I’ve always been curious about cultural movements, what they entail and what reverberations they make. My reasons for this curiosity vary. On the one hand, I tend to like people, individuals and groups both, and I find them interesting fodder for thought. On the other hand, I'm egotistical and I romanticise the self-involved idea that I could be part of something important, and therefore give my life existential validation. Over the years though I’ve grown noticeably older and microscopically wiser and the more egoic elements of my interests in movements have waned, substituted for the urgent respect social and cultural movements need and deserve.
Movements have also changed with globalisation and the advancement of technology, and so not only have the causes and goals shifted, but so too have the ways people campaign and advocate for them. It’s remarkable how one can effectively contribute to a cause from the comfort of their home, and the notion of modest activism at one’s convenience is a powerful yet often overlooked angle of the climate problem we face. The global threat of climate change requires a global response and despite the doomsday clock creeping ever closer to midnight, we’ve never been in a better situation to tackle these issues, collectively and individually. At least, that's what I tell myself and do my best to believe.
There are varying levels of anxiety when it comes to the climate. The endpoint of that anxiety tends to result in nihilism or doomism, which as the name might suggest resembles a humanity-sized shrug toward the systems and behaviours in place that exacerbate the climate to the point of calamity, and without believing that disaster can be averted. Suggesting the opposite - climate optimism or god-forbid climate complacency - would be a disingenuous prescription at best. So rather than reverting to something on that end of the spectrum, maybe pulling the dial a click or two back is the wise mover. Ideally, this arrives at a point of galvanised concern that doesn’t despair. But what does that look like for the individual?
The origin of this article wanted to deconstruct how localised movements occurred around food. The local quickly became global, which naturally continuously brushed against the unanimous problem of climate change. A meeting point of all of the above is how the individual relates to food, the complex food systems in place, and the movements within the systems that aim to make the world a little better.
The Food Movement
The Food Movement is a global umbrella of smaller movements that contribute towards the ethics and practices of food production and consumption. If we are at all mindful of what foods we eat, how they're made, their impact on our health or the greater ramifications of their production, we’ve at least indirectly contributed to a food movement.
While these broad aims might be fertile grounds for criticism – after all the wider the set of goals, the harder it is to achieve them – the Food Movement almost resembles an ideology rather than a singular cause. In the same way Left and Right can be prescriptive political models for a better world, the Food Movement can be seen as a prescriptive morality when navigating the politicised elements of food. And politicisation very much exists, which is a fact that might provoke many eye-rolls in this age of ‘everything-is-politicised’ brouhaha. Food, however, might have been a trendsetter in the sense that it has always been politicised, or so Food Movement advocates would argue. And fair enough: if a political entity has input in how food is produced, distributed or consumed, it’s political. Then multiply that by an abstract number for countries whose food sources are not secure.
The Industry Pillars of the Food Movement
Broadly speaking, the once-localised production and distribution of food have become a global force, dominated by a select few corporate giants who control a vast majority of the many food-related industries, often at the expense of people, animals and the environment. The Food Movement’s goal is to balance this dynamic and to protect those harmed by industry malpractice. While it is a vast and vague goal, this is where the specialised pillars of the Food Movement come in, organisations and practices that move toward rectifying a specific problem within food.
Local Food Movement
The ‘Buy Local’ ethos has become more vocal in the past few years due to the seemingly omnipresent market giants that squeeze out smaller businesses. The belief behind the Local Food movement is that if one grows and buys locally, the money spent is retained within the community while reducing the need for transport and storage. Simultaneously it decreases the number of stops within the supply line, likely reducing further modification of the food from its original state. There are also qualitative communal benefits to fostering and strengthening relationships between local producers and consumers. This connects with a sub-movement of Local Food called Community-Supported Agriculture, where the local community can invest in local agriculture and influence how it's produced.
