Designing a Renewable Food System

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Thousands of organizations seeking food system change have pointed out the negative environmental and societal consequences of our current system, which many say is propped up on “too big to fail,” hyper-efficient production. The often quoted, Nixon-era agricultural mandate of “get big or get out”—a widely attributed pivot point in American agriculture from a diverse family farming system to the current corporate business form—mirrored the business zeitgeist of the time, building on the mid-20th-century ideal of industrialization and globalization.

Other systems, including our energy, water, and transportation systems, also fell in line with that ethos; but unlike the food system, these sectors are undertaking 21st-century upgrades that comport better with our modern norms and realities by creating more decentralized systems that are better adapted to local geography and sociology. Food system change agents stand to learn from the public policy trajectory of renewable energy in particular. The renewable energy industry currently employs 6.5 million worldwide with $329 billion in investments in 2015, and a number of its effective strategies would adapt well to food system reform.

1. Using public contracts to express public values and create markets for smaller producers.

The starting point for renewable energy was the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), enacted during the oil crisis of 1978. It opened the door to a new energy system structure by requiring that utilities source a percentage of their energy from independent producers. Building on that, many states later required metric-based targets (Nevada set an early example with its goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025) as part of a suite of policy tools supporting the development of renewable energy, called renewable portfolio standards (RPS).

This metric-based approach finds parallel in the food procurement power of public institutions. A national example is Brazil, which passed a law requiring that schools spend 30 percent of their meal budgets on food produced by the country’s millions of smallholder farmers. The program is credited with providing economic viability to that farm sector, through access to a guaranteed market in a direct relationship with government.

School food is also a large public food sector in the United States. The National School Lunch Program spends more than $11 billion annually to feed the 30 million children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The USDA Commodity program provides an additional $200 million or so per year in supplemental food to schools. Given this, federal targets to support local farms in school food purchases would undoubtedly make a meaningful shift in supporting the local farm economy, bolstering its existing Farm to School technical support and grant program.

But such targets would address only part of the food system picture. Community and environmental health are also important parts of a modern food system. Metrics based on these values (such as targets for healthy corner stores, sustainably produced food purchases, and purchases of food from fair labor producers and suppliers) would drive healthy food access, economic viability for the range of participants in the food chain, and a system of agriculture that supports regenerative farming practices.

Farmworkers harvest melons at an organic farm in Firebaugh, California (Photo by Paula Daniels)

A number of food procurement programs already incorporate environmental sustainability values into their goals, including Real Food Challenge for universities and Health Care Without Harm for hospitals. The Good Food Purchasing Program is even more analogous to the RPS system, in that it targets the public procurement dollars of school districts and is metric driven, emphasizing in equal measure five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. It is designed to work for the food system in the way that LEED certification works for energy efficiency in buildings; it has a flexible, performance-based set of guidelines within a metric framework, as well as a ratings incentive.

A region could leverage these program tools and others toward achieving food system goals. Such regional goals for school food, hospitals, military bases, and other publicly funded food programs in each area would create more than enough aggregate dollars to make a notable difference in the food chain. Nationally networked, regional procurement goals would also have a powerful influence on the federal role in the food system.

2. Recognizing that regional governments are nimble leaders.

The generation of renewable energy accelerated when many states developed RPSs alongside federal and state tax incentives. The progress of these states toward their various mandated goals contributed to the current success of renewable energy worldwide. Target levels and motivations of each state vary according to their resources and attributes. For example, water-locked Hawaii is nearly halfway to the most ambitious goal in the United States: It plans to reach “100 percent renewable” by 2045. California recently upped its renewable energy goals to 50 percent by 2030, building on the success of its prodigious entrepreneurial ecosystem and diverse landscape in creating more than 21,000 megawatts of clean energy and 400,000 clean energy jobs.

Similarly, cities or states can become regional leaders of value-based food procurement goals designed for the characteristics of their area, and advance a suite of policies that would create a community of personal, environmental, and economic health in food. Cities are especially well-poised to do so: Most of the world’s population now lives in cities, and because city governments are closer to the ground than federal governments, they have a working understanding of the needs of their residents, and a better sense of the programs and processes that can work for them.

Of course, implementing value-based food system goals will require more than procurement metrics. We need policies and incentives to back them up. California is a good example. The state has consistently ranked first on the US Clean Tech Leadership Index, credited to the fact that it has the largest collection of clean energy policies and incentives (over 270, by some counts) backing its metrics. These include: rebates, low or no interest loans, loan guarantees, financing programs, tax exemptions, bonds, grants, favorable permit standards, access easements, building standards, zoning codes, and small business assistance.

An impressive number of food policies and incentives are already in place around the country. Pennsylvania’s well-known Fresh Food Financing Initiative, for example, became the basis for the small-market conversion programs in Philadelphia and the creation of Philadelphia’s Common Market food hub, a mission-driven, nonprofit aggregator of locally produced food distributed to schools, hospitals, and communities. And New York State recently gave a $15 million grant toward a $20 million food hub in New York City to implement its goals of supporting local farmers.

Another opportunity is to update tax incentives for food donations to extend to programs like Boston’s Daily Table, which addresses food waste and food insecurity by using otherwise unused, “imperfect” produce to prepare healthy food on a food stamp budget. California recently updated its agriculture tax incentives to include urban agriculture. Philanthropy, and local governments could also set up matching funds—modeled after the Veggie Voucher farmer’s market programs—for schools and small neighborhood markets that participate in values-based regional procurement programs.

The Daily Table in Boston, Massachusetts, sells reclaimed produce at affordable prices. (Photo by Samantha Vise)

With regional metrics as an organizing framework, these programs and tools could become even more powerful drivers of food system design.

3. Creating coordinated networks to amplify best practices.

Affinity groups of cities can share best practices, operating as networked nodes of change. In 2005, Mayor Ken Livingston of London launched the C40, a network of the top 40 world cities that meet regularly to address climate change and energy efficiency. The group works to develop and implement policies and programs that generate measurable reductions in both greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks. When the C40 cities decide on a best practice—such as replacing incandescent bulbs in street lights with LEDs—they pool their combined buying power to create a bargaining block to obtain fair prices for both themselves and, because of the large size of the order, the manufacturer.

The Urban School Food Alliance, which includes the six biggest school districts in the United States, uses the same approach. In 2013, it asked tray manufacturers to develop a Styrofoam-free lunch tray. The manufacturers complied, motivated by the size of the order. This “alliance of alliances” between six cities represents 4,536 schools, more than 2.5 million students and 46 billion school meals, and a combined $552 million in food service. It has now turned its attention to the poultry supply chain with the aim of getting antibiotic-free chicken into schools.

In one year after adopting the Good Food Purchasing Program, LA Unified School District went from less than 10 percent to an average of 60 percent local produce, creating 150 new jobs in food processing. (Photo by Jorge Gil)

As with renewable energy, regional metrics for food that support community, economic, and environmental health would strategically align policies, programs, and organizations toward those goals, as well as accelerate progress and encourage entrepreneurship. By turning the wheel of the existing system toward proportionally designed and well-supported regional targets, cities can lead a flexible, village-within-a-global-world framework that provides the responsiveness and resilience our communities deserve.

