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Wendell Berry famously declared that “eating is an agricultural act,” and recent trends in food activism have announced that eating is a political, economic, environmental, aesthetic, and ethical act as well.2 High profile debates about free range eggs, grass fed beef, genetically modified corn, rising obesity rates, and the corporate control of seed technologies have captured the American imagination, producing not only a tremendous market for value added and responsible foods but also ubiquitous commentaries implicating the American food system in issues ranging from global warming and border security to intellectual property rights and national sovereignty. This politicization of the American diet often disrupts some of the more blindly fetishistic mechanisms of global capital by illuminating how a standard of living depends upon cheap, convenient calories often derived from the brutal exploitation of workers, animals, and land. Much more than parallel campaigns opposing sweatshop labor in the apparel industry, the focus on food immerses consumers in the contradictions of capital, emphasizing how diners literally incorporate these contradictions at every meal.

At the same time, current trends in food politics often correspond to a model of citizenship and responsibility that impoverishes traditional modes of political action and democratic control. Reducing politics to consumerism and political economy to ethics, current approaches to responsible foods tend to reflect the actual foreclosure of political opportunity. By locating political action to the actual and metaphorical space of the market, these trends reflect a reduction of political discourse to the terms of global capitalism to the extent that it is only in the rhetoric of free consumption that freedom can be imagined. These trends thus veer toward postpolitical fantasies that differ in content – but not in form – from the neoliberal promise of a harmonious society governed only by voluntary contracts and consumer sovereignty. Though food activism is typically couched in promises of democracy and equality, it often erects barriers to these ideals by charging the market with the responsibility for realizing them.

This trend is most evident in the recent shift from “organic” to “local” as the mark of responsible food. Despite their manifest overlap, these movements are rooted in distinct idioms that respond to very specific historical conditions; both are animated by anxieties about the health of individual bodies and bodies politic, but the turn to locals reflects a realization that this health is threatened less by industrial pollution and nuclear annihilation than by the erosion of national sovereignty and the exhaustion of the earth’s oil supplies. But like its predecessor, the dominant articulation of the promise of local foods reflects more than anything else a deep suspicion of conventional politics and the wholesale colonization of the political imaginary by the logic of the market.

Local is the New Organic

Histories of organic foods in the U.S. invariably point to the 1960s, a periodization that owes to scientific, political, and ideological developments of the decade. Before the invention and rapid appropriation of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in the 1940s, all foods were what would today pass for “organic.” And between Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which catalyzed concerns about chemical pesticides such as DDT, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet (1971), which tied global hunger to the industrialization of the American diet, Americans saw a rapid proliferation of books and organizations promoting a return to small-scale, organic agriculture and alternative diets (vegetarianism, macrobiotics) linking food choices not only to concerns about public health and global inequality, but also to individual authenticity, social solidarity, and the ethics of capitalist exchange. Symbolized by the Robin Hood Commission’s 1969 christening of a vacant Berkeley lot “People’s Park” in order to grow and distribute free meals, the organic foods movement has always been firmly rooted in and hardly distinguishable from the politics and ideals of the 1960s counterculture.

If rooting organic foods in this romanticized decade is both convenient and stereotypical, it is also illuminating for its demonstration of how even this most idealistic of countercultures remained enamored with a populist do-it-yourself ethos and belief in American entrepreneurialism that has always evoked a suspicion of institutional politics. This ethos would seem to be at odds with the culture’s clear concerns about social justice, but a focus on food often opens into any number of conflicting issues and values. Attention to food reveals our bodies as complex assemblages inexorably implicated in other assemblages – not only the molecular assemblages that organize nutrition and ecology, but industrial assemblages of production and distribution, economic assemblages of labor and exchange, and cultural assemblages of cuisine and class.3 As the artifact that most visibly demonstrates the unavoidability of these assemblages, food often contains our most distilled and intensified political commitments.

In the case of organics, these commitments have always been somewhat contradictory. Julie Guthman, in a comprehensive study of organic farming in California, identifies four broad concerns animating the organics movement: the alienating nature of industrial production, the health effects of processed foods, the social justice concerns endemic to the counterculture, and the environmental impact of industrial pollutants. But these concerns have rarely added up to a coherent political program, and so while the movement has always been organized around a broadly conceived back-to-the-land ethos that was a reaction to postwar suburbanization, the movement has typically found itself promoting rival (and often bluntly incompatible) value systems – one promoting social solidarity and civic engagement, and another promoting individual autonomy and “agrarian populism.”4

Similarly, though Samuel Fromartz’s summary claim that “organic food was supposed to be pure, wholesome, natural, and small-scale, a true alternative to conventional food” seems straightforward enough, it is curious that purity would be one of the organizing themes of the organics movement given that the foods the movement defines itself against – the processed foods and chain restaurants developed through the 1950s – were promoted primarily for their hygienic and sterilized packaging.5 Organic food and fast food both capitalized on an American “obsession with food and filth;” just as restaurant franchises promised the same hygienic facilities at every location, organics allowed eaters to “purge oneself of the dirty things modern eating put in one’s system” by eating “whole foods” uncontaminated by artificial sweeteners, preservatives, pesticides, and hormones, and by developing a food chain (and eventually a national economy) uncorrupted by fossil fuels and capitalist science.6 So while organics promised a relationship with the land and one’s food that was not mediated by industrial machinery, chemical toxins, or dubious profit maximizing enterprises, it also traded in an ideal of individual authenticity more typically associated with liberal politics.