Money spent within the community and less food processing is certainly a net value, but the Local Food movement brings with it some criticism. Low-hanging fruit - pardon the pun - would be that the qualitative benefits of community camaraderie, while desirable, aren’t viable to build a platform upon and lobby for systemic change. Another criticism is that local does not necessarily mean more sustainable. Removing the factors of storage and transport might exclude the accumulative Food Miles – a term used to describe the environmental impact of food transport and storage – but agricultural methods can make these reductions trivial as they are the main weight behind a food’s carbon footprint. This paired with free-range and organic cultivation of livestock - methods prioritised in local food systems - can create 10-50% more greenhouse gas emissions, potentially nerfing the food mile benefits [Raloff, 2013.]
My view is that the criticisms of Local Food are not enough for me to dismiss it. But the caveat is that my privilege allows me a little financial wiggle room. I’m not Rockefeller, but if I want to fork out extra for the usually pricier local food option, I can do so without too much stress. Also, the idea that my money stays within the community makes me feel good. But my circumstance and self-interests are not hills I’d die on, and so I find local food a good practice but one that could do without any dogma.
Organic farming is the cultivation of crops and livestock without harmful pesticides, damaging fertilizers, or genetic modification. The organic movement is surprisingly contentious as its pros and cons are muddled, both sides fraught with exceptions and inconclusive stances. I had about two migraines and one existential crisis trying to wrap my head around the arena that is organic foods so bear with me.
By the virtue of minimising the inorganics that go into your food it seems like going this route is a sure way of eating more cleanly, and in theory, it is, but the actual health benefits for the consumer are contested. There’s little evidence to support the claim that an organic diet is healthier than the alternative but only because it is so difficult to run conclusive tests on one’s health as a result of diet in a long-term context, particularly singling out one aspect of that diet, organic or otherwise. Yet the organic movement does safeguard against some toxicity and health risks that are proven to be deleterious to one’s health in one way or another. An example is the over-prescription of antibiotics in livestock is not allowed in Organic meats.
The environmental benefits of organic farming are similarly opaque. Natural pesticides can be less harmful on the land though not always, and organic practices often require more land to produce standard yields, which in some ways counteracts the benefit of land impact because of overall increased land use. However, this varies from producer to producer. Yet when correctly implemented, organic practices, while difficult to quantify their impact, have been suggested to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of what crops are ultimately yielded, in a 1:1 sense, as well as their long-term impact on the land. Essentially, if the organic producer is happy to refrain from cutting corners, organic farming seems beneficial to soil health and environmental impact. But the organic certification does not necessarily guarantee that.
Organic is a strange one because it’s a set of practices that can be used well or can be abused to the point of harm which is similar to non-organic farming. There's also the fair criticism that purchasing organic is far better tailored for the economically privileged, the price points often being far higher than its non-organic competitors.
I was frustrated by how muddled the literature is, or at least how muddled my mind was in trying to understand it. But repeating a previous virtue: the less inorganic tempering with food feels more desirable, with some – but not many – exceptions. To gracelessly conclude, it seems a decent practice, in moderation, and if I can afford it. But if not, it’s unlikely to cause Armageddon so I don’t sweat it too much.
The Fair-Trade movement aims to rectify worker, locale and market exploitation. It does so by situating itself within industries where exploitation is rampant and it both establishes and campaigns for fair living wages and better working conditions. In doing so, the ideal result is a gradual, trickle-down influence on its industry, nudging it millimetre by millimetre in the ethical direction. The result is a huge and tangible improvement in the lives of the workers and the sustainability of the industry. Products and producers contributing to the fair-trade effort are marked by a blue and green sticker or print, comforting the conscience of the mindful shopper. A seemingly universal good? In short: yes, no, sort of; two headaches and an existential crisis.
Fair-Trade, while theoretically existing as a standard, is often implemented more as an ideal. Like many bureaucratic structures, there is significant space for intrinsic flaws in its conception, inefficiencies in its implementation, and loopholes vulnerable to corruption. Some flaws exist in the oversupply of certifications that overcrowd markets, and poor monitoring standards that allow inefficient producers to keep their certification long after they grow negligent. Another problem is Fair Trade's compatibility with existing free markets and the tiny margin for change offered to struggling producers that want to retain the standard.
