NYC Food Policy Center: Interview with Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director, Food First
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Eric Holt-Giménez has been Executive Director of Food First since 2006. He is the editor of the Food First book Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food Systems; co-author of Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck; and author of the books Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture and A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Eric has also written numerous academic, magazine and news articles.
He studied rural education and biology at the University of Oregon and Evergreen State College, and traveled through Mexico and Central America, where he learned about lives of small-scale farmers. Eric has a MSc. in International Agricultural Development from University of California at Davis and a PhD in Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He has taught Development Studies at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Boston University and the National Gastronomic University in Pollenzo, Italy.
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NYC Food Policy Center (FPC): You grew up in a family of farmers. Did your exposure to farm life as a young child inspire you to get involved with combating hunger?
Eric Holt-Giménez (EHG): In a circuitous way, yes it did. I grew up on farms, but I didn’t come from a farm family. When I was six we left San Francisco for a small homestead in Olema, California, population 25, I think. I’ll never forget seeing the tree-covered “mountains” of the Point Reyes Peninsula for the first time when we drove in. I was in heaven! We had a garden, fruit trees, chickens, ducks, geese, and a milk goat. Point Reyes was an economically depressed backwater then, but there was a lot of hunting, fishing and self-provisioning, so our diet had a lot of salmon, abalone, clams, venison, beef and canned fruits and vegetables. There were lean times, but because everyone helped each other, no one went hungry. Nothing was wasted, either.
When our parents split up, my brother and I were raised by our single, Latina mom who worked and studied and against all odds eventually managed to get herself a teaching credential. Until she became a school teacher we were quite poor and lived on a dairy farm in a house that was supposed to be for ranch hands. The farmer had a son my age, and he taught me how to drive tractors and milk cows. I loved being outside and working with animals. We got free, raw milk out of the deal.
When I got older, I worked on farms for actual wages, but lonely, backbreaking, underpaid work wasn’t fun anymore. I went to university to escape the idiocy of village life, but in my last year of college I ended up doing a 6-month field project in Guatemala and Mexico where I came into contact with rural development work and fell in love with the countryside all over again. My partner and I signed on as volunteers for a Quaker-run project in central Mexico. We were supposed to be teaching villagers sustainable agriculture techniques, but since these peasant farmers had been farming corn, beans and squash for more than 6 thousand years, we learned much more from them than they did from us.
We did manage to be of some use, though, because we hooked the Mexican farmers up with some Mayan farmers from Guatemala who were quite advanced in sustainable agriculture practices. This was the beginning of the Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer) Movement for sustainable agriculture that, over the next 30 years, spread agroecology farmer-to-farmer across Latin America.
In the course of this work, I discovered that poor peasant farmers—not modernized, industrial agriculture—actually feed the world. But because they are poor and need money, they are forced to sell right after harvest when prices are low. When their own food runs out they have to buy food, but by then the price has gone up. They can’t afford it, so they go hungry. Most of these farmers are women who produce more than half the planet’s food on a quarter of the planet’s agricultural land. They go hungry after they have fed everyone else. This is the ugly core of the global food regime. I was—and still am—outraged by this injustice. That’s what got me interested in combating hunger.
FPC: On the Food First website, you mention that you hold a “deep appreciation for the value and power of building local food systems.” How do you define local food systems and how do you think they impact regional/national food systems?
EHG: A local food system is any food system that keeps the food dollar in the community where it can recirculate three, four or five times, helping to build local wealth. Anything else is extractivist, which is essentially what the industrial food system is. Obviously, not everything can be produced locally all the time, but one strives to work on the principle of subsidiarity and to regenerate and “fertilize” as many local connections as possible in order to restructure the foodshed (the geographic location that produces the food for a particular population) to serve communities rather than food monopolies. This gives us some breathing room from the global food regime. Taking back the power over our food is a political proposition that may start with sustainable agriculture and local markets, but essentially requires the political reconfiguration of the foodshed, and ultimately, the overthrow of the global food regime.
FPC: Your latest book, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, discusses how our capitalist food system has created a situation in which billions of people suffer from hunger in the midst of abundance, obesity is a global epidemic and environmental pollution and global warming are increasing. Can you describe your vision of an economic and political system that would support a just, sustainable and nutritious food system?
EHG: I think it may be the other way around: We need to forge a just, sustainable and nutritious food system in order to have a crack at a new political-economic system. In any case, it’s a dialectical process.