Following Mary Douglas, we might see this midcentury obsession with dirt as indicative of broader concerns about political order. Just as Douglas illustrates how concerns about cleanliness typically reflect concerns about order more generally (the dietary prescriptions of Leviticus, for instance, have less to do with hygiene than with maintaining a covenant with God), it becomes clear that chain restaurants appeal because they offer not just protection against invasive bacteria, but predictability in an increasingly complex world.7 Similarly, the appeal of organics lies beyond concerns about toxins in the industrial food supply, capturing instead much broader concerns about the corruption of the natural and political worlds. In his history of “the countercuisine,” Warren Belasco explains how the movement saw the corrupted products of the industrial food supply as symbols of the corruption of American society:

Wonder Bread . . . aptly symbolized the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s. To make clean bread, . . . bakers removed all colored ingredients (segregation), bleached the remaining flour (suburban school socialization), and then, to prevent discoloring decay, added strong preservatives and stabilizers

(law enforcement).8

It certainly did not hurt that the same corporations targeted for producing chemically laden food (e.g., Dow) were also implicated in manufacturing the napalm and Agent Orange that were being used in Vietnam.9

Just like the countercultural assemblage of which it was a part, the organics movement eventually found its way into a more conventional capitalist market. This actually happened quite rapidly in 1989, after 60 Minutes aired a report about Alar, a pesticide and probable human carcinogen then in wide use on apple crops. Within a year of this broadcast, the EPA banned Alar, Newsweek’s cover declared “A Panic for Organic,” and the US government passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) establishing the first formal regulations for the production, certification, and marketing of organic foods.10 Within fifteen years, organics would metastasize into a $15 billion industry with firms like Heinz, General Mills, and ConAgra owning some of the most recognizable organic brands and with critics positioning “Big Organic” as an industry on the order of “Big Oil” and “Big Pharma.”11

One could certainly predict conflict and growing pains in an organics movement linked into both the 1960s counterculture and Reagan-era concerns about individual health. And the assemblage of organic foods and the struggle of nonwhite peoples might contrast dramatically with the assemblage that links them to individual health and that sent throngs of shoppers to upscale grocers like Whole Foods in the 1990s. But it was surely only a matter of time before Big Food found a way to capitalize on the anxiety over industrial filth. As organics grew, it continued to thrive on a perceived deliverance from toxicity. In either case, it promised reconciliation with a purer, more natural order that was threatened or abandoned by industrial society and the new technologies symbolized by Twinkies, TV dinners, and white bread. So like the 1960s itself, the story of organics is by now a well-rehearsed narrative of dashed hopes, capitalist cooptation, and corporate corruption, such that, by 2006, retail leviathan Wal-Mart was selling organic produce and organic spinach had been tainted by E. coli 0157, a toxic bacteria that owes its very existence to the industrial farming practices that organics ostensibly opposed.

This disenchantment with organics has given rise to one of the more popular genres of food writing and narrative nonfiction in the last five years, something we might call “adventures in immediate food.” In this genre, a mix of investigative journalism and public diary, writers investigate the operations of Big Food and attempt to develop a more immediate relationship with their own food. The genre’s prototype is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which the author investigates four distinct kinds of meals by systematically tracing the supply chains leading to each. Purchasing an “industrial meal” at McDonald’s, Pollan follows the ingredients back to Iowa corn farms and Persian Gulf oil fields; procuring ingredients for a “Big Organic” meal from Whole Foods, he visits the corporate farms that the chain relies upon for vast quantities of organic foods; his “beyond organic” meal is made of ingredients garnered during his week living and working on a self-sustaining family farm in Virginia; and the book’s final chapter chronicles the “Perfect Meal,” comprising ingredients that Pollan has grown, foraged, or killed with his own two hands. This experiment in self-reliance proved a huge bestseller when it was released in the Spring of 2006, but it is anything but unique. In 2007 alone, the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, environmental writer Bill McKibben, and Canadian journalists Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon each published their own books chronicling their yearlong adventures eating immediate foods, while The New Yorker ran a chronicle of Adam Gopnik’s more audacious attempt to spend a week eating only food raised in the agricultural desert of New York City.12 As a result of these and other books and some popular websites by journalists and food activists (,, Time Magazine ran a cover proclaiming “Forget Organic. Eat Local” and Oxford University Press declared “locavore” to be the Word of the Year for 2007.13

Clearly, if there is a trend in responsible food, it is away from organics and toward locals.14 And without overstating the distinction between local and organic foods movements, it does seem clear that if the villains in the organics movement were DDT and Alar, that role is played in the local foods narrative by “food miles” – the geographic distance food travels “from field to fork.” One significance of this shift from the composition to the provenance of food is that the organic focus on chemicals draws attention to contamination and environmental runoff, whereas the locavore focus on distance draws attention to resources squandered in storing and transporting food. Put another way, organics is animated by concerns over purity, locals by efficiency. If organics exhibited anxieties about pollution, locals is quite specifically about peak oil.

I do not mean to overstate the distance between these two appeals for a revolution in our food supply; the issues and often the principals are the same in either case. Samuel Fromartz’s Organic, Inc., for instance, treats locals as (literally) one chapter in a broader movement. But Bill McKibben offers a telling illustration of the distinction. In The End of Nature (1989), an early and still canonical warning about global warming, McKibben argued that scientific hubris had facilitated the wholesale colonization of “nature” such that there is (or soon will be) no undomesticated realm with which humans can commune. And in Enough (2003), he argued that the same hubris, now wielding nano- and bio-technologies, has destroyed humanity. In each case, the organizing logic was contamination, and the result was a story of (industrial or genetic) pollution. By 2007, however, if McKibben’s tune was the same, his emphasis was not. In Deep Economy, the metaphorics of pollution has given way to that of spatiality; McKibben is now much less interested in purity than he is in locality; if the threat before was contamination, now it is distance. To be sure, the peril looming in Deep Economy is not contamination and the transgression of species boundaries, but environmental collapse due to the exhaustion of the world’s oil supplies.

