On American Politics, the Food Crisis and Broken Windows | Civil Eats

On American Politics, the Food Crisis and Broken Windows

When times get hard in America, some people look for a group or individual to blame for their situation. Today, right wing extremists offer up immigrants, President Obama, his family and advisers, climate change activists, trial lawyers, and, of course, Michael Pollan and the agri-intellectuals for that role.

This is an old phenomenon in our country. Studies have documented a strong link between cotton crop failures in the South and the incidence of lynchings of African-Americans. In the 19th Century, economic depressions were often accompanied with an increase in “nativist” sentiments; established immigrants attacking the most recent immigrants as “un-American”.

Richard Hofstadter’s classic work, Anti-Intellectualism in America presents these “know nothing” reactions as an inherent part of the American Revolution’s anti-aristocratic roots — one of the original “them” and “us” moments that divide and define our nation. (The historical irony of largely well-off Republicans dressing as revolutionaries at tea parties over the past summer has escaped most reporters.)

The rise in antipathy we are experiencing today has a more disturbing dimension because it is based, in large part, on a series of failures so profound as to threaten our very way of life. This is particularly true of food.

The industrial system in agriculture depends on cheap oil, surplus water, and stable climate to operate. All three of these pre-conditions are becoming increasingly questionable, yet there is little acknowledgment of this truth in the corridors of government and corporation power. Indeed, the handful of corporations which control the US food system today engage in a systematic misrepresentation of our situation that verges on lying.

This lie of industrial agriculture is at the heart of the increasing vitriol in the public debate about food. The growing assault on the so-called agri-intellectuals — Michael Pollan, Christopher Cook, Eric Schloesser, Francis and Anna Lappe, and others (referred hereafter to as Michael et al) — reflects something more than class (working farmers vs. educated elites) and geographical (the farm heartland vs. the coasts) differences that now dominate the conversation.

Michael et al function today like that boy in the crowd who couldn’t see the new clothes worn by king and called out “he is naked”. They challenge the basic design assumptions of the entire industrial agricuture system and worse, much of the global economic system, as well.

In doing so they raise the emotionally-laden specter of our civilization and our nation being “out of control” as the majority of people understand “control” –- a kind of predictability they can count on in making day-to-day decisions about their lives.

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I believe ordinary people, in their guts, know, in the words of Fox Commentator Glenn Beck, “SOMETHING JUST DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT” (his emphasis). Now, I am definitely not a fan of Glenn Beck, who is a racist and a fear monger. But we can’t ignore that there is growing unease about the failure of our current systems, an unease Beck skillfully promotes and exploits.

I believe what “doesn’t feel right” is a growing sense that the financial, industrial design paradigm that promotes a global, resource intensive global economy (including food) is failing.

The evidence of this failure fills the news everyday. In the massive institutional failure on Wall Street, in the health insurance system, in Washington and state capitols, many people can see their personal, family, and community security crumbling. All people, regardless of ideology or party, are increasingly confused about what is happening and, as a result, are increasingly anxious about the future. In 19th Century cotton economy terms, it is time for a lynching of the “other”.

With trillions of dollars at stake, industrial agriculture hires PR/astroturf consultants and supports right wing surrogates to attack the science, the advocacy, and the pioneers of a true healthy, local food system through caricatures, smears, and fear.

Most local food revolutionaries are too polite, too inexperienced, or too afraid to confront these attacks. The little resistance raised is often drowned out by the volume of the right wing media noise machine. This absence has consequences.

Today’s food system is complex.

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As Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.” Our food system is a broken window that we are ignoring.

We are at a moment of fundamental change, not just in a trough of an economic cycle. To survive and prosper, we all must stand up and be honest about the challenge we face and the need for healthy, local food.

Chris Bedford is a food system activist and a filmmaker who lives in Montague, MI. He lives on an organic farm and helps his partner run Michigan's only healthy, humane, homegrown farmers market -- the Sweetwater Local Foods Market. In addition, he is organizing a Farm-to-School Campaign in Muskegon County (www.HealthySchoolMeals.org). Read more >

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  1. Randy
    amen brother.
  2. Gerardo Tristan
    I believe that is time for food activist across USA to stand up and get louder! We need to counter attack all this propaganda aimed at creating smoke mirrors, fear and confussion so big Agribusiness can get their way. We need mainstream media time too! A big march to D.C might do the trick but who will make the call for this to happen? We need Pollan et all to step up and call for louder ACTIONS!

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