With the lobbying power of agribusiness, and the revolving door between government agencies and agribusiness corporations, it can seem that voting with your vote is useless.
But guess what? Monsanto secretly loves the "vote with your dollar" campaign. So does Nestlé. And McDonalds. Here's why:
They know that an average Canadian spends only eleven percent of their income on food. Most of us expect our food to be cheap. We whine and wail when prices go up. We complain about adequately remunerating farmers if it means our cheese might be a few dollars more than across the border where dairy farmers commit suicide because of low prices. Very few of us will buy higher priced food if lower priced food is unavailable. This is a major reason why organics is still a niche market, making up less than one percent of total household food purchases in Canada.
It gets worse. There are many of us, despite that 10% average, who cannot spend more on food : 851,01 people used food banks in March of 2011, and this is not the highest recorded number in the past few years. So, this campaign effectively excludes these people. Now those who vote with their dollar can be framed as elitists and sneered at, and those who don't can be judged as morally inferior.
Putting our trust in niche markets allows the co-optation of food movement initiatives. They become another segment to either capture or hedge. We see this with Walmart introducing a line of organic food, but the most blatant example is that of Gerber the baby food producer, which vocally prohibited GMOs in its products at the same time as its owner, Novartis, continued to develop and sell genetically modified seeds. They got you coming and going, damned either way.
And that's not the worst part. I've been wanting to write about the worst part for a long time, but I also want to support these progressive people who encourage us to vote with our dollar and are doing good work in the food system. I don't want to seem overly critical. But when I watched "Fresh" - an excellent movie - I cringed at the end when the co-op manager told us voting with our dollars was the best way to make change. When an anti-GMO campaigner insisted that labelling and avoiding GM foods was the best way to make change, I almost bit my tongue through. Finally, I've been pushed past the point that I can keep silent by an excellent article by Robin Jane Roff, "Shopping for change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO".*
Here's the essential problem with voting with our dollars. It posits the market as the answer, when the market is the problem. It's like that definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
When we turn to the market to fix what's wrong, we are putting the (super)market, rather than governments (and voting citizens) at the centre of the food system - as Roff puts it, the market becomes"the ultimate arbiter of socio-environmental quality". This is the same market that works on the principle of deregulation and privatization that has lead to disastrous environmental problems and social ills in the pursuit of shareholder profit – that indeed benefits from these ills, because it almost always does not have to account for them. This is the market that gives us cheap pork – and creates a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It gives multinational agribusinesses record profits during the food crisis in 2008 when millions became food insecure and faced starvation.
When we decide that the market is where we must turn our efforts, we change from being citizens with food rights and entitlements to consumers with food choices and responsibilities. Are the problems created by the food system, then, of our choosing – we didn't spend our dollars in the right place? Do we decide then, that it is our responsibility, through charitable donations, to feed the hungry, rather than the responsibility of governments (by the people, for the people) to respond to society's needs? Is it our fault, because we didn't choose the organic pastured pork, that Lake Winnipeg is choking to death? What's that you say, they didn't have the choice of organic pastured pork at Superstore? Did you want it enough?
Voting with our dollars encourages us (not that we need more encouragement) to think of ourselves as individuals, making individual decisions, rather than a community or a society. One thing this allows is the belittling of problems. For example, if you look into the pro- and anti-organic arguments, you'll soon find the claim that organic food has minimal health benefits over non-organic food, and the pesticide residue on produce is negligible for the consumer. This blatantly ignores the benefits of organic growing for pollinators, birds, the water table, and farm workers – to name a few non-consumers.
Framing eaters solely as individual consumers is also much more limiting than framing them as citizen-activists. As Roff says, “by replacing ‘‘consumer ’’ with ‘‘citizen’’ not only does the problem suddenly become political-economic not just economic, but a wealth of solutions and counter movements become imaginable. The space of opposition is no longer restricted to the domain of the market, but now encompasses the full breadth of structures and social relations. The idea of the market and consumption can themselves become targets of critique.”
Fundamentally, consumption-based change is not transformative. Which is preferable - to label foods containing GM ingredients so that consumers can avoid them if they can afford to, until so much of the soy and corn and alfalfa are contaminated and so many new GM varieties are introduced that very few non-GM products exist - or, to ban GMOs? Which is preferable - that a few supermarkets that succumb to the pressure of privileged consumption choices decide to source tomatoes from growers that pay a living wage, or that a minimum wage is legislated for farmworkers (as it isnot, with few exceptions, in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, andSaskatchewan). So, it's political. And yes, governments are corrupted and hard to influence; this tendency must be challenged.
But a bigger point is that the food system is not only about the food system. A truly healthy, sustainable food system would require, for consumers, living wages, a shorter work day, an end to gender inequality, and participatory democracy. Problems with the food system can not be dealt with solely by the existing power of a relatively wealthy middle class, but by empowering marginalized people and disempowering giant corporate entities.
When you buy food, please do buy ethically grown, low-impact, and healthy food. But I challenge you - if you think the system needs to change - to do a little more, and do it together.
I'll end with a final note from Roff: “If we truly want a socially and environmentally equitable food system then we can not continue to rely so heavily on the mechanisms that created the one we currently have.”
*Agriculture and Human Values (2007) 24:511–522.