Reckoning with Food Crimes: Shifting the Conversation From Harms to Violence

An active and unacceptable agenda in our food systems should be named, shamed, and taken seriously if we want to do something about it, writes SEI Research Lead Alana Mann.

Image by Etienne Girardet, via UnSplash.

Lockdown takes you to familiar-strange places. In my case back to the 1973 film Soylent Green, the ultimate dystopian treat for a hungry, self-isolating food scholar.

The Plot – Charlton Heston plays the good cop, chasing down the assassin of a wealthy executive in a Malthusian-nightmare New York (pop. 80 million) where only point one of the One Percent have access to real food. Ordinary citizens are reduced to queuing for hours for their measly quota of Soylent, an ultra-processed biscuit that I imagine tastes like a well-done soy burger patty.

The uber-nutritious and flavourful Soylent Green (a Category Captain far superior to the Red and Yellow versions) is allegedly made out of plankton. But it turns out the oceans are empty, and (spoiler alert) the essential protein replacement is human, harvested from riots, prisons and euthanisation centres under the cloak of secrecy. Heston solves the riddle but the Soylent Corporation won’t be stopped. It’s 2022 (chills!) after all, and the hyper-industrial food complex is in full swing.

Along with accurately anticipating a hotter and more violent world, this film succeeds in presenting two vital truths: firstly, food is a source of control and, secondly, food crimes often go unpunished.

The concept of ‘food crime’ includes a wide range of social and economic harms, including food fraud, violations of safety and health, evasion of quotas and tariffs, food adulteration and misrepresentation through marketing. Under the corrupt authoritarian regime in the film, the Soylent Corporation profits with impunity.

Should we, in the actually-existing world of 2021, accept profit-driven murder in our food systems?

It is well-documented that food contamination, factory farming, deforestation, over-fishing and hypoxic red tides are not prevented by the self-regulatory mechanisms of the neoliberal market. In what Allison Gray calls the ‘risky food regime’ we all have to serve as the food police. It is on us, according to the popular discourse of personal responsibility.

Aside from marketing opportunities, heightened levels of uncertainty and anxiety work for our political leaders. They eagerly buy into Big Food’s greenwashed, and grainwashed, claims to ‘feed the world’ sustainably. Exports and imports of cash crops generate revenue, emergency food aid distributes surpluses, and software engineers deliver novel solutions that will address the climate crisis.

Perversely, these fixes are locked-into the public imagination more firmly with media reporting of the latest Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) announcement of a ‘Code Red for humanity’. In our permanent, reactive state of crisis the word itself has become, as Joseph Masco says, “a counterrevolutionary idiom…a means of stabilizing an existing condition rather than minimizing forms of violence across militarisms, economy, and the environment”.

Forms of food-related violence drove the expansion of the global economy under colonialism and continue today with the triple burden of malnutrition, undernutrition and obesity. We have travelled, as Jane Dixon puts it so well, “from the Imperial to the Empty Calorie”. Subtle technologies of violence that historically created food dependency, such as rationing and food aid, persist in a system where social structures and institutions continue to cause deprivations and constrain people’s life chances.

Food joins other devices of disempowerment in an economy where, like the dead citizens of Soylent Green, consumers are the commodity. Our power in this economy is limited to our food choices, informed by dubious cultural authorities including food companies, celebrity chefs, social influencers and supermarket chains. Technologies of safety like food labels provide the false assurance someone has our backs – they join the arts of the marketing or fabrication departments that maintain our distance from the origins of our food. Could we be eating dead people?

In prosecuting food crimes we need to stop focusing on harm and call it what it is – violence. The prevalence of toxins in our waterways and food webs is a good example. Max Liboiron, author of Pollution is Colonialism shifts the narrative on plastics and chemicals as ‘wayward particles’ that cause harm to talk about ‘scales of colonial violence’. They note the ubiquity of bisphenol A (BPA), one of the highest-volume industrial chemicals used world-wide. Found in over 90 percent of Canadian, American and Chinese adults tested, BPA is a “manifestation” of the “permission-to-pollute” system. As such it is sanctioned violence against all bodies, including the fish that ingest it and transfer it to humans.  

Conceptualising food crimes as violence against not just multispecies but the land itself demands a new system of reckoning that recognises the Land as the source of the Law, as C.F Black argues. This alternative legal approach to global health and well-being recognises the importance of opening our minds to the value of Indigenous world-views embracing a “continuous feeling for the web of interconnected relationships that patterns human into their environment”. This is far too sophisticated for Western sensibilities but we had better catch up if we are to adapt to the water, energy and food shortages of the future.

Meanwhile, we can call-out the bad guys. In 2019, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Inventions was the meal replacement Soylent. This isn’t meant to be funny – soy and lentils are part of the concoction. After a month of testing it journalist Chris Ziegler reported “Soylent isn’t living, it’s merely surviving”. The name is quite apt, after all.

Alana Mann is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and a key researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research focuses on the communicative dimensions of citizen engagement, participation, and collective action in food systems planning and governance. Alan’s most recent book, Food in a Changing Climate, challenges us to think beyond our plates to make our food systems more equitable and resilient.