Category Archives: Current Events

The Blue Skies Strollair and the Challenge to Collective Action

A good friend of mine, Jason Munster, has a PhD in Environmental Engineering. In his doctoral program, he researched the atmospheric chemistry related to measuring air pollutants, which is critical to understanding climate change. Or, in his own words, “I build instruments to measure processes related to climate change.”

Recently, Munster took what he learned about how water droplets in clouds absorb pollutants to design a personal, transportable air filter that filters out several hazardous criteria air pollutants – NO­2, SO2, and PM.

He founded a company, Blue Skies, to manufacture, market, and sell this air filter primarily to parents of young children in the form of a device that attaches to strollers and car-seats, creating a pocket of relatively cleaner air around the child. Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of these pollutants, which have been linked to asthma among other illnesses, and Blue Skies markets itself as a champion of children’s health:

Our mission is to reduce asthma and deaths from air pollution worldwide. In developed countries, we plan to carry out the first-ever trials of the benefits of reducing ambient pollution exposure in children. In developing countries, we aim to save lives.

The Blue Skies filter, which he has named the Strollair, is now the subject of a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, where backers can preorder the device for half of its eventual retail price of $300.

I’ve written this blog post both to acknowledge Jason’s efforts in developing this protective device, which I have every confidence works as advertised, but also, as is my wont, to use the Strollair as a conversation starter. This personal air filter presents a tidy encapsulation of a momentous conundrum facing our society – from the local to global scale – right now:

Do we fight for long-term, collective, and systematic economic and political change that will benefit all people eventually?

Or, do we take short-term action (if we can afford it) to individually protect ourselves and our families from the worst symptoms of a rapidly degrading global biosphere that industrial commodification has pushed past its limits?

The Strollair is an almost textbook example of an inverted quarantine, a concept from sociologist Andrew Szasz that I discussed in a post from several years ago. To recap, what Szasz is talking about is a widespread social phenomenon in which people, especially those who think they are affluent or self-reliant enough to handle every problem on their own, pursue “an individualized response to a collective threat”, which he notes is “the opposite of [a] social movement”:

There is awareness of hazard, a feeling of vulnerability, of being at risk. That feeling, however, does not lead to political action aimed at reducing the amounts or the variety of toxics present in the environment. It leads, instead, to individualized acts of self-protection, to just trying to keep those contaminants out of one’s body.[i]

I think now, in this political moment more than ever, it’s vitally important for Americans to be aware of and critically reflect on this tendency to stop at saving one’s self, because this reaction is increasingly pervasive. We see it everywhere from education to infrastructure to food, and that’s a potential problem. The good news is that we also see renewed calls for long-term solutions that depend on collective action and intense cooperation, such as the growing movement for a single-payer healthcare system or global attempts at cooperative agreements to reign in greenhouse gas emissions to reign in climate change.

This post is not a criticism of people who want to take action to protect themselves or their families. That’s a perfectly rational response, Szasz notes, especially “if one feels that there is nothing to be done, that conditions will not change, cannot be changed”, or not be changed fast enough to make a difference. But we must acknowledge that this is a form of fatalism, which can sap the strength from our creative aspirations and enervate political will to take control of our situation and build the world we want to live in.

There is also the problem of the cognitive blinders that practicing inverted quarantine can reinforce.

Inverted quarantine is implicitly based on denial of complexity and interdependence. It mistakenly reduces the question of an individual’s well-being to nothing more than the maintenance of the integrity of the individual’s body.[ii]

In other words, relying too heavily on the effectiveness of inverted quarantine strategies such as a portable air filter which can allow parents to “opt out” of the consequences of air pollution for their children may lead those parents to believe that this is enough.

But an air filter all on its own will never be enough. Only sustained collective effort to control air pollution – by regulating emissions, developing cleaner fuels and industrial processes, living more efficiently, and so forth – will ever attack air pollution at its source.

And the same difficulty holds true for inverted quarantine responses in general. They offer partial stop-gap solutions to persistent problems that will only get worse over time. Moreover, even those partial solutions are only available to some people – others won’t be able to opt out, most likely because they can’t afford to.

None of this is to say that someone living in an area with high air pollution absolutely should not buy a Strollair for their child. But it is to say that before they do so, they should spend some time learning about the root causes of pollution and its unequal impacts on people by wealth, race, age, sex, etc. And they should take the time to learn about, and ideally get involved in, true collective responses to air pollution that other people are working on to improve the situation for everyone.

The environmental justice movement in particular would be a good point of engagement. There are many different groups and organizations working toward environmental justice in various ways. I think a good example is the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which has a powerful mission statement that demonstrates the collective will to action which must complement the self-protective reaction inherent in inverted quarantine:

We unite the powerful local organizing of our members in the communities most impacted by environmental hazards – low-income communities and communities of color – to create comprehensive opportunities for change at a statewide level. We build the power of communities across California to create policies that will alleviate poverty and pollution. Together, we are growing the statewide movement for environmental health and social justice.

Many pragmatic arguments could be made to support the conclusion that social movements such as environmental justice are good for individuals in the long run (I could appeal to game theory, for example). Szasz offers many examples in his book, most a variation on the theme that you can’t hide from your problems forever – at some point, the state of the world will devolve to the point where no one will be able to buy their way to safety.

But I’d rather end on a different note, an emotional and moral appeal to collective action to match the explicit emotional appeal of the Blue Skies Strollair.

In short, working together feels good and feels empowering. There is a lot to be said for balancing fear and fatalism – the emotions that make people reach for inverted quarantine – in the face of collective threats with love, community, and hope – the emotions that give people the resolve and strength to overcome their differences and work together on big solutions. In short, keeping sight of a purpose larger than ourselves can help us keep our self-protective urges in proper proportion.

As I was writing this post, I pulled out my copy of Robert Bullard’s landmark treatise on environmental justice, Dumping in Dixie. I have the third edition, and in the preface Dr. Bullard writes a line that encapsulates precisely what I mean when I refer to a purpose larger than ourselves. I’ll conclude with his words: “I carried out this research under the assumption that all Americans have a basic right to live, work, play, go to school, and worship in a clean and healthy environment”.[iii]


[i] Szasz, Andrew. 2007. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. University of Minnesota Press. p. 2-3.

[ii] Ibid, p. 222.

[iii] Bullard, Robert D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Third Edition. Westview Press: Boulder, CO. p. xiii.


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Machines and Workers: The deceptive framing of automation

I was recently quoted in an article in MUNCHIES on the incoming US Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder. Puzder has (notoriously) argued that government regulations (to protect the welfare and rights of workers) drive the cost of labor up, which forces employers to automate their businesses by replacing human workers with machines. He has quipped of machines, “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

In the article, I responded by pointing out how “Puzder is implying that deregulation will slow or halt automation by keeping labor cheap. Notably, the only two options Puzder presents for workers are (1) low-paying, uncertain, and exploitative employment or (2) no employment.”

This damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t analysis of mechanization, automation, and robotization has plagued workers facing technological developments since the industrial revolution. And it is still a major problem today. Especially with the increasing prevalence of Big Data and advances in artificial intelligence, we’re looking at a future in which not just manual jobs—such as picking heads of lettuce or riveting widgets—but also desk jobs like legal work will be in danger of replacement by computerized machines. President Obama even went so far as to warn of the dangers of automation in his farewell address: “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas,” he said. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” The question is, of course, what can we do about it? Are we doomed to be stuck in Puzder’s  de-humanizing catch-22 scenario?

