A Young Farmer Calls for Political Ecology | Civil Eats

A Young Farmer Calls for Political Ecology

“…the global economy and ecology are both systems. Global causes are systemic, not local. Global risk is systemic, not local. The localization of causation and risk is what has brought about our twin disasters. We have to think in global, system terms and we don’t do so naturally. That is why a massive communications effort is needed.” — George Lakoff

As an ecologically-minded horticulturist, I like to think about everything with an ecological framework. Ecology, simply, is the study of organisms in relation to other organisms and the environment. Many things could be said to be wrong with the state of our nation’s political life, but if there is one to emphasize, it is the lack of a political ecology.  We tend to compartmentalize political issues, along the lines of our individual political identities (sometimes referred to as issues “silos”), and this often negates efforts to connect the dots between diverse issues.

If there is one political identity that should be able to look past these divides and see the importance of ecological connections between movements and struggles, it is that of the environmentalist. The environmentalist’s worldview is steeped in the interdependent view of life; the understanding that one action can cause reactions beyond the expected.  And the most visible (and seemingly the most active) environmentalists, these days, are the food sustainability activists.  Yet even food activists themselves have their silos: urban food access, farmland preservation, nutrition education, and so on. I hope this article will help us see our commonality outside of our silos, and see how to use that to better work towards change.

How are food activists taking the political climate and working it for change? I’d say they’re doing pretty well, in general.  Just a casual reading of this blog can show you the diverse projects, attitudes, and self-criticisms of this set.  However, I feel that there still lacks an inclination or willingness to question certain political behaviors. Namely, the three problems I see are:

1) Attachment to conventional political “truths” and strategies given a dearth of evidence supporting them as leading to the change we seek;

2) Ready acceptance of token political gestures and mainstream media coverage of our issues as tantamount to political change;


3) A lack of ecological awareness of how other modern political issues shape, structure, and limit our “food movement”, and a coincident lack of rhetorical cohesion or expression of the grander change we seek while we work towards change in our individual silos.

Let’s take these problems from last to first.

What do we want, as a “movement”? Well, clearly, we are into a food system that provides food for all that is “good, clean, and fair.” But is that all? Are our values also in favor of health care for all that is “good, clean and fair”? What about the right to housing? What about a governmental system that is accountable to the people it governs? What about having a country where education is funded more than war? What about the right to walk down a street and not be harassed by police for being dark-skinned?

Yes, these are all different issues, and perhaps not everyone in our silo feels the same way about them all, but we can’t deny that what brings us to our food movement are values that are held in common with the movements working on these other issues. It is not up to me to define these values, but it seems clear that there is a vision informing our movement that it is at least partly shared with these others. And whatever they are, these values have not been elucidated on the national stage for a long time.  As pointed out by cognitive scientist George Lakoff, the past 30 years have seen the conservative right dominating national politics with their framing of the issues and advancement of their policies, with the Democratic party ineffectually going along for the ride.

Granted, the U.S. political system is not simple, nor would it be solvable through one book, blog, or piece of well-written legislation. But there are patterns in the structural dismantling and dysfunction of government that have become frighteningly damaging within the past 30-50 years. These patterns, such as the privatization of government, the deregulation of the marketplace, the corporatization of public space and the commons, the globalization of capital, and the increased involvement of moneyed interests in government, are not just some natural development of the United States experiment in democracy.  They are a result of efforts by the moneyed class and their functionaries, at each step of the way, to bring them about, and (sadly) a failure of those opposed to stop it. For one example, look to the World Trade Organization, a supra-national corporate organization with the power to force the policies of “free trade” on any country in the world, regardless of what the voting populace thinks or wants. “Free trade” isn’t; more appropriately it would be called corporately-managed trade.

What does this have to do with us, the food people, you might ask? Well, on to problem two.

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How do we confront these issues, as community gardeners, or farmers, or anti-hunger activists? Well, we start by framing our stories, our struggles, in the language of the values we hold for a better world overall — including issues not in our silos. Then we refuse to accept as victories changes that don’t actually challenge this current political structure, insisting instead on holding to solutions which represent our values.

An example of this is the White House organic garden. From the original New York Times article about the garden:

Dan Barber, an owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an organic restaurant in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., that grows many of its own ingredients, said: “The power of Michelle Obama and the garden can create a very powerful message about eating healthy and more delicious food. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it could translate into real change.”

Symbol of renewed interest in healthy, fresh food? Sure. Indicator of social or political change? I don’t see it. Cultural values surely change as the ideas that frame our lives evolve. Healthy, local eating may become more important to some people due to this White House garden. But the reality remains that whatever a person’s values are, healthy local eating will remain more expensive than the cheap processed foods Mrs. Obama decries (and therefore be less common), as long as the political and economic structures remain the same.

At the very least, a symbolic victory should contain a kernel of the truth about the change we seek, even if it is merely vocally expressed but not acted on.  If we are to be happy about a politician grandstanding on our issue of good food, or another New York Times article “discovering” the latest good food project or personality, we should be ready to see through it critically; to ask ourselves whether it promotes the larger vision of the world we seek, and not just a piecemeal feel-good band-aid of activist relief.

The last issue is perhaps the one that will garner me the least fans. I propose that we stop looking to the Obama administration, or any federally-elected Democratic officials, as boosters for our movement. I could list endless things the Democrats have done that upset my values (from voting repeatedly for the occupation of Iraq to defending torture), but here I’ll stick to ones that relate more directly to the sustainable food issue.

