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On the politics and possibilities of locavores: situating food sovereignty in the turn from government to governance

This paper situates discourses of local food activism, specifically, and food sovereignty, generally, in conversation with the themes of governance, governmentality and biopolitics. Governance, in this sense, points to the movement of politics in line with neoliberal globalization which places emphasis on the individual and its self-governing capacities, on one hand, as well as new loci of power in local networks and communities, on the other. The turn towards local eating is embedded in and reinforcing of neoliberal forms of governance. How we make sense of these political transformations and contexts is a matter of debate. To conclude, I discuss the possibilities of the locavore movement as a form of popular political engagement.

Key works: locavore, food sovereignty, governmentality, cultural politics


In recent years, eating local food has emerged as a viable, and for some, a vigorously promoted solution to the problems associated with global corporate agricultural production and distribution. Illustrative of this trend are an increasing number of popular books promoting local food consumption (for example, Bendrick 2008, Kingsolver 2007, Miller 2008, Nabham 2001, Pollan 2008, Smith and Mackinnon 2007). As well, a range of groups, from community activists to media corporations are promoting ‘eat local’ challenges to encourage people to explore, or perhaps more accurately stated, to devour their local agricultural products. In 2007, the term locavore was designated as the Oxford American Dictionary’s “word of the year” to denote this trend. Locavore refers to an individual, but it also describes a broader consumer movement. By eating local foods, consumers can reduce their food miles (the distance food must travel to reach them) as well as become more aware and appreciative of their local foodsheds (the origins and pathways of food) (Kloppenburg and Stevenson, 1996). Moreover, by connecting with local agricultural producers, locavores can bypass the powerful distribution networks of corporate agribusiness.

Eating local food is also a practical and feasible means by which the aims and values of food sovereignty can be realized (Halweil 2004, Norberg-Hodge, Merrifield and Gorelick 2002; Shuman 1998; Food and Water Watch 2007). Since everyone eats and because eating is so intimately bound up with our bodies, food is particularly well suited to mobilize a range of people. Generally speaking, food sovereignty refers to the political and economic right of people to define and control their food and agriculture systems (Rosset 2006, Windfur and Jonsen 2005). Food sovereignty promotes the formation of trade policies and practices that serve the interests of local communities in terms of ensuring the supply of safe, healthy food produced in an ecologically sustainable fashion. Since the late 1990s, a global network of non-governmental organizations, activist groups and scholars have contributed to the development of this concept to situate the control of food production, circulation and consumption systems in local communities rather than placing the fate of food and agricultural systems in the hands of the state and global regulatory bodies and transnational corporations. Food sovereignty, in other words, aims to reconfigure power relations so that access to agricultural land as well as fresh, healthy and locally produced food products become a right rather than a luxury.

The turn towards consumption as a solution for the complex and entangled problems facing food and agricultural systems, however, is fraught with contradictions. Indeed, local food activism has received a range criticism (DuPuis and Goodman 2005, Guthman 2008, Hassanein 2003, Hinrichs 2003, Winter 2003). These critiques do not aim to undermine consumer-based movements, nor do they deny that local consumption can provide a powerful political platform. Rather, they are motivated by a concern over the ideological construction of ‘the local’, a term that, as David Harvey (1996) has long argued, is far from innocent. The main point of contention is that local food activism and, to varying degrees, the scholarship that lauds it tend to be rooted in a persistent binary where the local is situated as a site of resistance and emancipation against a destructive global, capitalist logic. As a result, the local is often taken for granted at the same time it is reified as a normative category where local = good and global = bad. Popular food writing, local food activism, and, at times, local food scholarship perpetuate this dichotomy while failing to address more intractable issues such as labor concerns, inequality, migration, systemic patterns of social injustice, to name just a few. As a result, critics question the efficacy of local food movements as a consumer-based political movement in generating substantial political change.

