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Buying Power

In between lecturing, glowering at undergraduates, marking, marking some more, doing research, and marking, I help out with the Right2Know Campaign. Launched about a year ago, Right2Know represents a coalition of individuals, civil society organisations, and community groups who are concerned about the Protection of State Information Bill.

We believe that the Secrecy Bill – as R2K prefers to call it – will undermine all South Africans’ right to access government information, something which is guaranteed by Section 32 of our Bill of Rights. The Secrecy Bill will allow government officials in any ‘organ of state’ – an unpleasant image – or, in other words, any department, parastatal, agency, or institution which is associated with the state, to classify information deemed to be sensitive and potentially threatening to national security. In effect, this means that the Natal Shark Board, the Algoa Bus Company, and even the Johannesburg Zoo would be able to classify information.

Also, the Bill doesn’t include a public interest clause, and the penalties which it seeks to introduce for the leaking of classified information are ludicrously high. Whistle blowers face up to twenty-five years imprisonment. I don’t object to legislation which controls access to potentially dangerous information – like the plans for Koeberg or Pollsmoor – but Right2Know is deeply concerned that this Bill will make secrecy, rather than openness, the default position within government. This Bill will have a chilling effect on the media, but it’ll also impact on ordinary people’s ability to hold the state to account.

The campaign has had a significant impact on this piece of legislation. The Bill as it stands now isn’t nearly as draconian as its earliest incarnation last year, and the ANC has now withdrawn the Bill from Parliament altogether. (We do worry, though, about the process of ‘public consultation’ which the ANC is about to begin.)

But I think that our greatest achievement has been mobilising popular opinion against a law the implications of which are not immediately obvious. We’ve managed to get people to march against the Bill, and to pack public information sessions and community meetings. I think that this is partly because the campaign has been fairly successful in causing the ruling party to change its mind. Right2Know has shown how the gathering of ordinary people in large numbers around a particular cause can make a difference.

Although the Occupy movement shows that when people feel strongly enough about an issue, they’ll take part in protests even if they know that the chances of success are pretty slim, it’s still difficult to counter criticism that there’s no point to being politically engaged because effecting change is really difficult. I think that it’s partly for this reason that so many campaigning organisations turn to consumer activism as a way of encouraging people to take action on particular issues: it’s easier to shift buying habits in the name of a cause and it requires less commitment than other forms of protest. Also, it’s proven to be relatively successful. Consumer activism hits companies where it hurts: their profits. Last year’s Greenpeace campaign to persuade Nestle not to use rainforest products caused the food giant to announce that it would not engage in ecologically harmful practises in Indonesia.

Consumer activism around food has existed for as long as the idea of the consumer – rather than the customer. I’ve written before about the link between the rise of the American food industry and its increasing use of advertising to promote branded products during the late nineteenth century, and the construction of ‘consumers’. Customers bought oats from the grocer’s bin because they ate porridge for breakfast. Consumers chose Quaker Oats from a range of other brands because they identified with the values associated with that particular product.

One of the effects of the industrialisation of food production – indeed, of the food chain – was a heightened incidence of food adulteration. We know that for centuries shopkeepers and grocers added bulk to make their products to make them go further: adding ground up chalk to flour, water to milk or vinegar, sand to sugar, and dried leaves to tea. The difference was that as more food was produced in factories and it became more difficult to monitor this production, the adulteration of food occurred on a mass scale. In both Britain and the United States, concern about the purity of food grew over the course of the nineteenth century, and with very good reason.

In 1820, Frederick Accum, a German chemist living in London, published A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons in which he detailed the extent to which British food producers used harmful – and even potentially deadly – substances to increase the volume and weight of their products, and also improve their appearance. Lead, copper, and mercury salts were used to make adulterated tea and coffee darker, bread whiter, and sweets and jellies more colourful. Thirty years later – and after Accum had fled back to Germany after the furore caused by his book – another group of British scientists found that adulteration was the norm, rather than the exception, in food manufacturing.

