Book Review: ‘Food Justice – A Primer’

Bronwyn Slater reviews this fascinating new book and interviews the author Saryta Rodriguez

 

Animal agriculture is a disaster for our world in so many ways.  Quite apart from its effect on animals and its destructiveness to the environment, its effects on the lives of people who work in the agriculture and food sector is often appalling.  ‘Food Justice – A Primer’ is a book which explores the many ways in which people and the planet are negatively affected by animal agriculture.  The subject of food justice is wide-ranging and covers issues such as human rights, xenophobia, world hunger, food waste, food insecurity, agriculture, the environment and much more.

I read this newly-published book recently and these are just a few of the facts I gleaned:

Food insecurity:

  • Food security is defined as: “when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
  • Over 41 million Americans live in food-insecure homes.
  • In 2016 nearly 13% of Americans were living in poverty – a third were children under 18.
  • Healthful food is disproportionately limited to mainly white Americans.
  • A large proportion of people in black neighbourhoods do not own a car and therefore have a limited choice regarding the food available. For example, a hotdog may be priced at $2 and a healthy salad at $10.  Black neighbourhoods are inundated with fast food outlets and there is little access to healthful food.
  • Many poor children go to school hungry which hampers their learning abilities.
  • Homeless people in some US states are denied access to free food handed out by charities.  22 cities have passed ‘feeding bans’ – laws which criminalise food donation.  These laws have resulted in the arrest of people who distribute food to the needy.

World Hunger:

  • Ending animal agriculture would go a long way towards ending world hunger.
  • Enough crops for an additional 3.5 billion people could be saved by consuming plants directly instead of feeding them to livestock.
  • Strategies to achieve food sovereignty would be greatly improved by global shifts to plant based food and farming.
  • There is more than enough food on the planet to feed everyone so the issue is not one of supply – it is one of distribution.

Food waste:

  • Almost 50% of all produce in the US is thrown away annually.
  • Globally, about one third of all food that is grown is thrown away – about 1.3 billion tons per year.

Workers Rights:

  • Over two thirds of farm workers in the US today originate from Mexico and most of them are undocumented.
  • Many immigrants who work in the farming and food sector are not paid a fair wage and their working conditions are extremely poor.
  • Current US administration policies regarding raiding of workspaces have made many undocumented workers afraid to come to work.
  • Child labourers on family farms in the US are not protected under labour laws. Many suffer long working hours, heat exposure, extreme physical demands and limited access to education.  A bill was introduced in 2009 to rectify this, but it has still not been enacted.

Land Rights:

  • Xenophobia often results in unfair trade deals that put non-American farmers at a disadvantage.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for the displacement of indigenous people.  For instance, the destruction of the Amazon in order to create grazing pasture for animals or to grow soy crops means that locals are pushed off their land.
  • Many land rights movements have begun in reaction to this:
  • One of the largest social movements in Latin America is ‘Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement’ (MST).  It has a membership of over 1.5 million people and has led to over 2,500 land occupations and the reclamation of 7.5
    A demonstration by La Via Campesina

    million hectares of previously unproductive land for farming purposes.

  • La Via Campesina is a well known worldwide organisation which brings together peasants, small farmers, landless and indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers.  It is a social justice movement which fights for the rights of peasant farmers and strongly opposes corporate-driven agriculture.
  • The Occupy the Farm movement began in 2011 in California.  This is an ongoing community driven direct action movement which occupies public land otherwise slated for private development.

Human Rights:

  • Human rights violations are rampant in the food and farming sector.
  • These include: kidnapping, child labour, slavery, sexual abuse and exploitation of undocumented immigrants.

GMO debate:

  • Patents on GMO seeds threaten farmers who use seeds which have similar genetic information to the patented seed.

Animal Agriculture:

  • It is estimated we will need two thirds more land than the earth actually possesses in order to meet predicted demand for animal flesh and related products over the next 25 years.
  • Animal agriculture has a very negative effect on humans who work in the industry.  Slaughterhouse workers and workers on factory farms are mostly immigrants and non-white Americans.
  • Pollution from factory farms affects mainly low-income neighbourhoods with a high proportion of African Americans.
  • The habitat of wild animals is being eroded resulting in dwindling numbers and species extinction. Wild animals are being deliberately killed (shot, poisoned, trapped or culled) if they are seen as a threat to farmed animals.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The total GHG emissions from agriculture is more than those from the entire transport sector put together.
  • Wild bee populations (our natural pollinators) are dwindling due to pesticide use.
  • Animal agriculture results in ocean dead zones as toxins from manure and fertilizer pour into waterways causing algal blooms and deprive the water of oxygen.

Food Justice: A Primer is collection of essays by various authors – each of whom focuses on a particular topic.  I would recommend it as a good place to start for anyone with an interest in the subject of food justice.  I interviewed the book’s editor Saryta Rodriguez recently and asked her about the book:

 

VSM:  How would you define ‘Food Justice’?