In the spirit of forwarding the politics of local food activism, this paper puts the locavore, as a discourse and identity, in conversation with the themes of governance, governmentality and biopolitics.  I draw from Julie Guthman’s (2008) claim that, in order to better understand the possibilities and limitations of local food movements, the rationalities and techniques of governance that have become taken-for-granted over the past three decades need to be made explicit. Governance, in this sense, refers to the movement of politics in line with neoliberal globalization which places emphasis on the individual and its self-governing capacities, on one hand, as well as new loci of power in local networks and communities, on the other. These shifting configurations of power are significant for food sovereignty discourses, primarily because food sovereignty is envisioned as an alternative to neoliberal globalization. As I will discuss, the turn towards local eating, specifically, and food sovereignty more generally, are bound up with and embedded in neoliberal forms of governance. How we make sense of this configuration remains a matter of debate. To conclude, I discuss the possibilities of the locavore movement as a form of popular political engagement.

Neoliberal governance: from state government to governance

Several analyses, from a range of disciplines, maintain that advanced liberal societies are witnessing the emergence of new forms of power based less on top down structures of government and more on diffuse systems of governance (Higgins and Lawrence 2005, Dean 2007, Miller and Rose 2008). Governance refers to structures and processes that enable decision making outside of traditionally appointed institutions and social agents. Governance points to the reconfiguration of regulation, triggered in large part by the global adoption over the past three decades of neoliberal policies that foster free-market ideologies and global flows of capital, and that in turn blur the boundaries between the public and private sphere. Although governance refers to the transformation of social spaces following the ‘retreat’ of the state from public institutions, it does not necessarily suggest the demise of state authority. Rather, governance refers to the complex intersections among state ideologies, policies, and practices and self-governing actors. Neoliberalism is a form of governance that endorses the self-regulation of consumers and communities, which, in turn, equates to support for market rule and global competition.

These formulations of governance are indebted to Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality, broadly understood as a mode of power concerned with the maintenance and control of individual bodies as well as populations (Foucault 1991, Dean 1999, Nadesan, 2008). Governmentality challenges and extends the common-sense understanding of political governance as situated in and emanating from the sovereignty of state institutions that exercise authority over a relatively bounded territory and group of citizens. Foucault maintains that power relations in liberal and increasingly neoliberal democratic societies are more diffuse and complicated than sovereign political models suggest. Power, in Foucault’s formulation, is not repressive but productive of meanings, interventions and lives. It does not emanate from a single source, but operates diffusely from multiple centers. It does not work on bodies, but through bodily practices and knowledges. In other words, contemporary rationalities of governance have a strong biopower effect in that they immerse bodies in social relations of power. Foucault, in essence, orients an analysis of power not only towards its influence over ideology and consciousness, but also towards biological, somatic, and corporeal transformations. At stake in contemporary (bio)power is the production and reproduction of life itself.

The concept of governmentality directs attention towards two salient transformations resulting from the deepening reach of the neoliberal framework in politics and economics. First, the traditional politics we associate with themes like citizenship, public life and collective action have been replaced by ‘life-politics’ geared towards self-actualization and self-invention.  Questions specific to citizenship (how we inform ourselves, who represents our interests) are answered more often than not through private consumption of commodities than through traditional democratic processes and practices. These transformations in citizenship are bound up with a displacement of politics where matters of concern for the state are positioned as individual concerns and responsibilities. Concepts such as consumer sovereignty, political consumerism, cultural citizenship and the citizen-consumer represent attempts to grapple with and, in some instances, move beyond the traditional distinctions between citizens, who are assumed to be politically active, and consumers, whose action is limited to the economic sphere (Korthals 2001, Micheletti, Follesdal, Stolle 2003, Miller 2007, Canclini 2001). The distinctions between citizens and consumers are eroding with the advance of globalization and economic liberalization. Increasingly, consumers are demanding that commodities conform to ethical standards, including safety, health, environmental integrity, animal welfare and labor circumstances and fair trade. These preferences are being expressed in the marketplace and not solely in traditional political forums.

Neoliberalism promotes an image of the consumer as a free, self-actualizing and empowered agent who negotiates choices and exercises power in the marketplace. Scholarship on governmentality, by contrast, calls into question the separation of the consumer from the state. Although responsibilities are pushed onto individuals and communities due to the retreat of the state from the public sector, the traditional means of state control (instruction, regulation, restraint) have not necessarily disappeared but have been augmented by attempts to govern consumer behaviour through appeals to culture and consumerism (Miller 2008: 2). Consumers, in other words, are not necessarily separate from the state nor are they directly manipulated by corporate or state activity. Rather, consumer choice is made intelligible, manageable and governable through the market by techniques such as brand-based marketing and consumer research (Moor 2008, Lury 2004, Lockie 2002). As such, the neoliberal consumer is not a free agent who rationally mobilizes the market economy but a subject whose choices, needs and desires are governed by more diffuse forces including corporate, market and state interests.