These arguments are not mutually exclusive, but their frames are quite distinct. The earlier books focus on the relations between species (we are species conquerors in The End of Nature; hybrids in Enough), whereas the latter one focuses on the relations between spaces; the earlier books speak to issues of species purity and individual integrity, the latter to issues of energy conservation and territoriality. Note this same shift in social theory more generally, with an earlier decade’s fascination with cybernetics and hybridity (Haraway, et. al.) giving way to a focus on borders and sovereignty (Hardt and Negri, et. al.).15 Following Douglas, we might see McKibben’s earlier books as symptomatic of an anxiety about individual integrity in an age of media saturation and chemical living; his latest book to an anxiety about territorial borders in an age of globalization.

There is another significance of the shift from organics to locals. For locavores, the relevant currency for evaluating food systems is not price or environmental runoff, but rather calories. McKibben, for instance, notes how frozen peas burn an absurd number of “fossil fuel calories” in order to deliver hardly any “food calories,” and Pollan notes a deplorable exchange rate for organic lettuce (57 fossil fuel calories burned for each for each food calorie delivered).16 This attention to a caloric general equivalent opens into a strictly economic and properly thermodynamic understanding of food in which each object and link in the food chain is but a bearer of energy to be transferred to another through metabolism. This is quite explicit when McKibben and Pollan talk about our industrial food system as essentially a machine for converting vast stores of petro-calories into digestible human food, just as a pastoral food system is a machine for converting solar calories and human labor power into digestible human food.17 With calories as the general equivalent, locavores measure foods in terms of how much energy they deliver or squander, and they valuate national diets in the same way that economists calculate deficits and surpluses. Ultimately, locavores argue that the industrial food system, like the bloated US economy, operates at a loss, consuming many more calories than it delivers.18 The locavore critique thus parallels concerns about the US national economy, and the debate over local food is inseparable from concerns about global geopolitics – especially the wars in the Middle East, the weakening US dollar, and the looming environmental crises of peak oil and climate change.

In this light, local is the new organic not because organics was co-opted by agribusiness, but because the organic ideal fails to speak to the defining crises of this new century – not only environmental and energy crises, but also the more immediately political crisis of sovereignty under the novel political formation of Empire. For if Cold War politics was organized around a grand opposition between East and West and US foreign policy was organized around a prophylactic pursuit of “containment,” communications and financial technologies of recent decades have facilitated a compression of time-space, such that the dominant political anxieties so far this century – immigration, terrorism, global trade, and national sovereignty – have all surrounded the enduring viability of the territorial borders that underlie the institutions of governance. The renewed US commitment to “nation building” abroad, regional arrangements such as NAFTA and the EU that attempt to forge political alliances around populations sharing nothing but location, and crude efforts at border vigilantism – each of these trends endeavors to reassert traditional notions of space in response to the real political crisis defined by the challenge to state borders and what Michael Hardt calls a “decline of the distinction between inside and outside.”19

In other words, local foods is but one symptom of a broader concern with political space, when traditional notions of space would seem to be collapsing. And to be sure, the significance of this collapse cannot be overstated: global politics since the 17th Century has been organized around the establishment and protection of clearly delineated spaces – with a clear distinction between public and private space, with the partition of common land into discrete estates, and with the relevant actors being states (not nations) confined by borders and occupying territories.20 The ideal of political representation is anchored in the establishment of a fixed population bound to a particular territory over which the government has authority; the institutions charged with democratic governance are essentially tied to spaces. As Hardt and Negri have argued, what is at stake in 21st Century politics is not merely the current organization of governance and sovereignty, but the very notion of sovereignty itself. What is at stake in local foods is not only particular landscapes and communities, but the very idea of community itself.

Two Distinct Alienations

Alongside the shift from chemicals to calories as the metric for responsible food, the locavore movement has also introduced as one of its primary virtues sociability. For if organics promises healthy land and pure bodies, locavores explicitly promise strong communities with immediate bonds between consumers and producers. Brian Halweil’s esteemed Eat Here opens by noting how local food economies “build solidarity between farmers and their urban neighbors” and rests on the claim that the movement’s appeal lies in its “preservation of the social value of good food in connecting people with each other, their communities, and their land.”21 With the standard refrain that farmers markets are more sociable spaces than supermarkets, facilitating more numerous and more meaningful conversations, this literature emphasizes that local foods build strong communities, implicitly assuming that weak communities are one of the primary concerns of political life today. McKibben, directly but hardly uniquely, argues that consumers are willing to pay a premium for local food precisely because conventional food offers a “surplus of individualism and a deficit of companionship.”22 Clearly, this literature appeals specifically to a loneliness that is presumed to be part of the urban experience.

Sociability was never a central claim of the organics movement, though that movement did respond directly to an alienation endemic to what Richard Bulliet calls “postdomestic” society in which very few Americans lived on or near farms.23 Writing more narrowly about animals, Bulliet argues that because “people live far away, both physically and psychologically” from the origins of their food, they have come to experience “feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust” when they think about how their food is produced. That is, the mass migration from working farms through the 20th Century created an alienated and anxious population, eager to assuage their guilt and reestablish their connection to the land via an ethical commitment to things like organic foods and vegetarianism.

This postdomestic guilt resonates with Nietzschean ressentiment, and this is probably why Guthman finds an uneasy alliance between social and an individualistic values among both producers and consumers of organic foods. Promising an authentic relationship with nature, a relationship relinquished in the move to a suburban landscape and a relationship celebrated in a nostalgic model of American freedom, organics romantically conjures both a world of social and ecological reconciliation as well as one of strong, autonomous individuals. As such, it feeds on guilt about both the decadence of consumer society as well as the violence of capitalist markets. Michael Pollan’s indictment of Whole Foods turns entirely on his claim that the chain capitalizes on this guilt with a marketing campaign that conjures a less mediate relationship with the land, even though the grocer relies on the same international commodity chains and regional distribution networks as other supermarkets.24 While some tie Whole Foods’ tremendous success in recent years to an environmental awakening or just another health-consciousness fad, the real lesson of this simulated pastoral’s success might be that ressentiment is a growth industry.

