A remarkable shift in food system debates

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by Mark Muller | May 21, 2009 • Three recent actions by big agribusiness companies to manipulate public opinion have me almost giddy with excitement. After years dictating the direction of the food system, agribusiness is taking a reactionary stance.

This article first appeared in Civil Eats.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

The first sign of this change comes from the world’s largest snack food company, Frito-Lay, which initiated a “Lay’s Local” campaign that features 80 “local” farmers from 27 states. Frito-Lay’s Web site has a Chip Tracker that allows interested consumers to enter their zip code and product code to find out where the potatoes came from. Although Frito-Lay can’t claim that the potatoes are locally grown, the advertising campaign hides the corporation behind the aura of U.S. farmers.

The second is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of a newly formed Center for Food and Animal Issues. The Center attempts to paint feedlot operators as just another group of people who support animals, just like pet owners, hunters, supporters of zoos and local animal welfare organizations. “Ultimately, our goal is to assure that people who rely on animals, either physically, emotionally or economically, have the right to do so,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Jack Fisher. The impetus for the Center came after pork, poultry and veal housing legislation was introduced in state legislatures around the country, and last year’s passing of California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.

And finally, the biotech and pesticide company CropLife.com is protesting an organic garden on the White House lawn. CropLife congratulates First Lady Michelle Obama for her effort to raise food and celebrate agriculture, but takes issue with the garden being organic. Their Web site asks, “What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world—crop protection products?”

So why do I get giddy about these calculated attempts to manipulate public opinion? Because I think about the debate just ten years ago regarding our food system, and how dramatically the conversation has shifted to a positive direction. A decade ago, the hot issue in the agriculture world was genetically modified crops. And despite many legitimate concerns that were raised about health and environmental unknowns, as well as the alarming consolidation of the seed industry, genetically modified crops swept across the Midwest largely unimpeded. Opponents were portrayed as petty reactionaries oblivious to the challenge of “feeding the world.”

This was also a time of incredible devastation in rural America. Crop prices were reaching Depression-era levels, and the promises of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill were nowhere to be seen. I sat through countless forums where agribusiness professionals told farmers to relax—soon the incredible buying power of China will make low crop prices a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we spent years with most commodity prices well below the cost of production, and neither China nor other parts of the world corrected the situation.

I never dreamed we could have made as much progress toward community-based food systems as we have in the past decade. “Locally grown” is the hottest food trend for 2009, so hot that a leader in the snack food industry wants to get in on the act. Ten years ago, consumers concerned about the humane treatment of animals had to work hard to find acceptable meat and poultry; now the confined livestock industry is on its heels because of California’s proposition 2, concerns about the overuse of antibiotics and continued problems with manure pollution.

Most remarkable has been the explosion in gardening and backyard livestock. CropLife’s rather lame objection to an organic garden on the White House lawn reveals the difficult position of the industry. Who can be against local organic production that is efficient, nutritious and cost-effective, while at the same time provides exercise and builds community?

By no means do I mean to diminish the challenges ahead of us. As the Frito-Lay campaign demonstrates, we need to remain vigilant to make sure that words like “organic” and “locally grown” mean what the public thinks they mean. Far too many people around the world and in the U.S. continue to suffer from hunger and diet-related diseases.

But people are no longer willing to let a component of their lives as critical as the food system rest in the control of agribusiness corporations. Today, many people are empowered to make decisions about their family’s food, and a lot of hands are getting dirty in the fresh spring soil. Instead of creating space in the corporate food system for alternative food and farming practices, agribusiness is trying to create space for itself in thriving community-based food systems. This is a welcome transition.

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