It’s been an eventful year in the populist fight for healthy, sustainable—and tasty—food for all
11 min read
Thanksgiving approaches–let’s eat! America’s most food-focused holiday traces its roots back to the abundant fall feast that Pilgrims and Indians enjoyed together in 1621.
Not even half of the 100 or so Mayflower Pilgrims and crew who’d arrived at Plymouth Rock the previous December survived their first, grim year in the New World (“new,” of course, only to those undocumented immigrants–not the local citizens). Still, to celebrate and offer thanks for their survival, the English migrants planned a communal meal following the fall harvest. And in appreciation to the Wampanoag for teaching them to raise corn and gather the region’s seafood, they also invited Massasoit, the tribal leader, to join them. He did, surprising the hosts by arriving with 90 members of his community. But they didn’t come empty-handed, instead bringing much of the fare for what became a sumptuous, three-day banquet featuring venison, duck, geese, wild furkees (Wampanoag for gobblers), eels, mussels, lobsters, gooseberries, plums, cornmeal pudding, popcorn balls (who knew!), barley beer, and fortified wine. And you thought you overate at Thanksgiving!
But this was not the first precursor of our annual November Food-a-Palooza. Texans assert the tradition began near El Paso in 1598, when the Manso and Piro tribes roasted roasted fowl and fish for a lost and bedraggled group of Spanish colonizers. Floridians insist the firstest-of-all Thanksgivings was in 1565, when Timucuans shared a stew of salt pork and garbanzo beans with Spanish settlers at St. Augustine.
Interesting tidbits, but today the Big Question is not who held the first celebratory feast of thanks, but what exactly are we celebrating? America certainly has an abundance of food (even though many Americans do not), yet we face a momentous choice: a food future rooted in the ethic of sustainable agriCULTURE or in exploitative agri-INDUSTRY.
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The conglomeratized, Wall Streetized, monopolized, globalized, chemicalized, and plasticized model of treating dinner as just another manufactured product is presently dominant. Big Food has gained this control not because its product is superior, but because, for the past 70 years, US corporate powers have ruthlessly abused their financial, marketing, and political muscle to bully and shove aside anyone in their way.
What better symbol of agri-industry’s vision of “food” than that ubiquitous Thanksgiving “Butterball” turkey. In a succession of corporate deals, the brand- has passed from Swift & Co. to ConAgra to Smithfield Foods and now to the shipping giant, Seaboard Corp. Whatever its industrial flag, the Butterball has been hoisted onto our tables by huge advertising budgets and promotional payments to supermarkets. The bird itself has been grotesquely deformed by industrial geneticists who created breasts so ponderous that the turkeys can’t walk, stand, or even reproduce on their own (thus, the nickname “dead-end birds”). Adding torture to intentional deformity, the industry sentences them to dismal lives in tiny confinement cages inside sprawling, steel and concrete animal factories that scar America’s rural landscape–monuments to greed-based corporate “husbandry.”
As eminent farmer-poet-activist Wendell Berry tells us, eating is a profound, political act. It lets you and me vote for the Butterball industrial model or choose to go back to the future of agriculture, which is the art and science of cooperating with, rather than overwhelming, nature. That cooperative ethic is the choice of the remarkable Good Food Uprising that has spread across the country in the past 30 years. Now the fastest growing segment of the food economy, it is creating the alternative model of a local, sustainable, small scale, community-based, organic, humane, healthy, democratic–and tasty–food system for all.
So, where do we stand? To assess 2015’s State of the Plate, the Lowdown presents this sampler of ups and downs in our society’s populist struggle over life’s most basic need.
No justice, no honey!
Bees make honey, which is healthy. Dow Agrosciences makes sulfoxaflor, which is a neurotoxic pesticide that kills bees.
So, which product did the Environmental Protection Agency choose to protect in a 2013 ruling? You guessed it: Toxic corporate money trumped nature’s honey, even though sulfoxaflor has been linked to colony collapse disorder (CCD), the sudden decimation of entire colonies of bees. These massive kill-offs directly endanger your and my food supply, for bees are the major pollinators of 30 percent of the crops we consume, from berries to veggies. In the past year, US beekeepers lost 40 percent of their little pollinators to CCD.
"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower
In response, honey producers and environmentalists sued the EPA, charging, among other things, that the agency itself had found sulfoxaflor to be “highly toxic to honey bees.”
