The 2017 State of the Plate: Sustaining the Push to a healthy, humane, and human-scale food system

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During the farm crisis of the 1980s, an Iowa farmer asked if I knew the difference between a family farmer and a pigeon. When I said no, he delighted in explaining: “A pigeon can still make a deposit on a new John Deere.”

That’s funny–except, of course, it really wasn’t. Worse, the bitter reality of the tractor joke is still true: The farm crisis has not gone away, though hundreds of thousands of farm families have. The economic devastation in farm country continues unabated as agribusiness profiteers, Wall Street speculators, urban sprawlers, and corrupted political elites squeeze the life out of farmers and rural America.

Remember last year’s presidential debates? Trump and Clinton talked about the needs of hard-hit working class families, veterans, coal miners, and others. But–hellloooooo–where were farmers? Indeed, where was the multitude of producers–farmworkers, ranchers, ranch hands, fishing crews, seafood workers, et al.–who toil on the lands and waters of this country to bring food to our tables? All went unmentioned, even though economic and emotional depression is spreading through their communities, thanks to bankruptcy-level prices paid by corporate middlemen. In the past three years, farm income has declined steadily, plummeting 12% in just the last year. But–poof!–these crucial-but-endangered food producers were totally disappeared by the political cognoscenti.

Actually, the farmer has long been forgotten in America’s presidential discussion. In a New York Times op-ed, Professor A. Hope Jahren reported on the astonishing discovery she made when reading through transcripts of past debates: “Farm policy hasn’t come up even once in a presidential debate for the past 16 years.”

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Sheesh, that’s Bush-Kerry, Obama-McCain, Obama-Romney, and Trump-Clinton! Not a single one of them–and none of the high-profile TV sparklies assigned by the corporate networks to ask about vital national issues–mentioned the people we count on to produce our food. And it’s not like they’re some inconsequential segment of our economy. Jahren notes that the monetary value of farm production alone is nearly eight times greater than coal mining, a declining industry whose voters Clinton and Trump avidly courted.

This prime-time disregard for farmers and food policy is not only irresponsible, but also politically inexplicable when you consider that food is far more than economics to people. Purchasing food has become a political act that takes into account cultural, ethical, environmental, and community values. This was confirmed last March in a national survey published by Consumer Reports showing that huge percentages of shoppers consider production issues important:

  • Supporting local farmers–91%
  • Reducing exposure to pesticides in food–89%
  • Protecting the environment from chemicals–88%
  • Providing better living conditions for farm animals–84%
Cartoon by Matt Wuerker and Brian Duffy

Unfortunately, no matter what We the People want, most of the political class willingly surrenders farmers, and food itself, to industrial agribusiness. That would be that … except for one thing: You! Far from surrendering to the “inevitability” of a corporatized food future, the great majority of Americans continue to push forward with the alternative future of a local, sustainable, healthy, human-scale, humane–and tasty–food system that benefits all.

The good news is that we’re winning more than we’re losing in this populist struggle, as evidenced by these stories in the Lowdown‘s 2017 State of the Plate.

Media “discover” farm worker poverty! Again

JOHN STEINBECK’S novel Grapes of Wrath. Woody Guthrie’s ballad “Deportee.” Edward R. Murrow’s documentary Harvest of Shame. Every decade or so, the public is shocked by yet another discovery that migrant farmworkers are being horribly abused by the wealthy masters of the corporate food system. And here we go again.

Just before Thanksgiving, the New York Times reported that the workers who grow and harvest the cornucopia of fruit and veggies in the rich fields of California’s Salinas Valley live in a constant crisis of poverty, malnutrition, and homelessness. Toiling in “America’s salad bowl,” they literally cannot afford to eat the fresh, nutritious edibles they produce.

Maui experiences a volcanic eruption against GMOs

IN LAST NOVEMBER’S ELECTIONS, native Hawaiian Alika Atay won a seat on the Maui County Council, channeling three powerful spirits into his upstart political campaign. His victory was a huge win for people everywhere who are battling for good food, clean water, environmental justice, and democracy. All of that was at stake when Atay–an organic farmer and leader of a grassroots group named Aina (Earth) Protectors United–dared to challenge mighty Monsanto and its political lackeys who’ve treated the island like its private plantation for decades. He led a slate of populist reformers against the council’s entrenched majority of corporate puppets. As investigative reporter Jonathan Greenberg wrote, the council had arrogantly and autocratically been turning the natural lushness of Maui into “the world’s epicenter for GMO testing.” Greenberg reported that Monsanto and other pesticide giants have installed hundreds of test sites on Maui that are “regularly sprayed by massive quantities of dozens of types of pesticides (sometimes in combinations never before tried) on experimental GMO [seeds] to see what survives.”

