Animal, vegetable, movement?

EVERYWHERE YOU look today the issue of food is cropping up. From best-sellers like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, the dangerous and sometimes horrifying state of food production has come out of the shadows and now occupies a sort of celebrity position among liberal causes.

Global warming, food crises and riots, E. coli and swine flu in factory farms, the erosion of top soils, obesity and diabetes, pesticides in public water supplies; all these topics have hit the headlines and all trace back to how the industrial, mass production of food for profit is ravaging both the health of humans and the survival of the planet. Terms like “CAFOs” (concentrated animal feeding operations) and “HFCS” (high fructose corn syrup) have entered the public lexicon as villains threatening our lives.

A rash of celebrity cookbooks focusing on sustainability, like Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet, and even a Thanksgiving-themed episode of Martha Stewart Living that exposed factory farming methods have only increased the interest.1 Even Michelle Obama has thrown her two cents in, planting an organic garden at the White House, and opining, “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”2 To eat well no longer means just a balanced diet, it has taken on a political and social content. Highlighted in films like Food, Inc. and King Corn, the seemingly distant links between global warming, free trade, and an epidemic of obesity have become much shorter.

The current uproar about nutrition, however, is just the latest crisis brought on by the way capitalism has shaped the food supply chain. While throughout human history “processing” has helped humans stabilize and broaden their food supply, from cooking with fire to salting meats to drying corn, industrial food processing has had more dubious causes and effects. Industrial food processing has gone hand in glove with the rise of capitalism, as mass production processes developed to provide cheap food to concentrated working-class, urban populations that became dependent on the market for their nutritional sustenance. By increasing the shelf life and portability of food, mass industrial food production facilitated everything from the development of retail chains to empires (as military supply lines were no longer dependent on nearby resources).

Processing foods such as grains reduces their nutritional content by removing the volatile proteins, fats, and micronutrients that cause rot and rancidity if not consumed quickly enough. Diets of the lowest social classes during the rise of capitalism—slum dwellers, industrial workers, servants, and slaves—suffered deficiencies such as beriberi, scurvy, and low Vitamin A and D levels (which cause blindness and weak bones, respectively) when they were cut off from traditional food sources and consumed most of their calories from refined grains in bread and alcohol (one of the most efficient ways of processing and transporting grains).

In the early twentieth century, foods were often sold intentionally mislabeled or spoiled, especially meat products. This practice, known as “adulteration” led social reformers like Upton Sinclair and Harvey Washington Wiley to push for legal reform and regulation of the food industry. Fortification with vitamin and mineral supplements in flour, milk, salt, and other common foodstuffs were implemented to keep the working populations on their feet, and to keep consumers purchasing the processed versions.3

The great irony is that as the understanding of both nutrition and soil composition has advanced, the health of the population has not improved. Americans are probably the most health-obsessed people in the world, but to little effect. While beriberi doesn’t haunt our schools, a new health crisis has arisen: on November 18, 2009, the New York Times ran an editorial titled simply “Hunger in the United States.” According to research by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) cited on the editorial page, 49 million families suffered “food insecurity” in 2008, an increase over 2007’s total by 13 million. A study published in the November 2009 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine showed that 50 percent of all U.S. children will be on food stamps at some point in their childhood, but a startling 90 percent of Black children will be. Increasing food output quite simply has not cured hunger.

A few pages away the same day, the Times ran a short article titled, “A surging obesity rate.” The article reported a study by Kenneth E. Thorpe, professor of public health at Emory University, who projects that the number of obese adults in the U.S. will reach 108 million, or 43 percent by 2018, if current trends continue (currently 31 percent of adults are obese, and an unbelievable 60 percent of children).

The health effects are nothing short of shocking. Within the U.S., the four diseases that are the most deadly are all linked to diet (or more specifically, the “Western diet” which is high in animal products, refined carbohydrates, sweeteners, salt, and added fats): heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. The costs of treating obesity related illnesses is up to almost $100 million a year, and type 2 diabetes (which used to be an adult-onset condition) has doubled worldwide in ten years.

In response, a number of radical and liberal advocates, including Pollan and Kingsolver, have proposed a variety of solutions. They range from sane to sanctimonious, with the most common response being to opt-out of the industrial food model altogether and take part in “alternative food systems”: locally grown, organic, and sustainable models.

The damaging and dangerous aspects of our food supply have arisen out of its complete subordination to the dictates of the free market. Maximization of yield, and therefore profits, has trumped all other considerations in growing, and “adding value” is the name of the game in processing. When applied to food, capitalism’s insanity, which in all industries tends toward concentration and overproduction, has had truly perverse effects. Plenty has produced waste, not health; soil science has poisoned us instead of fed us; and technology has intensified, not alleviated, poverty.4

Economies of scale
To unravel the contradictions of the food industry, it must be seen on a global scale. Feeding billions of humans is a mass-production industry. Products that are farmed all over the world are harvested, shipped, and processed to serve millions of people in distant markets. Even mundane products like apple juice may be made from apples from China, Mexico, and Canada. But food production, like any other industry, is not really about feeding people; it is about what commodities generate the largest profit margins for a handful of enormous conglomerates who process and distribute products. As Raj Patel writes in Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food Supply:

The process of shipping, processing and trucking food across distances demands a great deal of capital—you need to be rich to play the game. It is also a game that has economies of scale. This means the bigger a company is, and the more transport and logistics it does, the cheaper it is for that company to be in the business. There are, after all, no mom-and-pop international food distribution companies. The small fish have been devoured by the Leviathans of distribution and supply. And when the number of companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, this gives them market power both over the people who grow food and the people who eat it.5

While there are still millions of local producers of the raw materials of food (grains, fruits, young animals, etc.), the vast majority work under direct contract to larger conglomerates who mill, ship, or process their output, or have only one buyer with whom to deal at harvest time. Patel chronicles how a kilo of coffee grown by farmers in Uganda costs 14 cents; by the time it reaches a Nestlé processing plant, it has risen to $1.64. But this is where the real magic happens: when it emerges from the plant, it will be an astounding $26.40 a kilo. Nestlé, one of the largest food conglomerates on the planet, not surprisingly sold $107 billion in food and beverages in 2008.6

Between the more than 2 million food “proprietors” in the U.S., (which includes both family farms and corporate farms) and the 300 million consumers, there are 7,563 wholesale purchasers, 27,915 food manufactures, and 35,650 retail wholesalers. This hourglass shape provides for large profits for those sitting in the middle: in 2004 retailers made $3.5 trillion, food processors $1.25 trillion, and the agrochemical industry $31 billion.7

This cinching at the waist of the food production chain intensified during the 1980s and 1990s as consolidation and concentration across the industry escalated. The most famous example of the utter dominance of the few with a chokehold on grocery sales is Wal-Mart, with an astounding 44 percent of U.S. grocery sales—up from 19 percent in 2005. Wal-Mart does not deal with local producers, but with suppliers who can fill orders for thousands of stores nationwide. The handful of other major grocery chains—familiar names like Kroger’s, Albertson’s, and Safeway—also deal exclusively with distributors that supply food by the hundreds of tons. The decisions with the most impact on what will make it onto your dinner plate happen long before you get to the store.

