Some thoughts on power
Can Foucault teach us something about agriculture?
As we continue to explore language as a form of power, it seems important to ask some questions about what power even means in the context of agriculture. We use the word all the time; we even characterise our work sometimes as “confronting unjust power in the food system.” But what is power? What makes it just or unjust? What are its uses? When can it be a force for good?
None of these questions has an easy answer, and I won’t try to give definitive ones here. But I think it’s worth exploring these questions together because having a working understanding of what the concept means—for anyone interested in doing systems change of any kind—seems like a pretty essential starting place.
In the last few weeks, as I’ve thought about these questions, I’ve been reading a lot of Michel Foucault (or, more accurately, reading other people writing about Foucault, because I find the original texts to be kind of unreadable). I think there are some ideas housed in his work that have really shifted how I think about power in the context of food systems work and are worth exploring.
I’ll offer some big caveats, though. I’m not an expert in critical discourse analysis, so it’s very possible I might mischaracterise some things. I also think, in general, that it’s a big shame that a lot of work like Foucault’s is so filled with jargon and academic-speak because it makes it inaccessible to many people, and when you’re writing about the role of power in a society, it seems important that this knowledge can be accessed by the many. I also think it’s important to try to engage with some of these ideas, even without being an expert in them, so I’ll try to make a start here.
Okay, caveats over. Back to power. If someone asked me on the spot to define it, I’d probably fall back on something pretty vague, like “the ability to influence someone into doing something they would not otherwise have done,” because those are the definitions I’ve always heard. Common conceptions like this present power as something you possess; the powerful have this influence over others; the powerless do not. Corporations have power over farmers. Men have power over women. Power, in this conception, is a static object, a form of domination, something used by the few to disadvantage the many. It can be transferred to someone when they enter a particular role which grants them this power over others, like a judge or a president or a manager in the workplace. If they were to leave that role, they would no longer possess that power.
Foucault thinks about power differently. As I understand it, he thinks of power as more of a network, a constant interplay between acts of dominance, resistance, and submission that shape our actions in various ways—not only by constraining us but also by producing new realities. As he puts it:
“Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the forms of a chain. It is never localised here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or a piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power ... In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application” (Two Lectures in: Power/Knowledge, p. 93 & 98).
Foucault doesn’t present this picture of a ruling class that controls everyone beneath them. Rather, power is something that circulates amongst individuals through different practices and beliefs. That’s not to say that the more overt, violent forms of power do not exist; they certainly do. But he extends the definition of power to include things that are often left out of the conversation.
This left me questioning my previous definition of power. Is power only the ability to get someone to do something they might not otherwise have done? To what extent is power the ability to shape how someone thinks about something, to dictate what is normal, what is acceptable, and what is sanctioned, as Foucault proposes? I found a few key ideas throughout his work that I want to explore in turn, applying each to the context of food systems.
Power as a Positive Force
The first point I want to touch on is Foucault’s assertion that we too often paint power with a purely negative brush, which can obscure its importance to positive change. As he explains it:
“We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.
“If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression” (Foucault 1991).
We noticed how often we speak of power in these terms as an organisation—how often we speak of the need to confront corporations for their disproportionate power in the food system, and how unequal power dynamics are at the root of many of its problems. These things might be true, but I think there’s something helpful about not immediately classifying power as negative. Power, according to this conception, is not good or bad. It simply is. And we will never live in a world where it doesn’t exist.
Once we see it in this way, we can begin to ask ourselves better questions, like what forms of power are circulating in a given institution or context, and how can we intervene in their formation and transmission? According to Foucault, we are always both subjected to power and exercising it. This means that we can be aware of the ways that power may be misused against us, but also recognise the fact that we are also all actively shaping the discourses that produce it. In other words, we are not simply passive agents who are subjected to the whims of the powerful; instead, we are all actively shaping the discourses upon which power is founded. This means that the ‘powerful’ do not have a monopoly on power—it is dispersed among all of us.
Again, this is not to say that oppressive power does not exist, or that power is evenly distributed amongst everyone. What this framing does is take into account that many forms of power exist, and they are constantly interacting, rather than presenting it as a one-directional and inherently negative force.