It just so happens that this is a problem I’ve recently been researching. Together with Prof. Alastair Iles and several undergraduate student researchers, I’ve been examining cases of machine labor replacing, or threatening to replace, human labor in agriculture. In particular, we’re looking at the rise of mechanical harvesters for vegetable, fruit and nut crops during the post-War years. While we anticipate the research to continue for several more years, a few important points on automation are already clear. I’ll outline them in the rest of this blog post.

1. Machine labor is not the same as human labor

Historically, machines have outperformed humans when it comes to performing the same exact task over and over again. This is an area in which people do not excel. As I alluded to in my comment on Puzder, trying to compete with machines dehumanizes human workers. Americans have a national fable about a heroic individual, John Henry, out-working a steam-powered drilling machine. However, the feat costs John Henry his life, whereas the machine presumably went on to a long “career” driving steel for the railroad magnates.

The problem highlighted in the fable is the industrial standardization of production. Machines only “work” in a standardized, scripted environment; humans, by contrast, are flexible and adaptive workers, capable of performing many complex tasks depending on the situation. One deception of the catch-22 is that people and machines must inevitably compete with one another in a zero-sum game, even though the actual labor is very different.

2. Machines change the nature of production and the nature of what is produced

It’s not just that machines are “naturally” better suited to perform many tasks than are people, but rather that machines actually shape the nature of work, the working environment, and the product itself to better suit their standard requirements.

To take an example from our research, when California lettuce farmers in the 1960s were considering switching to mechanical harvesters, they ran into a problem: their fields and their plants were too variable and heterogeneous for the machines. Whereas human workers could differentiate between healthy, mature heads of lettuce and damaged or immature plants, a machine could not. Human harvesters likewise could handle humps and dips or other quirks of the field and furrows, but a machine needed perfectly level, uniform, and even rows to cut the heads.

In an effort to accommodate the envisioned mechanical harvesters, farmers, breeders, farm advisors, and agronomists set out to craft a new form of farming, what they called “precision agriculture.” The idea would be to create a perfectly level field of perfectly uniform rows populated by perfectly uniform crops that would all mature at precisely the same time. There would be no weeds, no irregularities, nothing to disrupt the machine’s ability to do exactly the same task over and over again. The field was made to suit the machine.

3. Mechanization is not automatic

New technologies are always embedded in an existing matrix of other technologies, behaviors, and organizational structures—what might better be referred to as a technological system. For a technological development to be truly transformative, to propagate and redefine a given production process, the rest of the system has to transform as well.

In the case of lettuce, the mechanical harvester was accompanied by a host of other technological, behavioral, and organizational changes. Breeders had to develop new seeds that farmers could use to shift toward a “plant-to-stand”—one seed, one plant—approach that would remove the entire production stage of thinning, that is, removing the unhealthy plants from the stand; a highly selective and irregular task not conducive to machine labor. At the same time, chemical herbicides were ushered in to eliminate the need for weeding, a form of chemically automating another form of selective labor. Lastly, farmers had to adapt to a once-over harvest. Whereas harvest crews comprising human laborers with hand knives could sweep a field multiple times over the course of several days to harvest lettuce that matured at different rates, a machine can only really harvest a field once, cutting most everything in its path in one pass.

The point is that mechanization is never “automatic”—ironically, it takes a lot of work to accommodate land, resources, businesses, and even consumers to the strict requirements of machine labor. Automation is a process that must be designed, guided, and even coerced into being. Importantly, this means that people determine how mechanization happens, and we have the power to do it differently.

4. A job is not an end in itself

In an era of rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and other technologies that can perform human tasks, the fixation on “jobs” as the only metric of well-being is problematic. A lot of those jobs will no longer require a human to perform them, as McKinsey & Company’s new report on automation argues. The question we should be asking ourselves as a society is, do Americans really need to be doing tedious, repetitive tasks that can be left to a robot?

As long as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—plus housing, food, healthcare, and so forth—is tied to whether a person has a “job” or not, the answer has to be “yes”. And as more and more machines come online that can perform human tasks, the more and more human workers will have to compete against the robot, hypothetical or real, that threatens to take their job. This can only drive the value of labor down, meaning that Americans will continually be asked to work more for less. That’s not a sustainable trend, and will only exacerbate our already high levels of socioeconomic inequality.

The United States is desperately in need of new public policies that can deal with this fundamental trend of working more for less. Basically, we need ways to ensure that the productivity gains generated by new technologies improve the lives of all Americans, not just the small percentage who happen to own a business and can afford the capital investment of the latest robots. Trying to preserve jobs as the sole route for people to improve their lives without changing the underlying pattern I’ve described above is a downward spiral that will harm many and benefit a few.

5. The problem with automation is one of distribution of wealth

Which leads to my penultimate point in this post. The problem is not that new technologies replace menial or repetitive jobs. It’s that they supplant peoples’ livelihoods, a concept which we should think of as a way of life rather than merely an occupation. That technologies can destroy people’s ways of life has been understood for centuries—it’s what spurred the Luddite movement during the early 19th century in England and also underpinned Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism some fifty years later. In many ways, communism was based on the idea that technological development is a good thing if the productivity gains are shared equally among everyone. While the practical implementation of that idea turned out to be oversimplified, the basic point—that new technologies raise questions about the distribution of wealth as much as they do about productivity gains—still applies today.

As farm worker movements in the 1960s and 1970s attested, the debate cannot focus on the simple ratio of input/output efficiency or even on jobs saved versus jobs lost. Those farm workers protested against mechanized harvesting and processing technologies in agriculture because they realized that all of the productivity gains would go to the farm owners, the patent holders, and the manufacturing companies. None would go to the people who had done the sweaty, back-breaking work in the fields that underpinned the entire agricultural industry and put the owners in the position to consider mechanization in the first place.

This is one of the reasons why people are starting to talk about a universal basic income, an idea which Robert Reich (himself a former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton) nicely outlined in a short video last fall. Basically, the idea is that if machines can do all the work to meet peoples’ needs, then people will not have jobs, and therefore will not have the money to buy the basic goods those machines produce. The universal basic income circumvents the problem by separating purchasing power from jobs, which has the effect of more equally distributing the productivity gains of automation such that people will actually be able to enjoy their lives.

6. Democratizing technology

I see the universal basic income as a solution to a symptom, the maldistribution of wealth. What we should be thinking about, if we want to address root-causes, is the maldistribution of power.

I had the opportunity to visit Immokalee, Florida a couple of years ago. Immokalee grows a large share of the nation’s fresh tomatoes, a delicate crop that is generally harvested by hand because machines tend to destroy or damage the fruit. Immokalee is also the location of some of the most recent cases of modern-day slavery—workers held in captivity and forced to work the fields. But it’s also home to an empowered workers movement, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has fought for, and won, improvements in pay and working conditions for tomato harvesters.

On the visit, one Coalition spokesperson demonstrated how field workers harvest tomatoes. They walk through the fields filling up large buckets, which weigh around thirty pounds when full. It was a big deal for the Coalition when they bargained a penny-per-pound increase in the piece-rate compensation for pickers. As the spokesperson explained, the Coalition also achieved success in setting a new bucket-filling standard, under which workers would no longer be forced to fill their buckets over the rim, a practice that used to be required, but for which workers were not paid extra (see p. 32 of the 2015 Annual Report for a picture).

