State of the Plate 2019: The scrappy champions of healthy food take on the predators of industrial ag

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As we hurtle into the 2020s, the future of our food economy (and food itself) remains a fiercely contested competition between diametrically opposed visions: (1) a negative pole consisting of the concentrated forces of corporate agriBusiness, which view the dinner plate strictly in terms of their own profits; and (2) a positive pole of family farmers, consumers, food artisans, environmentalists, and other grassroots advocates of agriCulture, who envision our food future from the perspective of personal and environmental health, sustainability, and democratic control.

Of course, in this Time of Trump, the corporate interests rule national policy. If there were ever any doubts about which vision the Trumpeteers push, it was erased by the little-known fellow The Donald appointed to head the Dept. of Agriculture: Sonny Perdue. Hailing from Georgia, our biggest peanut-producing state, Sonny has proven to be the biggest goober of all. As chief of the agency created by Abraham Lincoln specifically to assist US small farmers and rural communities, Perdue has been AWOL, blithely reclining in his ornate Washington office while farm prices plummeted, bankruptcies soared, and farmer suicides surged (see The Lowdown, May 2019).

Grotesquely, this no-show ag secretary has even found hilarity in his constituents’ crises. In August, when producers began publicly protesting the increasing financial pain that Trump’s trade games with China were inflicting on them, their public servant responded with snark: “What do you call two farmers in a basement?” he asked at a Minnesota farm show. “A whine cellar,” he guffawed.

Then, in October, Sonny suddenly bared his corporate soul by impersonating Earl Butz. Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture infamously commanded family farmers to “get big or get out,” warning them to “adapt” to the corporate- dictated food economy he was promoting “or die.” Likewise, Perdue, appearing at a Wisconsin dairy industry expo, rose on his hind legs and smugly lectured the state’s hard-hit farmers on the theoretical framework of Trumponomics: “In America, the big get bigger, and the small go out.” So, there you have it–the Sonny & Donnie farm program boils down to two words: Adios, chumps!

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That’s the official policy of the land. And yet, the State of the Plate in 2019 is not all gloom. Despite cloddish Washington officials and predatory agribusiness giants, the scrappy champions of a prosperous, democratic food economy keep making gains. So, let’s review a few of this year’s ups and downs in the struggle over life’s most basic need.


“Where’s the beef?” asked a 1980s Wendy’s ad campaign mocking the size of its competitors’ burger patties.

Today, that question has turned existential as corporations, farmers and ranchers, environmentalists, animal rights groups, lawmakers, etc. fight to define “meat.” In simpler times, meat was bacon, burgers, chicken breasts–i.e., animal parts. But meatless meat has stampeded today’s marketplace. Venture capital-backed startups such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat as well as Big Meat oligarchs like Tyson and Smithfield are peddling highly processed meat-like mash ups of plant materials, oils, genetically modified yeast, food starch, flavorings … and more.

But look out. Even tech-ier “meat” is on the way! Several corporations are running FrankenMeat experiments–extracting cells from tissue, blood, chicken embryos, cattle, and fish, then stewing them in a bioreactor with a solution of chemicals, hormones, and growth agents. Voila! the multiplying cells morph into what these lab wizards call a “food-grade cell-growth medium,” allowing faux-meat peddlers to shape and flavor it into salmon-like filets, chicken-like nuggets, and … whatnot.

Progress, or nonsense? The latter, I think. Rather than meeting real needs, these extreme, sci-fi fabrications are being foisted on us by futurists and investors declaring a “technological imperative”: If we have the technology and money to make such stuff, we must make it. Never mind the exorbitant cost of lab-manufactured meat and the serious lack of precautionary consideration of human and environmental consequences, corporations backed by bedazzled tech investors are scrambling to rush it to our plates.


No one wants this on their tombstone: Killed by a Chicken.

Yet, some 35,000 Americans die each year from rampant infections caused by drug-resistant superbugs. These deadly bacteria flourish primarily because of the overuse of antibiotics in the giant factory farms that produce most of our poultry, hogs, and cattle.

Corporate CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) pump massive doses of these drugs into the millions of animals jammed into tiny cages and overcrowded pens. As a result, more than 70% of medically important antibiotics sold in the US go not to humans, but to Big Food animals! Why? Because:

  1. Antibiotics promote fast growth
  2. In intense confinement, diseases spread rapidly, so the animals in CAFOs are given antibiotics proactively to slow outbreaks.

