Should we force supermarkets to send food waste to charities?

Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan
Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

I’ve been seeing a lot of news about food waste recently. In February, a report revealed that governments could save up to US$300 billion per year by cutting food waste. In March, it was announced that Loblaw’s, one of Canada’s major food retailers and supermarket chains, will start selling ‘ugly fruit’ at a discount. Then came the stories about start-ups in the US who are trying to source discarded vegetables from farmers, re-using them for other products.

And last week, many people excitedly posted the news from France: the government will force supermarket chains to send their food waste to charities. This announcement led several to suggest that the UK, and even the whole world, which tops EU in food waste, should follow France’s example. And now, I’m reading stories about a new ‘social movement’ in Germany, where people volunteer to pick up and redistribute food from grocery stores, food retailers, bakeries, and restaurants.

I recently completed a three-year research project where I studied the food waste system in Canada. Specifically, I interviewed food bank directors and researchers, trying to piece together the history of how food banks evolved. Knowing this, friends and family enthusiastically send me articles describing these new ‘solutions’ to food waste, thinking I’d also be excited. However, having studied the food waste system, I find it difficult to respond without being too much of a downer: it won’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these are all promising developments. Sending surplus food to charities will mean that supermarkets will bear part of the costs of the food waste they produce, and that the poor get access to more food. Selling ugly vegetables will mean landfills don’t get filled with perfectly good produce. In short, they mean that we are in part succeeding at making our food system smarter. However, I don’t think this is really a cause to celebrate.

“If you care about changing the food system, then selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities is not the answer.”

A story might help explain why I don’t think such efforts will address the food waste problem. Any discussion around food brings up a lot of feelings, so I’ll use a proxy. Say you own a major retail company, selling toys. You sell toys at really cheap prices, allowing as many kids as possible all over the world to get them. But some kids, because their parents don’t have any money, don’t get the toys. Meanwhile, because you try to produce as many toys as possible, for as many different kids (and parents) as possible, you will make a lot of toys that no one wants to buy. Also, accidents happen, and often. A pallett of dolls falls to the ground, breaking the boxes. A whole line of toys gets mislabeled. Because toys are quite cheap to make, it’s actually less expensive to dump these toys in the landfill than to pay someone to unbox them, sort them, re-label them, and so on.

But say a bunch of concerned citizens realize all these toys are being thrown out. This is ridiculous–kids all over the world are crying because they don’t get toys (and for many other reasons too, but let’s put that aside). So they approach one of your store managers and ask, can we take your broken toys and give them away for charity?

At first, your store manager isn’t into it. It will be annoying to let these people into the warehouse and rummage around. But they say they’ll make it easy for her: volunteers will drive in, pick up all the toys really fast, and drive out. She also concedes that, actually, it is a real shame that all these toys are being thrown out. So she agrees.

Pretty soon store managers at different locations are telling you the same thing. People are picking up toys and giving them away… all for free! You didn’t have to lift a finger. What’s more, they’re minimizing the costs of sending more things to the landfill–which often is calculated by weight. So you call in a bunch of these benevolent citizens and you tell them, “Listen, what you’re doing is great. We want to help you. We’ll give you funding, and all the broken toys you want. We’ll make it easier for you, so you don’t even have to ask a store manager anymore. We’ll also organize country-wide advertising so that consumers can give away their toys and know about all the good work you–and my company–are doing.”

This is an offer they can’t refuse–the toy-charities were quite expensive to maintain, since the amount of refused toys just seemed to keep increasing. Volunteers, many of whom take the toys home themselves, are tired, and any less work is appreciated. They are glad to get the extra support.

In order to cut costs even further, you put some of the broken and ugly toys in your store–advertising them as a new, smarter way to cut waste. You might also send some of your new designs to the charities as test products, to see if any of them catch on–a cheap way to do consumer product testing.

Eventually, your efforts are rewarded. The ugly toys campaign turns out to be an excellent public relations strategy, at very small costs to you. Soon enough, the government mandates that all toys should make their way to charities, which you helped create in the first place. While this will incur some costs–you’d have to make it easier for charities to pick up the toys, which will mean hiring more staff–you still benefit from the publicity you receive from the charity efforts, and you won’t really need to change your production line. So in the long run, not a big deal.

But what’s the problem here?