SR:  Basically, “food justice” to me means the right to have access to healthful food that meets one’s dietary needs.  Access is the key word, here.  I don’t just mean that food should be around people, but also that it should be affordable.  Putting a Whole Foods in low-income neighborhoods, while technically increasing the presence of healthful food in areas saturated with junk food, does not necessarily increase accessibility to these foods if, say, Whole Foods decides to charge the same prices in East Harlem that it does in Union Square.

Food sovereignty refers to a community’s right to decide how it is fed.  This moves beyond the question of access to reaffirm the right of people to choose, for instance, their preferred farming methods and seeds— even if some multinational corporation has developed a similar method or seed and slapped a patent onto it.  People who have been growing crops a certain way for hundreds of years should not suddenly have to pay some company for the “privilege” of continuing to do something they are already doing, or to use something they are already using.  Similarly, no one should be forced to buy a particular type of seed, from a particular source.  In a purported effort to improve upon food justice in the world (alongside a more blatant effort to increase their own profit margins), some companies are infringing on food sovereignty, resulting in protests and other forms of resistance organized by farmers and peasants around the world.

 

VSM:  What were your main findings as a result of your research?

SR:  I’m not sure “findings” is the right word here, as my intention was to sort of encapsulate and examine the problem from a variety of angles, while suggesting some solutions— without necessarily pinpointing one thing as the solution.  I think that sort of “magic bullet” thinking— that there’s this one thing we can all do that will immediately make everything better for everyone— is dangerously naïve, leaving us open to corporate manipulation such as greenwashing (when a company talks about how low its environmental impact is, or even claims to be vegan, while treating its workers like garbage, supplying troops with supplies needed to go out and enforce apartheid, etc.).  However, some of the things that would help, that I and others highlighted in the book, include:

Developing local and regional alternatives to capitalism, while challenging its global influence:  Many of the problems we see in the realm of food justice can be traced back, in one way or another, to capitalism.  Whether it’s the fact that so many people in one of the wealthiest nations in the world (the US) cannot afford to eat regularly or healthfully, or that those who produce the food we eat are compensated unfairly and victimized via such things as exploitative work hours and sexual assault, or that multinational corporations can bully peasants and farmers around the world into doing their bidding…I mean, I could go on forever!

With respect to capitalism’s impact on food justice, we need to combat this on two fronts.  On one, we need to challenge the dominance of global capitalism as it relates to food, as organizations such as Via Campesina do on a regular basis.  We need to raise awareness of what multinationals are doing while ensuring that we fund them as little as possible.  (Sadly, there are some ways in which our contributions are institutionalized beyond our control, such as when we pay taxes; so it is impossible at this point to ensure that you are 100% not funding an entity you don’t support.  The best we can do at this point is to minimize our contributions to them while pressuring the government to restrict their reach.)

Chilis on Wheels provides vegan meals to those in need. Photo credit: Chilis on Wheels

At the same time, it is essential that we not merely bemoan the current global food system but simultaneously develop viable alternatives that empower communities to minimize their reliance on it, as well as the perceived reliance among many on nonhuman animal byproducts.  That’s where local growth and harvesting initiatives (like Green Bronx Machine), agricultural techniques (such as veganic farming), seed banks and seed swaps, and distribution projects (such as Chilis on Wheels) come into play.  Without providing alternatives and fighting to make these alternatives as affordable and easy to implement as possible, public outcries about the abuses of multinationals amount to a fart in the wind.

 

An unwavering commitment to solidarity:  It is essential that we all stand up for the humans who grow and distribute our food.  Participate in strikes and boycotts surrounding companies that don’t pay their workers a fair wage, don’t protect them from sexual assault or even penalize the guilty for having committed it, and/or that impose a lifestyle on farmers and others that interrupts their children’s education (such as forcing farmers to move once the growing season ends, meaning kids have to leave school and then either come back to that school or start at another school during the next growing season).  When trying to be a good consumer, look beyond the ingredients list.  Who is profiting from your purchase?  How are the people who created what you are purchasing compensated and treated?  Labor abuses are rampant within a variety of industries that create naturally “vegan” products, such as coffee and chocolate.

Meanwhile, it is no secret that, in the US at least, the most profitable corporations have an outsized impact on political outcomes.  Is the company that profits from your purchase using your money to support apartheid?  The criminalization of dissent?  The limitation of women’s reproductive rights? The expansion of the Surveillance State?  The repression of LGBTQPIA+ folk?

Finally, corporate consolidation has skyrocketed such that many brands those of us who have been “ethical consumers” for years have grown to trust are no longer quite so trustworthy.  Tom’s of Maine, for instance, long heralded as the Number One brand in the US for vegan toiletries such as toothpaste and deodorant, was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive in 2006— a company that engages in nonhuman animal testing.