INDUSTRIAL FARMING IS FAILING AMERICA

MATTERDALE, England — I am a traditional small farmer in the North of England. I farm sheep in a mountainous landscape, the Lake District fells. It is a farming system that dates back as many as 4,500 years. A remarkable survival. My flock grazes a mountain alongside 10 other flocks, through an ancient communal grazing system that has somehow survived the last two centuries of change. Wordsworth called it a “perfect republic of shepherds.”

It’s not your efficient modern agribusiness. My farm struggles to make enough money for my family to live on, even with 900 sheep. The price of my lambs is governed by the supply of imported lamb from the other side of the world. So I have one foot in something ancient and the other foot in the 21st-century global economy.

Less than 3 percent of people in modern industrial economies are farmers. But around the world, I am not alone: The United Nations estimates that more than two billion people are farmers, most of them small farmers; that’s about one in three people on the planet.

My farm is where I live, and there is actually no other way to farm my land, which is why it hasn’t changed much for a millennium or more. In truth, I could accept the changes around me philosophically, including the disappearance of farms like mine, if the results made for a better world and society. But the world I am seeing evolve in front of my eyes isn’t better, it is worse. Much worse.

In the week before the United States elected Donald J. Trump to the presidency, I traveled through Kentucky, through endless miles of farmland and small towns. It was my first visit to the United States, for a book tour. I was shocked by the signs of decline I saw in rural America.

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An abandoned building in Owsley County, Kentucky. Credit Mario Tama/Getty Images

 

I saw shabby wood-frame houses rotting by the roadside, and picket fences blown over by the wind. I passed boarded-up shops in the hearts of small towns, and tumbledown barns and abandoned farmland. The church notice boards were full of offers of help to people with drug or alcohol addictions. And yes, suddenly I was passing cars with Trump stickers on their bumpers, and passing houses with Trump flags on their lawns.

The economic distress and the Trump support are not unconnected, of course. Significant areas of rural America are broken, in terminal economic decline, as food production heads off to someplace else where it can be done supposedly more efficiently. In many areas, nothing has replaced the old industries. This is a cycle of degeneration that puts millions of people on the wrong side of economic history.

Economists say that when the world changes people will adapt, move and change to fit the new world. But of course, real human beings often don’t do that. They cling to the places they love, and their identity remains tied to the outdated or inefficient things they used to do, like being steel workers or farmers. Often, their skills are not transferable anyway, and they have no interest in the new opportunities. So, these people get left behind.

I ask myself what I would do if I didn’t farm sheep, or if I couldn’t any longer farm sheep. I have no idea.

Perhaps it is none of my business how Americans conduct their affairs and how they think about economics. I should doubtless go back to the mountains of my home here in Cumbria, and hold my tongue. But for my entire life, my own country has apathetically accepted an American model of farming and food retailing, mostly through a belief that it was the way of progress and the natural course of economic development. As a result, America’s future is the default for us all.

It is a future in which farming and food have changed and are changing radically — in my view, for the worse. Thus I look at the future with a skeptical eye. We have all become such suckers for a bargain that we take the low prices of our foodstuffs for granted and are somehow unable to connect these bargain-basement prices to our children’s inability to find meaningful work at a decently paid job.

Our demand for cheap food is killing the American dream for millions of people. Among its side effects, it is creating terrible health problems like obesity and antibiotic-resistant infections, and it is destroying the habitats upon which wildlife depends. It also concentrates vast wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

After my trip to rural America, I returned to my sheep and my strangely old-fashioned life. I am surrounded by beauty, and a community, and an old way of doing things that has worked for a long time rather well. I have come home convinced that it is time to think carefully, both within America and without, about food and farming and what kind of systems we want.

The future we have been sold doesn’t work. Applying the principles of the factory floor to the natural world just doesn’t work. Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource.

Despite the growing scale of the problem, no major mainstream politician has taken farming or food seriously for decades. With the presidential campaign over and a president in the White House whom rural Kentuckians helped elect, the new political establishment might want to think about this carefully.

Suddenly, rural America matters. It matters for the whole world.


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James Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) is the author of the memoir “The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape.”

Deregulation of Local Foods Is an Idea That’s Spreading

New bills in Montana and California would make it easier for small food entrepreneurs to thrive and for consumers to have more choices.

Newly proposed legislation in Montana and California could loosen restrictions on millions of small food entrepreneurs in those states.

bakesale_428x321In Montana, the Local Food Choice Act would “allow for the sale and consumption of homemade food and food products and… encourage the expansion of agricultural sales by ranches, farms, and home-based producers” in the state.

The law would exempt those who make and sell such foods directly to consumers from mandatory licensing, permitting, packaging, labeling, inspection, and other requirements. The law doesn’t exempt those who don’t sell food directly to consumers—as in the case of those who sell to restaurants or grocers—or to those who sell food across state lines.

“Eating what we choose should never be a crime,” said State Rep. Greg Hertz (R), as he introduced the bill last month. Indeed, Hertz’s bill would effectively legalize in Montana what is now a crime there and in almost every state: the act of selling something as basic as homemade cheese dip or pickles to your neighbor.

Hertz’s Local Food Choice Act is fashioned after Wyoming’s groundbreaking Food Freedom Act, first-in-the-nation legislation passed two years ago that deregulated many direct-to-consumer food sales within the state. As I detailed here, Colorado passed a similar law last year. Other states have also considered similar measures.

In California, a bill introduced this week by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D), the Homemade Food Operations Act, “would allow home cooks to sell hot, prepared foods directly to customers.”

The California bill isn’t as ambitious as those adopted in Wyoming and Colorado or that proposed in Montana—it still contains requirements for sanitation, training, and permitting—but it’s a giant leap in the right direction.

“Many of my constituents have expressed their concerns and frustrations trying to work in compliance with the existing, overly complicated cottage food laws,” said Assemblyman Garcia in a statement announcing the bill, referencing the state’s overly restrictive cottage food laws.

Not surprisingly, all this talk of deregulating local food sales has some people nervous. State and local health officials in Montana, for example, have spoken out against the state bill, claiming it could lead to a rise in cases of foodborne illness.

“Every state that looks at setting their local food economy free inevitably finds food police lining up with statistics on how freedom of choice is a danger,” said Wyoming State Rep. Lindholm (R), who sponsored the Food Freedom Act in his state, in an email to me this week. “These individuals, bureaucrats, and industry associations all espouse their merits as to being defenders of ignorant consumers that cannot be trusted to make their own decisions as to what is best for their family.”

I asked Lindholm if there’s been any uptick in foodborne illnesses in Wyoming since the law’s passage.

“Wyoming has seen the exact opposite that these do gooders predict,” Lindholm tells me. “Wyoming[‘]s local food options have exploded and we still have had 0 foodborne illness outbreaks due to this Act passing into law.”

I’ve chuckled while hearing more than one overly cautious eater tell me they’d never eat food that was prepared in an uninspected home kitchen. Everyone should be free to avoid such food if they want, of course. But keep in mind that your own home kitchen isn’t inspected. Your parents’ kitchen and your grandparents’ kitchen weren’t inspected, either. Your friends’ and relatives’ kitchens aren’t inspected. The baked goods you took to school to sell to other kids as part of a bake sale (or that you send with your own kids to school today) haven’t earned any government seal of approval.

