State of the Plate 2021: High tech–or the human spirit?

Photo by nikldn on Unsplash

You can make a small fortune in agriculture these days. Problem is, you have to start with a large fortune. —Hightower from the 1980s, and unfortunately, still applicable
Like practically everything else in 2020, practically everything in the wide domain of Food & Farm has been twisted, transformed, and otherwise thumped by the twin tornados of Covid-19 and Trump-45. And yet, even while those scourges loaded so much awfulness onto our plates, the progressive human spirit surged into the mess and … well, we made progress: We created some beautiful moments and generated a stronger-than-ever grassroots push behind fundamental policy change– change that is sorely needed to elevate the people’s interests over the avaricious practices of profiteering agribusiness giants.

The Lowdown’s State of the Plate is our semi-regular update on the decades-long clash for control of dinner. This struggle pits corporate powers that view food as just another monetized commodity (no different from, say, plastic) against the people of agriculture (from farmers and artisans to cooks and eaters) who see what we eat for what it really is: sustenance for life, culture, and community. This difference between the two perspectives is profound, for they require two very different economic structures (large-scale industrialized v. family-scale and community-based), polar-opposite policymaking approaches (plutocratic v. democratic), competing natural resource goals (exploitative v. regenerative), and antithetical concepts of wealth distribution (trickle down v. percolate up).

As varied as food itself, the battles range from isolated rural skirmishes to full-tilt national policy conflagrations. It’s important, though, to consider these separate power struggles as a whole, for, taken together, they are not only defining the future of our food, but also of our society–i.e., us.

We’ve organized the issue with a menu of small plates, from snacks to meaty entrees. Bon appetit!

The Pandemic Exposed Big Food’s Fatal Flaws »

As we've seen again and again this past year, the essential ingredient in a resilient food system is the human spirit--the very element that corporatizers are most determined to eliminate.

My Popcorn Nightmare »

In the midst of the pandemic's mushrooming deaths and economic calamities, I overlooked a potential disaster in my own pantry: The odds of a megaton mega-pop!

So Much for the Heroes »

A genuinely grateful public has hailed those who stayed on the job as heroes. . But while the employees and the virus endured, the corporate generosity vanished as soon as its PR value faded.

It’s Awards Season! »

What award should we give for the most extraordinary performance by a corporate profiteer? How about the "Sleazy," with winners getting a solid gold sculpture of a middle finger?

Doing Good Business »

Is "corporate ethics" an oxymoron? Do you have to be a jerk to be a successful CEO? Is exploitation the only path to profit?

We need an "anti-theft" movement -- to dismantle monopoly »

Monopoly was never just a parlor game, but today it's what's for dinner. Practically every commodity and every step in producing our families' most essential consumer purchase is in the tight grip of four or fewer global conglomerates:

Skewed... And Stupid »

To see how America's farm policy is distorted to benefit industrial agribusiness over family farmers, look at the US Ag Department's response to February's economically devastating 5-day deep freeze in Texas.

Milking the system »

For the past several years, monopoly price fixing by two multibillion-dollar milk-processing behemoths--Dean Foods and the deceptively named Dairy Farmers of America (DFA)--have squeezed thousands of dairy farms out of business, paying farmers less for milk than it costs to produce it.

Plastic Yum-Yums »

You might worry about pesticides in your edibles, but what about plastic? I hate to add to our worries, but physiologists are finding that an alarming amount of plastic is contaminating farmland in the US and around the world.

A Christmas Feast? »

Ready or not, this is now a thing, complete with a recent cookbook: How to Eat Your Christmas Tree.

👇 DO SOMETHING👇
Welcome to the food fight

With so much good work to choose from, we’ll stick now with the overarching theme of “anti-theft”—specifically, how to help break the grip of the corporate cartels squeezing the vitality out of the land, family farmers, farm and processing workers, and eaters, too.

The Family Farm Action Alliance connects and supports “unlikely allies” in the food system, spreading awareness that abusive corporate power undermines a resilient and just food system. Its report, The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts, outlines what happens “when a few hands control the way [we] work and eat.” The good news: People know they’re being robbed. In 2017, 65% of people saw corporate monopolies as a big problem. By 2020, that number had grown to 87%.

And check out the campaigns organized by Real Food Generation! Its “Real Meals Campaign” aims to transform the $18 billion college cafeteria industry by pressuring the Big Three contractors—Aramark, Sodexo, and Compas—to shift sourcing from industrial ag to smaller-scale and local suppliers and, in the process, fight climate change, racism, and inequality in the food chain.

