Global Justice, What We Eat, Who We Are

— Sara Abraham interviews Harriet Friedmann


Harriet Friedmann has devoted more than two decades to understanding the international politics of food and agriculture and to building local food systems that can be sustainable, polycultural in all senses, and enhancing of democratic, participatory communities.  She is former Co-Chair of the Toronto Food Policy Council and serves on the board of the Centre for Food Security.

Friedmann attended the recent World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a week-long meeting of NGOs, community and environmental groups from around the world, who gathered to develop an alternative to the neoliberal world order in formation.

Sara Abraham, a member of the editorial board of Against the Current who teaches at the University of Toronto with Harriet Friedmann, conducted this interview for ATC.


Against the Current: You just came back from the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  What were the main issues that people were talking about there?

Harriet Friedmann: It was "let a hundred flowers bloom."  There were thousands of people—10,000 is the number I was hearing, 5000 was the number of official delegates who were allowed to enter the auditorium.  There was lots and lots of stuff going on, things being handed out, cultural events and photo exhibits, dances and so on.

I guess what seemed most interesting to me was this shifting balance between opposing corporate globalization and trying to pose alternatives—much more exploratory than a claim to know the truth, looking more at what should happen than what's wrong, and a lot more suggesting and listening, conversation as opposed to debate.

ATC: Were the discussions on the same themes as those being talked about in the WTO and GATT discussions—on trade and agriculture, for instance?

H.F.: Ecology and environmental and social justice are the main things being brought forward.  This was the main thing about Porto Alegre.  For instance, there was a talk by Mark Ritchie on agriculture, where the framing question was what kind of world would we like to have, to support the kind of environmental and social justice that we would like to have.

It's not a simple question but it is a completely different question than what was being asked at Davos.

ATC: You went with the Centre for Food Security (CFS), a group in Toronto.  What did your group put forward?

H.F.: The structure of Porto Alegre was that there were morning fora, and in the afternoon there were workshops by whoever wanted to organize them. We were one of the originators of our workshop, which we called the Food Jam, based on jazz, that we should improvise and pay attention, and cooperate in a more open way.

The people who called that workshop were mainly at CFS and IBASE (Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis), a very large national NGO in Brazil, and Chico Menendez who is their main person in food security.  We worked together from the original call, through the structuring and coordinating the workshop, drafting some ideas for a common declaration.

Through email there's still a discussion of what kind of frameworks we might be able to agree on, for work in all parts of the world and for advocacy on global rules.

ATC: Who were the people at your workshop?

H.F.: There were IBASE people from all over Brazil, and Brazilians who were not with IBASE who worked in nutrition projects or in school nutrition, public health and different aspects of food security work. It certainly changed some of my thinking about food banks, for instance.

People were there from other parts of the world.  We had more of a stable core than some workshops, but there was some floating.  They were from all different places.

Translation was improvised—we sat in little groups with our translators whispering.  We had an English-Portuguese translator and a French-Portuguese translator.  There was representation from France and from Francophone Africa.  A couple of people from the United States and a couple of Australians joined the Canadians in our Anglophone circle.

There was representation from other parts of Latin America.  India was too far away, unfortunately—that was a limitation.  But it was fascinating to have Portuguese as the main language and to hear the diverse experiences from all over that big complicated country.

ATC: What happened with the famous McDonalds-trashing French farmer Jose Bove?

H.F.: Yes, let me explain.  Jose Bove is in that category of small traditional French and European Union farmers opposing national trade rules and corporate farms, the subsidies that go to the large mono-cultural corporate farmers, such as wheat and sugar beets, and also dairy and wine.

They have started to understand or interpret their politics as ecological.  In practice for them this means preserving and improving traditional farming.

They want to create a situation where ecological agriculture would be the norm, where quality food wouldn't just be for the rich, and where sustainable agriculture would be the norm and not the subordinate part of a dual system.  They want to ally with consumers for a single system which would be ecologically sound and make healthy, delicious food available to everybody.

What happened to Jose Bove expresses all of these contradictions of the evolving trade rules.  Some years ago the Europeans banned beef with hormones, U.S. and Canadian.  The Americans brought them before a hearing at the World Trade Organization, and won. And the Europeans said OK, you've won, but we're still not going to have your hormone beef.

The way the WTO works is that it then allows the United States to retaliate in an equal amount; the U.S. made a list of products to ban, and among them was the cheese that Jose makes.  He discovered that he cannot sell his cheese in the United States anymore, so he took his tractor to flatten the local McDonalds—and became a folk hero, not just a French and European but an international one.

