Theory Teacher's Blog

World War Food and the Poverty of Consumer Activism

world war foodYesterday around lunchtime, I took a break from reading academic books about eighteenth and nineteenth-century culture at one of my favorite places in New York, the New York Public Library, so that I could attend the March against Monsanto that was about to begin in Bryant Park, the lovely and popular little public park behind the library.  This march was actually the second of such protests that took place all over America and across the world. The first was May 25. If you want to see some photos and YouTube clips of this worldwide protest, click [here]. I attended the march for a few reasons, one being simply that it was near where I already was, another being that I support most of its goals, and last but not least, because it closely relates to the book that all the first-year students at my college were asked to read over the summer, Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System — a book that most of my students told me they found a little bit difficult and convoluted and therefore a lot boring. In my view, it’s an important and interesting book, so I’m hoping here to make that clear. The main idea of both the march and this book is that our food system is being monopolized by corporate interests in ways that are unhealthy both for the consumer and for the producer. Examples of this problem are the obesity epidemic as well as the high rates of suicide among small farmers struggling to maintain their farms in countries such as India . The march focused on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that Monsanto creates and actively lobbies governments to promote in their country’s agriculture.

truthInexplicably, this world movement has not been covered by the New York Times. It is  hard to imagine why the Times doesn’t cover it, since it seems to me to be more interesting and more relevant to the lives of people than the article about the spending habits of a Catholic bishop in Germany or the article about the dentist whose clients sometimes pay her in works of art.  In my opinion, something that takes place in more than 500 cities around the world at exactly the same time deserves at least a mention. We could speculate that American journalists are so focused on the supposed conflict between the Democrats and Republicans (e.g., the government shut down) that it doesn’t occur to them to notice that most Americans have political viewpoints and ideas that are neither Democrat nor Republican.

monsantoOne might raise the question of whether this march was in fact a failure, since the point of such marches is precisely to make the public aware of important issues by organizing an event that would attract media attention. So, since this event did not attract media attention, was it a failure and, if so, why? We might shift the blame to the newspapers themselves and accuse them of not wanting to upset the corporations that advertise in them, and I would agree it is important for the reading public to be critically aware of this potentiality. Since the march was covered by the alternative media, such as the newly formed Al Jazeera America, this may be a reasonable suspicion, though difficult to prove. Or maybe Americans are so focused on the Tea Party opposition to President Obama that they fail to notice the opposition to Obama from the other side of the political spectrum, the so-called “left.” Or maybe the journalists mistakenly thought the march was part of the Comic Convention, since both featured people dressed up in costumes, hahaha. However, in this case, I also wonder about the self-presentation of the march itself. As I listened to the speeches, the march seemed to bring together a diverse array of concerns, including, healthier food in public school cafeterias, the right of us consumers to know what we are eating, the long history of Monsanto’s dangerous and illegal business practices, and even a more spiritually fulfilling relationship to our food. The one thing uniting these diverse agendas was simply the evil of Monsanto which was something of a synecdoche for the world’s problems.

In a sense, the rather long list of various interests and feelings as well as the hatred of Monsanto somewhat obscured the two important issues that are actually before our government right now. The first issue is one that has received very little media attention even though it may revolutionize the world economy — something called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) that has been under negotiation among countries from Japan to Chile since 2008. Proponents of the TPP argue that it would boost economic growth by encouraging trade, but critics argue that it would give power to large corporations and undermine any government’s ability to protect its labor force, the environment, and the health and safety of its food supply.  Considering that President Obama has been both actively promoting the TPP and keeping the details of the agreement a secret, this could be one of those strange issues about which both the right-wing Tea Party and the left-wing Green Party and socialist parties could actually find common cause.  Obama was hoping to fast-track this bill through congress this month and thus avoid any substantive public debate (a hope that may have been derailed by the government shut-down, I don’t know.) My guess is that the reason why the planners of the march long ago planned for mid-October was precisely to bring attention to the issue that they predicted would be rammed through congress (little suspecting how dysfunctional congress would be.) The second is a more local affair, the bill currently before the New York state legislature requiring all GMO food to be labelled for consumers.