As the presentation continued, I was struck by the impressive intensity of the struggle around field workers’ rights, but also by the fact that the bucket itself was never questioned. Ergonomically, the buckets are terrible. They are plain plastic, with no handles or straps to ease lifting them onto the shoulder or help keep the bucket stable and distribute its weight once loaded. Why, I wondered at the time, does all the negotiating around the tomato picking seem to take these back-breaking buckets for granted? Is there no way to design a better tool for collecting the tomatoes and hauling them out of the field?

Of course there is, but that’s not how we tend to think of technological development. Which is why I argue that it’s not just about where the money goes after the fact, but about who has a say in how technologies are developed before the fact. The direction of technological development is open and changeable: technological development can be democratized. Spreading out the power to drive technological development will be the route to designing machines first to improve the conditions of labor and ways of life, and only second to increase productivity.

Our ongoing research into the history agricultural mechanization is motivated by a desire to understand how and why power over technological development was consolidated in the first place, in order that we might understand how to spread that power out moving forward.



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Common Sense, Science and Government Part II: A Case of Quinoa

The first case I’ll discuss focuses on quinoa, a grain-like staple more closely related to beets and spinach than to the true grasses such as wheat. Once a rather obscure food in the US, quinoa experienced a rapid popularity spike beginning in 2007 when consumers in the global north fed into a new narrative extoling its virtues for health and social justice alike. It began with nutrition-minded journalists hailing quinoa as a “new health food darling”. High in protein, in fact featuring all nine amino acids, quinoa could also serve as a gluten-free substitute for wheat or barley. The added mystique of a “rediscovered” (read: Columbused) ancient staple, a “lost” Inca Treasure, also dovetailed nicely with the popular paleo-diet trend which urged a dietary return to an idealized simpler time when people were more closely attuned with nature. For all of these reasons, quinoa received great publicity as a sacred, super crop.

An interrelated second narrative presented quinoa as a way for consumers to also support fair trade and sustainable development. Buying quinoa meant supporting farmers in developing countries such as Peru and Bolivia while allowing them to maintain a traditional way of life. The pitch for quinoa on Eden Organic’s website, for example, reads, “The most ancient American staple grain. Sustainably grown at over 12,000 feet in the Andes helping preserve native culture.” In 2012, when I first looked into the quinoa case, I came across a fair trade certified brand, La Yapa (now defunct), which summed up a stronger iteration of this marketing narrative:

“In the past few years, the income of quinoa farmers has doubled with the increase in volume and prices… The farmer’s quality of life also has increased steadily… By choosing this Fair Trade Certified™ product, you are directly supporting a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development, and environmental stewardship.”

The global food security community also picked up on the quinoa fanfare, culminating in the 2011 decision by the United Nations General Assembly to declare 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa”. The press release for the occasion cites the potential contributions of quinoa to then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge, “not only because of its nutritional value but also because most quinoa is currently produced by smallholder farmers… ‘The crop holds the promise of improved incomes – a key plank of the Zero Hunger Challenge,’ Ban said.” A special report was released with the goal of “improving knowledge and dissemination of this ancient crop, which has a significant strategic value for the food and nutritional security of humanity.

The other piece of this global food security narrative touted the environmental advantages of traditional subsistence crops like quinoa (e.g. amaranth, teff, fonio, etc.), especially their resilience in the face of global climate change. A recent article from National Geographic captures the essence of this line of thinking:

“[Sustainable agriculture advocates are] increasingly turning to grains that have been the basis of subsistence farmers’ diets in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America since the time of earliest agriculture. Because such grains adapted to grow on marginal land without irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, they are often more resilient than modern commodity crops are.” (emphasis added, also see note at [ii]).

Taken altogether, quinoa has been presented in and to the global north as a win-win-win superfood—good for the health of wealthy consumers, the wealth of poor farmers, and the ecological stability of global agriculture[i]. The overall message to the savvy shopper in New York or Berkeley or Chicago, then, was that quinoa was good to buy.

But complications with that rosy narrative arose just as rapidly as quinoa’s acclaim spread. Demand rose so quickly that the price of quinoa tripled from 2007 to 2010 (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Prices of Quinoa at the Farm Gate, 1993-2012 (constant Int. $/tonne). Source:


Ironically, the food which was celebrated as a “cultural anchor and a staple in the diet of millions of people throughout the Andes for thousands of years” seemed to have been priced out of their budget by the “agricultural gold rush.”Over the same time period, production volume accelerated its growth and the area cultivated for quinoa expanded substantially, especially in Bolivia (Figs. 2 and 3).


Fig. 2: Tonnes of Quinoa Produced Annually, 1994-2013. Source:

Area Harvested

Fig. 3: Hectares of Quinoa Harvested Annually, 1994-2013. Source:

These numbers seemed to paint a much more complex story than win-win-win: Was high consumer demand in the US and the EU actually taking a staple food away from South America smallholders? Were record-level prices encouraging farmers to plant quinoa on ecologically marginal lands, courting disaster in the form of an Andean equivalent to the Dust Bowl? With soaring prospects for fat profit-margins and a global development community hungry for a silver bullet crop, were Andean smallholder farmers in danger of losing control over quinoa and being pushed out of their own market?[ii]

All of these questions, however, boiled down to one media snippet for global north publics: to eat or not to eat? A rash of headlines in early 2013 posed titillating provocative challenges to the quinoa fad. “Is eating quinoa evil?,” quipped The Week, while The Guardian challenged, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”. Tom Philpott, writing for Mother Jones, tried to restore some sanity with his more nuanced article, “Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?”, but the overarching point of reference for the American and European publics had been set. Whether a question of health, the viability of smallholder farming, or environmental sustainability, it had to be framed, in Hamlett-like fashion, to buy or not to buy?

Lost amid all the hand-wringing were the voices cautioning that the public and the media had fixated on the wrong question. Tanya Kerssen, an analyst at the non-profit organization Food First writing for Common Dreams, pointed out that to consume or not to consume was a false choice:

“In short, the debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less… [T]he so-called quinoa quandary demonstrates the limits of consumption-driven politics. Because whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South. To address the problem we have to analyze the system itself, and the very structures that constrain consumer and producer choices…

Consumption-driven strategies, while part of the toolbox for effecting change, are not the only tools. Only by facing the reality that we can’t consume our way to a more just and sustainable world—and examining the full range of political options and strategies—can we start coming up with real solutions.” (emphasis added).

So there we have one example to help illustrate why good policy cannot rely solely upon common sense for guidance. As Gramsci warned, common sense “takes countless different forms” and “even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent” (as quoted in my previous post). Relying upon common sense alone is to follow a fickle and partial guide. The assumptions and tacit beliefs underlying common sense will not always hold up under scrutiny, meaning that developing good policy requires continual critical reflection, public debate, and learning.

Quinoa has risen to prominence because it can link key points of contention in global agricultural policy—often voiced in highly abstract statistics on population demographics, epidemiological findings, economic indicators, and environmental qualities—to the daily concern with what to eat that makes intuitive sense to powerful publics in the global north. While certain policy programs (e.g. leveraging the ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ of smallholder farmers or folding peasants into global commodity food markets) may have gained political traction by adapting their arguments to the contours of common sense, such compromise comes at a cost. In this case, the experiences and perceptions of first-world consumers were naively accepted as the “terrain” of common sense upon which public debates about global poverty, health, and climate change can and should be debated. However, this common sense represents only a narrow slice of daily life around the globe.

