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Editorial: When ‘food activism’ stops being an adequate descriptor


Few things are more intimate to our individual selves and to our societal framework as is food. The system in America is a complicated tangle of producers, distributors, retailers, and other stakeholders whose voices carry varying degrees of volume and authority in the conversation around what we grow and consume.

I would not relish being secluded from the farming community and forced to make food decisions without the foundational background I have in agricultural science, an understanding of communication and activism, and the financial independence to make the choices that are best for me.

Most people do not get the opportunity to have the resources I do.

That is why my heart beats a little faster and my ears get a little redder when I encounter misguided or falsely amplified statements, especially ones that gain traction across social media. They are insulting verbal attacks against growers and sellers that are more than mere criticism — they are cleverly crafted and strategically disseminated to harm the food-producing communities in rural America.

Maybe they’re packaged within a thin halo of “healthful living” or piggyback off an unpopular politician or prey on primal “us vs. them” concepts. The goal too often is to hurt modern agriculturists, even as disadvantaged people around the nation — those who experience the severe societal division related to economics, upbringing, and class — become collateral damage due to this brand of activism.

As the voices weighing in about our food system have intensified, so has the terminology to describe what’s happening. One major example is “food desert.” No longer is “food desert” sufficient to identify geographic areas where grocery stores and nutritious food sources are scarce: We need to now be thinking of this as food apartheid, where the segregation of healthy food sources from communities is often intentional and calculated.

Image by pscf11, Flickr

Fueling this food apartheid are deceptive organizations that can profit off “rebelling” against mainstream research and U.S. Department of Agriculture data to undercut the checks and balances of our food system and its safety — our system of science seemingly being replaced by the fervor of privilege and the tenets of an activist society.

This is having a real and detrimental impact on people who are the most destitute.

It may be uncomfortable to talk about, but some have posited that “terrorism” should be the term used to describe the actions of people who wish to deprive others access to healthy food. Dr. Kevin Folta once called it the “perfect moniker for what is happening around us.”

The media has taught us that the acutely catastrophic 9/11 attacks and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — both of which resulted in extreme loss of lives and livelihoods — are what terrorism conventionally looks like, and without a doubt, those events are terrorism. Yet the realities of coercion or intimidation for ideological gain can manifest themselves very differently … and much more subtly. We must consider the slow burn of activism that shames parents or that deprives impoverished communities access to nutritious and affordable food. It usually isn’t technically criminal, but it most certainly is harmful to people’s health and well-being.

My own county seat, which has a population of 6,500 people, is weak in terms of grocery store options, yet it is far from the almost unimaginable concept of a food apartheid. Still, that descriptor wouldn’t be far off if labeling verbiage like “natural” were a requisite for a healthy food item. Thankfully, that is not relevant to a food’s nutritional value or safety, even if many organizations try to persuade my neighbors into thinking otherwise through what many consider to be fear-based marketing.

“Fear-based” is an overused term when dealing with those who want to undermine trust in our food, but maybe it’s simply that this term is one that is ready to be revisited (or reworked) for a more modern understanding of what is happening, so that we can better understand the aggression of the ideology working against us.

Advocacy, and to a lesser extent activism, can be built upon a pure-hearted motivation to improve the world, whereas terrorism is focused on the ruin of others to achieve one’s goals. Perhaps “food fanaticism” is that middle-ground term that captures the extremism we often hear about, without the immediate and episodic harm a violent terrorist is envisioned to cause.

Which one do you think is the best fit for what is happening in modern food discussions?

Ryan Tipps is the founder and managing editor of AGDAILY. He has covered farming since 2011, and his writing has been honored by state- and national-level agricultural organizations.

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The views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of AGDAILY.