Avoiding all foods save for those prepared in an inspected kitchen means dining out at every meal or not eating at all. If one or both of these are your choice, then so be it. But Montana and California have moved to allow others to exercise their own choices. And I hope they succeed.

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Industrial Agriculture is about to “bust”

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The Wall Street Journal is predicting a farm bust on the horizon, as America’s role in the global grain market shrinks, and the price for corn continues to drop. Reporters Jesse Newman and Patrick McGroarty write

The Farm Belt is hurtling toward a milestone: Soon there will be fewer than two million farms in America for the first time since pioneers moved westward after the Louisiana Purchase.

This number definitely reflects a growing decline in farming. But what the Wall Street Journal doesn’t note is that the nation’s largest farms are only growing more powerful and large. We have fewer farms, yes, but largely because we have a greater share of larger, industrialized farms.

 The WSJ interviewed a specific type of farmer for this article: the commodity crop farmer. Yes, they represent the greatest portion of farms in the American heartland. But many are also beginning to realize that government subsidies and cushy crop insurance premiums can’t save them forever: when their supply is abundantly overstepping demand, eventually reality is going to hit. And if this WSJ piece is any indication, reality is indeed about to strike.

How America’s Heartland Farms Are Hurting

As you read through the Wall Street Journal’s article, a general outline of the farmers interviewed falls into place: 50-plus years of age, farming more than 1,000 acres, dotted across America’s flyover country in states like Iowa and Kansas. They’re all struggling to make ends meet:

Across the heartland, a multiyear slump in prices for corn, wheat and other farm commodities brought on by a glut of grain world-wide is pushing many farmers further into debt. Some are shutting down, raising concerns that the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.

The U.S. share of the global grain market is less than half what it was in the 1970s. American farmers’ incomes will drop 9% in 2017, the Agriculture Department estimates, extending the steepest slide since the Great Depression into a fourth year.

Many of these farmers need a second career in order to keep their businesses afloat.

‘No one just grain farms anymore,’ said Deb Stout, whose sons Mason and Spencer farm the family’s 2,000 acres in Sterling, Kan., 120 miles east of Ransom. Spencer also works as a mechanic, and Mason is a substitute mailman. ‘Having a side job seems like the only way to make it work,’ she said.

The History Of American Agriculture’s Decline

How did we get to this point? The WSJ gives a mini history lesson midway through their article:

From the early 1800s until the Great Depression, the number of U.S. farms grew steadily as pioneers spread west of the Mississippi River. Families typically raised a mix of crops and livestock on a few hundred acres of land at most. After World War II, high-horsepower tractors and combines enabled farmers to cover more ground. Two decades ago, genetically engineered seeds helped farmers grow more.

Farms grew bigger and more specialized. Large-scale operations now account for half of U.S. agricultural production. Most farms, even some of the biggest, are still run by families. As farm sizes jumped, their numbers fell, from six million in 1945 to just over two million in 2015, nearing a threshold last seen in the mid-1800s. Total acres farmed in the U.S. have dropped 24% to 912 million acres.

This short account of the jump from subsistence-style farming to today’s industrialized farming could easily fill thousands of pages (and indeed has—from John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” to Wendell Berry’s novels).

Today’s Farms Still Follow an ‘Industrial Paradigm’

The Industrial Revolution shaped and transformed farming in seismic ways. As I wrote for Comment Magazine last year, “farming in the new, industrialized era began to favor quantity and specialization—because new machines worked most efficiently when farmers chose to harvest large, homogenous acreages instead of the small, diversified crops of the past. Farmers sought bigger and bigger swaths of land, seeing in them the promise of greater funds in the bank.”

American farms are still stuck in this “industrial paradigm,” says sustainable farmer Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms. “Just like the agrarian economy gave way to the industrial, and the industrial to the information, and now the information is giving way to the regenerative economy, agriculture is changing. Because farmers tend to be conservative, agriculture is the slowest of all economic sectors to embrace the new economy.”

When Salatin’s father bought their family-operated farm in Swoope, Virginia, the land was severely eroded, and soil health was poor. “When my dad, in the early 1960s, asked agricultural advisors to tell him how to make a living on this farm, they all encouraged him to abuse the land more aggressively,” remembers Salatin. “He eschewed that counsel and did the opposite of everything they said. Today, we are healthy and profitable. Every person must decide whose advice to follow.”

Incentivizing Farmers to Destroy Neighbors’ Businesses

The WSJ piece goes on, “For some, the slump is an opportunity. Farmers with low debts and enough scale to profit from last year’s record harvests could be in a position to rent or buy up land from struggling neighbors.” In other words, large (most likely government-subsidized) farms can use this opportunity to buy out their smaller counterparts. Sounds like a great thing for the economy long-term, doesn’t it?

One chilly afternoon in October, Mr. Scheufler steered his combine across the first field he bought. The machine’s giant claw spun through rows of golden soybeans. A hawk circled the combine’s wake, hunting for exposed field mice. He recalled farmers whose land he has taken over: Ted Hartwick ’s, the Matthews’, the Profits’, his father’s.

Yes, building a large and profitable business is usually seen as an integral part of free market economics. We don’t want to prevent successful farms from getting larger. But it’s crucial to ask a few questions here: first, are these farms growing via their own merits—or via the support of the federal government? (Often, the answer is the latter.) Is their business model truly sustainable (and therefore, “successful” long term)?

Too often, the growth of a commodity farm means taking diversity, sustainability, and community, and turning these goods into homogeneity, depreciation, and solitude. This may not be Scheufler’s story. But it is, increasingly, the story of America’s heartland.  As another interviewee tells the WSJ,

There were 28 students in Mr. Scott’s graduating class at Ransom’s high school nearly four decades ago. Most were farmers’ children. This year there are nine students in the school’s senior class. ‘Farms got bigger to be more efficient, but it’s caused these towns to die a slow death,’ Mr. Scott said.

It’s not just farm towns that are ill-served by the way agriculture currently works. Land erosion, water contamination, and soil pollution are just a few of the ecological consequences of bad farming practices. “The current debacle has been coming for a long time,” says Salatin. And, he adds, “It will not end quickly. Rectifying our decades of abuse will not be easy. Healing will be disturbing.”

Farmers Aren’t Encouraged to Diversify Their Operations

Part of the problem here is that farmers, rather than diversifying their farms to protect against commodity price drops, have been encouraged (largely by subsidies, sometimes by the market) to always produce more of the same.

“Rather than studying how nature works, the informational component of the agriculture sector tends to throw out historic templates and remake life in a mechanical hubris of fatter, faster, bigger, cheaper,” says Salatin.

Many farmers who’ve expanded their enterprises have continued to grow the same exact crops on all that land. Now, writes Newman and McGroarty, “Corn and wheat output has never been higher, and never has so much grain been bunkered away.” So when the price of corn, soybeans, and wheat drops—as it is now—farmers don’t have another crop to fall back on.

