The Elitism Question

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan’s advice on what to eat from the New York Times, which has turned out to be surprisingly controversial.

Real food? Everybody knows that’s just for the wealthy elite… Berkshire pork and morels at $180 an ounce, right? Something like that… certainly no relevance to the average North American family. Completely ungrounded in any class analysis, exclusive purview of the Land Rover set.

But what if I told you that my focus on Real Food comes out of a Marxist and Weberian analysis of how “the elite” maintain their collective advantages in society? My concerns with the industrial food system start with the displacement of indigenous people to provide cash crops, increasingly for the purposes of providing animal feed for the developed world. I observe that the industrial agricultural system requires a perpetual resource war that perpetuates cycles of violence and repression in oil-rich but democracy-poor countries all over the world. And one of my central claims is that we don’t have the right to impoverish the entire rest of the world so that we don’t have to confront the depth of inequity in North American culture. Would you still weigh my piddly little excuse for a farm against the actions of Walmart, Cargill, and Monsanto and declare me the bad guy? You can if you want to; there’s nothing I can do to stop you. I just want to be clear what it is that you are rejecting when you slap the “Elite and therefore irrelevant” label on the entire movement for Real Food.

What we are doing here, at this stage, is rebuilding capacity. Social justice is a significant motivational component of the movement, but from my own perspective, it is becoming pragmatic. I don’t want this to come to revolution, and I don’t want to witness (or suffer from) mass starvation on the streets of North America. Famine is the normal state of human affairs, and we are not well-adapted, having grown larger than people in previous generations and requiring  more to eat as a result. What is worse, many of us live in loosely-connected non-communities, with little resilience or self-sufficiency. We are catastrophe waiting to happen.

The industrial food system may be the crowning achievement of global capitalism, but it happens to also be utterly unsustainable. It does feed more people than ever before, but it does so only so long as the oil keeps flowing. It is capital intensive, and has almost entirely displaced labour, which makes it incredibly susceptible to economic “downturns,” and contractions, and depressions. The products are traded on the international commodity markets, making it into something that can be manipulated for profit, even while people are starving… sometimes the very people who grew and harvested the food in the first place… sometimes off land that they used to work for the benefit of their own families, who no longer have access to adequate nutrition. It is a system that asks us to weigh the needs of the North American poor against those of the global poor, and turn a blind eye to the consequences of its failure to adequately address any of those needs. It is the system that is corrupt and immoral; “The Poor” (as though this is some monolithic group) are largely powerless within it. Frankly, “The Elite” that are such common targets of this criticism are even pretty far down the power structure. Really, how many Ivy League English professors do you think sit on the boards of the major multinational companies? No, this is a situation in which the system can keep us fighting amongst ourselves, thus keeping us from doing anything to actually address the problems in which we are enmeshed.

And into this slow-motion disaster steps the “Real Food” movement. Because at the same time that our population has grown, and the individual members of it have become larger, and the overall flow of energy has increased, we have lost many of the basic preindustrial technologies that turn plants and animals into food, from putting seed in the ground, right down to cooking the final product. We (in large, giant, enormous chicken factories) don’t bother to keep roosters, and we’ve developed breeds of chickens that lay absurd quantities of eggs, but don’t have any mothering instincts, so can’t turn those eggs into a next generation without industrial levels of human intervention. We have no way of planting or harvesting grains that doesn’t involve house-sized pieces of heavy equipment. If any of us happened upon a bag of grain, almost none of us would be able to make something edible out of it. These are not just interesting hobbies for those with the time and energy to devote to them.

These are the tools of survival, and we don’t have them.

Which brings us back around to class. I am fully aware that we are talking about survival on completely different time scales. Most weeks in my house, the groceries aren’t an issue. We have those weeks where an extra bill comes due, or the car breaks down, or somebody needs a trip to the dentist or a prescription, but we have a well-stocked pantry to carry us through those things. I know that puts us in a lucky and rare category in the world. So when one of “us” (let’s say ‘food activists’) says that most of what is in the grocery store “isn’t food”, it can be taken as a purely aesthetic claim, that we are judging, dismissing the reality of those who have no choice but to purchase whatever is on cheapest sale this week. Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve cried at the grocery store, and it wasn’t over fancy cheese. But it also wasn’t recently. I know that in this deeply and profoundly unfair world, I’m pretty near the top of the heap. I’m able to consider survival on the time scale of my lifetime, or the lifetimes of several generations, because my immediate needs are pretty much taken care of (at the moment).

So what do I use that for? I could simply claim that in some way the way things are reflects the natural order of things, take what I can and leave the rest to their own devices. I could use my education to make a lot of money. Really. I’ve got some pretty weird skills, some of which pay pretty well. But I’ve chosen to work for a better world, which includes access to real food produced in a way that doesn’t jeopardize our ability to have any food at all in 20 years. I try to figure out ways to allow more people to eat better without bankrupting the entire rural economy or outsourcing all our environmental contaminants to people still further down the power ladder.

Let me be perfectly clear: It is not the fault of anybody trapped in this system, but the system as a whole must be up for criticism. Because it is not morally neutral, and to claim that it is, is to ignore the suffering inflicted by these processes. This is a system that is violent from one end to the other, starting with the expropriation of land from peasants the world over, and ending with food deserts in North American urban centres, with stops along the way for poisoning the air, land, and sea, normalizing cruelty to animals, and marginalizing and impoverishing the few farm labourers that remain. It is an enormous fraction of our externalizing economy, which provides for the few at the expense of the many, including future generations. So, yes… feed your children, but please don’t demand that I do nothing to challenge the impacts. I’m trying to make sure that there is a planet for them to inherit.