The Pandemic Exposed Big Food’s Fatal Flaws

A cadre of business school economists, high-tech speculators, and corporate planners has been hyping and investing billions in a food-economy model that renders many millions–family farmers, local restauranteurs, independent food processors, small grocers, and food workers–passe. No need for such costly and cumbersome “units,” argue these schemers for a revolution enabled by artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering, and cell-cultured foodstuffs. A few conglomerates will consolidate and automate every step from planting to plate, producing and distributing the calories necessary to sustain the masses and “free” all the “small” people tied up in food production to do something more useful.

The fatal flaw of this soulless corporate concept can be exposed in one word: Pandemic. As we’ve seen again and again this past year, the essential ingredient in a resilient food system is the human spirit–the very element that corporatizers are most determined to eliminate. When Covid-19 slammed into the economy last spring–shutting down or shriveling food service by restaurants, delis, and school cafeterias–the grit, ingenuity, and community commitment of independent providers quickly kicked into gear. Moreover, the consuming public suddenly came to appreciate anew the value of neighborhood cafes, farm stands, bakeries, food trucks, dedicated grocery workers, servers, food pantries, CSAs, and thousands of other hardworking “units” that put dinner on the table for us, even at risk to themselves. While we mourn the terrible, ongoing loss of lives, businesses, and jobs among America’s food providers, let’s also note the countless, uplifting stories of producers and consumers coming together, not merely to exchange money for goods, but also to nurture community and do a bit for the Common Good. Just one example:

Photo: Terry J. Allen

Last spring, farmers Lisa and Ralph Turner of Maine’s Laughing Stock Farm had tons of organic produce ready for delivery to area restaurants. When the pandemic forced all of their customers to shut down–BAM!–the farm couple panicked. Then, as the New York Times reported, they set up a farm stand and sent out an email, hoping that maybe 10 people a day might come purchase a few $3 bags of veggies. But from Day One, friends, family, friends of friends, and perfect strangers poured in, buying extra, sometimes paying $10 a bag and saying “Keep the change,” and then spreading the word, along with community and human spirit–things Amazon, Citigroup, and Walmart can’t compute.

One farm stand is not the big solution, of course, but community just might be. Turns out, the can-do, mutual-aid spirit is more productive than all financial metrics combined. Ralph expresses it in age-old farm-speak: “Head down, butt up, push forward.” The people’s response gives everyone hope and that, Lisa adds, is “an antidote to fear.” Put a price on that!

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My Popcorn Nightmare

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

In the midst of the pandemic’s mushrooming deaths and economic calamities, I overlooked a potential disaster in my own pantry: The odds of a megaton mega-pop! The aromatic goodness of popcorn has been a comfort in these times, but I thoughtlessly failed to consider the potential block-wide catastrophe that a panful of kernels on my stovetop might cause. Think about it: If, instead of that melodious poppity-pop, plink-plink of corn, what if every one of those kernels popped at once? Kablooey!

And you thought that climate change was a threat.

Luckily, I was reassured to find that scientists have studied this and found that, while a simultaneous pop in one pot might destroy the pot, it won’t flatten the block. Also, it’s more likely that the sun will explode next week–in which case, popcorn wouldn’t be that important.

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So Much for the Heroes

Remember just a couple of years back when an exclusive club of America’s über-rich CEOs and Wall Street speculators went on a PR blitz glorifying themselves as “The Makers”? We are the essential wealth creators! they thundered. But there’s nothing like a pandemic to deflate even the most bloated of egos. While those haughty “makers” escaped to isolated vacation spots, millions of frontline workers braved exposure to keep America functioning. Hello to all you nurses, farm workers, grocery clerks, truck drivers, utility crews, and other low-paid “nobodies” who turn out to be the actually essential ones. You hold the system together!

Photo: Terry J. Allen

A genuinely grateful public has hailed those who stayed on the job as heroes. The appreciation was so widespread that several major corporations joined in, running national ads touting “hero” pay hikes for those enduring such a grave hazard. But while the employees and the virus endured, the corporate generosity vanished as soon as its PR value faded.

Last March for example, supermarket giant Kroger, ballyhooed a $2-an-hour hazardous pay increase for its heroes. “We will continue to support you and your families during this difficult time.” But just six weeks later, even as the pandemic spread the hero pay–pffffft–was unceremoniously terminated. Mingier yet, early this year, when city officials in both Seattle and Long Beach mandated pandemic pay for frontline grocery workers, bosses at Kroger’s national headquarters abruptly shut down area stores. It was a clear act of corporate bullying to intimidate other local communities that might dare to protect their endangered grocery employees.

