Grasping at straws: Is there hope for humans and food in the age of globalization?


Watch: “Preparing to Feed the World”

This is a fluff piece on a fertilizer factory in the United States. The Koch brothers are set to spend $898 million this election cycle. The profits to be made from reduced regulation explain why this number is so large and could be a sign of things to come.

Watch: “The new way of colonialism in Africa”

This is a report done by NHK, a Japanese news station, which helps explain the rise in land grabbing. Understanding the scale of this issue is key to understanding why it is so problematic, you have to see how large these plantations are to believe.


Today, in the world’s newest country, 40,000 people are on the brink of death due to starvation. South Sudan has suffered one of the world’s bloodiest civil wars in recent history, forcing an estimated 2.8 million people from their homes, who according to the UN now face “acute food and nutrition insecurity.” This catastrophe, while predicated on unnecessary violence, is also impacted by a globalized food system that has hindered the third world’s ability to feed itself. This transformation falls within a familiar pattern of capitalist maximization of profits, and erosion of oversight and social protection. The prioritization of agricultural land for biofuels, monopolization of farming corporations, and heavy investment from major economic powers bent on securing resources for their populations, has forced many traditional food sources to the brink of collapse. Today, South Sudan is facing a famine of epic proportions, but as climate change and disease influence the worlds growing abilities, even first world countries which historically have been insulated from drought and inflation might be victims as well. The question then could be, is there a sustainable way to provide food and nutrition for the world’s population?

Perhaps no one reading this is surprised by a link being drawn between a civil war and the food system, but for many Americans, food is associated with cartoon characters and brightly colored packaging, not starvation and war crimes. The idea that consumer choices here might lead to the situation in South Sudan is unsettling. However, consumers only bear so much responsibility. It is the producers who are dictating what we choose to consume in the first place, through pricing, advertising and politics. For example, the recent blending of the food system with the fuel industry has profoundly influenced agriculture. According to the Oakland Institute 30% of the global wheat and grain market is represented by corn, grown in the United States for ethanol. Biofuels are one of many causes for “land grabs” an instance when vast tracts of land are purchased in developing countries to grow crops, which are then exported. Corporations take advantage of antiquated land right systems and weak non-democratic governments, buying or leasing land for a price far below the profits made by cultivating and processing food and fuel. According to a study conducted by Klaus Deininger, land was leased in Mozambique for $0.60 per hectare, far below the estimated value of $9,800.00 per hectare.

With such a problematic food system, the question is often asked is there any way to separate a geographic entity from the larger system of production. One possible way to insulate communities is to “go local” or to condense the production and consumption of food into a finite geographic area. On the surface, this seems like a clear way forward towards sustainability, however Born and Purcell point out “localness of a food system should not be seen as having any inherent qualities – it is merely a strategy that can be applied by any group of actors to advance particular agendas.” Even with good intentions, limiting fossil fuel consumption by reducing distance travelled is not enough. Modern agriculture relies on pumping water, fertilizer, pesticides and mechanical machinery, all which depend on fuel. Due to the unsustainable nature of biofuel production and land grabbing, local attempts at full disinvestment are impossible without using renewable energy, which requires incredible capital. Everything is linked, in some way, to the global food system.

Modern agriculture also relies on scaling up of production, and the larger the scale, the more profitable. Thus, on the surface, small scale seems like an easy answer to the problem. Connely, however, makes a link between the need to pay for hidden costs in food development, and the subsequent pricing out of lower income communities. In other words, even if local food systems are managed sustainably, they inevitably will stay small, or will be forced to cater to middle class consumers to cover the gap in profits between them and their competitors. As lower income consumers are priced out, we see greater inequality in health. As soda prices go down and produce prices rise, wealthier individuals will have a greater ability to eat healthy. Therefore, going local is a good place to start, but until it adequately addresses and insulates entire communities from the food system, these actors will still be buying in to the current means of production on some level.

