Disruptive Action and the Food Movement

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of disruptive action in affecting political change, and how this might relate to “the food movement”.

What I mean by “disruptive action” is masses of people disrupting the established order. Strikes, blockades, sit-ins, riots, occupations and so on are manifestations of people power that do not follow the guidelines for “acceptable action” set by political/economic elite classes. As such, these manifestations are far more threatening to those classes than other forms of action, and are more effective in bringing about social change (in the substantive sense).

The emblematic examples of disruptive action in recent US history are, of course, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and #Black Lives Matter (#BLM). These movements have been uncontrolled by a central leader or organization, exist primarily out on the streets and in confrontations with powers-that-be (whether police, politicians, or white supremacy broadly), and have truly disrupted the idea that business-as-usual is a viable option.

Both OWS’s and #BLM’s effects have thus far been more so on our society’s ideas and discourses than its policy or institutions. However, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither is social change. Often, changes in discourse prefigure a larger shift in culture and commitments, by contributing—alongside various disruptive courses of action and construction of on-the-ground alternatives—to pushes towards change “at the top”.

This is what the history of the early 20th century into the New Deal shows: the ascendance of organized and disruptive labor power legitimated the working class’s rights to a greater share of social wealth and threatened the existing elite management of society. New Deal policy changes (the kind that are now considered “socialist” in Fox News discourse) were the outcome of this crisis of legitimacy.

disrupting powerIt is my contention (and certainly there are others who have thought this before or written entire books upon the thesis) that disruptive forms of action are far more effective than reformist working “by the books” or “inside the system”.


This isn’t to say no one should do reformist things, or that they are useless point-blank. It’s more to say that, in the absence of disruptive action, and in the presence of a corrupt political system profoundly skewed towards elites, insider efforts are very unlikely to lead to substantive change. Instead, they lead to co-optation of change energy, and milquetoast reforms that do not really challenge the status quo.

Another way of saying this is that insofar as your desired political changes would truly upset the entrenched power of economic/political elites, the more disruptive power must be manifested to achieve them.

So what does this have to do with “the food movement”? Well, for lack of a better term to describe an amorphous thing, “the food movement” has gained lots of discourse traction (i.e. the idea that food systems should change has become widely acknowledged)—but it doesn’t tend to exert the disruptive muscle that movements against economic inequality and political corruption (i.e. OWS) and structural, endemic, murderous racism (i.e. #BLM) have manifested. The food movement’s adoption of disruptive tactics is limited (I am guessing) by the kinds of people that compose the movement, and the kinds of problems it faces.

Hippies went “back-to-the-land” in the mid-20th century, becoming landowners but failing to shift land use patterns writ large. Environmentalists have floundered in addressing industrial agriculture’s impacts via litigation, policy, or market change campaigns. Food security groups have barely made a dent in rates of hunger as poverty progresses, securing (at best) the continued existence of food banks, while food justice groups have elevated the importance of social justice in food movements, but haven’t gained much more than gardens and jobs programs. Small farmers are marginalized economically and politically, and sustainable agriculture (at least judged by the imperfect proxy of “organic” certified farming) constitutes less than 1% of farmland, or 5% of sales value.

I certainly don’t mean to disparage of these efforts! Yet I would argue that too little disruption by most aspects of the movement has led to too little success in bringing about transformative food systems change.

As an example of the food movement’s limited policy influence, see the 20+ years of work by sustainable agriculture advocates for more support through the US Farm Bill: while achieving small incremental victories of funding here and there, advocates have failed to derail the existing direction of massive public funds towards agribusiness profit enhancement. The Farm Bill continues on course, bolstering the “bad food” system while undermining the possibilities of transitioning to a good one. No one in the USDA, Congress, the FDA, or any relevant administration seems scared or willing to challenge the established order. What should be simple, uncontroversial asks (for example, that sustainable agriculture research be funded at levels equivalent to its market share or demand for sustainable foods) are largely kept off the table.

Yet why would we expect this policy-focused part of the food movement to act disruptively anyway? Certainly there are other facets to the food movement, but those parts that are composed of educated, middle class environmentalists, professional nonprofiteers, and urbanite foodies are less likely to participate in (or even approve of) disruptive action. As some more revolutionary-minded analysts have argued (in relation to “class struggle” which is similar but not equivalent to disruptive action):

People … engage in class struggle because they can no longer continue living as they did before. When the risks of taking confrontational and militant actions are relatively low compared to the consequences of continuing life as normal, then people are pushed into class struggle.

Unjust and racially inflected police shootings are not new by any means—yet for those living their lives under constant threat of such violence they have passed the limit of tolerability. As such, many people experience (and talk about) these shootings as an acute issue. The 2008 debt-sparked economic crisis was likewise viewed as an acute historical moment of crisis, though it had plenty of historical precedents and lead-up. One should see these crises as moments reflecting chronic (i.e. long-term) problems, though they are noteworthy for how their acute manifestations commanded attention and sparked disruptive responses.

In contrast, most problems in the food system (and as we’ve seen, there are many!)—environmental damage, social injustice, ill health—tend to be more chronic in their nature and appearance.

Type II Diabetes doesn’t happen suddenly, but takes hold over the years of eating unhealthy foods. The poverty that so many folks experience is painfully chronic, and is less often experienced as a sudden change, or seen as directly related to food systems issues. [1]Non-point source pollution” (like nitrogen runoff from thousands of over-applications of fertilizers on thousands of farms) is less acute than, say, the effects of fracking operations, which have led to multiple local activist responses. And for many examples, there are no clear responsible parties who would be obvious targets of disruptive action: the system is too large and diffuse.