But the rhetoric of community that pervades the locavore literature evokes a hopeful, rather than resentful, nostalgia. Emphasizing the provenance rather than the constitution of food, locavores promote a joy that is afforded by assemblages with peoples, cultures, and places. Though appeals to locals maintain the presuppositions of the organics movement regarding purity (the E. coli outbreaks of 2006 energized the locals more than the organics movement), locavores are clearly less concerned about biological purity than about alienation from a cultural and territorial history. It may be that the appeal to purity rings increasingly hollow to a population increasingly inured to chemical living such that a full 50% of Americans take at least one prescription medication every day.25 But the point is that its model of authenticity is not biological, but rather cultural and geographical.

Localism, thus, appears as one more symptom of the political condition of postmodernity, of globalization, or of Empire. For just as Harvey argues that 19th Century social theory (Marx, Weber) was preoccupied with issues of temporality because the industrial revolution had fundamentally altered the rhythms of life and the experience of time, the contemporary preoccupation with locality arises from the disruption of space pursuant to recent developments in communication and financial technologies. The creation of non-localizable spaces on the internet; the blurring of public and private spaces by Total Information Awareness and the ubiquitous voyeurism of reality television and MySpace; the blurring of workplace and home by the some 25 million American who worked from home in 2006; and the concentration of political power in international finance organizations rather than territorially bound states – each of these trends upsets established ideas of what it means to occupy a space. And since established political institutions (national sovereignty, representative government, and private property) are all predicated on Enlightenment understandings of fixed borders and reliably discrete spaces, the stakes and disorientations of this disruption would be difficult to overstate. As Parkins and Craig put it, local foods insists on “the increased value of the specificity of place at a time when space seems less ‘grounded’ and more ‘virtual’.”26

One sees these same concerns animating familiar debates in social theory as well – not only those surrounding the democratic potential of online public spheres,27 or the “quasi face-to-face” encounters facilitated by fair trade agreements,28 but also attempts to update Foucault on the grounds that “discipline” is essentially rooted in a technique of spatial confinement that requires institutions (factories, prisons) that “everyone knows . . . are in more or less terminal decline.”29 The “generalization of discipline” that Hardt and Negri posit owes, in part, to recent developments in imaging technologies that not only allow the extension of surveillance networks throughout the increasingly smooth public space, but also allow for novel representations of that space in the interest of social control. These technologies have altered both the significance and possibility of public protest, but have also changed the spatial representation and control of criminals. Readily available and easily customizable online maps of sex offenders exemplify a new strategy of controlling populations not via confinement, but via perpetual visibility. Populations take solace from criminal threats today not by removing containing them at distant locales, but by monitoring their close proximity to the home.

Figure 1. A map of registered sex offenders in the author’s neighborhood, created in less than one minute using .
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Figure 1.

A map of registered sex offenders in the author’s neighborhood, created in less than one minute using .

Locavorism manifests an ambivalent relationship to this changing nature of space, simultaneously reclaiming and rejecting traditional public spaces. Alongside an unabashed celebration of open-air farmers markets, the literature on local foods also conveys a more or less explicit critique of urban space. That is, and as I’ll discuss in the next section, local foods carries a notable bias against the topographies and the economies of cities, a bias that reflects a loss of faith in the conventional spaces of democratic politics and thus brings along a straightforward – if muted – retreat from democratic politics. The locavore literature trades in a utopian fantasy of postpolitical reconciliation with both neighbors and the land, a reconciliation that organics sacrificed when OFPA mandated that its ideal be mediated by the state and subject to legislative and regulatory struggle. And so, organics fails doubly: first, by failing to speak to the territorial anxieties of globalization, and, second, by offering an alternative to conventional food that was no less implicated in conventional politics. Today, localism speaks to the specific alienations and anxieties of globalization (from peak oil through national sovereignty) as well as to a population increasingly cynical about political struggle. Most crucially, it reflects a political condition in which it is only in their role as consumers that Americans can imagine political efficacy.

Postpolitical Fantasies

Of course, local economies and even locavorism are nothing new. The locavore literature rarely strays too far from Jeffersonian ideals; when Kingsolver explains that her plan is “to eat deliberately” (23), the reference to Thoreau is unmistakable; and when Halweil, McKibben, and others promise that a local diet strengthens communities and increases social capital by promoting an ethics of neighborliness, it’s clear that they’ve read Bowling Alone. The movement’s promise of direct personal relations between producers and consumers (as well as subjects and objects), relations that were sacrificed first by industrialization and then by the inevitability of global supply chains, calls to mind nothing so much as the sovereign, responsible individuals that are the organizing conceit of American political lore.

But such localism often trades in a retreat from politics. Lizabeth Cohen notes how one version of localism – the mass migration to suburbs in the 1960s – was at least in part a retreat into racially and economically homogenous zones that could avoid many of the difficult political issues endemic to crowded and aging urban centers. These strategically segregated neighborhoods allowed citizens to erect barriers to entry and develop a narrow conception of “the public good” that included only the members of their specific community and was measured exclusively by the market value of their homes.30 From the view of these constricted neighborhoods, Cohen continues, it was quite easy to justify the unequal funding of urban municipal services, especially schools, such that suburban localism was not necessarily a veil for racism, but it intensified racially-concentrated poverty just the same.

