Interview with Dr. Marc Edelman, Professor at Hunter College on Food Sovereignty

by Charles Platkin

By Charles Platkin, PhD

What does an anthropologist know about food? A lot.

Marc Edelman is a Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York who has worked for more than three decades on rural development issues, agrarian history, and peasant and farmer movements, mostly but not only in Latin America. His research and writing focuses on agrarian issues, social movements, and a variety of Latin American topics, including the historical roots of nationalism and contemporary politics. Dr. Edelman has served on many editorial boards, written numerous articles, chapters, papers, and books. He is President-Elect of the American Ethnological Society.

I was able to do an email interview with Dr. Edelman on food sovereignty, food policy, and the importance of Periurban green belts for large urban areas.

What motivated you to get involved with food policy and/or to become a food policy advocate? Was there a specific trigger or inciting incident?

I’m not sure food policy advocate is the best label, especially in the US context, where many people concerned about food display little interest in issues of agrarian politics, land, and power. I consider myself part of the critical agrarian studies community of activists, scholars and scholar-activists, so I tend to see food as inextricably bound up with how agriculture, corporate power, state power and labor interact in any given society and also, of course, with natural resources and environmental governance.

There wasn’t a trigger or incident that led me here, nor is there a linear explanation. I was interested in food before I knew I was interested in food. Both of my parents were extraordinarily good cooks. This wasn’t a family tradition—one of my grandmothers was indifferent to food, always serving tuna salad and carrot sticks when I would go over for lunch, and the other was such a terrible cook that my father would use any excuse to get out of an invitation to a meal at her house. My parents lived in France the year before I was born (and I was conceived in Paris, on Rue Jacob, though born in New York). They fell in love with good food in France and Italy and in New York we lived in a heavily Italian neighborhood. The bread from the now-defunct Zito’s Bakery on Bleecker Street was out-of-this-world. I was horrified when I first tasted the Wonder Bread that my cousins in the suburbs ate.

I first left the United States when I was 16 and spent a summer in Mexico. This was before fast food chains came to dominate the country to the extent they do today and the new tastes — chiles, cilantro, pozole, handmade corn tortillas — were wonderful. But what made a bigger impact on me was that Mexico, even though it was an industrial powerhouse, was still a peasant society and a place where most food was produced by smallholders, many of them very poor. The peasant and indigenous presence — what Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil years later called “México profundo” — was palpable. Four years later I was back in Mexico and I realized that urban Mexicans drank Nescafé instead of fresh coffee, that they consumed phenomenal amounts of soda and sugary rolls. So it wasn’t all ideal in any way.

During that second trip to Mexico one of my teachers used to bring us on weekends to help out on a relative’s farm. This was in the state of Morelos, the cradle of the original Zapatistas of the Mexican Revolution. Don Manuel, the guy we were helping, seemed very old to me, though he was probably in his 40s or 50s. He had a traditional milpa or farm of intercropped corn and beans and a few other things that was part of an ejido agrarian reform community. We students had to weed and put handfuls of chemical fertilizer on little mounds where the maize plants were coming up. During one of these visits don Manuel, who hadn’t completed primary school but was a man of immense dignity and knowledge, had one of his kids bring a chair and a small book out to the field after we were done working. He then sat down, took a big drink of water and began to read to us, slowly and with great emotion, part of the text of Mexico’s agrarian reform law. This made a huge impression on me. I had already read a lot of Latin American history and had an abstract understanding of the connections between land and justice. After I left Mexico I headed south and traveled on a shoestring for almost a year in Central and South America. I saw the conditions of the peasantry up close—a very intense experience, different from learning about this in books or seminars.

Some years after that — we’re now in the late 70s and I’m an anthropology grad student — I spent a summer in a tiny rural community in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico. After market day in the nearby district capital of Zacapoaxtla, poor indigenous women would slip into the marketplace after dark and surreptitiously gather the grains of maize that had fallen on the ground during the day. Today we would call them “food insecure.” I’m not sure if I knew that language then, but it was just one more instance of a society shot through with racial and class oppression. The lack of food justice was just one part of it.

