Counihan C. & Siniscalchi V. (Ed).2014. Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
1The co-edited book Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy (2014) by Carole Counihan and Valeria Siniscalchi provides its reader with a diverse array of case studies of food activist practices. Both editors are professors in anthropology and specialized in the field of Anthropology of Food. Most contributors are from this field as well, ranging from PhD candidates to researchers and anthropologists who are all experts on food, social movements, globalization or agriculture in various ways. The numerous authors in the volume zoom in on diverse forms of contemporary food activism as practiced on different scales by various actors all over the world, from local engagements to national actions and transnational networks.
As such, the book contributes to debates on food politics, social movements and agency, food (in)justice and the field of anthropology of food more generally. The book explicitly claims to bring in a global anthropological perspective, which it successfully presents through different case studies from all over the world. However, although the book focuses on bringing in a global perspective, only a couple of chapters are devoted to transnational forms of food activism, while many chapters focus on quite specific small-scale – and therefore arguably narrow – case studies.
Food Activism highlights the importance of an actor-centred approach, which is not always taken into account within other work on food politics and food studies. By actively using such an approach the authors stress the importance of including the perspectives of the subjects that are involved in food activist practices and this approach pays attention to how the various actors are affected by the power relations at play within different food systems and chains.
Through these case studies the authors show how food carries values, organizes social and symbolic practices, mobilizes people, and has proven to be a domain of contestation and alternative practices all over the world. The book is divided into three parts that respectively focus on local, national and transnational settings. Each chapter of the book presents an ethnographic case study that highlights a particular example of food activism in a particular context. Examples span a wide range, including local household consumption in Santiago de Cuba (Garth 2014: 47), national Antimafia cooperatives in Sicily (Rakopoulos 2014: 113), and transnational peasant farmers in the feminist movement La Vía Campesina (Thivet 2014: 193). These examples are additionally connected throughout the book to notions of agency, democracy, economy, and power relations more generally, in order to reflect on what these food activist practices are aiming to contest or achieve.
The volume provides a clear overview of what food activism is and how different actors practice it. Especially the introductory chapter by Counihan and Siniscalchi provides an insightful overview of food activism as a concept, linking it to bigger notions of power, agency and economy. Thereby, they point out that in exploring food activisms, it needs to be taken into account that such practices are never universally applicable or monolithic. Rather, food activist practices span a wide range of contexts, scales, activities, actors and modes of enacting agency, both local and global, always influenced by context, history and differently layered institutional structures. As such, the volume not only touches upon the various forms food activism can take, but also shows more generally that activism can be practiced in many different ways and does not necessarily involve ‘taking the streets’.
The strength of this volume lies in highlighting the variety of food activist practices out there, while connecting them through their underlying understanding of food as much more than an ingredient or commodity with monetary value. The different authors move beyond the issue of food by connecting it to notions of agency, democracy and economy. Agency is engaged with by focussing on the individual and institutional power relations that are at play in a case study as well as the motivation, action and results that a particular group of food activists holds. The authors do not give one unifying definition of agency, but rather focus on how it is enacted in the context of their case study. In a similar way, democracy and economy are engaged with differently by the various authors and the actors they describe: while for some democracy might entail collective equality, or universal access to healthy food, for others it is closer to « libertarian notions of individual freedom » and consumer choices (Counihan and Siniscalchi 2014: 9). Therefore, the book points out larger political gains such practices might be aiming at such as circumventing the state, achieving a more democratic market, fighting for food sovereignty or protest against GMOs.
An example is the chapter by Joan Gross on Food Activism in Western Oregon that cleverly implements a wider theoretical framework – that is inspired by feminist duo J.K. Gibson-Graham and features their « ice-berg model » – to illustrate the value of resocializing the economic ties around food. Gross argues that it is « [c]apitolocentric hegemony [that] impedes us from properly acknowledging the many ways in which people provide for themselves and their communities » (Gross 2014: 16). By implementing such a model – that is used and recognized by scholars working with feminist theory, Marxism, and theories of the commons – Gross successfully broadens the context of Western Oregon and addresses bigger debates, making the chapter a relevant read for a wide audience.
Hence, the book insightfully shows that food activism can be reconceptualised as a way of addressing bigger power structures and injustices, such as land grabbing, increasing taxes and privatization of land, domination and oppression by governments or mafia and food insecurity. Its focus on the local, national and transnational scales in which food activism is practiced, connects the local with the global. By concentrating on the social politics and potential activist side that surrounds food it is a valuable addition to the field of anthropology of food. Moreover, by exploring the variety of food activism, the different authors highlight the various economic, regional, political and cultural lines along which it is practiced.
However, this variety is at times also a pitfall: some case studies are so specific that they will not mean much to readers who are more interested in a more general notion of food activism rather than very specific local organizations or activists. Although the chapters are short, accessible and easily readable, they could sometimes benefit from a more in-depth theoretical framework. This is mainly the case for the section that focuses on local practices, as these chapters tend to focus very much on the specific experience of the subjects. This actor-centred focus is really important and helps to shift focus to the agency and social contestation of these individuals, but could be strengthened by embedding the case studies within a larger political framework to include the larger systems and power structures that it addresses.
An example is Hanna Garth’s chapter on «Resistance and Household Food Consumption in Santiago de Cuba ». As Garth describes in the case of Cuba, resisting state-provided food and spreading rumours can be an active form of discursive resistance and an expression of the agency of the citizens on a level of consumption: although they might not have the power to actively change something in the food chain, their practice fosters «solidarity among the populace and provide[s] an outlet for consumers to vent frustrations » (Garth 2014: 54). Nevertheless, as the chapter mainly focuses on specific households in the context of Cuba, it seems less connected to bigger debates on food politics, activism and contesting strategies, which would otherwise make it relevant to a broader audience. Still, this chapter successfully opens up the notion of food activism by including resistance on a consumer level as a form of enacting agency, and shows how citizens attempt to resist the state.
2To conclude, the different authors of the volume show that food activism can take many forms and is often an accessible way to alter or access the economic system, enact agency and practice food production, consumption and distribution in more democratic ways. Although at times concentrating on a specific and local context, rather than a bigger and more in-depth theoretical framework, the authors provide an inclusive and clear overview of different forms and practices of food activism. Its understandable language and explicit references to how food activism relates to agency, democracy and economy for the respective activists make it an inviting read for scholars and students interested in fields of anthropology, sociology, food studies and political ecology. Therefore this book is not only recommended for anthropologists and students interested in food (and) activism, but is more generally a valuable read for anyone interested in food politics, alternative economies, social contestation, agency, social movements, and social and economic justice.