Lo and behold, justice prevailed! In September, a federal appeals court reversed the EPA’s approval of the poison, rebuking the agency for being so eager to favor Dow that it “attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate.” In a huge win for bees, us, and science itself, the court ruled that, henceforth, pesticides must be judged not only by their health impact on individual bees, but on their long-term damage to the “interdependent superorganism” of the hive.
Hogs are smart and social. They do complicated things like teaching each other and forming cooperative societies.
They also feel stress, fear, and pain. Nonetheless, the giants of pork production have callously made the cruelest torture central to their business model. They raise hogs in abominable, closed-off “CAFOs” (confined animal feeding operations) that amount to animal concentration camps.
Sows, for example, are forced to be perpetual birthing machines (though machinery would get better care). Throughout pregnancy, sows are immobilized, jammed in row after row of two-foot-wide “gestation crates.” Unable even to turn around, they basically lose their minds, forlornly chewing on the bars of their cages or dejectedly waving their heads back and forth. For giving birth, they’re briefly moved into slightly larger farrowing crates (though they are still unable to turn around). They are quickly deprived of their piglets, reimpregnated, and returned to the brutality of the gestation crates. Nine out of 10 sows in America spend their lives in this industrial hell.
Now, some good news: Millions of sows are being set free! Thanks to courageous whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and groups like the Humane Society, the disgusting uglies of corporate CAFOs have been exposed, prompting outraged consumers to seek out independent producers of humanely raised pork. They’ve joined with animal rights activists to pressure retailers to stop selling tortured pork. Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Burger King have led the way in rejecting all suppliers that use gestation crates, and such giants as Costco, McDonald’s, Oscar Mayer, and even Walmart have since joined this grassroots rebellion.
The fracking boom is turning into a bust, but the devilish frackers have discovered a new profit center: Selling their fracking wastewater to agribusiness for irrigating crops.
This is water that ExxonMobil and other drillers mixed with a witch’s brew of some 750 toxic chemicals before power blasting it into underground rock formations. The drillers have had to reclaim this contaminated water, but “Eureka!” someone clever shouted, “Rather than store it, let’s put it on America’s salads!” It’s perfectly safe, the always-trustworthy oil industry tells us, because they remove all the cancer-causing nasties. But toxins remain in some “treated” water, and a California science panel found that state regulators have no adequate testing process nor any controls to stop crop contamination.
Fed up, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto introduced a bill requiring warning labels on all state produce irrigated with fracking water– thus empowering consumers, not Big Oil, to decide if fracking chemicals belong on family dinner plates.
Water scarcity is getting scary, and banning long showers is not even a drop in the solution bucket. The biggest water sponge by far is food production, and agri-giants continue to pour it on their vast fields like there’s no tomorrow. Scientists at the Pacific Institute and National Geographic calculated how much water is being pumped into today’s industrialized food system:
One little almond: 1 gallon A single walnut: 5 gallons A head of lettuce: 12 gallons A cluster of grapes: 24 gallons An egg: 53 gallons A pound of chicken: 468 gallons A gallon of milk: 880 gallons A pound of beef: 1,800 gallons
At the very least, it’s time to reassess water subsidies and huge irrigation projects that make it profitable to grow crops in places that make no sense. Also, the water gulpers of agribusiness must be required to apply the most efficient conservation technologies and methods to every drop they take. Moreover, they finally must be required to pay the actual cost of the water that they now get on the cheap, in what amounts to a public resource subsidy of their wasteful factory-farm system. It’s absurd and unsustainable to let the profiteering oligarchy of four meat conglomerates, which control 85 percent of all US beef, to pump 1,800 gallons of this precious natural resource into every pound of their beef.
Lord have mercy–guess what Wall Street has discovered? Dirt. More specifically, our nation’s farmland.
Financial trusts and hedge fund hucksters are buying up farms and converting them into fast-buck investment packages for super-rich global speculators. One such firm owns 16 crop-producing farmsteads under the rustic-sounding American Farmland Company. But far from bucolic, AFC is a syndicate of New York City’s largest real estate empire; a wealth management outfit; two Florida sugar barons; and a subsidiary of Prudential Financial, the insurance behemoth. None of these nouveau sodbusters have a speck of dirt under their fingernails, but they’ve figured out how to “work” the land without touching it–and how to harvest a sweet profit. “It’s like gold,” says the founder of the scheme, “but better, because there’s cash flow.”