A retail chain like Wal-Mart can and does dictate the terms of sales to producers, including price, driving the cost to retailers down, even while they increase prices.

In 1980, the Supreme Court case Diamond v. Chakrabarty opened the door to a type of privatization never before heard of: the Court ruled that genetic strains, not just an individual of a species, could be privately owned and patented. For the first time, seed varieties could be wholly owned and patented by companies. This led to a frenzy of acquisitions and mergers, and seed companies, which previously were small, catalog-driven outfits, seemed overnight to become monsters of industry. Matt Dillon, executive director of the Organic Seed Alliance commented: “No other natural resource (marine, timber, minerals) has ever shifted from public to private hands with such rapidity, such intensity of concentration, and so little oversight.”8

Currently ten companies control 50 percent of the world seed supply. This concentration took a worrisome step forward in 2005, when Seminis, the largest North American seed company, was acquired by chemical producer and agricultural uber-villain Monsanto. Monsanto is famous for producing plants that do not reproduce (their infamous “terminator seeds”), thereby locking in growers to an annual cycle of buying more Monsanto product.9 Monsanto’s aggressive stand on patenting is well recorded: they have sued 125 growers or growers’ cooperatives for crimes of saving seeds, or for allowing cross pollination with nearby plants of the same species—even accidentally. When Monsanto acquired Seminis, 2,500 of 8,000 unique seed types were eliminated. These genetic types are now no longer available to anyone, anywhere. The diversity of what reaches the supermarket shelf or the dinner plate is calculated on spreadsheets of profit and loss for some of the largest corporations in existence (Cargill is the largest privately held corporation in the world). The world’s biodiversity is declining as a result.10

War: It’s what’s for dinner
Human mastery of agriculture allowed human society to take a qualitative step forward over 10,000 years ago. Technological improvements from the wooden plow through crop dusters have played a significant role in getting more food per acre. However, capitalism, which seeks to maximize profit at any cost, has led to explosive growth of output through scientific manipulation of both the soil and organisms harvested. This tendency was propelled forward following the Second World War with dubious results.

The yield of crops grown in unadulterated soil is constrained by the amount of nitrogen concentrated in it. Nitrogen—the partner of carbon in all life on Earth—in its freely available atmospheric form is useless to plants;11 nitrogen must be “fixed” by the bacteria that live on the roots of a certain class of plants (legumes) in order to be utilized. When in 1909 German chemist Fritz Haber discovered how to synthesize “fixed” nitrogen, for the first time the fertility of the soil was delinked from any naturally occurring limits.12 While this technology was available for many years, the turning point for crop yields came after the war, when arms manufacturers found themselves loaded down with literally tons of ammonium nitrate, the basic compound in explosives.

Starting in 1947, the very same material that would have been raining down on German or Japanese cities was rained down on American farms. Corn has been the greatest beneficiary of this shift. Corn is both one of the most adaptable species when it comes to fitting into new capitalist farming methods, but also the most demanding. It is the greatest consumer of nitrogen, and prior to the ammonium nitrate free ride, could only be planted two out of every five years on any plot of land, and usually was rotated with leguminous plants.

Dependence on synthetic fertilizers has also created a situation where 20 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption is related to food production. As Pollan writes in Omnivore’s Dilemma:

Liberated from the old biological constraints, the farm could now be managed on industrial principles, as a factory transforming inputs of raw material—chemical fertilizer—into outputs of corn. Since the farm no longer needs to generate and conserve its own fertility by maintaining a diversity of species, synthetic fertilizer opens the way to monoculture, allowing a farmer to bring the factory’s economies of scale and mechanical efficiency to nature…. Fixing nitrogen allowed the food chain to turn from the logic of biology and embrace the logic of industry. Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum.13

The environmental impact of introducing large amounts of nitrogen into ecosystems creates new problems. Specifically, the runoff of nitrogen into local water supplies creates a condition known as hypoxia, which is a depletion of dissolved oxygen in a body of water. Without adequate oxygen, no aquatic life can survive. The largest hypoxic site in the world is a dead zone, now the size of Louisiana, in the Gulf of Mexico, where runoff from the Mississippi River empties.

Nixon’s neoliberal diet
The drop in the price of commodity crops and the resulting proliferation of processed foods came about as a synthesis of political and technological changes. The major changes in American farm policy came during the Nixon administration with the appointment as secretary of agriculture Earl Butz,14 who reversed a New Deal era policy that stabilized grain production and prices. Because of a rapid inflation in food prices, Nixon faced angry consumers—mostly housewives—protesting at stores demanding relief. Butz’s solution was to maximize production and let the prices fall to wherever they may.

Food prices had been stabilized for almost forty years by the New Deal policy of government loans to farmers. The loans were given out to keep grain off the market, thereby allowing farmers to wait for prices to rebound, without gambling the farm. If prices didn’t rebound, farmers who were unable to repay the loan gave up their surplus grain to the government, which placed it in the eloquently named Ever-Normal Granary. The government could use the grain to lower the price during a spike, or to alleviate hunger. Imperfect, but the price of food was relatively stable as were the fortunes of family farmers.

Butz replaced this policy with subsidies to farmers when prices fell, thereby making up the shortfall for the farmer but without keeping the grain off the market. Prices fell precipitously, and overproduction of grain was allowed to run rampant, leading to a number of new contradictions.

The drop in prices drove many owners of smaller farms off the land as they lost their farms to unpaid debts; this led to a consolidation in production, which ran parallel to the consolidation in processing and retail. The number of acres that are under cultivation has largely leveled off since the 1950s, but the number of farms has fallen from a high in the late 1930s of 7 million to around 2 million today. The average size of a farm in the same period more than doubled, to a high today of more than 500 acres. The 2002 Census of Agriculture estimates that 34,100 of the largest farms account for 50 percent of the sales of farm products, and the 143,500 largest farms account for 75 percent of sales.

The subsidy policy is notoriously biased: the majority of farms that receive subsidies have a net worth of more than $2 million and an average yearly income of $200,000. The average annual household income for a farm is $84,000. In short, the government encourages overproduction by basing subsides on the quantity of excess produced, so the largest farms get the biggest payouts, and lower-income farms get the short end of the stick. The libertarian Heritage Foundation reported, “Ten percent of subsidy recipients collect three-fourths of the money—about $91,000 a year per farm. Those in the ‘bottom 80 percent’ receive less than $3,000 a year.”15 The total cost of the farm subsidies is a whopping $25 billion, which breaks down to each taxpaying household paying $322 per household per year.

