Time for the Whole Enchilada

Subtitle: Bigger Food System Change on the Horizon

The recent failure of the Farm Bill to pass the U.S. House of Representatives has been widely touted as another indication of how nothing useful can get done by Congress these days, and that interpretation has plenty of merit.  But this unexpected collapse in the process may also signal just how far away from the needs of ordinary farmers the “Farm” Bill had drifted.  Much has been said about the divisiveness of SNAP (i.e. food stamp) benefits in the bill, but the real potential losses to rank-and-file food producers came in the guise of one successful amendment to please the dairy industry (contrary to most dairy farmers), and another failed one that would have put limits on crop insurance subsidies for larger farms. Combined, these factors left the legislation without much of a cheering section, which proved fatal in the end.

In any case, the Farm Bill as we know it is critically flawed.  Some simple math will make the point.  It starts with the basic fact that about 80% of this government largesse goes for food stamps (no matter how worthwhile), and only 20% to agriculture of any kind. Then take into account that the share afforded to agriculture is similarly weighted, in a disproportionate way, toward what I will call the “industrial end of the spectrum” and away from family-scale farming. But even the latter portion is slanted toward supporting the troubled status quo, or conventional methods of farming.  What we are left with is perhaps one or two percent of the entire Farm Bill being applied to what we can clearly recognize as programs focused on sustainability and local food systems.  There are many laudable attempts being made to redress this basic structure, as with programs to expand use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets, but the fact remains that the overarching structure of Farm Bill funding acts like a prison within which the promise of more progressive food and farm policy is constrained.

Make no mistake, Congress will probably do something about farm policy by year’s end, and it may yet be much worse for most farmers, as with the infamously bad Farm Bill extension that passed in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve.  But why should we be surprised by that?  Despite all the attention being given these days to sustainable farming systems and locally raised foods, all policy indicators are beating a path with abandon in the opposite direction.  This would include not only the Farm Bill, but the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership (i.e. free trade agreement), and even the immigration reform bill now working its way through Congress.  Everything is pointing toward a future in which the least preferred sources of food will be the most successful at dealing with new regulations and acquiring government supports. Why is it, one might ask, that the noose seems to be tightening on one of the most positive cultural trends to come along in decades, the Good Food Movement?

If you ask me, we need to totally give up on two heretofore celebrated and sacrosanct assumptions: 1) that we can achieve the society in which we prefer to live through policy incentives, and 2) that the kind of change we really need can occur incrementally.  In the real world, policy follows social change – it doesn’t create it – and it is also clear that the forces out there with a preference for cheap, anonymous, unremarkable food will not go quietly, without a fight.  After all, Twinkies are back.

So what is the solution?  If the answer was clear, I wouldn’t need to write about it.  But it does seem, if we dismiss the indicated assumptions, that change will come more in the trenches of the food system, and we will have to work much harder at it than we have up to now.  It’s not that our cause is exactly the same, but citizens of several countries in northern Africa and the Middle East, plus Turkey and Brazil, have figured out that taking to the streets is a necessary part of the process. For us it may look different, but surely can happen in the streets.  What if, for instance, very large numbers of people started gathering one day per week, in both small towns and major cities, to publicly eat food that is locally and sustainably produced, in ways that challenge overly restrictive food regulations?  What if we totally boycotted companies that are exporting food in ways that threaten the public health and economic viability of farms in other countries? What if we all just stopped eating food of unknown origin?

Food system change, when it does occur, is likely to come more abruptly and in larger chunks than we have expected.  This may be the only way for it to happen, given the forces and structures working against it. We may not even recognize it when it does come as the change we were hoping to achieve, but it will be distinguished by the way it benefits the bulk of farmers and typical non-farming eaters alike. I have always liked the PASA mission statement as an expression of what we hope and expect to see in the not-so-distant future: promoting profitable farms that produce healthy food for all people while respecting the natural environment. To my mind, we will not get there without the earnest efforts of organizations like PASA, located all over the country, that can provide a middle ground for farmers and consumers to build the healthy, just and sustainable food system – and society – that we really want.

My point, however, is that none of this will happen until we are raring and ready to insist on it. The time may indeed already be here – it’s the whole enchilada, or we all go hungry for want of a life in which average folks producing and consuming good food matter again.  The choice is very much ours to make.

8 thoughts on “Time for the Whole Enchilada

  1. Brian: We all seem to rush endlessly from meeting to meeting attempting to bring about desired changes but ultimately ending with greater cynicism, frustration and fatigue when they do not occur. This is evident in our effort with food issues but is also repeated by a broad range of social agency advocates as well. There is a saying I once heard – When I am up to my a__ in alligators don’t talk to me about draining the swamp”. With all of the folks on the line each day to meet immediate pressing needs such as hunger and health care, it is difficult to find the time to look at the broader picture and talk about effective ways to begin draining the swamp.
    Our expectations for change seem to be based almost entirely on fact based logic, and while it is surely necessary, it alone does not seem to produce change, and certainly not the systemic change or paradigm shift that is needed. To end some of these frustrating expectations perhaps we could benefit from some dialogue about the change process itself and especially the ingredients necessary for the change to occur. There is some evidence that this process is beginning to occur at the community level where it needs to happen if anything is to change. Many have lost faith that this effort will be initiated or even supported by our major institutions because of their silence and indifference about the need for fundamental reform. Some of the dialogue may be encouraged by the recent article of Peter Buffett in the NYT – The Charity Industrial Complex – where the role of philanthropy in addressing fundamental change is being questioned. The brush fires have become endless and always seem to be growing faster than we can extinguish them and the process has been taking its toll. These are a lot of words to get to a simple question – Can we begin a dialogue about a different way to approach the changes we desire? I hope we can begin to take a little bit of time to discuss ways of draining the swamp.