Neoliberal governance not only ’empowers’ the consumer to exercise consumer politics, it is also bound up with a turn towards regional and local governance (Higgins and Lawrence, 2005). This emergent governance framework is based on the reinvention of national government through multi-level partnerships, coalitions and networks. Moreover, as Mitchell Dean argues, the state today finds itself increasingly more like an ‘enslaved’ sovereign because its autonomy is compromised (1999: 53). It must rely on relationships with non-state organizations (businesses, charities, non governmental organizations) as well as attract transnational corporations and flows of investment. It has obligations to international governmental organizations such as the World Trade Organization. And it is often undermined by impersonal forces, such as world market that integrates the decisions of transnational corporations and private enterprise in finance, industry and trade.

The concept of governance enables a diagnosis of our present moment as one in which global transformations have lead to a new emphasis on individual self-governing capacities, on one hand, and new forms of political organization (local networks and communities) on the other. How do these transformations inform local food politics and food sovereignty discourses, more generally? Put differently, what is the relationship between consumer sovereignty and food sovereignty?

The final declaration of the World Forum on Food Sovereignty (2001) describes food sovereignty as a guarantee of lasting and sustainable food security for all people. Accordingly, food sovereignty ought to be an obligation of international, national and regional governments. It should also concern society as a whole. To achieve food sovereignty would entail radical changes in governance such that agricultural producers would be granted equitable access to productive resources as well as the necessary training, financing and capacity to produce and sustain local food self-sufficiency. How to implement these political transformations remains a pressing question. The regulatory frameworks that currently govern agriculture are increasingly oriented towards export markets and international free trade. Moreover, state sovereignty has transformed as a result of these political transformations. If the state is ‘enslaved’ by global institutions and market forces, as Dean suggests, how realistic is it to hope for a transformation of existing state policies?

In light of these challenges, the emphasis on individual consumer action to guide the transformation of the food system does not seem ill-placed. The sensibilities, critical consciousness, pleasures and popularity of the locavore movement might signal a viable site of transformative political action. Or, are local food politics bound up with contemporary political structures in ways that reinforce and perpetuate them? In her trenchant critique of local food activism, Julie Guthman argues that contemporary local food politics, as they are presently conceived, reinforce rather than challenge neoliberal political formations (2008: 1181). Food activism discourses uncritically incorporate a range of neoliberal characteristics that place the onus of responsibility on the consumer. These range from voluntary food labeling schemes that depend on consumer choice as a means of regulation to food localism as a response to globalization of the food system. In short, local food politics are bound up with a broader political context that neoliberalism has rendered possible and imaginable. Food activism, in her estimation, contributes to the production of neoliberal subjectivities of the sort that acquiesce to consumer society. Indeed, the increased visibility of food politics may itself reflect the neoliberal turn, as much of this politics is engaged through consumer purchases. In some instances, people have given up on or do not even consider the role of the state to enact political transformation.  Guthman concludes that consumer-focused food initiatives bear only a tenuous relationship to a more robust politics that might potentially restructure how food is produced, distributed and consumed.

As a strategy conducive to neoliberal contexts in which individual consumers are increasingly called upon to take responsibility for health and environmental issues, the locavore movement can easily slip into normative proclamations that situate responsibility onto individuals while effacing the complex changes that have occurred within systems of governance. In her review of locavore literature, for example, Susan Wiggins sums up the hopes and aspirations of the ‘eat local’ movement:

Even if the government fails its citizens, trading their health for cheap oil and political power, there will always be those who refuse to let bad policies dictate their diets. They are the ones now eating from edible schoolyards, enjoying organic lunches on college campuses, keeping up with food blogs, or perhaps even raising their own chickens (2008: 85).