Missing from the common sense of affluent consumers are, for example, the experiences and perspectives of the Andean farmers who grow quinoa and the poor whose health and development so many are concerned with. And this is not to mention the underrepresentation of nonhuman organisms and ecosystems, especially those not explicitly contributing to food commodities (e.g. the ecosystems on marginal lands into which quinoa farming has begun to spread). That translates to a large number of options and strategies that will never even be considered and a large number of unintended consequences that will never be recognized because they are outside the realm of what is commonly familiar to the consumer classes. As Kerssen writes, it would be a rational ideal to “examine the full range”, but if we want to take that process seriously, then we also need to examine the full range of common sense.

As I argued in the previous post, good policy, including environmental and natural resource policy, cannot ignore common sense, but must work with the grain of existing preconceptions and ways of living in the world. What this case highlights is that we also cannot rely solely on common sense to guide us to good policy. As is shown with the quinoa case, common sense—such as the idea that the only lever we have with which to move the world comes in the form of our fork or our wallet—often misses important pieces of the story and can lead us far afield or into a seemingly intractable impasse or an impossible (or false) choice. Critical reflection on the strengths and shortcomings of basic common sense is needed.

From this insight, we can infer that good policy emerges from critical consideration of common sense. Good policy must be built on that existing foundation, but also must do productive work on people to direct them toward better habits, better ways of living in the world. In short, in order to better approximate good sense. Next time, we’ll consider upon what basis, if not common sense, good sense can be gauged.

[i] For an example of the kind of utopian visions that experts began attaching to quinoa potential future, a 2014 article by Lisa Hamilton in Harper’s Magazine quotes a prominent Dutch agronomist, saying, “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things—the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”

[ii] This poses a very thorny political economic question, and one that doesn’t lend itself easily to a simple yes or no response. The Harper’s article (ibid) tackles the complexity in greater depth, but the short version is that with great potential comes great prosperity, and then a great struggle over who has the right to enjoy that prosperity. In past epochs, newly “discovered” crops could be expropriated and spread around the world; examples include potatoes, tomatoes, or maize, all of which are native to the Americas. These plants didn’t just naturally evolve as desirable food crops, however. Rather, the ancestors of the Aztec, Incan and other indigenous peoples spent millennia worth of work breeding them from wild plants. Yet they never saw a penny for sharing those crops with the rest of the world. Instead, that privilege was assumed by European colonists and their descendants while Native American peoples were instead violently repressed (and killed). The Andean peoples of Bolivia and Ecuador are savvy to the long history of indigenous groups losing control over their germplasm heritages and have thus imposed strict sanctions over any sharing of quinoa seeds and genetic information. Thus quinoa finds itself at the heart of a struggle between food sovereignty and food security—an impasse seems to have been reached with “the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world” (ibid). There are doubtless sensible and just ways to negotiate out of this impasse, which I won’t try to guess at here, but again the point I would like to make is that complex problems require complex (and often messy) responses. Pretending that a simple solution can be found by applying basic common sense (i.e. the needs of the world’s many outweigh the needs of the Andean few, so world development organizations should just go ahead and take quinoa from Bolivians and Peruvians) is not a route to sound policy or good governance.


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Commenting on Food Safety Regulation

Last Friday, the public comment period closed for the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed produce rule[i]. When finalized, the rule will establish mandatory standards for growing produce—i.e. fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts—intended to improve food safety and protect public health.  The agency released the proposed rule in January 2013 as one stage[ii] in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which President Obama signed into law on January 4, 2011.

To give you a sense of the scope of this law, FSMA enacts an expansion of federal authority on the same order of magnitude as the big environmental protection laws of the late 60s and early 70s—the Clean Air and Water Acts, for example, or the Endangered Species Act. However, in addition to its progressive promise to better protect public health, FSMA also opens the door for misapplication of government authority: if poorly implemented, it could be an agricultural version of the Patriot Act. The produce rule, in particular, has the potential to discriminate against small-scale organic farms and to impede ecologically-based farming practices. And that is why I and thousands of others are trying to convince FDA to amend it. In the rest of the post, I will briefly discuss the background of the rule, explain how the Federal administrative process for such rules works, and will conclude with the comments that I submitted to FDA.

Major reform of the nation’s food safety regulatory system has been brewing for the past decade or so[iii]. The tipping point came with a series of deadly and high-profile outbreaks, in particular a 2006 multi-state outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that killed 5 people and sickened another 200. This and other outbreaks triggered a wave of industry and government reforms. This is a long story that I won’t get into here, but SF Gate published a nice summary of the basic plot this past weekend that will catch you up to speed.

But let’s return to the closing of the public comment period. If you are not familiar with the way Federal law works, the short version is that most legislation merely provides a general framework, the details of which have to be worked out by one or more Federal agencies through a process known as rulemaking. Agencies belong to the executive branch of government, and ultimately answer to the President. Examples include the FDA, USDA, EPA, and so forth.

However, an agency such as FDA does not have complete freedom to work out the details of a law such as FSMA as it wishes. Rather, the agency must comply with a whole series of legal requirements, some of which are included in the law itself and others of which come from administrative law, a corpus of laws that set universal requirements for any rulemaking. One of the most important administrative laws is the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 (APA). The APA requires that any time an agency intends to alter an existing regulation or introduce a new one, it must publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register. This publication marks the start of a period (generally three months) during which any member of the public—including individual citizens, organizations, and even other agencies or other nation-states—may submit comments on the proposed rule to the agency. The agency is required by law to respond to each and every comment; this does not mean that the agency has to follow or agree with every comment, but it must at least justify its response. Once all comments have been addressed and the agency has revised the draft rule accordingly, it will release a final rule that will then be the law of the land.

The public comment phase of rulemaking is a critical part of American government, as it is one of the few ways that the public can participate directly in the governance of the country. It is also a key avenue to educate regulatory agencies about the potential impacts or oversights that a rule might have. For the produce rule, 13,390 comments were submitted to the FDA between January and November of 2013. One of those comments is mine, which I will share with you here to give a sense of what participating in a rulemaking process in this manner might look like. (Note that the version I submitted to FDA was on Berkeley letterhead—formality matters with these things!).


To whom it may concern:

I am writing to comment on the FDA’s proposed rule, “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption” (hereafter, the rule) in my capacity as a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, where I am researching and writing my dissertation on US food safety governance and risk regulation. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) currently funds my research in this area, and in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of ecologists and social scientists I have another grant application in review with NSF to study socio-ecological dynamics of food safety practices on California leafy greens farms.

From this vantage point, I express my hope that FDA will take the opportunity presented by the mandates of the Food Safety Modernization Act to demonstrate to the American people that the United States government can engage in sensible, well-reasoned, and participatory modes of regulation that effectively protect the public from food borne hazards while equitably distributing the costs and benefits of such protection. Toward that end, I raise five points:

1. The rule must be more flexible and scale-appropriate. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) directs FDA to “provide sufficient flexibility to be practicable for all sizes and types of businesses” (21 USC §350h[c][1][B]) and to “be appropriate to the scale and diversity of the production and harvesting of such commodities” (21 USC §350h[a][3][A]). The current rule does not reflect this mandate, and the “qualified exemption” provided in §112.5 is insufficient (see comment #2). The rule must recognize that there are many different types of farms in this country, operating in many different contexts. The geography, culture, marketing channels, consumer preferences, and labor situations vary dramatically, as does the risk profile for food safety. If the rule does not provide scale-appropriate requirements for all of the different types of farms and contexts in which they operate, it will hurt farmers, rural communities, and local ecosystems. If this happens, the rule will fail to benefit the public good.

