On October 16th, World Food Day will call attention to the crucial role that small-scale family farmers play in creating a more sustainable global food system – and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time. As the global population approaches nine billion by the year 2050, nourishing the world and preserving diminishing environmental resources presents a daunting challenge. Over the coming week, Food Tank will highlight the many ways in which small-scale farmers – both urban and rural – are growing healthy, nutritious food for their communities while protecting the planet.
In his new edition of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, former Toronto Food Policy Council manager Wayne Roberts effectively combines many lenses for understanding the food system. He places the food sovereignty movement’s localized innovations in context of the history of the global political economy. It is rare to find these two areas brought together in a coherent way, and Roberts’ success in doing so makes this book a crucial read.
In tracing the historical rise of industrialized agriculture, Roberts looks at food and agriculture within the context of much broader shifts in the global North’s political and economic landscape. He goes beyond simply describing the changes at the farm level. For example, the reader learns about food’s embedding in a post-World War II modernist ideology bent on deploying science and technology as the solution to all problems. And that model could not be kept stable without the emphasis on a consumer culture that could absorb the excess production—this linkage between the consumer and the wider processes of food and agriculture re-structuring is one of Roberts’ greatest strengths throughout the book. For example, Roberts explains that the processed foods aimed at meeting World War II soldiers’ energy demands—like spam and Coca-Cola—persisted in the post-War era to become mainstream items in the average American’s diet. Situating agriculture exclusively within the purview of agriculture departments, Roberts suggests, leads to all sorts of contradictions between promotion of commodity crops and public health. Given his career experience in urban food politics, it is no surprise to see Roberts hammering home the health and nutrition issue.
Roberts’ analysis of the international trade in foodstuffs is right on the money, making clear the link between cheap food and poverty in the global South. He doesn’t dwell on how American exports of cheap food sustain agribusiness profits. Rather, he voices how cheap food sets in motion an interlocking process related to cheap labor: it sustains poorly paid workers in factories, and it leads farmers unable to compete with cheap imports to leave rural areas, in turn lowering the cost of urban labor. The cheap goods manufactured by these factories target low-paid Northern laborers, who in turn are also kept afloat by cheap food. The question for Roberts here is: What role does the underpaid labor force play in a movement toward food sovereignty? And if a more just food system is predicated on departing from the cheap food model, then how might stronger labor rights enable workers to feasibly access nutritious food?
In the book’s second half, Roberts articulates the concept of food sovereignty and explains the problem with the food security narrative, which regards food as a commodity. It is intriguing that he frames food sovereignty as an assertion of particular forms of knowledge, and how he doesn’t simply begin by talking about the movement’s politics. For example, food sovereignty challenges the taken-for-granted notion of agriculture as situated in a “field,” which lends itself to monocrop production. Rather, non-Western societies have long grown food in forests or on the sides of mountains, and see farming as part of their identity—a rebuke to the idea that agriculture is a position to be transitioned away from in the push for modernization. Roberts cites these various ways of farming, and of conceptualizing farming, so that the reader grasps the basis for contesting commercial agriculture at the political level, which I see as an impressive link between local practices and global governance.
Roberts then provides concrete examples of political efforts to give space to a new food system. Urban organic fruit and vegetable farming in Cuba opened up opportunities for grassroots activists to respond to a food crisis triggered by Cold War geopolitics, using that space to boost urban nutrition. Brazil’s Zero Hunger program supported small-scale farmers in accessing urban markets, and offered cash transfers for low-income families to purchase food for their children. Where Roberts’ experience in urban food policy becomes most evident is his important call to place citizen groups front and center to food policy, a task for which he says municipal governments are best suited given their close connection to such groups. He importantly goes beyond the simplified notion of “political will” from above and puts the emphasis on citizen engagement from below.
Overall, Roberts combines into one book what otherwise would be dispersed across NGO and academic publications. There are not few other places in which one can find critical perspectives in industrialized agriculture wedded with a focus on alternative models.