Eaters of the World, Unite
Harry Truman said: "No man should be president who doesn't understand hogs." The problem with our recent presidents, however (including los dos Bushes and Bill Clinton) is that, while they certainly don't know pig stuff about the four-legged varieties, they are expert on the care and feeding of those two-legged oinkers who are the CEOs and lobbyists of global agribusiness corporations.
With an oink-oink here and a ton of campaign cash there, agribusiness giants are able to dictate America's food and farm policies in both Republican and Democratic administrations. This is why our present policies are so bass-ackwards, discombobulated . . . and stupid.
Ag policy is not written for farmers and consumers, the two groups whose well-being logically would be the rationale for having any policy at all. Nor is it written in the interests of workers, conservation, small business, rural communities, good health or even good food. Instead, it's written for the profit and global expansion of names like ADM, Cargill, McDonald's, Monsanto, Nestlé, Phillip Morris, Tyson, Unilever and Wal-Mart. These powers have none of the dirt and grease of honest farm toil under their fingernails. They're well-manicured, soft-hands people who work in faraway executive suites, genetic-engineering labs, banks and the backrooms of governments. With the complicity of our presidents and Congress critters, they've industrialized, conglomeratized and globalized food, a substance that, by its very nature, is agrarian, small-scale and local.
Here are some products of this perverse policy:
- Out of each dollar you spend on groceries, only 19 cents goes to the farmer, with corporate middlemen grabbing the rest.
- Thousands of efficient family farmers are driven out of business each year by rising costs and falling commodity prices.
- As farm prices continue to fall, consumer prices keep going up, creating windfall profits for conglomerate shippers, processors and retailers.
- An $8-billion-a-year federal farm program delivers zero dollars to thousands of farmers, while feeding some $500,000 a year to the likes of Charles Schwab, the gabillionaire stockbroker who gets taxpayer subsidies to grow rice at his California duck-hunting club (the rice paddies attract migrating ducks for his friends to shoot).
- Agribusiness dumps 8 billion pounds of pesticides on farmlands each year, with the result that 45 percent of America's groundwater is dangerously polluted, while farm families, farm workers and people living next to the fields suffer poisonings, cancers, birth defects and death.
- A handful of corporations monopolize each and every aspect of the food economy, from seeds to chemicals, grain shipping to cotton trading, processing to retailing.
- Workers in fields, processing plants and supermarkets are routinely paid poverty wages, exposed to injury and death, harassed, fired without cause and denied the right to organize.
- Food itself has become a clear and present danger, as quick-profit agriculture has given us mad-cow disease, feces contaminants, irradiation, infusion of sexual hormones, genetic manipulation, a toxic stew of chemical additives and an epidemic overdose of fats and sugars.
- The typical food product in any supermarket has traveled more than 1,500 miles to get there, wasting tankfuls of energy, destroying both freshness and nutrition and denying shelf space to local producers.
And Now, The Good News
That's the bad news about dinner, but there's good news, too, and it's beginning to outweigh the bad. As we gather around Thanksgiving tables this year, we can be thankful that, while the profiteers and politicians are headed one way with our food system, We the People are headed in quite another direction.
Whether it's called "sustainable," "organic," "beyond organic," "pure food" or just plain common sense, there is a mass movement and a growing coalition among consumers, farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, communities, conservationists, nutritionists, chefs, food activists and others to take back control of America's food economy and food culture.
Despite ongoing, big-money assaults to kill this movement, I believe that it's unstoppable. After all, it's food we're talking about, not widgets or just some other consumer "product." Food is essence; corporations that mess with food mess with the inner us.
The first big rebellion against the corporate messers has come in the marketplace, where there has been a surging demand for organic food. What began in the late '60s as a fringe market operating out of funky health-food stores and VW busses is now mainstream. Sales are topping $10 billion this year and growing 20 percent annually as major supermarkets rush to stock their shelves with organics. In addition, our top export markets, especially Europe, Japan, and Latin America, are even more insistent on organic production.
