Elitism is Dead: The New Debate for the Good Food Movement

On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, farmer, poet and food movement hero Wendell Berry, physicist and seed-saving advocate Vandana Shiva, nutritionist and professor Marion Nestle, and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales were among the speakers at The Future of Food, a conference put on by the Washington Post at Georgetown University.

The media was quick to focus on the comments by Prince Charles, who has been farming land on his Highgrove Estate for 26 years and selling produce under the name Duchy Originals, the profits of which are given to charities. But though the Prince gave a thorough and informed 45-minute speech about soil loss, the importance of biodiversity, and a critique of U.S. agriculture policy (you can read the whole speech here), some media and online comments focused on the perceived hypocrisy of the Prince as an environmentalist with a huge carbon footprint, and the old fall-back of detractors of the food movement: Elitism.

Chris Clayton, agriculture editor for The Progressive Farmer, tweeted “You just don’t make your case of what is needed in ag by tweeting “HRH Charles… His Royal Highness says. #FoF definitely #foodelitism”

Phillip Brasher, agriculture reporter for the Des Moines Register, didn’t use the word elitist, but used hyperbole to imply it. The title of his article: “Prince Charles: Save the world with organic farming.”

Elitism has been one of the hardest critiques for the good food movement to shake. For the last 50 years, conservative politicians have gained currency by slamming their opponents as elitist, pointy-headed liberals, and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” And food, which is often viewed as a liberal cause–even though conservatives are some of its biggest supporters–has become the latest hotbed for this fight (See Cookiegate). Making things more difficult, food is personal, habitual, and even addictive, and Americans are willing to cling to cheap food despite clear and present assessments about its toll on our health, our national deficit, and effects on our air and water.

Eric Schlosser, an investigative reporter and author of Fast Food Nation, among other books, kicked off the Future of Food event by saying:

Today, the chemical companies and the biotech companies like to dismiss organic food as something trendy or elitist. Well you know who needs organic food more than anyone else? …the two million farm workers who pick by hand almost all of the fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States. And their children need organic food, too. For them, the need for organics …is literally a matter of life and death. Pesticides are poisons. They have been carefully designed to kill insects, weeds, funguses and rodents. But they can also kill human beings. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that every year, 10,000-20,000 farmworkers in the United States suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job, and that is probably a great understatement.

Though representatives from General Mills, Panera Bread, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association sat on panels, The Future of Food did bring together many known critics of the current food system. But the question is not whether the system should change, but how.

In fact, saying the system has to change should not be controversial. While the Farm Bureau and industry groups are preparing a PR campaign to change the consumer’s mind about industrial agriculture, it has become obvious that change must happen even at big corporations like Monsanto, Mars (which sponsored the event), and Walmart, which are all constantly trying to associate their image with sustainability. Meanwhile the price of oil is rising, the world water supply is becoming more tenuous, and extreme weather conditions and biofuel production contribute to food price spikes, all of which is leading to system collapse. Letting industry defend the current food system is akin to letting climate change deniers have a seat at the table while the science has long been settled.

Moreover, the two sides in this discussion are not equals. One is supported by an army of lobbyists and lawyers who shape legislation and feed talking points to the media. The other is an upstart with popular support based on overwhelming evidence that the system we have now is broken.

Just last week we saw what happens when you give too many industry spokespeople the stage at a similar event, put on by The Atlantic magazine. That event was sponsored by DuPont, Dole, Coca-Cola, and the Council for Biotechnology Information, a group funded by the industry. Each got to place staffers on the panels in return for funding. What resulted was a biased panel on “sustainable agriculture” that focused heavily on one thing: biotechnology. It also featured a panel on obesity, during which a Dole staffer and an American Beverage Association spokesperson marginalized the debate to focus on things like soda can sizes. Dr. Zeke Emmanuel, Chair of the Clinical Center Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, struggled to move the conversation toward discussing deeper solutions to the problem.

While bloggers lamented these biases, and asked whether or not this was what it takes to stay afloat as an independent magazine publisher, The Atlantic event was not a complete loss. White House chef and policy adviser Sam Kass spoke. The event also featured Alice Waters, who tweeted before taking the stage that, “The true elitism is a food system controlled by a handful of corporations,” and sent out a photo of the refreshments table, which featured bottles of Coke.

The Future of Food event instead featured a delicious lunch prepared by Bon Appétit Management Company, a locally-sourced and organic-committed caterer. But aside from the food served, the main critique I have of both of these events is their lack of deep, meaningful debate. For The Atlantic event, the debate was stunted by industry, for The Future of Food, there were too many people on each panel and a lack of time and direction by some of the moderators. And both events lacked diversity and youth voices. The Future of Food took place on a college campus, and yet the students who showed up didn’t stay after Prince Charles spoke. Indeed, the event could have been better publicized if the goal was to engage students on Georgetown’s campus.

