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Big Food Must Go: Why We Need to Radically Change the Way We Eat

This is not a problem we can solve by going vegetarian or vegan, or buying organic and fair trade.

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This Big Food system produces an astounding 1.3 billion tons of animal waste every year. It sprays half a million tons of toxic pesticides on our food each year. We are literally eating oil, as author Rick Manning has put it: annually 400 gallons of fossil fuel per person, 100 billion gallons a year as a nation. Rivers and streams across America are polluted by this industrial agriculture, which is now a major contributor to climate chaos -- and we're all paying for it.

But at least these corporations feed the world, right? Wrong. Worldwide, more than 850 million people go hungry every day. In the U.S., 48 million people, including 16 million children, do not have a reliable, secure food supply. Twenty percent of families with children are food-insecure.

Why all this hunger amid a global food bounty in which UN Food and Agriculture Organization data show we have far more than enough to feed everyone? Poverty. Unemployment. Underemployment. Here in the U.S., stagnant wages have combined with rising costs for everything to make simply feeding oneself a major economic stressor. We cannot separate "food issues" from economic justice issues. And the corporations that control our food supply are directly to blame.

But at least McDonald's, Walmart, Safeway, et al. offer us "cheap" food, right? Wrong again. We pay more than $100 billion a year in medical costs due to diet-related diseases from Big Food's relentless production and marketing of junk "food" and highly processed foods. We pay countless more dollars for injured and maimed workers who risk life and limb daily on the fast-food assembly line; for environmental cleanups from factory farms' rivers of toxic waste; and we pay roughly $15 billion a year, sometimes more, to subsidize corporate agribusiness commodities like corn and soy -- our tax dollars financing unhealthy sweeteners for soda, and fast food, all those burgers and fries that seem so cheap.

Then there is the brutal sweatshop-style labor we eat. All our food today relies on terribly exploited workers, both in the U.S. and abroad. Our daily meals rest on underpaid, impoverished immigrants, tens of thousands of whom are injured each year. We cannot continue to ignore the abuse of people, land and animals by the corporations that claim to feed the world.

We cannot solve this simply by going vegetarian or vegan, or buying organic and fair trade. The very market that has created this Big Food disaster -- the market that creates monopolies and monocultures -- cannot solve these deep systemic crises. To truly "occupy the food system" we will need nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of the economics and policies that currently enable our corporate food system.

There are great things happening on the good food margins today -- local foods movements, more urban agriculture and community gardens, school gardens, small sustainable food companies, victory gardens, even some fairly radical small-scale entrepreneurialism. But we need something much bigger. We need a radical overhaul of our current food and agriculture system -- and of how our tax dollars are spent on food.

Here are a few ideas. We must pressure Congress, through education, protest and targeted campaigns, to end agribusiness subsidies and begin spending our money on sustainable healthy foods and farming. Pass a 2012 Farm Bill that not only ends subsidies for corporate agribusiness, but that reinvests public money in an economically diversified, ecologically sustainable and more locally-oriented food system. It can be done. Shift the agribusiness subsidies to fund small and mid-sized organics; subsidize smaller-scale organics, and living-wage jobs in organic farming; create public investments for local and regional sustainable agriculture, both rural and urban; stop all food industry mergers today; and ban corporate representatives from all aspects of government food policymaking-no more corporate lobbyists and advisors deciding our nation's food, farming, and nutrition policies. No more revolving door between government and agribusiness. Period.

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