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food / travel

The Ultimate Political Act: Eating

A farmer's son in South-Central Los Angeles
A farmer's son in South-Central Los Angeles
César Rodríguez Garavita*


BOGOTÁ — The Colombian Health Ministry wants to tax sugary drinks. The Supreme Court is ordering parliament to regulate labeling on food products so consumers know which ones contain genetically modified ingredients. A nationwide debate has begun on the poor quality of school meals, as the regional head of the World Food Programme tells us one out of every 10 Colombian children suffers from chronic malnutrition.

Given all that, for those of you who still see "food only as food...only as pleasure," as American food writer Mark Bittman declared, "your head is in the sand." Sadly, that is a fairly accurate assessment of perceptions down here Colombia, where the tendency by our media, universities and society as a whole to mostly ignore food issues has left us gazing at our navels.

Food has so many hidden aspects and profound effects that need to be made visible. What and how we eat determines how we are using the planet — and ultimately what its fate will be, Michael Pollan explained to us in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

What goes into our mouths connects three worlds: agriculture, nutrition and the environment. Each has its political, social and fundamental, legal effects. Where our food comes from and how it is made are also closely linked to the type of economy and society we live in.

There is a huge difference between farming single crops on a massive scale, on the one hand, and small-scale farming with a rotation of sustainable crops; between raising poultry in cramped warehouses and pumping livestock full of antibiotics, or raising animals in adequate conditions.

What separates the two approaches are politics and norms. Industrial-style farming would not prosper without subsidies and incentives for big corn or soy plantations, in the case of United States and Brazil, or subsidies for chemical fertilizers, as occurs in Colombia.

And those choices in turn relate to the quality of our diets and the destiny of the environment. Where big farming is subsidized, tons of excess corn are turned to chemical products that end up in fizzy drinks and junk food that cause obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which are rung up in health service costs.

In countries like Mexico, Chile and Denmark where beverages are taxed and there are restrictions on advertising junk food to children, where vegetables (not meat) are subsidized, healthcare costs and the carbon footprint take a downward turn.

We need to rebuild the vital and intellectual link between farming, nutrition and the environment. That is what alliances like Colombia's Agrarian Summit and movements to grow food in cities are proposing. All of them remind us that eating, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, is an eminently political act.

*César Rodríguez Garavita is an activist and director of Bogota's Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (DeJusticia).

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​photograph of a smartphone on a selfie stick

Smartphone on a selfie stick

Steve Gale/Unsplash
David Craig and Stuart Cunningham

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