The various incarnations of the sustainable food movement need a science with which to approach a system as complex as food and farming.
Thumb through U.S. newspapers any day in early 2015, and you could find stories on President Obama’s “fast-track” plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, antibiotic scares and theworsening California drought. Economists reported on steadily rising income inequality, while minimum-wage food workers took to the picket lines. Americans fled their kitchens and Chipotle welcomed them with farm-friendly appeal. Scientists recorded the warmest winter in history.
These seemingly disconnected events have a common thread: They all are symptoms of a political economy out of kilter with the welfare of the planet and the people who live on it. They are also nestled deep in the way food is grown, distributed and consumed today. What we sometimes call the “agri-food system” is clearly broken — just ask farmworkers and food workers (exploited and underpaid), honeybees (collapsing), forested landscapes (fragmenting), the climate (warming), and the ever-growing number of people without access to nutritious food, or the land and resources with which to produce it.
“Sustainable food” attempts to heal this fragile system, and it’s been a buzzword for three decades. Its mushrooming incarnations — local, organic, biodynamic, fair trade and “slow,” among others — suggest a broad yearning for something better. But modern capitalism is wondrously efficient at disciplining outliers. It hasn’t taken much for the dynamics of competition and price to sweep countercultural ideas into the industrial mainstream, forcing enterprises in many – not all – sustainable food niches to expand in size, adopt monoculture techniques and replicate the basic model of industrial overproduction.
What some have described as “input-substitution organic,” for example, swaps out chemical inputs for biological ones. These farms are therefore marginally better in terms of pollution but have barely budged the needle on monoculture cropping, not to mention labor issues. In any of these alternatives, price is prohibitive: Most low- to middle-income earners — and this includes most workers in the food system — cannot afford to buy the fruits of this so-called food revolution.
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