  1. Even if you sponsor these charities, the financial support they receive doesn’t nearly compare to the amount of labor involved. Essentially, you’re shifting toy-waste-processing costs onto volunteers, who are doing the work that your company really ought to do. In the field of ecological economics, this is called cost-shifting, and it is one of the primary tools corporations use to increase their profit margin at the expense of society.
  2. Many of these volunteers are there because they themselves can’t get access to toys. Or they need to fulfill community service hours because of a sentence. Or they don’t have anything else to do–they live lives of isolation. While you’re making the profits, these (mostly marginalized) people are paying the price of sorting your toys.
  3. It’s not the waste that’s the root of the problem. It’s the production line. You’re producing cheap toys that break easily (endangering children), paying your workers minimum wage, and you constantly produce new toy designs that may not be bought but fill up the shelves nonetheless–guaranteeing a satisfied customer who’ll keep coming back for more.
  4. While the government may mandate that you send your toys to charities, they do nothing to support the charities–already over-worked and under-budget–that have to process the toys. At the same time, the government gets to cut costs on its welfare programs, since it is argued that the poor now have access to the food they need from charities.
  5. Even if you were to send the toys to charities, and if you were to pay the charities to process these toys, would it make things better? We’d just be making an extremely wasteful system more cost-effective, essentially subsidizing the production of crappy and wasteful toys.

“Forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system — where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack.”

Extend this situation to the food retail industry, and it gets much worse. Because of the highly efficient production line, the agricultural process is incredibly environmentally hazardous, relying both on high inputs of fossil fuels and the use of toxic pesticides. The food industry relies on unjust migrant labor to drive production costs lower. This industry makes most of its new products from all the same ingredients, just packaged and shaped differently. For this reason, most food donated to food banks is highly processed, and quite unhealthy. Unlike with toys, volunteers often rely on the food they hand out. Food rots, so it is incredibly difficult to store and sort. With little funding and no municipal support, food banks rely more and more on volunteer service, while being increasingly bound to the continued existence of the industrial food system.

Because of these combined problems, forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system–where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack, leading to the privatization of social safety nets through the establishment of food charities.

If you care about changing the food system, then a ‘smart’ approach to food waste, such as selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities, is not the answer. In addition to forcing supermarkets to send food to charities, there are several things that would be much smarter.

  1. Fine the corporations for the amount of food waste they produce. This will disincentivize a system that relies on charities to bear the costs of food waste processing. It will also ensure that the industry no longer makes most of its profit from endless lines of new products, which is one of the key drivers of food waste.
  2. Clarify governmental rules and regulations around food waste, in favor of community groups. This might involve legalizing dumpster-diving, encouraging networks of citizens who wish to harvest food waste, and allowing the safe and hygienic processing and sale of food waste by non-profit community organizations.
  3. This may sound crazy, but not only have food banks developed incredibly complex and efficient systems of dealing with food waste, they also aren’t just charities. They often are crucial spaces for poor, isolated people to meet others and break their loneliness, while learning how to cook food. But even though food banks have the will to run more community-oriented activities, they often don’t have enough funding, staff, or time. So create a fund that encourages food banks to start collective kitchens, cooking workshops for single mothers and migrants, urban gardens, compost programs, and community food events. This will generate local food systems and more inclusive, safe neighborhoods. It will give those who otherwise couldn’t buy at the supermarket support structures so that they too can access acceptable food. It will help shift food banks from disempowering, demeaning, top-down, bureaucratic organizations to ones that are engaged in their community, empowering, and fun. Furthermore, it may help deal with the other 95% of food waste not created by supermarkets.
  4. A bit more challenging: align the goals and activities of governmental departments. Why does one arm of the government fund employment in the community food sector for marginalized residents, when another agrees to free trade deals, leading to a food industry that relies on cheap migrant labor? Why does one department fund research on carcinogenic food, or ban toxic chemicals, when another turns a blind eye to destructive farming practices? In most countries, health, sanitation, agriculture, trade, and municipal policies are often misaligned and should be joined up, otherwise food waste–and injustices–will just keep piling up.

These policies–most of them quite simple to implement–would ensure a safer, efficient, more just, and smarter food system. They wouldn’t only force supermarkets to limit their food waste. They would allow for a transformation from a food system oriented towards the bottom line to one that responds to people’s needs.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

The binge economy past and present

Images taken from Richard Wilk's chapter in Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change
Images taken from Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change

by Aaron Vansintjan 

Recently Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University and director of their Food Studies program, was studying 19th century newspaper advertisements and cargo records of sailing ships in Belize—a major source of mahogany at the time. Wilk noticed that advertisements of luxury products—liqueurs, expensive fabrics, pickled oysters, and champagne—weren’t just targeted to the rich.

