Review of Let Them Eat Junk

By Daniel Serge

A review of Robert Albritton, Let Them Eat Junk (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2009).

There's a burgeoning genre of books showing the crisis in food. The 100 Mile Diet, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Slow Food Nation and others point out that one of the key dimensions of the ecological crisis is food. Modern agriculture uses vast amounts of natural resources like water, land and massive oil inputs to process and transport food. What makes Robert Albritton's Let Them Eat Junk the best book on food politics is his reason for that degradation: capitalism, and its need to make a profit regardless of the cost to natural or human health.

However, Let Them Eat Junk falls short on a key question: what do we do to change that system.

Most food politics books follow a narrative: an earnest author discovers existing food quality and production is awful and goes on to find better food, buying it at farmers' markets, growing it themselves and living 'sustainably'. Sometimes at the end there's a paragraph about challenging the  corporate control exercised by agribusiness over food production. More often there's an exhortation for readers to live like the author does. Change is local, small-scale and therefore in easy reach of everyone with a dollar to spend.

Albritton turns this on its head. He begins by outlining the basic drives of capitalism: the pressure for firms to profit or be driven under by more profitable competitors. This forces them to cut costs by growing bigger to benefit from economies of scale, new technologies and 'externalities': free natural resources and places to dump pollution. For agriculture and food, these drives are deadly. Albritton goes into great detail to show how capitalism pushes faster production, more chemicals, more externalities and more energy inputs. The result is homogenized, unhealthy food, low wages and toxic exposure for agricultural workers, with massive political lobbying to ensure lax health & safety and environmental standards. To take one example of the dozens Albritton cites: workers in agricultural industries across the Global South are routinely exposed to cancer-causing pesticides. Child and slave labour are common. This includes commodities like bananas, cocoa, tobacco, coffee, tea and palm oil.

This is, sadly enough, old news. Any number of food books can tell you about bad food. But only Albritton talks about how these consequences are inherent to capitalism. Other authors blame 'size', greed, poor ethics or consumer ignorance. Albritton shows that as long as we have a food system based on profit, there will always be a drives to adulterate our food with salt and sugar, damage workers and the environment, and cover up that damage.

Here, however, is a problem: if the food production system is toxic, anti-human and anti-ecological, and rooted in the global capitalist system, what do we do about it? Food politics is tremendously popular on the liberal left today, but no one talks about transforming the capitalist state. Instead the food literature demands more local capitalist production and ethical shopping.  Albritton makes a good case against ethical shopping, arguing that consumers can't know the impact of most of their choices, plus it excludes those who don't have any money to begin with. The reforms he proposes, however, seem hastily-sketched. He mentions Brazil's Movement of the Landless (MST) and the Via Campesina, both social movements that promote the land and labour rights of agricultural workers in the Global South. But there's no mention how readers might support them concretely. Corporations are supposed to be made more 'responsible'; yet Albritton refers again and again to the 50 year struggle to regulate tobacco, which in response has simply shifted its growth the poorly-regulated poor countries.

Let Them Eat Junk has some great ideas: tax the rich, subsidize organic farms, pay more for farm labour. But these are not new ideas: the key question is how do we fight for these reforms? Are there successful examples of lasting change, either in production or how activists created solid, growing social movements to fight for that change? The book doesn't list any.

 Perhaps the biggest hole in the argument is Albritton's refusal to confront a central contradiction in the food politics movement: if growth is inherent in capitalism, and small-scale production makes ecological sense, creating local production requires breaking capitalist power. This is a political question, and avoiding it gives rise to a nostalgic longing for artisanal, pre-capitalist production rife in food literature, mired as it is in petty-bourgeois fantasies of village communities that haven't existed in the Global North for centuries, if ever. A subsidiary question is whether small-scale production does, in fact, make technical sense to feed a large global population, and the jury is still out. Large-scale farming techniques can provide healthy, nutritious food to poor people if they're managed correctly – yet what capitalist would want to pay to internalize their externalities? Again, the problem is political control.

 Finally, while the book proceeds according to a rigid, well-planned scheme of ideas moving from the theory of capitalism to how it works in real life, it feels strangely unedited. The same examples are repeated constantly: biofuels, junk food and additives come up on many different pages. The book could have done with a better grouping of subjects.

Let Them Eat Junk stands high above the current crop of food politics books. It identifies capitalism and how it structures every aspect of food production and consumption: for that it's worth a hundred 100 Mile Diets. But for a book with such a cogent analysis, it could have led the reader into a discussion of revolutionary politics and how to change capitalism. Instead it only points the way. Perhaps a sequel could take us directly to the socialist tradition of anti-capitalist struggle.

 

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