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.”

Related ArticleStarve the Landfill

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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.

Original Post

A System Of Food Production For Human Need, Not Corporate Greed

Colin Todhunter

There has been an adverse trend in the food and agriculture sector in recent times with the control of seeds and chemical inputs being consolidated through various proposed mergers. If these mergers go through, it would mean that three companies would dominate the commercial agricultural seeds and chemicals sector. Over the past couple of decades, there has already been a restriction of choice with the squeezing out of competitors, resulting in higher costs for farmers, who are increasingly reliant on corporate seeds (and their chemical inputs).

Big agribusiness players like Monsanto rely on massive taxpayer handouts to keep their business models on track; highly profitable models that have immense social, health and environmental costs to be paid for by the public. Across the globe healthy, sustainable agriculture has been uprooted and transformed to suit the profit margins of transnational agribusiness concerns. The major players in the global agribusiness sector fuel a geo-politicised, globalised system of food production that result in numerous negative outcomes for both farmers and consumers alike (listed here: 4th paragraph from the end).

corporate-global-farms

Aside from the domination of the market being a cause for concern, we should also be worried about a food system controlled by companies that have a history (see this and this) of releasing health-damaging, environmentally polluting products onto the market and engaging in activities that might be considered as constituting crimes against humanity. If we continue to hand over the control of society’s most important infrastructure – food and agriculture – to these wealthy private interests, what will the future look like?

There is no need to engage in idle speculation. Foods based on CRISPR (a gene-editing technology for which Monsanto has just acquired a non-exclusive global licensing agreement for use) and synthetic biology are already entering the market without regulation or proper health or environmental assessments. And we can expect many more unregulated GM technologies to influence the nature of our food and flood the commercial market.

Despite nice sounding rhetoric by company spokespersons about the humanitarian motives behind these endeavours, the bottom line is patents and profit. And despite nice sounding rhetoric about the precision of the techniques involved, these technologies pose health and environmental risks. Moreover, CRIPRS technology could be used to create genes drives and terminator seed trait tools could be used for unscrupulous political and commercial ends.

There could well be severe social and economic consequences too. The impacts of synthetic biology (another sector dominated by a handful of private interests) on farmers in the Global South could result in a bio-economy of landlessness and hunger. Readers are urged to read this report which outlines the effects on farming, farmers and rural economies: synthetic biology has the potential to undermine livelihoods and would mean a shift to narrower range of export-oriented mono-cropping to produce biomass for synbio processes that place stress on water resources and food security in the exporting countries.

Aside from these social, health and environmental implications, can we trust private entities like Monsanto (or Bayer) to use these powerful (potentially bio-weapon) technologies responsibly? Given Monsanto’s long history of cover-ups and duplicity, trust took the last train out a long time ago. Moreover, the legalities of existing frameworks appear to mean little to certain companies: see here what Vandana Shiva says about the illegality of Monsanto’s enterprise in India. National laws that exist to protect the public interest are little more than mere hurdles to be got around by lobbyists, lawyers and political pressure. So what can be done?

Agroecology is a force for grass-root rural change that would be independent from the cartel of powerful biotech/agribusiness companies. This model of agriculture is already providing real solutions for sustainable, productive agriculture that prioritises the needs of farmers and consumers. It represents an alternative to corporate-controlled agriculture.

However, as much as people and communities strive to become independent from unscrupulous corporate concerns and as much as localised food systems try to extricate themselves from the impacts of rigged global trade and markets, there also has to be a concerted effort to roll back corporate power and challenge what it is doing to our food. These corporations will not just go away because people eat organic or choose agroecology.

The extremely wealthy interests behind these corporations do their level best to displace or dismantle alternative models of production – whether agroecology, organic, public sector agriculture systems or anything that exists independently from them – and replace them with ones that serve their needs. Look no further than attempts to undermine indigenous edible oils processing in India, for instance. Look no further than the ‘mustard seed crisis‘ in India in 1998. Or look no further than how transnational biotech helped fuel and then benefit from the destruction of Ethiopia’s traditional agrarian economy.

Whether it’s on the back of US-backed coups (Ukraine), military conflicts (Iraq), ‘structural adjustment’ (Africa) or slanted trade deals (India), transnational agribusiness is driving a global agenda to suit its interests and eradicate impediments to profit.

To underline this point, let’s turn to what Michel Chossudovsky says in his 1997 book ‘The Globalization of Poverty’. He argues that economies are:

“opened up through the concurrent displacement of a pre-existing productive system. Small and medium-sized enterprises are pushed into bankruptcy or obliged to produce for a global distributor, state enterprises are privatised or closed down, independent agricultural producers are impoverished.” (p.16)

Increasing profit and shareholder dividends are the bottom line. And it doesn’t matter how much devastation ensues or how unsustainable their business model is, ‘crisis management’ and ‘innovation’ fuel the corporate-controlled treadmill they seek to impose.

As long as the domination of the food system by powerful private interests is regarded as legitimate and as long as their hijack of governments, trade bodies and trade deals, regulatory agencies and universities is deemed normal or is unchallenged in the sham ‘liberal democracies’ they operate within, we are destined for a future of more contaminated food, ill health, degraded environments and an agriculture displaced and uprooted for the benefit of self-interest.

The problems associated with the food system cannot be dealt with on a single-issue basis: it is not just about the labelling of GM foods; it’s not just about the impacts of Monsanto’s Roundup; it’s not just about Monsanto (or Bayer) as a company; and it’s not just about engaging in endless debates with corporate shills about the science of GMOs.

