Big Organic and the Bigger Picture: Innovative farming and the fight for food justice

It is becoming more and more widely acknowledged that one of the major trends of structural violence occurring in the United States (and indeed nations across the globe) is food injustice. Food injustice refers to not only the environmentally sound production of food, but also the problem also known as hunger, food insecurity, food deprivation, and a plethora of different things, according to your field and understanding of this issue. Both a symptom and a residual effect of poverty, and a topic I’ve been fortunate to study extensively, food injustice is something I’ve come to see as an extraordinarily sensitive topic. No one with a fridge full of food finds it easy to confront the privilege of their food security, and it is tremendously degrading to find oneself unable to feed one’s children. As peacebuilding scholars, we don’t need a blog post written by a peer to determine that situations of desperation and the degradation of our fellow humans, can bring us to physical violence rather easily. And with crime rates being highest in marginalised (and food insecure) communities, we see that this is already occurring.

There are many approaches to mitigating the effects of food security, and to promoting food justice. Yet when the Summer Peacebuilding Program visited Earthbound Farms yesterday, I found it very hard to connect the dots between what founder Myra Goodman calls ‘Big Organic’, and the reduction of this particular form of structural violence. I offer my praise for the innovation of Myra and her team at Earthbound in promoting the healthy production of food, and the protection of the environment, by using farming practices that promote land conservation in ways that even conventional organic farmers do not. I also promote the ideology of ‘Big Organic’, provided it preserves its environmental and ideological integrity.

However, as someone who remains conscious of the food insecure, I do perceive Big Organic to be, at times, myopic in its promotion of a ‘food revolution’. This is by no means to say that the food justice movement and the Big Organic movement have to be mutually exclusive: in fact, I would posit that the opposite is true. Yet I must say that as someone who has spent three years working with and studying America’s poorest communities – the homeless, the welfare-dependent, the indigent – I have found that the movement to ‘buy organic’, to ‘eat fresh fruits and vegetables’ and to ‘reduce your carbon footprint’ through ‘making the right choices for you and your family’ takes completely the wrong approach to the promotion of a just food system. That is, it assumes that escaping food security, and tackling the effects of this violence, is an independent choice; that the imperative case is appropriate language. The concern with this notion of food justice is that it fosters the idea among the general public that the indigent are to be held responsible for their own injustices. This is not an escape from structural violence, this is a perpetuation of it.

I make no assumption that our friends at Earthbound Farms are party to the perpetuation of this injustice against marginalised communities – to draw such a conclusion from this piece would be simplistic at best. What I do suggest is that companies such as Earthbound Farms, and ultimately any proponent of any peace, have an ethical and moral obligation to promote access to places such as Earthbound Farms and the nourishment they offer, because sadly, bags of mixed baby greens only go so far when at least 1 in 6 Americans – the estimated statistic to illustrate food insecurity in this country – cannot afford to buy them. As with most things we’ve learned in our first week in the Summer Peacebuilding Program, the solution is political. We need to first destigmatize food insecurity, then to disincentivise (through policies, of course) the production of unhealthy cash crops by corporate food producers, then to promote food justice in a meaningful way, by promoting and supporting agents for equitable change in the food system. This change needs to target the urban and rural poor, through transport to access healthy food, the establishment of affordable produce vendors in poor communities, Community-Supported Agriculture programs, enhanced subsidies for food purchasing, and raising the minimum wage, to name but a few.

The list of tasks to promote food justice is long, but food justice advocates should not be intimidated by it, for it illustrates to us that there are many possibilities for activism for a fairer food system. This also means that there are possibilities for Big Organic. Organic producers who are bigger would tend to be more financially stable, and would have bigger profit margins, have more to provide for poorer communities – they have more to give, and like us as peacebuilders, they should give whatever time and resources they can. Yet we need to remember what food injustice is: a question of resource distribution, and Big Organic won’t contribute to the problem unless it actively becomes an agent for redistribution.