I would like to give you a sense of how this rule appears to a small-scale, Latino farmer in California, who has worked very hard for many years and even gone back to school to learn how to start up his own fruit and vegetable farm, which sells to markets in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. I provide a direct quote from Javier, whom I met at a focus group meeting[iv] convened for immigrant farmers affiliated with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) to share their experiences in complying with food safety requirements. I have translated it from the original Spanish:

“Food safety is first and foremost a worry. Or, if you want, a risk. I worry not only for me as a farmer, but also for the recipient who is going to eat the food. And this worry includes many things: the cost, the time it takes to fill out all the papers, all the demands that are out there, and there are no differences [in what is demanded] between small and large. This is what has us upset… there is no difference between a large company and a tiny one, and the large company has all these resources to pay someone to do that, and we don’t have the resources… <pointing to other farmers in the room> He knows what he has to do. She knows what she has to do. Ensure that the product goes from the field to the crate in a safe manner. We don’t have a problem there. The problem we have is the bureaucracy and the cost. This is the problem.”

To reiterate, the ten farmers at the focus group meeting discussed in great detail the many concrete steps they take to ensure that their products will not make one of their customers sick. They understand and practice the appropriate risk prevention methods: regularly washing hands with soap and water, wearing gloves, sanitizing equipment, carefully inspecting the fields, packing houses, and other farm facilities, and so on. Yet the expected amount of record-keeping, laboratory testing, paperwork, and audit costs imposes an extensive burden on the farmers, and they do not believe these bureaucratic requirements actually contribute to making the food any safer for their customers.

FDA should, in greater collaboration with food producers of all backgrounds from across the country, revise the rule to set multiple equivalent standards at each stage of farm production―soil amendment, irrigation, equipment sanitization, worker education and hygiene, record-keeping, harvest, etc.—that are appropriate for different farm types and contexts. Merely allowing producers to “establish alternatives” (§112.12) to the baseline standards provided they have “adequate scientific data or information” (see comment #3) does not provide sufficient flexibility and is not appropriate. The provision at §112.12 places the burdens and costs of identifying and proving the viability of alternative measures on producers, when it is clear from the language of the law as quoted above that Congress intended FDA to take a lead role in identifying viable alternatives.

2. The rule must not inadvertently create the misconception that some farms are unsafe because they have been exempted from the requirements. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kathleen Merrigan, a US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who stepped down earlier this year, when she visited the Berkeley campus. She emphasized that the rule must not create a category of farm that is publicly perceived to be exempt from food safety regulation, and I strongly agree. Doing so risks unduly damaging the reputation of these producers and may undermine the integrity of this rule by creating the appearance of a double standard. Rather than simply grant small farms that sell direct and locally a “qualified exemption”, per §112.5, from the universal requirements laid out in Subparts B through O, FDA should foster further dialogue with these farmers to collaboratively develop a set of food safety requirements, possibly including voluntary risk prevention practices to comply with 21 USC §350h(f), that best suits their particular risk profiles and also takes advantage of their operational strengths. Many small farms are operated with a degree of substantive, effective care—daily oversight over the farm by owners and top managers or hand harvesting―that is unique to their scale of operation. These practices of care should be recognized as valid and legitimate risk-prevention measures in the same way that water quality tests (Subpart N), treatment of biological soil amendments (Subpart F), or worker hygiene training (Subpart D) are for larger-scale farming operations.

3. The FDA must take on greater responsibility for identifying and evaluating alternative risk prevention methods. The burdens and costs of producing “adequate scientific data” in support of alternative methods of risk-prevention, per §112.12, should not fall solely on producers, some of whom may not be able to bear these costs because of their limited resources. FDA should work with other government agencies, scientists, and stakeholders to identify and scientifically evaluate other methods of risk-prevention and protection of public health. For example, FDA could take the lead in evaluating the risk-prevention potential of shorter or less centralized supply chains. A shorter supply chain (i.e. measured as time from harvest to consumption), such as for a farmers market or a consumer supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement, in principle reduces the risk of a consumer contracting an illness from produce: less time in storage and transit translates to less time for pathogens to incubate. Similarly, a non-centralized supply chain that does not process or mix produce in large batches (such as ready-to-eat bagged salad mixes) in principle reduces the risk that contamination will lead to an outbreak, and also in principle reduces the possible magnitude of an outbreak if one were to occur.[v] In addition, FDA should clarify what is meant by “adequate scientific data,” specifically detailing what criteria will be used, and by whom, to judge its adequacy. Lastly, the standards referenced in the rule should be shown to adhere to the same criteria once defined .

4. The rule should avoid an overly narrow definition of safety, and acknowledge potential tradeoffs of food safety with other demands on produce. The rule must recognize that there are many different, and at times competing, qualities that the American public expects from fresh produce. Furthermore, there is no one universal definition of safe food that everyone will agree on. A low risk of pathogen contamination is important to many people, but so are environmental sustainability, support for rural livelihoods, fair and just labor practices, nutritional content, local sourcing, reasonable prices, organic production, and a product that tastes good, to name a few. The rule must explicitly take into account the potential impacts that pathogen-oriented risk prevention standards may have on these other qualities. For example, §112.31(b)(1) directs farm operators to exclude a sick employee from work “until the person’s health condition no longer presents a risk to public health,” but provides no instruction that indicates that the health and well-being of the employee should also be a concern. Preventing a worker from earning money at the same time that he or she is sick, and may have to pay medical bills, could have severe consequences for the worker and his or her family. Not only is this bad for the worker, but it may also encourage workers to hide symptoms of illness, perversely introducing additional risk to public health. FDA must recognize that it will not serve the American public to have pathogen-free produce if at the same time ecosystems are degraded, small-scale farmers are forced out of business, and the healthfulness (nutritional) and quality (aesthetic) of the end-product is ignored.

5. The rule should not unduly burden producers for whom English is not a primary language. Many farmers in America do not speak English as a first language, and neither do their customers. Promulgating and enforcing the rule in an inaccessible manner, for example by failing to communicate in a language in which producers are fluent, will unduly discriminate against these farmers. Research on the experiences of Hmong farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, for example, shows that culturally inappropriate labor regulations can produce racialized discrimination against immigrant farmers[vi]. Studies in progress by the same researchers have uncovered preliminary evidence that assessment of compliance with food safety standards may also be racialized, not least because of language-based communication barriers. In addition to my first comment, I add that at a minimum FDA must ensure that the rule, and all associated forms, instructions, and avenues of assistance are readily available in any language and format that a farmer or producer needs. In addition, FDA should include a clause in Subpart Q (Compliance and Enforcement) with a statement to the effect that all compliance and enforcement actions will be conducted in a language in which the farmer or producer in question is fluent.

I would like to conclude by urging FDA to recognize that American farmers care about the quality and safety of their produce, and want to grow safe food for their customers. FDA’s mission, as mandated in the Food Safety Modernization Act, is best served by a more cooperative approach to facilitating the adoption of better food safety practices among farmers. The proposed produce rule as written adopts a command-and-control approach to food safety that will likely lead to an antagonistic relationship between FDA and producers. Less emphasis on filling out paperwork and more emphasis on actually practicing better agriculture could go a long way toward ameliorating this antagonism. I end by noting that establishing trust and mutual respect between FDA and produce farmers will be necessary to adaptively build domestic capacity for food safety, as required by Sec. 110 of the FSMA (21 USC §2204).


