Q&A with Eric Holt-Giménez on A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism

Co-published with Monthly Review Press. Available November 2017  from Food First Books.
For review copies or interview and speaking inquiries with author Eric Holt-Giménez, please contact Ahna Kruzic, akruzic (at) foodfirst.org or (510) 927-5379. 

A Foodie’s Guide is a hard-hitting investigation into the role Capitalism plays in corrupting our food system. A food system that leaves 50 million people in poverty in the richest country on earth—many of whom grow, harvest, process and serve our food—yet can’t afford to be foodies because they’re too busy worrying where their next meal is coming from. It’s a system that allows over a third of the world to go hungry.

As Marion Nestle writes in the book’s forward, “If we care about people as much as we do about food, and if we really want to change the food system, we’d better become fluent in capitalism. We need food to live. But the purpose of food companies is not to promote our life, health, or happiness; it is to make money for executives and shareholders.”

A Foodie’s Guide “calls on each of us to become the change we want to see in the food system, so it nourishes the Earth and all beings,” says Vandana Shiva.  The book is “Lively, timely, and engrossing,” and “this is the only book you need to understand everything that’s wrong with our industrial, capitalist food systems,” says Susan George, author and President of the Transnational Institute.

  • Q: Eric, you’ve been working on food justice issues for decades. How did you come up with the title of the book, and why?

A: I taught at UNSIG, the Slow Food University in Italy for a number of years and got to know a lot of people who were very proud to call themselves “foodies.” If you are privileged enough to be a part of a movement for “good, clean and fair” food, sooner or later you start asking why this food isn’t available to everyone—especially those who grow it, cook it, and serve it. The more I engaged with foodies, and with people from the food justice and food sovereignty movements, I realized that many people were questioning, forging alternatives, and trying to change things, but we didn’t have a clear idea of the inner workings of the food system we were trying to change. In my lectures and writing, I kept going back again and again to the fundamentals of capitalism in order to explain why things are the way they are and how we might act more strategically to change them. I finally decided to write a book about how the capitalist food system works. It’s sort of an introduction to political economy for food activists. I thought using “foodie” and “capitalism” in the same title was a good way to address the breadth and depth of this challenge.

  • Q:  You talk about capitalism being a “silent ingredient in our food” and that we can’t transform our food system without transforming our economic system. Can you explain the relationship between capitalism and food? And please define “Capitalism” and provide some concrete ways it can be transformed?

A: Capitalism and our food system have co-evolved. The original wealth developed by early food systems was accumulated and used to fuel the industrial revolution. Then the food system itself was industrialized. All this time, wealth was being extracted from farmers, farm workers and food workers to for larger and larger food monopolies like the ones controlling seeds, fertilizers, processing and retail today. So, you really can’t understand the food system without understanding capital or understand capitalism without understanding food. Some food activists seem to think they can change the food system in isolation from the larger, capitalist system, which is an illusion. True, we can tweak things and tinker around the edges of the system and do some good work in the process, but sooner or later most of these efforts get absorbed by capitalism, where the economic laws of the bottom line, the falling rate of profit, over-accumulation, and monopolization take over. So, in order to create a good, clean, and fair food system, we will have to transform the capitalist system itself. This is a daunting task for people who are struggling just to ensure fair prices, living wages, and access to good food. Capitalism figured out a long time ago that food is a special, keystone commodity to the functioning of the rest of the economic system. Food activists need to situate their efforts strategically. The best way to change capitalism is to start with food.

  • Q: A key theme throughout the book is the need to fundamentally transform nearly every aspect of our current global food system. Many Americans would probably argue that the food system is fine. There is plenty of food options at cheap prices. What are some of the primary, specific reasons you believe our food system needs to be transformed?

A: With two thirds of our youth suffering from obesity and diet-related disease, I think there are actually more Americans upset with the food system than those that think its fine. Cheap prices—the cornerstone of capitalism—means cheap, unhealthy food. A choice between consuming one of a dozen toxic products is not a choice at all. It’s a death sentence. The food sector is one of our largest employers, but I challenge anyone to find a farm worker or someone in a food processing plant to say the work is good, well-paid, enjoyable, or safe. The industrial agriculture sector is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, worldwide and responsible for such socio-environmental ills as the gigantic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the loss of our aquifers, the rise of antibiotic resistance of bacteria, outbreaks of deadly epidemics like bird flu… the list goes on. The social and environmental costs of cheap food is killing us, we just don’t pay for it at the checkout counter of the supermarket. We pay for it with our environment and our lives.

  • Q: Transforming an entire global food system sounds like a daunting task. Can you give specific examples how a successful movement could be built, and how such a transformation could be achieved?

A: Well, a successful movement is being built as we speak, and we need to learn from it. Historically, capitalism has only introduced social reforms when strong social movements took advantage of economic crises in order to create political will for reform. In the past, labor movements, political parties and armed revolutionary movements created the political will for change. Today, things are different. There are a plethora of social movements working to change all aspects of society: gender, racial and class relations, climate, food and environmental justice, immigrant rights, disability rights, veterans’ rights… the list is long, and you will find many of these movements and concerns within the food movement itself. It is rich political landscape that is bold and dynamic, constantly pushing the envelope. Unfortunately, these movements tend to be very fragmented as a whole and tend to work in silos rather than in alliances. The other problem is that they have be largely “depoliticized” in that their work remains in the cultural sphere and lacks a systemic critique of capital—the major political force in our society today. So, the challenge is to find ways to respectfully converge in all this diversity on one hand, and to “re-politicize” the movements on the other. In the food movement, progressive projects that are busy forging viable, practical alternatives like agroecology, CSAs, farm-to-school programs, and school gardens need to reach out with the more radical projects (radical as in “go to the root”). These radical projects seek to change the rules and institutions of the food system so that the practical alternatives have a fighting chance. Together, this alliance can create the political will for reform—perhaps even transformative reforms.

  • Q: Can you provide us with some examples of successful movements that can provide models for the kind of transformative change you advocate in the book?

A: Two prominent social movements in the world today, La Vía Campesina and the World March of Women, decided to form a strategic alliance to build food sovereignty, the right of all peoples to determine their own food system in equitable, sustainable ways. La Via Campesina is an international peasant, herder, and fisherfolk movement with 200 million members. The World March of Women is much bigger. Because women produce most of the world’s food—and because they make up most of the world’s hungry—the two organizations decided to adopt a common platform. The World March of Women declared women’s liberation from oppression was impossible without food sovereignty. La Via Campesina declared it supported an end to all violence against women as a necessary condition for food sovereignty. We are beginning to see similar alliances take shape between organic farmers and immigrant farmworkers, chefs and students and food workers, foodies and farmers… the list goes on. This is extremely hopeful because it brings the practice and the politics of food system transformation together in a powerful way across broad sectors of society.

  • Q: What are some things you’d recommend that average, everyday consumers can do to facilitate this transformation? What are some of the choices you have made as a food consumer? And what led you to change past habits?

A: Well, I grew up on farms and fishing boats, and worked as a farm worker until I went to college. After college I worked as an agricultural extentionist and then with peasant farmer movements. I’m pretty sensitive as to how the conventional food system mistreats workers, the environment, and the consumer. I’m also practical as well as political. So, at this point, I’m a vegetarian and grow a good share of my fresh fruit and vegetables. I do eat local wild fish once a week for health reasons, and if I could, I would raise and eat my own meat. For now, I don’t eat meat, refuse products with GMOs, boycott products I know exploit workers, and do my best to buy organic, fair trade and local whenever I can. I try to eat in accordance with my values. Those of us who can do this, should. But this is not enough because most people don’t have the economic luxury (or the time) to eat according to their values, or even to their needs. We need to change the rules, which is a much more political proposition. Eating consciously is good way to start down this path, but you have to keep on going.

  • Q: How does Trump Administration effect the food system and the thesis of your book? What are some of the important policies and actions is the Administration taking that we should be particularly aware of? Does the Trump administration offer opportunities, in addition to the pitfalls, for the formation of a transformative food movement?

A: The Trump presidency is a reflection of a profound crisis of capitalism—and of our food system. The days of cheap food and cheap nature are over, and climate change is wreaking havoc on our farms, our environment, and our society. Contrary to his tough talk about NAFTA and other free trade agreements, Trump will accelerate the neoliberal, de-regulatory policies started by Reagan, accelerated by Clinton and obeyed by Obama. He will add a strong dollop of corruption and nepotism to force these policies through in the tradition of old-style kleptocracies. We can see this with the stripping of the EPA, the appointments of political ideologues and industry lobbyists to the Department of Agriculture and science, etc. The industry-government-lobby revolving door was more subtle, but quite healthy under former administrations. Now it is blatant. That’s actually a good thing because Trump’s manipulation is undeniable. He is pretty transparent on that score and in that respect he always tells the truth—even when he lies. Now is the time to organize opposition not just to Trump, but to the dysfunctional system that has let such a lunatic into power. There is plenty of moral outrage over all this, and it provides the food movement with a chance to bring more and more people into the ranks.

  • Q: You’ve been immersed in this topic for years. Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?

A: A I wrote this book, I would share sections of it in my university courses and in my public lectures. It was always gratifying to see young people’s face light up in that “aha” moment when I said, “This is a capitalist food system! It’s going to work the way capitalism works. That’s why if we want to change it, we need to understand capitalism.” It became clear to me that many people are searching for a deeper understanding of things. They “voted with their fork”, they’ve planted a garden, they belong to a CSA… and they sense it’s just not enough. They’re right, it isn’t. When I go on to say that to change the food system we really need to change everything, I thought this would depress everyone. I got the opposite reaction! People actually do want to change everything—capitalism, social relations, forms of organization, styles of leadership… I learned that not only is the food system an integral part of capitalism, it’s also strategically positioned to change the relations of production and consumption. When people in the food movement realize this they don’t feel powerless or overwhelmed, the feel empowered.

  • Q: What do you hope readers take away from A Foodie’s Guide?

A: We have a capitalist food system. It creates tremendous wealth, but it is built on oppression and exploitation, and the wealth is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. It’s not “broken.” It’s working exactly as a capitalist food system in a period of late capitalism is supposed to work: it concentrates wealth at the top and shoves all of the social and environmental costs on to society. It’s unsustainable. Throughout history, men and women have resisted exploitation by building alliances and demanding change. The big changes to capitalism (the end of slavery and servitude, our labor and environmental protections, democratic forms of governance, etc.) have all been brought about by people power. Successful social movements were always inspired by and grounded in the power of people for whom giving up hope was not an option. This is still true today. We need to stick to our historical traditions of resistance and support the leadership of those who are most exploited by the current food system—women and people of Color. As capitalism becomes less able to weather its internal contradictions, we need to be ready with the alternative forms of production, consumption, and social mobilization. It really is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world.