The inevitable priority in modern agriculture is not just to scale up in physical size, but also to transition to monoculture crops which take little knowledge to grow, but are extremely lucrative in the global marketplace. Unfortunately, this scaling up often comes with worsened social and environmental consequences that are felt locally, as well as throughout entire regions of the planet. In his book; The African Land Grab, Lorenzo Cotula details the ways in which globalization has prioritized large-scale agriculture. “These evolutions… They tend to squeeze small-scale farmers – by putting downward pressures on their profit margins, by eroding their control over farming decisions, by directing capital towards their large-scale competitors, or by displacing them altogether through large-scale plantations.” This displacement is most troubling, and has clearly caused food security problems in Eastern Africa, as well as around the world. Losing the knowledge of traditional practices is not just a human rights violation, but is actually a negative impact on the global economy. Indigenous cultures farmed and produced food for thousands of years. Yet, this expertise is not valued whatsoever, and the lessons that might be economically lucrative are lost.

Another approach to this global problem came about in recent years in the cities of Richmond and Berkeley, California. Both introduced legislation aimed at increasing taxes on sugary beverages sold within the city limits. The idea behind this was to protect lower income communities from the growing rates of obesity and type II diabetes, both health problems associated with overconsumption of sugar. While the measure was defeated in Richmond, in large part due to political campaigning by the food and beverage industry, it did pass in Berkeley. Unfortunately, this legislation is another example of the inability to address food justice concerns within a distinct geographic limit. There are simply too many loopholes in this attempt at reform; consumers can go to neighboring communities to shop for cheaper sugary beverages, and there is little evidence that the price increase isn’t passed on through other products. The isolation of a single commodity is also problematic. Although the attempt is made to focus on an ingredient detrimental to health, specifically for low-income communities and youth, it doesn’t get at the complexity that has caused a deterioration of health such as the emergence of processed foods and preservatives in our diet.

Michael Pollan, an award winning food author who lives in Berkeley, warns against the industrialization of agriculture and the monopolization of food production. He talks about how historically bread was a staple of nutrition for the human diet, and only because of the scaling up of production did it become unhealthy due to it being highly processed. “The problem with whole grain is that it goes bad…white flour is stable, so you could mill it anywhere, and it sits on the shelf for years. Whole grain flour is volatile, because it has all these volatile oils. It has omega-3s, for example. And, you know, its helpfulness is directly tied to its perishability. So they didn’t like that, and they were happy to get rid of whole grain.” Thus, in the name of maximizing profits, corporations turned bread from a civilization-founding staple, to something that is unhealthy. Most importantly, fermenting and baking bread takes free time, something that lower income individuals do not necessarily have. As indigenous peoples are displaced, they lose the resources they depend on: forests for housing, rivers for water, and the ability to grow wheat and bake bread.

Thus, the food system is too complex to attack any one commodity, even one as ubiquitous as sugar. Likewise, many efforts at reform attempt to address effects, but don’t get at the root causes of food security. Many countries are now at the mercy of climate change, as temperatures increase, and rainfall becomes unpredictable, growing wheat in the third world will become more difficult. Fluctuations in food prices can cause political instability. In Egypt, the price of local food increased 37% between 2008 and 2010, causing the Arab Spring. Despite this revolution, it didn’t create food security, as North African and Middle Eastern countries still import more food then any other region. In South Sudan, we are seeing likely the worst-case scenario of food insecurity. Fixing this problem, and making corporations accountable for the consequences of their land grabbing, is the logical place to begin in reorganizing our food and fuel system.

Luckily, there are some organizations focused on achieving food security and ending land grabbing. Oakland’s own Food First ( is a think tank that comes up with real solutions to problems afflicting farmers around the world. In Brazil there is Friends of the MST ( a non-profit whose work towards stability includes land right education and renewable energy expansion. There are also international non-profits such as GRAIN (, which details land grabbing and lists opportunities for political involvement.