So he comes to Porto Alegre and was quite celebrated.  And he hooks up with the landless laborers movement (the MST) there—50,000 or more rural farmers have been expelled in the last six years and there is a very large landless laborers' movement.

With the acceleration of monocultural exports under structural adjustment, small farmers are less able to stay on the land to produce food for Brazilians.  At the same time, the Brazilian government has banned transgenic crops.  Jose Bove and the MST went together to this Monsanto experimental field and ripped out the crops.  In case it was a transgenics field they wanted to enforce the law. The local newspaper had a great photo!

This action was not typical of the tone of the meeting, though.  What was more representative was one morning when there was an announcement that a group of students were beginning a demo inviting everybody to come, which started outside the university buildings where we were and marched to one of the McDonalds and distributed free, local, organic food to people there.

ATC: Is the World Social Forum developing a lobby to change legislation of the World Trade Organization (WTO)?

H.F.: Not as such, but it builds a framework for developing ideas and mobilizing people.  It already had an effect on the meeting at Davos (Switzerland), which invited a much broader range of people from Third World governments and some NGOS, and where the whole tone was how do we "solve the problems" of globalization (instead of celebrating it).  And there was a teleconference where each side debated globalization.

I think just the fact that this happened was very important, in the sense that it might foreshadow a global civil society, where people organize interest groups and social movements, out of which comes articulation of experiences, interests and principles, and specific proposals for the kind of global rules that enhance the social good and sustainable economies.

ATC: How visible was the presence of organized or unorganized labor?

H.F.: There were some Brazilian trade unions there.  The whole conference was so big, I am hesitant to characterize it. I had my approach to the elephant, very much the food security approach.  The trade unions are certainly relevant in food manufacturing and organizing rural workers, but food security has more to do with agriculture and quality of food.

It was amazing how poor people and anti-poverty workers now see that poor quality food is a problem for poor people too. That is why the political opposition to transgenics is so strong.

We're talking about a universal right to high quality food, for the poor as much as for the rich, and hunger and social justice and community building, conceived both individually and for communities.  It's attempting to articulate a shift from exports and money in agriculture to how to create food security.

Unions have not so far figured centrally in that. In Brazil this could be changing.  For instance, I'm told that MST planted organic crops in the Monsanto field.  Even if they didn't it is an interesting idea—a movement (union?) of landless workers seeking to grow quality food for themselves and others.

ATC: So, the food security movement is trying to move the discussion from subsidies to agriculture to social justice and hunger?

H.F.: Yes, to social justice on one side, and connecting that to ecological questions which have never been part of trade policy and which are in great tension at the WTO now. All the rules (and subsidies) now are about agriculture, not about food and hunger, only secondarily about quality.

I will tell you what I did notice: There used to be a great divide between ecological and environmental issues on one side, and justice and labor on the other, but that's going away. Its very clear that environmental degradation affects first and worst poor people, and that has become clear to many political movements.

Similarly the differences between North and South are breaking down and there is much more exploration of what alternatives to global rules could be developed together for food security and sustainable habitats—a social globalization that could be posed as an alternative.

ATC: I saw a TV ad the other day for Archer Daniels Midland, the corporate agro-food giant, where they say the problem is not the amount of food that's produced but distribution, with the implication that as a world giant they could distribute better than anybody.  That first point has been one of the arguments of the left. What do you make of that?

H.F.: That comes from the split, I think 3-5 years ago, when ADM were the first to break the bond of big corporations claiming they couldn't segregate Genetically Modified from non-GM crops.

There was pressure on the Europeans that you cannot ban GM foods because it's not practical.  But the Europeans said, oh no, we don't want them. And suddenly ADM decided that they could separate them. So that broke that corporate solidarity.

This could be their marketing niche now against their competitors.  Monsanto makes the claim, mainly on behalf of the GM producers, that there is a desperate need for food and that these technologies are needed .  .  .  so I would put it in that context, not the influence of the left.

ADM could be trying to undercut the claim that GM is the solution to food shortage.  At the same time it does attempt to undercut progressive arguments, but it's foolish.  The point about distribution is that people are too poor to buy food. In what way does ADM intend to help them get money to buy food?

Toronto's Good Food Box

Moving the discussion to Toronto, there are a high percentage of people who are hungry .  .  .  I think there are 96,000 individuals who go to Food Banks, and 40,000 are children.  This is shocking.  The Toronto Food Policy Council was set up over ten years ago when City Government acknowledged that food banks and hunger were not going to go away.

TFPC was set up to work towards socially just and environmentally sustainable alternatives to Food Banks as a charity model.  When the first food banks were set up in the early `80s as a temporary measure, it was a shocking thing that they were needed.  Ten years later it was clear they were not going away.