In the short term, diversifying your farm operation can be more expensive, time-consuming, and physically demanding. But it also creates job security. Long-term, it protects both your farm and soil health.

When we focus on producing a few commodity crops, any country can beat us at our own game. We produce a glut of grain that global markets are no longer buying. Meanwhile, Americans living in the heartland of Iowa buy their tomatoes and peppers from South America. It seems strange, doesn’t it?

How Can Farmers Adopt to a Changing Market?

“I am concerned about the trend of making farms bigger and bigger, and more impersonal,” Maury Johnson, owner of Blue River Hybrids, told me in an email.  “American consumers have more interest in how their food is grown and produced, and the impact our conventional food system has on the environment. I personally am troubled when I drive by the feedyards and confinement buildings, and have found it difficult to eat the products coming from those environments.”

Promoting a different farming model could prove salutary for farmers. But it requires a drastically different way of thinking, and many are deeply (albeit understandably) opposed to it.

Interestingly, though, a younger generation is increasingly embracing new farming trends, seeking to build smaller, diversified, and local farming operations. As Philanthropy Daily reported last week, “All around the United States, young men and women are joining the ‘new food economy’ of small farmers and food producers. Since 2006, local food marketing channels have seen substantial growth: Farmers’ markets have grown by 180%, reaching 8,200 nationwide. 7.8% of farms in the U.S. are marketing locally, and local food sales have reached $6.1 billion.”

What Might Rebuilding a Local Food Economy Look Like?

These younger farmers, however, are struggling against the orthodoxies of their elders in the agricultural community.As author and farmer Forrest Pritchard noted in an email,  “it’s no accident that the youngest farmer cited in this article is 56; the U.S. average age for a farmer is 58 and rising.”

He adds, “It defies explanation that our nation’s food security receives such low priority in our culture. The aging of our American farmers reveals a crisis of neglect—a neglect of training young farmers, a neglect of overhauling our education system to promote alternatives to commodity-dependent agriculture, and a neglect of investing appropriate research and development for alternative types of agricultural models.”

Eduardo Andino’s article in Philanthropy Daily considers a promising shift in farming support, however. He profiles a farm loan business founded by Silicon Valley businessmen. These businessmen decided to leave the world of international business to go local. Their story, which directly addresses the plight of American’s grain farmers, is worth quoting at length:

… Sam and Scott are interested in helping Maine rebuild a local food infrastructure: By giving farmers loans to build grain mills, slaughter houses, distribution plants, and more.

Scott, who some years ago formed a social investing strategies division at TIAA-CREF’s investment department, says that infrastructure is key. ‘100 years ago, you would’ve had local financial institutions that understood how local farming worked,’ and who could help build up local processors and distributors. Today, however, everything has gravitated up to the level of big ads and ‘big food.’

… Based on their international experience, Scott and Sam have concluded that the best thing they can do for agriculture worldwide is to go local. Scott describes his desire to transition ‘from a very top down high level job to a very bottom up job’ as being partially motivated by seeing the work of Rockefeller impact investing in Africa. While observing their work on a sustainable agriculture program in Africa, Scott realized ‘the best thing anyone could do for agriculture all over the world, from poor peasant farmers in Bangladesh to anywhere else, is to fix American agriculture.’

To Survive, American FarmsNeed To Change

Farming in America is undergoing a series of shifts—hopefully for the better. But the challenges today’s farmers face should not be taken lightly. Salatin urges his fellow farmers to consider making some changes in the way they do business—not just for their bottom line, but for the sake of the next generation, and the long-term wellbeing of the land.

“I know change is difficult for everyone, but I think conventional farmers have to take a hard look at breaking out of the conventional farming scene,” Johnson says. “I understand there’s limitations … but the future does not look good for medium to small conventional farmers, and help will likely not be coming from the government and its farm programs.”

“The regenerative economy is now knocking on the door of agriculture, but nobody is listening,” Salatin says. “The soil does not enjoy being mechanized and industrialized. The agricultural orthodoxy has not asked how ecology works. … Now, nature is batting last. And all the cleverness in Wall Street ultimately can’t prevail against nature’s balance sheet.”

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Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

Ground-Breaking Animal Welfare Organic Rules Moving Forward

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Buying certified organic meat doesn’t guarantee the animals were treated humanely. And while there’s no cure-all for an industry that often prioritizes economy over animal welfare, things may be looking up for all animals raised on organic farms in the U.S.

That’s because a set of rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) won last-minute approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and could make it onto the Federal Register to become law within the week. The OLPP enacts comprehensive animal welfare standards covering living conditions (particularly for poultry), healthcare, slaughter, and transport.

The proposed rules are the product of decades-long conversations involving the Organic Trade Association (OTA), animal welfare and consumer groups and they’re based on formal recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the 15-member public advisory group to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Organic Program comprised of organic producers, environmentalists, and consumer advocates, among others.

The rules aren’t as extensive as some advocates had hoped for, but they are a significant step. “We didn’t get all that we wanted. It was adequate given the state of animal welfare in the organic program,” says Dena Jones, the farm animal program director at the American Welfare Institute. “You can’t go from 0 to 100 miles an hour in five feet.”

Some are more optimistic, like John Brunnquell, President, Egg Innovations and Organic Egg Farmers of America. “Our customers support and expect organic farmers to uphold a higher standard of animal treatment. The value and integrity of the organic seal depend on meeting these expectations. By restoring that integrity, these rules will benefit producers who adhere to the true spirit of organic production. We commend USDA and look forward to the implementation of these rules,” Brunnquell said in a statement released by the

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“Ugly” Fruits and Vegetables Taste Just Fine

24uglyfood-web01-master768A customer shopped at Fruta Feia, a Portuguese cooperative created to sell imperfect food. The food industry has begun looking for ways to reduce waste. Bargain-hunting consumers seem to be going for the deals. Credit Patricia De Melo Moreira for The New York Times


Duck-shaped potatoes. Curvy cucumbers. Broken carrots.

Some food sellers, after decades of displaying piles of identical, aesthetically pleasing produce, are starting to sell slightly less beautiful — but still tasty — fruits and vegetables.

Millions of tons of food are thrown out or left to rot in fields every year in wealthy nations, simply because they do not meet cosmetic standards set by distributors or supermarkets. Under pressure from anti-waste advocates, the food industry has begun looking for ways to throw away less.

So now, in such cities as Pittsburgh and Paris, some of that imperfect produce has started to find its way into stores. And bargain-hunting consumers, who get a hefty discount for their willingness to munch on too-small apples and blemished oranges, seem to be buying it.

Along with targeting waste, being able to sell food that once would have been tossed aside gives growers a new stream of income and offers consumers a way to save money without compromising on taste or nutrition.

“There’s nothing more disheartening for a farmer than to grow something and then throw it away,” said Guy Poskitt, a carrot and parsnip farmer in Yorkshire. “Consumers hate waste, and as growers we’ve really got huge challenges in terms of profitability,” he said. Selling imperfect produce helps solve both problems, he said.

Often, the cosmetically challenged fruits and veggies are hardly distinguishable from ordinary ones — an orange with a bumpy scar on it, or a potato that is slightly smaller than its peers.