But the economy was collapsing, so maybe the bosses had to scrimp? Hardly. Grocery sales have boomed during the pandemic, and Kroger reaped a $1.2 billion increase in profits in 2020! Where did that bonanza go? As the investigative newsletter Popular Information reports, Kroger spent $1 billion last year on a stock buyback program–a scheme that jacks-up stock prices, thus enriching the big investors and executives who own most of the stock. How rich are they? One example: Last year, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen’s compensation–including stock and stock options–was $21,129,648.

One man, one year. Unlike typical Kroger workers who draw only $27,000 a year–McMullen is not putting his life at risk. That’s why working families spell “boss” backwards: Double-S-O-B.

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It’s Awards Season!

What award should we give for the most extraordinary performance by a corporate profiteer? How about the “Sleazy,” with winners getting a solid gold sculpture of a middle finger? There were so many worthy contenders, but one corporation exhibited uncommon callousness during a boffo, year-long performance in the art of tragicomic greed. And the Sleazy for 2020 goes to … Tyson Foods!

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

The meatpacking giant has regularly run roughshod over workers, farmers, communities, and the environment–not to mention the millions of animals it fattens and slaughters. But the coronavirus pulled out the worst in Tyson’s corporate ethic. Last April, its billionaire chair, John Tyson, ranted that the health officials who were closing down several of his slaughterhouse factories that had become hotbeds of contagion were causing an intolerable crisis: A national meat shortage!

Responding instantly, our corporate-compassionate, burger-guzzling Trump decreed that meatpacking plants were crucial to America’s national security and must be kept open at all cost. His edict required workers to return to their jobs or be fired. Only there was no meat shortage. Not only did Americans have an excess of cheeseburgers, pork chops, and chicken nuggets, but Tyson and other giants actually increased their meat exports to China last year. And, consequently, Tyson Inc. pocketed $2 billion in profits. Meanwhile, Covid rampaged through Tyson’s factories. In its Waterloo, Iowa facility alone, a third of the processing workers–low wage, mostly people of color–were infected. At least six died.

Which brings us to the corporate play that cinched Tyson the 2020 Sleazy. Waterloo slaughterhouse supervisors (who had stopped going down to the cutting floor out of concerns for their own health) knew that the back-to-work order would sicken hundreds, but not the exact toll. So, seven managers organized a winner-take-all betting pool on the percent of employees who would test positive. “It was simply something fun,” said night manager Don Merschbrock, “kind of a morale boost.”

The virus infected 35%–more than 1,000 out of 2,800–of workers.

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Doing Good Business

Is “corporate ethics” an oxymoron? Do you have to be a jerk to be a successful CEO? Is exploitation the only path to profit?

The good news is that many companies, big and small, in the food economy are blazing a different path through Wall Street’s jungle of greed and demonstrating that money and morality can be compatible. Texas supermarket chain HEB, for example, has drawn an intensely loyal customer base (including me) by investing in good wages and benefits for employees, showing up in emergencies (pandemic outbreaks, hurricanes, freezes, etc.) to give essential supplies and hands-on help, and being an involved and supportive neighbor to the hundreds of unique communities it serves.

Maine Grains is “relocalizing” the business of milling grain, by working with farmers around Skowhegan, ME, who’d been abandoned by global powers like Ardent and Gold Medal. Together, they’re producing nutrient-rich flours from heritage grains–and boosting the local economy in the process. With a growing national profile, Bob’s Red Mill also artfully mills its products from diverse, natural grains–and it’s 100% employee- owned. There’s another, rising business model alternative to the selfish, profiteering ethic of Fortune 500 titans. These enterprises, called certified B Corporations, definitely exist to make a profit, but they are equally focused on having a positive social impact. B Corps prioritize fair wages, high quality jobs, environmental protections, and healthy communities as core elements of their missions, even making those goals legal requirements of their corporate charter.

Ben & Jerry’s, Amy’s Kitchen, King Arthur Baking, and New Belgium Brewery are all B Corps and, in fact, there are now some 3,800 businesses that, though not perfect, have agreed to independent verification of their records and accountability to all stakeholders. I toast you with my Fat Tire Ale!