If we are going to sit together in a room and discuss the finer points of food policy, we need to have real, solid debates and solutions. It’s time we get down to brass tacks about genetically modified foods, antibiotics in livestock agriculture, health concerns surrounding pesticide use, and other subjects, featuring scientists and those unassociated with industry. We need to talk about the barriers to producing research when it is missing, the consolidation in the industry and how this effects choices, and bring more farmers into these discussions to speak for themselves.

Otherwise, we should be rolling up our sleeves to build new models for food access. Dr. Hans Herren, a scientist and lead author of the IAASTD report, who was on a panel about international food policy, said it succinctly when he pointed out that we need to stop talking and writing reports and do something. “The time to act was yesterday,” he said.

Writing new policies will also help put to bed the tired old argument of whether or not organic vegetables are elitist. “Smart sustainable food policy is common sense,” said Senator Jon Tester in the closing keynote at The Future of Food. “And if you fight for it, you can win.”

In the end, calling those who want to change the food system elitist is merely a way of diverting our attention from the very real problems we face. In an opinion piece last week, Eric Schlosser wrote:

This name-calling is a form of misdirection, an attempt to evade a serious debate about U.S. agricultural policies. And it gets the elitism charge precisely backward. America’s current system of food production—overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, government subsidies and fossil fuels—is profoundly undemocratic. It is one more sign of how the few now rule the many. And it’s inflicting tremendous harm on American farmers, workers and consumers.

Photo: AP

16 thoughts on “Elitism is Dead: The New Debate for the Good Food Movement

  1. Excellent essay, excellent advice. I argue in a recent post that young people who care about food and parents who care about their kids and their kids’ health (that’s all parents in my book) are the next generation of advocates for a safe and sustainable food system. We have to make this a “dinner table” issue. Once you care what you are serving at the dinner table, good food advocacy is no longer “elite,” but literally about what you eat. That makes a difference.

  2. Meanwhile, GOOD Magazine, aka Pepsi Refresh Greenwashers for Hire, are the media partners for this truly elitist conference:
    http://pre.cloudfront.goodinc.com/newsletters/join-good-at-the-sustainable-brands-2011-conference_3.html
    On the docket:
    The latest on communicating without greenwashing!!!!

    Among attendees: http://www.sustainablelifemedia.com/events/sb11/attendees
    PepsiCo | SVP, PepsiCo Packaging Innovation The Coca-Cola Company | VP VEB Marketing The Coca-Cola Company | VP, Sustainability Strategy & Communication The Coca-Cola Company | Global Marketing Director of Sustainability The Coca-Cola Company | Group Director, Sustainability Strategy and Communication Bumble Bee Foods | Director Sustainability Bumble Bee Foods | SVP, Marketing & Corporate Social Responsibility Business for Social Responsibility | Sr. Vice PresidentCampbell Soup-Pepperidge Farm | Research Fellow-Packaging Development ConAgra Food Lamb Weston | Manager, Strategic Communications Nestlé Purina Petcare Company | Global Sustainability Director Nestlé Purina Petcare Company | Senior Brand Manager Nestle Waters North America | Dir. of Sustainability Panera Bread | Co-Founder, CEO

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  4. I’m over the name-calling. How fascinating that with animal poo on my shoes because I really do know my farmer, I’m elite! I think I need to embrace elite.

    elite: A group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, esp. because of their power, talent, or wealth

    My category is good local food: wholesome, sustainable, nutrient-dense, not toxic, not mass-produced, community-oriented, and healthy. I am exceptionally talented at finding good local food and am willing to spend the time and effort to do so. I am one of the best locavores that I know. I don’t insist that everyone do as I do, but if you want to, I have a Web site that tells you everything I’ve learned about it. If that makes me elite, I embrace it and acknowledge the compliment!

    I pwn 3l33t.

  5. Pingback: Just another elite foodie – Late Bloomers Farm

  6. This may be a question of either making organic produce as cheap as conventional or better communicate why organic produce is preferrable.

    Can the first be reached? I don’t know – a farmer will and has to think in economic terms, as his survival depends on it.

    For the second, things might look brighter and it is here where I feel that a certain elitism is in fact in place. The supposed qualities of organic foods have often been inflated and / or were communicated with a vague “conventional food is evil” – the same name-calling the food industry is now accused of.

    Break this complicated subject matter down to something that people understand, and you will see organic food acceptance rise.

  7. No one on the Sustainable Agriculture panel at the Atlantic Food Summit was a “staffer” of any of the sponsors.

    Those on the panel who advocated for the inclusion of technologies like biotech in the definition of sustainable ag practices were 1)the president of the largest scientific society in the world, and 2) a university professor.