This constant overdosing promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in both livestock and the humans who work with and eat them. Thus, once-effective, vital drugs become useless, and thousands of people die.

The good news is that a coalition of food safety advocates is pushing restaurant chains to stop selling antibiotic-laden meat. Just three years ago, the coalition’s annual “Chain Reactions Scorecard” found that 20 of the 25 largest food chains had no policies to limit antibiotics in any of their meats. The latest report, however, finds that Chipotle and Panera are now A-rated for selling mostly antibiotic-free meats, and 15 other chains have announced policies to reduce the dosage in some products, especially chickens.

That’s laudable, but the biggest abusers are beef corporations, which account for 43% of antibiotics used in meat sold by chain outlets. Of the 25 largest burger chains surveyed, only two (Shake Shack and BurgerFi) got an A for selling antibiotic-free beef. Twenty-two chains (including Burger King, Whataburger, and In-N-Out) scored big fat Fs for having no plans to limit drug content. McDonald’s, the biggest of all burger pushers, moved up from F to a C, pledging that by the end of 2020, it will announce antibiotic “reduction targets.”

Meanwhile, Washington still refuses to require industry to end abuse of these critically important drugs, so preventable illness and dying continue. To join the grassroots effort to stop this homicidal insanity, linkup with


Saying he loves America’s “Patriot Farmers,” Trump brags he’s doled $28 billion of our tax dollars to mitigate the losses farm families are suffering. (Yes, the losses largely stem from his own ag and trade policies–but never mind that.)

One grateful recipient is the JBS family, a pork producer that got a whopping $78 million from our generous president–way more than any other US hog farmer. But wait. JBS is not a family, not American, and certainly not a patriot. This voracious $50-billion-a-year Brazilian behemoth is the biggest of the Big Four global conglomerates that control 85% of US beef production, nearly 70% of pork, and about 40% of poultry. Bribery and other illegal acts–which JBS honchos admitted to in court–helped the company get Brazilian bank loans that have enabled it to take over five US meat giants since 2007, including Swift and Co., Pilgrim’s Pride, Smithfield Foods’ beef division, and Cargill’s pork operations.

JBS has wielded this market might to squeeze out smaller competitors, underpay ranchers, recklessly maim meat plant workers (achieving the second-highest rate of serious employee injury among all corporations in our country), manipulate consumer meat prices, and carelessly endanger public health (including causing the largest recall of contaminated ground beef in US history). The colossus has also cashed in on Trump’s inept tariff fight with China–first by pocketing his bailout subsidy and then by removing much of its US pork processing from the US to its foreign plants, enabling JBS to scoot around China’s tariffs on US pork.

Some patriot. A group of independent ranchers has launched a #StopTheStealin social media campaign and is hosting rallies in protest of Washington’s continuous coddling of meat monopolists. Join the fight:


If you’ve been to a farmers’ market recently, you were likely impressed with the diverse cornucopia of foods, but you might also have noted a growing diversity among the farmers and food crafters. Women, Latinxs, African-Americans, Vietnamese, inner-city teens, and so many more communities are steadily changing the white-male face of farming. Indeed, the latest US farm census reports a 27% increase since 2012 in the number of women running farm operations–and more are coming as women now make up the majority in ag colleges and training programs.

Reasons vary, but one common thread is job satisfaction and personal fulfillment–doing work that has integrity and purpose bigger than a paycheck and a rung on the corporate ladder. Katherine Tanner is a good example. As the Austin Chronicle reported, she was earning a nice sum as an executive recruiter on the 30th floor of a Seattle high-rise. But yearning for something richer, she returned to her Texas hometown, Fredericksburg, to explore work in sustainable agriculture. With good luck, skills, and the support of a local farm family, she’s now co-owner of Hat & Heart Farm.

It’s not romantic–it’s a lot of hard work. “I’m out here planting, picking, weeding, washing, packing, hauling. I feel like I’m learning a bachelor’s degree amount of knowledge every month. I always wanted to do something of meaning that added to the world and didn’t subtract from it,” she says. “I am uplifted every day, even though I’m working harder than I ever have in my entire life. There’s so much more connection to the Earth, to the people, and to the community.”

Interested? The National Young Farmers Coalition is one place to help you get started:


By far the most abundant commodity produced under the 50-year-long corporate-centric agriculture policy is not corn, cotton, or cattle, but stupidity. Washington’s overall policy approach has consistently exploited farmers, our land and water, agricultural workers, livestock, taxpayers, food quality, and rural communities–all to further enrich the handful of monopolistic profiteers controlling both policy and policymakers. And we’re presently in Year Six of the worst farm crisis since the disastrous 1980s.’

