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Julie Guthman, On globalization, neoliberalism, obesity, local food and education

Interviewed by Scott Stoneman

Julie Guthman is an Associate Professor in the Community Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz. Her pressing and rigorous work has dealt with the ways in which organic farming movements and reform in California strain the boundaries that obtain between nature and capital and between the local and the global (Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California), with governmentality, embodiment and resistance in the age of neoliberalism (“The Polanyian Way? Voluntary Food Labels as Neoliberal Governance,” “Embodying neoliberalism: economy, culture, and the politics of fat” [with Melanie DuPuis]), and the racial assumptions that impinge community projects for the distribution of local, organic food in African-American neighborhoods (“Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice”). Her developing research examines the biopolitics of obesity in terms of race, embodiment and the evolution of alternative food practices. Among other difficult questions, in this interview Dr. Guthman offers critical perspectives on the intersection of alternative food and political subjectivity, the social, cultural and bodily impact of neoliberalism, and the possibility of responsible food criticism and radical food pedagogy in a time of crisis.

Scott Stoneman (SS) for Politics and Culture: Can you describe the deterritorializing and political economic effects of the neoliberalization of food?

Julie Guthman (JG): To say anything about the effects of neoliberalism on the production and distribution of food we have to pay attention to “actually existing neoliberalisms”[1] rather than the free market myths that stand in as neoliberal philosophy. And, in fact, neoliberalism has been applied to food and agricultural sectors in highly uneven ways. On the one hand, agriculture and food sectors have been subject to some of the most intense attempts at neoliberalization – from the privatization of land and water rights, to the use of free trade agreements to dismantle national-level food safety regulations, to the dismantling of entitlement programs and other public support that exist to combat hunger (e.g., India’s “fair price shops”). On the other hand, neoliberalization has been limited in this sphere. Notwithstanding the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) provisions regarding Agriculture, in both the EU and US, domestic food sectors remain economically protected through, for example, subsidy programs, and federal level agencies continue to play a major role in environmental and health regulation – although these regulations have been challenged in the WTO.

I find salutary the new found attention among American food activists to the US commodity programs, as evidenced, for example, in a significant reform campaign during the creation of the 2008 Farm Bill. These subsidies benefit some of the wealthiest farmers and clearly work against ecological farming practices. By the same token, the main critique activists forwarded during the campaign was that the commodity programs are responsible for the over-production of corn and soy, which, in turn, make for cheap, junky domestic food (perhaps a new iteration of our bodies, ourselves). In fact, rationales for farm policy are much more complex and historically dynamic, and much excess production never reaches the American stomach. Chronic food surpluses were put to strategic use abroad well before the advent of neoliberalism, most famously through Public Law 480, instituted in 1954, which allowed the US government to dispose of crop surpluses through direct aid, barter for strategic raw materials, and concessionary sales to other countries. The law proved to be an invaluable weapon for extracting political and military concessions. For example, Egypt became one of the largest recipients of US food aid (in dollars) upon its post-1973 accord with Israel.

I say this as a reminder that even though the US continues to urge the liberalization of farm and food sectors abroad, current US farm policy remains highly protectionist – and not simply to provide cheap calories for American consumers but also to open up new markets for exports. Many of the issues that have bogged down the last ten years of international trade ministerial meetings (e.g., in Cancun, Doha, and Hong Kong), are related to the recalcitrance (and hypocrisy) of the US (and EU) to terminate subsidies and walk the talk of free trade. Because, at the same time, farm sectors in much of the world have been neoliberalized, and many countries in the global South continue (and are often forced) to devote some of the best land to export crops to comply with neoliberal structural adjustment policies. Yet with some crops, notably cotton and rice, they can’t compete in US markets.

Given how this uneven neoliberalization exacerbates already existing global inequalities, you have to question localization as an ethical (or coherent) response. At the very least it is ironic that re-localization efforts have gained traction in some of the most well-off regions in the world. In coastal California, from where I hail, most local food initiatives have taken root in already existing privileged communities, both economically and ecologically. Hundreds of crops are grown year round in these areas based on favorable climate conditions and a huge helping of technology. Clearly not all places in the world have similar resource endowments, in no small part owing to uneven developments. Yet, I see shockingly little reflexivity among both local food activists and writers as to how “going local’ might affect places that retain post-colonial dependencies on export markets. To be sure, any web site that hosts a “locavores challenge” posts many more comments from potential enrollees that express concern about giving up coffee for their morning wake-up than what it might mean for coffee farmers in, say, Sumatra.

SS: In this context, what is the importance of alternative food networks, or “morally embedded” supply chains, in the context of the transformation of the political economy of food since the 1990s? How does the emergence of alternative food change the way we read food as a commodity?

