In 1972, I was part of a nationwide campaign that came tantalizingly close to getting the US Senate to reject Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's choice for secretary of agriculture.
A coalition of grassroots farmers, consumers, and scrappy public interest organizations (like the Agribusiness Accountability Project that Susan DeMarco and I then headed) teamed up with such unabashedly progressive senators as Fred Harris of Oklahoma, Jim Abourezk of South Dakota, and Harold Hughes of Iowa to undertake the almost impossible challenge of defeating the cabinet nominee of a president who'd just been elected in a landslide.
The 51 to 44 senate vote was so close because we were able to expose Butz as... well, as butt-ugly--a shameless flack for big food corporations that gouge farmers and consumers alike. We brought the abusive power of corporate agribusiness into the public consciousness for the first time, but we had won only a moral victory, since there he was: Ensconced in the seat of power. It horrified us that Nixon had been able to squeeze Butz into that seat, yet it turned out to be a blessing.
First, the horror. An arrogant, brusque, narrow-minded and dogmatic ag economist, Butz had risen to prominence in the small (but politically powerful) world of agriculture by devoting himself to the corporate takeover of the global food economy. He was on the public payroll as dean of agriculture at Purdue University, yet he was also a paid board member of Ralston Purina and other agribusiness giants. In these roles, he openly promoted the preeminence of middleman food manufacturers over family farmers, whom he disdained.
"Agriculture is no longer a way of life," he infamously barked at them. "It's a business." He callously instructed farmers to "Get big or get out"--and he then proceeded to shove tens of thousands of them out by promoting an export-based, conglomeratized, industrialized, globalized, and heavily sub-sidized corporate-run food economy. "Adapt," he warned farmers, "or die." The ruination of farms and rural communities, Butz added, "releases people to do something useful in our society."
The whirling horror of Butz, however, spun off a blessing, which is that innovative, free-thinking, populist-minded, and rebellious small farmers and food artisans practically threw up at the resulting Twinkieization of America's food. They were sickened that nature's own rich contribution to human culture was being turned into just another plasticized product of corporate profiteers. Rather than accept that, they threw themselves into creating and sustaining a viable, democratic alternative. Linking locally with consumers, environmentalists, community activists, marketers, and others, the Good Food rebellion has since sprouted, spread, and blossomed from coast to coast.
The central problem with modern industrial agriculture... [is] not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste, and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul. ----Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and former farm boy from Yamhill, Oregon.
The driving ethic of this transformative grassroots movement rebuts old Earl's insistence that agriculture is nothing but a business. It most certainly is a business, but it's a good business--literally producing goodness--because it's "a way of life" for enterprising, very hardworking people who practice the art and science of cooperating with Mother Nature, rather than always trying to overwhelm her. These farmers don't want to be massive or make a killing; they want to farm and make delicious, healthy food products that help enrich the whole community.
This spirit was recently summed up in one simple word by Lee Jones, a sustainable farmer in Ohio who was asked what he'd be if he wasn't a farmer. He replied: "Disappointed." To farmers like these, food embodies our full "culture"--a word that is, after all, sculpted right into "agriculture" and is essential to its organic meaning.
Although agriculture is now flourishing throughout the land and has forestalled the total takeover of our food by crass agribusiness, the corporate powers and their political hirelings continue to press for the elimination of the food rebels and ultimately to impose the Butzian vision of complete corporatization.
This is one of the most important populist struggles occurring in our society. It's literally a fight for control of our dinner, and it certainly deserved a major focus in this year's national elections. But, while Romney and Obama made a show of occasionally pausing on the campaign trail for a photo-op with a farmer, the struggle itself was not mentioned. Indeed, in the Oct. 3rd official presidential debate on economic issues facing America, the words "farmer" and "agriculture" were never uttered.
So, in this issue of the Lowdown, we can at least shine our own light on the struggle. As America moves into the traditional November-December season of food-centered holidays, let's not only consume, but also reflect on, discuss, and consider what we can do to shape our food future. To give you a sense of where we are, I'll offer a few snapshots of some current battles being waged.
