This fall I had the privilege of releasing my second book Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture. As it makes the rounds of book reviews, and I tour the interview and lecture circuit – casting myself as it were to the lions of the marketplace – I have found that the book’s first responders are drawn to its main title and less so to the subtitle. This is as I expected. People naturally want to hear stories about doers, real-life action heroes, and pioneers who might lead us out of the wilderness of the industrial food system. They are eager to get their hands in the dirt and less patient with the intellectual gymnastics required to deconstruct the half-truths of Big Food and its kissing cousin, Big Agriculture. The philosophical framework, so to speak, that mountaintop above the din and the thrum of the real world where many writers, including this one, love to dwell, is too often by-passed by the harried reader earnestly searching for a shortcut to the answer.
So allow me to use this space to reacquaint you, diligent reader, with the Big Idea of Food Rebels and why, in my humble opinion, it matters. I opened the book with a few lines from from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s parable The Grand Inquisitor: “Today, people are persuaded more than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet…And we alone shall feed them…Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’” I spare little subtlety in drawing a parallel between this iconic passage of Western literature and the industrial food system’s quest to control the hearts and minds of us, the dependent food consumer. After all we know, as the industrial food system loves to remind us, that we are staring down the twin barrels of too many people and too little food.
Interestingly, the same lead was used in a recent review of Food Rebels by “Food Safety News.” After going on for nearly three pages with an accurate, blow-by-blow account of the book’s main points, the reviewer concludes with “Although Winne delivers strong arguments for the alternative food system, his book too glibly disparages the benefits of the industrial food system—namely, an inexpensive food supply, a system that can meet the growing worldwide food demand….” So, in the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, let me offer a selective retrospective of the industrial food system’s sins for 2010 ‘less them “be forgot, and never brought to mind.”
Food and Water Watch reported a 20 percent increase in the number of livestock in factory farm operations – that’s an increase of 5 million animals. A factory egg-laying operation now averages over 600,000 birds which is one reason for the salmonella egg recall that sickened 1500 people and became the biggest food story of the year. The investigation by the New York Times into the main culprit, Wright Farms of Iowa, found a history of agri-business violations that included groundwater pollution, animal cruelty, unsafe working conditions, and worker abuse. The Times also pointed out that 97 of every 100 eggs produced in America comes from factory egg farms, which perhaps makes us consumers culpable third-parties.
If conditions are getting a little too crowded in those production barns, why don’t we just ratchet up the doses of antibiotics we give the animals? At least that seems to be the industry trend, and according to Andrew Gunther, the USDA finally joined the Federal Drug Administration and Center for Disease Control in admitting at a Congressional hearing on July 14, 2010 “that the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance in America.” Since the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out not too long ago that over 70 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are used on livestock, human resistance is inevitable.
The subject of fat – too much, not too little – seemed to be an omnipresent part of the 2010 news cycle. When, for instance, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors challenged McDonalds’ toy giveaways to lure children into their calorie-ridden dens of iniquity, McDonalds’ CEO took a page from Sarah Palin’s playbook and labeled San Francisco’s duly-elected political leaders the “food police.” The Chief Elected Burger went on to say that “We [McDonalds] are proud of our Happy Meals,” and why wouldn’t you be proud of something that gives 4 to 8 year olds over one-half of their USDA daily allowance of fat in just one meal! Since one-third of American children eat fast food every day, why shouldn’t they be eating it at McDonalds?
Hard on the heels of San Francisco v. McDonalds was my home state of New Mexico’s December release of its childhood obesity figures: 1 in 8 kindergarteners and nearly 1 in 4 third graders tipped the scales in 2010 into the danger zone. Obese children become obese and diabetic adults, which are why, in the midst of 2010’s health care reform debate, health advocates argued that unless we rein in obesity, we’ll never rein in health care costs.
Though military-age young people are being rejected in record numbers because they are too fat to fight (according to 2010 Defense Department recruitment data), our national defense may not suffer long-term harm. The Wall Street Journal (12/8/10) reports that KFC is moving aggressively into Africa where it expects to have 1200 outlets by 2014. They are joining McDonalds and Burger King in the rush to bring America’s lard-laden cuisine to those benighted regions of the globe. It has never occurred to me until now that maybe the Defense Department and fast food industry have hatched a conspiracy. Together they will fatten our current and future enemies so that they, too, won’t be able to fight. I can see it now: the golden arches and gentle countenance of Colonel Coronary stretched across the mountain peaks of Afghanistan and Pakistan achieving what our Special Op units and killer drones have so far failed to do.
But where I find the industrial food system at its most insidious – and most like the Grand Inquisitor – is when it slips quietly into bed with those whose expressed purpose is to do good. A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest released in 2010 found that $4 billion of food stamp expenditures are for soft drinks – close to 10 percent of all food stamp use. When New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg requested special permission from USDA to ban the use of food stamps for the purchase of soft drinks, he was greeted with howls of protest from anti-hunger organizations. I might have dismissed this response as simply the watchdogs of America’s food safety net defending their turf, but then I saw that Feeding America, the nation’s food bank network had a cross-marketing campaign going on with Snickers Candy Bars. Other large food charities like the Society of St. Andrews had a similar relationship with Pepsi. And then the New York Times (12/10) reported that the venerable charity Save the Children had backed off its campaign to institute state soda taxes to reduce childhood obesity. That decision was made, according to the Times, at the same time that Save the Children was negotiating with Coca-Cola for a very large grant. It had already received a $5 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation. Aside from making a great case study on situational ethics, I do wonder what goes through the heads of people who are smart enough to know they are making a deal with the Devil.
That’s but a mere sampling of “ripped from the headlines” food stories from 2010. When added to the hundreds more that filled newspapers, airwaves, and the blogosphere, it becomes pretty clear that whatever good the industrial food system has wrought, it exacts a high cost on our public health, environment, and perhaps most importantly, our democracy. So when you read Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas (and I certainly hope you do), please enjoy the stories of Maurice Small, Austin’s smart-cookin’ mamas, and the bad-ass dairymen of Connecticut. They are the stuff of which legends are made, and should inspire you to fight back against a food system that would have us become its Stepford wives. But I entreat you as well to listen to the voices of the book’s dead white men – Dostoevsky, Emerson, and Lawrence. Ignore them at your own peril, but if you heed their words you just might find yourself on the mountaintop where we all might get a better view.