Those employed to cut down the lumber in the bush would often, when they received their pay and came back to port, blow all of their money on festivities and  luxury products. Wilk calls this the ‘binge economy’: men who work in extractive industries, surviving on cheap rations designed to last long voyages, go on binges with their ‘mates’ whenever they get paid off.

The development of the binge economy, according to Wilk, is an extreme example of how colonialism brought about a change in both the food system and inter-personal relationships. On the one hand, a system based on preservatives, industrialized food processing, and rationing could support a large standing army without relying on pillaging. This system of rations was then extended to support a navy, and eventually a proletariat class sent to the New World, Africa and Asia to extract resources.

On the other hand, this change in how people eat food was also extremely gendered. Food systems in Western Europe were initially based on complex relationships of reciprocity and redistribution, where every member of the rural household contributed in some way to ensure an adequate diet through hunting, farming, or foraging.

But the privatization of common lands through measures like the enclosure movement that saw its greatest increase in the 18th century also caused the erosion of the availability of subsistence-based food. When land no longer became accessible to hunt or farm, masses of pauperized peasants filled the cities, uprooted from the social structuxre that previously sustained them. This led to a large surplus of labor, leading countless indebted European men to board ships, cross the ocean, and eventually work in extractive labor projects or on ships.

With the erosion of household structures and the advent of an increasingly industrialized and processed food system, these men were forced to take care of their own needs and rely on cheap and easy-to-prepare food.

Wilk’s work challenges two common arguments in today’s environmental and food movements. First, we often hear that our traditional food systems are increasingly becoming eroded. While this may be true, Wilk’s research, along with a growing field exploring the history of today’s food system, illustrates how the industrial-military food system has been a cornerstone of many traditional food systems.

Second, the idea that globalization has recently caused an unprecedented proliferation of luxury and exotic food products, allowing even lower-class Westerners to access foods originally reserved for the rich. In fact, Wilk’s research suggests that the proletariat has had access to rare luxury products from around the world for a much longer time than we often imagine. As a result we need to consider, not just the distance our food travels, but how a kind of ‘binge economy’ has been institutionalized.

In this interview, Wilk gives us a glimpse of how ‘binge economies’ can still define our lives today, and the kind of social delinking that continues to make this possible.

 

I read your article about the food system in extractive economies. You start the article putting it in context, saying that for people who are now working on food issues, we often hear this idea that we are erasing traditional food cultures, seasonal food cultures, but that actually if you look at the history of the food system, that argument  goes way, way back.

Here’s one example. Native Americans have frybread [bannock]. No Indian festivity is complete if you don’t have frybread. It is traditional. That’s just basically taking a pork ration and rendering the fat and then taking your flour ration making dough with it and frying it. If you look into it, it’s the same food that was used to feed Native Americans when they were driven off their lands and could no longer get their own subsistence.

belize 3
“The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations.”

I think in some ways the global division of labor would not have been possible if we didn’t have cheap food. Because cheap food, as we know, enables a lot of other things. For one thing, it frees up money for people to spend on other things, but also it makes it possible to squeeze wage labor much harder than they ever had before. This idea of ‘ration’ became a substitute for a whole food system, a large complex network of different kinds of food where all kinds of collaboration and cooperation was involved. And instead they take the unit of collaboration, the household–often formed around a marriage–and they split it.

The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations. And at the same time women are flooding into the labor market and everybody is hiring them as maids… it becomes the great age of servitude. By commercializing the things that people have traditionally gotten from households and families and making them into commodities, it was possible to turn the proletariat into a new kind of market.

Now, rations make standing armies and large navies possible. It turns an army from a horde of people looting and raping through the countryside, stripping everything of food into a more disciplined group of people who are being fed by the military.

Once you’ve got cheap protein and cheap calories down, it’s possible to send men on board of ships for much longer periods of time.

 

Luxury goods like reindeer tongue and beaver hats were often targeted at impoverished extractive workers such as those in the mahogany industry in Belize. Wilk argues that such behavior still defines our food system today

What was life like for these early extractive workers?

