The industrial eater … no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and … is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical–in short, a victim. –Wendell Berry
In 1971, Susan DeMarco, Susan Sechler, and I teamed up to launch a muckraking foray into the little-examined, multibillion-dollar labyrinth of America’s farm and food policies. Other progressive activists back then were bewildered by our (wonkily named) Agribusiness Accountability Project.
They were all working on high-profile issues like ending the Vietnam War and urban poverty. Why, they asked, were we talking about tomatoes, land-grant colleges, Earl Butz, and such arcane concepts as oligopolies?
“We’re not,” we replied. “We’re talking about power.”
After all, what power do people really have if we can’t even control what’s in our dinner and where it comes from? This requires keeping a democratic grip on food and farm policy, which in turn requires knowing what those policies do and who is making them. And what better way to reach people with a political/economic/social message about democratic power than to hold up a tomato or a Big Mac and ask: What’s in this thing?
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As our agribusiness project did 50 years ago, the Lowdown continues to advocate for “dinner democracy.” And here we are again, marking harvest season with our State of the Plate update, offering a few servings of the past year’s progress and regressions. Specifics vary, but overriding questions remain:
Should the future of America’s ag economy be controlled by industrializers and monopolizers who view food strictly as a profit center to be manipulated by and for the few?
Or, should the future be modeled on the principles of grassroots producers, artisans, chefs, and consumers who understand that food is an essential element of life, community, and culture to be shared for the Common Good?
These are not casual or academic questions, for the massively capitalized forces of agribusiness have recently bulled ahead, more aggressively than ever, to impose their rigid corporate structures on us. While their frantic push is alarming, it’s also a sign that they’re feeling pressured by a Good Food Movement that is incrementally gaining ground and political clout.
Who needs farms and ranches when food industrializers have petri dishes, fetal bovine serum, and cell vats?
Today’s most explosive front in the epic struggle pitting agri-culture against ag-biz is in the realm of meat–including conflict over the very meaning of the word. This is not beef v. veggie burgers, both of which are from nature. Rather, it’s meat v. faux meat: It’s whether your patty, fillet, or chop is cut from an animal, or is a lab concoction of biological and chemical goo transformed into pseudo-flesh by techno-giants branding themselves the “cell-cultured meat industry.”
The corporate assertion is that with enough capital and biowizardry industry can “make” meat on a scale that will replace animals, feed the world, and save the environment. A God-like miracle! They’ve enticed celebrity billionaires like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Peter Thiel to invest in the creation of lab-concocted steak. Establishment media have also swallowed the fake meat PR: “One of the defining agricultural products of the future,” gushed New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, who called for government to “supercharge this industry” by putting “money and muscle” into “a moonshot for meatless meat.”
"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower
Uh … hold your horses. As investigative digger Tom Philpott points out in an August Mother Jones article, “mimicking the complex biological processes that generate what eaters know as meat is mind-bogglingly difficult.” Indeed, an unadvertised secret of meatless meat makers is that their elaborate process begins with … MEAT!
The corporations extract stem cells from slaughtered animals and “feed” the tissue on fetal bovine serum–blood and mysterious compounds from the fetuses of slaughtered cows.
Structural barriers to making and marketing this stuff are huge:
Playing God is inordinately expensive (a 5-ounce artificial lab-burger, introduced with great fanfare in 2013, turned out to cost $330,000).
Entire new technologies, supply chains, and safety systems would have to be invented and implemented.
Billionaires want profit. Even Bill Gates hedged: “I don’t know that [lab-made meat] will ever be profitable.”
Manufacturing costs “would likely preclude the affordability of their product as food,” a University of California synthetic biology researcher concluded.
This stuff is just the latest in a long line of whiz-bang money hustles by ag-tech speculators. To reject their magic meat scheme, however, is certainly not to embrace today’s monopolized, industrialized meat system that’s ripping off farmers, ranchers, workers, consumers, and communities, while torturing animals, spreading disease, and contaminating our environment. It’s a thoroughly rotten and corrupt system.
But far from competing with or displacing it, a hyper-capitalized industry of faux-meat fabricators would simply be captured by the multinational meatpacking industry, which already has the financial backing, marketing networks, and political clout to own both the meat and lab-meat segments. Gotcha! Already such top multibillion-dollar monopolists as Tyson and Cargill have bought into the startup tech firms that are making flesh in vats.
The most damning thing about today’s high- tech meatless fad is that it is so unimaginative. Let’s pour more capital into the furnace of the existing industrial structure. What could go wrong? Remember just a couple decades ago when the pesticide spewers were going to “fix” agriculture? After that came the gene manipulators. Now these same hucksters are coming at us again, but with a new gimmick.