Going vegan: For nonhuman justice, for human health, and for the future of our planet, this is one thing that most of us can do now, and that all of us will be able to do eventually, that will have a tremendous impact.  I say most can do it now and not all because we must be cognizant of things like climate and income; however, initiatives abound to ameliorate these problems.  In my first book, I mentioned how hydroponic growing is being developed and expanded upon in such a way as to make it easier for people in harsh climates, like Alaska, to grow more produce and thus minimize and eventually eliminate nonhuman animal consumption.  However, these things are all still too expensive to be mainstream.  On the income front, you have organizations like Chilis on Wheels, Food Empowerment Project, Fuel the People and A Well-Fed World making vegan food widely available to people of limited income.

 

VSM:  Do you think there is cause for optimism for the future of food justice?

SR:  I do!  It’s tough because there is so much work that lies ahead, yet I am hopeful because there are so many good people out there already doing the work, and more are joining them every day.  The U.S. is currently experiencing a resurgence of skepticism regarding capitalism, which is a good start.  Meanwhile, veganism is slowly shifting from a “niche” or “fringe” ideology to something more mainstream.  The face of veganism is changing.  It is increasingly understood now that one need not be wealthy, white, female, etc. to make the switch, while some of those who do hold such privilege (minus being female, which is not a privilege but merely a stereotype employed to manipulate men into consuming nonhuman animals) are working exceptionally hard to expand accessibility of vegan food to all human populations.  More and more, consumers are thinking critically about their purchases, rather than just grabbing the cheapest thing on the shelf (if they are low-income) or the most luxurious, attractive product (if they are middle- or high-income).  They are reading.  They are asking questions.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico right now is a very exciting example of how so many catastrophes that have befallen the nation and the planet in recent years have resulted in a sort of tabula rasa, onto which people are constructing a new and brighter future for themselves.  There is talk of converting the energy structure on the island to wind and solar rather than imported fossil fuels.  Chilis on Wheels recently opened Casa Vegana de la Comunidad in San Juan, a community center that provides meals several times a week, as well as movie nights, cooking classes and other fun community events.  The U.S. government has failed Puerto Rico time and time again, but Puerto Ricans simply refuse to give up.  They are saving themselves.  We should all follow this example and learn to lean more on our friends and neighbors and less on the government and Big Ag— while consistently pressuring the former to divest from the latter.

 

VSM:  How can starving people in the developing world benefit from these ideas and principles?

SR:  One way I hope such people can benefit is that the book includes information about various organizations that work hard for their rights, and so hopefully they can reach out to one of these to make their voices heard and attain some powerful allies in their struggle.  Via Campesina and A Well-Fed World are probably the two organizations mentioned in the book with the most global reach.  It is also my hope that some of the strategies for resistance and for more ethical food production provided in the book can be of use.  For instance, the chapter on land rights struggles provides some guidance that may be of use to people in the developing world facing unjust eviction and other such outrages.  The chapter on veganic farming hopefully provides enough insight so that those who are interested in trying this method are able to do so, no matter where they are.  A substantial portion of the introduction is devoted to exploring past labor movements, which may provide insight into how current labor movements ought to proceed.  So there is some historical analysis that can be useful, as well as more modern-day techniques and strategies.

 

VSM:  Are there any other points you would like to make, or anything else you would like to say about the book that you feel is important?

SR:  On a micro level, if this book inspires even just one person to become involved in food justice— whether by becoming a more conscientious consumer, volunteering, donating, raising awareness, or all of the above— it will have been well worth the effort.  On a macro level, my sincere hope is that this book— and what I hope will become a cascade of many, many more books like it— will help to unite the hunger element and the nonhuman element of the food justice struggle, with each side clearly understanding that its cause cannot succeed without the “other” cause also succeeding.  I hope to see in my lifetime an end to competition and hostility between the two camps, and a solid commitment from each to fight for food systems that are ethical for humans and nonhumans alike, while also protecting the planet on which we all must live.

There is no Planet B.  All of our lives are at stake here: from the simplest life form to the most complex; from the world’s poorest human to its wealthiest.

 

Saryta Rodríguez is an author, editor, social justice advocate, and educator.  Their first book, Until Every Animal is Free, was published in October 2015 by Vegan Publishers, and their second book, Food Justice: A Primer, was published in July 2018 by Sanctuary Publishers.  Saryta also contributed an essay and part of the Introduction to Veganism in an Oppressive World, which was published in November 2017 by Sanctuary Publishers.  Saryta’s past writings have focused on food justice, veganism, race, and gentrification.  Their articles have appeared on such notable social justice websites as Free From Harm, Causa Justa/Just Cause, and Reasonable Vegan.

For more information, visit www.sarytarodriguez.com.

 

 

 

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