Today, Peter Singer opposes locavorism on precisely these grounds: it legitimates a specific interest over the general one, and justifies limiting economic support to an already privileged population that is unique only for its geographic proximity.31 While Singer’s concern is broadly cosmopolitan in its concern that local foods would shut down international grain markets that support third world farmers, Gopnik diagnoses a pro-rural, anti-urban bias in the local foods movement, a bias that is on clear display in Kingsolver’s celebrations of country wisdom over urban naivete.32 Kingsolver proactively denies that she is valorizing the country over the city, though this denial sits clumsily alongside her repeated mockery of people who cannot identify particular crops and her comparison of her family’s leaving their home in Tucson to “rats leaping off the burning ship.”33 It is similarly difficult to read Smith and MacKinnon’s locavore diary without noting their growing unease about life in a city, for even though they offer very few of the typical plaints of urban life (traffic, crime, noise), the book’s central redemptive trope is a homestead 10 miles from the nearest highway, and Smith confesses more than once that the motivation for their project probably lies in her obsessive desire to own land.

This retreat from the city tends to carry with it a retreat from political life. Kingsolver, for instance, enjoying some local ice cream, declares that she “could hear the crash of corporate collapse with every bite. Tough work, but somebody’s got to do it.”34 And while this is clearly a joke, the rest of her book bolsters the suggestion that the answer to the corporate control of food really does lie in an isolated realm divorced from political life. For not only does Kingsolver’s yearlong experiment begin, literally, by leaving the city, the detailed calculations she provides at the close of her book are quintessentially bourgeois; though she estimates her year of homegrown food cost “well under 50¢ per meal,” this calculation ignores the primary costs of the experiment: land (100 acres in Virginia) and lost income (two incomes, in her household).35 More than fuzzy math, this represents a characteristic effacement of such properly political issues as property rights and labor markets, an effacement that is only made more clear when Kingsolver visits Italy and introduces Slow Food as a movement founded by “chefs and consumers,” even though it would be more accurate to say it was founded by farmers and communists.36 Similarly, Halweil’s landmark account of local foods explicitly derides “the initiative of well-meaning government officials,” and dismisses the importance of conventional politics by identifying “more diffuse, but potentially more powerful, agent” that can fix our food system: “the food consumer.”37 Halweil proceeds then offers a list of subject positions capable of initiating real change: “farmer, restaurateur, politician, banker, entrepreneur, student looking for a career, or concerned parent.”38 The odd presence of “politician” and conspicuous absence of “citizen” from this list may reflect a real or perceived impotence, but it certainly exemplifies the trend for consumer activisms to ignore the broader political environment in which consumption happens.

Reading the literature on local foods, the flight from organics looks less like a concern about the cooptation of organics by agribusiness than a contamination of organics by conventional politics. Various commentators have pointed out that one of the themes of the organics movement has been trust – a trust embodied in an authentic and transparent relationship with the land and a trust threatened by a general cynicism in American politics and a specific lack of confidence in government.39 But since 1990, “organic” has served less as a mark of an alternative to conventional food, a circumvention of the institutions of industrial production and processing, than as a legal category subject to frequent and contentious revision by the USDA. For not only is the fact that a food is labeled “organic” prima facie evidence that it is not part of an alternative food system (the label signifies, precisely, that it has been certified by the federal government), but the meaning of the term has been a constant source of conflict, with disagreement among producers, consumers, certifiers, legislators, and retailers over whether, for instance, crops fertilized with raw sewage or cows treated with antibiotics when sick can be called “organic.”40 Since OFPA, organic food has been implicated not only in global capitalism and industrial science, but also with all three branches of the federal government. The fact that the high cost of organic certification systematically excludes the smallest and often most “pure” producers from selling “organic” foods only exacerbates the movement’s enduring skepticism toward the state.

As a result, the movement’s pursuit of intimate relations with the land has veered toward classically liberal notions of individual autonomy and private property. Though it may be but a curious footnote that the primary retailer of these responsible foods, Whole Foods, remains steadfast in its opposition to the interference of both states and labor unions,41 Guthman notes that organic farmers have always been “deeply suspicious of state intervention” and that consumers have “occasionally” responded to food contamination and safety scares (like Alar) with “demands for more state intervention (i.e., regulation); [but] more often, they began to buy so-called high-quality food.”42 So it is that Halweil explicitly dismisses the value of state regulation,43 and the unmitigated and ubiquitous heroes of the locavore literature are rogue farmers who eschew institutional support or state assistance.44

This skepticism toward state intervention is not anomalous in a culture in which discourses of freedom are increasingly reliant on the rhetoric of the market, in which the rhetoric of citizenship has been largely abandoned for that of consumerism. Nor is there anything new in such a flight from politics; utopian movements on left and right have always promised of a world without conflict. What is particularly interesting in this chapter of utopian literature is how it elevates the consumption (both the buying and the eating) of value added goods to the level of political action. Typically, this involves a celebration of backyard gardens, farmers markets, or, more ambitiously, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in which individuals buy subscriptions to particular farms. In each case, political action involves not mobilizing groups, organizing communities, running for office, or even voting, but rather making a series of ethically motivated consumer choices. As a result, the movement’s skepticism toward the state informs a retreat from the one institution traditionally capable of (if only periodically interested in) resisting capital concentration: the state. Allowing the economic logic of liberalism to overshadow its political commitments to equality and freedom, the locavore movement participates in the conceptual apparatus that Wendy Brown calls neoliberalism.45

Of course, the locavore movement promises a food economy that could not be more different from the current concentration of agricultural resources under the likes of Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland. The local ideal is of decentralized and autonomous family farms rather than the corporate “factory farms” that currently dominate the landscape. But the locavore literature is not only dismissive of state action, it is curiously silent on the issue of wage labor. When Smith and MacKinnon, for instance, speak about small farms as “the last redoubt of a gentler capitalism,” what they mean is that market prices tend to be rounded down; they actually make no mention of labor in this gentle capitalism.46 Even Michael Pollan, who seems most satisfied when he’s visiting and working on farms, rarely mentions the existence of hired agricultural workers. Instead, Pollan casts farms as autonomous spaces where sovereign landholders mix their labor with the land to their mutual benefit; his accounts of individual farmers earning their title with their industry and rationality are straight out of American mythology and even evoke Locke.47 Alongside his obvious concerns about the treatment of alienated fast food workers, this depiction of the and fulfilling labor of autonomous farmers exaggerates the contrast between city and country. With this aestheticization of labor, Pollan intimates that farms are innocent of the alienation and exploitation that drive urban economies.