First, think of those Mexican ejido farmers, struggling to grow and sell their heirloom varieties of Maize in a market newly-flooded with cheap U.S. Agribusiness corn. Who made this possible? NAFTA was passed by Clinton, our last Democratic “savior.” Barack Obama campaigned on a strong promise to reform free trade agreements like NAFTA and now, post-election, has rescinded that promise.

Second, think of climate change, a major player in the future of agriculture. James Hansen, the foremost NASA climate change scientist, has written up a letter to President Obama, as reported in the Guardian UK:

Hansen wrote that there is a “profound disconnect” between public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem as described by the science. He praised Obama’s campaign rhetoric about “a planet in peril”, but said that how the new president responds in office will be crucial. Hansen lambasts the current international approach of setting targets to be met through “cap and trade” schemes as not up to the task. “This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity,” [Hansen] wrote.

President Obama’s solution to climate change has been, surprise surprise, cap and trade.  At least, some argue, he promised during his campaign to sell off 100% of cap-and-trade “allowances”, the permits for every ton of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. This would mean money from polluters for permits, slated to fund the largest investment in renewable energy in history. Now the president has backed away from that commitment, and through the recent Waxman/Markey Bill, 85% of these permits will be given away to industries that pollute.

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Lastly, health care reform — or as it is disguised now, health “insurance” reform. As a farmer who does not have health insurance (not an uncommon occurrence) and like everyone else, no assurance of health, this is a big deal. President Obama pledged to fight for a public health insurance option (not even universal health care, the reality in many other more sane countries), in fact, he has said that it must be a part of any health care reform plan. We, “the people” elected him, partly on this promise. And now, with control of both legislative houses, and the support of the electorate, there is talk of removing the public option. We in the food movement believe in a right to healthy food, as a very common sense preventative measure to future health problems. But for me, it can’t stop there, because I believe that risks exist beyond diet-related disease, and that those risks can effect anyone. And NO ONE should be denied the right to take care of those problems due to lack of wealth. So instead of talking in the conservative frame of insurance, maybe we should talk about the right to CARE. But I digress — my point is merely that, even in the most conducive political circumstances, our saviors the Dems can’t even get it together to pass the most basic and non-threatening kinds of reform. This is our democracy in action.

So companies can continue to pollute (CO2, not to mention other noxious chemicals), jobs can move to wherever the environmental regulations are most lax, and we’ll keep voting for incremental change that doesn’t reflect what we actually want: a healthy environment, meaningful employment, social and economic equality, universal access to health care, good and affordable education, and a democracy that means something.

The usual counter-argument I field when I discuss the need to move past the Democratic Party to promote progressive politics is that I ask too much. Many insist that change doesn’t happen that fast; that there are many factors that keep Obama et al from acting the way we want them too; that we don’t understand these factors and that we should have patience.

Well, if we truly believe that change is needed (to avoid the worst effects of peak oil, to mitigate climate change, to revive our democracy, to leave a sane, healthy world to our children), and we have the values and ideas that can lead us there, why did we vote for Obama under the banner of change and those values, if we expected him to not actually do anything? Is this democracy?

One last comparison, to maybe frame this issue in terms that the food silo understands. We have (luckily) moved past the notion that changes in buying patterns alone can change the food system, but we still believe (rightfully) that when we “vote with our fork” we can affect on our food system. All I ask is that we move that concept to the political system, and stop voting for candidates, a party, and a political structure that doesn’t reflect the values we hold. Whether the answer is to form a third political party (as the abolitionists and suffragettes did) or directly confront the Democrats more forcefully, I don’t propose to know. I’m just sayin’: our food system won’t heal without a healthy political system, and what we got right now just ain’t working.

Antonio Roman-Alcalá is an educator, researcher, writer, and organizer based in Berkeley, California who has worked for just sustainable food systems for the past 15 years. Antonio co-founded San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, and the California Food Policy Council, and his 2010 documentary film, In Search of Good Food, can be viewed free online. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley, and an MA from ISS in The Hague. Currently, Antonio maintains the blog antidogmatist.com, conducts activist-scholar research at ISS, and leads the North American Agroecology Organizing Project. He is also in search of new land to farm – a tough prospect in the urbanized and gentrified San Francisco Bay Area! Read more >

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  1. Amerigo
    Once again, Antonio, very well put. We desperately need a new party. Clinton sold the Dems to Wall St. and now they all act as if Milton Friedman were the only economist who ever lived. And I like your silo analogy. We live in such a individualist culture that we tend to think we can affect change through personal action. Runnin' off to the country to plant yourself a Michele Obama garden is escapism, not activism. I might help your personal diet, but it's not going to change the food system. We have to build a new food system, and none of us are going to do it alone.
  2. Kitty B
    Excellent article, Antonio! It's really good to hear someone call out for immediate systemic change. I think you hit on one of the food movement's greatest strengths- its an obvious launchboard for looking at the interconnectedness of all these issues.
  3. Tamara
    Very much appreciated your post and I think you are right on. We do need to start voting with our fork so to speak! This last summer my family and I have been doing just that. We have been buying our food (80%) from our local farmers' market. If we have more people doing this there would be a huge shift across our nation that would send a message to those in D.C. that we want something different... that we deserve something better. Voting with our fork. I like that!
  4. Gerardo
    Right on Amigo Antonio! We need to bring this issues to the attention and plitizice more food activism in US because often times the movement here forgets to connect all the dots. I am not a US food activist; I have been frustrated for the lack of a world or global discussion when talking about food systems and food activism in general. The big picture is obiously US and the rich countires but we need to start the conversation/work with the rest of the world. Do we know what's happening in Mexico or Brazil with food activism? A gathering of all food activists is very needed I believe. OK, excuse my bad english man.Keep up writting and planting the seeds of real change amigo!

    Saludos solidarios,

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