Food, Labour and Ecology

By: Jerik Brown (Secretary, IWW Vancouver GMB)

Separating food production from the global commodities market is a key component of, and a crucial first step towards achieving both social and of course ecological sustainability. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had been relying on sugar cane as a cash crop which they used for trade with Soviet bloc (and a few other) countries in return for food and consumer goods. After the collapse of the USSR, Cubans had to radically reimagine their food production strategies which in the end resulted in possibly the most sustainable food production systems on earth – all this without relying on global trade networks and the flawed logic of comparative advantage and structural adjustment which plagued so many of Cuba’s neighbours during the 80’s and 90’s.From a western, urban perspective however, this means establishing an inclusive and secure culture of urban agriculture and perhaps most importantly, a culture of local eating. Beyond the obvious (hello, climate crises!) steps in this direction help to A) resolve what Marx described as the town/country antithesis and B) develop a sense of social capital among workers who can reconstruct themselves as something like urban farmers (key links in the food and sustainability chain), rather than underutilized wage labourers – alienated from both the process and product of their labour.  For some perspective on this issue, we need to take a step back into the 19th century, where Marx observed that cities and rural communities had between them a kind of metabolism – wherein cities consumed food and other raw materials produced in towns and villages (which despite their importance in the creation of wealth, remain much poorer than cities) and indeed consumed people insofar as peasants were being separated from their means of subsistence by the enclosure movement and advances in agricultural technology etc. and forced to find work in the growing industrial centers of England. While this metabolism is less stark now than it might have been in Marx’s day, it still very much exists: much of the food that is consumed in our cities comes from abroad, and agricultural regions remain an important source of immigration into Canadian cities (e.g. the Punjab and other Asian agricultural regions).  As it stands, the relationships many people have to food production is often mediated through the lens of the McJob which thrive on alienating workers from the process of production through an at times breathtakingly sophisticated division of labour. Equally breathtaking, is of course the veritable omnipresence of fast food advertising and the ubiquitous presence of many of these bands in our collective cultural psyche. All this together goes a long way in terms of deepening unhealthy misconceptions commonly held around food (misconceptions which are of course very profitable!); and indeed the immediate relationships between food, ecology and the environment. Establishing at least some measure of local (and ideally) worker control over what we eat is important and will require the cooperating and coordination of workers at every level of the supply chain – from farms (urban or otherwise) to the grocery store stock room right to the restaurant floor.

There are however a number of organizations which are working to address some of these issues from both the rural, and the urban perspective:



This post was informed in large part by Paul Burkett’s book “Marx and nature: a red and green perspective”.



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