Dana Gunders, a food and agriculture expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, recalled talking to a stone-fruit grower who every week produces 200,000 pounds, about 90,000 kilograms, of peaches and plums that cannot be sold. “He said, ‘Of those, you wouldn’t be able to tell me what’s wrong with eight out of 10 of them.’ ”

Abundance allows retailers in wealthy countries to be particular about aesthetics, and consumers have grown used to choosing from uniform rows of shiny red apples and perfect pears.

The industrial scale on which agriculture operates in many rich nations, and the long distances food often travels from farm to table, result in a great deal of waste. Retailers grade produce according to strict criteria to which farmers, fearful of shipping anything that might be rejected, must pay close attention.

“Sometimes it’s things like the cucumber is curved and so it doesn’t fit in the box as well as a straight cucumber,” said Ms. Gunders, author of the “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook.”

Heather Garlich, spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket and wholesalers’ trade group in Arlington, Va., said sellers had an interest in making sure standards reflected consumer demand and that research showed shoppers choose produce based mainly on appearance.

Imperfect Produce ships aesthetically challenged fruit and vegetables to about 9,500 subscribers in and around San Francisco. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

There are some hints things might be changing. In France, the Intermarché chain of supermarkets started selling what it calls “inglorious” fruits and vegetables in 2014, at 30 percent off, with an advertising and social media campaign decrying the throwing away of good food. It began as a small-scale trial, but now all Intermarché’s French stores sell imperfect produce when it is available, said Elyse Barbé, spokeswoman for Groupement des Mousquetaires, which owns the grocer.

Britain’s upscale Waitrose supermarkets offer carrots, parsnips, potatoes and onions branded “a little less than perfect,” as well as misshapen tomatoes and strawberries and weather-blemished apples, pears and green beans, when growers provide them.

Asda, a British grocery chain owned by Walmart, began offering boxes of “wonky veg” in February, at 3.50 pounds, or$4.65, for five kilograms. They were such a hit with customers that the company announced the following week it would quadruple the number of stores involved to 350. Asda said the boxes would help avert hundreds of tons of waste.

Inspired by such efforts, Giant Eagle, based in Pittsburgh, in February put “produce with personality” on sale in five stores, at up to 20 percent off. “The customer response has really been positive so far,” so the number of participating outlets has since been increased to 21, Dan Donovan, a spokesman, said.

Hannah Husband, a movement and nutrition coach of Oakland, Calif., said that after she signed up for weekly deliveries from the company Imperfect Produce, she began recommending the boxes to her clients.

“A lot of times when you’re switching gears and trying to go to a healthier way of eating, it feels like everything costs a lot,” so the discounted prices are appealing, she said.

Most of what arrives on her doorstep is just a little bigger or smaller than standard, but every now and then something truly unusual shows up. Once, “I got an eggplant that had like a nose coming off of it,” she said. “It’s been fun to post pictures of the funny vegetables and then of what I make with it afterward.”

Fighting food waste has been moving up environmentalists’ agenda as a means of combating climate change. In addition to the resources used to grow it, uneaten food generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, when it rots in landfills.

The United States, where the Agriculture Department says 66 million tons of food go to waste annually, last year announced a goal of halving that by 2030. Europe has a similar target.

In poorer nations, where most consumers would not dream of rejecting good food based on its odd appearance, most food waste results from infrastructure shortfalls, like a lack of refrigerated storage or poor roads that make it hard to get crops to market.

Ben Simon, chief executive of Imperfect Produce, which ships aesthetically challenged fruit and vegetables to about 9,500 subscribers in and around San Francisco, said he was stunned to see the scale of waste at farms he visited in the state’s main agricultural region, the Central Valley.

“When you look out across a huge facility and see machines just dumping out kiwis or oranges that are perfectly good, or you look across a field of celery and see that almost 50 percent of it is left behind, it really makes you wonder what we’re doing, and why,” he said.

Ms. Husband, the Imperfect Produce subscriber, said she thought consumers were more open-minded than retailers had traditionally given them credit for.

“Because we’ve been herded into this idea that everything is uniform, of course we’re used to that,” she said. “But if grocery stores included more variety, I think people would absolutely accept it.”

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The Food Movement is Unstoppable!

by Jonathan Latham, PhD

In 1381, for the first and only time, the dreaded Tower of London was captured from the King of England. The forces that seized it did not belong to a foreign power; nor were they rebellious workers – they were peasants who went on to behead the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury who were, after the king, the country’s leading figures. A tad more recently, in the U.S. presidential election of 1892 a radical populist movement campaigned for wealth redistribution and profound economic reform. The populists won five states. All of them were rural.

Descent from such rebels is typically claimed by unions and groups on the political left; but, over the long run of history, the most effective opponents of excessive wealth and privilege have not normally been city dwellers, workers or unions. Instead, they have usually been those with close links to food and the land, what we would now identify as the food movement.

Even today, in more than a few countries, food is the organising principle behind the main challengers of existing power structures. In El Salvador, the National Coordinator of its Organic Agriculture Movement is Miguel Ramirez who recently explained:

We say that every square meter of land that is worked with agro-ecology is a liberated square meter. We see it as a tool to transform farmers’ social and economic conditions. We see it as a tool of liberation from the unsustainable capitalist agricultural model that oppresses farmers.

The Salvadoran Organic Agriculture Movement wants much more than improved farming. It is seeking enhanced political rights, long term ecological sustainability, social equity, and popular health. Ramirez calls it “this titanic but beautiful struggle, to reclaim the lives of all Salvadorans“.

They may be small farmers, but they have a grand ambition that is even shared worldwide. But, how realistic is it? Could the food movement be the missing vehicle for transformative social change?

The question is timely. Not long ago, the New York Times asserted that the centre aisles of US supermarkets are being called “the morgue” because sales of junk food are crashing; meanwhile, an international consultant told Bloomberg magazine that “there’s complete paranoia“, at major food companies where the food movement is being taken very seriously.

The context of that paranoia is that food movements are rapidly growing social and political phenomena almost all over the world. In the US alone, there have been surges of interest in heirloom seeds, in craft beers, in traditional bread and baking, in the demand for city garden plots, in organic food, and in opposition to GMOs. Simultaneously, there has been a massive growth of interest in food on social media and the initiation or renewal of institutions such as SlowFood USA and the Grange movement, to name just a few.

Even at the normally much quieter farming end of the food value chain, agribusiness has had to resort to buying up “independent” academics and social media supporters to boost the case for GMOs and pesticides.

So whereas not so very long ago food, and even more so agriculture, were painfully unfashionable subjects, all of a sudden, individuals all over the globe have developed an often passionate interest in the products and processes of the food system.

If food regime change is in the air, the questions are: Why? Why now? And the big one: How far will it go?

The direction of the food movement

The answer to these questions comes into focus if we analyse the food movement from the perspective of five different “puzzle pieces”. If we do that we can see that there are profound reasons why the food movement is succeeding and growing.

This analysis suggests that the food movement, compared to other great social movements of the 20th Century (such as the labour, environment, civil rights, climate and feminist movements), has many of their strengths but not their weaknesses.