THE TORTURED TOMATO. The one edible that most starkly depicts the divide between the desiccated corporate vision of food and the verdant cultural vision is this beloved fruit. In 1972, DeMarco and I first wrote about its industrial remake in our book, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times.
Back then, supermarkets were peddling a hard, pinkish, tasteless orb they called a "tomato." Where did this thing come from? It was the product of tax-paid research by agribusiness-hugging land-grant colleges in California and Florida. At the behest of produce giants like the Del Monte Corporation, UC Davis engineers had built a mechanical tomato harvester. Alas, unfortunately this indelicate contraption crushed the tomatoes. No problem--our publicly financed land-grant geneticists dutifully hardened the tomato, so it could withstand the corporate machinery.
In digging out this story, DeMarco interviewed the head of ag research at the US Department of Agriculture, and he effusively praised the industrial fruit for its durability and shelf life. Well, yes, DeMarco politely agreed, but she noted that it didn't seem to have the great flavor she remembered from the New Jersey tomatoes she grew up with. The research boss leaned toward her and, in a confidential tone, said: "Your children will never know the difference."
How wrong he turned out to be! More than any other product of agribusiness, the re-engineered tomato sparked the upchuck rebellion by farmers and consumers, leading directly to the rapid rise of farm stands, farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives), and other buy-local alternatives that offered the real thing. It also spread organic, sustainable, heirloom, and other forms of production that brought genuine flavor, nutrition, and community values to the forefront of understanding what a tomato really is.
However: To the barricades, people! The profiteers are on the move again, hoping to squeeze out nature's product (and local producers) with an amazing, new-and-improved, 2.0 iteration of the industrial tomato--this time with added flavor!
The lead mule plowing this field for agbiz is the University of Florida, which has assembled a team of molecular biologists, food scientists, statisticians, and psychologists to handle the assignment (yes, psychologists--perhaps to treat whoever came up with this cockamamie scheme). The professor coordinating the group says there are two goals: First, to "define what a flavorful tomato is," and then, "find the plant genes that control the process and get them back into the tomato." Hmmm--why not just go with nature, which has already done that work?
Hey, stop making sense! Instead, the learned profs have rolled in a "gas chromatograph," which is said to be an artificial nose (nothing is real in BigAgWorld). This machine is to take a whiff of assorted heirloom tomatoes and isolate the "volatiles" that make them tasty. Then, the white-smock lab types will try to root out the particular genes that create these volatiles and splice those genes into the DNA of the old industrial tomato. The seeds of this Frankenfruit will then be turned over to corporate profiteers for mass plantings, and the marketing people will be turned loose to tell us consumers that the tortured industrial tomato is "naturally good." Your tax dollars at work!
THANKSGIVING TIDBIT. Why is the traditional fowl of the season called a turkey, even though it sprang out of Central America where it was named uexolotl? The misnomer came from the fact that the American bird was wrongfully associated with guinea fowl brought into 16th century England from the eastern Mediterranean by traders known as "Turkey merchants." No less of an etymologist than Samuel Johnson informed the English-speaking world in his 1775 dictionary that the popular edible was "a large domestic fowl brought from Turkey."
LET'S DO LUNCH. Do you eat lunch at your desk? Alone? Continuing to work as you chew?
Welcome to the new wondrous world of work in which employees feel intense pressure from bosses to labor right through lunch--as if their jobs depend on it. A survey last year found that 62 percent of people with desk jobs grab a snack and keep working during lunch, rather than taking a pause to step outside, clear their heads, socialize with co-workers, and recharge.
By creating a nose-to-the-grindstone climate, companies are able to extract an extra hour of work--unpaid--from every cube captive who foregoes taking that noon-time pause. One hospital research coordinator, referring to his "theoretical lunch break," told an Alternet reporter that he eats as he works because "that's the department's culture, and I feel like I need to be at my desk." This culture is yet another product of the corporate autocracy's tightening grip over a union-free workplace, and it's not exactly a morale-builder, for it increases both stress and resentment.