With grain prices in a long-term decline, the logic of the free market has forced growers to attempt to increase output at any cost. Like any capitalist, when the price per unit declines, the farmer must increase sales to recoup the investment. Shortfalls in profit lead farmers deeper into debt, especially those who are sucked into the more chemically and technologically intense practices of laying down more and more fertilizer and pesticide/herbicides.

The failure of individual farms due to debt doesn’t alleviate the overproduction and price pressures. Iowa corn grower George Naylor, who Michael Pollan profiles in his chapter on corn in Omnivore’s Dilemma, explains: “You can fire me, but you can’t fire my land, because some other farmer who needs more cash flow or thinks he’s more efficient will come in and farm it. Even if I go out of business this land will keep producing corn.”16

Quantity at any cost
With yield trumping all else, the logic of intensifying productivity through chemical and mechanical means creates growing markets for more “inputs” that make the farm resemble a factory more and more. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) writes about planting cash crops in large concentrations, a practice known as “monoculture” farming:

Monoculture results in economies of scale that can reduce production costs and as a result the prices of commodities in the marketplace. From this primary feature, others, such as the reliance on pesticides, necessarily flow. Farms that grow one or two crops inevitably invite pests and usually require heavy doses of insecticides and herbicides to control them. Planting the same crops year after year can deplete the soil, increasing the need for fertilizers. At the same time, the large acreages under cultivation provide large markets for pesticides, fertilizer, and farm vehicles (such as combines and harvesters).17

Large-scale production creates its own problems, but luckily there is no problem that capitalism cannot solve through selling a new “input.” In the case of animal rearing, as grazing has been replaced by confinement, the natural diet of ruminants has been replaced with corn (which makes the cows pack on pounds faster than eating grass. The average corn-fed steer is slaughtered for meat at eighteen months, compared to four years for a grass-fed mature cattle), which ruminants can’t digest without their stomachs becoming highly acidic. Not only does this give the cows painful ulcers, it also creates the perfect environment for E. coli. Rather than feed them digestible food, they are forced to ingest large quantities of antibiotics, which contributes to the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In addition, the high corn diet causes their flatulence and excrement to be dense in nitrous oxide and methane, which are 296 and 23 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, respectively. But other dietary supplements are being tested to reduce this effect, creating yet another market for “inputs,” instead of simply letting cows and pigs live like cows and pigs.

With fertility reduced to a chemical checklist (in addition to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are major components of synthetic fertilizers), the plants grown in them have actually declined in nutritional value. USDA figures

show a decline in the nutrient content of the forty-three crops it has tracked since the 1950s. In one recent analysis, vitamin C declined by 20 percent, iron by 15 percent, riboflavin by 38 per cent, calcium by 16 percent.… To put this in concrete terms, you now have to eat three apples to get the same amount of iron you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple.18

This is bad news for anyone eating an apple—they have to consume triple the calories to get the same dose of iron—but great news to anyone selling apples, or iron supplements.

Not surprisingly, the nutritional value of beef raised on corn is different from that of grass-fed cattle. Cows raised on grass have half the fat of those raised on corn, and the composition of the fats is more beneficial: lower saturated fats and higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, omega-3 acids from beef fed on grass is comparable to levels found in fish, whereas corn-fed beef has 15–50 percent of the omega-3s.

Facilitating cheaper, faster output and distribution trumps all other considerations in breeding and promoting species. Traits such as a grain’s ability to withstand mechanical harvesting, or an apple skin’s reaction to heavy waxes that allow long distance shipping are promoted above concentrations of nutrients. This is especially true of output: for a species like wheat, which has seen its yield triple in 130 years, new cultivars simply do not have the nutritional punch of their older cousins: modern wheat has 28 percent less iron than its forebears. Part of the equation is that plants that are bred for a life of chemical pesticides and pumped up soils simply don’t struggle to survive the way plants do in their natural environment. In turn, they do not produce the micronutrients known as “antioxidants” in the same quantities as organics,19 lessening their contribution to our own immune system.

Crops and animals that have been successfully shoved into the industrial assembly line are proliferating, while the rest are becoming extinct. As the UCS reported:

At the beginning of the 1990s, only six varieties of corn accounted for 46 percent of the crop, nine varieties of wheat made up half of the wheat crop, and two types of peas made up 96 percent of the pea crop. Reflecting the global success of fast food, more than half the world’s potato acreage is now planted with one variety of potato: the Russet Burbank favored by McDonalds.20

Similarly, half of all dairy cows are Holsteins, despite the inverse relationship of their milk yields to their milk’s nutritional value.

Part of the “success” of particular varieties is their usefulness in the production of highly processed foods. Since the 1970s, with the explosion of output and the growth of politically powerful, highly concentrated interests in the food industry, capitalism has had to accommodate the presence of massive new production in a relatively inelastic market. The constant high production of cash crops has lead to an excess 700 calories per person in the U.S.—the riddle for the food industry is how to get those extra calories into the mouths of consumers. As Pollan writes:

Try as we might, each of us can eat only about fifteen hundred pounds of food a year. Unlike many other products—CDs say, or shoes—there’s a natural limit to how much food we can each consume without exploding. What this means for the food industry is its natural rate of growth is somewhere around 1 percent per year—1 percent being the annual growth rate of the American population. The problem is that Wall Street won’t tolerate such an anemic rate of growth.21

Instead of using “overproduction” of food to feed underfed or starving people in the U.S. and other parts of the world, new uses for staple crops were found. In order to get more calories into food, and more profits into bank accounts, Corporate America turned to processing whole foods into what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances.” It seems unbelievably simple and perverse, but industrial agriculture’s solution to an overabundance of calories was simply to reduce overproduced foods into their component parts, rearrange them, insert them into foods already eaten, or create new products dependent on high levels of processing. The secret? They largely share the same ingredients: sugars, starches, and oils derived from the Big Three of industrial food: wheat, soy, and corn. Soy is in two-thirds of the processed foods on the market, not in its nutritious whole form, but as a thickener, filler, or oil, providing calories but no nutritional benefit.