This quote illustrates, quite remarkably, the ways in which local food activism can be read as a form of neoliberal governmentality. To what degree does the language of consumer choice dominate a broader understanding of food politics so that the possibility of collective, political action aimed at changing government policy is not even realized as a possibility? In the above quote, Wiggins highlights the centrality of everyday practices (eating from edible schoolyards, buying organic foods, writing, growing one’s food) that can counterbalance the withdrawal of the state from its role in protecting public welfare.  Significantly,  she neglects to mention other forms of political resistance to poorly envisioned and executed government policies, such as voting, supporting a non-governmental activist organization or even running for political office.

So the locavore is a neoliberal subject, now what?

Gramsci said: ‘Turn your face violently towards things as they exist now’. Not as you’d like them to be, not as you think they were ten years ago, not as they’re written about in sacred texts, but as they really are: the contradictory, stony ground of the present conjuncture.

(Hall 1989, quoted in Clifford 2000: 94)

I conclude with a brief consideration of the politics and possibilities opened by the locavore movement. As Guthman notes, the most central organizing theme in contemporary food politics is consumer choice (2008: 1176). This is not surprising in a context in which we are increasingly encouraged to voice our political preferences through consumption, by ‘voting’ with our dollars and, in the case of food politics, with our mouths and stomachs. Situating local food politics within neoliberal discourse helps to illuminate the ways in which consumer politics can reinforce political structures. Is the locavore movement, however, necessarily limited by its neoliberal characteristics, or, can neoliberalism be read as a condition of possibility for food sovereignty? Put differently, what is the relationship between consumer sovereignty, as a neoliberal discourse of empowered consumption, and food sovereignty, as a call for policy transformation?

The locavore movement is noteworthy precisely because it is popular and this popularity warrants examination. As the above epigraph suggests, popular movements beckon us to make sense of them by taking them on their own terms. In the past few decades, we have witnessed the emergence of an extraordinary array of cultural politics  organized around issues of identity, lifestyle, the body, and food. These emergent politics challenge, and in some cases, defy theoretical assumptions about what counts as transformative political engagement. In mapping the effects of commodity markets on processes of political engagement, Néstor García Canclini shows that market forces, while closing some political avenues, also offer openings. To be clear, Canclini does not hold to the view that consumer choice is necessarily the same as viable politics, yet he does propose that “consumption can be good for thinking and acting in a meaningful way that renews social life” (2001: 47). Canclini is mindful of Antonio Gramsci’s contention that progressive intellectuals have not always understood the specificity of popular subjects’ historical, cultural and ideological formations. Gramsci’s work serves as a reminder that revolutionary strategies, if they are to be successful, must permit the development of procedures and policies in which popular groups can participate.

Foucault’s analytic framework offers guidance in this regard. Foucault approached neoliberalism with cautious optimism with regard to its capacity for political and social transformation (Gordon 1991: 6). He positioned it not only as a rationality and technology of governance but also of an art and an ethic of living. Foucault’s theoretical and political legacy opens analyses to the empowering potential of power. It may be that, by literally ingesting local (and, by extension, global) food politics, locavores signal and embody a distinctive art of governing food sovereignty that is inventive, innovative and, for lack of a better word, neoliberal. In other words, locavores are, for better and worse, the logical, practical and vital extension of contemporary political dynamics. They represent a form of political engagement that is full bodied, so to speak. Or, to use a Foucaultian inspired term, they manifest at a biopolitical as well as political level. They engage power at the level of life itself.

My aim is not to uncritically celebrate local food politics, nor to draw attention away from the need to transform government policy regarding food and agriculture, but to acknowledge the popularity of local food politics. If scholarship on cultural politics has taught us anything, it is that effective democratic mobilizations begin where people are, not where they ‘should’ be (Hall, 1998, Clifford, 2000). We make and remake politics in contradictory, impure and imperfect ways, negotiating and drawing from the resources that we have at our disposal. The task of critical analysis, and perhaps the project of critical eating more generally, will be to embed discourses and practices of food politics and food sovereignty within the political networks that are inherently steeped in global consumer markets. This will not provide any political guarantees nor will it necessarily generate elegant theoretical conclusions, but it does ground analysis in emergent popular struggles. Hopefully, these struggles will enable a future where access to food and productive land is a right, not for the privileged few, but for all.


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