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Eric Holt-Gimenez: Our Food System Isn't Broken (It Just Never Worked Well in the First Place)

Garry Holt-Giménez making speach

Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, grew up working on farms and fishing boats in Point Reyes, CA where he learned that putting food on the table is hard work. After studying rural education and biology at the University of Oregon and Evergreen State College, he traveled through Mexico and Central America, where he was drawn to the simple life of small-scale farmers. Flash forward to 2006, Eric becomes executive director of Food First—an organization founded by fellow Rootstock Radio guest France Moore Lappé—and he’s been fighting for change in the food system and its surrounding structures ever since.

On the subject of world hunger, Eric talks about the research that made Frances Moore Lappé’s book Diet for a Small Planet so revolutionary: “she found that in fact the world was producing 1.5 times more than enough food to feed everybody. People are not going hungry because of scarcity, they’re going hungry because they’re too poor to buy the food that was produced.” Especially atrocious, Eric points out, is the fact that most of the people who are too poor to buy food are the farm workers producing the food—many of them women and girls around the world.

Foodie's Guide to Capitalism

Contrary to what many participants in the good food movement believe, Eric prefers not to say that our food system is broken. “Our food system is acting precisely as a food system during the period of late capitalism is supposed to work. It’s supposed to concentrate land and resources and power in the hands of the few and it’s supposed to offload all of the social and environmental externalities onto the rest of society. And that’s what it’s doing. It’s an exploitative, extractivist food system.” This is why Eric doesn’t want to ‘fix’ the food system, he wants to transform it into something completely different. Because as he points out, “when you say you want to fix the food system that means you think that it once worked well.”

On this, Eric has a fair point.

Hear more about transforming the food system and addressing world hunger by listening to the full episode at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts!


Air Date: February 19, 2018

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.

ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, the Institute for Food and Development Policy, as well as author and editor of several books. Welcome, Eric.

ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: Well hi, Anne, it’s a pleasure to be with Rootstock Radio.

AOC: Yeah, it’s just such a pleasure to have you here. I’d like to start by just having a little bit of a history of Food First, what you call the “People’s Think Tank” or the “Think and Do Tank,” which is great. Can you give us a just a brief history of what Food First is and what do you do?

EHG: Sure. Our organization was started by Frances Moore Lappé, who most people remember from her path-breaking book, Diet for a Small Planet, and then the book Food First and then [World] Hunger: Twelve Myths and now again [World] Hunger: Ten Myths and many other publications. But, you know, she discovered 41 years ago, actually 42 years ago, she discovered something about our food system during what was a hunger crisis at that time, in which pretty much everybody said we had to double production because 1 in 7 people were going hungry around the world.

She found that in fact the world was producing one and half times more than enough food to feed everybody. In other words, we were over-producing food. Scarcity was not the problem. People are not going hungry because of scarcity—they’re going hungry because they’re too poor to buy the food which is being produced. So it’s not just a distribution problem—it’s an equity problem. Because she also found that those who were going the most hungry were actually those who were producing most of the world’s food.

So flash forward over four decades now: we produce one and a half times more than enough food for every man, woman, and child on the planet; 1 in 7 people—at least, if not much more—are going hungry. So this, despite the Green Revolution, and this, despite tremendous increases in production and productivity and whatnot. And again, who’s going hungry? It’s farm workers, poor farmers, food workers. And mostly the people who go hungry are women and girls, and they still produce most of the food in the world.

So to understand those inequities and contradictions, she started Food First, and we’ve spent 40 years researching just how this works, and also researching who’s trying to change it and what are they doing.

AOC: Tell us about your background. How did you come to land on this doorstep?

EHG: Well, I grew up working on farms and fishing boats on the northern California coast. And then I put myself through college, essentially, being a farm worker, and really wanted to get off the farm—that’s why I went to college. I was pretty sick and tired of it.

AOC: It’s hard work!

EHG: Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t my farm anyway—they weren’t my farms. But I ended up going down on a study-abroad program to Latin America and fell in love with the countryside and with the peasantry—with small farmers and indigenous farmers. And so I ended staying there and doing volunteer work but then became part of a farmers’ movement, a regional farmers movement called Campesino a Campesino, which means “Farmer to Farmer.” It was a movement for sustainable agriculture in which farmers developed their own agriculture. These are farmers who had been run over by the Green Revolution and had seen their soils destroyed, had seen the ecology of their farm systems destroyed, had gone broke and were working in the city to pay off loans that they had taken out for hybrid seeds and fertilizers and whatnot.

