Agriculture and Human Values

Edible Action
Food Activism and Alternative Economics

By Sally Miller  

Poor households grapple with hunger and malnutrition, farmer incomes are declining, food-related illness is on the rise. As the cracks in the mainstream food system–a system increasingly organized according to the totalizing logic of profit–widen into full-blown crisis, activists are conceiving new ways of producing and exchanging food. Initiatives like farmers’ markets and worker co-operatives are helping to forge more sustainable and just food systems. They are thereby also creating working alternatives to capitalism and subverting this powerful economic discourse that pervades modern society. Food, embodying many meanings, can help rehumanize our economic relations: it is “a catalyst for social change” (p. 10).

This is the central argument of Edible Action: Food Activism and Alternative Economics. To illustrate her point, author Sally Miller takes an approach rooted in storytelling. She considers various kinds of resistance to the conventional food economy, examining the inner workings of co-ops, community food security agencies, natural food stores, fair-trade organizations, and community gardens to show how these constitute alternative economic models in which groups prioritize values other than profitability. The book explores cultural mythologies, shared ways of making sense of the world, in order to illuminate the linkages between social movements and rhetorical acts–the ways “stories about food can be used to shape social change” (p. 27). The stories told here, thrust into dialogue with the seemingly monolithic narrative of capitalism, are meant to inspire and motivate action.

The first story recounted is that of the Canadian People’s Food Commission of 1978-80, where thousands of citizens, activists, politicians, and industry representatives gathered to voice their concerns about the industrial agri-food system. This important moment of storytelling, Miller suggests, gave momentum to many subsequent food initiatives. The book proceeds to examine consumer movements against genetically modified foods, highlighting the limitations of ethical purchasing as a strategy for broader change. Miller notes how conventional accounts of social transformation (often involving a heroic individual taking a principled stand) gloss over the important roles of grassroots organizing, collective learning, and government action in effecting change. In Chapters 4 and 7, she charts the shifting political tides of the organic and fair-trade movements, which have been forced to confront and negotiate the tension between moral and economic value. Chapter 5 examines the ways food co-ops in Atlantic Canada defy traditional business practices: by fostering shared interests between producers and consumers and by allowing members to decide the fate of surpluses, Miller argues, these enterprises stand as working alternatives to capitalism.

Recognizing that economic systems both shape and are shaped by the ideas we use to apprehend them, Miller focuses on language and representation as loci for change. Following Gibson-Graham (2006), she works to dislodge the “capitalocentric” discourse that depicts the economy as uniformly capitalist by showing how food movements are cultivating other economic understandings. One by one, Edible Action unsettles the simplistic and flawed premises of orthodox economic theory: the rational, self-interested consumer (who doesn’t care about the health of ecosystems); the neat curves of supply and demand (in which producers and consumers can never have common interests); free choice in the marketplace (between products made by any of three manufacturers); and a price system governed by willingness to pay (in which those who cannot afford food go hungry). The message is that these powerful mythologies have come to shape our identities, practices, and institutions, and that most of us are worse off for it.

Miller weaves a productive theoretical discussion into nearly every chapter, striking a conversational tone that is at once accessible to activists and engaging to scholars. Although Canadian cases dominate, the lessons are pertinent wherever the right to food has been subordinated to the efficient functioning of markets. Two particularly compelling examples are the Big Carrot, a worker-owned food co-op in Toronto where all decisions are made by consensus, and the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, whose municipal council declared food a human right in 1993, with an array of programs to deliver on this promise. Miller is enthusiastic about the food initiatives she examines, but undergirds her optimism with critical reflection on the political tensions lurking beneath the surface. This sensitivity to conflict and contradiction is the book’s greatest strength. The examination of “food democracy” in the final chapter, for example, acknowledges the messy and always-unfinished work of negotiation, contestation, and mutual learning that constitutes the democratic process. Also welcome is Miller’s treatment of unequal access to food as a structural problem, one embedded in manifold institutions, behaviours, and ideologies. Rather than blame any particular individual or group, she invites the reader to consider that the profit-seeking behaviours of corporations “are determined in a systemic framework of capitalism that prevents them from acting in any other way” (p. 38), and uses this analysis to guide her call for collective action.

If there is a shortcoming in the book, it is her handling of scale. Miller risks leading the reader into the “local trap”–the assumption that “local food systems are inherently preferable to other scales” (Born and Purcell 2006, p. 197). Chapter 8, “Living by Our Food,” celebrates a variety of initiatives to relocalize food systems, pointing to the economic and social benefits of localization. But it fails to address seriously the limits and problems of such strategies, particularly for the many producers in the global South who depend on exports to Northern markets. As a philosophy, relocalization can be productive in helping us envision a radically different food economy, but in practice it denotes a historically contingent process that departs from, and is accountable to, the interdependencies of the globalized present. How can localization efforts acknowledge and respond to these vulnerabilities? A more nuanced discussion of localization movements and a recognition of the need for action at multiple scales would be compatible with, and augment, Miller’s endorsement of a diversity of strategies by a range of actors.

Still, Edible Action is a lively, theoretically rich, and cogent book that will be valuable to academics and activists interested in food issues, the social economy, and the production of economic knowledge and subjects. It is broadly successful in showing how existing food movements provide a language for imagining, and serve as models for building, new economic arrangements. Through concrete examples, Miller demonstrates that “capitalism is, beneath its towering and hegemonic status in our society, riven with alternatives, and already fragmented by alternative patterns of economic exchange” (p. 180). Indeed, the task of building a just food system, let alone a just economic system, will be impossible without a plurality of approaches, a focus on dialogue and reflexivity, and more attention to the alternative narratives presented in this book.

References

Born, B., and M. Purcell. 2006. Avoiding the local trap: Scale and food systems in planning research. Journal of Planning Education and Research 26 (2): 195-207.

A postcapitalist politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

–by Martin Danyluk, University of Toronto

–Agriculture and Human Values (28:143-144, 2011).

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