A diet of politics

Two women walk through an urban community garden. Photo: Getty Images
Two women walk through an urban community garden. Photo: Getty Images
Much of what is wrong with our food systems has been identified. Now we need the politics of change, writes Sean Connelly.

In 2009, Peter Marcuse, a planning academic articulated the slogan "expose, propose and politicise" as a way to guide the day-to-day actions involved in the US Right to the City movement. That movement seeks to recreate cities that are socially just and accessible for all genders, races and classes.

The slogan is simple, yet instructive in identifying the strengths and limitations of existing efforts to challenge the status quo with regards to social inclusion, poverty and quality of life. 

It is equally useful for thinking about the progress we have made and the work that still needs to be done in efforts to transform our food system so that it is more just and sustainable.

We have done a pretty good job at exposing the limitations and negative effects of the existing food system.  Mainstream documentaries have increased awareness of our globalised food system and its relationship to climate change, water pollution, food waste and soil fertility.

  Likewise, there is increasing awareness of the challenges farmers around the world face and the important role they play in local economies. Similarly, the negative health impacts of diets that are reliant on cheap and highly processed food have been exposed.  However, in exposing the problems with the food system, we often focus on the symptoms rather than the root cause. 

For example, one symptom of the globalised food system is increasing rates of diabetes, but the root cause may be that cheap and sugary processed foods are more accessible than local fruits and vegetables.

When thinking about proposing alternatives, the challenge is to focus on solutions that address those root causes.  So while increasing funding to address diabetes may address the symptoms, solutions targeted at the root causes might focus more on reducing economic barriers to more healthy diets.

In many instances, solutions have been proposed and implemented immediately that transform the way we think about, grow and consume food. Examples include efforts to increase food production in cities by converting empty spaces into productive community or market gardens.  Similarly, public agencies have transformed local food economies by prioritising their purchasing in favour of local, fresh and even organic produce for use in hospitals, schools and public buildings. Taxes on sugary drinks have been proposed (and implemented) around the world, leading to global reduction in sales in 2017.

These are all solutions that can, and are being implemented immediately, but also have a focus on longer term change. But that focus on longer term change needs greater effort.

Politicising involves recognising that exposing and proposing on their own does not lead to change.  It requires understanding that in order for alternatives to take root, they require political action and political organisation.  Politicising change is about how we engage collectively so that our efforts at exposing and proposing captures the interest of individuals and motivates us to work towards a common agenda. 

While we are told that we can vote with our wallet and that we are in an age where the consumer rules, the reality is that we are individuals making individual decisions in a context where, according to an Oxfam report from 2013, our food choices are tightly controlled by a group of 10 food monopolies.  These food monopolies are able to dictate our food choices, manipulate grower contracts and define consumer variety. They are politically powerful, and use their scale and influence to create conditions that favour their outcomes.

However, when we politicise food in our cities and communities, we are able to exert some control over our food system. Food policy councils and food charters are effective examples of ways cities are bringing people together around a common food agenda that is a direct response to existing problems with the food system.We need to put more effort into thinking strategically about what particular issues and solutions work in specific places that may engage and allow more citizens to contribute to a different kind of food system. 

We have exposed the problems.  We can propose a range of solutions.  We have all kinds of knowledge about alternatives and can draw inspiration from proven examples from all over the world.  We need to put more effort into politicising food so that those solutions take root.

- Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer in the University of Otago Department of Geography. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.

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