The Global Politics of Food: A Critical Overview

45 Pages Posted: 28 Jul 2013 Last revised: 20 May 2014

See all articles by Nancy Ehrenreich

Nancy Ehrenreich

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Beth Lyon

Cornell University - Law School

Date Written: August 1, 2011


In May 2010, the Universidad Iberoamericana Ciudad México hosted an international conference on The Global Politics of Food: Sustainability and Subordination, bringing together 33 academics and activists from seven countries to exchange ideas and information on The Global Politics of Food: Sustainability and Subordination. Published in the University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, the Symposium papers examine the complex ways in which the global food system reinforces hierarchies of power and privilege. “The Global Politics of Food: A Critical Overview” provides a substantive introduction to the Symposium, identifying the disparate strands of the vast field of food politics and suggesting some of their intersections.

Like many other arenas of life, the world of food is a world of politics and power. Inequalities of power and privilege across the globe affect who has access to food and who does not, who controls its production and who is harmed by that production, how consumptive choices are constructed and constrained, and whether eating is seen as a complex, biosocial activity or as nothing more than instrumental bodily maintenance.

The global politics of food is a particularly appropriate topic to explore in an international and cross-professional context, for food issues reveal the interconnectedness of a vast array of seemingly unrelated systems - systems of international trade, rural development, public health, education, environmental protection, and social meaning-making (among others). Food is a critical concern; agriculture occupies more than half the world's population and nearly one-third of the Earth's land surface, and every member of the human race relies on its product.

A focus on food also demonstrates the cross-hemispheric connections among systems of race, class, and gender subordination - as well as environmental degradation and cruelty to animals. The industrial model of farming that poisons farm workers with pesticides in Mexico also depletes the nutritional value of the fruit they grow, and pollutes the environment during both the growing and the shipping processes. The papers presented at the conference revealed some of the many ways in which the complex systems that produce and deliver food reflect and reinforce global systems of power and privilege, affecting the most intimate recesses of human life - work, health, childraising, identity, eating.

For ease of discussion here we divide food issues into two different domains - production and consumption. By production we mean how the cultivation of agricultural products affects inter alia human labor, the quality of the food produced, animal welfare, the environment, and human economic well being - at both the domestic and international levels. In consumption we include issues of distribution of and access to food, consumer health (and its relationship to diet), education and information dissemination, and deployment of racializing ideologies of "good" and "bad" consumption. Of course, the production and consumption domains interrelate and overlap, and both “structural adjustment" and "free trade" policies, the handmaidens of corporate agriculture, are central to each. Nevertheless, we will employ this somewhat artificial distinction for ease of organization of the discussion presented here.

The Introduction also explores the ways in which, despite the existence of alternative models, the dominant approaches to food policy obscure and legitimate the widespread food insecurity, poor health, environmental degradation, and labor exploitation produced by current systems of food production and consumption. As the Symposium papers reveal, world trade law and policy are justified by an entrenched "free market fundamentalism" that must continue to be challenged. In addition, mainstream food discourses in the areas of health, nutrition, and education also obscure the systemic causes of food inequalities, and the role of food law and policy in perpetuating them.

The Conference was hosted by the Departamento de Derecho of the Universidad Iberoamericana and co-sponsored by Latina and Latino Critical Legal Theory, Inc. (LatCrit) University of Miami School of Law, Denver University Sturm College of Law, and the Seattle University School of Law Center for Global Justice, the conference took place under the auspices of the South-North Exchange on Theory, Culture and Law (SNX). The SNX is an annual event organized by LatCrit, an organization of academics and activists dedicated to bringing a critical, interdisciplinary and transnational perspective to legal scholarship and legal policy debates. The yearly gathering of scholars seeks to foster transnational, cross-disciplinary and inter-cultural dialogue on current issues in law, theory and culture.

Keywords: agricultural law, animal law, biodiversity, biofuels, CAFO, Canada, chemical fertilizers, colonialism, consumer access, consumer-supported-agriculture, contamination, corporate agriculture, disciplinary surveillance, Dominican Republic, food security, economic subordination, environmental law

JEL Classification: K32, K33, K39, J43, J58, L66, N56, R23

Suggested Citation

Ehrenreich, Nancy and Lyon, Beth, The Global Politics of Food: A Critical Overview (August 1, 2011). University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2011, Villanova Law/Public Policy Research Paper No. 2013-3053, Available at SSRN:

Nancy Ehrenreich

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

Beth Lyon (Contact Author)

Cornell University - Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

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