Further, the food movement is unexpectedly radical on account of having a distinct philosophy. This philosophy is fundamentally unique in human history and is the underlying explanation for the explosion of the food movement.

Like any significant novel philosophy, that of the food movement challenges the dominant thought patterns of its day and threatens the political and economic structures built on them. Specifically, the food movement’s philosophy exposes longstanding weaknesses in the ideas underpinning Western political establishments. In the simplest terms possible, the opposite of neoliberal ideology is not communism or socialism, it is the food movement.

The reason is that, unlike other systems of thought, food movement philosophy is based on a biological understanding of the world. While neoliberalism and socialism are ideologies, the food movement is concerned with erasing (at least so far as is possible) all ideologies because all ideologies are, at bottom, impediments to an accurate understanding of the world and the universe.

By replacing them with an understanding based on pure biology, the food movement is therefore in a position to supply what our society lacks: mechanisms to align human needs with the needs of ecosystems and habitats.

The philosophy of the food movement even goes further, by recognising that our planetary problems and our social problems are really the same problem. The food movement therefore represents the beginnings of a historic ecological and social shift that will transform our relationships with each other and with the natural world.

1) The food movement is a leaderless movement

The first important piece of the food puzzle is to note that the food movement has no formal leaders. Its most famous members are individuals. Frances Moore Lappé, Joel Salatin, José Bové, Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, and many others, are leaders only in the sense of being thought-leaders. Unlike most leaders, including of the environment movement, or the labour movement, or the climate movement, they have all attained visibility through popular acclaim and respect for their personal deeds, their writings, or their insights. Not one of them leads in any of the conventional senses of setting goals, giving orders, deciding tactics, or standing for high office. They are neither bureaucrats nor power-brokers, but leaders in the Confucian sense of being examples and inspirations. It is a remarkable and unprecedented characteristic that the food movement is a social movement that is organic and anarchic. This not to argue it is unstructured, far from it. Rather, the food movement is self-organised. It is a food swarm and absence of formal leadership is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

2) The food movement is a grassroots movement

A second and complementary piece of the puzzle is that the food movement is far more inclusive than other social movements. It is composed of the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, of amateurs and experts, of home cooks and celebrity chefs, farmers and gardeners, parents and writers, the employed and the unemployed. Essentially anyone, in any walk of life, can contribute, learn or benefit. Most do all three. Importantly too, just about any skill level or contribution can often be accommodated. To take just one example, in how many other social movements can a 14-year-old make an international splash?

This inclusiveness has various aspects that contribute significantly to its success. The first of these is that, unlike many protests, there is no upper limit to membership of the food movement. It is not defined in opposition to anything – it would include the whole world if it could – and so there is no essential sense in which it is exclusive. Exclusivity is often the Achilles heel of social movements, but though its opponents have tried to label it as elitist, for good reasons they have not succeeded. Granted, Prince Charles is a very enthusiastic member, but so too are rappers from Oakland, the landless peasant movement of Brazil, the instigators of the Mexican soda tax and the urban agriculture movements of Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. Such groups are neither elite nor elitist. A better analysis would conclude that anyone can find space under its broad umbrella because the food movement does not discriminate on any grounds, least of all class. It is beyond grassroots. People see what they want in it because it is for everyone.

The second aspect of its inclusivity is that the food movement has barriers to entry that are low or non-existent. This is an important reason it has grown rapidly. These porous boundaries make the food movement unusually hard to define, however, leading some people to mistakenly conclude it is non-existent.

3) The food movement is international

A third unconventional attribute of the food movement is to be international and multilingual. In each locality it assumes different forms. The Campaign for Real Ale, Via Campesina, the Zapatistas, Slow Food and Europe’s anti-GMO movement are very different, but instead of competing or quarreling, there are remarkable overlaps of purpose and vision between the parts. This was on show at last winter’s British Oxford Real Farming Conference where food producers and good food advocates from all over the world shared stages and perspectives and the effect was to complement and inspire each other.

4) The food movement is low-budget

The fourth distinguishing characteristic of the food movement is that it has little money behind it. It might seem natural for “social movements” to be unfunded but it is in fact very rare. The climate movement has Tom Steyer, the Tea Party has the Koch brothers, Adolf Hitler’s car, chauffeur, private secretary, and of course his blackshirts, were funded by Fritz Thyssen, Henry Ford, and some of the wealthiest people in Germany. Even the labour and environment movements have dues or wealthy backers. The food movement therefore is highly unusual in owing little to philanthropic foundations or billionaire backers. Instead, it consists overwhelmingly of amateurs, individuals and small groups and whatever money they possess has followed and not led them. This is yet another powerful indication that the food movement is spontaneous, vigorous and internally driven.

5) A movement of many values

Most social movements are organised around core values: civil rights, social equality or respect for nature are common ones. What is unique about the food movement is that it has multiple values. They include human health concerns, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability, ecological sustainability, food justice and political empowerment, but even this list does not adequately capture the range of its concerns. It is a movement with many component parts.

Explaining the philosophy and synergy of the food movement

For an emergent social movement to have such unique and seemingly unconnected properties suggests the possibility of a deep explanation, and in fact there is one: the food movement embodies a profound philosophical shift.

The narrative dominating international food policy, especially post-1945, has been that food is a commodity (when it is not a weapon) and agriculture is a business. According to this narrative, neither have much to do with the environment or your health. This economic and depleted conceptualisation of food is an ideological extension of the current dominant Western philosophy, which is that of the European enlightenment. The chief character of this philosophy is to be atomistic and mechanistic, meaning that in the formal and official worlds of business, government, the law, education, etc., phenomena are presumed unconnected until proven otherwise, which usually means proven by science.

The evidence for this mindset is ubiquitous. The separation of government ministries: Health from Agriculture and both being distinct from Environment. The reduction of food to the status of an industrial raw material completely measurable by yield or profit is another. The same ideology also allows, in the United States, the agriculture “industry” to be exempt from most anti-pollution legislation, and doctors not to be educated in nutrition. The privileging of the health requirements and food needs of one species (humans) – and usually just a few of those – above that of all other organisms – is a fourth data point.

Citizens in “modern” nations are thus surrounded in everyday life by institutions and practices whose founding rationale is the ideology of disconnection. Thanks to our education, we come to see this state of mind as natural – even though it came into being quite recently – and also inevitable, even though until recently it was unique to Western society.

In contrast, the food movement believes in something very different, which can be summarised as follows: that the purpose of life is health and that the optimal and most just way to attain human health is to maximise the health of all organisms, with the most effective way to do that being through food.

This belief system is derived from practical experience. The food movement has internalised certain observations: the potential of compost to improve crop growth and soil function, the human health benefits of a varied diet, the successes of numerous farming systems in the absence of synthetic inputs, these are a few of those. It also has noted apparent powerful connections between health, agriculture, animal welfare and the environment. These connections allow for the existence of a virtuous circle in which the most ecologically healthy farms generate foods that are the healthiest and the tastiest. These farms are also the most productive. For US examples see here: and for an example from rice see here.

Except for the obviously subjective ones (like taste), there is nothing unscientific about these claims.

