The role of the state in the food system

Last Friday, I presented ideas and examples of the state as emerging actor in sustainable food consumption to the sociology department of Iowa State University. In Europe, there are more and more examples of different levels of government, – state, region or city governments – taking initiative to integrate sustainability concerns in new ways of food provisioning. They realize that they are a very large buyer of food, for public canteens, in hospitals, elderly homes, schools and other public places. Their purchase behavior can make a huge difference in shifting our agriculture production and food consumption towards more sustainable practices.

Morgan (2008) has pointed out, that this is still largely a case of ‘untapped potential’. However there are examples, amongst others coming from the city of Rome, Italy and Copenhagen, Denmark which show that things can be done different. By using additional award criteria for catering contractors aimed at organic, fresh, regional or typical products, public sector buyers can cause a sea change towards more environmentally sound and healthier food menus in public canteens.

The current economic crisis might be a window of opportunity now neoliberal market fundamentalism has been discredited. A year ago, who could have imagined that the state would intervene so heavily in banks and the (car) industry? Things can change. Or will they? The lively discussion after the presentation concluded that change might not be expected soon from the US government.

The irony is that the US government is already a large buyer of food. They not only heavily subsidize farmers, they also buy large quantities of food commodities, at times when farm prices drop. The problem is that these practices stay hidden behind the strong illusion of market-ideology. It is not seen as procurement or as food purchase policy, but it is seen from the producer’s point; buying up produce is done to keep the farmer in place, while the bought food goes to public institutions such as prisons.

movie_poster-large[1]This is once again an illustration of the lack of connection between agriculture and the food that is eaten here. A number of critical documentaries, such as the film Kingcorn, have shown various aspects of the disastrous effects of this lost connection. And yet a new film Food, Inc by Robert Kenner is about to be released mid June, showing

“the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA.”

I will definitely try to see it. (see also this interview)