The high subsidies on corn as a crop are spread throughout the entire food system, as corn has wormed its way into more and more products, suppressing the cost of raw materials to producers. Corn is fed to pigs, cows, and chickens, and somewhat incredibly, to farm-raised salmon. Corn is a dirt-cheap raw material that when processed can be turned into a myriad of products. Talking about breakfast cereals, Pollan describes them in Omnivore’s Dilemma as:

the prototypical processed food: take four cents’ worth of commodity corn (or some other equally cheap grain) transformed into four dollars’ worth of processed food…by taking several of the output streams issuing from a wet mill (corn meal, corn starch, corn sweetener, as well as a handful of tinier chemical fractions) and then assembling them in an attractively novel form.22

In part, this accounts for the low cost of food in the U.S. compared to other industrial countries; even with the spike in food prices in 2007, U.S. consumers spent on average 9.8 percent of their income on food.23 Europeans on the other hand spend approximately 17 percent of their income on food—almost double. Processing is central to this decline as economies of scale are brought to bear in cranking out low-quality “convenience” foods. Thus the price of soda has declined since 1978 by .67 percent, and the price of fresh fruit has risen by 1.46 percent. Soda is currently cheaper than bottled water.

Processed foods don’t exist because there is a demand for them, they exist because they are a way of transforming the cheapest raw materials into exponentially more expensive retail items—generating enormous profits, but only for the processors. Whole unprocessed foods, like eggs, send $.40 back to the producer, but corn sweeteners send $.04 back to the farmer who harvested the crop. The other $.96 goes into the pocket of the processors, distributors, and retailers. This accounts for the introduction every year of 15,000 to 20,000 new food products—at the same time that the biodiversity of the foods we eat is declining. Novelty-shaped chicken nuggets are not a result of consumer demand, but pressure on food producers to elevate profit margins through increased market share and processing as a means of adding value. For those familiar with Marxist economics, the implications are clear: opportunities to extract surplus labor—and thus profit—are magnified by increasing the degree of processing. Cheapening the commodities that are a necessary part of the reproduction of labor cheapens wages, and therefore increases the amount of labor that is unpaid. Unpaid labor equals higher profits. As C. Robert Taylor testified at the Senate Agricultural Committee in 1999, “Since 1984, the real price of a market basket of food has increased 2.8 percent, while the farm value of that food has fallen by 35.7 percent.”24

The most (in)famous of the processed food additives invented in the last half century is High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Unheard of thirty years ago, it now appears in everything from yogurt to lunchmeat. Our consumption of sweeteners has increased since 1985 from 128 to 158 pounds per year and HFCS accounts for 64 pounds on average.

The use of corn as a sweetener is again both an economic and political reality, not one driven by nutrition. Corn has been nurtured as an American crop as it suits the climate and soil conditions in a way other crops do not: sugar, for example. Domestic sugar is a peripheral crop, and a highly protected one, making imported sugar an expensive ingredient for commercial producers. Processors benefited tremendously from the switch, starting in 1969, to corn-based sweeteners. Three companies control the market in HFCS processing: Archer-Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, and Staley25 (a subsidy of British Tate and Lyle). Congress changed sugar quotas in 1982, driving up the demand for domestically produced HFCS from 1.7 to 5.5 million metric tons. According to John Barnes, writing for The New Republic, ADM’s production accounted for 80 percent of the increase.26 It is not surprising to find that the main force lobbying for the change was none other than ADM. According to Tom Philpott, founder of Maverick Farms and contributor to online site Bitter Greens Journal, ADM buys 12 percent of the U.S. corn output, and produces 42 percent of HFCS.27

How to make cheap food and influence people
Readers of this journal will not be surprised to find that powerful corporate interests are dictating policy, yet the food industry has largely escaped the vilification reserved for the oil lobby or defense contractors. Food policy is as destructive a force in the lives of millions (and looking abroad, billions) of people as the use of fossil fuels or military intervention.

While the New York Times declared “Archer-Daniels does not have a lobbyist in Washington; it does not need one,”28 perhaps most notorious in the world of industrial food lobbying is Dwayne Andreas, former CEO of ADM from 1971 to 1997. He ran the company during a pivotal time for industrial food—including the 1982 sugar quota legislation. According to the right-wing Cato institute, ADM is

the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent U.S. history. ADM and its chairman Dwayne Andreas have lavishly fertilized both political parties with millions of dollars in handouts and in return have reaped billion-dollar windfalls from taxpayers and consumers. Thanks to federal protection of the domestic sugar industry, ethanol subsidies, subsidized grain exports, and various other programs, ADM has cost the American economy billions of dollars since 1980 and has indirectly cost Americans tens of billions of dollars in higher prices and higher taxes over that same period. At least 43 percent of ADM’s annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government. Moreover, every $1 of profits earned by ADM’s corn sweetener operation costs consumers $10, and every $1 of profits earned by its ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30.29

Andreas was a model of political giving, donating large sums to the likes of President Richard Nixon, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Not to seem one-sided, Andreas also showered the Democratic Party with money, becoming the third largest contributors to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid.30 Robert Strauss, board member of ADM and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee confessed, “Dwayne Andreas just owns me.”31 The level of control corporate food producers exert in Washington led Andreas to tell an interviewer for Mother Jones, “There isn’t one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market. Not one! The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.”32 ADM is the Goldman Sachs of Big Agra.

Similar to other high-powered industries, political appointments await those who are bored with life at the top of the corporate pyramid. In 2005, Charles Conner was appointed deputy secretary of the United Stated Department of Agriculture after a four-year stint as the president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA). The CRA consists of a mere seven participants, including industrial giants like ADM and Cargill.

Under the Obama administration, the appointment of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of the USDA has raised an outcry from environmental and organic farming advocates. Vilsack is known for his close relationship with Monsanto, having been voted their biotech “Governor of the Year,” and working while in the Iowa State Senate to loosen the regulations on farming of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs, which Monsanto dominates in production and sales). During his tenure, the CAFO pig population exploded in Iowa, driving family pork farms out of business. Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association argued, “Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture points to the continuation of agribusiness as usual, the failed policies of chemical- and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture.”33

Perhaps more disturbing was the appointment of Michael Taylor as the czar of food safety for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Taylor has cycled through the revolving door of Monsanto’s top-level positions and FDA appointments, moving from Monsato’s legal counsel to the FDA, back to Monsanto as a vice president, then to return back to the FDA. He is known in his earlier tenure at the FDA for the suppression of concerns of FDA scientists over the affects of GMO on human health34 as well as the FDA’s refusal to allow milk processors to label milk containing Monsanto’s bovine growth hormones (rBGH). Taylor wrote the paper for the FDA demanding that if producers labeled milk as containing rBGH, they must note that there is no proven difference between the two, which is an outright lie as the FDA’s own studies, Monsanto’s scientists, and Canadian health experts have all shown.35