I also used to garden in the summers with my father on a little patch of land we had two hours outside New York City. He was passionate, even fanatical, about this, much more than I was. We produced vast quantities of vegetables on just about six or eight raised beds, all organic and all delicious. We would plant marigolds to ward off bugs and bury cups in the soil and fill them with beer to drown slugs, who love the smell of yeast. There were a lot of tricks like that. We had fruit trees. We would can and freeze stuff and give food to neighbors and have great food well into the winter. It wasn’t a business and it probably would have lost money in any rational accounting of costs and labor and output. After my dad passed away, my mother and I tried to keep it going for a few years, but with limited success. I was too busy with work and kids and she was still working and also getting older and not as fanatically dedicated to it as my father had been. This experience led me to reflect not only on the tremendous possibilities of agroecological production, but also on the drudgery that is an inescapable part of so much agricultural labor.

I know you spend a lot of time on food sovereignty — can you briefly explain it to us?

In ‘80s and early ‘90s I spent a lot of time in Costa Rica and a bit less time in the other Central America countries, especially Honduras and Nicaragua. I did a dissertation on large landholdings, eventually published as The Logic of the Latifundio, and later a book on contemporary peasant movements called Peasants Against Globalization. The latifundio research involved in-depth analysis of the histories and social relations of the livestock, sugar, rice and other food-producing sectors. The Costa Rican social welfare state, which was very impressive for what had been a poor tropical country, entered a severe crisis in the ‘80s and by the middle of the decade governments there embraced the free market. Public-sector supports for small-scale and even large-scale agriculture were cut back or disappeared completely. I’m talking about credit, extension services, input and machinery subsidies, support prices. USAID was very active in Costa Rica in that period and the US began massive dumping of its surplus maize produced with subsidies from the US Treasury. This was a disaster for the peasantry and people began to organize and protest. It was in this context that peasant activists began to talk about “food sovereignty,” but they also used it interchangeably with other terms, such as “food self-sufficiency” or “sovereignty in exports.” Initially the idea was to protect livelihoods and national food security against the vicissitudes of the global market and US dumping. Later the Vía Campesina transnational movement adopted the food sovereignty language and the demand spread to other agrarian movements and NGOs, many of which form part of the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty, possibly one of the largest progressive social movement coalitions in the world today.

While definitions of “food sovereignty” are numerous and disputed, both proponents and scholars increasingly accept the one from the 2007 Nyéléni Forum in Mali: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” But this definition elides some key questions, such as how the “peoples” are going to exercise that right or what role international trade might have in a food sovereign society. Critical Perspectives on Food Sovereignty, which I edited along with Jim Scott, Amita Baviskar, Jun Borras, Eric Holt-Giménez, Deniz Kandiyoti, Tony Weis and Wendy Wolford, tackles some of these tough questions.

Food sovereignty versus food security? 

Many food sovereignty advocates argue that these are diametrically opposed concepts and that food security is a technocratic, quantitative indicator that doesn’t say anything about how food is produced, about the technologies, scale, social relations and so on. To caricature this view of food security for a moment, if enough calories and protein are produced on giant industrial farms using toxics and unsustainable practices, then everything’s secure and okay. Peasant activists sometimes comment that food sovereignty includes the right to produce food, which they rightly feel is threatened in many places. I understand and sympathize with this critique but I also see many areas of overlap in the way the terms have been used over the years.

What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?