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We need an “anti-theft” movement — to dismantle monopoly

Monopoly was never just a parlor game, but today it’s what’s for dinner. Practically every commodity and every step in producing our families’ most essential consumer purchase is in the tight grip of four or fewer global conglomerates:

  • Four meatpackers control 60% of the US poultry market: Tyson Foods and three others.
  • Three global giants control 85% and 75% respectively of the US markets for beef and pork: JBS (Brazil), Tyson (US), and Smithfield (China).
  • Four multinational grain-trading powers control 90% of the global grain market: (Cargill, ADM, Bunge, and Dreyfus).
  • Four chemical conglomerates control more than two-thirds of the world market for commercial seeds: Bayer and BASF (German), Syngenta (Chinese), and Corteva (US).
  • Two giants control nearly half the US market for tractors and other farm machinery. (They also prohibit farmers from repairing their own machines, forcing them to travel to expensive “authorized dealers” for repairs): John Deere and Italian conglomerate CNH Industrial.

Meanwhile, Wall Street speculators are the nation’s biggest buyers of farm land, jacking up per-acre prices beyond the reach of family farmers, especially young people starting out. Indeed, the largest owner of US agricultural land is tech mogul Bill Gates, whose holdings in a dozen states are equivalent to a 400-square mile farm. (That’s four times the size of sprawling Seattle.)

This sweeping lockdown of the “free market” by corporate cartels is the result of five decades of intentional actions and inactions by both Republican and Democratic regimes that have recklessly dismissed the Founders’ fears of what Jefferson decried as the “aristocracy of our monied corporations.”

The people’s tool against monopoly is anti- trust activism, a profound component of America’s democratic vision and history, from the Boston Tea Party to the Bill of Rights, to the rise of the Populist Movement, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the writings of Ida Tarbell and W.E.B. DuBois, Louis Brandeis’ concept of The New Freedom, FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, MLK Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign, the tractorcade farm rebellion of the 1970s-’80s, the whole of Ralph Nader’s public life, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Rev. William Barber II’s Moral Mondays, and now … you and me. But along the way, the political and media establishments bought into the corporate dogma that “consolidation” produces “economic efficiencies.” Thus today, instead of economic democracy, Trusts-R-Us! Monopolistic corporations have chokeholds on nearly every market, setting prices, wages, and terms of business. Worse, their power is systemic, dominating health access, education opportunities, media, elections … society!

That’s why I don’t favor the term “anti- trust.” It’s too soft. I mean, who’s against “trust”? Anti-theft is more blunt, easily understood, and true. Americans have fought corporate dominance so hard for so long because monopoly power is nothing but organized theft: It steals our hopes for extending America’s fundamental principles of fairness and opportunity to all. By controlling the marketplace, workplace, and public space, the few rob the many of freedom of choice as well as the possibility of maximizing their abilities to achieve their dreams. It’s the theft of the very idea of America.

But will Joe Biden’s team crack down on the thievery? Biden has been a lifelong policy minimalist, but when running for president, Joe at least recognized the need to “combat corporate power,” promising to “make sure farmers and producers have access to fair markets.” Rhetoric aside, I have not yet seen any inkling that he and his inside team grasp the structural enormity of what’s at stake. Nor have they come up with proposals to free America from the monopoly yoke. So let’s not wait. To fire up real action, farm, labor, consumer, environmental, and other progressive advocates should move a broad, aggressive anti-monopoly initiative to the top tier of our change agenda, because:

  • Busting up monopoly power can produce big positive results for nearly every grassroots constituency.
  • There’s strong public support for going directly at corporate greed.
  • It’s not necessary to pass legislation and set up new programs to get started.

As investigative reporter Amy Swan writes in the Washington Monthly, and as anti-theft champions like Zephyr Teachout have advocated for years, we don’t have to wait on recalcitrant Republicans and weak-kneed Dems in Congress to make progress. Put in place during the past 100 years, a tool shed of laws to counter monopoly power is still on the books, stored in the drawers in the FTC, FCC, SEC, Treasury, Justice, Federal Reserve, and Ag and other departments–just waiting to be put to work.

Here is a direct presidential path to long-term structural change, one that lets Joe actually be Rooseveltian by disempowering monopolistic thieves.

The place to start is with the dinner plate, for clearing it of even some of the immense blockages to fair competition would produce immediate, tangible benefits for millions of families across America. Moreover, busting the monopoly power of abusive and arrogant food giants is broadly popular–even in Congress!

Some of the best proposals and boldest calls for structuring the anti-competitive food sector are coming from such middle-of-the-road Biden backers as Sens. Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Jon Tester, as well as from a few Republicans. Booker, for example, decries the connection between urban food deserts and the consolidation of power by industrial farm and food profiteers: “These corporate agricultural institutions that are growing so large and powerful are dictating practices that are contrary to our very idea of farming in our country.”

