Rebuilding the public sphere from the soil up

3 October 2018
The food system provides a lens for exploring citizenship, agency and participation in the public sphere. Alana Mann and Eric Holt-Giménez argue for a critical public sphere that provides the foundation for new forms of food democracy. But if the food movement is “rebuilding the public sphere from the ground up” what does this look like?

By Dr Alana Mann, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications & Eric Holt-Giménez, Author and Executive Director of Food First

Who should produce our food, how, and for whose benefit? These questions are central to any discussion of ecological limits, and social justice, in a climate challenged world.

The industrial food system relies on the externalisation of costs, inequitable subsidies, and the (over) production of surpluses dumped as food aid while reducing biodiversity, and exhausting soils and water sources. Food systems contribute nearly 30 per cent to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The search for biomass alternatives to replace fossil-fuels drive land-use changes which take more land out of agricultural production and place further stress on biodiversity. These conditions compound the structural inequalities that already impact on individuals and communities experiencing what has been described as “food violence” (Eakin, et al., 2010), in the form of hunger, obesity and diseases of malnutrition, all of which disproportionately affect populations subject to chronic economic marginalisation, social exclusion and discrimination.

The Food Ethics Council (2017) reports that by most indicators the challenges facing the food system are getting worse, and civil society has responded. Yet there is a lot of discussion about whether a “food movement” exists and, if so, how do disparate groups unify to reclaim a food system that has effectively been corporatised?

Communication is central to movement building and there is no question that food has gone viral, from campaigns against genetically modified organisms to local, sustainable, “farm-to-table” dining. However, despite the wide range of alternative channels and the rise of digital media the fragmentation of the public sphere challenges the notion of a common conversation on problems of food systems.

The vital communicative dimension of a healthy public sphere, which Jurgen Habermas (1989) describes as “deliberation based on communicative rationality” is lost in a world where the exchange of opinions based on reasons is determined by corporate, profit-seeking agents. These agents include “Big Food” – the agribusiness and life science companies with deep pockets and powerful lobbies that have established discursive legitimacy with their claims to ‘feed the world’. This rhetoric, backed with scientific evidence produced by academic research funded by these very companies, leaves little room for alternative views.

As Darrin Nordahl claims “unless food consumers are part of the family corporations of industrial agriculture, or sit on the boards of the larger, public corporations, they have little voice in food choice” (Nordahl, 2014, p.178).

Further, power in food systems is now strongly embedded in the retail sector. People have to eat, and purchasing patterns suggest people prefer supermarket produce because this is what most people buy. That is no surprise, given the lack of alternative foodways on offer to the average eater. In Australia, the second most concentrated grocery market in the world (after New Zealand) the illusion of choice and rhetoric of driving prices “down, down, down” is having a catastrophic impact on farmer livelihoods, particularly in times of drought. Governments lack the political will to challenge the Colesworth duopoly, despite claims from farmers that at the end of the day they are unlikely to cover their costs, let alone make a profit. As more and more farmers leave the land Australia’s food security is increasingly under threat.

The crisis of our food system is fundamentally a crisis of democracy. Making food fair for both producers and eaters is about addressing the structural inequality in an economic system that is fundamentally undemocratic. Many academic and expert analyses, including those of successive UN Special Rapporteurs for the Right to Food, support this view. But how do we counter the feed the world narrative of Big Food, too whom governments, and by extension citizens, have ceded control of the food system?

Formal politics does not seem to be the answer, particularly given the state of governments such as the US, the UK, and Australia where party point-scoring and social media jibes have replaced deliberative debate and diplomacy. In this environment the real issues central to our lives are side-lined, and food is far down the agenda.

Reconceptualising democracy as open participation broadens the concept of democracy as “fundamental not only in parliaments, but also in civil society organisations: from parties to social movements, from working places to neighbourhoods”, according to Donna Della Porta in her 2013 book Can Democracy Be Saved? Participative-deliberative models that go beyond institutions of democracy and the mass-mediated public sphere aim to include and empower those most marginalised by the corporate food system.

Subaltern social movements such as La Vìa Campesina, “the peasant way”, embody this philosophy. Claiming to represent 200 million small-scale producers, fishers, and landless workers in over 70 countries LVC promotes the concept of “food sovereignty”, based on principles of agroecological production. This ideology extends beyond farmers’ interests towards a democratic political project embracing themes of diversity, inclusivity and social justice. Contesting ontologies, identities and the operation of power, these farmers demand inclusive political spaces where they expose the unsustainability of a food system dependent on liberalised markets, the increasing power and reach of transnational corporations, advances in biotechnical solutions, exploitation of labour, and the encroachment of regulations in both public and private spheres.