Opting out and eating in
The growing outrage over our degraded food supply and the mainstream dissemination of information about its workings have inspired thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, to seek alternatives. Sales of organic foods have risen to $16.7 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. The proliferation of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)—local coops that connect consumers to local, usually organic farmers within 100 miles—in cities around the country have become a lifeline to small farmers. Similarly, greenmarkets, once the sole provenance of upper-class, urban shoppers have multiplied across neighborhoods, often as a community’s response to poor food choices and worsening health. There are now 3,500 across the U.S., and more springing up every year. According to School to Farm, a non-profit that promotes the use of local produce in school lunches, 8,943 schools are serving locally grown produce in forty-two states.36

Even the USDA provides vouchers to shop at farms stands or farmers markets through its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The positive impacts for the individuals who are able to access these outlets of fresh nutritious foods can’t be underestimated, nor should the reduction in chemical inputs be dismissed. But organic sales currently account for only 3 percent of the food consumed in the U.S.; local food netted a mere $4 billion (compared to almost $17 billion for organics). However, the scale of the problem dwarfs these efforts. Individual efforts to eat right may help some (mostly middle-class) consumers to live a healthier lifestyle, but consumer choice does little more than redirect some of the profit stream—it does not challenge the economic basis on which the food industry is built.

Capitalism’s ability to survive depends not on its rigidity, but its adaptability. The same dynamics that have driven industrial food production down such a corrosive path are at work within the organic food market. As Mark Bittman points out in a March 2009 New York Times editorial, the standards set by the USDA for “certified organics” inevitably

fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers and consumers who gave the word “organic” its allure—of returning natural nutrients and substance to the soil in the same proportion used by the growing process (there is no requirement that this be done); of raising animals humanely in accordance with nature (animals must be given access to the outdoors, but for how long and under what conditions is not spelled out); and of producing the most nutritious food possible (the evidence is mixed on whether organic food is more nutritious) in the most ecologically conscious way.37

In response to the growth in popularity of organic products, capitalism has moved to absorb independent brands or produce their own. One of the pioneers of the organic movement, Cascadia Farms, was bought by General Mills. FritoLay (owned by PepsiCo, one of the world’s largest consumers of HFCS) is developing organic Cheetos. McDonalds now sells Newman’s Own Organic Coffee. Organic is simply becoming a brand accessible to any company with the wherewithal to get in on a new market. Organics sales grew on average between 17 percent and 21 percent between 1997 and 2005; significant decreases in sales however hit the sector in 2007 and 2008, and falling incomes due to the Great Recession caused families to be more frugal with their grocery budget. Given that organics can cost up to twice what industrial products do, they are the first to get cut by all but the most committed shoppers. With unemployment over 10 percent, organics and local produce could lose much of its appeal for all but the most ideologically committed and those with disposable income.

The irony of course is that organic products are now widely available because organic producers have adapted industrial methods of farming, processing, packaging, and distribution. Companies like Earthbound, the largest producer of organic lettuces, is a national brand, growing monocultures, employing underpaid immigrant workers, utilizing single-use plastic packaging, and shipping product as far as 3,000 miles to market. Organics have expanded exponentially in the realm of processed and prepared foods, including such nutritious offerings as imitation Oreos, ice cream sandwiches, and frozen burritos. Organic agriculture’s success has become reliant on economies of scale to extract maximum profit and integrating into the market just like Big Agra.

Much of the liberal hand-wringing centers around the failure of consumers to choose the available better alternatives of organic, local, or even whole foods. The condescension toward people who don’t opt out, particularly parents, can hit outrageous levels. A particularly egregious example of this was The New York Times Magazine’s annual food issue which featured “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver taking on “one of America’s unhealthiest towns” in an attempt to change the eating habits of the five counties in the Huntington, West Virginia, metropolitan area, where obesity is at 50 percent for adults. Oliver says of giving children donuts every day, “It’s harsh to say, but these parents, when they’ve been to the doctor and keep feeding their kids inappropriate food, that is child abuse. Same as a cigarette burn or a bruise.” Apparently this opinion was popular among The New York Times Magazine’s well-heeled audience, as a November 24 article on an organic chicken farmer Alexis Koefoed cited her voicing the opinion that she’d “like to see the day when people realize that cheap food is a lie, and values have shifted enough so that those who pay $8 for a six-pack of beer or thousands for a plasma TV won’t ‘gripe about paying $8 for a dozen eggs.’”

The notion that working people and poor people (the city of Huntington has 19 percent of its population living below the poverty line) have screwed up priorities and therefore are to blame for bad health and eating habits is the worst blame-the-victim logic. It is particularly galling to hear a celebrity chef like Oliver, whose personal worth is approximately $65 million, complain about lazy parents who won’t cut fruit for their family and instead buy it pre-cut (later in the article we find his former model wife is a stay-at-home mom, who we can assume cuts her own fruit or has a servant on hand to do so). And let’s be totally honest, when would-be food reformers lecture on the necessity to spend more time in the kitchen, the de facto targets of this are working-class women—Jamie Oliver was not in Greenwich, Connecticut, or Orange County making this point. Women today spend on average twenty-four hours a week on housework in addition to working outside the home. It would be wonderful to live in a world where men spontaneously starting producing wholesome, home-cooked meals for the family every night, but this is not the world we live in. And given that the vast majority of single-parent homes are headed by women, and that the majority of sub-poverty line households are headed by women, this argument is either just a goad to middle-class, two-parent homes or simply fails to think through the logic of applying it to those who suffer the most due to industrialized food.

Oddly, in the same New York Times Magazine issue a few short pages away, an article by Douglas McGray dispels the myth that poor and working people don’t like or want fresh produce. Titled “California’s food banks go locavore,” the article documents the struggles of food banks who have been hit with simultaneous rises in demand and decreases in donations (due to the vertical integration and consolidation of food manufacturing there are less expired and damaged goods given to pantries). A few crafty advocates sought out the agricultural “excess” that laid rotting Grapes of Wrath-like in California’s fields. The result has been literally tens of millions of pounds of fresh produce given directly to needy food bank patrons. McGray writes:

When the vegetable in a big haul is a little out of the ordinary—say, artichoke or eggplant—the food banks even send along recipes to encourage customers to make use of it. “These efforts have dispelled the myth that low-income people don’t eat fresh produce because they’re too dumb or whatever,” says Joel Berg, director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “Pantries will say their customers love, love this stuff.”