[i] For brevity’s sake, this is the short title by which most people refer to the rule. The official name of the rule is Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption. You can find the full Federal Register (78 FR 11: 3504) notice here:

[ii] FDA has issued at least eight rules, some proposed and some final, related to implementation of the FSMA. It has also issued a number of “Guidance for Industry” documents, which serve as sources of standard, authoritative information for the private sector. One such guidance document from 1998, the Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, provides the official scientific basis for much of the regulatory developments surrounding food safety for produce.

[iii] The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added “Revamping Federal Oversight of Food Safety” to its “High Risk List,” basically the office’s list of priorities for government action and remediation. The GAO has been issuing reports on the topic since at least 2001. In addition, President Obama created the President’s Food Safety Working Group in 2009. Its initial report concluded,

 “Unfortunately, the nation’s food safety system is anything but flexible and coordinated. Our system is hamstrung by outdated laws, insufficient resources, suboptimal management structures, and poor coordination across agencies and with States and localities. At least a dozen Federal agencies, implementing at least 30 different laws, have roles in overseeing the safety of the nation’s food supply. This approach was not rationally designed. Rather, it developed in fits and starts as the nation’s attention turned to one crisis after another. Building a new system will require recognizing the critical importance of a closely coordinated system.”

[iv] The focus group was held on November 8, 2013 in Salinas, California.

[v] DeLind, L., & Howard, P. (2008). Safe at any scale? Food scares, food regulation, and scaled alternatives. Agriculture and Human Values, 25(3), 301-317.

[vi] Minkoff-Zern, L.-A., Peluso, N., Sowerwine, J., & Getz, C. (2011). Race and Regulation: Asian Immigrants in California Agriculture. In A. H. Alkon & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (pp. 65): MIT Press.


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Hunger Frames

As promised, I will now discuss a contemporary environmental problem using the concept of environmental framing and the questions presented in last week’s guide. I will walk through a whole set of related frames and discuss their similarities and differences. To begin, let’s consider several recent news items:

  • On September 11, Chipotle launched a stealth advertising campaign with a top-of-the-line animation from Moonbot Studios. The ad presents Chipotle as a champion of “food with integrity” defending the people from a sinister corporate and industrial food system. It racked up over 6 million views in 11 days.
  • On September 14-15, Yale University hosted an international conference on Food Sovereignty, or the idea that people should have the right to control their local food system rather than let global markets determine whether and what they grow and eat.[i]
  • On September 18, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law released a joint study describing “how confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America.” According to the press release, the U.S. wastes (doesn’t eat) an estimated 40% of its food.[ii]
  • On September 18, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released its 2013 report under the title, Wake Up Before it is Too Late. The report “warns that continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis” (emphasis added). It advocates for “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible” to replace monocropping industrial farming with muli-functional agriculture.
  • On September 19, the U.S. House or Representatives passed a bill to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is better known as federal program that provides food stamps.[iii]
  • On September 21, NPR’s Weekend Edition aired a story on the latest project of the Trader Joe’s ex-President, Doug Rauch: collect food past its expiration date and sell it at a steep discount to “the underserved in our cities.”[iv]

This list might seem a grab-bag at first, but I want to pull out a common theme: hunger. Each of these stories frame, in different ways and with different consequences for people and nature, problems surrounding the basic human need to eat.

A note on style: I have written this in prose rather than a step-by-step walkthrough of the guide I posted last week, as I thought the latter too tedious. However, I have tried to make note of points I make that directly relate to the questions from the guide, which are numbered in this pdf version. I use the notation (Q1-3) or a (1-5/a-g) to point to the corresponding guide question.

Feeding the World

For the discussion to follow, we need some historical background. People have confronted the problem of hunger for as long as there have been people. However, in 1798 the English  Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus introduced a new, abstract global (2d) framing that would come to dominate public discourse over hunger for the next two centuries. He proposed simply that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”[v] In other words, the human population grows faster than the amount of food people produce, which is limited by natural constraints such as land (in modern vocabulary, Earth’s carrying capacity). In the long term (5b), Malthus predicted that these unequal growth rates would result in mass global crisis (2a).

The Malthusian doctrine, as it came to be known, tended to focus attention on two variables: the number of people and the amount of food (4a-b). Malthus himself advocated for policies to limit the number of people, since he could not see a way to sufficiently increase the amount of food grown. For obvious reasons, limiting the number of people turned out not to be politically (let alone ethically) feasible.[vi] However, increasing the available supply of food was.

In the latter half of the 19th century, expanding agriculture to the North American great plains—after the US exterminated the American bison and brutally removed the indigenous peoples there—flooded grain into the emerging world market (at the cost of “mining the soil”[vii]). At the same time, the second industrial revolution added another jolt with mechanized fossil fuel power. Toward the turn of the century, soil science and technology advanced enough to reverse declining soil fertility by artificially adding key soil nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK). When German chemists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch developed a process to fix N2 into biologically available N—the most limiting soil nutrient for plant growth—many people believed that human ingenuity would always find a way to surpass the natural limits to food production that troubled Malthus.

Following the destruction of WWII, however, global hunger loomed large on the post-war reconstruction agenda. Spear-headed by the US and its allies, and fueled by nascent Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the emerging development movement was deeply concerned with freeing the world from hunger (and communism) (3a-c). Top US foreign policy officials were concerned with questions such as, “Can the world’s soil grow all the crops that would be needed? Are fertilizer sources great enough? Do we have the technology and management ability to produce the crops and maintain the soils?”.[viii]  Mobilization in response to that concern launched the petrochemical-based research initiatives of the Green Revolution, a grand strategy to bring Western capital-intensive agriculture to the Third World.

Despite repeated technical advances in agriculture, which today includes genetically modifying crops and livestock to produce greater yields, the specter of Malthus’ prediction still looms. Consider, for example, a 2009 white paper from the US Office of Global Food Security, a branch of the US State Department. Here are a few choice excerpts:

More than one billion people—nearly a sixth of the world’s population—suffer from chronic hunger. It is a crisis with devastating and far-reaching effects…

Ensuring global food security will only become more challenging in the future as demand for food is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years. Increased demand will come primarily from population and income growth in middle-income countries. Growth in agricultural productivity, already lagging globally, also faces increasing threats from climate change, scarce water supplies, and competition for energy resources from industry and urbanization…

The 2008 food price crisis illustrates the kinds of disruptions we could experience more often in the future. The steep rise in prices affected families here in the United States and was particularly devastating for the poor in developing countries. Without significant improvements in agriculture productivity, market access, post-harvest infrastructure, and rural incomes, the imbalances between food supply and demand will increase food scarcity, food price volatility, and food insecurity.

In this example, the global, yield-centric frame for hunger appears today much as it did 200 years ago. The neo-Malthusian frame has spawned many variants that, while accepting the basic problem definition (Q1), approach it with a different set of tools in hand and possibilities in mind (Q2). The example I’ll talk about here revolves around food waste (2b) and the promise of efficiency (4a). At the same time, some frames pose hunger in a radically different light altogether. Movements such as food sovereignty reject the very definition of the problem (Q1), highlighting a different set of causes and effects (5c) and prioritizing a different set of goals for people and nature (Q3).

Waste Not, Hunger Not

Many people have noted a glaring oversight in the neo-Malthusian framing of hunger: at a global level, people produce enough food to feed everyone on Earth.[ix] So what accounts for the gap between amount produced and mouths fed? (2b) Some people argue that the real problem is waste.

A January 2013 report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers put it this way:

By 2075, the United Nations’ mid-range projection for global population growth predicts that human numbers will peak at about 9.5 billion people. This means that there could be an extra three billion mouths to feed by the end of the century…

One key issue is how to produce more food in a world of finite resources…

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands.