Despite the promise of the Green Revolution, hundreds of millions still go to bed hungry, food has become denutrified, functioning rural economies have been destroyed, diseases have spiked in correlation with the increase in use of pesticides and GMOs, soil has been eroded or degraded, diets are less diverse, global food security has been undermined and access to food is determined by manipulated international markets and speculation – not supply and demand.

Food and agriculture have become wedded to power structures that have created food surplus and food deficit areas and have restructured indigenous agriculture across the world and tied it to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for a manipulated and volatile international market and indebtedness to international financial institutions.

The problem is the system of international capitalism that is driving a globalised system of bad food and poor health, the destruction of healthy, sustainable agriculture and systemic, half-baked attacks on both groups and individuals who oppose these processes.

At the very least, there should be full public control over all GMO/synthetic biology production and research. And if we are serious about reining in the power of profiteering corporations over food – our most basic and essential infrastructure – they should be placed under democratic ownership and control.

In finishing, let us turn to Ghiselle Karim who at the end of her insightful article says:

“… we demand that it is our basic human right to protect our food supply… [food] would be planned to meet human need, not corporate greed.  We have hunger not because there is not enough food, but rather because it is not distributed equally. The core of the problem is not a shortage of food, but capitalism!”

Colin Todhunter is an independent writer/analyst

‘Cheap’ food is costing the Earth, and our health

Emily Lewis-Brown – 7th April 2016 – Published in The Ecologist

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Food has never been more affordable for middle class families in rich countries. But it comes at a high cost: the impact of industrial food production on health, environment and society has never been greater as Patrick Holden explained to Emily Lewis-Brown.

The post war drive for food security through industrial farming and ever-cheaper food has, ironically, put both our health and the future of farming at risk.

Food prices have been kept artificially low, while the true costs of food production have been obscured – and are increasingly unaffordable. A conference took place in April in San Francisco designed to put this right: The True Cost of American Food.

Patrick Holden – dairy farmer, sustainable food campaigner and organiser of the conference – believes that sustainable farming is being held back by the way that food prices are kept artificially low through mechanisms which hide the real cost of foods and place those costs elsewhere – on communities, our health, and the environment.

“When we unravel the hidden costs of food and farming, we find that our food systems are generating diets which we pay for many times over in hidden ways”, he says. “They are making us sick and degrading the environment, which is vital to the future of our food security and health.

“Everyone has a right to good food that is affordable and nutritious, but the belief that making food cheap was the most important goal, facilitated damage to our natural environment and public health. This was made possible by cheap oil and technological innovation. It was hard for consumers to see the changes to the food we eat, as companies increasingly obscured the story of how our food is produced.

“If you told the real story of farming, what goes on behind closed doors would be upsetting. It’s covered up by brands with images of outdoor mixed farms, with cows in meadows and hedgerow-lined hay fields blooming with wild flowers.”

Milk cheaper than bottled water

Patrick had an urban childhood, like millions of other people who live in cities now, but his family moved back to the land in the 1970s to live on a farm. His deep understanding of agricultural practice developed from farming his mixed dairy farm in Wales, where he still farms as sustainably as possible.

That means he knows from personal experience the plight faced by many farmers: “Dairy farmers are now slaves to the commodity market. To survive economically, they need more and more cows, kept more and more intensively. Milk is sold for much less than the cost of its production – it costs less than a bottle of water now. How on earth can this be? Milk is a vital source of nutrition and farmers should be paid for the true cost of its production.”

cheapfood

Of course for many families it’s great that we spend less now than ever before on food: most of us spend less than 10% of our disposable income on food – and this is seen as a good thing. But that cheap food comes at a high price:

“The apparent cheapness of food is an illusion, because behind the price tag lie a series of hidden costs, none of which are reflected in the price of food. These hidden costs are paid in damage to the environment, depletion of the Earth’s resources, and public health.”

Adding up the impacts

Patrick is involved in research with the UN’s The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative that traces the true costs of food. But to make all those statistics real, he says, take a carton of milk, and consider the costs of its that we have to pay for without realizing it – on top of the suffering that’s routinely inflicted on animals under industrial farming systems.

“You’ve got damage to the environment from the pollution of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, degradation of the soil and declining biodiversity, along with the contribution that agriculture makes to climate change.

“Then there’s a high cost in human health, especially, at the moment, in the rise of untreatable infectious diseases from the over-use of antibiotics in humans and farm animals. But this also includes the costs of the obesity epidemic caused by industrialised diets.

“And there are significant social costs – agricultural workers suffer unduly from labour abuses across the world which sometimes extend to the condition of slavery. These costs are not currently paid in the price of our food and this is not being recognized by politicians nor properly addressed by the people who should be addressing them.”

The True Cost of American Food

What is needed, he says, is a ‘True Cost’ account of our food system. That’s one of the core missions of the Sustainable Food Trust, which Patrick launched in 2013 at a major conference on the topic in London, bringing together the world’s leading experts on True Cost Accounting.

“For obvious reasons all farmers have to follow the best business case”, says Patrick. “But right now if you farm intensively and cause damage to the environment and public health, you will make more money than if you switch to sustainable methods. The aim of the San Francisco conference is to do something about that – we want to create the conditions where producing food in a sustainable way is the most profitable option for producers and the most affordable for consumers.

“We believe there are many opportunities to intervene and shift the dial in this direction. For instance, we can redirect Farm Bill subsidies to favour sustainable practices, we can tax farming which causes damage to the environment or public health, we can harness the power of the financial community to preferentially invest in sustainable agriculture and food companies.

“It’s all about carrots and sticks, we want to encourage the right kind of farming which benefits the environment and public health and discourages food systems which lead to climate change, pollution and disease.”