In 2014, the people of Maui had rebelled by passing a ballot initiative to shut down GMO testing. Victory! But, no. Nine days after the vote, Monsanto lawyers held a secret meeting with Maui County’s lawyer and a federal judge, and the fix was in. The next day the judge decreed that “at the request of the parties, the court hereby enters an injunction, prohibiting the enforcement of the [people’s initiative].” But with November’s volcanic political shock to the island’s GMO establishment, Atay and his hearty band of reformers have now entered their own “injunction” by taking four of the county’s governing seats and coming close in the other five. Democracy has intruded into Maui’s Council.

The three spirits that Atay channeled were (1) Bernie Sanders-style, people-powered grassroots organizing and social media communication; (2) the tenacity of North Dakota’s Standing Rock Lakota Sioux rebelling against corporate profiteers who endanger natural resources. (As Atay put it, “We all have a responsibility to stand up for future generations. We live on an island and must protect our sacred water; and our only source of drinkable water”); and (3) his own internal strength, derived from native Hawaiian traditions of community and ancestral relationships.

Out of some 46,000 votes cast, Atay won by 808, meaning every phone call and email supporting his grassroots campaign mattered.

The Valley is a gold mine of groceries, generating billions of dollars in sales that have enriched landowners and corporate executives and turned Salinas Valley into farm country with Silicon Valley prices. Unable to afford good food, the workers eat poorly–85 percent are overweight or obese, and nearly six out of 10 have been diagnosed with diabetes (while many more, uninsured and unable to afford testing, go undiagnosed). Especially appalling, a third of elementary schoolchildren in the Salinas City district are homeless. They sleep with their families in tents, abandoned buildings, tool sheds, chicken coops, or on the ground, next to the rows of crops they tend.

Allowing such abject poverty in our fields of abundance is more than shameful, it’s an oozing sore on our national soul, made even more immoral by the fact that our society throws 40 percent of our food into the garbage. But outrageous treatment of farmworkers is not limited to Salinas–you can likely find it down some rural road near you. When we find it, let’s act on it. Yes, donate money and time to food banks, but it’s even more important for us to join with farmworkers in local, state, and national political actions to STOP this gross, un-American inequity. Otherwise, the next time farmworker poverty is “discovered,” the shame will be ours.

Food fight! Biotech vs. organic

THE ONGOING BATTLE FOR OUR FOOD FUTURE pits the agri-industrial model of huge-scale, corporate-run operations against the agri-cultural model of sustainable, community-based family farming. The big money is with the global goliaths of corporate ag, of course, but the tight grip the giants once had on the marketplace has steadily been slipping as consumers and more and more farmers (especially younger producers) are making clear that they prefer non-industrial food. One measure of this is the contrasting fortunes of biotech vs. organic production.

GMOs, down. The promised “miracle” of genetically altered crops, introduced in 1994 by Monsanto, turns out to have been ephemeral. The prices of corporate-altered seeds have skyrocketed, yields from those seeds have not met expectations, planting GMO crops has forced farmers to buy more (and more-toxic) pesticides, and consumers overwhelmingly oppose GMO Frankenfoods. Thus, fewer farmers are using the biotech industry’s product: US farmers cut their plantings of GMO crops by 5.4 million acres in 2015, and sales of GMO seeds fell by $400 million.

Organic, up. Not only does consumer demand for organically produced food keep going up, but such major producers as General Mills and Kellogg are switching to greater use of organic ingredients. As of last June, the number of America’s certified organic farms was 14,979 (up by more than 6 percent from a year earlier), and sales of organic products zoomed up by 11 percent to $43.3 billion in 2015, about four times more than the growth in conventional food sales. This remarkable rise would have gone even higher, but the demand for organic is now outstripping the supply! Consumers clearly want to buy more, thus creating good opportunities for new organic farmers–and a bright future for agri-culture.

