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  • The Year of Eating Politically1
  • Chad Lavin (bio)

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...

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