So guess who's doing something about the rising anger at the corporate usurpation of lunch? Corporations! Not by empowering workers, but by exploiting their resentment, all for corporate fun and profit.
McDonald's, a notorious union buster in its own workplaces, launched a perverse, workers-of-the-world-unite advertising campaign this year under the slogan, "It's your lunch. Take it." The ad features actors posing as office workers defiantly rising from their chairs to declare: "I'm going to lunch!" and "I don't want to be a chicken, I want to eat it!" Of course, the pitch is for distressed desk jockeys to "overthrow the working lunch" by darting out for a calorie-packed Third Pounder Deluxe burger at McDonald's.
Likewise, KFC has a "Lunch is MY time" ad campaign, and the Applebee's chain takes the co-option of worker anger deeper into the corporate weeds by selling life-like blow-up dolls called the "Lunch Decoy." For $6.99 you can place one of these at your desk and, as an Applebee's ad puts it, "slip off for the lunch you deserve"--presumably at Applebee's.
Aside from the crass commercialism and corporate cynicism in these promotions, the idea that going to lunch can be considered a revolutionary act is a measure of how far our society has plummeted from the basic ethic of workplace fairness. But the demise of the lunch hour also represents another loss: The power of food to be a social uniter. Lunch should not be furtively snarfed down at a work desk, but a pleasant repast to be shared, creating a connection among fellow humans. This lunchtime moment of socializing with co-workers and getting to know each other has been proven to boost morale, cooperation, and productivity. The corporate theft of lunch destroys that positive by establishing a work-for-and-by-yourself ethic, which ironically turns the corporation into a victim of its own greed.
WORST FOOD "INNOVATION" EVER. It all started at the State Fair of Texas with the introduction in 1942 of the "corny dog"--but now the food-on-a-stick phenomenon has gone from merely unhealthy... to disgusting... to a heart-attack-on-a-stick. Okay, carnival food can be fun and quite popular. After all, no one goes to a fair to eat healthy.
But I ask you: Deep-fried butter on a stick?
This comes from the Iowa State Fair, which offered 57 sticks of stuff this year. The butter bomb, which went beyond excess: A half-stick of cold butter cov-ered in funnel cake batter, quickly fried in 400-degree oil, then glazed with honey. "Dignity goes right out the window," said the inventor of this cholesterol-oozing concoction. Only four bucks a pop.
BIG AG's BIG MONEY CAMPAIGN. One of the most important and hotly contested elections of 2012 had no Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, or other partisan in it--yet it drew at least $34.4 million from corporate powers desperate to defeat this candidate.
Who was it that spooked the CEOs of national corporations right out of their Gucci's? Mr. right-to-know, appearing on the California ballot as Proposition 37.
This citizens initiative was proposed by a broad coalition, including small farmers, consumers, and environmentalists. All are alarmed by the rush of genetically manipulated organisms into America's food supply without adequate scientific testing and without the nicety of letting consumers know which products contain these risky, artificially altered organisms.
Prop 37 doesn't ban GMOs, but merely requires food corporations that put such altered ingredients into their products to say so on the package labels. This is an easy, non-bureaucratic, honest way to empower consumers in the marketplace, giving us the information we need to make our own choice. And, boy, the corporate powers really HATE that!
To keep their own customers in the dark, brand-name food processors bulldozed tons of money into deceptive and outright false TV ads to kill Prop 37. Since I'm writing this prior to the Nov. 6 vote, I can't tell you who won, but I can tell you which food brands put up between $500,000 and $2 million each to fund this campaign for continued consumer deception:
- Nestle n Coca-Cola
- ConAgra n General Mills
- Del Monte n Hershey's
- J.M. Smucker Co.
- Bumble Bee Foods
- Ocean Spray
- Sara Lee
- Dean Foods
- Campbell's Soup
- McCormick Corp.
To learn more about which brands are funding the anti-label effort, check out this list of resources.