We are familiar with the neo-Darwinist narrative of life-as-competition, but this slugfest interpretation hides a bigger and more important truth about life: that before there can be competition, there must first be at least two organisms. Life can, and often does, exist without competition, but competition cannot exist without life. In other words, the neo-Darwinist vision is wrong in that it trivialises biology. Food philosophy replaces this view with the idea that life thrives in the presence of other life. There is perfectly good evidence for this – we know, for example, that all of the tens of millions of species on earth are interdependent. Not a single species could exist if the others were removed. For example, plants and algae excrete oxygen, which all animals need. Animals eat plants and algae, but excrete nitrogen and phosphorus, which all plants and algae need.

Similarly, at the level of individuals, if we can look past the standard mechanistic view of biology offered by celebrated scientists like neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins, who famously called organisms “lumbering robots”, we can note that all biological organisms are in fact self-optimising and self-repairing systems. They therefore tend to maximise their own robustness and health unless, as unfortunately but commonly occurs, they are actively prevented from doing so (e.g. by a limited environment or a deficient diet).

So food philosophy envisions life in an entirely novel way. There is quite a difference between seeing nature, as the self-styled biological rationalists like to portray it, as robots slowly succumbing to the teeth and claws of vicious nature in comparison to the food view of primarily mutually beneficial interactions between vibrant and dynamic systems. The unfortunate truth for the supposed rationalists is that, as recent research into the microbiome is showing, the food philosophy view better fits the facts than does the neo-Darwinist one. Prisoners of their enlightenment ideology, the neo-Darwinists have turned the message of life on its head.

The origins of food philosophy

Food philosophy has three notable antecedents. One is philosopher Peter Singer’s famous anti-speciesist argument from his book Animal Liberation: that humans have a duty of care towards all animals, with the crucial difference being that the food movement extends Singer’s argument to all organisms, not just animals.

The second antecedent is Gaia theory which proposes that life forms create and enhance their own living conditions. The main difference being that food philosophy applies this thesis to every scale, notably to soils and to landscapes.

The third is Barry Commoner and his four laws of ecology. His second and third laws are consistent with food philosophy. However, Commoner’s First law: “Everything is connected to everything else”, needs modification. The reason is that all things are not connected equally – most connections occur primarily through food. Commoner’s fourth law, which states “There is no such thing as a free lunch”, is flatly contradicted by the virtuous circle of the food movement. All ecological systems generate synergies and synergies between organisms are free lunches; which is why, excepting occasional shocks like meteor impacts, species diversity and biological productivity on earth have continuously risen over aeons.

Like every philosophy, food philosophy implies practical consequences. It becomes the task of a food system, or any sub-part of it – such as a farm – to maximise the positive aspects of each component, so that the circle can become ever more virtuous. By the same token, the food movement believes in the existence of a downward spiral – biological impoverishments such as those that result in dust bowls. Such negative possibilities could be safely ignored were it not the case that many governments and certain businesses seem determined, even enthusiastic, to plunge headlong into them.

Food philosophy therefore represents a major split from post-enlightenment philosophy in its vision of life and biology – which for most practical purposes represents the universe we live in. In so doing it highlights how much the enlightenment was not so enlightened. Enlightenment philosophers used the foundational statement “I think therefore I am” as the justification for effectively disregarding all previous thought. They then adopted the premise that only the tools of logic and deductive reasoning could extend this thought and tell us how to achieve true knowledge and spend our time. But this core presumption was wrong. As the influential philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend put it, enlightenment ideas are “philosophical tumours” that exemplify “the poverty of abstract philosophical reasoning”.

Food philosophy is thus in the pre-enlightenment tradition of principles deduced from real world experience. It doesn’t ask: what does rational thought reveal about how we should live. It asks: what does nature reveal about how we should live? This is why food philosophy is not a different ideology from neoliberalism or communism; rather, it is the absence of ideology. So while neoliberalism and communism and socialism are products of the enlightenment, food philosophy is not, because it gathers its evidence as directly as possible from the natural world.

To the extent it can be simplified, we might summarise food philosophy approximately as follows:

1) biological interactions allow synergisms of individual health and system productivity, which can be taken advantage of in good farming; and,

2) these biological interactions occur primarily through food, which represents the chemical energy running through the system.

This philosophy is significant in two ways. First, it explains, in general, the form, structure, and composition of the food movement.

Secondly, it predicts the likely impact of the food movement on the food system and society as a whole.

Implications of food philosophy for the food movement

The distinctive features of the food movement can be seen to stem from this philosophy.

The first feature explained by its philosophy is the self-organising and leaderless nature of the food movement. Its members act as if they were reading from an invisible script, which in a sense they are. It also goes far in explaining the lack of money. The philosophy generates values and values are often the most powerful long term motivator of human behaviour.

The attitudes of the food movement also reflect the philosophy. Since the philosophy (see points 1) and 2) above) is universal, constructive, inclusive, flexible, and non-violent, so is the movement.

To take a more detailed example, whereas people outside of the food movement (with their enlightenment hats on) tend to see the issues of human health, food quality, animal welfare, and ecological and agricultural sustainability as concerns to be solved separately (if at all), those inside food movement are likely to see them as connected and therefore insoluble except together.

As people begin to sees these issues as connected, those who enter the orbit of the food movement are likely to move deeper into it. Someone who begins by buying free range eggs, perhaps for reasons of ethics, moves on to keeping chickens and perhaps to sourcing other meats more ethically or more locally. People attracted to flavourful meat or produce are likely to expand their interests into animal welfare or become locavores, and so on. This is why the food movement is deepening and growing.

This same reasoning around the connectedness of food issues also creates an important presumption: that anyone who advances one of these goals automatically advances the rest. Consequently, alliances between individuals and between organisations are likely to form around the common goals, and so the food movement emerges as a synergy between issues formerly identified as distinct, channeling a vast reservoir of positive social energy in consistent directions.

These are explanations for formation and growth of the social movement, but the food movement does not exist for its own sake; like any social movement, it aspires to solve society-sized problems. When the food movement tackles an issue, the features noted above can become enormous assets.

There is usually no actual decision (because typically there is no leader), instead, the philosophy leads its members to use whatever resources are at hand in the most appropriate manner. They develop arguments, write letters, make calls, avoid products, share information, and so on, wherever they perceive the need or opportunity to be greatest, just as the workers of an ant or bee colony do whatever job appears in front of them without explicit orders. To the multinational corporations who are its targets, movement activity may feel like a piranha feeding frenzy. Blood is scented; arguments are sharpened; protests register on social media; more attackers arrive; the target howls; opportunistic journalists pile in; maybe some legislators too, until finally the target agrees to amend, label, or remove the offending product, ingredient or publication. These are food swarms, and they are what direct democracy looks like.

Following once again its own philosophy, food is also a guide to action. Using its enlightenment rationalisations, a government can instruct people, for example, that irradiated or GMO food is safe to eat. But it cannot make them eat it. Resistance based on food logic is always likely to beat enlightenment logic when the subject is food, because it is both rational and relatively easy for the people to both form their own opinions and spend their money elsewhere. The food system is perhaps the one domain where the people retain this power, certainly more than they do in any other domain of public life.