A food bank patron who recently had her hours as a janitor cut in half told McGray,

“Since my hours went down, I look at the Safeway ads and get whatever is cheapest…. You don’t get very good food.” …She will eat better this week; and maybe next week. But nutrition will remain a luxury—especially on her salary; prices for fresh produce, she notes, remain high. Still, she said, placing her groceries in the car with care, “I’d rather do fresh than frozen.”38

Where fresh, wholesome food is available and affordable (or free), people gravitate toward it. A number of community gardens and CSAs have made fresh, often organic, produce a part of the diet of working-class and poor communities.39

A fascinating Harris Poll on perceptions and buying patterns of organic products showed that “very large majorities of the public believe that organic food is safer for the environment (79 percent) and healthier (76 percent)” but also that “almost everyone (95 percent of the public, including 88 percent of frequent organic food buyers) believes organic food is more expensive.”40 The same poll showed that the result of this dual perception—better for the environment but more expensive—results in 31 percent of the population buying organic. Only 29 percent of those polled thought it is “a waste of money as it is no better for you than conventional foods,” which indicates that more people would buy it were it more affordable and available. And contrary to Jamie Oliver’s anti-parent outbursts, parents are more likely to buy organic products for their children than for themselves when pinching pennies.41

The problem with an analysis that starts and ends with what people pick up off the shelf at the supermarket is that it ignores the process that brought the food there, which is deeply shaped by political and economic concerns that care nothing for the consumer or environment, but also ignores the forces that shape the decision of the consumer, which are equally shaped by political, economic, and social realities. The average working person is working a month more per year than we did in the 1950s, and reaches the supermarket exhausted, often frustrated, and with little in the way of extra money to spend on local or organic goods, if they are even available. Over 20 percent of meals eaten in the U.S. are eaten in a car, which is not because people just won’t leave their luxury automobiles for dinner. Foods that offer convenience and comfort often trump those offering nutritional benefits because of the stresses of busy schedules and economic pressures—and the cheapness of processed industrial foods seals the deal. The more industrialized the food supply has become, the more homogenized the food supply has become, and the more price has become the sole determinant in choosing our meals.

It must be noted that the food industry outspends the federal government when it comes to influencing food choices. The Consumer Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) released a report entitled “Out of balance” in 2005 showing that the “food, beverage, candy, and restaurant advertising expenditures weigh in at $11.26 billion in 2004, versus $9.55 million to promote healthful eating.”42 They found the advertising budget for Snickers candy bars alone outweighed the entire federal budget for promoting healthy eating, and fast food restaurants outspent the federal effort by 240 times.

This says nothing of the content of the advertising, which goes to no end to manipulate consumers. This includes such perverse activities as hiring child psychologists to analyze the patterns of nagging in children and what is most effective in breaking down the resistance of parents.43 Advertising preys on the alienation that people experience under capitalism: robbed of our ability to meaningfully direct our own work, we are offered commodities to define our identities in the market place.

Patel comments:

Choice is the word we’re left with to describe our plucking one box rather than another off the shelves, and it’s the word we’re taught to use. If we’re asked why we use the word “choice” to describe this, we might respond “no one pointed a gun to our head, no one coerced us” as if this were the opposite of choice. But the opposite of choice isn’t coercion. It’s instinct. And our instincts have been so thoroughly captured by forces beyond our control that they are suspect to the core.”44

As the great pioneer of public relations and modern advertising Edward L. Bernays observed, “somebody interested in leading the crowd needs to appeal not to logic but to unconscious motivation.”45 Food producers have mastered this by tapping into biologically shaped reactions to certain foods that evolved over tens of thousands of years of living in scarcity. Sugars and fats are the densest sources of calories in nature, and historically, the scarcest. We have an in-built positive reaction to them—anything dense in either or both is more physiologically satisfying that other food sources. In nature, this is a logical response to scarcity. In capitalist over-abundance, it is a disaster. Packing foods with cheap processed inputs like hydrogenated soybean oil or HFCS hooks into our survival mechanisms and seems to satisfy natural appetites, but are actually very dangerous substances that the body cannot adequately metabolize.

Secondly, we have a phenomenally hypocritical government that issues FDA directives to “eat more brightly colored fruits and veggies” and then turns around and subsidizes processed foods and animal products by paying corn and soy producers to harvest more than humans could ever consume. While Jamie Oliver’s snide commentary is unhelpful at best, he at least attempts to address a crisis that the government wrings its hands over and then intensifies. Oliver in fact embarrassed the British government into funding better school lunch programs through a campaign in a similarly unhealthy and poor town in the UK.

The U.S. government has been forced to make small allowances (like including in the last Farm Bill permission for local governments to utilize locally grown produce in schools) but institutionally it is tied hand and foot to industrial food. As the board of directors of American capitalist interest, the U.S. government protects the profitability of U.S. businesses regardless of the cost to the U.S. taxpayer, whether monetary or nutritional. The political economy of food reveals this clearly. As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”46

The benefits of cheap food do not accrue to the consumer, they accrue to the producer. Stepping back, the period in which a cheap food policy took effect has been the longest sustained attack on working-class living standards in U.S. history. Incomes have stagnated for households in the bottom 80 percent of the population, and declined for the lowest earners. Overall household income would have declined, if it weren’t for larger numbers of women moving into the workforce and people working two or more jobs. The role of cheap food must be seen in this context.

Not only has the food industry itself reaped the profits of massive subsidies, the entire ruling clique of U.S. businesses has shared the wealth as lowering food prices has contributed to the cheapening of labor in the United States. Food as a proportion of income has actually fallen by half since the ’50s, due to the policy of overproduction and subsidization of industry starting in the ’70s. Since 1980, wages stopped keeping up with inflation, a gap that was filled by most families with credit, which makes the berating of consumers by liberals that they should just get used to $8 eggs or accept a doubling of their food budget absurd without talking about raising wages. The “extra” income that used to go to food purchases wasn’t then freed up for plasma TVs or gold teeth or whatever other condescending stereotypes are thrown at working people: it went to exploding health care costs, increased housing costs, growing education bills, and rising retail prices.

As Tom Philpott argues on

The ability to buy plenty of tasty calories on a low-wage salary actually lies at the heart of our economic system. For thirty years, our system has maintained corporate profits through a steady attack on wages. One of the major reasons workers have accepted stagnant wages is that food prices as a percentage of income have fallen steadily since the 1970s, a trend which went into reverse only last year. (The other is the ready availability of cheap consumer goods made by even lower-paid workers in China.) Given that reality, it makes little sense to talk about transforming the food system and revaluing food without transforming the economic system and revaluing labor.47

The fundamental problem with our food is that it is subject to the logic of commodity production under capitalism. Shifting your position within the market as a consumer is not a challenge, it is an adaptation. As long as food is a commodity, hunger and malnutrition will be part of our society because the market does not operate on demand, but on “effective demand,” which means it is not who is hungry that matters but who can afford to buy. In a country where in 2008, 15 percent of the population was “food insecure” part of the year, and 5.7 percent experienced “very low food security” (meaning they regularly missed meals because of lack of money),48 preaching consumer solutions is nonsense. This does not even begin to touch the enormous number of families who are not “food insecure” because they can buy eggs for less than $2 a dozen. As Philpott points out, a much larger social transformation must occur for the majority of people to experience quality, sustainable food.