The first question to ask these flimflammers is: “Who needs it?” You want a meatless burger or chicken-less chicken cacciatore? Good! Take a look at the exciting community of small entrepreneurs and pioneering chefs around the world who are cooking up beans, beets, and other veggies into delicious, healthy animal alternatives. Let’s supercharge them to develop and democratize the meatless future. Meanwhile, let’s also dismantle Big Meat’s monopolies and subsidies, instead putting our public support and buying power behind the thousands of family farmers/ranchers who treat animals and our natural resources with respect and care.
There’s nothing genteel about being a dirt farmer. Although working in and with nature can offer a deeply satisfying life, it tends to be a hardscrabble go. “Farming is full of manure, mud, blood, large stubborn animals, dangerous equipment and days when thing just never go right,” wrote food entrepreneur and small farm champion Christopher Kimball. “It’s first and foremost about hard work and hard choices, trying to scratch a living from the soil, 365 days a year.”
That’ll test your mettle. Now add another factor: What if you’re Black?Uh-oh. Being a Black farmer has long meant that the public’s expansive ag support system (favorable loans, assorted subsidies, technical help, etc.) that gives farm families a fighting chance against the cruel twists of nature and monopolists is not there for you. Disadvantaged by blatant racial discrimination, hundreds of thousands of good, Black farmers have left the land.
This year, though, we’ve witnessed an astonishing Republican-led uprising in opposition to unfair racial exclusion from ag programs! Hallelujah–is the GOP finally resurrecting its inner Abe Lincoln?
Hardly. A group of GOP Goobers like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller have risen up on their hind legs to rage against a Biden proposal to provide long-overdue debt relief to farmers of color who’ve been systematically cheated. The whine of these ultra-white, newly-minted, self-declared “civil rights activists” is that any help targeted to African-Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans is “reverse racism.” So they demand that money to alleviate Black farm debt (often caused by racist lenders and farm agents) must be split with privileged white farmers who’ve endured no discrimination.
Funny, isn’t it, that Lindsey, Sid, and their gang of race raiders expressed not a peep of protest last year when Trump doled out tens of billions of our tax dollars in a special ag giveaway that was gobbled up almost entirely by rich, corporate, and even foreign farm owners–with nearly all Black farmers excluded? You’re right … it’s not funny.
WORKPLACE DIGNITY IS GOOD BUSINESS
There can be a lot of hostility in hospitality, as practically all frontline restaurant employees (servers, hosts, bartenders, et al.) can attest. Low pay, last-minute scheduling, and abusive managers and chefs are bad enough, but the last straw has been a shocking increase in nasty, deranged customers who feel entitled to shriek at, insult, and even assault staff. As a result, restaurants nationwide–from fast food chains to posh eateries–are being hard hit by “The Great Resignation.” In every month of 2021, record numbers of workers have been saying, “Take this job and shove it.”
But, unheralded by the media, there’s also a positive phenomenon underway: Some owners are showing a bit more hospitality to restaurant workers themselves! More than just begrudgingly offering a few more bucks as bait to lure staffers back to an inhospitable environment, a small but growing number of restauranteurs are actually listening to employees and reassessing the operating principles of their enterprises. In particular, the disruption forced by the pandemic has given them a moment to reflect on the morality and sustainability of a business model based on exploiting the people who do the heavy lifting day after day.
Amanda Cohen is one who has awakened to the reality that the most valuable asset of her New York restaurant, Dirt Candy, is the staff. After a year-long pandemic shutdown, Cohen reopened this year with a convention-breaking model of treating employees not as cheap, disposable cogs, but as the professionals they are. That meant replacing the demeaning “tip-wage” practice with a respectful pay package starting at $25 an hour with built-in raises, plus health insurance and paid time off.
That readjustment also meant lifting menu prices by up to 30% to cover the real cost of food, drink, and hospitality. “Suicidal,” scoffed the old school business experts. Yet, while most restaurants are scrambling these days just to find and retain a skeleton staff and being forced to slash hours and service, Cohen says: “We haven’t had a single problem” with the so-called labor shortage. Okay, but what about those price hikes? Customer volume at Dirt Candy is back to pre-pandemic levels.
Cohen’s approach is hardly the norm, but it’s an ethical business model for the future that hundreds of other restaurants have started adopting. Not that the American workforce should sit back and wait for a sudden rush of human decency from a system long-mired in exploitation. No, no. The fundamental, industry-wide transformation to a democratic structure will only come from the demands and organizing of workers themselves. But Dirt Candy and others offer real-life proof that the mean and mingy model of hospitality is not necessary to produce profit. Indeed, workplace fairness and common decency truly are good business.