This way of looking at power through a discourse lens has relevance to agriculture. Right now, at least in my view, the dominant discourse within food systems is predominantly market-driven. This discourse is centred around the idea that farmers must increase their production in order to feed a growing population and that employing industrialised technologies is the best way to do this. This view also categorises food as a purely market-driven commodity, so any solutions are filtered through this lens. But there are many other discourses: there is the conversation about soil health and regeneration, there is one on agroecology, there is one on food sovereignty and the imperative of discussing food systems through a lens of power. There are conversations about de-commodifying food, of beginning to treat it as a human right. These are all overlapping and resisting the dominant discourse, even if they manifest in different ways.
This is why we invest so much in growing the discourse about food sovereignty; because we believe it’s imperative that we envision a world where farmers have autonomy over how they grow food, that food and politics are inseparable, that a focus on agricultural practices alone is not enough. Our asserting these things is both a form of resistance to the more dominant discourse—and a form of power in and of itself—because if it influences someone else’s thinking, that is in itself a manifestation of power. And when others resist our messaging or question it, that is, in turn, a resistance. These are constantly ebbing and flowing processes, and they matter for shaping the kind of future we want to see. One day, perhaps it will seem unacceptable that food was left to the free market for so long. But we must work to get to that place.
Regimes of Truth
The next idea I wanted to explore is around what Foucault calls “regimes of truth.” This one was a bit harder to grasp, but I’ll give it a shot. Foucault believes that each society has a “regime of truth,” which broadly refers to the types of discourses it accepts, which mechanisms the society uses to distinguish between true and false statements, and how the society sanctions both. It also refers to how the society values different approaches to finding truths, and the status it affords to those who are tasked with finding them. In other words, every society has institutions that determine what is truthful and what is rational. Foucault believes that change comes through shifting this regime of truth. He also believes that the regime of truth many of us live in—that of the “Western,” “liberal” society—is what’s called the “scientific model,” wherein the scientific process is the mechanism through which we determine truth and falsehood, and expertise is the source of authority, rather than something like divine rights bestowed to a king.
Although science has its merits, there are some implications to this regime of truth. Because science is the mechanism by which we determine truth and falsehood, one powerful way of sanctioning people is by claiming that they are anti-science, which by extension means they are against truth itself. This is especially evident in agriculture the discourse around GMOs.
As the conversation has unfolded over the last few decades, the general scientific consensus has been that GMOs are safe for human consumption, because there hasn’t been much evidence otherwise. Because of this, people who advocate against GMOs (or are even sceptical of them) have been placed in the same bucket as people who oppose vaccines or are otherwise unduly sceptical about things that don’t carry much risk to human health.
Some people do have concerns over GMO safety to humans. But a large percentage, especially those we work with in the Majority World, have a problem with GMOs not because of health risks, but for reasons relating to human rights or intellectual property or economics. But that doesn’t stop very powerful institutions from firmly placing any opposition to them in the bucket of misinformation. The FDA actually spent US$3 million on a PR campaign to “dispel misinformation” about genetically modified foods, without answering to any of the relevant questions about farmers’ rights or governance.
Another potent example is Golden Rice (a GMO rice variety fortified with beta-carotine) in the Philippines, which is opposed by numerous groups. As members of the Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN) write on their website:
“Nutrition does not need to be an expensive commodity, nor rely on advanced technology. We believe that instead of pushing Golden Rice and biofortifying crops through genetic modification, governments should promote biodiversity in farms and on tables by supporting safe, healthy and sustainable food production. We are also calling on governments to pay attention to the needs of our food producers, including facilitating access to lands to till, appropriate technologies and an agriculture policy that will promote and uphold the people’s right to food and the nations’ food sovereignty.”
It’s pretty clear—they believe that Golden Rice is a worse solution than simply promoting a diverse and healthy diet that can be achieved through supporting farmers in diversifying their farms. But when we examine the response to this opposition, it’s scathing. The Guardian actually published an article with the title “Block on GM rice ‘has cost millions of lives and led to child blindness,’” blaming those who have concerns about Golden Rice for millions dying of starvation.
This assertion—that opposing GMOs equals starving people—is a potent one. It’s clear that the general consensus is that opposing GMOs is now a sanctioned position to hold, one that is, by definition, anti-science and misinformed, even when the concerns are not about the safety of GMOs directly, but an opposition to how they are distributed or owned.
