Originally posted on wearepowershift.ca
I was listening to CBC’s show ‘Q’ recently, and one of the guests was Raj Patel. He was introduced as ‘a writer, academic, and activist’, and is otherwise known for his criticism of the global food system. He recently wrote an article in The Atlantic called ‘Abolish The Food Industry’, and spent his interview trying to answer the question ‘should unhealthy food be regulated like alcohol and tobacco?’
Patel spoke at length about the perils of the corporatization of food, and essentially blamed the profit-driven food industry for skyrocketing diabetes rates (1/3 of American children develop type 2 diabetes), creating a North American obesity epidemic, and weighing down our health care programs. He went on to talk about why it’s so hard for us to imagine a world without food corporations. If the corporate food industry wasn’t around, how would we prepare dinner for our families after a 10 hour day at the office and an hour stuck in traffic? Where would we get energy drinks, granola bars, Oreos, frozen pizza, and pre-packaged ice cream sundaes?
Patel argues that while we all need to eat, our choice in what we eat is hardly free. ‘Big Food’, as he calls it, sells sugary foods for cheap while making record profits that fund invasive advertising. He raises the point that the food industry, just like the tobacco or alcohol industry, needs to be regulated. ‘Big Food’ puts strain on public healthcare systems by overloading them with very preventable diseases, overwhelms children with misleading advertizing, and makes it next to impossible to find anything remotely healthy to eat in many places in North America.
So how do they get away with it? It’s profitable for corporations to produce, package, and market high-sugar, low-nutrient food that is arguably addictive. It’s profitable for marketing agencies to peddle their advertisements on TV, radio, billboards, in movies, etc. Food corporations will often sponsor community health events to give their companies a warm-and-fuzzy appearance, even while they’re feeding you Cheez Whiz and white bread. The industry thrives on the trickle-down notion of economics that they create jobs, provide opportunity for the economically depressed, and help communities in need.
Onwards to the tobacco industry. In his new book, somewhat inflammatorily titled ‘Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition’, Robert Proctor makes similar arguments about Big Smoke as Raj Patel does about Big Food. It’s a burden on public health, tobacco products are an irrefutable leading cause of death and illness, they mass-advertize like it’s going out of style, and they try to market their products so they seem a lot safer and sexier than they are (think ‘low-tar’ or ‘light’ cigarettes).The argument isn’t to outlaw smoking; rather, it’s to take away the profitability of foisting cancer sticks on every man, woman, and child possible while evaporating public funds trying to keep everyone healthy. Big Smoke lacks one advantage of the food industry; we don’t have to smoke to stay alive.
In the same style as the food industry, tobacco corporations get away with this by claiming they’re providing jobs, supporting farmers, and generally making their corporate capitalist aims sound admirable. Behind the scenes they’re involved in high-powered political lobbying, shaping the way that governments operate.
Why is it so hard to imagine a world without food giants or the tobacco industry? Let’s expand out to other industries like fashion, electronics, cars, you name it. Why can’t we picture a world without Coca Cola, Nike, Beats by Dre, and laptop computers powerful enough to operate spaceships but are only use for Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest? How is it that food corporations can spend one century making us fat, then spend the next convincing us that their new products will make us thin?
The links between the food, tobacco, and fossil fuel industries are baffling. Since their inception, fossil fuel corporations have spend trillions expanding their reach, exploiting their resources, and forcing consumers to become addicted to their products through extensive marketing, warm-and-fuzzy PR campaigns, and high-powered political lobbying. Just like Big Food and Big Smoke, Big Oil has cornered the market giving consumers minimal choice in the products they use or don’t use, created a political situation that favours their ever-growing profits, and continues to pull the wool over our eyes about climate change. The fossil fuel industry uses its far reach to disseminate misinformation to the general population, making it nearly impossible to talk about slowing growth, and labelling any vision of life without fossil fuels barbaric. They even fund crooked science to muddy the waters of scientific consensus around climate science. Suddenly we’re convinced that we need to consume unfathomable quantities of energy and that it all needs to come from fossil fuels, despite pipeline bursts, tanker accidents, worker injustices, ocean acidification, melting permafrost, flooding, drought, crop loss, forced migration, and so on. Fossil fuel giants have managed to tell most of us what we need, what we want, and where to get it.
I’m not fooled by this, and if you’re reading about PowerShift you probably aren’t sold either. These corporations are a burden to society and the planet we live on, and I’m tired of letting them get away with it by repeating the ‘creating jobs, supporting communities, economic prosperity’ mantra that seems to sooth any oil-related anxieties.
We know that waving the corporate wand isn’t going to make any of these problems better. We know that economic prosperity of a few isn’t a good enough reason to destroy the lives and livelihoods of the rest. We know that there is another way, we know can support ourselves and each other in the absence of fossil fuels, we know we can learn and grow as individuals and intellectuals without putting the planet in peril along the way.
I know these things, and so do you. This is why I’m attending PowerShift – to unify the voices of reason, bring together people who don’t buy into this model of the world, and to work together to fight back against the onslaught of corporate interests. It’s not only about climate change, it’s also about food justice, health care, and social equity.