I don’t get paid for this work. We break even (maybe) on the eggs and the veggies. The writing has all been done for free, along with workshops, and the work to keep the farmers markets going in a wet, cold, climate in one of the poorest parts of Canada. I do this in solidarity with the peasants of the global south as represented by Vandana Shiva and La Via Campesina. I do it to remember rural farmers trying to figure out how to do the right thing in the face of “get big or get out”, and urban farmers who are building local foodsheds in cities all over North America. We are quietly (or not so quietly) weaving a safety net beneath a culture that we fear is on the brink of collapse, in hope that the fall will be more gentle. And yes, I’m doing it on land that is paid for by my husband’s decent professional salary, in time that I can (sort of) afford to lose, on the back of more than a decade of post-secondary education. On land, I might add, for which the native population has almost certainly not been adequately compensated. But please, don’t look at my $4-a-dozen eggs (collected from hens that roam freely and for whom my partner recently vaulted a six-foot fence to chase off the fox), please don’t look and say, “That woman cares nothing for the poor.”

For more information on radical approaches to Real Food, check out the Civil Eats website, particularly the parts about food access. That’s where the link goes. Or Navdanya International, for a global perspective.

7 responses to “The Elitism Question”

  1. once again spot on.

    It is amazing to me, ok maybe no surprise but to hear it outside my own head, that it is actually much cheaper to eat junk food (mcdonalds) than it is to eat healthy. I mean, if you’re living pay check to pay check.. as most are.. can you really afford to buy the fixings of a good meal when it’ll cost you $3 to fill your stomach, to mention nothing of the time or energy to make it?
    That is what our current system supports. Could it be that way for a reason? Pharm maybe?

    Think about it.. If we can keep the people working more hours so all they feel like doing is vegging out and watching propaganda and dumb sitcoms, they won’t think about how bad a screwing they’re taking.

    They won’t think about eating health, or living within their means, or much of anything.

    I have to laugh when I hear them talking about reducing obesity.. Face it.. the only way we’re going to end obesity is to change the system. Make nutritional food available to all, get our work week back to 40 or less hours, and start treating people like humans instead of machines.

    Arggg now I’m fired up 🙂

    • Get our work week back to 40 or less hours, and start treating people like humans instead of machines.

      Yes. Why have I never made the connection in this way before?

    • Tha’s exactly true. My life changed, my eating habits changed, my health changed… but only after I changed absolutely everything. And got the TV out of my house, and the magazines, and all the daily messages screaming, “You suck! Buy this thing and you won’t suck as much… at least until next year when we change what it all looks like, and then you will suck again!” It didn’t leave much time for thinking about the things that really mattered.

      • The thing that truly saddens me is when people realize this but, do to circumstances that are at least mostly out of their control, they can do little about.

        For instance, someone who lives in an apartment and who’s bills leave them $10 a month. Sure they can container garden.. but where are they going to get the $$ for all the supplies.

        I’m not quite in that situation but close. I realize that withing the next decade (maybe 2) money will be worthless. If you aren’t able to raise you’re own food you’ll be done. But how do you get there on $10 a month? Truly bleak outlook but there has to be an answer.

        I think the only way to lessen the impact is to get back to local economy, community, etc.. This would also radically alter our dependency on fossil fuel

  2. Sort of related, sort of not. But recently I accused my husband of being a snob … I don’t remember why. And then he said that I was actually the snob for having questioned his eating $2 sausage-and-egg-on-a-roll breakfasts from a deli near his workplace. But my question was only, What are you eating that it cost only $2? What kind of food is it, really? Where did it come from?

    Anyway, related to our earlier urban/rural discussion, I definitely do not have the tools to survive. It terrifies me. Somewhere in The Liars’ Club Mary Karr says that if she had to, she could skin a squirrel and cook and eat it. When I read that, I thought, I am so totally fracked. Ivy League education and all.

    • I mean, it’s kind of a pessimistic worldview we’re carrying around, constantly imagining what would happen if things really, really go wrong. And further recognizing that we’re totally fracked in those circumstances. I spent some time last summer with a friend considering how long it would take to walk from Toronto to my house (probably about 6 months). It’s all very post-apocalyptic.

      BUT, I also think about all those Christian monks preserving the technology of writing during the dark ages, and what a profound waste of time that must have been considered. And I think, somebody should probably do something here. I guess I’ll do what I can, but even what I can do won’t keep us alive or safe in times of war or famine. The only thing that can do that is strong, skilled, caring community. Which means weaving a much much stronger web of support based on something more meaningful than the free exchange of money with people we don’t really care about.

      I don’t know what it looks like, although I think that there are models being developed. We’re still at an exploration stage. We of the pessimistic set need to make sure that we move into something scalable before it is necessary.

      I saw a cartoon once that addressed this. It was a person standing at the mike at a talk, and the caption read, “But what if you’re wrong about this? What if we build a better world full of abundance and beauty FOR NOTHING?”

  3. Wow. I have some friends that have similar beliefs, but have never read an overview of the issues in such a concise, but insightful manner.

    I’m going to be thinking about this for weeks… thanks for sharing.