The Contradictions of Environmental Gentrification


– Posted on behalf of A.R.:

In a recent debate in Milwaukee, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said: “”As I understand it, the African American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse [during the most recent economic recession].” A large part of that wealth was held in the form of homes lost to foreclosure. The Urban Displacement project notes that 5 percent of homes in the Hoover-Foster neighborhood of Oakland were foreclosed between 2006 and 2014. This neighborhood has also been home to the highest concentration of Black households in the MacArthur area. Even among those who were able to keep their homes, more than three in four homeowners were mortgage-burdened in 2013 (meaning they paid more than 30% of their income on their mortgage).

According to the map, Hoover-Foster is “at risk of gentrification or displacement” while other areas in MacArthur, such as Longfellow and Pill Hill, are experiencing “advanced gentrification.” In addition to experiencing a shift in racial composition, MacArthur is also the site of a new transit-oriented development near the BART station. The Master Plan consists of five phases. The first focuses on infrastructure improvements including bike and pedestrian-friendly paths as well as beautification projects of the entry plaza. The second phase will add 90 new affordable housing units through a project with BRIDGE Housing, while phases three to five will include market-rate housing as well as commercial and retail space.

These types of transit-oriented developments attract state and federal funding and are considered “sustainable” because they are thought to increase transit-use and thus decrease VMT. Unfortunately, these developments are often marketed not towards transit-dependent or existing residents, but towards whiter, higher-income households with cars, one of many examples of the “contradictory relationship of sustainable policies to inequitable urban redevelopment” described by Checker (2011: 214).

I feel that the evolution of terminology plays a role in the de-politicization of environmental justice and the move toward technocratic dialogue. You have environmental/climate justice, then you have “smart growth” then “sustainability” then “livability” then “equitable development,” and as Brentin Mock points out: they are all often used interchangeably. Yet each of them sits in a different place along the triangle/prism and they all have different sets of values depending on who is using them and it seems our role as planners to expose these values and to bring back the role of “justice” in sustainability.

One of the only examples I have been exposed to of an equity- and people of color-centered vision of sustainability is the work of Oakland “artivist” Favianna Rodriguez. She was one of the first people I heard to really link racial, immigrant, gender and economic justice with environmental justice. She does so by calling out the ways in which sustainability discourses often lack serious equity considerations, leaving out those communities most directly impacted by environmental burdens and most susceptible to climate change-related catastrophes. In a 2008 piece titled “GREEN IS NOT WHITE!” she writes, how in the “booming multi-billion dollar ‘green’ market, immigrant workers and people of color are left out of decision making [procedural], while working in some of the most toxic industries in the country [substantive]. Green jobs and healthier communities cannot be just a luxury for affluent whites. They are a necessity for working class people and communities of color.” Through this lens, the mainstream “green” movement lacks both procedural and substantive equity, but centering those most impacted by capitalist exploitations is only the route to a truly “just city.”

It is not low-income residents that challenge the contradictions presented by “environmental gentrification,” but the right also exploits these contradictions in attempts to divert attention away from climate change entirely. Some folks celebrated the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar while other folks were happy to see him use the platform to assert that, “global warming is real.” But a Fox News article, circulated by some climate change deniers, was quick to point out the hypocritical nature of DiCaprio’s “environmentally-friendly” lifestyle choices. Though he bikes and drives electric cars, he also allegedly took six private flights from Los Angeles to New York in a six-week period in 2014—the same year he rented a yacht from the deputy prime minister of the UAE that purportedly burns through $16,438 worth of fuel a day to watch the World Cup with his friends. These value conflicts playing out at the micro-level of an individual are illustrious of those that play out at the city- and regional-level. If “green amenities” are reserved only for those with yachts and second homes and not for those who collect and recycle cans for a living, my answer to Checker’s question “how sustainable is sustainability?” is not very sustainable.

Sustainability in the early part of the 21st century


It is hard to take yourself back to a time before you were alive. But that is what you must do to understand the world as it was then. To understand that there were gaping holes in our understanding of the world and of ourselves. It is hard to imagine the extent of these knowledge gaps; gaps that would, in time, be filled rather quickly and suddenly during a period of history that is today familiar around the globe.