The problem with this contrast is twofold. First, it is misleading. As Guthman points out, most labor even on the sorts of farms that locavores valorize is actually done by low-paid, itinerant, and abused immigrant labor, just as in conventional agriculture and industrial manufacture. In a systematic study of California’s organic farms, Guthman turns up “no evidence to suggest that working conditions and remuneration on small ‘family’ farms are better than on large ‘corporate’ ones.”48 More than an unstated assumption that “small is beautiful,” the locavore celebration of family farms represents a prototypically bourgeois effacement of wage labor. Pollan, again, barely mentions it, even in his excoriation of these same farms for their duplicitous marketing strategies and their abuses of both animals and the land.49 More dishonestly, Fromartz profiles the benevolent labor practices at one unionized organic berry farm in California as evidence for the gentleness of this kind of capitalism, though he fails to mention that this is the only organized organic farm in the state.50

Second, and related, this effacement of wage labor by the productive power of consumption tends toward the fetishizing logic of capitalism, since it characterizes eating not only as a political act but also as a value creating activity. In one sense, this may be no different from Marx’s argument that consumption is a form of production (since eating produces energy) and production a form of consumption (since farming burns fuel).51 Like locavores, Marx offers a thermodynamic approach to food in which commodities are but bearers of a measurable quanta of energy; indeed, because the value of a commodity is precisely the amount of energy stored in it, Marx casts commerce – the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of commodities – as transfers of energy from one form to another, both literally and metaphorically a “social metabolism.”52 Money is a convenient and nonperishable measure of value, but what is being bought and sold in commerce is another general equivalent – calories. (In fact, the nutritional literature at the opening of the 20th Century did refer to a food’s caloric content as its “food value.”) Marx thus offers a structural parallel between producing and consuming since both are metabolic transfers of energy, measured either in calories or in price.

But when locavores repeat this move – explaining how industrial agriculture metabolizes petrocalories into steak, and how buying local lettuce produces sustainable farms – their argument cannot be separated from a culture that systematically reduces the responsibilities of citizenship to the logic of consumerism. This same thermodynamic approach to food therefore has strikingly different effect in Marx and Pollan. In Marx, it illustrates how consumer goods embody exploited labor; in Pollan, it allows shopping as a proxy for labor. In the nineteenth century, it reflected the standardization of labor under industrial manufacture; today, it reflects the reduction of social and political life to market relations. To be sure: Pollan’s assessment of food systems seems unimpeachable, his ethical call for a less mediate relationship with the energy sources that provide the conditions of our lives seems beyond reproach, and his resort to endorsing responsible shopping practices owes to the fact that large numbers of people simply cannot engage in raising their own food. (His vivid, first-person account of slaughtering chickens seems motivated, primarily, to demonstrate that something nonquantifiable – the experience not only of labor, but of death – is irretrievably lost in this transaction.)53 Yet it inevitably participates in a political condition in which citizenship has been reduced to consumerism, and the very ability to conceptualize political action or individual freedom has been captured by the logic of the market. By establishing the market as the institution through which democratic citizenship can be effected, his argument participates in a neoliberal vogue for subordinating political struggle to market exchange. So while consuming local food does produce a market in sustainable agriculture, it also produces the market as the solution to political problems.54

Cohen points out that earlier versions of consumerist politics (such as the boycotts at the heart of the US Civil Rights movement) worked to reinforce social solidarity, whereas the consumer model of citizenship since the 1980s has worked to impoverish traditional models of political action. In particular, Cohen chronicles how niche marketing has fractured and segregated society into smaller and more homogenous consumer profiles with narrower and more personal interests, such that as market activity came to organize a greater segment of the public imagination it has become more difficult to envision an expansive collective identity or public good. For Cohen, the true irony is that while earlier instances of consumer activism promoted and fostered democratic participation, the success and popularity of consumer activism has corresponded with a steady decline in the most traditional and typical form of political action: voting.55

One interpretation of this correspondence is that consumerist politics is a ruse that distracts citizens from meaningful political engagement. But a slightly more sympathetic cast would say that the dominance of consumer politics owes to a real impotence of citizens in the traditional arenas of democratic politics. In other words, the point is not that locavores alibi capitalism, but that the locavore literature has wide appeal because it speaks to an actual lack of opportunities for political action. My argument here parallels recent analyses of other political trends, such as Jodi Dean’s assessment of the democratic potential of the internet and Timothy Luke’s study of the environmental movement’s embrace of “green consumerism.”56 When Dean argues that blogs and chatrooms provide an illusion of meaningful participation in public discourse, and when Luke argues that that recycling does less to stall global warming than to give individual a sense that they are empowered to change the world, neither simply reduces these strategies to duplicitous redirections of publicly-minded energy toward “nonpolitical, nonsocial, noninstitutional solutions” to real problems.57 Rather, both emphasize that these strategies appeal because they cover over “the real powerlessness” that individuals experience under globalization; they offer solace from a recognition that there are, in fact, very few opportunities for democratic action and that citizens are actually quite powerless to change the shape of their own lives.58

These narratives each offer a sense of empowerment in an age in which it has become all but unthinkable that agricultural policy, environmental regulation, or the global trade in information will be subject to democratic control. In each case, these agendas are animated by fantasies of political efficacy as well as postpolitical reconciliation, since they each posit a world in which global crises are forestalled not via representative politics and state regulation, but by smoothly functioning markets actually governed by individual ethics. The narratives of immediate food offer solace from the alienating logic of global capital and the exploitation of farmers by promising responsible consumption through the beneficent and mutually beneficial transactions of farmers markets and CSA. Finally, the bifurcated nostalgia for both Jeffersonian self-reliance and sixties solidarity that underlies popular approaches to food politics owes to a real loss of faith in the institutions traditionally charged with enacting political solutions.

