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Book Review: The Local Ag Rebellion

“Today, people are persuaded more than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet … And we alone shall feed them … Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us!  No science will give them bread so long as they remain free.  In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’ “

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This excerpt, from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s parable “The Grand Inquisitor,” introduces Mark Winne’s  “Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture,” a recently published exposition of what he describes as an epic battle raging over our food system.

Specifically, the battle that is being fought across the globe in both small towns and big cities is about protecting citizens’ right to “food sovereignty” or the right to control our food system. This image of war persists as a strong undercurrent throughout Winne’s book.  However, this is not a war being fought with guns and violence, but rather with backyard gardens, local food distribution, and consumer education.  “[T]he battle lines have been drawn between two major camps,” proclaims Winne.

In the first camp is the industrial food sector, a system that is “highly organized, rational, efficient, and possesses a singular focus on the financial bottom line,” he says.  It is the system from which most Americans eat; however, it is also the system that average consumers know the least about.  Due to the anonymity of the industrial food system, “it is now possible to eat whatever we want whenever we want it without having a clue about who produced it or where.”  Yet, by perpetuating food certainty, the idea that consumers can be confident that grocery store shelves will remain stocked and refrigerators full, the industrial food production system has lulled the consumer into complacency. 

On the other side of the divide lies the alternative food system.  Contrary to industrial food production, Winne explains that the alternative system takes a more value-based approach to food. Those values include producing food that doesn’t harm the environment or human health, maintains transparency in food production so consumers know where their groceries are coming from, avoids the depletion of natural resources such as water and fossil fuels, is distributed locally to support regional economies, and upholds the principles of justice and democracy.  Its supporters include those farmers who produce food locally, organically, and sustainably, as well as the consumers who buy those products. 

While Winne appreciates industrial agriculture’s ability to produce mass quantities of food on smaller parcels of land and by fewer people, he laments that “such abundance has come at a high cost to the environment, human health, food and agricultural workers, farm animals, wildlife, and the social and economic fabric of many American communities.” This broad spectrum of problems stems from practices that are common within the industrial food production system such as the use of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the overuse of non-therapeutic of antibiotics in livestock production, the reliance on chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, the mismanagement of waste materials on farms, inadequate labor protections for farm workers, and the adoption of genetically modified crops. 

Some would argue that those practices have allowed for a food supply that is both plentiful and affordable.  It is a system that allows “U.S. shoppers [to] spend less on food as a percentage of their total annual household expenditures than the people of any other country in the world.”  However, there are long terms costs that proponents of industrial have failed to consider.  For this reason, Winne advocates for action.  Instead of simply accepting as the norm a food system that lures its consumers with the promise of being fed, Winne thinks the better answer is a food system that provides choice, freedom, and information. 

Although Winne notes that the 2007 Census of Agriculture showed an uptick in the number of organic farming operations in the U.S., Winne analogizes the alternative food movement to “the intrepid Chihuahua nipping tenaciously at he ankles of the mastiff.”  There are millions of followers behind the alternative food movement; however, they are struggling against an army of billions who subscribe to the industrial food way of life. 

Yet, this battle that Winne discusses throughout the course of his book is not merely a fight between competing interest groups in the food industry.  Rather, it also represents the internal battle in the minds of consumers when make daily food choices.  Do we eat what is local, seasonal, and organic, or do we succumb to what is convenient, inexpensive, and available? 

In the beginning of his book, Winne envisions a world in the not-so-distant future in which the industrial food system has already won the battle for control.  He paints a bleak picture, conjuring up images of a national food czar ordering the seizure of private property in order to construct a network of dairy pipelines, of never before seen plant diseases and insects destroying crops, of the complete takeover of the soybean industry by a satirically named “MongoPlant,” of small farmers relinquishing their water rights in order to make way for urban development, of stores like “Mega-Shop,” “Whole Wonders,” and “MacBurger’s” that have inundated the market, and of angry mobs resorting to violence to protest these developments but who gradually resign themselves “to the hopelessness of the struggle.” Only a few devoted individuals remain who would persevere against “Big Food.” Whether that small group will be successful comes down to “the ability of democracy and individual freedom to resist, even when the claim is made by truly credible forces that we must submit in order to survive.” 