If you’re on a work gang, or engaged in any kind of extractive industry–logging, mining, whaling, and things that are kind of like extractive industries like herding sheep and cattle on large open parts of the countryside–all of those things are men being self-sufficient, subsisting on a ration of food that doesn’t really require any elaborate cooking. And the work is inherently dangerous, and always badly paid, usually at the end of a season or a voyage.

This new food system also made people sick, which led to a huge industry making patent medicines. You know, if you think of any service that is provided by the household system, by the collaboration of men, women, children, and all the members of the household, you can see in this era, single men learning to do those sorts of things. Sailors and loggers are all learning to sew; some of them are even knitting. They washed their own clothes. They sometimes made their own clothes.

What else do you get from being in a family? You get companionship, you get sex. There’s a lot of disagreement of how much these men were having sex with each other, and amongst historians it’s kind of a volatile issue, because the absence of evidence can never give you evidence for abstinence. They get their companionship from their buddies on board the ship, and they form a very tight male grouping.

Today if you look at gangs, if you look at drinking cultures, there’s still a lot of extractive industries out there, a  lot of mining and fishing. What you see is that the qualities and characteristics of masculine binge culture are still there. I think what we’ve done is kind of made it into a stage of life. In your late teens and early twenties, nobody’s expecting you to be particularly hard-working, and if you go out and binge on the weekends, you’re kind of excused. But then you’re supposed to grow up and become responsible.

 

Could you talk a bit about how these binge economies informed relationships between genders?

I think there’s a degree to which these binge economies nurture a kind of combative and competitive relationship between men and women. I saw this really clearly in urban Belize, where women are always trying to get men to support them, and men are always trying to get more sex while shirking their responsibility for children. So you’ve got this kind of game that goes on, which you also saw amongst loggers and miners when they were in town. When I was younger I hung around with a lot of Belizean men who talk about women in a hostile way. They have something we want, but they’re going to make me pay for it. And women say horrible things about men as well. That is not to say there are no functioning marriages and households in Belize, but infidelity is common too.

 

How do you think an extractive culture causes that kind of relationship to happen?

It tears people apart and makes them compete. I’m not so sure it’s just the extractive industries that cause that to happen. You see it in a very exaggerated way in extractive industries, but I think you see something similar amongst young people who are single. In the sense that they don’t belong to a household and there’s no obligatory relationship, there’s no contract. These are called “implicit contracts” … it’s an unspoken agreement that if you’re living with somebody, you’re going to be collaborating. It turns out that much of our life is guided by these implicit contracts. You raise kids, you send them through college, and then if you become destitute you expect them to help take care of you. And if you’re living without those kinds of contracts, itmakes you to do things in a very different way.

You don’t have to save money, why would you save money? The thing about extractive workers is that they did have relationships but mostly  with other men, and they did not put their money together. You’d call that person your ‘mate.’ Which is interesting. And ‘mates’ would often stick together for their whole lives. Because they needed somebody they could count on and somebody they could trust. The lack of obligation helps people form binge cultures.

 

We were discussing the gendered nature of binge economies. How is our current food system gendered and how does that have reflections from the past food system?

At one level you have men and women often eating completely different diets. At a more global level, fast food and convenience foods mean you really don’t need a family in order to have a comfortable life.  Personal independence shortens your time horizon so you’re not thinking so much about keeping your family going into the future.

If you have no reason to invest, why not spend it freely or run up debts on your credit card? If you think about how many Americans have no personal savings, it’s astounding 76% of the adults in the country don’t have anything in the bank for retirement. That’s really weird. It’s what I call a grasshopper logic rather than an ant logic. The ants are industrious and denying their immediate pleasures for the sake of the future.

 

Something I found interesting in your article was that you said that, on the one hand, people were reliant on these basic goods, like staples, that you can easily transport, at the same time you have these luxury food goods that also were developed and sold to the very same class that was extracting them across the world.

It’s kind of ironic.

 

So you have these luxury goods that are also made to be able to transport all across the world. It seems incredibly similar to what we have now. There’s this term, ‘food miles’, that people are using now to signify how the food we eat is more and more reliant on a global transportation system. But it seems at the same time that carrying exotic products on ships has always been a product of the extractive industry, except now we have even better technology to preserve those luxury products. It also seems to go against this idea that with the increase of globalization ‘everyone’ can now have these luxury goods… your work suggest that the proletarian class, especially the extractivist workers, has always been consuming these rare luxury products.

