In his article, Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, author Michael F. Maniates grapples with what he calls the individualization of responsibility that has become embedded into neoliberal environmentalism. This critique starkly undermines Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, which ends with a vague prescription for prudent consumer choices as a method of subverting the industrial food system. Neither Maniates or Pollan addresses fully, however, the ways in which food has been historically used to colonize Indigenous peoples, and assimilate them into mainstream culture. Their analyses largely fail to include Native understandings and experiences of the formation of the industrial food system, which often bring to light the colonial-capitalist underpinnings grounding our current food system, a structure which Indigenous scholar Charlotte Coté calls: food hegemony. (Coté, Charlotee. Food Sovereignty, Food Hegemony, and the Revitalization of Indigenous Whaling Practices. 10).
In her essay, Indigenizing Food Sovereignty, Coté describes the introduction of processed foods in Native boarding schools. Under Canadian and United States Indigenous policy, Native children were removed from their homes and placed in schools often run by church affiliates and officials. In these residential schools “Indigenous children were forced to eat foods that many had never eaten before, foods such as domesticated meats, cheese, wheat flour, and sugar, and were estranged from their own traditional and healthy diets.” (Coté, Charlotte. Indigenizing Food Sovereignty. 3). This initial switch towards the “Western diet” resulted in a battery of health issues. In many cases, such as amongst the Nuu-chah-nulth community located on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the resulting population of malnourished Indigenous youth was then subjected to studies conducted by the state doubling down on the traditional Western diet to observe its effects on a group of nutritionally deficient children. (Coté, Charlotte. Indigenizing Food Sovereignty. 5). The results of some of these studies helped produce contemporary guidelines for a healthy Western diet. Nowhere in Maniates essay, or Pollan’s book do they address the fact that a homogenized diet played a key role in the assimilationist policies used to lacerate Indigenous traditional epistemologies and ontologies. Contradicting Native ways-of-knowing which are primarily place-based, rooted in what Indigenous scholar Glen Coulthard calls, “grounded normativity,” (Coulthard, Glen. Red Skins, White Masks. 55) capitalist agricultural paradigms require that the connections between individual and land be abstract. In this way, the violences inherent to the modern food system can be rendered ambiguous and pushed to the periphery of the collective social conscience. Understanding food hegemony as a tool in the colonial agenda also disrupts linear developmentalist discourses normalizing the industrial food system.
Maniates suggests that “when responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society—to, in other words, “think institutionally.” (Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, 33). Maniates thus frames individualization of responsibility and identity as an impediment to analyzing existing political and social paradigms effectively. Again, this critique can be elevated by turning to Indigenous epistemologies. Embedded in most Indigenous belief systems is the understanding that human identities are constructed within a living materiality—that is we are made not only in relationship to a human community, but a vibrant non-human world that has agency and is alive. These beliefs are inherently and quintessentially communalistic, fundamentally challenging the individualism considered so dangerous by Maniates. (Million, Dian. Indigenous Matters. 98). Coté writes, “Indigenous peoples have recognized the dangers of a worldview that commodifies and de-sanctifies the earth. Dependence on the global food economy threatened Indigenous food systems and practices and… this disconnect was key to the process of colonization. Colonial governments worked systematically to break our ancestors’ connections to our homelands.” (Coté, Charlotte. Indigenizing Food Sovereignty. 7). Coté also notes that the same cycle can be utilized in reverse to restore human-land relationships, and thus reestablish healthy, equitable food systems that acknowledge the coevalness of human and nature. She writes, “A feedback loop is also embedded here; the more we learn to restore local food practices, the more likely we are to defend those practices, and the stronger our cultural ties to our homeland become. If we choose this course of action, we can simultaneously engage both the resurgence and resistance elements of a decolonization movement. Our survival will depend on it.” (Coté, Charlotte. Indigenizing Food Sovereignty. 7). This feedback loop extends beyond the context of Indigenous food sovereignty. Settlers would also do well to reconnect with their heritage cuisines, undermining the current corporate food paradigm by investing in community-oriented food systems that de-commodify food by moving it outside the contemporary capitalist framework. In this context individual responsibility becomes collective action.
In ignoring the colonial roots of the industrial food system, both Pollan and Maniates fail to recognize the role of food in upholding modern colonial power structures. Although Maniates advocates correctly for systemic change, he misses an important step in acknowledging that the current system is not broken. In fact, the income disparities and structural barriers that render Pollan’s advocacy for individual choice so irrelevant, are working well and as they should be in upholding a compliant, deficient, and dependent working class. Furthermore, while Maniates does well to position his argument against neoliberalist ideologies of individual choice, he falls short of naming neoliberalism as “free-market fundamentalism,” (Peña, Devon. The Watershed Commonwealth of the Upper Rio Grande. 181) seeking to privatize all institutions and objects of life representative of collective action. In this regard, turning to Indigenous theory for understanding the contemporary agricultural model can be a prudent means of understanding how to undermine the corporate food paradigm radically—that is to deconstruct it from its roots. In short, systemic change needs to be more than redistributive, it must seek out a shift in paradigm and become transformative.
Charlotte Coté. (2016). “Indigenizing” Food Sovereignty. Revitalizing Indigenous Food Practices and Ecological Knowledges in Canada and the United States. Humanities, 5(3), 57.
Coté, Charlotte. “Food Sovereignty, Food Hegemony, and the Revitalization of Indigenous Whaling Practices.” Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2015.
Coulthard, G. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks : Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Indigenous Americas). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Peña, Devon. “The Watershed Commonwealth of the Upper Rio Grande.” Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2003.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin Books, 2009.
Maniates, M. (2001). Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World? Global Environmental Politics, 1(3), 31-52.