AOC: And that, of course, was what you mean by the Green Revolution, for our listeners, who may not be familiar with that term, right? A very nice name…

EHG: Yes, nice name and likes to take credit for saving a billion people from hunger. However, that was never actually measured. They just measured the extra food that was produced and never really measured whether people were able to eat it or not. And they also didn’t measure how many small farmers lost their farms and were displaced and dispossessed and then entered the ranks of the hungry because of the Green Revolution. It’s really capitalist agriculture.

And so the capitalization of agriculture in Latin America is where I fell right into, and I saw it firsthand. And I saw farmers going out of business, and I saw how they organized and used agroecology to restore the fertility of their soils, restore the ecological balance of their farm system to control and manage pests and produce a consistent surplus, and basically reinstate the resiliency—the historic, traditional resiliency of their farming systems.

And so it spread and I just kept following it. I ended up going from Guatemala to Mexico, Mexico to Nicaragua, and then from Nicaragua moved all around Latin America as the Farmer to Farmer movement spread. And I came back to the U.S. 25 years later. It was suppose to be just a short six-month study tour.

AOC: That is so fantastic!

EHG: Yeah. But you know, what I learned was, these things work. And then what I learned was, well if they work, then why aren’t they being supported?

AOC: Right, we keep saying, “Well, the food system is broken.” People say that all the time, and you don’t say that.

EHG: Well, the food system is not broken. Our food system is acting precisely as a capitalist food system during a period of late capitalism is supposed to work. It’s supposed to concentrate land and resources and power in the hands of the few, and it’s supposed to offload all of the social and environmental externalities onto the rest of society. And that’s what it’s doing. It’s an exploitative, extractivist food system and it does what it does.

So when we say we want to fix the food system, that means we think that it once worked well. Well, worked well when? During the period of slavery? Or during the period when farm workers were being exploited? Or during the period where indigenous people were being dispossessed? I mean, sure, it has worked well for some people, but it has also worked very, very badly for a lot of people and the planet. So I don’t think we have to fix this food system. I think we have to transform it into something completely different.

AOC: So that’s a pretty big distinction. But it’s a shift, it’s a really important shift to say, “Hmm, it’s working really well for some people.”

EHG: Yeah, and that’s still the case, isn’t it? I mean, it’s working very well for Monsanto and Syngenta and Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco, basically the big supermarket complex and the big agro-business concerns, monopolies, are doing quite well. It’s everybody else who’s not doing so well. And you need just look at the opioid epidemic in the heartland of this country to know that things are very deeply amiss. You know, 1 in 7 people are food insecure in this country—the richest country in the world that produces more food than anybody else.

AOC: So that number is probably surprising to a lot of people: 1 in 7 people in our country are hungry. How can that be in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet?

EHG: Well, it gets worse, because not only are 1 in 7 going hungry, but those that are going hungry, the majority work in the food system. They tend to be people of color and many are immigrants. And basically they pick our food, they process our food, they serve our food, they work in the back of the house at fancy restaurants. And yet they have the highest levels of food insecurity of anybody in the country. So that’s not a small detail that can be patched and fixed. That’s a structural issue which we have to address with our capitalist industrial food system.

AOC: So I want to go back to 2008, 2012, different periods when people were literally rioting in the streets because—well, they were called food riots. What happened? What was the global context for those people rioting for the price of rice being too high? What was going on there?

EHG: Well, I mean, that’s exactly it. And I think one of the very… You had food riots, what was called food riots, all around the world in 2008 because the price of food shot up so high, basically reversing a trend of over half of a century of cheap food and cheapening food, and suddenly it goes through the roof. And the problem at that time was that we had the highest food prices we’d had since the Food Price Index was ever recorded, so over 50 years. We were also producing more food than we had in the history of the world. So we had record hunger, record prices, record food production, and we also had record profits for the food corporations, everything from Monsanto to WalMart. They raked in record profits at this time.

And I think that the real contradiction came clear to me with the very emblematic case of Haiti, which—you know, Haiti was also already very badly off, the people of Haiti were very badly off. But when they rebelled, this is when I begin to change the wording. I stopped using the term riot. And in fact, we wrote a book called Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. These were rebellions, these weren’t just riots. You know, you can imagine the riot of people with empty bellies and clenched fists.

When the people of Haiti rebelled, they didn’t break down the doors to the warehouses where the TL-480 rice was kept—that’s the rice which the U.S. gives away to foreign governments as our food aid. Anyway, they didn’t break down the doors to those warehouses to grab the rice. They besieged the National Palace and they drove the Prime Minister off the island, because they saw very clearly that this was a political problem that the country was incapable of solving. Here are the hungry people, here is the food. Why don’t you just give them the food? And of course, because of the political agreements and arrangements with the United States, they wouldn’t do that.

And so, that, I think is the crux of the issue. When you look around the world, people were rebelling against an unjust food system, not just the fact that prices had gone through the roof.

