A Remarkable Shift in Food System Debates

Three recent news articles about manipulative agribusiness actions have me almost giddy with excitement. After years of having agribusiness dictate the direction of the food system, it has now taken a reactionary stance.

The first sign of change is from the world’s largest snack-food company, Frito-Lay. They have initiated “Lay’s Local”, which focuses on 80 “local” farmers from 27 states. Frito-Lay’s Web site has a Chip Tracker that allows interested consumers to enter their zip code and product code in order to find out where the potatoes came from. Although Frito-Lay can’t claim the potatoes are locally grown, the advertising campaign hides the corporation behind the aura of U.S. farmers.

The second is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of a newly formed Center for Food and Animal Issues. The Center’s strategy appears to be to categorize feedlot operators as just another group of people that supports animals, just like pet owners, hunters, supporters of zoos and local animal welfare organizations. “Ultimately, our goal is to assure that people who rely on animals, either physically, emotionally or economically, have the right to do so,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Jack Fisher. The impetus for the Center came after pork, poultry and veal housing legislation was introduced into state legislatures around the country, and in particular the passing of California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.

And finally, CropLife.com has announced a call to action to protest the planting of an organic garden on the White House lawn. This crop protection industry organization congratulates First Lady Michelle Obama for her effort to raise food and celebrate agriculture, but takes issue with the garden being organic. Their Web site asks “What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world — crop protection products?”

So why do I get giddy about these typical, calculated attempts to manipulate public opinion? Because I think about what we were debating just ten years ago, and how dramatically the conversation has changed in a positive direction.

Ten years ago the hot issue in the agriculture world was genetically modified crops. And despite the many legitimate concerns that were raised about health and environmental unknowns, as well as the alarming consolidation of the seed industry, roundup ready soybeans and other genetically modified crops swept across the Midwest largely unimpeded. Opponents were portrayed as petty reactionaries that were oblivious to the challenge of “feeding the world”.

The last part of the 1990s was also a time of incredible devastation in rural America. Crop prices were reaching depression-era levels, and the promises of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill were nowhere to be seen. I sat through countless forums where agribusiness professionals told the farming community to relax, soon the incredible buying power of China will make low crop prices a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we spent years with most commodity prices well below the cost of production, and neither China nor any other part of the world corrected the situation for us.

Perhaps it was my lack of imagination, but I never dreamed that we could have possibly made as much progress toward community-based food systems as we have in the past decade. “Locally grown” is the hottest food trend for 2009, so hot that a leader in the corporate snack food industry wants to get in on the act. Ten years ago, someone concerned about the humane treatment of animals had to work hard to find acceptable meat and poultry; now the confined livestock industry is back on its heels because of California’s proposition 2, the excessive use of antibiotics, and continued problems with manure pollution.

Most remarkable has been the explosion in interest in gardening and backyard livestock.  The crop protection industry’s rather lame objection to an organic garden on the White House lawn reveals the difficult position that the industry is in. Who can really be against local organic production that is efficient, nutritious and cost-effective, while at the same time provides exercise and often builds community?

By no means do I mean to diminish the challenges ahead of us. As the Frito-Lay campaign demonstrates, we need to remain vigilant to make sure that words like organic and locally grown mean what the public thinks it means. Far too many people around the world and in the U.S. continue to suffer from hunger and diet-related diseases. But people are no longer willing to let a component of their lives as critical as the food system rest in the control of agribusiness corporations.

Many more people are empowered to make decisions about their family’s food, and a lot of hands are getting dirty in the fresh spring soil. Instead of us trying to create space in the corporate food system for alternative food and farming practices, the agribusiness industry is trying to create space for itself in the thriving community-based food systems. This is a welcome transition.

One thought on “A Remarkable Shift in Food System Debates

  1. Thanks Mark for sharing this one w/ me! Loved reading your insights and positive energy!
    Peace
    Paul