The chicken and the egg

THOSE WHO SAY THAT WE ORDINARY PEOPLE can’t have any effect on today’s corporate behemoths should check out two 2016 breakthroughs by a group the establishment has long derided as somewhere between wacko and criminal: animal rights activists. Members of groups like the Humane Society get demonized, outlawed, sued, and jailed by agribusiness interests for persisting in trying to make life even slightly less awful for animals captured in America’s industrial food system. But 2016 was a good year for the groups … and the animals:

Perdue Farms. This $6 billion poultry giant (the fourth largest in the US, producing 676 million chickens in 2015), has been a major pusher of the industry line that there’s nothing wrong or cruel about breeding birds with breasts so heavy that they can’t stand, or keeping them jammed so tightly in cages that they can’t spread their wings, or denying them access to the outdoors–or even sunlight. But Jim Perdue, grandson of the founder and now CEO, was having trouble reconciling his corporation’s rhetoric with hard reality. After listening to critics, he began discussing alternatives with the animal rights group Compassion in World Farming.


waterkeepers_NC_hogwashHURRICANE MATTHEW POUNDED the Atlantic coast last October, but inland North Carolina, 100 miles from the coast, suffered the storm’s gravest punch: a flood affecting six counties. It’s been little reported, but the people in these rural counties are experiencing a continuing horror in the wake of Matthew, including epic pollution of their water and land, plus a widespread threat of disease caused by the flooding of the area’s massive factory farms. Thousands of bloated carcasses of drowned and decaying hogs and millions of dead chickens and turkeys have been tallied, and the flood breached at least 15 enormous waste lagoons at the hog factories, spreading an incalculable amount of Pepto-pink, untreated hog excrement (which can contain E.coli and other potentially deadly bacteria) across the land and into North Carolina’s water systems.

Floods happen, but this was no natural disaster. It was human-made in the state capitol by North Carolina’s Republican super-majority of Koch Kultists whose antigovernment ideology puts corporate profits over public safety. No state government has been as willing as this one to roll over for industrial agribusiness, cavalierly allowing the saturation of the countryside with thousands of these poorly regulated factories. The small town of Goldsboro, NC, for example, is surrounded by some 300 hog factories, 600 chicken complexes, and 229 waste lagoons–all are essentially allowed to “regulate” themselves. This was a disaster waiting to happen–and it did.

The Sierra Club reports that even China’s regulation of hog factories is “more robust” than North Carolina’s. Such lax oversite is one reason Beijing began outsourcing its pork production to the Tar Heel State, a move that accelerated when the Chinese conglomerate, WH Group, bought Smithfield Foods and made itself the world’s largest pork producer. What we have here is a perfect storm of: (1) disease-ridden, industrial agriculture; (2) absentee, don’t give-a-damn corporate ownership; and (3) a corporate-hugging, laissez-fairy dust theory of government’s oversight responsibility.

Then, on July 1–bam!–Perdue announced a wholesale shift in his company’s approach to handling the birds, including providing them with lots of sunlight; giving them space to run, flap wings, and play; breeding smaller, healthier birds; and using more humane slaughter methods. Also, Perdue will compensate growers not just for cost-cutting, but also for enhancing the birds’ quality of life! One of the industry rationales for cruelty is that kindness raises prices and cuts profits. But Perdue is finding that healthier birds actually reduce costs, and that more humane practices attract supermarkets, restaurants, and families to Perdue’s products. Success by Perdue could shift the whole miserable industry.

Cage-free eggs. Until recently, nearly all of the 77 billion eggs we Americans eat annually have come from hellish, windowless egg factories, each containing hundreds of thousands of laying hens. Tightly packed into wire “battery cages” containing five birds side by side, each hen “lives” (so to speak) in a tiny space with the footprint of an iPad. For a decade the Humane Society has led a grassroots campaign to liberate these hens through undercover exposes and by pressuring college food managers and retailers like Whole Foods to buy from smaller, more local producers of cage-free eggs. In 2008, the campaign got a huge boost when California voters passed a ballot initiative banning battery-cage confinement, with the most “yes” votes of any initiative in US history. After that victory, the society’s organizers convinced Burger King to adopt a cage-free policy. Next came McDonald’s and IHOP, Kroger and Meijer, Costco, and Trader Joe’s–and then, last April, the biggest prize in all of eggdom: Walmart, America’s biggest egg buyer, announced a transition to a 100-per cent cage-free egg supply by 2025.

Do something


Prez-elect Donnie Trump has named some doozies to his cabinet, but as we go to press, two stand out as threats to humane and healthy food: Scott Pruitt is up for head of EPA, which oversees animal testing for pesticides and chemicals and regulating greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution from factory farms. As attorney general in Oklahoma he tried (un successfully) to give special rights to corporate and foreign-owned factory farms and joined a suit aimed at killing the California law for more humane egg production.

Another Trump nominee is pro-“ag-gag,” anti-farm-reform Terry Branstad, up for ambassador to China.

So what’s the ambassador to China got to do with US agriculture? Plenty. Many family farmers claim that China is buying up American farms and using them as its new outpost for factory farming. The fear is that Branstad will now accelerate this trend.

I’m making moves!

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