AOC: Right, so it was portrayed, in some ways, it was portrayed like hey, these are hungry people—they’re so hungry that they’re angry. But what you’re saying is yeah, they understood the problem, and the problem wasn’t that there wasn’t enough food.

EHG: Precisely. We don’t give people enough credit, I think. And then in 2011 and ’12 this happens again, and we get all these food rebellions, but this time they kick off the Arab Spring. So, deep political content to these rebellions, and when we see that food is…food helps to identify the tipping point when people finally say, “Okay, we’re not going to take this anymore.” And it’s not just about the food—it’s about the whole political and economic system.

AOC: And one of the things that we know is that food is connected to every other system, every other part of the system. Food is connected to our social structures and the political structures and our environmental structures. Every piece of that touches our food system.

EHG: So, that is true, and I think it’s sort of a two-edged sword. On one hand, those of us who want to transform the food system, I think, have sort of assumed for a while that we could do this without transforming the larger system in which the food system is embedded. In other words, that we could transform our food system without having to transform capitalism. I think it’s pretty clear that that’s impossible.

So now, that really overwhelms people: “Oh, you mean we have to change everything?” Well actually, I think we do. And then people get overwhelmed.

AOC: Right, they do! They get overwhelmed, Eric! Especially when there’s so many other things and people have to live their lives. So break this down for us, right?

EHG: What else were you busy doing? I mean, let’s go ahead and change everything. I love Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. Well, it’s time to change everything.

But the other side of that is that food, and the food system, is pivotal within capitalism. Food and capitalism have coevolved. So if we think about it strategically and use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu, one can see how, if we make sort of very politically strategic changes within our food system, we can began to change the larger capitalist system. And this is a thesis, of course, and I think we need to test it, because we don’t have much time—with global warming, with the tremendous migrations that are taking place because of economic and political and climate refugees. We’ve really got to take hold of the food system and use the food system, not just to feed ourselves better food, and not just for the food sovereignty of being able to determine how we grow, process, eat, and distribute our food, but because that’s the lever to change the larger system which is driving the rest of the problems we have: climate change and the financial crashes and the tremendous inequities and disparities in wealth that have developed over the last 20 years.

AOC: If, listeners, you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor. I’m here today with Eric Holt-Giménez, who is the executive director of Food First as well as an author and editor of several books. We are talking today about food justice, equity, and what the solutions are. So let’s try to focus on that a bit. So you can use the food system as a lever; the lever is going to radiate changes out in the rest of different systems; and yet you’ve talked a little bit, even on this show, and you talk a lot in your books, on just how big and engrained the way things are today. So talk to us about where do you start? You do a lot of work with Food First, you have a lot of strategies, you have a lot of programs. Talk about some of those things for us, about how do we start to move those levers?

EHG: Absolutely. Well, I think that the first thing we have to realize, particularly here in the United States, is that we are not in the minority. Those of us who want to transform the food system are not in the minority. In fact, we’re in the majority, because if you look around the world, in fact you have the growth of peasant movements around the world fighting for food sovereignty, for example. Just Via Campesina, which is a peasant federation, has 200 million members and they have extensive alliances, like with the World March of Women and with the climate justice movement. So one can see that, in fact, what you and I are talking about is already happening politically around the world. And it’s happening on the ground too. I mean, people are refusing to participate in the corporate food regime.

So many of the very promising alternatives that we see around the world, and here in the United States—like organic farming, permaculture, agroecology, CSAs, farmers markets, farm-to-school programs, on and on and on—these are all great things. And we need to keep doing all those things, but we need to do something else too. We need to change everything.

AOC: Back to that plan of changing everything! Okay!

EHG: We need to take political responsibility for what we’re doing, for the potential of what we’re doing. And so it’s great to be talking about the prefigurative politics of we’re going to be the change we want to see in the world, and we’re going to work on our communities, and we’re going to establish nonhierarchical organizations, and we’re going to support the leadership of women and people of color. That’s all fantastic, we have to do all of that, and we are. But we need to take a step further: we need to find a way to converge in all of our diversity so that we become a powerful movement for social change. Powerful enough to create the political will that’s needed to institute the structural changes—not just the changes in practice, but changing the rules of our food system. Which essentially means changing the rules of capitalism.

AOC: For everything.

EHG: That’s right.

AOC: So, what you’re suggesting is, yes, do all of the groundwork and all the things that are already happening, but the biggest piece is going to be all of us figuring out how to work together.

EHG: It’s the political piece, yeah. I mean, we’re kind of looked on here in the United States as being sort of the crazy fringe who wants to talk about veganism and foodies and on and on. Ah, those crazy people, organics and all these things. Like this is all niche stuff, it’s very nice, but it really is not going to work for the whole world, and so we’re just kind of nuts.