Reflecting later on Dostoevsky’s parable, Winne points out that “when institutional food production, financial incentive and distribution power are placed in the hands of the few; when corporate might and the pull of money set the agenda, we feel control of our food system slipping away and our tenuous grip on democracy loosening.”  Yet, how hard will one fight back against a system that ensures its food is cheap and readily available to its consumers? 

Winne probes his audience by asking, “How proud will humankind be when faced with the choice between clinging stubbornly to freedom–whether granted by a higher being or through individual instinct – or avoiding starvation? If authority – whether in the form of a government, a food industry, or even a charitable foundation – offers what we perceive to be an answer to a very difficult problem that threatens large numbers of us, and all that is required is that we submit to that authority, what might be the lesser of two evils?” Many seem to be indifferent to this loss of control over our food as long as there will be a guarantee of food. 

Winne highlights some of the “soldiers” of the alternative food army across the nation and globe consisting of farmers, social activists, community organizers, teachers, chefs, parents, lobbyists,  and lawmakers. 

With the diligent efforts of people like Maurice Small, an organizer for City Fresh that provides gardening training and marketing assistance for urban farmers in northeast Ohio, Nancy Ranney, the owner of a cattle ranch that practices rotational grazing and more sustainable methods of beef productio
n, Richard Pirog, a researcher at Iowa State who promotes sustainable food systems  and the strengthening of regional food networks, the founders of Happy Kitchen, a food class offered to members of the Austin, Texas community about the effects of obesity and diabetes and healthful eating, and others, Winne believes that more and more Americans will be able to get their “heads above the plate” and learn something more about food than just how it tastes. 

Winne concludes with a message of empowerment, calling on all consumers to “find the fire within.” Invoking Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notions of individualism, Winne urges consumers to shape their own “food destiny” rather than becoming complacent with the industrial food system.  It is through a sense of individual empowerment and self-reliance that will allow the alternative food system to grow. “Thus empowered, we are then ready to join a community, make a contribution, and build the new food system,” he says.

“Too many now accept our food system not only as the norm but as our destiny,” says Winne.   As a result, consumers are lulled into a state of passivity, unwilling to “engage in the ‘rugged battle of fate.'” He adds that “[t]he argument we must make is for action, not contemplation; we must engage the food system, not presume that all is well because the food system feeds us.” 

Although WInne delivers strong arguments for the alternative food system, his book too glibly disparages the benefits of the industrial food system–namely, an inexpensive food supply, a system that can meet growing worldwide food demand–with its one-sided approach, demonizing industrial agriculture as the “darker force.” There certainly are problems with the industrial agriculture system, however, it is also important to address why that system has prospered and whether any other system would be able to meet the demand and needs of billions of consumers across the globe. 

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    “…an epic battle raging over our food system”
    Hardly.
    Epic, yes. Battle, well, some enraged unilateral rock throwing, maybe – scarcely a ‘battle’ of any consequence. Just the same old shopworn and tedious carping of dreamy armchair anarchists raging against any organized human effort…specifically against modern society’s remarkably responsive ability to feed itself.
    These tiresome crackpots, articulated most recently by Mark Winne, enjoy the luxury of incessantly bitching and complaining (with their mouths full, mind you) precisely because they are better fed and afforded greater leisure than perhaps during any time in human history. And this at a time when the gobal population tops some 6 billion human souls. Malthus, were he alive and worrying his silly ass off today simply wouldn’t believe it!
    Of course, feeding 6 billion hungry mouths every day requires a lot of farming – we’re gonna cultivate the best soil and stir up a little dust in the process. Only in the reeling hallucinations of hopeless zealots could ample supplies of food be coaxed out of the ‘natural state’ without some controlled disturbance of their precious weeds and bugs. Getting a lot of sumpin’ for a little of nuthin’ simply ain’t realistic, girls. Let’s get serious.
    Uppishness, of course, is “epic” in human history, and food snobbery naturally floats to the surface when a society is so well and affordably fed. Annoying as any blatant arrogance can be, consider pretentious food snobs and exclusive overpriced boutique markets as hallmarks of the remarkable success of modern agriculture. We’ve succeeded so well that an affluent amateur few can seriously indulge themselves in inefficient ‘alternatives’.
    Seems we’ve created a fool’s paradise…literally. So, then, there’s the rock throwing. The misguided proselytizing of arrogant food snobs and of whacked-out gloom-and-doom alarmists is the price we must pay for raging success, it seems. Hell, it’s only a little silly noise and that’s not so hard to take on a full stomach. Sticks and stones…
    Winne pens a nice little revery to the heroic hobby farmer. Let’s just be careful not to begin believing our own bullshit; the plodding amateur farmer cannot adequately feed the world’s hungry population. Who’s gonna provide all that stoop labor in the fields?
    It’s apparent the hobby farm cult has no intention of safely feeding us, either, judging from their fanatic resistance to basic food safety measures, such as S.510. Now, there was an epic battle!

