lack of access to good food, obesity) with the problems of farmers (low farm-gage prices, consolidation, overseas competition).  He reads presenters as engaging in three types of work, broadly: identifying/combating racism, advocacy for immigrant farmers and other communities of colour, and “reimagining the participation of immigrants, indigenous peoples and other communities of colour within the food system” (160).

He presents three detailed case studies of organizations that presented their work in the conference: 1: organization working with disadvantaged Hmong farmers to coordinate training, improve access to markets, and securing land and other resources (160-1). 2: An Indigenous organization working to reintroduce traditional farming and food prep.  Morales reads the presenter as extending a critique of institutional racism and the democratization of the food system (163). 3: A rural organization working with Latino immigrants to help train and support new and economically viable farming operations (165-6).  Through this process, the new farmers “trade their identity as labour for an entrepreneurial identity” (166).

Morales admits that different places and contexts are unique, but insists that “food security and food justice are woven together by individuals and organizations who recognize a problem, reconstruct it as an opportunity, and organize around it while at the same time empowering communities in agricultural production, healthier consumption, local politics, and economic self-determination.  A vision of self-sustaining, independent, yet interdependent community and local economic activity etches itself in different ways in distinct communities, not so much as resistance to industrial agriculture, but more toward establishing resilient and sustainable communities” (169).

In his conclusion, he suggests directions for future research.  First, three kinds of work: immigrant farmer/processor, food distribution systems, and small grocery/corner stores.

He also calls for applied research to “discover and advance policy objectives related to the antiracist and economic objectives espoused by GFJI and its participant organizations” (170).

He is interested in unerstanding “the organizational and institutional elements of the GFJI” as well: knowledge diffusion, growth and change, how members pursue antiracism.  He also asks how the antiracist framework of the GFJI articulates itself in relation to other frameworks of food-systems thinking: “industrial food, urban agriculture, sustainable and local food, community gardens–each has its history, ideas, and particular practices.  Each is also associated with values we often think of as incommensurate, I would argue for research that uncovers comparability in these practices and fosters dialogue among the practitioners” (171).  He also calls for research on “community formation, political activism, and approaches to leveraging food-based economic development in marginazlied communities” and the need to “understand the variety of activities taking place to shape policy to enhance the chances for economic political, and social success”(171).


Morales is clearly more than an academic–he’s in conversation with organizations and people working on food justice, and he sees his research as a way to continue the conversations going on.  The brief contexutalization of the GFJI not only within food justice, but within the institutional racism of the industrial food system.

Like most other articles in this book, it only goes back to the early 20th century.  More specifically, it says nothing about colonialism and the emergence of property relations, despite (brief) descriptions of a indigenous food sovereignty project.  More generally, there’s no discussion of the political economy of land, except for food deserts: land prices and property vanishes as an important way to think about farming and access to land, for example.

Finally, Morales repeatedly emphasizes policy as a major focus for research, action, and a way to assess the impacts and success of food justice movement.  No doubt policy is important, but he seems to neglect other, more grassroots impacts.  Furthermore, there’s no mention of actual tensions between policy objectives and horizontal, grassroots community-building.  Although he points to tensions between the CFSC and GFJI, this seems like a missed opportunity to consider broader (or other) tensions between non-profits and more grassroots coalitions (especially in terms of antiracism).  What are the unintended (and often regressive, racist, and destructive) impacts of policies–even policies that have been fought for by food advocates (such as those discussed by Guthman)?  How might new regulations, incentives, or grant programs create new problems–such as competition and professionalization–that have led to critiques of the NGO-industial-complex?  Are there places and people who are self-consciously side-stepping these problems by doing horizontal grassroots modes of intervention in the food system?

