Cultivating Best Practices

| 09.10.2015

Dr Eric Holt-Giménez provides an eye-opening insight into the problematic relationship
between race, nutrition and agriculture in the US, and outlines the movement-based
activities undertaken by the organisation to address national food injustice

2016 will mark your 10th year as Executive Director of Food First. In what ways have you witnessed the organisation evolve during this time?

Food First has reorientated its focus over the last decade to incorporate the struggles for food justice in the US into our frameworks and analyses.The organisation used to be very much internationally focused and looked at the injustices that caused hunger around the world. Now, we are turning our attention to the US. What becomes immediately apparent when you study hunger, food insecurity and diet-related diseases nationwide is that that they are all racially determined. People of colour and immigrants have the highest levels of nutrition-based ailments and food insecurity. They also happen to be the ones who work in the food system as food or farm workers, at processing plants and at the back of fancy restaurants. This has led us to address structural racism in the food system and to build alliances with movements for immigration and labour rights.

Throughout its 40-year history, why has Food First continued to support local movements and activists?

We haven’t always done so. Food First used to be much more policy orientated, and our official name is still Institute for Food and Development Policy. Very early on we understood that hunger was not caused by scarcity but by poverty, and so our work was dedicated to influencing anti-poverty policies. We then realised that poverty was largely caused by injustice. As we began to address the injustices that cause hunger, we had to learn much more from the social movements that were fighting them. It really was a natural progression for Food First to go from a policy-orientated think tank to a movement-based one. Once we began to establish alliances with social movements around the world dedicated to ending the injustices that cause hunger, it began to change the way we frame our research as well as generate and use information. Now, we are trying to amplify the voices of those social movements and, at the same time, provide them with useful information and analyses.

 Could you discuss the areas in which Food First has worked over the past 12 months?

We work in many diverse locations, with projects on the ground in the US, Mexico and Africa. We also take food sovereignty tours to six countries around the world. What has become more prominent in our research and across our activities are the issues related to farmland, such as land grabbing, justice, sovereignty, reforms etc. These factors displace people and drive the migration and destruction of local food systems globally. As discussed, racism has been a big issue since the founding of the US. The food system was built and continues to depend on the exploitation of people of colour. This isn’t only a national problem, it is increasingly occurring worldwide; racism can also be clearly seen in Europe, especially with regard to immigration. Land and racism have therefore occupied most of our time over the last year.

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Dr Eric Holt-Giménez provides an eye-opening insight into the problematic relationship
between race, nutrition and agriculture in the US, and outlines the movement-based
activities undertaken by the organisation to address national food injustice

 You recently spoke about the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. How can international deals, such as this one, disadvantage poorer countries?

These partnerships don’t only disadvantage poorer countries, they disadvantage working people in rich countries as well. They are essentially deals that give global rights to corporations that trump national constitutions, laws, regulations and citizens’ rights. One of the most egregious examples is the expansion of the extractive industries sector – especially mining. In El Salvador, for instance, because mining uses and contaminates so much water, the availability of potable water is becoming scarce – to the extent that the country wants to stop mining and has submitted a moratorium on any further contracts. As a result, El Salvador is being taken to arbitration court at the World Trade Organization by Canadian mining industries that want to exert their rights to mine gold there, even at the cost of depleting the country’s water supply. This is a very graphic example of how these trade deals privilege multinational corporations over the rights and needs of people in poorer countries.

 Why do trade agreements disregard diet and health?

Instead of focusing on diet and health, trade agreements concentrate on expanding markets and destroying any form of social regulation in favour of accumulating international capital. At present, corporations are going through a tremendous crisis in terms of capital growth, which means they can’t find suitable markets, so they have to continually expand. Within the framework of nutritionism, food processing corporations are looking to sell bio-fortified, nutrient-enriched and processed foods. Food trade agreements tend to destroy local food systems and displace the peasantry, after which they want to sell commodified nutrients back to people who used to have well-balanced diets because of the many different things they grew. Now, they are being sold candy bars and fortified cereals instead. These corporations are neither focused on healthcare nor free trade; they are very much commodity-based.

 Shortly after your appointment at Food First, food sources were deeply affected by the global recession. What role has the organisation played in helping countries to ‘bounce back’ from this crisis?

We’re a think tank focused on research and analysis, so we don’t aid countries directly. We have helped people to understand the causes of the recession and the measures that were put in by our governments, which have been far from effective at the society level. They’ve helped corporations get back on their feet – particularly banks, which are now bigger than they were before the crash. We explain the causes behind this and how it effects the food system.

 On a personal note, which milestone or achievement has been the most rewarding during your term at Food First?

Most non-profits that deal with international issues tend to be in solidarity with international struggles and social movements. What Food First has done since I have been here is to link those international struggles for food sovereignty to national struggles here in the US for food justice.

Courtesy of International Innovation – a leading scientific dissemination service.