Expecting a New York Times editorial to overcome the real institutional obstacles to changing people’s diets is the worst kind of utopianism and elitism. Seeing the problem as one of individual choice divides the world into enlightened shoppers who “get it” and the ignorant, unwashed masses who can’t seem to save themselves.

Another diet is possible
The state of the food industry is a reflection of the overall weakness of the working class in defending its living standards over the last several decades as corporations have run amok. The parallel between declining living standards for workers and the degradation of the food supply and environment is clearest in the arena of food production itself. Once a heavily unionized industry, factory farming and meatpacking are now nearly unregulated, international, and unorganized sectors. Packers like Smithfield, the largest in the world, have been implicated in everything from the swine flu outbreak49 to some of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries of any occupation. Much to the chagrin of Smithfield, a fifteen-year union drive by the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Tar Heel, North Carolina, plant, which slaughters 32,000 hogs a day, was ultimately successful in December of 2008.50

More sweeping reforms that tackle the irrationality of the food industry will take mass mobilizations just like the creation of the Ever-Normal Granary and the rest of the New Deal. The most successful efforts to resist corporate domination and degradation exist in developing countries: mass movements of peasants and agricultural workers in India, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and other countries have faced off against their own governments and mega-corporations like Monsanto and Bechtel. They have combined mass protests, direct action, and implementing sustainable farming methods to preserve their land, livelihoods, and traditions.

Within the struggle for sustainable agriculture, activists must take on the argument that the only way to feed the planet is through chemically intense, genetically modified, and industrial means. The facts simply do not support this assertion. In an exhaustive and fascinating article, “Can ecological agriculture feed nine million people?,”51 Professor Jules Pretty attacks the notion that industrial agriculture and factory farming are the only way to feed the Earth’s population. While monoculture farming can generate enormous yields of a single crop (for sale on the market, often for export), sustainable methods that focus on greater intensity of land use—by inter-planting crops in the same field, by rotating animals and crops through the year, by rotating crops that don’t support the same pests—decreases chemical fertilizer use, pesticide use, and generates a greater output per acre. Pretty calls this “sustainable intensification.” He argues:

What has become increasingly clear is that many modern specialized farming systems are wasteful, as farmers with more complex, integrated systems have found they can cut down many purchased inputs without losing out on profitability or even yields. Some of these cuts in use are substantial; others are relatively small. By adopting better targeting and precision methods, there is less wastage and so more benefit to the environment. Farmers can then make greater cuts in input use, once they substitute some regenerative technologies for external inputs, such as legumes for inorganic fertilizers, or better habitats for predators of pests for pesticides. Finally, farmers can replace some or all external inputs entirely over time, once they have developed a new type of farming characterized by new goals and technologies.

One of the striking things about sustainable intensification is that it takes a far greater amount of hands-on work, which is exactly what has been eliminated in industrial farming. When it comes to measuring per acre yield sustainable farming can hold its own against Big Agra, but when it comes to per person productivity, Big Agra wins hands down. But it is worth asking: who benefits from the elimination of human labor in the production of food? With the hollowing out of farming communities both nationally and internationally as more technologically intense methods are used, it has definitely not been the people who traditionally farmed the land. The obvious benefactors have been those that sell the implements that have made human labor a decreasing share of the picture. As Pretty makes clear, the goal is not to eliminate all technological advances, but to rationally and intelligently apply all the available information to each specific ecosystem and community. This is not an argument to go backwards, or to romanticize eleventh-century farming methods, but to intelligently consider which inputs—including human labor—best suit each farming situation to achieve the greatest use with the least damage.

This is no quick fix. To completely replace the existing system is perhaps a multi-generational process. Plenty of reforms can happen in the present to alleviate the greatest damage done to people and the environment due to industrial food, if the pressure is there to compel institutions to accommodate our demands. Among them: shifting subsidies from commodity corn and soy to funding sustainable agriculture; funding transportation networks to ship food based on fuel-efficient methods—trains not trucks or planes; “eminent domain” enacted against luxury suburban developments to create more sustainable farms near urban centers; creating standards for nutrition in public institutions such as schools and prisons including organic and local produce; banning GMO products; etc.

As the crisis deepens and the environmental impacts increase—soil erosion, desertification, hypoxia, etc—the urgency is growing for such action. Ultimately, however, the production of food as a commodity must be overturned and a system based on meeting human’s nutritional needs in accordance with the body’s natural requirements as well as nature’s limits must be instituted. Even if sustainable, organic methods completely replaced toxic industrial methods, a free market in food still operates under the pressure for profit. Those who can afford to eat may not suffer from the rampant health problems fueling the current crisis, but the market cannot and will not provide for those who cannot afford to buy.

“Arise, ye prisoners of starvation”
Human beings currently exist in conflict and out of sync with nature because capitalism sees nature as a means to an end: profit. Humans, however, are a part of the natural world, not its masters or antagonists.

Karl Marx, writing at a time when Europe was undergoing its own agriculture crisis due to land over-use, described the relationship of humans and nature as one of “metabolism,” which describes the organic exchange of materials between an organism and its environment. Important to note, it is not a one-way street of consumption, but a cycle through which life is sustained and the environment enriched. But capitalism opened up a “metabolic rift” between humans and nature, by separating large concentrations of people into cities, remote from sources of sustenance, and unable to return their waste to the land in a productive manner. Degradation of the land and the filth and pollution of the cities were two sides of the same coin for Marx, and both results of an irrational approach to agriculture that conformed to the needs of capitalism. Marx did not live to see the acres-wide lagoons of pig and cattle feces that dot the Midwest today, or the invention of synthetic fertilizer that has poisoned water supplies, but he saw the breakdown of the metabolic cycle between humans and their food sources as dangerous to all involved.

As he wrote in volume 3 of Capital, “The moral of the tale is that the capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (even if the latter promotes technical developments in agriculture) and needs either small farmers working for themselves or the control of the associated producers.”52 Rational agriculture, in which humans are able to sustain themselves and to heal the metabolic rift, is not possible without overthrowing the current system that prizes production for profit above all else. Food is a human right; it must cease to be a commodity controlled by profit-hungry interests.

Democratic planning is the only solution to feed the billions of humans on the Earth in an ecologically sustainable way. The science and craft of sustainable farming already exists in pockets under capitalism; how to implement sustainable models for concentrated populations will be a challenge for those who will build a new society. What to grow, how, where; how to prioritize land use; irrigation; transportation; storage and processing; the uses of animals; all these facets of agriculture will have to be debated and decided by producers who are not driven by Wall Street numbers and market share. The vision of human beings’ relationship to the Earth will not be of abuser or owner, but of a steward of the natural world, able to use the collective intelligence of generations to not just consume, but live harmoniously and heal capitalism’s epic damage to the environment.