  • Big is not always better and regulations don’t protect us when industry polices itself. Remember the California Spinach Recall? How about the Iowa egg producer a few months ago?
    But give a thanks to Doc Mudd for slinging the Big Ag talking points.
    He leaves out the FACT that several recent studies testing the output of industrial farming versus organic techniques have shown between 40% and 60% higher out put per acre from the same crops when grown using orgainic methods.
    Industrial farming does produce much higher output than organic farming, but ONLY per farmer.
    Bottom line is sustainable organic methods can feed the world and provide more jobs with less negative impact on the earth.
    There is no epic battle.

  • Doc Mudd

    ** “Bottom line is sustainable organic methods can feed the world and provide more jobs with less negative impact on the earth.” **
    Big talk, Wayne. Back it up.
    If your trumped up ‘sustainable organic’ methods were so bloody effective they would have been eagerly adopted by now. But, they obviously don’t prove out in practice. In fact, modern agriculture has evolved through the ages from your ‘organic’ fundamentals as those fell short of financially supporting farm families and intermittently failed to feed even local populations.
    What, can’t make the “sustainable organic” case with credible peer-reviewed science and a comprehensive body of literature? OK, instead, just cherrypick a couple of discredited academic papers, roll out the conspiracy theories of sinister industrial oppression, ramp up the insipid personal testimonials of magical results and be sure to reference to every silly quack website on the internet. Just keep dreamin’, clappin’ and singin’ Kumbaya, campers.
    “Certified organic” is merely a lucrative marketing venue, no significant difference in product…except higher price and lavish snob appeal. A trendy theatrical stage for elitists’ conspicuous consumption and a convenient platform from which activist fanatics can spuriously bash contemporary agriculture and chastize all of us ‘evil non-believers’. Amusing, and insignificant.
    ‘Organic’ truly is an over-rated load of dung.

  • Laurie

    Think about it: everyone who came of age before World War II had developed their bodies with organic food. The baby boomers were raised in a soup of chemicals. So we have elderly who don’t understand what “organic” means to our nation’s health, and younger people with myriad physical disabilities.

  • Mary Shaeffer

    Since when is it our responsibility to feed the world?
    especially when attempting to do so has resulted in diminished soil capacity, polluted soil and water, toxic build-up from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, consolidation of farmland, reduction in the nutritional quality of foodstuffs, and the increase in disease and malnutrition in our own country as well as a reduction in the independence and self-sufficiency of other countries.
    We have done nothing but create harm from our good intentions and subsequent policies and practices.
    Once upon a time, the Great USofA was a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world. Isn’t it time we got back to the business of showing the rest of the world how it should be done, not how it shouldn’t?
    Teach a man to fish…. but first we need to get back to casting our own line so we can learn how to do it again. A great deal has been lost these past 60 years, but mostly our ability to be self sufficient, as individuals, as families, communities and as a nation.
    Why not begin with our food system by getting back to growing food locally, organically, and on small farms managed with local labor instead of fossil fuel dependent machines. Let’s begin using the growing of food to heal our selves, our communities and our planet.
    Maybe when we master this we can “teach a man to fish” and truly feed the world by providing the shining example of food independence and what it really means to be free.

  • Doc Mudd

    “Why not begin with our food system by getting back to growing food locally, organically, and on small farms managed with local labor instead of fossil fuel dependent machines.”
    Why not? Well, because most of us are not so keen on doing 12 hour days, back-to-back, of monotonous stoop labor in the fields just to grow a few wormy turnips. Not terribly fond of gnawing on those turnips, either. It’s just a silly ‘standard of living’ thing that we sort of wanted to adhere to.
    But you go on ahead, Mary; brace up your overhauls, grab your trusty hoe and get started choppin’ – just “show the rest of the world how it should be done, not how it shouldn’t”. We will all be so, so edified by your shining example.