This cash influx created quite a few family squabbles, for many of the food conglomerates have quietly bought up popular organic companies, practically all of which oppose GMOs and enthusiastically back Prop 37. For example, even though General Mills owns such organic brands as Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, and Food Should Taste Good, it has spent nearly a million bucks to defeat GMO labeling. What a hoot, then, to see the conglomerate's Food Should Taste Good subsidiary (maker of chips and crackers) proudly publicizing its new labels boasting that all of its products are GMO-free.
Meanwhile, many organic companies have pooled together about $4.7 million to back the consumers' right-to-know proposal. Among them are Nature's Path, Dr. Bronner's soaps, Clif Bar, Amy's Kitchen, Organic Valley, Annie's Homegrown, Good Earth Natural Foods, Frey Vineyards organic wine, and Eden Foods.
MEMORIZE THIS WEB ADDRESS. If you're looking for Good Food items--from organic tomatoes to pastured turkey--www.localharvest.org can help you find them somewhere near your home. Enter your zip code and this website will search for the small-scale farmers, artisans, farmers markets ,and other resources in your area.
PLANTING SEEDS OF URBAN REVIVAL. For years, media outlets have covered a long list of seemingly endless bad-news stories about Detroit: Drugs, economic collapse, population flight, intractable poverty, corruption, dilapidation, etc. So how about a good-news story from the Motor City?
Though it's largely gone unreported, a quiet, vibrant, populist revival has taken root and is spreading across this hardscrabble urban landscape--propelled by (of all things) agriculture. Well, agriculture is the means, but it has really been propelled by a sense of justice, sheer necessity, and the inspiring spunk of ordinary, working-class Detroiters who have created and are expanding one of the finest models of a self-sustaining urban food economy in America. Their grassroots network includes such groups as Grown in Detroit (a widely popular cooperative market and professional training center that sells foods produced by gardens and in-city farms located within a mile of downtown); Feedom Freedom, a community garden that supplies local restaurants and supports a hands-on education program called "Youth Growing Detroit" that enlists hundreds of young people; People's Kitchen Detroit, operating a mobile food bus and gardens to supply top-quality, low-cost food to low-income people, while also organizing around local food issues; the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, a consortium of food-focused groups writing a plan for an urban food security system that can deliver sustainable, healthy, affordable food for all, even as it provides good jobs and new economic opportunities.
The future is us
If we are what we eat, shall we eat factory-made widgets--or put the nurtured and husbanded products of the good earth on our tables? That's the choice that confronts us in today's BIG struggle over the future of food: Agri-culturists concerned about the soul of food production versus agribusiness forces concerned only with finding quick technological shortcuts to produce quick profits.
For example, the next technology they dearly want to bring to the table is cloning. Try to find any sense of soul in this rave about the science from a corporate cloner in 2008: "We can make every cow precisely like its progenitor. This eliminates uncertainty in meat production, for every cut can be the exact same texture, taste, and composition. We have achieved the efficiency of the assembly line inside the animal itself."
Contrast that with the perspective of Patrick Martins, co-founder of Heritage Foods USA, who works with small farmers across the country to bring nearly lost breeds of sustainably raised cows, pigs, and turkeys to market. He measures sustainability not just by environmental standards, but also by whether the animals are happy! Yes, tending to their happiness, he says, is both good business and a moral imperative. Asked what makes a turkey happy, Martins said simply: "Room. That's the biggest thing. It can walk around."
Well, space to walk is reasonable, right? Of course, but visit one of the massive factory feeding operations of agribusiness where the vast majority of American turkeys are raised, and you'll find no such concession to the most basic of creature comforts. Instead, thousands of the large birds are crammed side-by-side in cages, spending nasty, brutish, and short lives with barely enough room to move, much less walk. To true agriculturalists like Martins, these meat factories amount to animal concentration camps. "No living creature should be forced to spend its entire life in a box," he says, genuinely appalled.
What you and I choose to eat, where we choose to get it, what policies and politicians we choose to support or oppose, what groups we choose to help, and whether we even choose to think about the food we eat--all are choices directly affecting the nature of food production and of food itself. In ways big and small, you and I are central to the struggle. And if each of us does just a bit more for the agri-cultural side, we'll make the difference in America's food culture.