One of these, Arthur Hill Hassall, worked as the chief analyst for the gloriously-titled Analytical Sanitary Commission, and he went to work methodically analysing the composition of a range of medicines and manufactured food products. Between 1851 and 1854, Hassall identified alum in bread, and iron, lead and mercury compounds in cayenne pepper, copper salts in bottled fruit and pickles, and Venetian red in sauces, potted meats, and fish. He published his findings in The Lancet, and the public outcry that resulted from his work was partly behind the passing of the first Food Adulteration Act in 1860.

In Britain, efforts to curb the adulteration of food were driven largely by scientists and politicians. Consumer outrage was important in that it encouraged food producers to comply with new regulations around additives, but this was not a consumer-driven campaign. It was, though, in the United States, where the pure food movement was the first manifestation of consumer activism on a national scale. The size, influence, and political clout of the American food industry needed a concerted challenge in order to change.

Americans had been aware of a drop in the quality of manufactured food since the middle of the nineteenth century – and understood that this was connected to the fact that food was being processed in factories. As one popular rhyme put it:

Mary had a little lamb, / And when she saw it sicken, / She shipped it off to Packingtown, / And now it’s labelled chicken.

The first people to mobilise against food adulteration were middle-class women in the 1870s. Well-off and well-educated white American women were involved in a range of philanthropic and reform movements during the final decades of the nineteenth century – a period known as the Progressive Era in American historiography. The global temperance movement – which campaigned for the tighter regulation of alcohol sales – was run almost entirely by middle-class ladies who justified their engagement with politics on the grounds that this was an issue relevant mainly to women – and particularly poor women. Similarly, American women agitated for the regulation of the food industry because supplying households with food was the concern of diligent wives and mothers. Even if many women involved with the temperance and other movements eventually became active in women’s franchise organisations, these campaigns were politically and, to some extent, socially, conservative. They were also locally driven, and emerged out of existing social clubs, improvement societies, and charities.

As in Britain, studies carried out by health boards and medical societies found that the contamination of processed food was rife: flour contained ground rice, plaster of paris, grits, and sand; bread contained copper sulphate and ashes; butter contained copper; cheese contained mercury salts; and lard contained caustic lime, and alum. Cayenne pepper was adulterated with red lead and iron oxide; mustard with lead chromate and lime sulphate; and vinegar with sulphuric, hydrochloric, and pyroligneous acids, and burnt sugar. Nice.

These campaigns were grounded in a belief that the food producers had become so powerful that the American government needed to step in to protect consumers from them. Even if several states did enact food purity legislation, it became clear that the food industry needed to be regulated on a national industry, and a campaign led by the Ladies’ Home Journal and Colliers’ and supported by home economists and others argued for the introduction of a federal law, similar to that in the UK.

Surprisingly, food companies were in favour of this legislation. Not only would it simplify the increasingly complex and contradictory rules operating in different states, but they lobbied the American government to write a law which suited their business interests. In fact, Heinz and other organisations actually benefitted from the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906: they advertised their products – which Heinz sold in clear glass bottles to demonstrate their purity – as being the safer, healthier, and purer alternative to the unbranded products sold by small, local grocers. Heinz, regulated by the American government, was the wholesome choice.

I don’t want to detract from the achievement of the pure food campaigners, but, ironically, their efforts to curb the excesses of the American food industry actually had the effect of strengthening these big processors. So I think that this example of consumer activism is instructive. It’s certainly true that as consumers our ability to withhold or redirect our buying power can cause change, and we should exploit this. But this only works in times of plenty. We’ve seen how sales of organic produce have dropped globally during the recession. Eating ethically is an expensive business.

More importantly, though, consumer activism doesn’t cause us to question the fact that we act – and are seen by our governments – primarily as consumers, rather than citizens. Secondly, it doesn’t interrogate why buying things is believed to be so important: it doesn’t consider consumerism itself. There is mounting evidence to indicate that rampant consumerism does not make for happy societies, and that we need to buy and waste less for the good of our planet.

I was struck recently by a comment made by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor wear range Patagonia, in an interview with The Ecologist: ‘There is no doubt that we’re not going to save the world by buying organic food and clothes – it will be by buying less.’ Consumer activism can only go so far in causing change. We need to question consumerism itself.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1999).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Nancy F. Koehn, ‘Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food,’ The Business History Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 349-393.

