Sunday, July 10, 2011

Food Sovereignty Fail, Take Two

I've been listening to my interviews with Senegalese urban farmers and one of the recurring themes is that they associate their food production practices with independence and self-determination. Throughout Senegal, in almost every household, whether rural or urban, people are engaged in some form of primary production.  At a societal level, I suggest that this translates into a sort of broad, generalized support for food self-sufficiency, or food sovereignty. Indeed, I've started to think of it as a civic activity, i.e. people take on the responsibility of feeding themselves and their communities. Furthermore, as a civic process, people draw on and leverage different relationships so that food production and exchange provide a forum for building and maintaining social cohesion.

Alternately, in the so-called developed world, food production, processing and exchange are mainly industrial activities. I think that most people in a capitalist society would see this as a natural outcome of the market (never mind that this kind of agriculture took shape because of government policies). Food production has come to be seen as just one more industry, driven by the industrial concerns of efficiency and output.  Also characteristic of this kind of agriculture is that it is done mainly in rural areas on large tracts of land.  Over a period of time the food system has moved out of the hands of regular folks and into the hands of industry. 

In Senegal, where the majority of people are producing food, urban gardens are a normalized part of the urban landscape.  In the US, however, growing veggies in your front yard runs counter to the dominant urban aesthetic. There's a chance that if people do decide to do it in their front yards, neighbors may have the grounds to call the code enforcement people, and the code enforcement people might say something like this (from this article ) :
City code says that all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.
And then you might say, as the Basses did, "Well, for us, tomatoes and peppers are suitable."  In which case, the code enforcement person (in this case, Kevin Rulkowski) might say:
“If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard....If you look at the definition of what suitable is in Webster’s dictionary, it will say common. So, if you look around and you look in any other community, what’s common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers,” 
*Facepalm*  Never mind that 'suitable' does not mean 'common,' though it does mean 'desireable' or 'worthy,' which really is what Mr. Rulkowski is trying to say.  And never mind that lawns are, well, dumb and produce nothing, but receive large quantities of chemical inputs that run off into watersheds and/or are tracked into houses, where they are inhaled and ingested by the people who live there.

In more technologically developed countries, there seems to be a sort of ideology that positions the hot, sweaty, dirty work of coaxing food from the soil as a poor man's travail.  Thus, the more that can be done with machines and technology, the better.  Success is measured by how much can be forced out of the soil and onto the market.

And that is the ideology that underlies international agricultural development today.  Agriculture in that ethos is not seen as the province of everyday citizens. It is seen more as a 'driver of development' than development, in and of itself.  It is, in fact, very often portrayed as drudgery and something that people need to develop away from.  Nor is it seen as the proper use of urban space, so that urban agriculture is interpreted mostly as a stop-gap measure to mitigate poverty in urban areas as countries make their way to the promised land of 'real' (*cough* Western) development, which, I suppose, might include lots of regulations and codes so that places develop and look the way they are 'supposed' to.

At its core, the current approach to agricultural development is circumscribed by neoliberal ideology, though I'm sure that many agricultural development experts will tell you their market-based approach is more 'rational' than 'ideological.'  I disagree because I think the market based approach is fundamentally much so that it continues to drive development even though the proverbial writing is on the proverbial wall: It's not working all that well. I also think this narrow view misses a lot of the ways in which agriculture is important to the people who practice it and the various ways that people use it to improve the quality of their lives.

In the US, it looks like more and more regular people are discovering the many ways in which agriculture can be meaningful, and are seeking to work outside the confines of the industrial food model. For example, there is a trend across the socioeconomic spectrum to grow more of your own food, which will probably challenge silly, constrictive codes like those facing the Basses. I don't think I'd ever advocate for a complete eradication of the industrial food system, but I would like to see stronger parallel food systems which transfer control back into the hands of regular people. It does seem to be happening, not because the government or industry is willing to share, but because regular people, like Julie Bass, are taking it back.  And, thus, the lowly vegetable garden takes a political turn and becomes a site where struggles over ideology and how we see ourselves are waged.

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