But given the main boon of Fair-Trade is the balancing of resources between producers and individuals, its largest flaw is when the Fair-Trade structures fail at that balancing act. The Fair-Trade Foundation supposedly does not monitor the premium price on the retail or profit-allocation sides. From a retail standpoint, a seller can charge whatever premium they wish on a Fair-Trade product and they can keep the profits of their markup without proportionally increasing their donation to the Fair-Trade producer. If you sell an item at a 30% Fair-Trade markup, it is entirely up to you what percentage of that profit you donate. The system relies on the goodwill of the retailer and while I’m generally a believer in the decency of people, the space for exploitation here can’t be ignored. Finally, on what profits filter back into the individuals behind the Fair-Trade products, the Foundation doesn’t monitor how a cooperative, company or producer allocates the profits. Again, it requires the goodwill of the company, which seems to be overall a better system for the rights of the individual worker, but the output of a Fair-Trade farmer still might not be properly rewarded by the Fair-Trade company.
Similarly to Organic, Fair-Trade is a great ideal with a very flawed implementation in places. But these flaws don’t warrant throwing the baby out with the bath water. To avoid Fair-Trade for those flaws does a disservice to the legitimate good that is done by those that operate virtuously within Fair-Trade. It’s another of those things that's good to support while being aware that it, like all of the above food movements, doesn’t entirely correct the injustices done, but it can help tip the scales. And while Fairtrade is not necessarily connected to environmental protection, it offers holistic benefits. More resources within a community usually means better infrastructures and services, which in turn usually means more efficient infrastructures and services, which can correct harm a millimetre at a time. It is the continuing tipping of scales that helps us buy time to overcome climate change.
Veganism / Vegetarianism
You might wonder where veganism/vegetarianism is in this, because of all the movements mentioned above, these types of lifestyle changes yield the greatest net benefits to the environment and personal health. Very quickly these lifestyles significantly reduce your carbon footprint, with vegetarianism reducing it by 30-40%, and veganism reducing it by 60-70%. The trade-off, while not a foregone conclusion, is rebalancing one's nutritional intake when severely restricting one's diet, as well as the production methods of producers that create animal product alternatives, which can vary widely from ethical to appalling.
But these diets are the most personal in that one’s entire cuisine template is built around it, and that it exists as a binary rather than polarity of practice; it is or it isn’t vegan, as opposed to it being organic, but what does that mean, and how organic is it? There’s nuance to it and while I am interested in these systems, particularly when it comes to climate change, it’s the interactions between these nuances and humans that interest me. Because in truth, I’m interested in myself, how I interact with them, and the behavioural changes I make to reduce my ecological footprint.
I try to buy local, organic, and my diet is predominantly plant-based with 4-5 meals a week containing dairy or eggs, two of which contain meat. So for all intents and purposes, I believe in the virtues preached by these food movements. I do however get concerned at the extremism within climate dialogue. Nihilism and optimism both can lend themselves to apathetic rhetoric regarding many subjects, food least of all; what good is a change in diet when the oil industry obliterates the environment? Why change our diet when technology will solve ecological issues and pull us back from the brink? The extremes that come from those that advocate for change often take on an all-or-nothing tone, exacerbating dialogue among the moderates. Echo chambers can inflate arguments to an extent and while many recognise this, the core contention remains, and as time goes on the dialogue can become erratic and less reasonable. And reason is a key resource in tackling global problems.
All changes advocated for or against have to be navigated within reason. And so this is a long way of circling back to it’s reasonable to acknowledge there are flaws in all of our approaches, and sometimes the virtuous thing is done in moderation because moderation is all we can accomplish. I wish small changes were more galvanising and romantic so they’d be more likely to be adopted. It is a hugely complex issue, but the complications of the big-picture shouldn’t stop us from making small, beneficial changes. Optimistic realism requires the belief that the small changes we make have micro but accumulative benefits. Our contributions won’t fix the environment, but they will buy us and the planet time, and if everyone adopted that belief, think about what amount of extra time we could accumulate, and think of what advancements we could make with that time.
It’s a shame we don’t get to have whatever we want, whenever we want it. But the thing is we never had that, we were only tricked into thinking we did. It’s now up to us to not get tricked into thinking there’s nothing we can do.