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

Public service announcement: if you’re in Cape Town and would like to know more about the Protection of Information Bill and what YOU can do about it, come to Right2Know‘s public meeting on Tuesday, 7 June, at 18:00 at Idasa, 6 Spin Street. Judith February will be joined by Pregs Govender, Zapiro, Pierre de Vos, and others.

This week Oxfam published a report on the state of the world’s food systems. Titled ‘Growing a Better Future,’ the study argues that by 2030 the world will be in a state of permanent food crisis. Staples will cost twice as much in twenty years time, with the price of maize increasing by as much as 180%. The world’s poorest will be the worst affected by the crisis. As demand for food outstrips supply and places pressure on existing food distribution systems, more than a billion people will go hungry every day.

Already, the average growth rate in agricultural yields has halved since 1990, and this is set to decline even further. A combination of factors have converged to produce this crisis. Climate change, increasingly limited natural resources, commodity speculation, the demand for biofuels, population growth, and changing, more meat- and dairy-heavy diets are working to destabilise our food system.

The result of the food crisis is not only hunger, but poverty and increasing political upheaval:

we have entered an age of growing crisis, of shock piled upon shock: vertiginous food price spikes and oil price hikes, devastating weather events, financial meltdowns, and global contagion. Behind each of these, slow-burn crises continue to smoulder: creeping and insidious climate change, growing inequality, chronic hunger and vulnerability, the erosion of our natural resources. The broken food system is at once a driver of this fragility and highly vulnerable to it.

Alongside this report, Oxfam has launched a campaign, ‘Grow’, to publicise its set of solutions to the food crisis. It’s attempting to mobilise opposition to land grabs and commodity speculation, to promote small-scale agriculture, and also to highlight awareness of the links between climate change and food prices.

In his analysis of the report, Mark Lynas makes the point that one of its most interesting features is its pragmaticism. The report notes (rightly):

The romanticisation of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

It even adds:

Large-scale agriculture also has a role to play in meeting the sustainable production challenge. It is better able to meet the exacting standards that have come to characterize the food supply chains that feed burgeoning cities. Moreover, as economic development takes place, and labour costs rise relative to capital costs, larger, more mechanized modes of production become more viable, in turn providing an exit from agriculture for poor rural people as long as sufficient jobs are created in industry.

Has Oxfam lost its marbles? Of course not. This report is a tacit rejection of the idea that industrialisation is itself the cause of the instability of the food system. It makes the point that while technology may have caused incredible damage to ecosystems and even reduced yields, it has the potential to get us out of this crisis as well. The issue isn’t the technology itself, but, rather, the way in which it is used.

I am concerned that Oxfam will have an uphill battle over this point. So many organisations seem to have swallowed whole the concept that we need to return to the farming, cooking, and eating of the past in order to eat better in the present, and future. The Oxfam report demonstrates that our food crisis is so complex that this simplistic way of thinking about food simply won’t do.

As I wrote last week, the Slow Food Movement has long described itself as offering an alternative way of thinking about food. I think that despite the good that Slow Food has done in the world, its views on food and the past are not only deeply troubling, but actively harmful. Its Manifesto on the Future of Food argues for a wholesale rejection of all forms of technology and a ‘transition to a more decentralized, democratic and cooperative, non-corporate, small-scale organic farming as practiced by traditional farming communities, agroecologists, and indigenous peoples for millennia.’

The Slow Food Manifesto (and Slow Food seems to like nothing more than a manifesto) states:

Our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food.  Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer. … Slow Food guarantees a better future.

It is partly this enthusiasm for the regional, the local, the ‘indigenous’, and the ‘traditional’ which makes me question that Slow Food does guarantee a ‘better future’. To which ‘tradition’ do we return?

It’s particularly interesting that Slow Food originated in Italy. This is a country with a heavily invented notion of its own food traditions, and a suitably bad memory of what Italians really did eat in the recent past.

Up until the end of the First World War, Italian diets were very poor – which, given Italy’s climate, terrain, and precarious political situation throughout the nineteenth century, isn’t terribly surprising. Most main meals consisted either of bread or polenta with onions, oil, and whatever cheap fish and vegetables were available. The components of what we now believe to be the age-old Italian or Mediterranean diet – pasta, tomatoes, wine, dairy products, and other fresh produce – were eaten only during festivals. Carol Helstosky writes in Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy:

Although few people starved or fell seriously ill from malnutrition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the majority of the Italian population did not consume a nutritionally adequate diet because of economic and political constraints on their behaviour as consumers and eaters. Subsistence farming and local markets characterized Italian agriculture while a weak national economy limited consumer options, even for urban workers and members of the middle class. … Italian consumers remained trapped in a post-subsistence economy for multiple reasons, unable to make the transition to a more varied and nutritious diet.