Producing organically is economically viable for struggling farmers, and it's environmentally essential, so this is the future. The question is no longer whether "organic" will become the major force in the food economy, but rather what it means to say "organic" and who will control it.
While the big boys can't kill the movement, they are working mightily to co-opt it, primarily by trying to have "organic" defined strictly in terms of minimal production standards. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture promulgated its new green and white "USDA Organic" label, an official seal of approval that assures us shoppers that foods with that label have been produced without toxic chemicals, artificial fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, GMOs, irradiation and the other brutish techniques of agribusiness.
Getting this label was no small battle. The food giants vehemently opposed it at first, and when the public beat them in that fight, their lobbyists snuck around back and got the Clinton administration to include genetic modification, irradiation, and even the use of toxic sludge as approved "organic" methods in the first draft of the labeling rules. However, the people roared back, en masse. USDA got more protests against this perversion than any federal agency ever received on a proposed rule and had to back down.
But the USDA label is only a first step, and it will actually be a hindrance to the pure-food movement if we stop there. The label defines "organic" merely as a technical process, rather than as a structural concept centered on the culture of agriculture.
For example, under USDA's definition, our nation's food supply would be considered organic even if: (1) all of the production is controlled by General Mills; (2) it's produced 7,000 miles away on Chinese state farms using forced labor, and (3) its sales are monopolized by Wal-Mart.
This is not a paranoid scenario. Indeed, corporations that ridiculed organic production only a couple of years ago now are grabbing for the green label: General Mills, Mars Inc., Tyson, ADM, Procter & Gamble and Pillsbury are among the global players that have bought out such organic brands as Cascadian Farms, Horizon, Seeds of Change, Nature's Farm, Knudsen and Muir Glen. Likewise, Wal-Mart, which has gone from a start-up supermarket a decade ago to the world's largest grocery seller now, is bringing its labor-exploiting, farmer-squeezing management ethic to organic retailing. And farms in China already are applying for organic certification to sell in the U.S.
This corporate grab is nothing but profiteering dressed up in a new suit. To be truly organic is to embrace and enrich the whole, not the few. It refers to a social organism with the complexity of a living thing in which the parts are unified, connected not only to each other but also to something larger, specifically, to our democratic ideals. It's more about fairness and respect than it is about stock options and parts-per-billion of pesticide residues.
America's Food Pioneers
Here again, there is a cornucopia of good news. All across the country, grassroots pioneers are broadening America's organic possibilities by developing successful models for the common good.
"Locally grown" is developing the cachet of wholesomeness that "organically grown" once carried. These days, there's hardly a city of any size that doesn't boast a handful to a few hundred farmers selling directly to local grocers, restaurants or individual consumers. The main appeal is the good-and-good-for-you freshness of having local goods delivered to you right from the field at prime ripeness. But a close second in appeal is knowing these farm families personally, and realizing that buying from them makes you part of an economic loop that sustains your community (www.csacenter.org).
There's a wonderful example of this high-touch agriculture right here in my hometown of Austin, where Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle are community treasures. Their five-acre Boggy Creek Farm (www.boggycreekfarm.com) dates back to the Texas revolutionary period of the 1830s, when the place was out in the countryside. The farm now finds itself smack in the middle of a city, but being on the poor side of town, this patch of deep, fertile bottom land never got developed.
Larry and Carol Ann came across it a decade ago, cleared it, and brought it back to life, creating a jewel of urban agriculture that turns out glorious organic produce, herbs, flowers, farm eggs, jams, salsa, and anything else that strikes the fancy of these two dirt geniuses. All of this is sold locally, delivered with the morning dew still on it. Their farm stand, open year-round, is a regular stop for Austinites, and restaurants vie to put "Boggy Creek Tomatoes!" on their menus.
