Creating Radical Change in the Food System

How much do our personal consumer choices affect change? Within the food movement, personal choice and the food products we spend our money on have been emphasized as the way to create change. But is this a fallacy? Have we all be led astray thinking that we can truly create change with our individual consumer choices? We've all heard the mantras: buy local, buy organic. But is this enough?

Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher and outspoken supporter of Occupy Wall Street, was recently on the Smiley and West show and said that in our capitalist economy we often engage in "low-level, self-satisfying consumerism," like buying organic versions of food, for example. This might make us feel good but actually undermines any real move towards radical change in our food system. Žižek says we need a more radical rethinking of our entire way of life, not just on an individual level but collectively. He explains this here:

You know why this difference is important? Did you notice how today everybody wants to recycle, to be ecologically correct? But this is usually translated into small level, life style ecologicalism, 'Did you recycle your can of Coke? Did you recycle your newspaper?' And so on and so on. This makes you feel good, 'Oh my god I am doing something to help the Mother Earth,' but at the same time precisely because it makes you feel good, it prevents you from asking for more radical changes which obviously will be necessary.

The problem is not, did you recycle the can of Coke, the problem is our entire economic system. The danger that I see -- I like to call it, ironically, the Starbucks syndrome. You enter Starbucks and it is a little more expensive, but one percent goes to Guatemalan starving children, and one percent goes to bring water to Sahara or whatever, this is this low-level self-satisfying consumerism. You can go on consuming and the paradox is that your good conscious is contributing towards solving economic problems -- helping the poor is included in the price of a commodity -- so the deal is pay a little bit more and you don't have to worry, you are a good guy -- but that is not enough.

What is needed is more organizing on the part of the food movement, more collective actions to force radical change in our food system. Taking a cue from Occupy Wall Street, the food movement needs to unify and act together. When Molly Katchpole created a petition to stop Bank of America from imposing more fees on its customers she engaged in a collective action. Had she simply written one letter to Bank of America or even switched banks, she could not have effected as much change. Rather, she organized a collective and unified movement to address an injustice. This may seem like a small victory in the face of a patently unjust financial system but we must begin to chip away at these power structures.

Similarly, when it comes to making food choices, if we act together we can force more radical change. Individually supporting local foods has been important and the dramatic increase in farmers markets across the country is a testament to that, but the time has come to act collectively and call for more radical change. When it comes to the food movement, most everyone agrees that factory farming must come to an end. In the pages of the New York Times, columnist Mark Bittman has been drawing attention to the many calamities of factory farming and he brings this awareness to a mainstream audience. Ending factory farming should be the food movement's first coordinated effort. Factory farming ties together all the issues many have been working on individually: environmental destruction, food safety, farmers rights, farm-workers rights, food service workers rights, animal welfare, health and nutrition, food justice, and access and affordability to good foods.

So let's do as Katchpole did and begin by petitioning one company on one issue. Individually, we may not be able to make a difference but all of our voices in aggregate clearly can. Since Thanksgiving is upon us, let's unify our voice in telling Butterball --the world's largest producer of turkey -- that we will not support the factory farming of turkeys this year. Let's hit Butterball where it hurts, the bottom line. Please tell Butterball that you will not buy its turkeys nor support the environmentally destructive, unsafe, and inhumane practice of factory farming turkeys this Thanksgiving. As Žižek advises, let's join forces and present a unified, collective voice to force radical change. Join Occupy Big Food and sign the petition at now.

Eat Wild is a great resource with thousands of listings nation-wide for responsibly raised meat and animal products. Slow Food USA has information and resources for heritage breed turkeys. And from Meatless Monday, 10 tips for cooking a meatless Thanksgiving.