As Marx wrote:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, it beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in as improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].53

  1. For Martha’s take on sustainable farming, including Food, Inc.’s director Robert Kenner and grass-fed meat farmer Joel Salatin, watch
  2. Marian Burros, “Obamas to plant vegetable garden at White House,” New York Times, March 19, 2009.
  3. Jane Brody, The Good Food Book: Living the High Carbohydrate Way (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985), 42. Brody points out that only four of the twenty-two nutrients that are lost in wheat flour processing are returned in fortification. So workers no longer suffered from quick acting beriberi (Vitamin B deficiencies), but weren’t as healthy as those eating whole grains.
  4. The topic of food is enormous; this article unfortunately will not be able to cover many aspects, most notably the relationship of food to foreign policy and the impact of U.S. subsidies on developing countries. For more coverage on this topic, check out Chris Williams’ article “Too many people?” in ISR 68 or Monthly Review’s excellent full issue on the politics of food (July–August 2009, Volume 61, Number 3).
  5. Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System (New York: Melville House, 2008), 12.
  6. Ibid., 10.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “The shift from public to private seed systems: A brief history of the development of the seed industry in the United States,” Rodale Institute, February 22, 2005;
  9. Monsanto is not the only company that does this, just the best known and most egregious. In fact, hybrid plants that are interbred will not produce offspring with the same characteristics of their parents, most notably in yield. This discovery which dates back to the early twentieth century, has always forced annual seed purchases, but there were no legal ramifications for saving seeds and replanting them: just unprofitable crops.
  10. Of course biodiversity is not just declining because of patenting: as more land is brought under cultivation for cash crops and pasture lands for meat production, whole ecosystems are being wiped out. For Greenpeace’s research into McDonald’s impact on Amazon clear-cutting, see “Greenpeace links McDonald’s with Amazon destruction,” Environmental News Service, April 6, 2006;
  11. Atmospheric nitrogen hangs out in molecules of two nitrogen atoms; to be metabolized by plants it must be split apart into single molecules and each then bonded to a hydrogen atom. 
  12. There were substitutes for crop rotation with legumes (the standard method of recycling nitrogen), most importantly the collection and spreading of guano on croplands. For an amazing historical account of the connections between declining European soil quality, New World colonization, and seagull shit, read Eduardo Galleano’s The Open Veins of Latin America.
  13. Robert Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006), 45.
  14. Earl Butz was forced to resign after answering a question as to how Republicans could attract more Black voters with the racist quip, “The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life are tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.” (Quoted in Timothy Noah, “Earl Butz, history’s victim,” Slate Magazine, Monday, February 4, 2008.)
  15. “Congress can prepare soil for sane farm policy,” Heritage ?Foundation, July 16, 2007;
  16. Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, 54.
  17. Union of Concerned Scientists “Industrial agriculture: Features and policy,” 2007;
  18. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food (New York: Penguin, 2008), 118.
  19. Antioxidants, phytochemicals, polyphenols, and a raft of other micronutrients are all the rage right now for the health conscious. The constant shifts in food fads and claims of “super foods” are largely meaningless except insofar they expose how little is really understood about how nutrition works—except that whole foods are better than processed ones.
  20. Union of Concerned Scientists, “Industrial agriculture: Features and policy.”
  21. Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, 94.
  22. Ibid., 93.
  23. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, quoted at
  24. Ibid.
  25. Staley’s factory in Decatur, Illinois, was the site of a brutal and prolonged strike in the early nineties in what known as the “War Zone Strikes”; the parallel between the ascendancy of industrialized food and attacks on working-class living standards is easily seen in retrospect.
  26. John Barnes, “Anatomy of a rip-off,” New Republic, November 2, 1987.
  27. Tom Philpott, “Archer Daniels Midland’s man at USDA,” Bitter Greens Journal, April 29, 2005
  28. Ibid.
  29. James Bovard, “Archer Daniels Midland: A case study in corporate welfare,” Cato Institute, September 26, 1995,
  30. Ibid.
  31. Patel, Stuffed and Starved, 112.
  32. Dan Carney, “Dwayne’s world,” Mother Jones, July/August 1995.
  33. Quoted in Howard Berkes, “Farm groups praise choice of centrist Vilsack,” National Public Radio, December 17, 2008.
  34. Jeffery Smith, “You’re appointing who? Please Obama, say it’s not so!,” Huffington Post, July 23, 2009.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Farm to School,
  37. Mark Bittman, “Eating food that’s better for you, organic or not,” New York Times, March 21 2009.
  38. Douglas McGray “California food banks go locavore,” New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2009.
  39. The author’s CSA, Harvest Astoria, in its first year had 10 percent of its membership receive low-income shares. Also, any leftover produce was given to the mostly Spanish-speaking immigrant congregation of the church it is housed in; every week families eagerly lined up to take home organic chard, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. at no cost.
  40. “Large majorities see organic food as safer, better for the environment and healthier—but also more expensive,” Harris Poll, Oct 8, 2007.
  41. Andrew Martin, “Budgets squeezed, some families bypass organics,” New York Times, Oct 31, 2008.
  42. “New report shows food industry advertising overwhelms government’s “5 a day” campaign to fight obesity and promote healthy eating,”, September 13, 2005.
  43. Joel Bakan, The Corporation (New York: Free Press, 2005). For relevant material, the chapter titled “Basic training” outlines research into nagging.
  44. Patel, Stuffed and Starved, 254.
  45. Sibylle Hechtel, review of Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future, Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology, August 29, 2001. Bernays is famous for inventing the “nine out of ten dentists agree” school of advertising, and transformed industry by utilizing psychological techniques pioneered by his uncle Sigmund Freud to create emotional and symbolic associations with products and brands.
  46. Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, available at
  47. Tom Philpott, “Nourishing reading for the next president: Michael Pollan lays out a national food agenda,”, October 10, 2008.
  48. Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, “Household food security in the United States, 2008,” Economic Research Report No. 83, Economic Research Service, November, 2009.
  49. Nicole Colson, “Smithfield’s dirty secrets,” Socialist Worker, May 6, 2009.
  50. Elizabeth Schulte, “Labor wins at Smithfield,” Socialist Worker, December 15, 2008.
  51. Jules Pretty “Can ecological agriculture feed nine million people?” Monthly Review, November 2009.
  52. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3 (New York: Penguin, 1981), 216.
  53. Ibid., 911.


Issue #85

September 2012

Election 2012

Who will serve the 1%?
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