JG: One of the aspects of alternative food networks and so-called morally-embedded supply chains that interest me is the way in which they seem to replicate, and even create neoliberal modes of governance. We see projects which are putatively in opposition to neoliberalism that in some cases uncritically take up ideas of consumer choice, value capture, and pre-political communitarianism, while negating the role of the state as provider of services or regulator of externalities – all ideas which seem standard to neoliberalism.

I am particularly struck by various voluntary labeling schemes that use private organizations to certify to particular standards, giving consumers the choice to purchase particular social and environmental qualities. Voluntary food labels are in some respects analogs to the very things they are purported to resist, namely property rights that allow these ascribed commodities to be traded in a global market. Given that virtually all of these labels are incentivized through intentional barriers to entry, they are at best redistributional, meaning that they may allow producers who are somehow “better” in the their practices to capture more value (putatively from so-called middlemen but ultimately from wealthier consumers). Even then, different sorts of labels significantly vary as to whom and what they protect, and many commodities (and producers) in the world do not stand a chance of being valorized with a label at all. Recent research on fair trade, which is arguably the most explicitly redistributional of the lot, casts doubt even on that quality.

In the past my critiques of these labels has been rather hard-boiled, based more in political economy than, for example, the politics of affect. So I have been giving more thought to the non-structural effects of alternative food, and particularly questions regarding political subjectivity. Whose desires are reflected in the constitution of these networks and sites? What sort of activities does consumption of alternative food incite? Do these networks bring reciprocity between producers and consumers? On this last question, the research does not seem point to reciprocity or transparency – or even reflexivity on the part of those promulgating these alternatives.

For example, Catherine Dolan’s recent work on fair trade tea [2] suggests that producers of fair trade tea know little about the consumers of their tea and assume that fair trade is yet another form of development charity. And yet, in a world where activist politics have been highly constrained by larger political economic forces, these alternative networks may be one of the few tools available to provoke a broader politics. It is possible that social movements around labeling may help embarrass (or encourage) major suppliers into changing their practices as Unilever did in nearly abandoning the use of genetically engineered supplies of grain for its European market. They may make transparent corporate vulnerabilities that activists can then exploit. Or they might produce more radical and collectivist political subjectivities, including among those who are not particularly “helped” by these labels. The jury is still out on the multiplier effects of these networks, I think.

SS: A December 2003 article in The Economist hastily summarizes the relationship between body politics, public health, food and globalization in the following way: “When the world was a simpler place, the rich were fat, the poor were thin, and right-thinking people worried about how to feed the hungry. Now, in much of the world, the rich are thin, the poor are fat, and right-thinking people are worrying about obesity.”[3] How do we deconstruct this? And in what sense does it gesture to what Raj Patel calls the “big fat contradiction” (1) of the global food system [4]: the coexistence of a starving multitude and an “obesity epidemic,” or of what you and Melanie Dupuis have termed “accumulation by engorgement” (427)  [5] and “accumulation by dispossession” [6] (the latter of which, in the context of the current food crisis, takes the particular form of food dependency)?

JG: Seriously, is it not possible to call into question the violence of the global food economy without picking on fat people?

Ok, I am working on a book on this issue and I can’t do it justice here, but here’s the basic argument: Many of the changes in the food system that are associated with obesogeneity can easily be traced back to the political economy of neoliberalism (particularly as it has taken shape in the US). Specifically forms of food processing, marketing, and regulation must be couched in larger transformations of post-war capitalism, in important respects outgrowths of falling profits, declining US economic competitiveness, and a political project of the right to remove obstacles seen as unfriendly to business. Specifically I would point to the persistence of geo-politically driven agricultural subsidies, the treadmill “logics” of intensifying farm production and cheapening food production, the reconfigured mandates of regulatory institutions, and the reduction in entitlement funding and real wages so that cheap food has come to substitute for income. Neoliberalism as a political economic project has also encouraged particular forms of urban economic development, from fast-food-choked strip malls to suburban environments hostile to walking to gentrified urban cores.

Yet, as your question suggests, not everyone is getting fat because of this so-called obesogenic environment. Indeed, these same policies have also produced profitable solutions to these problems, from food-like products that do not metabolize to weight loss-inducing pharmaceuticals to storefront exercise gyms. Creating purchasable solutions to the problems it generates has provided a doubly good fix for the crisis of capital accumulation that underlies the neoliberal political economic project.

Of course you can’t understand difference in body size without understanding the class differentiation that has been furthered with neoliberalism, and we need to understand this in a cultural way. These are ideas I am still working out, but I will say that current cultures of the body place a high premium on thinness as both a performance and requisite of success, while those who have little chance for success in the neoliberal economy have little to gain, so to speak, by trying to meet impossible bodily ideals. No matter what, it seems to me that the moral outrage with fat gets it wrong.