This farm couple is not only in Austin, they are immersed in it. When a person or group needs help, Larry and Carol Ann are there with their big straw hats, big laughs, and big hearts. They are all-around more popular than any politician in our capital city.
When a storm crashed a tree into their farmhouse last spring, chefs, customers, and friends showed up from all across town with food, tools, and plenty of this country's great barn-raising spirit to help make them whole. Folks wouldn't do that for a Wal-Mart.
I know many farmers like this, true pioneers in an entrepreneurial agriculture that's rooted in both economic and ecological reality. And they're having a ball!
For example, there's Joel Salatin, who calls himself a "grass farmer," because on only 100 acres of well-nurtured pastureland in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, he produces 30,000 pounds of beef, 60,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 chickens, 600,000 eggs, 1,000 rabbits, and 600 turkeys each year! He does it by choreographing his various animals in an amicable, symbiotic waltz that has to be seen to be believed. His Polyface Farm (www.ecofriendly.com) is in rhythm with nature and is a sustainable and profitable model that would boggle the dull industrial mind of any Tyson executive.
Or check out the astonishing work of Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch (www.fourseasonfarm.com), who, as impossible as it may seem, farm only in the winter months in Maine. Yes, in the dark days of the brutal winters on Maine's Penobscot Bay, from October to May, they gaily produce a bounty of organic vegetables in three greenhouses, marketing all of their fabulous produce within 40 miles of their remote and remarkable place.
For 30 years, they've worked to perfect the science and art of cold-weather, sustainable greenhouse farming, and now they have a replicable model that can return an annual profit of more than $40,000 to farmers anywhere. Even in cities, they say.
Chicago is a city with a plan. Mayor Richard Daley is allocating tens of millions of dollars to make Chi-town the "Greenest City in America," and an innovative group of community activists and visionaries are developing a bold plan to make it "The Land of Organic Opportunity."
Far more than a few farmers' markets, they're talking about a comprehensive regional organic-food system that will involve and enrich the whole Chicago area, from farmers to community gardeners, chefs to the homeless, entrepreneurs to school kitchens.
Jim Slama, publisher of Conscious Choice and founder of Sustain, has been one of the key sparkplugs in launching a city-wide planning process called the Local Organic Initiative (www.localorganic.org). LOI starts with the realization that, while organic sales are now about $80 million a year in the metro region, 97 percent of this food is being shipped in from California, Mexico, the Netherlands, and beyond, and Chicagoans are shipping out their organic dollars. Why not capture this growing market for locals, and get fresher food in the bargain? The plan:
- Increase the area's organic production with a crash program to train farmers and transition to organic methods; extend the growing season through greenhouse farming; expand and connect the community gardens throughout Chicago; foster urban production through vacant-lot and rooftop farming; and encourage immigrants with farm skills to put their know-how to work.
- Invest in trucking, warehousing, and management businesses to create a reliable, year-round distribution infrastructure.
- Finance organic food-processing businesses, with an emphasis on enterprises located in the inner-city and owned by local entrepreneurs and co-ops, and on firms that pay good wages, provide training, and offer growth opportunities for employees.
- Invest in markets, including opening more organic, locally supplied farmers' markets; creating a prominent year-round market in Chicago's central commercial area; developing co-op buying clubs among restaurants and consumers and a supply chain for schools, hospitals, jails, and other public institutions; and educating the public, including school kids, about the benefits and availability of locally grown organics.
Elements of the LOI are now in place or under development, including some of the more innovative aspects. For example, Les Brown of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is spearheading a project called "Growing Home" (www.growinghomeinc.org) to grow organic food for homeless shelters as well as to sell to restaurants and other outlets. It'll be staffed by the homeless, who'll get good pay, good skills, and a good chance to better their lives.
Restaurants, grocers, co-ops and direct farmer-to-consumer sales are bringing local organic goods within reach of nearly all of us these days.
