The Politics of Food

By Irene Pena Abellan & Sanne Raggers

Food pyramid

Illustration by Javier Pena Castro for UCRITICAL, 2013

In the Global South many people do not eat due to land exhaustion and unequal distribution processes, in the global North many people are afraid to eat due to all the antibiotics and chemicals used in the processing of food before it reaches the people. Food is increasingly involved in controversies on the transnational level as it relates to unequal relations of power, distribution and control. Food has also acquired a certain status of risk since the outbreaks of diseases such as the BSE. If we think about it, from many of the products we eat, we do not know where they come from or how they have been processed. Our relation to food is primarily through the supermarket. The more you think about it, the more odd it seems; how could we lose so much of the connection with one of the most crucial things that we need to stay alive?

“The primary mission of food companies [...] is to sell products, and nutrition becomes a factor in corporate thinking only when it can help sell food. The ethical choices involved in such thinking are considered all too rarely”. Throughout the twentieth century eating habits in the global North have changed drastically and have gradually shifted to a problem of overeating, which has all kinds of negative consequences for the body such as diabetes and an increased risk for strokes. A logical response to this problem is one that food companies are trying to disregard with all possible strenght: “eat less”. According to Nestle (not the company, but the author), many of the nutritional problems that Americans face today can be traced back to “the food industry’s imperative to encourage people to eat more in order to generate sales and increase income in a highly competitive marketplace” (p. 4). What this means, is that the food industry is as much money-oriented as any other industry, with an increase in sales and making profit as its primary goal, thereby perpetuating the logic of neo-liberalism.

The fact that we are unaware of the origin of our foods is part of our culture. In fact, we are not even aware of where the basis for our diet comes from. Since primary school, we are taught basic dietary guidelines, taught to us through the food pyramid. Have we ever asked ourselves how this was established and why we follow it? In the 1960’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a list of basic guidelines for a healthier diet, in response to an increase in obesity and heart disease in the country. The food pyramid was thus introduced, with bread, pasta and cereals at the bottom as essential elements of our diet. At the time, US grain industries, the biggest food production and distribution companies in the world, wanted to be more prominent in people’s diet, thus they collaborated with the USDA. The food pyramid recommends 6 to 11 servings of carbohydrates a day, which is a lot. Grains would have probably never made it to base of the pyramid if it wasn’t for the grain lobby. Nowadays the food pyramid is being contested by nutritionists globally for its lack of scientific proof. The biggest issue at hand here is that nobody had ever questioned it before.

Because food has become a part of profit-seeking businesses, the different qualities of food consumed by people are to a great extent determined by income. In North America, food distribution is unequal and fresh food such as vegetables, dairy and meat are considered to be a privilege. Last summer I had the chance to do an Urban Geography course in New York city where I met a PhD student in the Geography of Food. Her field seemed far-fetched to me, however, after a conversation with her I realised the importance of food distribution from a geographical point of view. The issue of food deserts in North America reflects this unequal distribution. In overpopulated cities such as New York, gaining access to fresh food for those in low class neighbourhoods is almost an impossible task. Because New York city has no supermarkets, as American stores require a vast amount of land, the only grocery stores available in the city are organic markets, unaffordable for those in greater need. Furthermore, corner stores and delis in lower-class neighbourhoods are unregulated and sell out of date vegetables and animal products for low prices. We, in the Global North, are not just unaware and uneducated on where our food comes from, we are also fully dependent on this system that we trust so blindly. For those who can afford it, biological and ‘responsible’ food is available in the supermarket, as well as urban gardens where renting a piece of land and growing your own food is possible. However, these are not choices open to everyone. Those who are in the greatest need can only opt for what they can afford in the supermarket. The less we know about our food, the less we can do for ourselves regarding our agency towards it.

Particularly in the global South many initiatives have emerged in order for people to reclaim food sovereignty. This is an alternative way thinking about land use and social and environmental justice in which local organisations and engagement with the production and processing of food is of primary importance, rather than profit in terms of money . Food sovereignty is also a right to secure food, not only to buy it from a supermarket, but also to grow it in autonomy. Such initiatives thus strive for the rights of people to their autonomy, to decide what they produce and consume . In such initiatives social, environmental and economical factors are taken into account, in an attempt to not let one compromise the other, something already happening in many Western and non-Western countries over the world. Although the need for such sovereignty in the global South becomes more apparent through existing crises of food and its distribution, we also hope to introduce the idea that this issue also should gain greater importance closer to home.

Sources used:

Guthman, J. (2008). Neoliberalism and the making of food politics in California. Geoforum, 39(3), 1171 – 1183.

Lien, M.E., &  Nerlich, B. (2004) (Eds.). The politics of food. New York, NY: Berg.

Nestle, M. (2003). Food politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health. US: University of California Press

Smallwood, K. (2013, September 27). [Web log message]. Retrieved from