But hark! What light glows on yon horizon? Why, it’s some smart, new policy ideas–emanating not down from corporate front groups, Congress, or other bastions of the status quo, but up from the grassroots. Family farmers have coalesced with other political outsiders and victims of Big Ag to propose a complete overhaul of industrial agribiz policies, supplanting them with sensible, democratic approaches to serve the common good. The most cohesive and comprehensive plan, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “A New Farm Economy,” tackles the big structural changes necessary to, “break the stranglehold that giant agribusinesses have over our farm economy.” Her proposals percolated up from the grassroots, for her ag brain trust consists primarily of dirt farmers and rural advocates. In dozens of small gatherings, these ground-level, hands-on experts have hammered out pragmatic ideas that really would produce democratic, sustainable farm prosperity.

Building on the New Deal’s successful “supply management” approach, Warren’s proposal:

  • Stops constant overproduction of commodities that keeps busting farm prices and drastically strains our environment;
  • Cuts billions from taxpayer subsidies that go mainly to wealthy agribusiness operations;
  • Provides effective incentives for farmers to convert land from intensive production to conservation practices that mitigate climate change;
  • Strengthens and enforces anti-trust laws to break-up and prevent ag monopolies that are bilking farmers;
  • Provides hands-on assistance to help farmers, workers, and rural communities build local and regional systems to free them from dependence on multinational food giants; and
  • Purposefully expands opportunities for beginning, female, and racially diverse farmers.

How to replace a corporate-rigged food economy with one that serves the common good? There’s a plan for that:


High-tech, industrial agriculture’s M.O. comes down to this: If brute force isn’t working, you’re probably not using enough.

Pity the poor, tortured, corporate tomato. Its molecular structure is altered to fit industrial specs, then it’s pumped full of synthetic fertilizers, sprayed with assorted poisons, machine harvested, gassed with a petroleum vapor, and shipped thousands of miles. California organic farmer Brad Gates has another approach: Forget uniformity. Instead, Gates is breeding and selling some 60 varieties of tomato fruits, seedlings, and seeds, and in the process showing that smartly cooperating with the natural world–even in a time of fast-moving climate change–will beat those sprawling corporate interests that keep trying to overpower Mother Nature with high-tech weaponry. In a world of moneyed giants with massive R&D budgets, Gates is a small researcher-breeder-farmer, but he’s a very big thinker, and his idea of unlimited diversity and small-plot, worldwide experimentation is creatively disrupting conventional agribusiness wisdom. He’s focusing not just on looks and taste, but also on developing tomatoes with extreme tolerance for the heat, cold, drought, and rain storms that have become the new normal of our planet’s increasingly inhospitable weather.

Renting a greenhouse to start seedlings, leasing small plots to grow his myriad tomato varieties, and running his seed business out of a closet in his living room, he would seem inconsequential, even quirky–except Gates has tapped the power of the internet. Its cheap, limitless reach has let him connect, enlist, and aggregate the findings of a passionate, online community of thousands of other small tomato farmers and gardeners throughout the world. They’re growing his plants and other unique varieties in climates from Alaska to Uzbekistan, sharing their techniques, experiences, and results on Facebook and Instagram. With no corporate hierarchy, billion-dollar overhead, or domineering profit agenda, Gates and the others have created a freewheeling, interwoven, global network doing public purpose, dirty-hands research where it matters–not in labs, but at soil level. After all, that’s where tomatoes live.


Get these damn immigrants out of our country!

I’m referring to all those foreign-born intruders native to strange lands and cultures outside of our U. S. of A. Yes, apples, I’m looking at you! You’re not “as American as apple pie”–you originated in Kazakhstan! And you, potatoes, who claim roots in Idaho or Maine, it’s time to admit you are Andean, having slipped into our country without proper papers in the early 1700s. And you, oranges, you’re Chinese, not Floridian. And those acres of midwestern corn are actually Oaxacan, tomatoes are aliens from Peru, peanuts came over on slave ships from Africa, and avocados swarmed into Super Bowl Sunday from God-Knows-Where, Mexico. These immigrants have reproduced like crazy, taking over whole areas of our country and are openly mooching our soil and water.

And I ask you: What have they ever done for America?

I’m making moves!

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