Art: Mau Mau 2017 | Greenpeace Field, Glastonbury Music Festival. In June just before Glastonbury began, Mau Mau painted the climbing wall and snapped this shot. It’s the only shot without the climbing apparatus – and climbers.

I feel totally torn about what I’m going to write here. I’ve been working mostly from the right side of my brain since I became a food enthusiast 20 years ago, but now I feel my left brain calling me to pay more attention to logic and analysis. My right brain tells me we have chalked up a string of successes over the past two decades, and should continue building on that momentum.

Indeed, few social movements can claim as impressive a list of accomplishments as food movements, advances made almost entirely through the efforts of young volunteers, poorly paid employees of grassroots groups and mindful shoppers.


Thanks to food movements (and no thanks to the food industry, or government food agencies), the following are true:

Organic production methods are considered normal, not flaky, and sales continue to climb. Local food is seen as a good thing for jobs, taste and a deeper sense of place. Craft beer is popular and sold at all places where demanding drinkers go. Food studies courses have become standard at universities. It has become impossible to keep up with the critical books, journals, websites, blogs and movies about food. Farmers markets are sprouting up everywhere. The most acclaimed chefs and food producers are inspired by values of quality, sustainability, community and justice. Fair trade coffee and chocolate sell well, despite the higher price. Food waste is a top-of-mind public issue. Junk food and beverages are widely understood to be bad for health and healthy body weights. Schools and other public institutions are increasingly expected to provide nutritious food. It’s commonplace to talk about limiting marketing of junk food to children. Hunger and malnutrition are understood to be widespread and to be caused by inadequate incomes. Inequity is increasingly understood as a food issue, especially when food deserts are talked about. Community gardens and green roofs are becoming commonplace. Unsustainable food production methods have been identified as major culprits behind global warming, water pollution and animal cruelty. Food is being understood as a city issue, and cities are issuing food proclamations, and forming food policy councils.

As if that weren’t enough … food movements are thriving on the basis of positive, even celebratory, energy. The message is that good food brings a combination of personal pleasure, empowerment and public benefits for health, the economy, and environment. Food is also a lever for solving difficult problems that go far beyond food – think farmers markets as a way to rejuvenate empty downtowns on weekends, or sustainable diets as a way to counter global warming.

As a result of successes by food movements, two radical and transformational ideas are getting a hearing.

One of these ideas holds that people do not have to trade off health and environmental benefits to get economic benefits. On the contrary, food does best when health, environmental and economic benefits are integrated, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Food is an invitation to abundance thinking, seeing the planet as bountiful, not scary.    

The second radical idea holds that food can address our “higher” needs, as well as our “lower” needs.  Good food practices can do much more than build strong bones and muscles. Food occasions intimacy, togetherness, mutual support and healing that thriving bodies, minds, souls and communities need.

Diagram: The 10 Companies that Control Most of the Food and Drink in Grocery Stores. Why should the 10 companies who manufacture most of the food you will find in grocery store aisles care about doing business responsibly? Because they are so powerful that their policies impact the diets and working conditions of people worldwide, and their activities drive planetary destruction. Find out how Oxfam engaged consumers to pressure companies to do better:


These are achievements to be proud of. They confirm the wisdom of building food movements on positive energy and interventions. I remember internationally famous food and agricultural thinker Vandana Shiva saying that we are a movement of ands, not buts.

I could stay calm and carry on if it weren’t for two things.

One, we have to confront looming deadlines set by crises of climate chaos and destruction of biodiversity. Second, we need to confront two well-known and documented realities of political economy: approximately 10 corporate conglomerates place short-term profit ahead of planetary survival when it comes to key decisions, driving planetary destruction from food-related activities; and almost all of their bad decisions will be tolerated, supported and or subsidized by approximately 200 national governments around the world. 

As noteworthy as the progress of food movements has been, the accomplishments have not meaningfully moved the needle on three big problems: the rapid and hard-to-reverse decline of life-giving ecosystems of Earth, atmosphere and water around the world; the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of a small number of conglomerates that plan to keep profitable and carry on, regardless of consequences; and national governments locked into the conglomerate agenda.

I still want to work on getting baking ovens in parks and food gardens in school yards, celebrating what good food can do for the human spirit, and congratulating governments and businesses that do the right thing. But I – and more importantly, food movement organizations – need to find time to increase awareness and build campaigns that call out Big Food and Big Food’s domination of national political agendas. We need to get out of the Harry Potter world where no one can mention Voldemort’s name.

Gathering research in this area isn’t difficult. The only problem is keeping up with the pace at which the monopoly trends get worse, as evidenced by such mega-mergers as Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods, Bayer’s takeover of Monsanto, and ChemChina’s takeover of Syngenta"

This good food conversation needs to be sprinkled with words that name the dominant food system characteristic – control by dominant corporations. “Struggling against” needs to become as much part of the food ethos as “collaborating toward.”

What would this mean practically?

We would laugh out loud at the mention of, and criticize Ontario’s Local Food Act, which has not provided a dime for public purchasing of local and sustainable food, nor a penny for urban agriculture, or new and young farmers.

We would denounce the governing Trudeau Liberals for giving the kiss of death to a national food policy by handing the file to the department of agriculture, which has no officials or staff who are knowledgeable about food security or public health and which is controlled by agribusiness interests. We would also denounce the Ministry of Finance project, led by private consultant Dominic Barton of McKinsey and Company, to make factory farms and food exports the engine of Canada’s emerging economy – as well as the nearly billion dollars in so-called super-cluster grants to big corporations. 

We would watch for and resist, the “third way” personified by former US president Obama, who told food executives gathered in Milan to “seize the future” with technology and innovation. He not only repeats the mantra that got us into this jam, he identifies health and sustainability issues around food as ones that should be managed by culture, not policy. This formulation leaves the heavy lifting of change to unfunded groups, while government funds subsidize the foundations of monopoly-controlled junk food.

Gathering research in this area isn’t difficult. The only problem is keeping up with the pace at which the monopoly trends get worse, as evidenced by such mega-mergers as Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods, Bayer’s takeover of Monsanto, and ChemChina’s takeover of Syngenta – all of which happen without reference to government policies or the public interest. 

I, together with many other people in food movements, have worked hard to link food with pleasure, connection and empowerment, and with “solutionary” and “win-win-win” approaches to problem solving and gateways to solving many problems. We will continue to do so.

But good food organizations need to find the resources to match this work by individuals with hard-hitting campaigns that speak truth to the powerless.

Retired manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council and author of three books on food policy, Wayne Roberts stays young by serving on the editorial board of A\J. He consults and speaks internationally on issues linking food and cities.

ETC Group is a good resource for investigating new technologies, which could impact the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Check out ETC’s other areas of focus: biodiversity, climate and geoengineering, corporate monopolies, and synthetic biology.

Wayne Roberts, who headed up the Toronto Food Policy Council for 10 years, is the author of two books about food. He is a member of A\J's editorial board and regular contributor to the magazine. 

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