Cash flow? Yes, Wall Street syndicates buy the farms and then hire farmers to produce the crops, charging them rent to till the corporate soil while also taking a prime cut of any profits. Further, the combines are set up as real estate investment trusts, providing enormous tax breaks for the Wall Street plowboys.
"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower
To filthy-rich Wall Street bankers, farmland is cheap, so they pay top prices. As a result, young farmers wanting to, you know, farm, are finding it hard to locate affordable land. So, a new generation of food producers, which America desperately needs, is walled off, and established farmers are turned into sharecroppers. Meanwhile, the syndicates are switching the farms to high-profit crops such as nuts that require heavy pesticide dosages and suck up more of our scarce water. What a deal!
Paul Greenberg, author of American Catch, reports that the USA controls 2.8 billion acres of ocean around our shores, more than any other nation. Yet:
Nearly 90 percent of the seafood we eat comes from abroad;
The average distance it travels to our tables is 5,475 miles;
America’s most-consumed seafood is shrimp, but despite their abundance in our waters, we import about 94 percent of them from an average 8,000 miles away;
Our government conducts food safety inspections on less than 2 percent of the imported seafood shipments (only 0.7 percent of imported shrimp were tested last year!), despite frequent bacterial outbreaks in foreign processing facilities, and their heavy use of antibiotics to treat diseases;
This year, Consumer Reports tests found bacteria that can make you sick in most samples of farmed shrimp imported into US supermarkets from five supplier nations: Vietnam, 58 percent were contaminated; Ecuador, 61; Indonesia, 69; India, 74, and Bangladesh, 83 percent tainted.
What’s a movement without music? Boring, for one thing. But that’s not the case with the emerging farm & food movement, for it has Farm Aid, the annual festival and concert headlined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews. Now 30 years old, the burgeoning Farm Aid network keeps getting strong- er, thanks to its combination of solid democratic ideals; constant outreach; and a rocking, populist spirit. At last fall’s Farm Aid, Young roused the crowd with an impassioned sermon of idealism, outreach, and spirit that blistered the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the rise of corporate plutocracy. Here’s a brief excerpt:
All the things we’re talking about here are about power. It’s all about corporations controlling everything. When you talk about lobbying and [campaign] dollars, that’s the corporations paying [lawmakers] to vote their way. They’ve eroded the democracy here in America to a point where it’s almost unrecognizable.
We love Farm Aid, but we don’t love that we’re having to do Farm Aid. It’s not a celebration. It’s a mission to change what’s going on. …I’m an organic kind of guy myself. Going organic cleans the land. But first of all you have to clean Washington of these dirty politicians who are outside of democracy and serving these corporations, like Monsanto.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, Young’s powerful protest album released last summer, pointedly titled The Monsanto Years, calls out the biotech/chemical giant for ripping off farmers by ped- dling GMO seeds that grow into plants requiring heavy doses of a particular pesticide–which Monsanto also happens to peddle.
A corporate press release whined it was offended, but Young was ready: “Corporations don’t have feelings or soul. They don’t depend on uncontaminated water, clean air, or healthy food to survive. They are beholden to one thing–the bottom line. I choose to speak Truth to this Economic Power.”
Food fads come and go, but here’s one that I hope doesn’t come until after I’m gone: gastronomic virtual reality. Billed as “a new simulated dining experience,” GVR is the brainchild of Jinsoo An, who’s proposing a food future without actual food. Rather, our nutrients would come from such low-cal substances as agar, konjac jelly, and gum arabic. Sounds like yuck, yet An’s “Project Nourished” promises a complete sensory experience of good texture, smell, and taste. How? We’re to use Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, aromatic diffusers, and cutlery with sensors that will fool our brains into thinking that the jelly-like food substitutes are delicious steaks, lasagna, pies, and other real foods.
Once again, we learn that just because tech-meisters think they can do something, doesn’t mean they should.
The agriculture attitude
Agri-Industry doesn’t care whether it makes food or widgets, for it is run by people who are dedicated solely to making money. In contrast, those involved in agriculture love what they do and care deeply about making the very best food they can. Their attitude is summed up by Lee Jones, a sustainable farmer in Ohio. Asked what he’d be if he weren’t a farmer, Lee replied, “Disappointed.”
This Thanksgiving, let’s support, celebrate, and share the amazing bounty that dedicated farmers like Lee Jones produce–for us, for the land, and for the future.