Causing no end of difficulties in our national discourse is the steadfast belief held by both the right and the left that everything is either right or left: bad or good, strong or weak, despotic or patriotic. You’re either with us or you’re against us. President Obama addressed this very effectively before both House Republicans and Senate Democrats in recent days. It is media driven to a large extent because the media need controversy to sell papers, or bytes or views or whatever it is they’re selling these days.
The most common form this takes is the old build’em-up-then-tear’em-down routine. Perhaps the only thing many Americans enjoy more than the uplifting emotion of a success story is the schadenfreude of watching that success come tumbling down. So when an idea comes to the fore, the critics ooze from the woodwork and their primary tactic is divide and conquer. Label it, frame the debate, and the fight is won or lost before the story is even told.
For a long time in the circles I travel in this was not a problem because the ideas embodied in what some have come to call SOLE food (Sustainable, Organic, Local, & Ethical) were not perceived as a threat to the established paradigm. Recent successes such as Michael Pollan’s work have, however, shined a very bright spotlight on advocates of real food. As a result, people who have been toiling at these ideas for decades are becoming targets of powerful interests in the Big Food lobby. Such is the case this week at WeeklyStandard.com, where Missouri Farm Bureau vice president Blake Hurst has found his most recent audience.
Mr. Hurst was among the earliest vocal detractors of Mr. Pollan’s work, as well as that of anyone who might find flaw in agroindustrial model. His essay last summer, titled The Omnivore’s Delusion, did an excellent job of exploiting Pollan’s success to rally the big corporate agriculture interests against the perceived threat of critics both in the media and in the field. It’s natural: he felt attacked and he responded, and has now done so again. Unfortunately Mr. Hurst’s vitriol, then as now, only serves to fan the flames of a fire that needn’t be burning. Individuals on neither side of the debate are inherently evil, in fact both want the same thing: healthy food for all. Since our ideas for how to accomplish this differ, we are immediately cast into the right and left corners and told to come out fighting when the bell rings.
Of course this is not a new phenomenon. City and country folk have mistrusted each other since the beginnings of civilization (which, it bears pointing out, came into being because of agriculture). Nonetheless our society has changed enormously in the last 100 years. Where once nearly everyone lived on a farm or had an immediate relative who did, today only 2% of the population lives in rural America. It’s not a surprise that when the 2% senses criticism emanating from within the other 98% they’re going to feel a bit nervous. Some of the critiques in fact even come from within the 2% (witness cattleman Will Harris in Georgia). In his most recent essay though Mr. Hurst’s fears are misplaced, and he remains little more than a tool for moneyed interests.
The essay suffers from many errors of presumption as well as fact. He contends that Kathleen Merrigan’s Know your Farmer initiative results from the idea that “America, it seems, has been operating at a knowledge deficit when it comes to farmers, and farmers lack the social skills to close the gap between eaters and producers of food.” He is partially correct in that people in this country and throughout the Western world have become increasingly distanced from their sources of food, and we have become so to our detriment. The second part of his statement though, a backhanded swipe at critics of industrial agriculture disguised as self-deprecation and designed to raise the ire of his fellow Farm Bureau members, is uninformed to say the least. Not only are the farmers I know perfectly capable in the “social skills” department, both they and the rest of my friends in the movement to improve our food are working hard to close that gap. Ms. Merrigan’s program is one of many tools.
While he correctly points out that the average age of farmers in America is 58, he misses the point that this means we are running out of farmers. We actually now have more prisoners in America than farmers. He goes on to put words in foodies’ mouths by claiming that we seem to think farmers are not sustainable. Quite far from it, but many of the inputs many farmers use are not. These include the GMOs and chemical fertilizers that Farm Bureau and the Property and Environment Research Center he cites both adamantly advocate. It’s not the farmers or even the farms that are unsustainable; it is the methods they have been railroaded into using by large corporate interests seeking markets for their chemicals since even before the early 70’s when Earl Butz and his “Get Big or Get Out” mantra took hold of American food.
The point is missed yet again when Mr. Hurst says:
In December, strawberries from California can be shipped to market in Canada with less total energy use than the locally grown crop. The food miles are greater, but the carbon footprint is smaller. True believers in the local food movement, of course, simply stop eating strawberries in winter. Their devotion is admirable, but a winter diet of freshly dug turnips and stored potatoes is hardly interesting.
I choose not to eat strawberries in the winter not because they come from far away but because they taste awful. In my own restaurant, we stock everything feasible from local sources. This does not mean, as Mr. Hurst would have it, that we have nothing but turnips and potatoes in winter, nor does it mean we forego oranges or olives because they don’t grow in Iowa. Despite what he and his corporate-activist-supported friends at PERC might have you believe, the “SOLE” food movement is not a bunch of lefty Luddites, and that’s my main point (besides that I like turnips). Not only does food I trust from people I know taste better for those reasons, it also keeps my dollars in my community.
Consider this: there are about 50,000 households in Johnson County Iowa, where I live. If each of those households redirected just $10 of their existing weekly food budget toward buying something local, whether from the farmers market or a CSA or eggs from the farmer down the road, it would keep $26M in the local economy rather than it being siphoned off to China via Bentonville. Now imagine the same thing in larger communities. That’s not a left or right issue, that’s a hometown issue.
I must also point out Mr. Hurst’s use of the phrase “alleged global warming.” It carries with it all the intellectual honesty of “alleged cancer from smoking.”
Agendas like those of Mr. Hurst, the Farm Bureau and PERC serve only the interests of the large corporations that fund them, not of the farmers whose toil fills their coffers. Better to look to the like of the Practical Farmers of Iowa, who are truly concerned with the well-being of the food, the farms and the people on them.
This is not about rich v. poor, city v. country or smart v. dumb. It’s not even I’m right and he’s wrong nor the reverse. It’s that these issues are only important to those of us who eat, live and breathe on this planet. It matters to those of us who have to pay for health care, and raise our children, and get and keep a job. And the positions that the organization I work for, and many others take are not ones designed to attack farmers but rather to support them and all the people who are making food where it should be made: on farms and dairies, in breweries and wineries and vineyards and not in factories.