My question for this piece, then, is: are there avenues towards a disruptive set of tactics for the food movement? What examples might we build from?

The “Fight for $15” movement, started by fast food chain workers (but since expanded well beyond) might be one of the best recent examples of labor organizing in the food system that involves elements of disruption. While the Fight also takes it to company boardrooms, legislators, and other power brokers, its main element has been directly organizing workers in fast food chains and organizing with them walkouts, strikes, protests, and other displays of social force. The effect has been clear: multiple state and local governments, and even a few companies, have committed to the $15/hour minimum wage.

More on the illegal side has been the widespread use of the tactic of burning GMO experimental test fields as way to prevent GMOs’ spread and success, and as a registering of dissent to the researchers and companies that profit from their existence. These direct actions have not made apparent damage overall to the pro-GMO project, which continues. But according to a quote from the above-linked article (which is unsympathetic to the “vandals” it studies), “most researchers have been discouraged by anti-GMO activists destroying field trials”: disruption adds additional financial and social cost to the process of GMO development. In addition, these actions inspire those who are directly impacted by and opposed to GMO crop development.

Even more risky, in that the disruptive action in question cannot be done in the cover of night, is what one might call “massive forced retail redistribution”, a.k.a. group shoplifting for Robin Hood ends (the link is to a video of such an action by union organizers and the mayor of a small town in Spain). Such groups have stolen food goods from large corporate chain retailers, and distributed them for free among sectors of the poor. These actions are sometimes accompanied by rhetoric aimed at corporate control not just of food production but also its distribution, and the need to see food as a human right rather than commodity.

Another example of food/farming-related disruptive direct action I know well is the “Occupy the Farm” action and campaign that started in spring of 2012. Coming off the heels of OWS, Occupy the Farm was a great example of directing the Occupy energy towards tangible goals of increasing community access to urban farm land, while also pushing for changes in discourses about food systems and their problems/solutions. The group illegally occupied a piece of land threatened with development, successfully pressuring the University of California (the land’s “owner”) to change plans and convert the land into an agroecological learning farm.

I’ve written about OTF extensively elsewhere, but the lesson is clear: sometimes, land occupations by cadres of activists—when mobilizing existing histories of community demands for land and placing decision-makers in uncomfortable positions—can win local demands and change the story.

Perhaps the key is to pair the right disruptive action with the right target, both structurally (who is in charge? what structures can be changed?) and in terms of the particular policy/issue demands. For example, Occupy the Farm targeted university plans to develop the farmland instead of using it as an agricultural resource (as was the University’s “land grant” mandate)—they didn’t just occupy any ol’ coveted piece of privately owned land. The action focused on the issues of community land access, urban farming, sustainability, and food sovereignty, through action focused on a particular piece of land with relevance to these issues.

Similarly, direct actions against GMOs could take it to the fields, but also the offices of agrichemical corporations. Direct action could disrupt the hubs of the grain/feed/livestock nexus, by shutting down the grain silos and interrupting the train lines that deliver key feeds from farm fields to factory farm CAFOs.

Direct actions for farmworker rights include the recent Driscoll’s berry boycott, and the sometimes-referenced legacy of the Safeway grape boycotts (and strikes). These more “traditional” forms of worker organizing—pickets, boycotts, and consumer education—might be made more powerful through deeper labor/consumer alliances. What if many eaters came out to support direct actions by workers or farmers? Would it be possible to organize and finance land, factory, or building take-overs that could employ the unemployed and reclaim food-related infrastructure?

How can we scale up food-related direct actions so that they are truly disruptive—so disruptive and widespread that people must talk about them, the way society has been forced to discuss income inequality, political corruption, and state violence against Black bodies?

Or perhaps there is a different way to build up disruptive capacity?

Maybe “food movement” people need to join existing disruptive (“non-food”) movements, like #BLM? By doing so, we could support such movements with our resources and time, and learn the skills, challenges, and processes of “doing disruption”. Additionally, cross-sector solidarity could be built. And perhaps through this solidarity-based engagement, more food-systems-focused ideas and strategies would be integrated into those networks? [2]

At the least, there are some hopeful indications that large environmentalist mobilization groups (like 350.org and Friends of the Earth) see the important connections between disruptive mobilization and achieving social justice, and are increasingly willing to support campaigns like Fight for 15 and #BLM (at least rhetorically).

I’m by no means settled on these ideas of strategy. I’ve simply been thinking about them, they are just initial ideas, and am curious to hear your thoughts.


[1] Although the food riots of 2007/2008 show how much poverty can manifest in disruptive action related to food, when desperation is high enough.

[2] There certainly is an existing overlap between #BLM and land/food justice work: many Black-led organizations are pioneering decolonization/organizing frameworks for organizing in their communities, including garden projects. But I’d argue that not enough non-Black “food justice” organizations and projects are engaging directly and publically supporting #BLM actions.

[Post script: it seems the most active “direct actionistas” of the food movement are the animal liberationists. A web platform called “Direct Action Everywhere” says it all. Sadly, I can’t say I support this particular form of food movement disruptive action, if only because I find their arguments about animal liberation unconvincing and dogmatic, and their approach to solutions moralistic yet indefensible ecologically. I’m all for an end to factory farming and animal exploitation, but I don’t think we get there by equating all consumption and use of animal products as “speciesist”.]

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