The TFPC has a whole set of politics around documenting poverty and advocating for policies at the city level, to alleviate poverty and also to create access to healthy food while building up communities at the same time. The sister organization, Food Share, organizes community kitchens, farmers' markets, social marketing of healthy foods.  Community gardens, and more.

ATC: Was an alternative to raising wages?

H.F.: That's a real tension that comes up in discussion all the time. There are people who feel so strongly that there should not be any alternatives to putting pressure on the government to make sure people have income.

Everybody agrees that people should have enough income, but I think that as long as there has been a left, there has been a tension between building up alternatives—trying to create in the present the kind of relationships we want to have in the future, including the consciousness of possibilities and cooperation, then you can work for more—and on the other hand opposing the existing system.

The Director, Debbie Field, is a brilliant policy analyst who can balance advocacy for income and other social justice policies, with support for projects in which communities are strengthened and people are empowered.

The Good Food Box is really interesting.  It's allocated in a way that has low income people in mind and is open to everybody and everyone pays for the food they get so there is a dignity attached.  And there is also community building: Food is distributed in groups of ten, and the distributors get a free box for doing that, so people get to know each other.  It's usually through housing or workplace groups.

It draws on social marketing, marketing techniques to educate people to empower them rather than to manipulate them. The main person is Mary Lou Morgan, who is a brilliant marketer.  The GFB is beautiful, the postcards are beautiful, there is no way you feel poor in participating in the GFB.

The Canadian Auto Workers donated a truck with a beautiful logo on the side. People come to volunteer to pack it. At first the City subsidized the non-food costs, but no more. Food Share has to write a lot of grants, even with all the individual donors and volunteers.  The cost of food is recovered by the payment for the food. The timing is now twice a month, and they are up to 4000 boxes.

You pay at the beginning of the month and towards the end of the month you get a beautiful basket of fresh fruit and vegetables, about the time that welfare checks would be running out and people would be either going to food banks or to fast food. It helps bridge that crisis while it also helps to teach people to cook well and economically, eat seasonally, eat locally.

Very accessible literature comes with the box. The intention is to help people to be economical and to support a local food system that is healthier.  It's also niched, so there is a Caribbean box. The Afri-Can Food Basket for Torontonians of African origin works closely with it.

There is no way you can go to the Food Share office without getting inspired! Even right wing politicians when they think of it, they become transformed—you know the opposite of becoming the werewolf—joy and passion comes over them they say, have you seen the street kids doing that food box thing?  Have you seen the plants on the roof?

It's non-doctrinaire, practical and with a real vision of a healthy society built around a healthy happy pleasurable energetic approach to food. They have commercial ventures: They sell organic starting plants.  They have a catering company selling cultural foods made in their industrial kitchen.

It's an incubator for small businesses.  Immigrant women can go there and try out their recipes in a proper industrial facility, to see if they can commercialize it. They have trained people with restaurant skills, including immigrant women and street kids.

There's a lot of confidence building.  Many women don't realize they have socially useful skills.  They know how to cook. Here they have different culinary cultures which they share; they innovate and build mutual respect.  They learn to speak in public.  They give stories which go with their dishes.  It's really lovely.

ATC: Do you think it has cut into the hunger?

H.F.: This is a problem to document.  Donors want documentation.  We know people are better off when they have the GFB, in terms of healthy eating and learning and confidence and community building.  To document an actual decrease in hunger is impossible.  We're looking toward longer term projects that work now, but also in a way that they build toward a socially just, sustainable future.

There are other projects .  .  .  (for example) to do with infant feeding.  The city has a Healthiest Possible Babies project.  Food Share demonstrates how new mothers can make infant foods—it's cheap, easy and nutritious to mash a banana with a fork. It is less healthy, more expensive, and environmentally destructive to buy bananas cooked and mixed with corn starch in tiny bottles.

The baby food industry is a big scam. Especially since we all have blenders!

The Change Has to Happen

What I would like to say about Brazil, in total, it was such a move forward, of great learning from feminist and environmental movements as to how to behave with a lot less posturing, a lot less adversarial debating, and a lot more openness, listening, exploration, respect, humility, without holding back.

It was especially the people who were most worried, those talking about soil degradation, the threat to the basics to continue life, who were also in some way the most calm and clear in their statements.  They were saying, this is what seems to be happening, we have to grow our food, the soil is the most important resource, it's far too important to allow private owners to abuse it. When you take a very long view, the change just has to happen.



ATC 92, May-June 2001

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