    The panel was not all about biotechnology; in fact, everyone agreed there was a role for organic. The question was how big of a role, and that’s where people differed.

    Please don’t paint anyone who supports a role for technology in sustainability as just another industry shill. Many people who support the technology are not employed by the industry. It’s misleading to your readers and only serves to further dichotmize this discussion.

  8. Thanks for a detailed analysis of conference highlights. There’s a lot of good here. Yes, we need real debates for real people!

    Usually (historically,) elitism has not been a major criticism and diversionary tactic against the “food” movement, as for most of the past 55 years it’s been mainly a blue collar farm justice movement. I think this is almost always unknown by the new food bloggers. They haven’t sufficiently studied this history.

    More often the charges have been the opposite: that activists are backward, “horse and buggy” farmers. Or they’re excess baggage, “excess resources, (mainly labor)” (CED Report) to be eradicated with “a shake out” Reagan Budget Director David Stockman). “Why don’t we keep the grain and export the farmers!” (President Reagan)

    Only in more recent years has there been a major rise of sustainable agriculture policies at premium prices, and even more recently the huge rise of the food movement of today.

    The blue collar family farm voice was largely missing at the conference, as it is in the food movement generally, though Tester spoke to some of it. This is a weakness of the food movement, and is related to the misunderstanding of some crucial issues.

    Related to this is the failure of the food movement to “get down to brass tacks” or any tacks on the price floor issue, (the market management issue,) the biggest issue in the farm bill in terms of economic impact in the US and globally. I’m still wanting for when major food bloggers will no longer “attempt to evade a serious debate about [these, the largest] U.S. agricultural policides.”

    This helps fix elitism. We need fair trade standards for price floors, not just subsidy elimination, which would likely be disastrous. It’s not fair for blue collar farmers (or LDC peasants) to subsidize US consumers and the agribusiness output complex (buyers) and their CAFO competitors. All 5 USDA ERS studies (5 crops) found that overall farm income was below full costs even with subsidies during the late 80s and early 90s. Daryll Ray found the same for later periods. The lower corn prices since 1953 (x acres x yields) have been about $1.5 trillion below previous prices (in today’s dollars), so by that standard of living wage prices, a few hundred billion in subsidies doesn’t make up the difference and consumers still owe a lot to farmers. Oil and corn were $2.16 in 1947 (barrel/bushel). Oil price levels (x corn acres x corn yields) are about 11 billion higher than the traditional living wage corn prices, and about 13 billion above actual prices. With the needed higher feedgrain prices, grassfed would be hugely supported by markets, and organic prices would not be elitist.

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  10. Hi Paula – I think the disconnect to a solution is that I don’t think that one concrete vision has been offered. We’ve been talking about dependency on petroleum based products for decades, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. We know that less than 1% of our US population works on farms. WE also knwo that the average age of a farmer is 57 and aging out. So…what does a sustainable ag food system look like and how do we get there?

    Here’s some of my considerations I thought off the top of my head after reading your article:

    1) Operational Cost Model – What is the current cost for operating an industrial farm.

    2) Pricing Model – What is the willingness to pay for consumers current day vs. the ideal sustainable food sytem? Will we need to be ready to pay for more – mirrors argument for water which is priced artificially low? Should we be putting a price on resources? Should food be similar to universal healthcare – equal access for all?

    3) Equitable distribution – not everyone can have a farm in the backyard to provide suitable and nutritional needs yearlong. How can you model a food system in extreme conditions to satisfy the needs of the world at any given time? How do you get food to all?

    4) GLOBAL geological map of access to food now and into the future for all – need to incorporate population model, climate change model,

    5) Scenario planning for food price hikes and severe weather (Mississippi is about to blow and take out farmland for example – a farmer just lost 160k acres) – do we add in infrastructural costs to operational model?

    6) Marketing campaign to educate the alternative

    7) Adjust the mindset around food – Food for fuel or substinence rather than indulgence? Is that possible?

    8) how fast can we make the transition to organic food? can we do it fast enough?

    What does the ideal food system look like? The closest to a vision I heard was from Jason Clay from the WWF. Anyways, hopefully, since there are more and more of these op eds around food we can start moving towards defining that vision.

  11. I am so tired of critics making the food movement an “elitist” movement, when I have regressed to eating like my poor, country-farmer grandparents did 60 years ago because they had to.

  12. Re Bean” “costs,” “pricing,” etc.: Thanks for the comments.

    The vision needs more focus on economics than most of what I’ve seen. The way to bring farmers in is to emphasize the shared opposition to cheap farm prices (cheap corn), and to support higher prices with price floors. For sustainability, the focus can be on rising costs of production and the dominance of the agribusiness input complex over farmers. Sustainable methods remove much of that dependency and exploitation.

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