Less Policy, More Culture: Doing Radical Things With Food

July 15th, 2013

Published on New left Project, by Luigi Russi, July 11, 2013.

Feeding people is easy, says Colin Tudge[1] – the man behind the Campaign for Real Farming. What makes the subject of food harder to stomach, indeed almost intractable, is its centrality to a number of other processes beyond feeding people: food is also an incubator of superbugs,[2] a contested battleground for trade relations,[3] an unruly patient to wrangle inside the straitjacket of safety and traceability regulations (remember the horsemeat scandal).[4]   

In my book, Hungry Capital: The Financialization of Food, I have added yet another dimension to the prismic existence of food: its incorporation in calculative machines that transform (and reduce) it into a matter for cost-benefit calculations, an electronic recording inside a trader’s portfolio, an asset to be leveraged to generate cash flow.

If feeding people is easy, anything else people (and things) are doing with food, all the time, is a master head-scratcher.

Worse of all, no matter how rotten the world of food may be, we are all, to varying degrees, dependent on an entanglement of processes pertaining to the production, consumption and distribution of food, which we might not agree with, or might even openly loathe. To someone on a modest – or also not so modest – income, and living in a densely populated urban area, it can often be a matter of (financial, spatial or timetabling) necessity to shop in supermarkets that are cheap, are everywhere and open when you get out of work. And yet, the very institutions making so much food available to you where you need it and when you want it, behave increasingly like venture capitalists that look at food as one item in a pool of investment options alongside, say, consumer credit (think of the various supermarket-branded financial services, from home insurance to credit cards). These institutions don’t really care to feed you, but instead to have you as their customer, whether you like it or not.

If food is, then, not just messy, but sometimes positively distasteful, the question then is: what is a truly radical position to adopt in relation to it?

This is where I think a truly radical positioning in relation to food requires an approach that is less concerned primarily with fixing what appears to be broken – an approach I am going to call ‘policy’. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with policy. Indeed, fixing what’s broken is a basic reaction, and often a necessary one, when you – like everyone else – are dependent on objects of some sort. For example, in the case of food, we all depend on fertilisers and pesticides to enable the growing of extensive monocultures that bring to our table a regular supply of artificially cheap and unsustainable food. We rely on the operation of corporate machines that source and process both the microwave noodles you’re having for dinner and the one-of-five-a-day organic fruit drink you’re sipping at your desk. When the objects and processes you depend on run into problems, it becomes a necessity to try and fix them. So if they run against the planet’s carrying capacity, for example, the immediate question from a policy perspective is not how do we revolutionise this system, but rather how do we make a perverse system (on which we depend) more resilient in the face of shocks … //

… So, I suggest at the end of Hungry Capital, my alternative approach for being radical with food is to not throw alternatives that appear irrelevant for policy purposes into the trash, but to chuck them on a compost heap. There, by building a critical mass, they can help channel our thinking and our embodied relation to food in novel and unexpected ways by giving us new stories through which to see ourselves. From a policy perspective, this might not seem much. And yet, I believe, this is a necessary way out of the impasse that food presents us with today: that of a broken normality and alternatives that seem impotent, when they might simply be radical.

(full text and notes).

(Luigi Russi is a Research Associate at the City Political Economy Research Centre and author of Hungry Capital: The Financialization of Food. @lrningdotinfo).


a book: Hungry Capital, The Financialization of Food;

and a website: The Campaign for Real Farming.

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