In 2016, there was no true global consciousness around sustainability, let alone a United Council of Continents. There had been no Nigerian Revolution. No Walk on Wall Street. The unrelenting Climate Calamities of the second half of the 21st century were still unimaginable, in everything but science fiction. The Pacific Pirates would not become global anti-heroes for another 110 years.

Of course, as you know, by 2008, humans were no longer unaware of what they at the time called climate change. Scientists had shown that the world was warming and that humans were causing massive ecological change across Earth. They had even begun to understand the potentially compounding nature of global warming – the idea that there may be a tipping point from which a full return to normal life would take centuries.

But you have to work to imagine what life was like then. This was the dawn of the age of cell phones and personal computers. Personal automobiles were still ubiquitous and were in fact increasing in number. People laughed at television personalities known as political comedians. Landfills – giant masses of unrecycled consumer products – littered rural land and even floated in oceans. Massive planes and trucks the lengths of warships frantically paced back and forth, carrying simple commodities like fruits and vegetables thousands of miles to all corners of the globe, and spewing unthinkable and unnecessary tons of carbon. Microfarming would have been unheard of at the time.

You have to understand the world was still under the Capitalist regime.

You have to understand that there were still people who believed the warming of Earth was not real. You have to remember. This was the time of 9/11, not the time of the Climate Calamities. Poverty was an important issue, but very few saw its connection to climate and to humans’ relationship with earth. You have to understand, in 2016, a man by the name of Donald Trump was running for President, and he wanted to build walls and towers and war and he did not care about the Earth becoming warmer and this was not abnormal. You have to understand, this was a time of nationalism and consumer anxiety. Some called it the age of social media, where people competed, at the cost of our ecosystem, to out consume one another. This was a time when those in the West could get anything delivered to their homes at the stroke of a computer key (yes, they still had computer keys, then) and those in the East were moving in the same direction. This was before the Great Convening and before people had learned to sacrifice.

You have to understand, this was a time of unabashed, ignorant bliss.

Was there anyone who had even started to comprehend the impending problems that would plague the second half of the century? Absolutely. Known as Climate Justicers (some historians believe they called themselves the Climate Justice movement), these activists across the world aimed to show humanity the nature of its destructive force. They foresaw a world in which a global, grassroots (what we would call stone-toes), sustainable conscious would arise and upend capitalism. They knew that the only viable path was to immediately end the consumption of fossil fuels, to provide reparations to the developing world, and to learn to live within our ecological means.

Climate Justicers in the early 21st century led a valiant worldwide campaign that actually received a fair amount of attention at the time, especially considering the economic and political context under which it was waged. Their demands – to immediately slash emissions, to ensure harmony with nature, to reject commodification of nature and carbon, and to commit substantial resources to addressing climate change – were seen at the time as extravagant. They were, in fact, remarkably close to what we now know would have been necessary to prevent what has taken place. Unfortunately, Climate Justicers were mostly quieted by global powers that made only cursory (though some at the time believed them to be significant) attempts at addressing climate change.

By 2020, five years after COP 21 (held in Paris), some hoped that a significant paradigm shift had occurred. People believed a synergy had developed between national leaders’ top down approach to solving climate change the Climate Justicers simultaneous bottom-up approach. In some ways, that was true. However, with the extent of the problem still unrealized, the solutions they attempted simply did not mend their problems quickly enough.

However, from that period of time came one critical and forward thinking change that would inform many of the global reforms you see today. Namely, city planners began to envision (and sometimes even came close to creating) “sustainable cities.” Almost all of the staples of our modern cities – regulations that limit sprawl, buildings that self-regulate temperature through zero-energy means, hyper-localized food systems, distributed energy, household waste and water recycle systems, tiered housing rates, community spaces that substitute for personal space – began to surface in the early 21st century. Indeed, during this time of rollicking capitalism and relative climate myopia, a sneakily ardent combination of government leaders, Climate Justice heroes, and creative city planners managed to plant the seeds of the global sustainability you see today.