In consequence, time and again the arguments of the food movement: over GMO safety, the benefits of organic food, the dangers of antibiotics in animal farming, food additives, GMO labeling, and so forth, have gained traction out in the public domain (though not always yet in public policy). The combination of solid logic and practical power is hard to resist. Through its philosophy, therefore, the food movement is succeeding both in building itself and winning practical victories as it does so.

Thus one can begin to see how food issues are the organizing principle for a grand social movement. Indeed, the successes of the food movement are now sufficiently evident that major parts of the old environment movement, plus the health and wellness movements, and even parts of the labour movement, have begun to reframe their activities as coming from a food system perspective. Some have largely migrated into the food movement altogether. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is much better known to the public and has been more successful through its food connections than through its union ones. To a significant degree, once separate social movements are converging to become branches of the food movement.

We can sum up this rather complex state of affairs by saying that food is a highly successful rallying point. It serves well because food is simultaneously a novel conceptual framing for much of human affairs that is strongly distinct from the standard enlightenment framings of economics and social Darwinism, but also because it acts as a potent organising principle for individuals to act around. Food succeeds as a conceptual framing because it is simultaneously anthropocentric and truthful, and it succeeds as an organising principle because food fruitfully highlights the practical biophysical linkages between issues. So while most frames are artificial mental constructs that have zero underlying biological or physical substance, the frame used by the food movement also precisely reflects the key biological reality that a universal daily requirement of all humanity, is food. Good food. And the same is true for other species. Thus, our good food also needs good food, and so on ad (almost) infinitum. Anyone who adopts that devastating logic has a huge advantage, not only in understanding how the world really works, but also in acting on that information.

How will the food movement impact society?

Ideas are the currency of power. Philosopher Peter Singer wrote the book Animal Liberation in 1975. It spawned the international animal rights movement and drove society-wide debates on the human usage of animals for research and in agriculture. Forty years later, the increasing popularity of veganism shows his ideas are still gathering momentum. Singer’s achievement was to show that enlightenment thinkers had attempted to rationalise – rather than ditch – the concept of human exceptionalism, which dated back at least to the Bible’s authorisation of Man’s dominion over the earth. At a stroke, Singer destroyed the arguments for treating animals badly and provided a perfect example of how enlightenment rationalisations have functioned to constrain modern thought, and most particularly the human potential to do good.

Because they go far beyond our treatment of sentient animals and extend to all organisms, the ideas of food philosophy are significantly more profound and far-reaching than those of Peter Singer. Food philosophy is an intellectual key to overthrowing mechanistic reductionist society. Much of standard economics, large parts of biology such as neo-Darwinism (selfish genes) and genetic determinism, reductionist biology and medicine, which at present are the centrepieces of Western education, will come to be seen in their proper light, which is as largely irrelevant to the functioning of whole systems. These are the “philosophical tumours” that stand in the way of human development. To the many individuals who suspect that enlightenment thought is the engine driving our societies over an ecological cliff, food philosophy offers the conceptual way out.

Enlightenment thought arose in tandem with industrialising societies. Enlightenment thinkers laid the groundwork for a meritocratic and commercial society to replace feudalism, but the grand irony is that they did not themselves gain acceptance solely on merit. Rather, they were selected for their usefulness. Their ideas justified the necessary concepts the new society came to rely on: mechanisation, individualism, and competition. Enlightenment philosophers were largely establishment figures giving form to establishment thought. Nowadays their ideas are used for preserving this order, but since the intellectual flaws of that understanding are increasingly manifesting as ecological crisis and social disorder, the same process is happening in reverse.

But the question has long been what will take their place? As I was completing this essay I consulted The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Even in 1946, Russell saw that a satisfactory philosophical resolution to the problem of how to reconcile power and the benefits of social cohesion with individual liberty was yet to be reached. At the very end of introducing modern philosophy he writes that the scientific enterprise tips the balance towards power, but is itself “a form of madness” in that it prioritises means over ends. Without a philosophical antidote this imbalance will become “dangerous”. He concludes “To achieve this a new philosophy will be needed”.

Enlightenment ideas have been developing for almost 400 years. They are largely mistaken, but they were also mistaken when they were conceived. There are two good reasons why no overhaul took place, even at the heights of the social movements of the 1960s or the environment movement in the 1970s. The first is that no adequate philosophical replacement was available. The second is nakedly political. No political force or social movement was previously in place to force the issue. The food movement, however, fulfills both requirements, and so the pieces are finally in place for a peaceful social revolution of thought and action.

The final analysis

This essay has attempted to understand how and why a successful social movement can arise, and even be called a social movement, when it lacks essentially all of the traditional props and attributes of social movements – strong leadership, organisational structures, formal outreach programs, money, and so forth.

This analysis attributes the success of the food movement largely to factors internal to itself. Its members share an infectious vision which is constructive, convivial, classless, raceless, international, and which embraces the whole world. That vision rests on a novel and harmonious philosophy. It is also deeply realistic because it is biological in nature; so while the remainder of society is naively getting further out of touch with the natural world by adopting ever fancier communications devices, internet apps, high speed travel, Pokemon Go, and so forth, the food movement is busy getting in touch with that world and being successful in working with it.

One issue largely missing from this analysis, however, is the imperative of confronting climate change. The food movement did not come together to solve this issue. Nevertheless, many in the food movement believe it has the tools to largely solve the problem. The reasons are simple. First, perhaps as much as 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions result from the activities of the industrial food sector. Secondly, carbon can easily be removed from the air and stored in soil and in the process creating the type of soil actively desired by organic and agroecological farmers. These farmers are still developing their techniques for carbon sequestration, but anecdotal evidence suggests that soil sequestration can combine with food production to store many tons of carbon per acre per year. Thus, as two recent reports show, the food system desired by the food movement can make our atmospheric carbon problem manageable and perhaps solve it completely.

This information seems not to have penetrated the mainstream climate movement. Climate leaders seem to believe solutions must be technical or social: but windmills, solar power, electric cars, dams, divestment, infrastructure protests, etc., are largely symbolic actions. Unlike reducing demand for energy by reforming and localising the food system or storing carbon in living soils, such “solutions” do not necessarily reduce overall use of fossil fuels nor prevent the release of greenhouse gases from disturbed ecosystems. Worse, as resource-intensive ways of generating and storing energy, technofix solutions have many negative consequences of their own.

Hopefully sooner, rather than later, the well-meaning but misled climate movement will come to understand the (typically enlightenment) error of singling out specific forms of pollution (CO2 or methane) and join with the food liberation movement. If not, the food movement may solve climate change without them.

In the ultimate analysis, the growth of the food movement is the people’s response to the failing ideas of the enlightenment. It represents a tectonic realignment of the forces underlying our society and a clash of ideas more profound than anything seen since the collapse of feudalism and the emergence of the industrial revolution. The outcome of this clash will determine not only the future of our society, but also whether our descendents get to live on a planet recognisable to us today. The portents are excellent. The food movement is prevailing because it takes advantage of the synergies and potentials inherent in biological systems, whereas the ideas of the enlightenment ignore, deny, and suppress these potentialities. It will indeed be a beautiful struggle to turn these portents into reality.

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