Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who is working within the corporate food regime?


Over the last few months I have heard several people that I respect -- both activists and academics -- claim that the sum total of employment in the food system, as an aggregated sector of economic activity, is very significant. Of course, this employment is not in farming -- the capital intensity of industrial agriculture under the corporate food regime in countries such as Canada means that the employment linkages from farming are low. Thus, in 2006, of an employed labour force of almost 17 million in Canada, only 2.2 per cent were directly working in agriculture. Rather, work in the corporate food regime is primarily in service-sector jobs: restaurants, bars and caterers; corner stores and supermarkets; and wholesale food trade. This has a very interesting implication for those that are involved in the food movement: we will never know with any deal of accuracy how many people are employed in jobs related to the plethora of activities that are part and parcel of the corporate food regime. This is because the common categories used to assign individuals to labour market activities in both industrial and occupational censuses in the developed capitalist countries do not have the level of detail needed to construct such information.

For example, if Statistics Canada wanted to construct an aggregate measure of all those employed or having an occupation in Canada's food system, it is obvious that someone who has the occupation of 'chef' (occupational category G411 in Canada's 2006 census) would be assigned as working within the food system. However, someone working in the Human Resources department at Monsanto (occupational category B021 in Canada's 2006 census) works in human resources, and not the food system, according to Statistics Canada, and at the level of aggregation used by Statistics Canada could not be separated from someone working in the Human Resources department of a financial institution. The same would apply in other developed capitalist countries. Similarly, employment in specialty food stores (industrial category 4452 in Canada's 2006 census) could be captured as work within the food system, but someone who is employed within a university (industrial category 6113 in Canada's 2006 census) and teaches food studies could not be separated from someone teaching astrophysics and thus could not be counted as working in the food system.

This is not simply an arcane matter of definition. For local, regional, national and international food movements to unite, it is important that the food system be seen as a livelihood issue, rather than simply an issue for 'consumers' or 'producers'. In order to be seen as a livelihood issue, it would certainly be helpful to know how many people's livelihoods depended upon the food system. Citizens and farmers are connected because both need to be able to construct viable (and meaningful) livelihoods in order to take part in the food system -- and yet the food movement will not be in a position to conclusively demonstrate the extent to which livelihoods in global, national and local economies depend upon the food system.

What can be said, however, is that the extremely ambiguous statistics that we do have substantiate the proposition that the food system is a significant source of livelihoods. For example, aggregating industrial classifications in the 2006 Canadian census that can be directly linked to the food system demonstrates that 13.8 per cent of all Canadians were employed in a food system-related activity. It can also be unambiguously stated that this is a dramatic understatement of the actual numbers of those whose livelihoods depend upon the food system in Canada: it does not include educators, researchers, government civil servants, financiers or hauliers, among others, who might be employed in a food system-related activity. It is also significant that many of those that can be counted as working within the food system are not unionized, while many of those that cannot be counted but are in fact working within the food system are unionized. The implication is very clear: as a livelihood issue, the character of the corporate food regime must become a central concern for the labour movement.