The report does not challenge the Malthusian problem defined as too many people and too little food (Q1), but it does challenge the assumptions about which options are available to deal with the problem (Q2). If food never makes it to the plate, the report reasons, then increasing production will be in vain. Moreover, expanding agricultural production can actually inflict more harm on people and nature than the benefits it brings through increasing the overall amount of food. This expands the conception of who might lose out or benefit, and how (3b).

The report frames hunger in a way that puts it on a level with environmental protection and cost-savings (2g). All three of these problems fall under one umbrella problem: waste (2a). By focusing on the whole supply chain, rather than just the farm level (5a), this frame proposes to address multiple problems at once by leveraging a new tool: efficiency (4a). Calculating it out, the brief finds that “food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.” Note that the metric of success (4d), number of people fed, is the same here as for the global food security frame.

We can see a similar line of reasoning applied to a national scale (2d) in the NRDC-Harvard Law report. “By increasing the efficiency of our food system,” reads the press release, “we can make better use of our natural resources, provide financial saving opportunities along the entire supply chain, and enhance our ability to meet food demand.” Doug Rauch’s proposed project embodies one form that a solution to the problem framed in this way might take (4b), only now he applies the solution to the city level (2d):

It’s the idea about how to bring affordable nutrition to the underserved in our cities. It basically tries to utilize this 40 percent of this food that is wasted. This is, to a large degree, either excess, overstocked, wholesome food that’s thrown out by grocers, etc. … at the end of the day because of the sell-by dates. Or [it’s from] growers that have product that’s nutritionally sound, perfectly good, but cosmetically blemished or not quite up for prime time. [So we] bring this food down into a retail environment where it can become affordable nutrition.

These three examples demonstrate how a frame can operate at different scales, although the context (1a-e) may change dramatically. What I find fascinating about the waste/efficiency frame for hunger is that it both denaturalizes and depoliticizes hunger. Hunger is not caused by natural limitations to agricultural expansion, but rather by inefficiencies in human systems: “poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage” (2b). At the same time, this frame avoids placing responsibility for hunger and accountability for dealing with it on anyone in particular (2b). Waste is rather an accident or oversight, and no one need pay for the harm caused or make difficult decisions about possible tradeoffs. A technical solution is called for, not a political one (2f).

This frame tends to present opportunities for resolution as win-win situations, such as how Rauch describes his business idea: growers win, grocers aren’t bothered, the urban “underserved” get food, and he gets to feel good about his work. The waste/efficiency frame tries to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, this also tends to limit who may participate in defining, addressing, and resolving the problem (Q1-3). If it’s all win-win, or at least a matter of easy solutions like fixing government labeling rules, then what need for a broad public discussion? Only the “people in the know” take part (1e)—engineers, policy experts, full-time NGO activists, lawmakers, industry leaders—and the average person, let alone those living on the margins who actually have to experience hunger, finds little opportunity to get a word in edgewise (4c).

Does the World Need to be Fed?

However, not everyone frames hunger apolitically. Take the Chipotle ad. Corporate industrial farming (Crow Foods) has taken over in this parable (2b), leading to cruel food production practices (sad cow eyes), environmental degradation (Dust Bowl-like landscape of crop-land turned desert), and oppression of the working class (the coverall-clad scarecrows) (3a). Meanwhile, clueless consumers blithely munch away on processed meals tidied up with bright packaging and sunny advertising designed to mask the grim, nightmarish scenes behind the curtain. Critics have already parodied the ad for using the same marketing spin-tactics that it critiques (3c), but there is more beneath the surface of this obvious irony. The ad makes many references to aspects of the corporate-industrial food system that the viewer (aka potential Chipotle customer) should agree are bad (2f-g). In particular, look at the billboard going up in the background around the 2:00 minute mark:

The Scarecrow

This scene mocks the absurdity of the Malthusian treadmill. Chipotle is challenging the long-standing claim that industrial agriculture feeds the world and is launching a direct attack against major global agribusiness corporations like Monsanto (1c).[x]  The ad tells potential Chipotle customers that we need to get off the treadmill (1a). Maybe, it suggests, we’ve been going about this need to eat all wrong. What if the problem is not how much food is produced and how many people are fed, but rather what quality of food is grown, how animals and farm workers are treated, and how people eat? In other words “It’s not how many people we can carry, it’s how we carry them.” (3a-b)[xi]

This seems a fair point. Feeding people good, ethically-produced food in a real place as opposed to anonymous pseudo-food in anonymous global space strikes a chord with many people. In fact, this problem definition and vision for resolution match well with the UNCTAD report’s call for “regionalized/localized food production.” So why are many people skeptical?[xii]

Here’s the question that a recent article in The New Yorker raised:

So does “The Scarecrow” initiate an important conversation about our food system? Showcase Chipotle’s genuine commitment to sustainability? Or is it a cynical attempt to turn consumer fears about certain agricultural methods into sales?

The ad might bear a noble message, but Chipotle is still a for-profit business. The ad’s message targets potential customers whom the company is trying to persuade to buy Chipotle burritos. At the end of the day, success is measured in sales, market share, and profit (4d). This measure of success narrows the range of options that Chipotle can apply to the problems identified in the ad in two ways (Q2).

First, the main mechanism for change works at the point of sale (4b). Individual people can choose to buy one food over another, and take upon themselves responsibility for all the consequences caused in its production. At the same time, consumers generally know nothing about the product apart from what the company selling it tells them (5d-e). So there seems to be a fundamental problem knowing whether progress has been made or not (4d). Furthermore, the target audience is relatively well-off people who have access to a Chipotle and can afford to buy the company’s food. Anybody who can’t afford to eat out or simply doesn’t live near a Chipotle cannot participate (4c). As Food First analyst Tanya Kerssen put it in an article discussing the debate over whether US consumers should buy quinoa or not,[xiii] in such a consumer-oriented frame, “The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less.”

This narrow set of available options leads to the second point: those same affluent consumers are most likely to be motivated by individual worries about their own health rather than broad impacts on the environment, public health, and general societal well-being (2c). Sociologist Andrew Szasz has termed this phenomenon inverted quarantine:

There is awareness of hazard, a feeling of vulnerability, of being at risk. That feeling, however, does not lead to political action aimed at reducing the amounts or the variety of toxics present in the environment. It leads, instead, to individualized acts of self-protection, to just trying to keep those contaminants out of one’s body.[xiv]

Localizing the problem, the tools to address it, and the criteria of success all at the scale of the individual severely limits the likelihood of real systematic change. Szasz points to the example of the organic label. Widespread concerns over the environmental and public health impacts of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering used in conventional industrial agriculture (the sort promoted by the 2nd Industrial and Green Revolutions) sparked the organic food movement (Q1). The US Department of Food and Agriculture eventually produced a system for certifying and labeling organic farmers. In theory, the USDA organic label would inform consumers about the consequences of their purchasing choices and eventually lead to full transformation of the agricultural system to phase out dangerous chemicals (Q2). In practice, we now have a segregated market, “a large conventional sector that grows affordable, if slightly contaminated, food-stuffs for the majority, and a smaller one producing organic alternatives for the minority, largely made up of affluent health seekers.”[xv] In other words, consumer-driven change made a dent, but only a small one. We have settled for a much more modest vision of what an organic future could look like.