LVC openly rejects the notion of food as a commodity, adopting a rights-based approach that asserts the right to food is indivisible from other human rights including gender and racial equality. The durability, resilience and progress of the movement, which now plays a major role in the Civil Society Mechanism of the UN World Committee for Food Security, demonstrates that while hunger may drive violence and conflict, it can also drive new forms of collaboration and cooperation. Supporting collective and social rights, LVC creates spaces for the participation of those most affected by hunger. This politicised notion of citizenship expands to include food along with rights to housing, health and education. As meaningful participation in food democracy, it involves individuals becoming knowledgeable, sharing ideas, and developing efficacy with respect to the food system, underpinned by an orientation to the greater good.

We can learn a lot from the rural proletarian social movements about how communities can be granted agency to participate in the solving of the problems that affect them most. This includes recognition of other standpoints and ways of knowing, coupled with the sharing of knowledge horizontally, both locally and in transnational circuits. For instance, food sovereignty recognises that Indigenous peoples worldwide have suffered from European colonisation leading to the removal or alteration of traditional lands that produced a variety of traditional foods, and the obliteration of their foodways. Environmental degradation, neoliberal trade agendas, lack of access to land, the breakdown of tribal social structures and socio-economic marginalisation are among the barriers to healthy and culturally adapted Indigenous foods.

The discourse of food sovereignty privileges Indigenous views, knowledge and practices in biodiversity conservation and recognises that Indigenous territories include the world’s remaining areas of highest biodiversity. Aboriginal conceptions of food sovereignty emphasise food as sacred, reflect deep connections/kinship with the environment and rely on intergenerational transmission of food-related knowledge.

As Bruce Pascoe tells us in his remarkable book Dark Emu (Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?) we ignore the knowledge of the land and growing food accumulated by Indigenous Australians over many thousands of years at our peril. Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are five to six times more likely to be food insecure than other Australians.

In 2008 food riots in over 40 countries were triggered by high food prices, lack of available food, and reactions against government food policies. Signalling a “critical stage in global neo-liberalisation” (Bohstedt, 2014, p.16) the riots were driven by citizens joining in popular movements against perceived and actual breaches of the social contract by political leaders. This is no longer, if it ever has been, a disdain exclusive to the Global South. In affluent economies, we need to avoid depoliticising issues of food politics by focusing on consumption behaviours at the expense of organising. Accordingly, we need institutions that can equip us to move from consumers to food citizens with agency. This form of deeper democracy is possible within solidarity economy approaches where communities work collectively to provide employment, healthy environments, affordable healthy food and collective ownership. Participatory cultures and forums for community members to come together and address common concerns about food policy on a local level, such as food policy councils, are essential if we are to help communities help themselves. In these spaces, the common language between the fragmented food movements can be discovered and deployed to collectively combat the rhetoric of a food system based on misplaced faith and ignorance.

  • Bohstedt, J. (2014) Food Riots and the Politics of Provisions in World History. IDS Working Paper 444. Institute of Development Studies.
  • Della Porta, D. (2013). Can democracy be saved?: participation, deliberation and social movements. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Eakin, H., Bohle, H. G., Izac, A. M., Reenberg, A., Gregory, P., and Pereira, L. (2010). Food, Violence and Human Rights (pp. 245-271). In Ingram, J., Ericksen, P., and Liverman, D. (eds.) 
  • Food Security and Global Environmental Change. London: Earthscan.
    Food Ethics Council (2017) Food Citizenship: How Thinking of Ourselves Differently can Change the Future of our Food System. Food Ethics Council. Access here.
  • Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Pascoe, B. (2014). Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Broome, WA: Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation.
  • Nordahl, D. (2014). Public Produce. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Alana Mann is a key researcher within the Sydney Environment Institute in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. She focuses on the communicative dimensions of citizen engagement, participation, and collective action in food systems planning and governance. Her current projects include FoodLab Sydney, funded by the Australian Research Council (2018-2020) and supported by partners including the City of Sydney and FoodLab Detroit.

Eric Holt-Giménez is an agroecologist, political economist, lecturer and author. As the Executive Director of the “people’s think tank”, Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, Eric’s work both informs and amplifies the voices of social movements fighting for food justice and sovereignty across the globe.