Some Politics is Local

Perhaps I’ve overstated the case. Though books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma endeavor to reconcile agrarian populism with social conscience via responsible consumption, Pollan’s more recent writings have recognized the inadequacy of consumerist politics. “Voting with our forks can advance reform only so far,” he has since proclaimed; real change demands that people “wade into the muddy political waters of agricultural policy” and “vote with their votes as well.”59 Indeed, Pollan’s activism surrounding the 2007 US Farm Bill inspired thousands of Americans to actually investigate this typically obscure and enduringly impenetrable piece of federal legislation, studying some very complex and decidedly unromantic dynamics guiding agricultural policy and budgetary process, all toward the end of a responsible assessment of the impossibility of redirecting international agricultural markets and trends without the active participation of states.

Similarly, Guthman identifies significant differences between various approaches to local foods. Most notably, she identifies two types of CSA: one in which eaters pay a nominal subscription fee in exchange for a share of the farm’s yield, and another in which eaters invest in the equity of the farm and share its profits, its risks, and responsibilities. The former, which Guthman calls “more common and less radical,” is a basic subscription arrangement in which consumers commit to a particular grower; they sacrifice some individual choice of goods, but do not significantly alter their role as consumer. But in the latter version, subscribers really are co-owners in the farm (albeit on a limited basis), and Guthman makes a convincing case that it offers a significant decommodification of both food and land, especially as these farms rarely show a profit and typically depend upon grants for their viability.60 The common version is benevolent consumerism, whereas the latter, while still organized around consumer activity, compels eaters to take on the responsibilities and risks required of community ownership. The common version strives for postpolitical assemblage, putting a class-biased air of harmonious exchange on the otherwise unchanged institution of the market; the radical version is self-consciously political, theorizing and enacting a form of collective action that transforms the nature of ownership, citizenship, and control.

Such social, political, and institutional projects are predicated on a belief in collective efficacy and the possibility of an alternative to the dominant trend toward neoliberalization. As such, their viability depends not merely on their offering creative and sustainable programs for a reworked food system, but also on an ability to imagine political agency and human freedom in terms that do not reduce to the logic of consumerism. They depend fundamentally on a belief in the practicality of collective action, and they depend on a belief in an alternative to the current market-based solutions to coordinating the production and distribution of essential resources like food and water. In this light, while the recent failure of the US Congress to significantly rework the terms of the Farm Bill certainly means several more years of unwise subsidies and corporate control of agriculture, the real significance could be more longstanding. Insofar as this failure is seen as yet more evidence that states are incapable or unwilling to address the environmental violations and human injustices endemic to the US food system, it offers yet another reason to doubt the possibility of institutional solutions to society’s problems, and yet another reason to trade a politicization of consumption for a consumerist politics.

Chad Lavin

Chad Lavin is assistant professor of Political Science and Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought at Virginia Tech. He is the author of The Politics of Responsibility (University of Illinois Press, 2008). This essay is part of a larger project on the politics and anxieties of food.


1. Great thanks to Elizabeth Mazzolini for fostering my academic interest in food and for helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay, to Jodi Dean for encouraging this symposium, and to The Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University for generously funding this research.

2. What Are People For? (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1990), 145.

3. Elspeth Probyn, Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities (NY: Routledge, 2000).

4. Julie Guthman, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

5. Samuel Fromartz, Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (NY: Harcourt, 2006), ix; Harvey Levenstein The Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in America (Oxford University Press, 1993), ch15.

6. Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty, 183.

7. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (NY: Routledge, 1966). On the desire for predictable foods in a global economy, see Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (NY: Random House 2001), ch4. On the difficulties encountered and compromises required in marketing “ethnic” (i.e., Mexican, Italian, and Chinese) chain restaurants in the US, see Barry Glassner, The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food is Wrong (NY: Ecco, 2007), ch5.

8. Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (NY: Pantheon Books 1989), 49–50.

9. Nor is it entirely a coincidence that the man who won a 1920 Nobel Prize for developing synthetic fertilizer, Fritz Haber, also developed Zyklon B, the gas used in Hitler’s concentration camps. See Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (NY: Penguin, 2006), 43.

10. Laura Shapiro, “Suddenly, It’s a Panic for Organic,” Newsweek (March 27, 1989).

11. For versions of this story, see Belasco, Appetite for Change; Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty; Fromartz, Organic, Inc.; Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

12. Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (NY: Times Books, 2007); Barbara Kingsolver with Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (NY: Harper Collins, 2007); Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon, Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally (NY: Harmony Books, 2007); Adam Gopnik, “New York Local,” The New Yorker (Sep 3 and 10, 2007).

13. See John Cloud, “Eating Better Than Organic,” Time (Mar 2, 2007); Carlo Petrini, Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, and Fair, trans. C. Furlan & J. Hunt (NY: Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2007); Daniel Imhoff, Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Food and Farm Bill (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Press, 2007).

14. I have not mentioned a competing trend, Slow Food, because the concern with slowness seems but one manifestation of a concern with locality. In their monograph on the Slow Food organization and philosophy, Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig explicitly cast time and space as co-equal concerns, alongside pleasure (Slow Living [NY: Berg, 2006]). For more on concerns about speed owing to a postmodern collapse of space, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

15. Frances Fukuyama has similarly traded his fear of the corrupting influence of genetic engineering (Our Posthuman Future [NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002]) for a concern about American expansionism (America at the Crossroads [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006]).

