Question Authority?

June 1, 2014

So here is one of those occasions where I couldn’t get everything off my chest last week so I just have to follow up with another blog entry on food sovereignty. We’ve raised this subject at least once some time back in the Thornapple blog, but maybe it’s time to come around again and think a little harder. That may mean you can expect to hear even more about this in the future. As they say in the blogosphere, food sovereignty has gone viral. It may not be the latest buzzword anymore. Truth to tell, it’s hard to see how we could ever be talking about the latest buzzword in the Thornapple blog, being as what staying at least two long paces behind the curve is the thematic Zeitgeist for us here on this little corner of the Internet. Gearing up to talk about food selfies once a year is just about as au courant as we are likely to get. So never mind about that Zeitgeist thing. If it troubles you just Google it.

My point is that irrespective of what we might have been saying here in Thornappleland over the last couple of years, food sovereignty has been putting on lots of steam. Here’s a link to our earlier thread for the curious. In short, the idea came out of peasant movements resisting their governments’ imposition of new food regimes. Yeah, I know. “Food regimes”: yet another bit of jargon for the uninitiated. Just make up your own punch line and keep reading, I say. Peasant farmers didn’t just want to be fed, nor did they just want to improve their income by switching to crops they could sell on global commodity markets. They wanted to control their food supply in the way that subsistence farmers have always done it: By growing crops suited to their soils, climate and way of life. If they would also like some benefits of modernity like health care, electricity and motor scooters, who could begrudge them that?

Of late food sovereignty has been taken up by anyone and everyone who wants to resist government. This would include American libertarians who object to the threat of being required to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. Now here is a great opportunity for a meaningful tangent. Why, you might ask, haven’t you told us before about the Food Safety Modernization Act (or as us deep background insiders fondly call it FSMA—which you pronounce by putting a rude sputtering sound before “Ma”)? Well what can I say in self defense? I’ve been hanging around with activists lobbying for something like FSMA for most of my professional life. It would put some teeth into a food safety system that relies almost entirely on voluntary compliance, they say. It would give the FDA some authority to regulate the food industry and to investigate packing and processing technologies that relieve corporations from any serious responsibility to protect public health. It’s the response to food scares that run the gauntlet from e-coli to GMOs. If you are an environmentalist or just a friend of the poor and downtrodden, you should be for it, right?

But slow down Chucko. Who would have thought that FDA would actually implement the act by expecting everyone to comply with it? After all, we’re not really worried about those small, artisanal producers, even if their food does make one of us seriously sick now and again. For us artisans, food safety means being able to look your farmer in the eye. Expecting him or her to keep the manure out of the unpasteurized apple cider is, well frankly expecting just a bit too much. They should be off the hook, by which is meant, exempt from the requirements of FSMA. Unfortunately, FDA is not showing signs of seeing things that way.

And so we resist. Nobody out here but us artisans after all. Let’s form alliances and assert our food sovereignty against the overweening Federal bureaucracy (not to mention pesky opponents of global capitalism) intent on making the food supply safe.

Looks like I may be spending more than a little bit of my time over the next little stretch sitting in circles. And maybe going round and round in some.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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