Tag Archives: subsistence

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.

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).