Periurban green belts are hugely important for large urban areas. They provide oxygen, recreational spaces, drinking water, different kinds of livelihoods, and they also sink carbon. Land access for small farms and for young people who want to farm is a significant problem in strengthening our existing green belt. Some farms use labor from WWOOFers, which is great, but it also means that they aren’t usually paying wages. Direct farm-to-consumer marketing and mandates to provision institutions could be major bulwarks of periurban or even urban small farms. I mean supplying schools, universities, hospitals — hospital food is typically terrible and weirdly unhealthy —, elder housing, and prisons as guaranteed markets. Worldwide the FAO estimates that urban agriculture feeds almost 800 million people. We could be doing a lot more of that here if the incentive structure were better.

Can you point to one food policy that turned out to be a bad idea?

There are so many it’s hard to know where to begin. Corn and ethanol subsidies in the United States are famously problematical: they are a factor in obesity and other health problems; in the destruction of biodiversity, soils and aquifers; in chemical contamination of water, soil and air; in the huge food price spike around 2008 that in turn led to a wave of global land grabbing; and in strengthening some of the worst corporate actors and the hold of these on our political system. They contribute to the hollowing out of democracy.

At the international level, the PL-480 “Food for Peace” Program foisted U.S. surplus commodities on developing countries, glutting local markets and undermining more complex dietary practices and national food producers, and this in turn drove a massive rush to urban slums, where all kinds of social pathologies fester. The emphasis of US food aid has recently and very belatedly shifted to local sourcing of food for emergency situations. But global trade rules, especially the Agreement on Agriculture that is part of the World Trade Organization, continue to favor producers in the North and to discriminate against those in the South. Particularly in the US and the EU, hidden export subsidies that encourage “dumping,” that is the sale of products below their real costs of production, have wreaked havoc on small and medium-sized agricultural producers in the Global South. These trade rules and the extraordinary concentration in the seed industry and in global commodities corporations have led to a dangerous simplification of food systems worldwide — dangerous in terms of human and animal health, genetic vulnerability, externalized environmental costs and concentrations of corporate and landowner power that threaten democracy and block progress towards more humane social models.

Given this rather grim scenario, what do you see as sources of hope for change in the food system?

It’s important to remember that some things have changed for the better. In the US it’s now possible in many places to obtain a much greater variety of high quality foods and that’s a good thing, not only for overly precious “foodies.” I remember in the early 70s, on the south side of Chicago, even in a sophisticated neighborhood like Hyde Park, it was almost impossible to buy fresh bread anywhere. That’s no longer the case, of course.

Now when my youngest kid gets to his public elementary school in Manhattan he can have a fairly decent free breakfast of oatmeal, an apple and skim milk. It’s hard to believe that in the US giving kids breakfast in school was once considered a far-out, radical and even subversive idea. The Black Panthers and the Young Lords struggled for that in the late 1960s, invoking a version of what would later come to be called the right to food. The reaction from the establishment was intense and violent. Yet for some time now it’s considered normal that kids receive breakfast at school. The history of this social conquest has been largely forgotten. Positive change can happen if enough people push hard enough.

At the international level struggles in defense of food, agroecology and agrarian justice are intensifying. Many of these are analyzed in my recent book, Political Dynamics of Transnational Agrarian Movements, coauthored by Jun Borras, an amazing agrarian scholar-activist from the Philippines who works in the Netherlands. For the past several years I have been documenting and analyzing a campaign to have the United Nations approve a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. This initiative began in Indonesia, was adopted by La Vía Campesina and subsequently by other peasant networks and movements of fisherfolk, nomadic pastoralists, food workers and landless laborers. The links between the human right to food and other rights — including rights to land and to plant the seeds that one wants to plant — have been very clear in this process. In effect, it’s a forceful effort to assert the primacy of human rights law — and of human wellbeing — over the global trade and intellectual property agreements and seed certification laws that have had so many destructive impacts. The challenges are huge, of course, but people and some states increasingly recognize that reining in industrial agriculture is essential if we are to build genuine environmental sustainability and resilience and also address climate change, social inequality in the Global North and South, and the many refugee crises. This is also the only way to really meet the needs of the nearly one billion human beings who still suffer from hunger, three-quarter of whom live in rural areas.

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