This shows the power of these regimes of truth, and some of the risks that are held within our current regime. Data and research are one of the most important loci for determining truth and falsehood—for constructing reality. But although science as an institution has many benefits, data is, of course, not as neutral as it sometimes presents itself to be. Everything from deciding which topics get the research funding to deciding how to collect that data to the methods of analysis to how researchers communicate findings to the public carries elements of subjectivity because they are carried out by human beings. Of course, science is meant to account for this by being transparent about these potential sources of subjectivity, and they often don’t make too large of an impact. But these subjectivities also open the process up to potential co-option, which is something we must always contend with in food systems work. It’s also important to note that using science to determine truth and falsehood can exclude the many other valuable knowledge systems that exist because they are seen as unreliable. All of this is part of the discourse around food and agriculture and shapes how we move forward.
A Multiplicity of Freedoms
The last point I wanted to bring forward came from this Aeon article about Foucault, where the author makes a point about what Foucault’s work implies not only about power and bondage, but about freedom. One of Foucault’s main points is about how our traditional understanding of power is limiting because it assumes that it is static and one-directional, rather than taking a multitude of different forms and interacting in complex ways. There are parallels in how we think about freedom. Often, it is seen as a static state where there is no longer oppression, where certain systems no longer exist, and where nothing unjustly constrains us. It can be gained, and it can be taken away, just as it can be with power. But what if freedom manifests itself in ways just as intricate as power? As the author writes,
“Only by analysing power in its multiplicity, as Foucault did, do we have a chance to mount a multiplicity of freedoms that would counter all the different ways in which power comes to define the limits of who we can be.”
I love this idea of a “multiplicity of freedoms,” because it fits perfectly with the vision that food sovereignty proposes. Liberation will not look the same everywhere. Just as there are multiple forms of power that create challenges for realising food sovereignty, there will be multiple forms of liberation. For some, it will be the freedom to use and exchange their own seeds. For others, it might be food guaranteed as a right of citizenship. For others, it may be access to their own market. For others, it might be their land back. Freedom and liberation are not static states that we will one day achieve and then the work will be over; just like with power, they will exist as ever-evolving conversations about what is acceptable, what is ideal, and even what is true (and how we determine what is true). As such, liberation is a constant practice—and one that involves all of us—because all of us contribute to these “regimes of truth” about the world we live in. We are not separate from one another when it comes to liberation. We are all part of the same conversation about what kind of world we want to build. And for whatever reason, that framing brings me great hope.
That just about wraps up this week’s instalment—I hope that something here sparked a question, an idea, or something else to share about the way to think about power’s role in food systems work. I also wanted to mention that although this Substack focused on this topic through the lens of Foucault, we do not mean to imply that he is the only or most important voice on these topics—it’s just a jumping-off point, and we love hearing you share with us other authors or works that add to the conversation. As always, we look forward to reading your comments and discussion in the comments. If you have a question, you can reply to this email, leave a comment, or email email@example.com and we’ll do our best to get back to you or answer it in an upcoming Ask AGC edition. Thanks again for all of your ongoing support.
This blog post from UpEND Movement about the work of abolition and dismantling unjust systems. I loved it, and could honestly write an entire piece about the ideas that they captured within it, but what I appreciated was their reframing of abolition as something that builds and grows new systems in order to make the oppressive ones obsolete, rather than framing it as some cataclysmic destruction of the old systems. As they write, “When we speak of – and do the work of – abolition, we use words like imagining, reimagining, and transforming the world into a place where the family policing system, along with other racist, classist carceral systems, has become obsolete. [...] What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? … What if abolition is something that grows?” I think this idea has relevance to all kinds of systems work, food sovereignty included. It fits nicely with some of the ideas from last week, as well.
This article by Jim Goodman for Common Dreams about the absurdity of continuing to invest in the industrial system as the world faces more and more crises. It succinctly covers the failures of approaches like AGRA’s to improve the wellbeing of farmers or food security more generally.
This article by researcher Maywa Montenegro about the intimate link between language, culture and biodiversity, all threatened today by “a global epidemic of sameness.” She talks about how the global crisis of biodiversity, linguistic diversity, and cultural diversity are all just different facets of the same industrial mission to create a “monochromatic, monocultural, and homogeneous” landscape. The author explores powerful examples from all over the world all pointing to the same conclusion, that in order to truly build resilience, we must preserve diversity in all its forms. It’s a great read—we highly recommend.
Join us for the second conversation in a series organised by GRAIN and hosted by AGC, unpacking how pensions (workers' retirement savings) are being exploited to fund profit-hungry transnational corporations and disenfranchise food producers, workers, and Indigenous communities around the world. Thursday, June 9 at 10AM - 12PM ET / 14 - 16H GMT. Register at bit.ly/pension-funds.
This edition of Offshoot was written by Thea Walmsley, with editing support from the team.