Politics of Food Reform

James McWilliams has an interesting article in the Pacific Standard on how the food movement's ideals have fallen by the wayside in recent political discussions. As he notes, eight years ago when Obama was first running for office, the food movement was soaring.  McWilliams argues that the food movement got derailed by fights about overly-simplistic dichotomies and food labels, which ultimately hindered their efforts and left consumers confused and activists demotivated.  

He writes: 

The ultimate answer to this question hinges on the misguided categories through which agricultural reformers have long used to affect change. The various dichotomies we have conventionally used to frame the general debates over food — organic/conventional, genetically modified organisms (GMO)/non-GMO, family farm/industrial farm, local/non-local, grassfed/feedlot, and so on — has had three outcomes that, in the last decade, have started to render food reform unpalatable to most political actors.

The problem with these dichotomies are that they, firstly:

have left consumers vaguely confused. This confusion has subjected them to considerable labeling manipulation. Consider the organic industry’s recent attack on the voluntary non-GMO label.


the conflicts generated by these terms are exacerbated by the fact that the labels rarely conform to the associations imposed upon them. This divergence further leaves consumers in a fog of confusion and, in so doing, alienating political interest for an altogether different reason.

The final problematic outcome of past efforts, according to McWilliams, is:

our clumsily conceptualized food categories involves agribusiness. To the extent that progressives have articulated a vision of agricultural reform, they have done so in a way that allows agribusiness giants to worship at the altar of progressive standards.

While I do not fully buy into McWilliams vision for a future of farm and food policy (and I think he misdiagnoses the economic reasons why we grow so much "corn and soy — to feed a handful of animal species — mostly chickens and cows", his critique of the efforts of the food movement are insightful and spot on.  Of course, there is another reason the grander visions of the food movement that involve "a new set of organizing principles" has failed to materialized.  That vision isn't palatable to most farmers and consumers and would require a fair amount of coercion to achieve.  

Regardless of the broader issues at play, McWilliams' article is highly recommended.