BIDEN BANS BEEF BEER!
Big meat did a collective knee-jerk last spring when Joe Biden proposed a 50% cut in greenhouse-gas emissions. Industrial ag’s gross concentrations of cows, pigs, etc. are major generators of those gases, so the industry and its right-wing media mouthpieces decided to make a preemptive strike by ridiculing Joe. Leading this offensive was Larry Kudlow, a Fox News TV personality who became a top Trump economic advisor, even though–picky, picky–he’s not actually an economist. (He did play one on TV, which in The Donald’s mind is equivalent to a PhD.)
“Get this,” Kudlow cackled in April, “America has to stop eating meat. … OK, you got that? No, burgers on July 4.” Larry asserted as fact that Biden’s diabolical green agenda would limit Americans to “one burger per month.” Never mind that Biden’s greenhouse-gas plan mentioned nothing about red meat, much less rationing burgers. Then, Kudlow doubled down on his calculated ignorance by squawking that–OMG!–Biden’s policy even means that we’ll all be forced to drink “plant-based beer.”
Oh, the tyranny! Larry was rallying his right-wing circus, wailing that Biden was compelling red-blooded Americans to sip brews made with fru-fru vegetarian stuff– you know, like grain, hops, and water.
HOW ABOUT A BITE OF BUGS?
If it’s an alternative protein that you want, you can’t do better for yourself or the Earth than to order a cricket powder pizza, grasshopper breakfast cereal, or a yellow mealworm burger. And if Larry Kudlow is offended by “plant-based beer,” let him get looped (or loopier) on a keg of robust beetle beer.
Bug Ag is on the move. While our hidebound culture has long viewed arthropods and invertebrates as icky pests to be exterminated, hundreds of millions of people with less prissy palates consider insects a natural and regular part of their diets. And now, even in the beef and pork USA, there’s an emerging boomlet of “edible insect entrepreneurs.” They are farming and processing these meaty little critters into everything from crispy snacks to ingredients for cakes and bread.
Aside from being surprisingly palatable (I’ve eaten both grasshoppers and crickets in Mexico), they are safe, rich in protein and other nutrients, require little land and water, produce minimal waste, and are not big emitters of greenhouse gases. And they certainly are abundant.
There’s the “yuck” factor, of course, but eaters and restauranteurs–especially younger ones–are much more adventurous today. And remember: Just a couple of generations ago, many Americans grew queasy at the thought of slurping a squishy raw oyster or “sucking the heads” of crawfish (still called “mudbugs” in Louisiana and Texas). Even luscious tomatoes were spurned as poisonous when first introduced in Italy and France. So, as demands for a sustainable food supply steadily increase, it’s not far-fetched to think, as one of the new bug-preneurs puts it, “insects will go from niche to normal.”
WONKY WORD OF THE DAY: MONOPSONY
We know about monopoly, the anti-competitive gouging of consumers when a very few corporations control the sale of a product (see the October 2021 Lowdown). But what about mo-nop-so-ny? That’s when a very few buyers control the purchasing of products or services offered by many.
For example, when most local farmers try to sell their commodities, instead of having multiple processors and marketers make competitive bids, nearly every US farmer who produces grain, milk, veggies, meat, etc. faces monopsonies, with only one or two buyers offering a low-ball, take-it-or-leave-it price.
This same kind of manipulation and domination of the so-called free market is also crushing working families. Mass corporate consolidations in manufacturing, hospitals, newspapers, hardware stores, farm equipment dealerships, and practically all other sectors mean local job opportunities shrivel to one place paying a low-wage. Or take a hike.
The intentional creation of these cartels–especially devastating in rural and low-income areas–has already enveloped 60% of US labor markets and is a major force in wage suppression and widening inequality. Yet, our public officials–Democrat as well as Republican–have refused to see corporate monopsony as the antitrust crisis it is. President Biden has proposed an aggressive anti- monopoly agenda. Let’s introduce him to our word-of-the-day… and press for action.
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
Decrying the industrialized decline of US farming, Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Pleasures of Eating” (source of our banner quote) asks: “What can city people do?” Turns out, plenty. The essay is posted on the website of the Center for EcoLiteracy. ecoliteracy.org
You needn’t be a farmer or Black to join the National Black Farmers Association and support its “fight against hunger, prevent land loss, and secure food sovereignty.” nationalblackfarmersassociation.org
The Working Farms Fund aims to preserve both farm land and small family farmers–key issues in addressing the food insecurity still faced by 1 in 8 Americans. Family farms are a win-win-win! conservationfund.org
Unionized workers comprise only 1.3% of America’s 12 million indispensable restaurant employees. For a healthier food system, support the movement for livable wages and a union. unitehere.org