“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.’ “


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.