If you look at the food movements globally, think of it more like a balloon, and we’re positioned somewhere on this balloon. And the balloon keeps expanding and expanding and expanding, getting bigger and bigger. So we’re not the lunatic fringe—we’re part of the cutting edge. And the contradictions within capitalism and within our capitalist food system are really coming home to roost. Capitalism has to expand always or die. And so it’s always about economic expansion and economic growth when, well, we’re running out of resources and people are getting poorer, not richer, as a result. And so clearly this has to change.

So those contradictions, I think, are really coming home to roost. And so the more that the food movement reconstructs our public sphere—you know, that sphere outside of the market, where we make decisions based on what is right rather than what the market is telling us to do—and the more we recapture our commons, those areas in our lives where we base our decisions on a moral economy and we manage things for the good of everybody, not just individuals—the more that we can do that, the more traction we’re going to have in the face of what it really is: a deteriorating capitalist system.

AOC: It’s a fascinating, hopeful, and intriguing set of ideas there, Eric. I love that. You know, some people might say, “Hey, I look around the world and I see communities that mostly feed themselves.” And a lot of that is being grabbed up by these larger companies that you have been talking about here. But when you say, well, these are nice little niches over here—yes, but people feeding themselves and their communities has been the way that most people in most parts of the world have done it.

EHG: And it’s still happening. We’re under the illusion that corporate agriculture feeds the world. In fact, less than 15 percent of all food even crosses borders worldwide. So the rest of the food, the other 85 percent, is being grown locally and consumed locally. So this whole business about “feeding the world”—it’s not about feeding the world at all. The world is feeding itself very well for the most part, except they can’t keep the food to feed themselves. What’s at stake is that market. That 85 percent, corporate agriculture wants that market because they have to expand. And the justification or the rationalization is, “Well, we need to feed the world.”

Well, actually, the world could feed itself if it would let it. And I think it’s important not just for hungry people and rural people to be able to feed themselves. This is important for everybody, and here’s why. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s just look into the future of a completely corporatized, industrialized food system. What would that do? Well, the first thing it would do is it would displace a third of humanity. It would move all these small farmers out of the countryside. I say “move”—you know, it would eject them violently from the countryside. That’s what’s happening now with land grabs. The question is—and we’re already seeing the problems resulting from this—but if you follow it out, well, the question is, where is everybody going to go? There is no new Industrial Revolution to sop up all this labor. And Microsoft’s not going to do it.

So the world economy would have to grow at something like 15 percent a year over the next 50 years in order to sop up all this labor. Well, that’s impossible. We’re not even growing at 2 percent. So clearly people have to stay in the countryside. The problem is, for most of the world the countryside is not that nice of a place to live. So we have to reinvest in the countryside. So we have to make a social commitment to the countryside. The countrysides have to be a good place to live. There has to be food, water, electricity, health care, schools, roads—I mean, all these things.

We’re paving over the countryside. We’ve got to reverse that. We’ve got to green the city. We’ve got to make the countryside an attractive place for our young people to make a living.

AOC: So, Eric, you have a new book called A Foodies Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Congratulations!

EHG: Thank you.

AOC: Very exciting. So if our listeners want to hear more about these issues, they could go and get A Foodies Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, and this is by Eric Holt-Giménez, our guest today on Rootstock Radio, and it is from Food First Press.

EHG: This is a co-publication between Food First Books and Monthly Review.

AOC: Well, thank you so much for writing it and for that work. I do find your ideas incredibly hopeful and a great road map for people who are trying to make changes and to do what they can to influence the system. Eric, one more question before we have to sign off here: What’s your advice for people to stay buoyant, to stay focused, and to keep going?

EHG: I can only say what I do. At Food First we study these things, and sometimes you’re sitting behind the computer for 8 to 10 hours looking at the most depressing information and statistics in the world, and then you have to go home and get up the next day and do it again. And the only way that we have been able to do this and not lose hope under what is, if you’re paying attention, is a very pessimistic scenario, is to ally oneself with those for whom losing hope is not an option. And that’s what we do at Food First. So we really need to listen to the voices of the people who are making the changes on the frontlines of our food system, both not to lose hope and also to learn about all the exciting things that are happening and coming together.

AOC: Eric, if our listeners want to learn more about your work, we’ve mentioned several of the books that you’ve been involved with. Is there a website or someplace they could go to find all this in one place?

EHG: Yes, I encourage everybody to visit the Food First website. It’s

AOC: Fantastic work. Thank you for all you’re doing out there, and, Eric, thank you for joining me today.

EHG: Well, thank you, Anne, and thank Rootstock Radio for having me.

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