A lie. In spite of this preponderance of corporate and academic support, the industrial system in agriculture is still fundamentally a lie – an illusion that threatens not just human health and prosperity, but survival. If all the true costs of industrial agriculture were included in the cost of food today, virtually no one could afford to eat.
The lie of industrial agriculture is at the heart of the increasing vitriol in the public debate about food. The growing assault by the Farm Bureau, monopoly agribusiness corporations, and right wing commentators on the so-called agri-intellectuals – Michael Pollan, Christopher Cook, Eric Schloesser, Francis and Anna Lappe, and others (referred hereafter to as Michael et al) – reflects something more than class (working farmers vs. educated elites) and geographical (the farm heartland vs. the coasts) differences that now dominate the conversation.
Michael et al function today like that boy in the crowd who couldn’t see the new clothes worn by king and called out “he is naked”. They challenge the basic design assumptions of the entire industrial ag system and worse, much of the global economic system, as well.
In doing so they raise the emotionally laden specter of our civilization and our nation being “out of control” as the majority of people understand “control” – a kind of predictability they can count on in making day-to-day decisions about their lives.
Feeling right, NOT. I believe ordinary people, in their guts, know, in the words of Fox Commentator Glenn Beck, “SOMETHING JUST DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT” (his emphasis). Now, I am definitely not a fan of Glenn Beck, who is a racist and a fear monger. But we can’t ignore that there is growing unease about the failure of our current systems, an unease Beck skillfully promotes and exploits.
I believe “what doesn’t feel right” is a growing sense of the failure of financial, industrial design paradigm that promotes a global, resource and energy intensive global economy (including food) for short term profit at the expense of long term carrying capacity, i.e. sustainability.
People, regardless of ideology or party, are increasingly confused about what is happening and, as a result, are increasingly anxious about the future.
Lynchings and the other. In the United States, history teaches us something about this anxiety and how it is expressed. Studies have documented a strong link between failures of cotton and peanut crops in the South and the incidence of lynchings of African-Americans. In the 19th Century, economic depressions were often accompanied with an increase in “nativist” sentiments; established immigrants attacking the most recent immigrants as “others” who must be suppressed.
When times get hard, some people look for a group to blame. Today, the Republican right wing, often shilling for corporate interests ala Rick Berman, offers up many groups for that role: immigrants, President Obama, his family and advisors, environmental wackos, trial lawyers, and, of course, Michael et al – the agri-intellectuals.
Silence is death in this situation. We must respond to these negative attacks no matter how absurd their representations because, like a water torture technique that uses a stream of single drops on the forehead to drive a person mad, they cumulatively represent a much bigger threat.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.”
I believe Beck, the Farm Bureau and their like are sowing the seeds of anarchy, questioning Michael et al in an attempt to raise doubts in people’s minds already stressed by the challenges of these times.
In times of anarchy, people have turned to an ideology or a movement that promises order. A lot of people who hate authoritarian government also comment that “the trains ran on time” under totalitarian rule. Order in a time of disorder is very appealing.
Losing in Washington. Michael Pollan has observed that the Local Food Revolution is “winning the war in the media, but losing it in Congress.”
Power and money are at stake – trillions of dollars of corporate income and profit from the global food supply line and its subsidiaries. This is a dominion not given up lightly or easily.
Increasingly industrial agriculture has turned to public policy to enforce its paradigm on American consumers and small to mid-size farmers growing for local consumption. Their strategy includes…
Create food safety laws that deal with the health dangers implicit in industrial food production and apply them to small and medium size non-industrial producers. NAIS, the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, and the new Food Safety Certification Label by AMS all are elements in this public policy strategy.
Advocate for government support of more technology and energy intensive intervention in the food supply including nano-technology, cloning, irradiation, and even more genetic manipulation. Technology promises to give us dominion over Nature. In spite of growing evidence that this promise is false, we continue to see technology as the answer. If brute force isn’t working, you aren’t using enough of it.
Non-enforcement of anti-monopoly laws preserving and expanding the control over the seed supply and the food system by a handful of very large corporations. The current Supreme Court, under the leadership of very pro-corporate Chief Justice Roberts, is poised to expand corporate “rights” even further.
What is at stake in our current “food fight” with Michael et al on one side and the Farm Bureau corporate shills on the other side, is our democracy itself (such as it is). As Iowa State economist and lawyer Neil Harl predicted, the US food and farming system is becoming like the old Soviet command-and-control system.
Increasingly, our government’s power is being used not just to enforce monopoly corporate control of the farming and food system, but actually promotes specific proprietary technologies and processes to the private gain of those corporations.
What happens when this corporate/government effort to maintain control encounters the local food revolution – the grassroots movement of farmers and consumers (who believe eating is an agricultural act) working for a healthy, local food supply? The answer reads like headlines from a revolutionary struggle.
Farmers offering raw milk shares or engaging in some other form of direct food supply for local consumption get busted by SWAT teams of government enforcers.
Farmers attempting to grow without using patented seeds get suited for patent infringement when drift pollutes their fields.
Farmers raising animals on pasture without antibiotics or hormones receive more regulatory attention (NAIS) than industrial CAFO operators.
Counties and townships seeking to pass stronger seed and animal welfare laws are pre-empted by state and national legislation.
As the grassroots, local food movement grows larger (it is still pretty small in relation to the overall size of the food industry) the conflict between industrial food interests and the consumer driven local food revolution will only increase.
Will we win? There exists, among many local food and organic farming advocates, a strong belief that as the number of consumers join the food revolution increases, the old industrial ag. order will either transform itself or disappear.
I am among those who believe consumers concerned about food, health, small farmers and the environment will ultimately triumph. But I am not so sanguine about the road to that change.
Ordinary people when confronted by corporate thuggery, distortions, and lies (ala Rick Berman, Glenn Beck, and others) do not immediately seek to stand up and fight. We have all been taught to be too polite. And the scale of the assault against Michael et al and the local food revolution dwarfs most people’s perception about what is at stake. Loud, sarcastic, angry voices spewing distortions and lies can overwhelm feelings about food and intimidate people struggling to find a different path.
We are in for hard times. Our political process is broken – dominated as it is by interests who deny the need for change and/or profit from growing anarchy in our economic and moral systems.
It is a time not just for good food and good community – but backbone and courage to confront interests who see our future in the spread of darkness.
CENTER FOR ECONOMIC SECURITY
The Center is a 501(c)(3) project of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, MI.