Farmworker Food Insecurity and the Production of Hunger in California – Sandy Brown and Christy Getz

From Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability

This article situates food (in)security of California farmworkers in the context of capitalist agribusiness, migrant and/or undocumented workers, underdevelopment, disciplining of labour, and other political economic factors.  The authors argue that food security is often measured without explaining what gives rise to it, so they try to do both: the article discusses a study conducted by the authors to measure food insecurity among farmworkers in California, and then they contextualize this data with the above political economic analysis and history.  The original research is comprised of their empirical survey, alongside ethnographic studies of farmworkers conducted by one of the authors.  Their work on political economy and structural factors (I think) is largely drawn from secondary sources.  They argue that food (in)security is “a lens for understanding broader processes of exploitation and inequality under capitalism” (140).  But in a way they’re making the opposite (or at least complementary) argument; that you need to understand capitalism to get food security: “understanding food security also necessitates consideration of the relationship between activities of the state, inclduing national governments’ immigration laws, labor regulations, and social policies, and the international trade regimes that have privileged transnational corporate interests over smallholder agriculture” (140).  Food security (or food and farming in general) is one piece of capitalism, and it can be a useful and compelling way to map out capitalist relations and dynamics in concrete and understandable ways.

Their central argument is that “the central dynamic shaping labor relations and workers’ livelihood struggles has been the development of a regime of agrarian accumulation based on capital-intensive production and the persistent devaluation of agricultural labor” (123).  They locate gaps in the lit on food security, and follow Julie Guthman in arguing that many academics and popular writers have “overlooked the role of hired labor in agrifood production, preferring to celebrate all forms of resistance to the conventional food system and to promote agrarian visions of small-scale family farms” (126).  They cite critics of “voluntarist” conceptions of the food security movement that privileges DIY and “eschews structural critiques” (126).  They bring in food sovereignty and criticize it on similar terms: “in practice the food sovereignty movement has focused much more heavily on small farmer issues while sidestepping issues of wage labour” (127).

Measuring food security: they highlight some of the limitations of measurement themselves.  Measuring food security can easily elide broader processes “of food production, distribution, and governance” and there’s a danger that individuals/households as the unit of measure will become the dominant unit of analysis, missing political economic structures (128-9).  The data reveals, unsurprisingly, that lots of farmworkers are food insecure and hungry: 34% food insecure and 11% food insecure with hunger (130).  The sample is of farmworkers in Fresno, which the authors admit is not necessarily representative of California as a whole, despite efforts to capture a broad sample (128).  Undocumented workers and migrant workers both tend to be less food secure (131).

Explaining/contextualizing: the remainder of the paper (133 onwards) contextualizes this food security and explains how it came to be.  They try to explain “the development of the contemporary agrarian social order” which “relies on the consistent devaluation of farm labour to fuel capital accumulation” (133).  This isn’t just about class, but also about race: a racialized immigrant workforce (which faces criminalization and repression) serves the interests of agribusiness because it’s harder for them to organize for better wages or working conditions (137).

Immigration policy has functioned to manage flow of labour and produce a racialized other to scapegoat, from Chinese Exclusion Acts to internment of Japanese workers to mass deportation of Mexican immigrants during the Dust Bowl era (136)–no sources cited here unfortunately.  Immigration is driven in large part by austerity and privatization of agriculture in Mexico; NAFTA and other neoliberal reforms have shifted financial support from small-scale subsistence farming to production of cash crops for agro-export (138).

These developments, they argue, “gave rise to the inernational food security movement, and ultimately to the food sovereignty movement” (139).  Or at least they help us understand the problems these movements are responding to.

They discuss some offorts by the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) and their winning of the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which created new opportunities for farmworkers’ collective action, but was pretty effectively stymied by agribusiness strategies, who sourced labour through third parties, made modest improvements in order to undermine demands, and retaliated against unions and organizing attempts (135).  This is one of the only instances of resistance or organizing that they discuss in the article; the rest is mostly a focus on structural factors.

This article clearly explains the structural factors affecting food security; however, they are somewhat dismissive of food sovereignty when they could develop a more nuanced connection to it.  They also don’t leave a lot of room for the agency of farmworkers (what they actually do) save for a short bit on remittances and a brief discussion of the United Farm Worker Union (which implies that it’s not really effective anymore anyway).  They tend to do the typical academic thing of boxing in food sovereignty as doing this but not doing that in order to advance their argument, rather than actually thinking about how food sovereignty might be doing something in relation to political economy and ‘structural factors’ as well, for example.  By suggesting that food sovereignty misses wage labour and focuses on ‘small farmer issues’ they are eliding the connections they make themselves analytically: that the destruction of small subsistence farms in Mexico is part of the production of a precarious, racialized, disciplined wage labour workforce in the U.S.  By the same token, creating and sustaining subsistence could help mitigate the proletarianization of farmers, which they locate as a central problem.