That’s such an interesting connection I had not made. The production of luxury goods was often done by those same extractive workers and slaves. The old money spent their money on giant houses; they were amassing durable things that were going to gain value over time. Whereas people with limited money often spend it on luxuries that have a short lifetime – what some call “populuxe” goods. They’re left with no value after they consume things.

When you look at the bills of lading for sailing ships, they’re carrying these rough fabrics, generic rums, barrels of flour and salted meat. They’re also carrying delicacies in little jars, liqueurs from all over Europe, and fortified wines, like Port. All over Europe there’s the beginnings of a popular luxury trade. They were bringing in processed foods like olives, salted tongue, cornichons. It wasn’t just the local elite that was consuming this. In Belize, when the mahogany workers who just came in from working in the bush got paid, luxuries meant a great deal to them. This is a point that I’m constantly having to make to people. People think that poor people don’t, or shouldn’t, buy expensive things. And the thing is that if you’re poor, luxury is much more meaningful than if you’re rich. If you’re rich, you have luxury all the time. It’s poor people who have to work and scrimp and save to have a big steak dinner. For those people it really means something to have a fancy meal.

During the gold rush merchants would haul these wagons full of ice imported from Alaska, oysters from the Pacific Northwest, champagne from France, and they’d carry it up the Sierra because if you struck gold you were going to take all your buddies and have champagne and oysters, and food cooked by a real French chef.

 We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you.

How do you see the food system that was developed in colonialism reflected today? And how has it changed since then?

Something that I’ve been looking at in the last couple of years is that extractive industries had a tendency to destroy  resources. They killed almost all the whales. Sometimes a whole industry would grow based on something like herring, but then the herring would disappear or move somewhere else. At the other end, because of fashion tastes are changing all the time. People who were hunting for alligators to make alligator-skin bags might be out of work 10 years later because tastes changed in Paris.

It’s similar now, but it’s just become more spatially dispersed and complicated. We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you. If you seek to go behind the brand and find out where things are really made, it’s really hard to find information.

 

Richard Wilk is the director of the Food Studies Program in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on consumer culture, past and present; gender; households; and the food culture in Belize. He has written over 140 papers and book chapters, demonstrating his ability to deftly weave together varying and complex issues—such as energy use, mass media, and local food movements—in a lucid, careful, and engaging manner.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change in Barcelona, Spain. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

 

Just what is gentrification anyway?

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In Hanoi, urban gardening is a means of survival. Photography by Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

We hear the term ‘gentrification’ often nowadays. The news is full of it. Protests against Google and Microsoft buses, people in Vancouver fighting condo development by burning condosfood co-ops in Brooklyn worried about whether they’re displacing the local Hispanic community. The news almost always frames the wealthy new residents as the culprits, and those unable to afford rising rent and property taxes as victims.

A month ago, I was staying in Tay Ho, a neighbourhood of Hanoi known for its growing expat population. Here I found chain supermarkets, unfinished luxury apartment complexes, brand-new chic boutiques, and dog spas. In between all of this, there remain some thin strips of orchards, garden plots, and vegetable markets hidden in the alleyways. A wealthy and mostly foreign social class seems to be increasingly encroaching on agricultural land. These, I thought right away, are the telltale signs of gentrification.

I wanted to find out more. To start my search, I met up with Roman Szlam. Roman is a volunteer guide for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, an English teacher, a blogger, and also happens to be a walking Wikipedia on the history of Hanoi.

“I’ve noticed everything you’ve noticed,” he noted, recognizing my discomfort. “I see all the farms disappearing, all the high-rises coming in here. All the luxury development.” But Roman didn’t seem too troubled by the changes in Tay Ho.

Apparently, everyone who originally owned land in Tay Ho has been able to sub-lease it at high prices. “Even the farmers,” noted Roman, “who are losing their farms here directly around West lake, tend to be happy. There are no protests from anyone.” What’s more, agriculture in the neighbourhood was primarily for decorative plants – in no way would the sale of this land affect the need for food access in the city.

I wondered whether it was really all that rosy in Tay Ho: were there some people that weren’t as happy as others? Nevertheless, to Roman, the real gentrification problems were occurring in the outskirts of the city and in the city centre.

What’s really happening in Hanoi?

In the early 2000s, Hanoi was facing mounting traffic problems, while the Old Quarter, the prime tourist attraction, was being slowly destroyed by untrammeled development. In 2008, the Vietnamese government allowed Hanoi to expand its borders significantly. To do this, they re-zoned huge swathes of land for commercial and high-income residential uses.