Before we can even begin to describe a futuristic political-economic system, we need a New Deal for the countryside. The first step in creating a more just, sustainable and nutritious food system is to break the stranglehold of the world’s agrifood monopolies, starting with the retail, grain and chemical giants. We can strengthen and start enforcing our antitrust laws. Then, we need to regulate the financial sector to stop speculation with our food. We need to de-commodify agricultural land.
Farm parity is essential to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their product and aren’t driven by the market to overproduce and wear out the land, pollute the waters, poison workers, or spew greenhouse gasses. We need to re-introduce supply management systems to curb industrial overproduction—the true cause of hunger because it ends up putting poor farmers out of business and then they go hungry. This could be done on an environmentally-determined quota system; farmers would get a fair price for a fixed quantity of product as long as they did not degrade the land or pollute the waters or the air.
We have a regressive agrarian structure that rewards great accumulated wealth, so the next step would be redistributive agrarian reform. That’s not just about land but about credit, markets and the “social wage”– i.e. public investments in the health, education and welfare of rural and peri-urban communities. We’d invert the investments of our national agricultural research funds that presently spend less than 1 percent on sustainable agriculture and 99 percent on industrial folly. We would seriously address the historic demands for reparations and the ongoing grievances of African-American farmers, First Nations peoples and migrant farm, food, and restaurant workers. Our society would consciously invest in the countryside, making it a good place to live, and making farming desirable work, thus reversing the high indices of domestic abuse, suicide, addiction, and food insecurity presently ravaging rural communities. We’d prevent corporate extraction of wealth and level the playing field between family farms and monopolistic corporations by using a polluter pays principle and demanding fair, living wages for all workers across the board.
A new political-economic system will emerge from these structural reforms.
FPC: You frequently discuss the need for “whole-system,” long-term transformation by questioning our current food system. How do you satisfy the immediate short-term need to feed people without losing sight of the long-term systemic, root causes of hunger (e.g., poverty)?
EHG: There are a lot of pre-figurative efforts (agroecology, community supported agriculture, urban agriculture, farmers markets, land trusts, worker-owned coops, etc.) that are helping to mitigate the capitalist scourge of exploitation, poverty and hunger. But for these hopeful alternatives to become the norm, we need to change the rules within the food system now.
Since the world already produces 1 ½ times more than enough food to feed everyone, we can address the short-term need to feed people by making food a justiciable human right. Right now people go hungry because they can’t afford the food that is being produced. We need to enforce their right to food and prosecute the corporations that steal, pollute, or impede poor people’s access to food and food-producing resources. In the short and medium term, the rest of our institutions and regulations must be reformed to transform food into something everyone has a right to—not just those who can afford it.
FPC: Since you began getting involved in anti-hunger efforts in 1977, has there been a shift in your approach? If so, what is the most significant change in your work and what results has it yielded?
EHG: I’ve had three major shifts over the last forty years. The first was realizing that, under the right conditions, farmers can teach farmers pretty much all they need to know about improving agriculture. We just need to ensure an enabling environment for innovation and solidarity. As a graduate from a major agricultural university, I found this insight humbling. I consider myself a recovering agronomist.
The second shift came when, after working with the Campesino a Campesino movement for about twenty years, I was convinced that farmer-led agroecology could feed the world and save the environment. Then, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, killing more than 10,000 people and destroying thousands of farms. But the farmers of Campesino a Campesino resisted the hurricane quite well. I worked with 2,000 peasant farmers in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala to compare the agroecological resilience of sustainable farms with that of conventional farms. We proved scientifically that agroecological farms were much more resilient ecologically, agronomically, and economically than conventional farms. We published in peer reviewed journals and presented our findings to the ministries of agriculture, major foundations, development agencies, and the US and European governments, who were going to finance Central American reconstruction. We said the region should be reconstructed agroecologically rather than conventionally. The farmers offered to teach everyone how. They were widely applauded for their work, but when the plans for reconstruction were announced, we discovered that the development banks had decided the best path to reconstruction was to abandon the countryside. Instead, they proposed building sweatshops in the cities throughout the region and told peasant farmers to go find work. The plan failed miserably and provoked a major exodus of peasants to the United States. I learned that it is not enough to be right. Our movement—which, at that time, involved more than 250,000 Central American farmers—was great at sharing knowledge but had no way to create the political will for agroecological reconstruction. It was a deeply politicizing moment that led me to the food sovereignty movement, which is about building political power to change the food system.
