Agri-Intellectual Reason (A Response to Blake Hurst)



Recently, Michael Pollan, author and local food guru, has been the target of attacks from local food naysayers. One, by Missouri Farm Bureau official Blake Hurst in the American Enterprise Institute’s Reason Magazine has gotten a lot of attention.

The article, entitled Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals, goes after the whole local food movement as a kind of effete endeavor by people who don’t know what they are talking about. And since the New York Times alerted its online readers to the article without digging much deeper, I will attempt to do so here.

Christopher Cook’s (Author, Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us) response on the listserv Comfood to the Omnivore’s Delusion skillfully frames many problems with Blake Hurst’s letter.

Cook points out that Hurst conflates and confuses the personal with the systemic – mis-identifying his family’s hard work and integrity with an industrial food system that is blatantly unsustainable, exploitative, unfair, and without integrity.

Corporate disinformation and public relations campaigns have used this media relations strategy since the tobacco Industry’s pushback against anti-smoking campaigns of the late 1960s. The strategy attempts to demonize the debate by creating straw men to be knocked down by corporate messages.

Today such disinformation efforts easily deflect farmer attention away from global corporate monopoly control of the food system that dictates prices and production standards/procedures towards agri-intellectuals and supposedly “wacko” consumers who, in the recent words of a Michigan politician, want to give “chickens the right to drive.”

This reminds me of Dario Fo’s famous play “The Accidental Death of An Anarchist,” which ends with the police inspector saying something like, “Whenever we get too close to the truth, a good scandal can distract our attention.”

Again, as Cook has so wisely pointed out, Farm Bureau official Blake is acting rationally, given the public subsidies, monopoly corporate control and general power relationships of the current global food system. (And Tom Philpott over at Grist has done the digging, check out his response to the article.) In other words, he is not “crazy.” But neither are we.

So what do we do in response to this carefully crafted industrial food corporate counterattack of which this letter is just a part? Blake’s own words offer some clues.

Blake wrote, “Farmers can raise food in different ways, if that is what the market wants.” This acknowledgment should be at the heart of our discussion with conventional farmers who are trapped in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the industrial food system. They have literally bet “the farm” on oil intensive, water intensive mono-crop production techniques dictated to them by global monopoly food corporations.

Today, consumers increasingly want food raised in ways that reflect and respect their values: local food production, humane treatment of animals, no antibiotics or hormones, and based on building healthy living soil.

These consumers choices are not a conspiracy, are not wacko acts, but a simple expression of the free market system dictum, “the customer is always right.” It is simply good business for farmers to change the way they farm. Wal-Mart stopped purchasing fluid milk produced with rBGH (a Monsanto developed hormone to boast milk production) simply because their customers demanded it.

Blake also wrote, “[Bill] McKibben is certain that the contracts these (CAFO) farmers sign with companies like Tyson are unfair, and the farmers might agree.” The words, “farmers might agree” is an understatement. Poultry and swine confinement farmers have repeatedly sued their “integrators” (the corporations that vertically control the industrial animal system) over the last decade.

At issue are confiscatory producer contracts that make the small family farmers virtual serfs on their own farms. For instance, small contract poultry producers actually supply over 50 percent of the capital necessary to keep Tysons and Perdue and their like operating – yet have no ownership stake in the corporation and face “blacklisting” if they don’t do as they are told.

I propose we stand with small farmers, now trapped in CAFO industrial contracts, who are fighting back and help them move to sustainable, humane, local food production.

Local seed laws and local animal treatment laws offer one path for consumers and farmers to cooperate in a community-effort to reform the food system. That is why industrial food corporations push so hard for state pre-emption of local control over these issues (the Monsanto laws).

One final point deals with farmer access to alternative information.

Blake’s letter contains a number of fundamental mistakes about the nature and effectiveness of “organic” farming processes and results. Unless farmers can have access to the truth about ecologically intelligent farming, they will remain captives of the industrial system.

The Rodale Institute, with its New Farm publication and extensive website, offers information about effective, science-based alternatives to industrial farming processes. We need to support outreach campaigns by institutions like Rodale to help farmers and consumers alike.

As Fred Kirschenmann points out, “a food system based on cheap oil, surplus water, and stable climate is not sustainable. We all are going to have change or relationship to food production, whether we want to or not.”

Let’s help small and mid-size farmers like Blake Hurst escape the industrial system – rewarding their courage and hard work, offering them informational and policy support for a transition to sustainable agriculture, and making fun of AEI’s attempts to demonize the debate.

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  1. Wednesday, August 19th, 2009
    Nice commentary. I appreciate that you address changes in the food system in an evolutionary way. I think to often activists in this debate take a tone which is a little too cavalier when they talk about tearing the old systems down and starting over. They are then surprised when farmers view them with distrust. I think the real path forward is the less dramatic, but more pragmatic type of change shown with WalMart's switch on hormones in milk.
  2. Nick
    Monday, August 24th, 2009
    The answer to ending the whole corn -> CAFO Meat chain is to simply eat a lot less meat. Why is it that almost nobody wants to say this? The basic problem is that in order to eat meat at 21 meals per week you need to have CAFOs