The re-drawing of Hanoi’s borders coincided with a spate of farm acquisitions by the land management department. Officials offered farmers a small payment in return for the land and then leased it to developers – often acquaintances – at inflated prices. In other words, outright corruption. These developers thought it was the perfect time to build houses for Hanoi’s new upper-middle-class. But this didn’t go so well.

“Nobody bought any of these developments,” Roman explained. “As they began to go bankrupt, these people who had borrowed 90 per cent of the money could no longer repay the banks.”

The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market.

At the time, many government-owned corporations had started investing in the stock market. Come the crash of 2008, Vietnam’s banks had no more money, and foreign investors started pulling out, causing a banking crisis that still hasn’t been resolved. What’s more, a group of farmers started making a stink, holding in-your-face protests in front of the government buildings.

“This huge land grab,” remarked Roman, “became a national scandal. It couldn’t be hidden anymore. There was no money to be had anywhere. Consequently, a lot of the food production around Hanoi has been lost.” In a city where 62 per cent of the vegetables consumed are locally produced, you can imagine the effect on food prices.

Around the same time, the city cleaned up its downtown core by, on the one hand, criminalizing street vendors, and on the other, promoting supermarkets and shutting down two of the city’s open markets, replacing them with high-end – but mostly empty – malls.

Noelani Eidse, a PhD candidate at McGill, has been researching the case of Hanoi’s street vendors and how their livelihood has been affected by land grabs on the urban fringe. “It’s all part of this larger push for Hanoi to become a global city,” Eidse said. “The rationale behind banning vending is that vendors are adding to traffic congestion. A less explicit reason is that vendors are seen as uncivilized and their livelihoods are considered to be anti-modern, and a hindrance to development.”

There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

Eidse has found that it’s often the same people who were pushed off their land who are also forced to make a living in other ways. “For a lot of these people,” she explained, “it’s either working in factories or working informally.”

Those who choose informal work, like street vending and trading trash, are now being targeted by these new laws. Arrests and fines are more and more common, making it difficult for these people, mostly women, to practice their livelihood.

In sum, the unfair leasing of farmland to developers, shuttered and empty markets, lack of space for food vendors, and the inaccessibility of supermarkets for most Hanoians, has meant that many people in the city centre are now facing increased food insecurity and precarity. And so, the cycle of dispossession, precarity, and criminalization continues.

The all-too-real effects of gentrification

In Hanoi, top-down decisions to make the city more appealing to foreign investors helped trigger a nationwide banking crisis, followed by a shortage in food production and access locally. This is gentrification at its worst – far more devastating than a fancy boutique in the expat neighbourhood.

The changing of land rights, the corruption that came with privatization of land, and the increase in high-end development projects – all of these happened at about the same time that Vietnam opened its markets to foreign investment and encouraged foreign factories to set up shop. The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market. People have no choice but to start working in the new factories run by foreign corporations.

Before I go on, I have to stress that Hanoi is unique. Vietnam, as a socialist state, also has an unusual land rights system and one-party-closed-door-politics. Pair this with increased liberalization, and a system of state-owned corporations, and you have a one-of-a-kind situation. It is also important to reiterate how sometimes it isn’t all that bad, like in the case of Tay Ho and its wealthy expats.

But it’s striking how these patterns repeat in other cities, like Lagos, Nigeria. Eidse noted that Singapore’s model of development and regulation has been a reference point for Hanoi’s own city planners. Gentrification in London and New York is well-documented. There, social housing and tenant rights were increasingly eroded through active government policies encouraging outsider investment. There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth.

It’s easy to vilify the upper-middle class – those taking the Google bus or the expats moving into the new high-rises – but if you really want to address the problem, you need to follow the money.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth. In Hanoi, this came in the form of land grabs and policies targeting the informal economy, but elsewhere it can happen through the privatization of social housing, or the branding of a city as a haven for the creative class.

It all seems a bit hopeless. Yet, there are plenty of avenues for resistance. In Hanoi, a group of villagers who had been pushed off their land started protesting in ways that made it hard for the media to ignore them, or for the police to beat them up. As a result, they were able to bring national attention to endemic corruption and initiate a series of laws to protect against land seizures.

While gentrification hurts those who have little to start with, those who have lost the most often have the loudest voice. If we want inspiration for future actions, it’s these voices we should listen to. These villagers have it right – they followed the money, smelled something fishy, and created a stink.

This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.