Alice Waters of Berkeley, Calif. was the pioneer restaurateur who, 30 years ago, first hit the back roads around the Bay Area to forage among local farmers and food artisans, getting them to supply top-quality organic edibles for her seminal restaurant, Chez Panisse (www.chezpanisse.com). Now, in cities everywhere there are restaurants following in Alice's steps, providing a market for more and more local producers.
Nora Poullion has gone the extra mile. Her Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC (www.noras.com) doesn't just serve locally grown, organic food; the restaurant itself is certified as organic, the first such in America.
But you don't have to go to a high-dollar restaurant to get the goodies. Some 2,800 farmers' markets are flourishing across the country (www.localharvest.org), with nearly 20,000 farmers reaching hundreds of thousands of people in all kinds of neighborhoods. The Japanese have a term, teikei, that means putting the "face of the farmer on the food," and farmers' markets do just that. They link growers and consumers in the same social fabric, while offering a phenomenal variety of wholesome, just-harvested food at good prices.
Cities typically have a central market, then several neighborhood markets, and more and more of these are able to accept food stamps and WIC coupons, so low-income folks can also get better food at cheaper prices than supermarkets charge. The food money we spend at these markets stays in our communities and keeps the farm economy vital.
From the slaves of old to today's migrants, from rural poultry factories to suburban Wal-Marts, America's food economy has been built on exploited labor. Injustice can't be part of an organic system, and here, too, change is coming, led by activist unions that are organizing aggressively and forging coalitions with consumers, students, responsible businesses, and others.
One example is out in the apple country of Washington State, where some 60,000 farm workers toil in abysmal conditions for poverty wages. For years, the workers and growers have battled each other, but the United Farm Workers have recently taken another tack, saying to some of the farmers: Wait a minute, neither of us is getting a fair shake.
Indeed, out of each dollar we consumers spend for apples, the workers get 4 cents and the grower gets 7 cents. Twenty-one cents goes to the wholesalers and transporters, but the big hog is now the retail sector, dominated by such giants as Wal-Mart, Kroger and Safeway. They take 68 cents out of the apple dollar!
"It's time to take on the retailers," says UFW's regional director, Lupe Gamboa. To do so, the union has teamed up with some apple growers and co-op grocers to offer "Fair Trade Apples." As little as a nickel more per pound makes this system work. The retailers agree to pay this premium to farmers who sign a contract with UFW, providing better wages, a pension, and safety protections for workers. In turn, the farmers get a premium price, and the grocers get to sell apples bearing the UFW's black-eagle symbol, certifying to consumers that they're produced by labor and farmers who are getting a fair return. The bet is that you and I will "vote" with our dollars and reach for the Fair Trade Apples (www.ufw.org/apple.htm).
Steadily, and sooner than the corporate powers thought possible, We the People are redirecting the food economy to fit our values rather than theirs. "We're not consumers, we're creators," says Andy Tembrill of the Center for Food Safety (www.organicandbeyond.com). Here are a few of the creators:
Despite a relentless push by Monsanto and other genetic polluters, people worldwide are saying no to Frankenfoods, or at least demanding that these genetic perversions be labeled (www.thecampaign.org); prominent chefs have stepped forward on a range of pure-food issues, from rejecting GMO salmon to supporting low-income gardens (www.chefnet.com/cc2000); farmers are organizing co-ops to bypass monopolistic marketers (www.organicvalley.com); United Food and Commercial Workers is taking on the murderous treatment of the thousands (largely immigrants) who work in unspeakable conditions in meat-processing plants; rural-urban coalitions are fighting to stop the loss of irreplaceable farmland (we lose two acres a minute) and keep farmers on the land by buying development rights from farm families (www.farmland.org); and STOP (a group of families whose loved ones are among the 5,000 Americans killed each year by our contaminated meat supply) is pushing to shut down the big profiteers who are killing us (www.stop-usa.org).
This can be a happy Thanksgiving, and next year's even happier, if we commit to using our dollars and activism in support of a food system geared to the common good, rather than corporate greed. Bon appetit!