GMOMy own observation, just listening to the speeches, looking at the signs, and also noticing how students responded to Raj Patel’s book is that the emotional energy and rhetoric revolved around the rights of the consumer and some vague notion of authentic and pure food. In other words, the vague feeling is that GMO food is bad because it is not natural. Some speeches argued that we have a “right to know” what is in our food, thus calling attention to the fact that few of us actually have a clue what we are eating most of the time (despite labeling and the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration.) The problem of this sense of “real food” versus GMO food is that a lot of food that is genetically manipulated is not bad for us. Farmers have for centuries cross-bread plants and live-stock. Thus the problem is not simply GMO; rather it’s the unsafe and aggressive manner in which Monsanto forces small farmers to use its products.

Don’t get me wrong here. As someone who just taught Upton Sinclair’s  famous novel The Jungle, published in 1904, that inspired President Teddy Roosevelt to pass the Food and Drug Act in 1906, I certainly care about the role of the FDA and support the regulation of our food supply to ensure that it is healthy and safe. However, Sinclair’s novel was also about the plight of immigrants in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century and about the exploitation of labor and the monopolization of food production by corporations. It is a somewhat well-known irony among teachers of literature that Sinclair’s intention was so totally misread. In other words, what people noticed in his novel were the long descriptions of the meat-processing factories which were quite gross, and not the long descriptions of the oppression of workers. The book hence inspired the government to regulate the processing of meat to make it safe for consumers, but it did not (as Sinclair actually hoped it would) inspire the government to protect workers. As Sinclair himself joked, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit its stomach.”

I suspect the same thing is happening now that happened with The Jungle. The economy and the long-term effects of trade policy such as TPP are hard to understand. Likewise, the argument of Raj Patel’s book is complex in its drawing a connection between obesity in the United States, starvation in India, and migration from Mexico. Ultimately, Patel’s argument is about the political power of multinational corporations that undermines the ability of farmers to make smart decisions and the ability of local communities to do what they think is in their best interests — and that this affects all of us in various ways. However, what many students take away from this book, and what many of the protestors yesterday were focusing on, was some vague, nostalgic attachment to “real” food and some vague idea that we consumers should be able to get “real” food.

The law before the New York legislature right now is precisely the sort of law that focuses on the consumer — the supposed right to know what we are eating. At the rally, the proponents of the law argued that once we have GMO labels on our food, then the public will realize what they are eating and begin to buy non-GMO food, and this would so hurt Monsanto’s profit margin that… hmm… honestly, it wasn’t really clear to me what would be the outcome. I can’t imagine that Monsanto and the global food industry would be hurt so much that they’d change their business model. As the journalist Naomi Klein observed in her famous book, No Logo, such are the limits of political activism that focuses on the rights of the consumer rather than the means of production. Such also are the limits of political activism that focuses so intently on the evils of a single corporation that symbolically represents all that is wrong with the world rather than the trade policy that allows many such corporations to thrive. From the perspective of a literature professor such as myself, both the March against Monsanto and the bill against GMO food have a narrative that is full of symbols and what psychoanalysis calls “displacements” whereby complex political content is reduced to simpler emotional content.

Might the march have been more successful if it focused on the actual issue — either the worldwide concerns about the FPP or the local legislation against GMO, or (since they are related and timely) both?

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Note: all the photographs in this post were taken by me, but I deliberately selected certain photos and cropped them so that there would be no faces. My intent is to protect individuals who might not want their face on the internet without their permission (especially considering the politically controversial stakes of the march.) An unintended consequence may be that readers of this blog will get the wrong impression that the march was a bunch of people in funny costumes, but actually, for the most part, it was a large crowd of ordinary people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages.

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October 13, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment