Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: What is Food? - Food is Power

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What is Food? - Food is Power

In the previous post, I put forth the notion that food is energy. For my last installment, I would like to argue that food is also power. I’ll admit, however, that “food = power” is an unsubstantiated statement. I must first begin with a brief overview of one of the two most prominent sources of power: dependency (fear is the other).

The most prevalent example of this is in the parent/child relationship. Parents would have no power – indeed, no need to exercise power – if their children were not dependent on them for their livelihood. A child who no longer needs anything from their parents has no reason to obey the rules of the home; they can simply leave.

Often, the sense of independence precedes actual independence, which explains why children frequently return home after their first attempt to go it alone, but it also explains – in part – how those who live in the industrialized world can have an exaggerated sense of freedom, liberty, autonomy, and independence. Basically, teenagers and “free peoples” suffer from the same problem: a failure to recognize their own dependency.

So, let’s now trace a line of this argument to the current food system. In Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel points out that – with modern, on-time delivery systems – most grocers carry only a three-day supply of most goods. I understand this to mean that, if the shipping industry were to shut down for any reason, the shelves at our local grocers would be emptied in under a week. I think this is especially likely given the tendency for people to hoard in such a scenario. This would also mean all restaurant establishments would be effectively shut down. There would be very little food available to most people. What would you do?

You might think there is plenty of food produced in your area, which may be true, but it is not likely that – with a highly industrialized and homogenized agricultural system – you would find adequate diversity of produce in your area to support the local population. There are farmer’s markets, but I can’t imagine any in the “modern world” which could feed their community as they stand right now; the market is simply too small.

In short, we are largely dependent on the global industrial food system for our very livelihood, and therefore, that system holds power over us. If the empty shelves scenario described above were to ever come to fruition, anyone who did have access to food would have immense power over those who did not. I, for one, am quite certain that I would do almost anything for food if I were hungry enough; I doubt it would be any different for anyone else.

But what’s the problem with feeling freer than we actually are? Well, I would not argue that there is a problem with that. The problem, as I see it, is that the food system upon which we all depend has a dependency of its own: fossil fuels – a finite resource. Thus, the system cannot be sustained. So, it is not that the system makes us slaves (although, I believe it does); it is the potential to be enslaved by our dependency. A brief look at third world nations and the structural adjustment programs that have been forced upon them in times of need should provide all the examples one would need to see this reality.

So what’s the lesson from our masters? Take matters into your own hands; look out for your own interests (which includes the establishment of reciprocal relationships within your community); and avoid – at nearly any cost – becoming dependent on anyone or anything for the energy which sustains you, your family, your community, your nation, or the whole of humanity. Independence is the basis of freedom; establish it, and you are liberated. What’s more is that – with the way the system is structured – your independence can also do much to help those in less fortunate parts of the world to establish their independence because it is a co-dependency which is created and easily exploited by the global class of elites. He who controls the distribution of resources has all the power; but if you are in control of your own resources, you are not as vulnerable to being exploited because you are not dependent on the distributor.

Of course, one cannot expect to be able to provide ALL they need for themselves; trade is a necessary part of civilization. So how is my relationship with a purveyor at my local farmer’s market any different from my relationship with farmers from outside my community? Isn’t it still dependency? Well, yes it is, but in the global industrial food system, there is a “middle man”: the trader. Both “ends” (producer and consumer) are dependent on the trader – not one another. The farmer depends on the trader to buy their product, and the consumer depends on the trader for their goods. But the trader has no concern for the interests of either party; their concern lies with maximizing profits and nothing else, so they pay as little as they possibly can and sell for as much as they possibly can. When I buy directly from the farmer, however, there is accountability in the transaction. As a consumer, I am accountable (responsible) for a fair purchase price, and as a producer, the farmer is accountable for the quality of the product. It is a mutually beneficial relationship instead of a mutually exploitive relationship mediated by an unconcerned party.

In closing, power goes way beyond food to all resources, but I emphasize food for many reasons: it is one of the two most vital resources on the planet (along with water); it is a relatively easy matter to control for oneself; it is the basis of one of the most corrupt, unstable, and unsustainable institutions of civilization; and, well, it’s a common subject on this blog.

Any questions? I’d love to engage them. For me, this (what some call “food sovereignty”) is a fascinating and all-too-important topic to just swim around in my head.


Heather @ SGF said...

I definitely agree that we need to learn to support ourselves and not be entirely dependent on others, while at the same time, I think dependency is healthy (i.e. growing some of your own, while building relationships with other local growers to supplement). It about finding balance.

VeggieGirl said...

I couldn't have said it better myself.

spelled with a K said...

On this subject I highly recommend reading Dune by Frank Herbert, the allegory is oil, but the message is the same.

When we are dependent we are slaves on both and individual and collective basis. Look at the political history of America, when the economy is strong and people are secure in their lives there is greater resistance to authoritarian pressure. When people are worried about their jobs and losing their homes they will go along with anything. To keep a democratic populace under control you must keep them concerned with the lowest levels of maslowe's hierarchy. Greenspan himself admitted that as long as there is fear of job security, there is no pressure to increase wages.


The problem is not that we are incapable of providing for ourselves, its that we are addicted to the convenience of our dependence, like an inmate who has been behind bars for years, we are now ill prepared to handle "life on the outside"

jessy said...

i agree that indepedence = freedom! i also agree that we need to become less dependent on this globalization of the food industry, and focus more on local and growing our own. a balance is in need, for sure! what i like is that trade = relationships, and this might, in turn, make our communities stronger!

Cookiemouse said...

Well, we have some pumpkins in our garden. Near our house there is a piece of empty land that we are considering taking over and planting some veggies. Dependency sucks!

Rural Vegan said...

I absolutely agree that our dependency on industrialized food is a serious problem, and one I believe is going to take a drastic turn for the worse soon. I'd love to hear you expand on food globalization as it pertains to corporations like Mansanto, who really control our food supplies.

Brett said...

Heather - Trade is about interdependence, or at least, it should be. The current system and the proverbial "middle man" break that chain of a mutual commitment to common interests. But with local growers, we don't have that problem; each party is directly accountable to the other.

Spelled - I'll have to check it out.

Given what I've learned about the Federal Reserve over the past few years, I find it interesting that Greenspan should have been the one to point that out. The Fed stands very near the top of the power structure - far beyond our government and its military/mercenaries or the corporations that collectively manipulate them both.

Here's to independence from the very international banking systems our forefathers fought hard to keep at bay!

Jessy - Wow! It had not occured to me that dependency = slavery passes the first test of logic - that the statement should still hold true when using both antonyms: as you say, "independence = freedom." You summarize my point so well; we seem to be in lockstep here: that food (and all other energy) is a firm basis from which to establish true, rather than perceived, freedom.

Cookiemouse - land ownership is the one thing that frightens me most. That is, we are largely dependent on some form of government to defend our right to claim and own property. I'd personally prefer that it not be that way, but Eden was destroyed long ago.

Rural Vegan - I fear the same things, particularly when we throw in peak oil, climate change, and a dollar that's almost sure to collapse sometime soon. But I'll bet I can offer my local farmers something other than money. Money is only necessary to support the existence of the central distributor; what's the need if we can barter for what we need?

As for Monsanto in the context of globalization, Jennifer is far better suited to handle this, so she'll be posting about that tomorrow.

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