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In 1972, I was part of a nationwide campaign that came tantalizingly close to getting the US Senate to reject Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's choice for secretary of agriculture.
A coalition of grassroots farmers, consumers, and scrappy public interest organizations (like the Agribusiness Accountability Project that Susan DeMarco and I then headed) teamed up with such unabashedly progressive senators as Fred Harris of Oklahoma, Jim Abourezk of South Dakota, and Harold Hughes of Iowa to undertake the almost impossible challenge of defeating the cabinet nominee of a president who'd just been elected in a landslide.
The 51 to 44 senate vote was so close because we were able to expose Butz as ... well, as butt-ugly -- a shameless flack for big food corporations that gouge farmers and consumers alike. We brought the abusive power of corporate agribusiness into the public consciousness for the first time, but we had won only a moral victory, since there he was: ensconced in the seat of power. It horrified us that Nixon had been able to squeeze Butz into that seat, yet it turned out to be a blessing.
First, the horror. An arrogant, brusque, narrow-minded and dogmatic ag economist, Butz had risen to prominence in the small (but politically powerful) world of agriculture by devoting himself to the corporate takeover of the global food economy. He was on the public payroll as dean of agriculture at Purdue University, yet he was also a paid board member of Ralston Purina and other agribusiness giants. In these roles, he openly promoted the preeminence of middleman food manufacturers over family farmers, whom he disdained.
"Agriculture is no longer a way of life," he infamously barked at them. "It's a business." He callously instructed farmers to "Get big or get out" -- and he then proceeded to shove tens of thousands of them out by promoting an export-based, conglomeratized, industrialized, globalized, and heavily sub-sidized corporate-run food economy. "Adapt," he warned farmers, "or die." The ruination of farms and rural communities, Butz added, "releases people to do something useful in our society."
The whirling horror of Butz, however, spun off a blessing, which is that innovative, free-thinking, populist-minded, and rebellious small farmers and food artisans practically threw up at the resulting Twinkieization of America's food. They were sickened that nature's own rich contribution to human culture was being turned into just another plasticized product of corporate profiteers. Rather than accept that, they threw themselves into creating and sustaining a viable, democratic alternative. Linking locally with consumers, environmentalists, community activists, marketers, and others, the Good Food rebellion has since sprouted, spread, and blossomed from coast to coast.
"The central problem with modern industrial agriculture... [is] not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste, and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul." --Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and former farm boy from Yamhill, Oregon.
The driving ethic of this transformative grassroots movement rebuts old Earl's insistence that agriculture is nothing but a business. It most certainly is a business, but it's a good business -- literally producing goodness -- because it's "a way of life" for enterprising, very hardworking people who practice the art and science of cooperating with Mother Nature, rather than always trying to overwhelm her. These farmers don't want to be massive or make a killing; they want to farm and make delicious, healthy food products that help enrich the whole community.
This spirit was recently summed up in one simple word by Lee Jones, a sustainable farmer in Ohio who was asked what he'd be if he wasn't a farmer. He replied: "Disappointed." To farmers like these, food embodies our full "culture" -- a word that is, after all, sculpted right into "agriculture" and is essential to its organic meaning.
Although agriculture is now flourishing throughout the land and has forestalled the total takeover of our food by crass agri business, the corporate powers and their political hirelings continue to press for the elimination of the food rebels and ultimately to impose the Butzian vision of complete corporatization.
This is one of the most important populist struggles occurring in our society. It's literally a fight for control of our dinner, and it certainly deserved a major focus in this year's national elections. But, while Romney and Obama made a show of occasionally pausing on the campaign trail for a photo-op with a farmer, the struggle itself was not mentioned. Indeed, in the Oct. 3 official presidential debate on economic issues facing America, the words "farmer" and "agriculture" were never uttered.
So, in this issue of the Lowdown, we can at least shine our own light on the struggle. As America moves into the traditional November-December season of food-centered holidays, let's not only consume, but also reflect on, discuss, and consider what we can do to shape our food future. To give you a sense of where we are, I'll offer a few snapshots of some current battles being waged.
THE TORTURED TOMATO. The one edible that most starkly depicts the divide between the desiccated corporate vision of food and the verdant cultural vision is this beloved fruit. In 1972, DeMarco and I first wrote about its industrial remake in our book, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times.
Back then, supermarkets were peddling a hard, pinkish, tasteless orb they called a "tomato." Where did this thing come from? It was the product of tax-paid research by agribusiness-hugging land-grant colleges in California and Florida. At the behest of produce giants like the Del Monte Corporation, UC Davis engineers had built a mechanical tomato harvester. Alas, unfortunately this indelicate contraption crushed the tomatoes. No problem -- our publicly financed land-grant geneticists dutifully hardened the tomato, so it could withstand the corporate machinery.
In digging out this story, DeMarco interviewed the head of ag research at the US Department of Agriculture, and he effusively praised the industrial fruit for its durability and shelf life. Well, yes, DeMarco politely agreed, but she noted that it didn't seem to have the great flavor she remembered from the New Jersey tomatoes she grew up with. The research boss leaned toward her and, in a confidential tone, said: "Your children will never know the difference."
How wrong he turned out to be! More than any other product of agribusiness, the re-engineered tomato sparked the upchuck rebellion by farmers and consumers, leading directly to the rapid rise of farm stands, farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives), and other buy-local alternatives that offered the real thing. It also spread organic, sustainable, heirloom, and other forms of production that brought genuine flavor, nutrition, and community values to the forefront of understanding what a tomato really is.