Food Justice: A Primer, edited by Saryta Rodríguez condenses a wide-angle view of ethical considerations surrounding the production and distribution of food into a concise collection of essays that is richly informative and thoroughly persuasive. This 239-page paperback covers a large range of topics, historical and contemporary. Each section is united by the common thread of undertaking the study “through a vegan praxis.” In other words, viewing non-human animals as deserving the same rights and dignity as people, when identifying the problematics of agriculture and proposing solutions. But this perspective should not be misunderstood as a narrowly defined scope through which to examine the topic. Rather, it is necessarily at the core of the issue and this book’s focus brings that reality to the forefront.
As the arguments put forward in each of the pieces show, food justice is not just about food; it is interconnected with many areas of life, such as how we work, our attitudes toward others, and how we perceive the world around us and affect it with our actions (or inactions). An essay by Lilia Trenkova draws bold parallels between racism as a driving force behind colonialism and neo-colonialism and speciesism—the idea that humans are superior to other animals and by extension, all manner of cruelty may be excused—as the widely unchallenged belief responsible for the inhumane treatment of animals, including their use as food. These parallels follow through their resulting effects on inequitable food supply. Just as the mercantile practices of colonial and neo-colonial countries squeeze the economies and drain resources from less developed countries, the (mis)use of land for animal agriculture significantly reduces the maximum amount of food that can be produced, and applies upward pressure on prices, thereby artificially limiting resources and increasing food costs. In another essay, Saryta Rodríguez points to data that show that cows used for beef consume twenty-five times more food than they produce. Conditions for farm workers are also netted in this equation of systemic superiority, as Trenkova dissects how racist attitudes baked into the North American Free Trade Agreement created second tier system, where laborers in Mexico and immigrants in the U.S. are not afforded the same basic rights that many American workers take for granted.
Land use is also addressed in other contexts throughout. The book’s introduction briefly describes some notable land rights campaigns including the formation of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in 1984 and Palestine’s Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in 1986. The UAWC is referenced as an example of a group that fights for food sovereignty, which is under the umbrella of food justice and pertains to a peoples’ ability to choose how their food is produced, distributed, and consumed. The MST is a movement that settled people to work on unused land and was able to make legal claims on much of that land through a part of Brazil’s constitution enshrining land as serving a public function.
Among the essays, the book also includes an interview by Saryta Rodríguez with Gustavo Oliviera, a spokesperson for Occupy the Farm, which comprised of a couple hundred activist farmers who took over an unused plot of land belonging to the University of California, Berkeley that had been slated for commercial development. It is an inspiring story of grass-roots direct action that demonstrates that anyone can take part in effecting change.
Rodríguez aptly curates an enormous depth of information and perspective in this slim volume making for a well-paced read that is small enough to carry on the go. After reading this compelling compendium, one cannot ignore that achieving food justice depends on recognizing that animal agriculture is unsustainable. Therefore, the notion that a complete and internally consistent understanding of food justice has as much to do with issues of equitable supply and distribution as workers’ rights and animal rights should not be a revolutionary one.
Dale Classen is a Brooklyn-based musician and sound designer. Dale performs with the band Grim All Day and lives with two cats, Sonny and Toad. He graduated from Stony Brook University with a B.A. in psychology.