SS: In “Can’t Stomach It,” the piece you wrote for Gastronomica, you note the “moral superiority” with which “[Michael] Pollan et. al” engage with contemporary anxieties surrounding food (75). [7] How are the ethics of consumer choice or consumer subjectivity framed in popular food criticism? What is the main source of your impatience with Pollan et. al (as you cheekily put it), and how do you imagine the role of the intellectual in terms of the politics of her intervention, not just in the economics of food, but also in the interest of sustaining a dialectical tension in thinking about the “cultural, ecological and political-institutional” worlds of food, especially in a time of crisis?

JG: There is so much to say about Michael Pollan. He provides new writing fodder for me regularly. Just last week he had a piece in the New York Times (reference via endnote) that asked people to send him their food rules. All of the examples he provided of a possible rule, including one from his own grandmother (“I always like to leave the table a little bit hungry”), were about eating in a more refined way – more or less. For that matter, the last third of his latest book, In Defense of Food, reads like a diet book, a variation on the theme of Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, which is reportedly because they slowly eat deliciously prepared food with just the right amount of wine. They take pleasure in it – just not too much. Pollan is usually spot-on with his critiques of industrial food, but he often ends up in a messianic place that I find, well, distasteful – namely, he tells readers to buy and eat just like him. He appeals in that way to those who already are refined eaters and want to feel ethically good about it.

Yet, what really makes me impatient with Pollan is lines such as the following, also from In Defense of Food: “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful: however, those of us who can, should . . .” (184).[8] To me, this is a punt, and an indefensible one. It’s not only that he shrugs his shoulders at issues of food security; it is that he sets aside the problem that the world food system developed through colonial labor and land relationships and that today’s food system, with its uneven neoliberalizations, continues to contribute to this structural inequality – as does eating “just like him.” Food politics cannot just be about the food.

SS: In this issue Michael Perelman, when asked about the hegemonic effects of economics textbooks in thinking about food, responds that “the textbooks have more to learn from the activists than the activists could get from the textbooks.” This, because the texts to which he refers merely reproduce normative neoclassical economic ideas about how to govern the flow of commodities, as well as the bodies which produce and consume them. What challenges do educators face in trying to negotiate the institutionalized discourses which obtain about food? And what is your sense of how educators might go about coordinating a critical or, dare we say, radical pedagogy of food?

JG: I think it’s pretty difficult to talk about food pedagogy without considering how food itself has become such a huge part of the social imaginary. Courses on food (from social, critical angles) are proliferating these days and students can’t seem to get enough. On my campus alone, about four social science faculty members regularly “teach food” and the rush to enroll in these courses seems unreal at times. So this tells you something about the current zeitgeist. For that reason alone, I think a radical pedagogy of food must provincialize its object of study and ask what is it about food that has interpolated relatively privileged people into studying it and/or reading about it.

No doubt a lot lies with the pleasure of talking about food (as some sort of surrogate for eating it?) and that food choice as politics has gained such traction. But since I’m somewhat critical of this move, in the several related courses I teach on food I make a big point of not making it about what I eat or my students should eat.

That said, it is hard to resist the “what to eat” move. For example, many food courses these days have students do commodity chain analyses so students learn how food commodities are constituted across the globe. Students learn a lot from these exercises: for instance, that not all crops are grown on giant factory farms, that unexpected places are sources of certain raw materials, that fair trade food isn’t as easy to trace as its claims to “transparency” promise.

The problem with this exercise is that for many students the take-home lesson is that knowing where you’re food comes from is of utmost importance – and this leads many students into what Branden Born and Mark Purcell call the “local trap” (195): the presumption that proximity is a good proxy for just or sustainable.[9] I want my students to go further than that. I push them to reflect on their own desires about food (and teaching others what to eat), including pushing them on questions of who gets the privilege of knowing food and eating locally. A radical pedagogy must go beyond self-satisfying food choices and have students reflect on potential levers of transformation.


[1] Brenner, N. and Theodore, N. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’.” Antipode 34, 349-379. 2002.

[2] Dolan, Catherine. “The Mists of Development: Fairtrade in Kenya Tea Fields.” Globalizations 5(2). 1-14. 2008.

[3] Anonymous, “The world’s expanding waistline.” The Economist 11 Dec 2003 <>.

[4] Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. New York: Melville House Publishing, 2008.

[5] Guthman J, and DuPuis M. “Embodying neoliberalism: economy, culture, and the politics of fat.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 24(3) 427 – 448. 2006.

[6] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford, 2005.

[7] Julie Guthman, “Can’t Stomach It: How Michael Pollan et al. Made Me Want to Eat Cheetos.” Gastronomica 7:3 (Summer 2007): 75-79. 2.

[8] Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. New York: Penguin Books Inc, 2008.

[9] Born, Branden and Mark Purcell. “Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research.” Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 26, No. 2, 195-207 (2006).

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