16. McKibben, Deep Economy, 65; Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, 167.

17. Ibid. See also Richard Manning, “The Oil We Eat,” Harper’s (February 2004).

18. Nick Cullather shows how this thermodynamics thinking has directed US foreign policy since the early 20th Century, especially as it cast global hunger as a “caloric deficit,” a measure that “can be tabulated as easily as currency or petroleum.” Nick Cullather, “The Foreign Policy of the Calorie,” American Historical Review 112.2 (April 2007), 339.

19. Michael Hardt, “Sovereignty,” Theory & Event 5.4 (2002).

20. The list of relevant texts here could be very long. For a sampling of people making this argument, see Pierre Manent, A World Beyond Politics? (Princeton University Press, 2006); Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); Susan Bordo, The Flight to Objectivity (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987); and David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity.

21. Brian Halweil, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket (NY: Norton, 2004), 10, 16.

22. Deep Economy, 109.

23. At the opening of the 20th Century, 40% of Americans lived on farms (meaning that most Americans at least visited a farm at some point). A century later, that number had declined to 2%. Richard Bulliet, Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers (NY: Columbia University Press, 2005), 3.

24. Omnivore’s Dilemma, ch9. For Mackey’s response and ensuing dialogue, see (accessed 27 May 2009).

25. Greg Critser, Generation Rx (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels, Selling Sickness (NY: Nation Books, 2005).

26. Parkins and Craig, Slow Living, 62. For a parallel, see Fredric Jameson’s argument that conspiracy theories, by explaining that the world is actually controlled by covert but unambiguous wielders of power, offer solace from a disorienting and increasingly anarchistic global market. “Cognitive Mapping” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

27. Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” Cultural Politics 1.1 (March 2005).

28. J.K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), ch4.

29. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Societies of Control,” in Negotiations 197201990, trans. M. Joughin. NY: Columbia University Press, 1997), 178. See also Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), esp. 23–7.

30. Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (NY: Vintage, 2004), 228.

31. Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (NY: Rodale, 2006).

32. Gopnik, “New York Local;” Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 7–8 and passim. For another critique of localist elitism, see Barry Glassner’s “fast food populism” that celebrates the convenient and affordable foods that locavores malign but on which most city dwellers depend (Gospel of Food, ch6).

33. Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 2.

34. Ibid., 153.

35. Ibid., 307.

36. Ibid., 249. Other treatments of Slow Food are much more open about the links of the organization to radical, left-wing politics. See Petrini, Slow Food Nation; Parkins and Craig, Slow Living; and Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2002).

37. Halweil, Eat Here, 157–8.

38. Ibid., 165.

39. Fromartz (Organic, Inc., ix) frames his book on organics as an issue of trust, and Levenstein (Paradox of Plenty, ch13) notes how the organics movement coincides with a proliferation of “alternative” medicines, signaling a similar lack of confidence in the American medical establishment.

40. Fromartz, Organic, Inc., ch6; Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, 155–6.

41. Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey is an avowed libertarian, and the chain is known for championing the benevolent labor practices designed to frustrate unions.

42. Guthman, Agrarian Dreams, 12, 24.

43. Halweil, Eat Here, ch9.

44. The most common personality here is Joel Salatin, owner/operator of Polyface Farms and self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, 125). A more striking character, however, is probably Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer who sued the USDA in 2002 and who (again evoking Thoreau) has refused to pay federal income taxes since 1959 due to his opposition to military spending (Fromartz, Organic, Inc., introduction). Such heroic individuals are a staple of the literature.

45. Wendy Brown, “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory & Event 7.1 (2003).

46. Plenty, 163.

47. Pollan celebrates Salatin for farming in a manner that his land “will be in no way diminished by the process—in fact, it will be the better for it, lusher, more fertile, even springier underfoot,” casting the farmer as the quintessential Lockean subject, adding value to the land by cultivating it (Omnivore’s Dilemma, 127).

48. Agrarian Dreams, 175.

49. Omnivore’s Dilemma, ch9.

50. Organic, Inc., ch2. Thanks to Julie Guthman for confirming this.

51. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus (NY: Penguin, 1973), 85–100.

52. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, trans. B. Fowkes (NY: Vintage, 1977), 198 and passim. On Marx’s interest in thermodynamics, see Frederick Gregory, Scientific Materialism in the Nineteenth Century (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Companty, 1977); Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor (NY: Basic Books, 1990); Amy Wendling, Alienation and Machine Production: Capitalist Embodiment in Marx. PhD Thesis (Penn State University, 2006).

53. Omnivore’s Dilemma, 226–38.

54. Note how Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of Slow Food, freely calls consumers “co-producers” in order to highlight the productive power of consumption, but finds himself openly disgusted by the “wealthy or very wealthy” patrons of a farmers market in San Francisco who seem to be buying self-righteousness as much as peppers (Slow Food Nation, 129–35). The lesson here seems that, with the current state of American politics, Petrini’s politicization of consumption freely translates into a consumerist politics. Similarly, while Evan Watkins uses the term “marketwork” to defetishize capitalism and explain how consumer activity amounts to “the process of constructing the market,” the point here is that locavore marketwork does not merely construct a market for responsible agriculture, but constructs a particular understanding of political action. See Evan Watkins, Everyday Exchanges: Marketwork and Capitalist Common Sense (Stanford University Press, 1998).

55. Cohen, Consumer’s Republic, 404–5.

56. Dean, “Communicative Capitalism;” Luke, Ecocritique: Contesting the Politics of Nature, Economy, and Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), ch 6.

57. Luke, Ecocritique, 119.

58. Ibid., Dean, “Communicative Capitalism,” 61.

59. Pollan, “You Are What You Grow,” in Manifestos on the Future of Food & Seed, ed. V. Shiva (South End Press, 2007); 139. See also Pollan, “Don’t Call It the ‘Farm Bill,’ Call It the ‘Food Bill,’” foreword to D. Imhoff, Food Fight.

60. Guthman, Agrarian Dreams, 184–5.

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