The same could happen in the case of hunger: assuming individual consumers can resolve the problem with their independent buying decisions threatens to lead to a false sense of individual security. This in turn leads to political apathy, the lack of will to work together to collectively address widespread public problems (2f, 5a).[xvi] Although the Chipotle ad points out large structural problems and even goes so far as to identify (implicitly) culprits (2b), people are skeptical because the ways to change the world in effect redefine the problem as a matter of individual consumption (4a-c). There is a mismatch of scale, in other words, that bodes ill for addressing the structural problems associated with the need to eat (4d).

Hungry for Jobs, or a Livelihood?

According to The New York Times article, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (1e) justified the bill cutting food stamps by saying, “This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs” (emphasis added). He refers to new requirements that claim to make sure people are working if they are going to receive food stamp benefits. In the words of Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), a strong backer of the bill, “This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.” These two quotes highlight an interesting feature of another frame that introduces a new causal factor for hunger, unemployment (2b). The Republican backers of the bill claim to speak for the relatively well-off Americans who pay into the treasury through taxes and who don’t want that money to go to waste (1b). For that reason, they argue that the food stamp program costs too much public money because it encourages too many people to stick around for the free ride instead of finding ways to get off food stamps and become self-sufficient. In other words, if people need food, then they need a job (4d).

The variable of employment crops up in many frames. For example, the global food security frame above defines food security not on the availability of food, but on the ability to purchase food. Since jobs (in theory) give people money, it is a short logical step to link employment with food security, unemployment with hunger. Again, the UNCTAD report makes the same connection, arguing that “the highest priority must be given to enabling the rural poor to become self-sufficient in food or to earn sufficient income through agriculture so that they can buy food.”

However, there is a sharp division around whether joblessness is an individual or a collective problem (2c). The Republican backers of the House bill seem to believe that employment is a matter of individual motivation. Democrats counter that most people don’t choose to be on food stamps, especially single mothers and children who make up a large proportion of the recipients (1c). Consider again the UNCTAD report’s warning that “continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis” (emphasis added). I interpret “collective” to mean both that multiple big problems are interrelated (2g) and that these problems must be dealt with by collective action (2c). In other words, there are structural features of the problem that individuals on their own cannot overcome (5a). Structural change requires collective, not individual action as Szasz pointed out above.

But not everyone agrees that even ensuring employment is an adequate measure of success. Rather, the availability of livelihoods matters, as Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Gimenez puts it in this Huffington Post article.”Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity,” he writes. “For this challenge,” he later concludes, “agroecological approaches and structural reforms that ensure that resource-poor farmers have the land and resources they need for sustainable livelihoods are the best way forward.” What is the difference between a job and a livelihood?

Consider the example employee budget published by McDonalds. Despite assuming that the employee works two jobs, the budget includes no line item for groceries. We can infer that someone with not one but two jobs and working for the federally mandated minimum wage is going to have some major difficulties affording food. In part, then, there is a disagreement between the idea of jobs and the idea of livelihoods over both the timeframe of interest—livelihoods provide stable income in the long-term, jobs can come and go (2e). Also, while a job just means an income, livelihoods imply a host of other positive impacts that can help deal with the compounding of multiple problems such as healthcare, housing, transportation, education, and so on (2g).Framing hunger as a problem of livelihood highlights a structural problem not just with the number of people without jobs, but with the whole structure of being a wage-laborer in a society that seems to be trending toward fewer employee benefits and lower job security. The scale of the problem when viewed as a crisis of livelihood expands enormously (5a).

And this, in turn, leads to the reason why food sovereignty has taken hold as the alternative frame for hunger. The Yale conference intro states that food sovereignty “is broadly defined as the right of peoples to democratically control or determine the shape of their food system, and to produce sufficient and healthy food in culturally appropriate and ecologically sustainable ways in and near their territory.” One way to interpret food sovereignty as a frame (which many people around the globe are actively developing, I should add), is that hunger is not just about the right to be employed. It is not even just about the right to earn a livelihood. Rather, addressing hunger is tied into addressing disparities in the right to own the decisions that determine the shape that livelihoods will take in the collective economy. In this interpretation, the food sovereignty frame identifies a different problem (ownership), a different set of tools (democratic control), and a different vision of success (culturally appropriate, sustainable, local) than the neo-Malthusian food security frame we started with (Q1-3).

We have now walked through a gamut of hunger frames. There are other variations out there, different ways to interpret them, and more subtle differentiation among those I’ve discussed here. Nonetheless, I hope that this exercise has demonstrated how asking clear questions can help reveal the differences in how people define problems, establish facts, create visions for the future, understand what is possible and what is not, and decide who gets to have a say and who doesn’t. Also, anyone is free to share or adapt the guide for non-commercial purposes provided that I am attributed and it is made free to share and adapt under same or similar conditions. If you do use it, I’d appreciate your feedback as well!

Next week, I’ll finally move past environmental frames. The posting length will go back to the normal 700-1000 word goal with an introduction to the idea of determinism.

[i] It’s a lot more than that, of course. Some 80-odd papers were written for the conference and are posted here.

[ii] Not all of the 40% can be attributed to expiration date labels. Also, I didn’t look closely into how the number 40% was reached, but I imagine that a close examination of the methods would reveal a lot of uncertainty and potential error.

[iii] The full text of the bill, H.R. 3102.

[iv] I want to note that Rauch’s idea is not new: many non-profits have been collecting and distributing food that is past its expiration date for years. Also, the Boston Globe had a more in-depth article back in February.

[v] Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London. p. 4.

[vi] Apart from committing mass murder or enacting harsh birth control policies, there are few options to directly limit population growth. Since the time of Malthus, many indirect means for reducing population growth have been “discovered”, among which educating and empowering women is one of the most effective:

[vii] Writing of the rapid expansion of wheat and corn farming in the North American great plains, which eventually led to the dust bowl and massive erosion and soil fertility problems, Sir Albert Howard said,“The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple. Moreover, it is a particularly mean form of banditry because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.” 1947. The Soil and Health. The Devin-Adair Company: New York. p. 63.

[viii] Salter, RM. 1947. World soil and fertilizer resources in relation to food needs. Science 105 (2734) (May 23): 533-8.

[ix] UN World Food Program:

[x] One of monsanto’s latest goals is to double yields by 2030: “In order to feed the world’s growing population, farmers must produce more food in the next fifty years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined.” Presumably in response to this sort of skepticism, the company has subtly shifted its feed-the-world emphasis in the past few years. Even as recently as 2010, the message was worded more directly: “Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years— combined.”

[xi] A quote from a talk given by Michael Gelobter, a prominent climate and sustainability strategist, in 2010.

[xii] A brief good search revealed a couple of thoughtfully skeptical editorials from The New Yorker, Huff Post, and  Triple Pundit.

[xiii] There was a whole series of articles in different news outlets in early 2013 discussing whether or not Western consumers should buy quinoa. This Mother Jones piece is a good example. Quinoa was touted as a “wonder grain”: both highly nutritious (plus gluten-free!) and also a fair-trade darling that would support poor peasant farmers in Bolivia and Peru. However, global demand raised so rapidly from 2007 to 2013 that quinoa prices tripled. This meant that those same peasant farmers were now having trouble affording a traditional staple food, and also that the sustainability of quinoa farming was being undermined as rapid expansion and intensification of quinoa production began to overtax the ecosystems and land base. So, what were consumers supposed to do? Either buying or not buying quinoa carried an unavoidable cost and harm to somebody.

[xiv] Szasz, Andrew. 2007. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. University of Minnesota Press. p. 3.

[xv] Ibid, p. 207.

[xvi] Ibid, p. 194-5.


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