  2. Some thoughts on: how we get “what ifs” (like public eatings and boycotts) to happen in a meaningful way; how to encourage those working in the trenches of the food movement; and how to move toward a holisticgoal (a la Allan Savory) that includes the healthy, just and sustainable food system and society that we want:

    1) Collaborate to protect the sustainable alternatives being developed in the trenches. Organizations like PASA, Food Routes, Weston A. Price Foundation, Food to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, CELDF, PA State Council of Farm Organizations, and others, need to be more collaborative in protecting the raw milk producers, the small farms being regulated out of existence, the small butchering operations, etc — all the things that Salatin writes about in his Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.

    2) Develop a coherent conceptual framework. As Alperovitz has written, “What ultimately counts is a coherent and powerful understanding of what makes sense, and why — and how what makes sense can be achieved in the real world”. To arrive at anything like a consensus on such complex and difficult matters requires us to develop some collaborative means for “learning together as we join in common cause to turn possibility into reality” (Cavanagh & Mander, “Alternatives to Economic Globalization”). Again the need is to create ways to think things out collectively. It may be appropriate to work together with the recently created Green Shadow Cabinet http://greenshadowcabinet.us/ — Ronnie Cummins http://greenshadowcabinet.us/member-profile/7562 is Commissioner of its U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Jim Goodman http://greenshadowcabinet.us/member-profile/12723 is its Secretary of Agriculture.

    3) Connect what’s happening in the food system with other aspects of the healthy, just, and sustainable society as an integral part of the organizational means discussed in #1 and #2 above. Having diverse reasons for a healthy food system, and therefore diverse connections with activists in other arenas, prevents us foodies from being marginalized or swamped by the double-speak of policy-makers. For example, relating agricultural/herding practices to global warming and its mediation — loss of topsoil, sequestering of carbon, importance of grasses and ruminants (as discussed by Savory, Brunetti, and others) — connects the food sector to those concerned about climate and survival. Relating the food system to the creation of a strong local economy connects farming to the need for a viable local economy producing for local needs — a lot of folks buy into that.

    Thanks for opening the discussion and for providing the opportunity for folks to share their thoughts.

  3. hi brian! i got connected to your blog through a food listserve in chicago, actually. i agree with your tone about most of this, but i think the sweep you do of policies going in the “wrong” direction is a bit broad, particularly throwing in a reference to TPP. I work in international agricultural development, and i think that’s one area where things get a little complicated in the “good food movement.” I’m all for local food sources, but there are still a lot of really poor ppl producing food that they need to be able to export onto the world market… and free trade agreements can be an important tool for that — thus why FTA agendas are typically pushed by developing countries, not developed. There is absolutely a fight to be fought to make sure provisions are fair in an FTA for US producers, but first we have to get the protections right and fair to begin with — e.g. fighting the fight against wasteful subsidies, balancing programs that promote variety crop production where environmentally sustainable, and increasing attention to environmental sustainability across the spectrum of farm policy. I’ve always struggled with the fight against FTAs because I think in the end, while they may end up just propping up agribusiness interests (because we don’t have the cards in the hand right to begin with), they can be critical tools for developing countries literally trying to save hungry ppl. i’ve also oversimplified here, but would welcome a discussion.

    • It’s really hard to be against free trade, or anything for that matter that seems to promote freedom in the marketplace. After all, sustainably minded farmers have said for decades that all they want is a level playing field in terms of marketing their products. But unfortunately, the word “free” can be used to conceal subtle forms of economic bondage . . . I’ll name two. First, there’s the case where foreign farmers are undermined by cheaper products from here, that often undercut the actual cost of production, as with the dumping of overproduced dark chicken meat by U.S. companies on countries in the Caribbean and Central America. Second, the situation whereby American companies can farm abroad, shipping products back to the U.S. that undercut our own farmers, who likely face higher costs and bigger regulatory challenges. In both cases, the real intent of “free trade” is thwarted; I think we need to find a better way to assure the success of farmers both here and abroad.

  4. Pingback: The elephant in the room.... - Thistle Hill Farm - Blog

  5. While we shouldn’t give up on seeking policy change (why leave it solely up to Monsanto?), it makes sense to seek policy change through social change as well. Working in the trenches is indeed necessary. I’m not sure how much taking to the streets will help unless it promotes policy change. Merely asking people to boycott non-food runs suffers from the reality that most people won’t respond to such requests. There are specific actions to take, even beyond buying organic, local and fresh at Farmers Markets. We need to increase demand for real food through education about nutrition and the real cost of conventional food (who includes the cost of old supermarket lettuce gone bad when comparing cost?). We need to join (or start) food co-ops that emphasize local products along with massive education. Increased demand for real food will spur market driven changes, and they can occur rapidly.

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