The change came in 1919. During the Great War, state control over food distribution systems meant that the diets of ordinary Italians actually improved. (Something similar happened in Britain during the Second World War.) Diets were increasingly more homogenous, and wheat flour began to replace maize and other carbohydrates.

In addition to this, Italian immigrants in the United States began to shape a new kind of national cuisine. Even relatively poor, newly-arrived Italians could afford a greater variety of food in America than they could at home. They were able to buy the tomatoes, pasta, and olive oil which they couldn’t afford in Italy. Helstosky adds:

as Italians began to leave the peninsula for greater economic opportunities in the Americas and elsewhere, they sought to recreate familiar dishes. This led to a growing body of consumers for Italian products (dried pasta, canned tomatoes, and olive oil), which in turn greatly aided the development of certain food industries within Italy. Only after substantial numbers of Italians abroad began consuming these foods did domestic production furnish more products for Italians at home. Ironically, it was because of the ‘imagined communities’ outside Italy that the food industry inside Italy produced the goods that became the foundations of Italian cuisine.

In America, this invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

In a sense, ‘Italian cuisine’ was created in a dialogue between poor, badly nourished Italians in Italy and their wealthier, better-fed cousins in the United States. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, Italians began to eat the same food as Italian immigrants, supplementing their diets to a greater extent with meat and dairy products. They also began to link this invented notion of Italian food with being Italian.

The Italian cuisine promoted by the Slow Food Movement was created in the United States and in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. The ‘traditional’ food to which Slow Food harks back is not the chestnut flour and woody vegetables of inadequate nineteenth-century peasant diets, but, rather, the invented ‘traditional’ Italian food of artisanal olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red peppers, prosciutto, and ricotta.

This is only one example of how a rose-tinted, faulty understanding of history hides the fact that peasant diets – both in the past and those in the present – are produced by backbreaking labour and are usually nutritionally inadequate. We are taller, healthier, and live longer today because our diets are more varied and contain more protein than those of our ancestors.  To suggest to peasants that their diets are somehow better than those in the West is patronising and ignorant.

But the technologies of the twentieth century which revolutionised our food systems are not sustainable. The Green Revolution’s enthusiasm for pesticides and large-scale irrigation, the neglect of small farmers, industrial agriculture, and the increasing concentration of the world’s food supply in the hands of a small collection of supermarkets, agricultural businesses, and food companies, have helped to land us in the situation we’re in now. Clearly, things need to change. Tim Lang writes:

An entire 20th-century approach to food modernity is under threat. Consumer expectations, not least that we can eat whatever we like whenever we like, are at stake. The 20th century squandered scientific possibilities. It created the fiction that ever more food can be produced by tapping oil, throwing fertiliser at seeds, spraying endless water and treating the soil as blotting paper, a neutral medium. We now know how fragile that mix is, and how fragile the Earth’s crust and biology are too.

The future of food is not in the past. Even the Slow Food Movement celebrates a peasant diet which was invented partly in twentieth-century North America. I believe very strongly that we can learn from history to improve our eating and attitudes towards food today, but an unthinking return to ‘tradition’ is both impossible and undesirable.

Update: for more on the general dodginess of Slow Food, see Luca Simonetti’s excellent analysis of the moment’s political and ideological leanings.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Robert Bailey, Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World (Oxfam, 2011).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy (Oxford and New York: Berg, [2004] 2006).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Jerry Mander (ed.), Manifesto on the Future of Food (The International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, 2006).

Other sources:

Julia Csergo, ‘The Emergence of Regional Cuisines,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 500-515.

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).

Donna R. Gabaccia, ‘As American as Budweiser and Pickles? Nation Building in American Food Industries,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 175-193.

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘The Tortilla Discourse: Nutrition and Nation Building,’ in iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), pp. 77-97.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.