Working with progressive grassroots groups like Food & Water Action and Family Farm Action, Booker is sponsoring “The Farm System Reform Act,” a comprehensive proposal to overhaul major parts of the broken food structure. Rather than conventional liberal programs to treat the symptoms of monopoly, such progressive populist approaches begin to dismantle monopoly–and they represent our best chance in the Biden presidency of actually making life fairer for the majority of people.

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Skewed … And Stupid

To see how America’s farm policy is distorted to benefit industrial agribusiness over family farmers, look at the US Ag Department’s response to February’s economically devastating 5-day deep freeze in Texas. Thousands of acres of lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and other winter vegetables were a total loss, lying dead and rotting under eight inches of ice and snow. Fortunately, the USDA’s crop insurance program was there to cover just such vagaries! Oh, blessed relief … unless you happen to be a smaller-scale, local, diversified farmer.

Technically, all farmers are equally eligible for a share of the billions of dollars in recovery assistance the department pays out each year from its insurance program. But when technicality meets reality, the program’s rules and administrators shut out small farms, even mocking them for not getting larger and more industrial. In the end, the main beneficiaries are the big acreage, multimillion-dollar farm profiteers (including Wall Street syndicates) known for polluting the environment, exploiting labor, and running roughshod over local communities.

It has been my privilege over the years to know many hardy and innovative local farmers across the country, having worked with them since my days as Texas agricultural commissioner. They are, by far, the most productive, ecologically conscientious, and community-spirited ag producers we have. Yet, they are stiffed by federal and state ag policies geared to push them out and expand giant corporations’ control of food.

Here in my area of Central Texas, dozens of efficient, enterprising farms with names like Boggy Creek, Hat and Heart, and Eden East lost row after row of veggies to the killer storm. That means they lost the money invested to produce crops and the money they would’ve made selling them. Now they are scrambling to find the cash to clear out dead plants and put in new crops. Not a one of them will get a dime from USDA’s program.

That’s how skewed our ag policy is. The stupid part is that it subsidizes those few giants that deliver the least for society and excludes the many farm families who do the most.

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Milking the system

For the past several years, monopoly price fixing by two multibillion-dollar milk-processing behemoths–Dean Foods and the deceptively named Dairy Farmers of America (DFA)–have squeezed thousands of dairy farms out of business, paying farmers less for milk than it costs to produce it. The Big Two controlled some two-thirds of all raw milk processed nationwide, essentially forcing farmers to sell on the processors’ terms.

Last year, though, our so-called “Justice” Department rubber-stamped a diabolical merger, allowing DFA’s $14 billion empire to devour its only real competitor, Dean $8 billion conglomerate, leaving individual farm families at the mercy of a single domineering colossus. DFA now controls of 70 percent of our nation’s entire raw milk supply.

While it poses as a cooperative, DFA is a thoroughly corporatized entity run by a tight cadre of managers. But its legal status as a “co-op” shields DFA from antitrust prosecution, fair milk-pricing laws, full public financial disclosure–and empowers it to profit by stiffing farmers.

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Plastic Yum-Yums

You might worry about pesticides in your edibles, but what about plastic? I hate to add to our worries, but physiologists are finding that an alarming amount of plastic is contaminating farmland in the US and around the world. Researchers report that three times as much plastic is accumulating in farm soils than in our oceans!

It’s a little-known fact that modern industrial agriculture uses millions of tons of plastic each year, including as mulch on row crops (see photo), greenhouse covers, microplastics in processed sewage sludge used as a fertilizer, and protective seed coatings. Breaking down into micro and nano particles, the chemicals affect the water-holding capacity of soil and plants; appear to kill beneficial microbes and earthworms; and absorb lead, poisons, and carcinogens. And, yes, the plastic passes into the roots, leaves, and fruit of food plants so, of course, the creatures that eat the plants eat the plastic content. Scientists find that apples and other perennials seem to accumulate the most particles, but the contamination is also detected in annual crops of vegetables, honey, and even beer (to the horror of us quaffers).

More evidence that the need is not more recycling of plastic, but less plastic.

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A Christmas Feast?

I’m a quasi-adventurous eater–oysters, yes, snails, no. A grain-veggie-mushroom burger, yes, lab “meat” cultivated from human cells, uh-uh. What about cookies, pickles, and even ice cream made from the needles, bark, and sap of a Christmas tree?

Ready or not, that’s now a thing, complete with a recent cookbook: How to Eat Your Christmas Tree. Careful, though, it’s important to know your tree. Some conifers are poisonous, and some commercial Christmas tree sellers spray their trees with pesticides and fire retardants. After you. Please.

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