The third transformative moment in my work was when I returned to the United States after decades of working in Latin America. I was lost. I felt like Rip Van Winkle. Everyone in the US was talking about food—even people who seemed to me to have plenty of food. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. (I still struggle to understand the motivations of many people in the food movement.) Then, Food First hired me. The Board of Directors is made up entirely of people of color with long histories in the food justice movement. They woke me up pretty quickly to the high levels of food insecurity among underserved communities and to the ways people of color are resisting and constructing. I learned from food justice organizations around the country just how racialized our food system is. I’ve had great teachers who have helped me understand that food and diet are just as important as land and agriculture, and that dismantling racism, sexism and classism is not “extra” work—it is the work.
With Food First I’ve been able to serve the food justice and food sovereignty movements as a researcher, analyst, writer, and educator. We try to be a movement-based think tank that both informs an activist-academic public and amplifies the voices of social movements on the front lines of food system transformation. I believe that they are the ones strategically positioned to bring about not just food systems change, but whole systems change.
FPC: You have mentioned that “successful social movements are formed by integrating activism with livelihoods.” Can you share examples of this strategy in the food system? How can activism integrate with livelihoods to end poverty and hunger?
EHG: People whose lives or livelihoods are being directly threatened or destroyed don’t have the luxury of being fair-weather activists. Their survival depends on building strong social movements. Look at the Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock and the thousands of farmers resisting oil company pipelines. Communities around the world are fighting against extractive industries that pollute their water and air and expropriate their land. Look at the murder of the Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres. Her struggle to protect the land, water and rural livelihoods of the Lenca people continues today because people know it is a matter of life and death. Food and farm workers in the US are being exploited, harassed, poisoned, and now incarcerated in detention camps. African-American urban farmers in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Oakland are fighting against real-estate developers and gentrifiers to be able to hang on to the gardens they have carved out in the midst of the economic ruin visited upon their neighborhoods. They are fighting for dignity and survival against historical and ongoing oppression. Though their voices are systematically drowned out by experts and celebrities, they are the political and moral backbone of the US food movement. Activism integrates with livelihoods to end poverty and hunger when justice is at the core of the movement.
FPC: You have always been a vocal advocate for farmers and a champion of el Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (the Farmer to Farmer Movement). What tenets of el Campesino a Campesino could be used to encourage local food movements here in United States? How has your international work with small scale farmers and local communities in Mexico and Central America informed and guided your work at a national level within the United States?
EHG: The principles are timeless and they have worked for hundreds of thousands of activists:
As a farmer, start small, go slowly; experiment first on a small scale; limit the introduction of new technologies; obtain rapid, recognizable results; and ensure a multiplier effect by sharing with others. Apply agroecological principles to farming—never recipes or simple techniques.
As a movement, walk on the legs of innovation and solidarity. Work with the two hands of production and protection. Develop a collective vision and voice for an equitable and sustainable future. Above all, love. Love nature, land, agriculture, your family, your community, your god, and yourself, because agriculture is hard, and changing the food system is difficult. If you don’t love you will get weary and disillusioned by the work and the BS and you’ll give up. We should definitely celebrate the innovative food justice, food sovereignty, and agroecology projects popping up everywhere, because they demonstrate that things can be different. But this shouldn’t lull us into the false optimism that is frequently peddled as hope. Structurally, things are still critically bad. If you are optimistic in the face of growing inequality and gentrification, the hollowing out of the countryside, the rise of neofascism, and global warming, you are not paying systemic attention. Optimism means you do something because you are confident of the outcome, and frankly, we don’t know if we can reverse the catastrophe that is already underway. We still have to try. Hope means you do something because it is the right thing to do. Like love, we can’t transform the system without hope. How to keep from losing it? Ally yourself with those for whom giving up hope is not an option.
Grew up in: Point Reyes and Petaluma, California.
City or town you call home: Graton, California
Job title: Executive Director, Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First
Background and education: B.A. Biology/Education, MSc. International Agricultural Development; PhD. Environmental Studies.
Your next writing project:We’re bringing in food-movement leaders to week-long, intensive writing retreats to produce chaptered books on themes like Farm, Food and Climate Justice, Gender Justice, Coops for Food System Transformation, and The Agroecological Reconstruction of Puerto Rico.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Revolting
Food policy hero: The Black Panthers. They were the first to implement a national children’s breakfast program—which they did without a penny from the government or philanthropy. They embarrassed the US government into feeding hungry kids.
Your breakfast this morning: Black coffee with a shot of Jack Daniels.
Favorite food: My mother’s paella, sadly now available only as an imitation.
Favorite last meal on Earth: A sumptuous vegetarian feast with friends and comrades
Favorite food hangout: The kitchen at Food First… We all take turns cooking and eating fresh veggies from our staff garden.
Food policy social media must follow: Food First’s website, Facebook, Tweets, and Instagram