The food rights movement depicted in David E. Gumpert’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights” is trying to preserve the freedom of small farms, which are under attack for selling goods privately at higher prices than they can receive in the commodity system controlled by large corporations.
Although Michelle Obama may be justifiably proud of the organic food garden she planted her first summer at the White House, her husband’s administration continues to wage a war on the small farmer direct-sales-of-healthy-food-to-consumers food movement. That is being done while the administration provides domestic and international backing to mega-GMO companies such as Monsanto.
Truthout discussed these troubling trends with David E. Gumpert, author of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat.
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Mark Karlin: How would you define the food rights movement?
David Gumpert: Like all movements, the food rights movement is one that has evolved, and continues to evolve – in this case around conflict over accessing private sources for basic foods like dairy, meat and eggs. When I state it that way, it seems as if it should be pretty benign, since well into the last century, most food was obtained privately, directly from farmers and other food producers or small vendors. All that changed with the advent of supermarkets and box stores beginning after World War II, which essentially created a huge public food system, requiring regulation. This public system was accompanied by ever more economic concentration of the meat and dairy businesses among just a few corporate behemoths.
For the regulators, the explosive growth of the public food system signaled the end of the private food system. Except no one clued in small farms and food producers, nor the people who bought from them.
As concerns have mounted about the integrity of the public food system, what with reports of downer (sick) cows in slaughterhouses, of pink slime in hamburger meat, of antibiotic residues and hormones in meat and milk, growing numbers of people have sought out the safety of private food sources, outside the regulatory system
Public health and agriculture regulators at both the federal and state levels have taken this movement as an affront to their authority. The regulators have tried to block private food transactions, via raids of farms, court suits and even criminal charges against farmers and private food club operators. There’s been an increasingly bitter and brutal struggle, and presto, you have a food rights movement mobilizing to fight the crackdown on private food sources.
At its heart, this is a movement about economic freedom and community. The food rights movement is trying to preserve the freedom of small farms to sell their goods privately, at higher prices than they can receive in the commodity system controlled by large corporations. And it is about preserving the communities that small farms represent.
MK: How do you respond to federal officials who say they “crack down” on farmers who sell directly to consumers because the government needs to protect the health of its citizens?
DG: Well, we’ve heard that story before, about how we need to trade rights for government protection. I believe it’s called fear mongering. My response to federal officials who make the claim you describe is to ask them to describe and demonstrate how small farms selling directly to consumers are endangering citizens’ health. They won’t do it, probably because they can’t. As just one indication of the chasm between rhetoric and data, the US Centers for Disease Control widely publicizes its estimate that 48 million Americans are sickened by tainted food every year, with 3,000 deaths as a result. Yet the CDC’s actual data of real illnesses, collected from state public health departments, is showing 13,000-15,000 illnesses in each of the most recent two years, with about a dozen deaths per year.
I found something similar in researching my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights. I focus on the connections between seven farms that have been targeted by federal and state authorities over the past four years for especially harsh regulatory treatment. Only one of those farms had even a hint of illnesses associated with its food, and in that case, the most sophisticated CDC lab testing of the food couldn’t find a sign of pathogens.
I’m not saying that food safety isn’t something small farms should be concerned about. They should be, and in my experience, most of them are very conscientious . . . because if they make people sick, they lose business very quickly. But if the enforcement actions against these farmers, which have resulted in at least one being forced out of farming entirely and others being severely penalized financially to defend themselves, is really about public health and food safety, then the actions are entirely out of proportion to the problem at hand. Something else is going on here.
MK: Do you believe Big Agriculture is playing a role in instigating a crackdown on locavore, sustainable farming and foods?
DG: I think Big Agriculture is very threatened by the trends it sees unfolding, with increasing numbers of consumers abandoning the public food system to buy directly from farmers. So it is demanding that the regulators “do something” about the perceived threat.
Skeptics might say, “But it’s just a tiny percentage of the population that is going in this private-food direction, buying some raw milk or meat.”
But let me tell you how it looks to Big Agriculture. Let’s say a family of four or five decides to go the route of buying raw milk directly from a small dairy. At first glance, it looks like this family has shifted maybe $8 or $12 a week from the public to the private food system, when it stops buying two or three gallons of pasteurized milk from a supermarket or box store (at $4 a gallon).
But look again. When a mother goes shopping at a supermarket for a couple gallons of milk, she doesn’t just buy milk. She also buys meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, bread, honey, coconut oil, and so on and so forth – maybe $100 to $200 worth of groceries each week. That works out to $5,000 to $10,000 per year.
So when that family shifts to buying raw milk directly from a farmer, the same phenomenon occurs. If the farmer offers chicken, beef, pork, eggs, honey and vegetables . . . guess what, that family is now buying much of its food directly from the small farm. Poof, say good-bye to a $5,000-to-$10,000-a-year customer. Multiply that family by thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or even millions, and now you are talking significant money. Believe me, Big Agriculture is sitting up and taking notice.
MK: To what do you attribute what you call the “hundred-year war” against raw milk?
DG: The war against raw milk began early in the last century, about a hundred years ago, as a response to widespread illness and deaths, from milk often produced under unsanitary conditions. As our knowledge about sanitation and animal husbandry has improved, raw milk has become much safer. But the public health community continues to view raw milk as a mortal danger and treat it as if it is the same kind of threat it was a century ago. And now that a huge dairy processing industry exists to profit from pasteurization and homogenization of milk, the opposition to raw milk has actually intensified in certain respects.
Even as large-scale research out of Europe convincingly suggests that raw milk helps reduce allergies and asthma in children, the war against raw milk continues in the United States, and officials arrogantly deny the significance of the research. The main hope of ending that war lies in the growth of the raw milk market. A USDA survey done in 2007 and 2008 indicated that about 3 million Americans now drink raw milk, and the number has likely grown since then. People are voting with their feet and their stomachs.
MK: Do you find it tragically ironic that the federal government is targeting organic farmers, local farmers and food-buying clubs at a time it is giving GMOs a clean bill of health and assisting in marketing them around the world?
DG: “Tragically ironic” is a good way of expressing what is going on. You know, presidential candidates go around during the primaries to small states like Iowa and New Hampshire and talk about how they want to help small farms fight the economic difficulties of competing in a commodity agriculture system. And then they get into office – and it doesn’t matter whether they are Republican or Democrat – they wind up working against organic farmers, local farmers and food-buying clubs, encouraging the regulators to interfere with the private selling arrangements, and in the process, giving Big Agriculture a free ride.
The mixed-up enforcement is a sign of just how intent on deterring private food arrangements the regulators have become, how concerned they have become about farmers attaining more economic freedom.
MK: What role do you see advertising has played in influencing our food consumption? Snack food, fast food and just plain junk food dominate the airwaves, billboards and newspapers.
DG: The big food producers have become quite expert at using advertising, often featuring celebrities or attractive actors, to get children to demand snacks and sweet breakfast foods of their parents, or to convince young adults that carbonated drinks or fast food are cool. They know how to hit psychological and emotional hot buttons that get people to buy.
The problem these corporate producers are running into is that parents are looking around and seeing a lot more chronic illness among their children. I was astounded to learn that nearly 10 percent of all children now have asthma. Entire food systems have banned peanut butter because of how widespread allergies have become. I mean, generations of kids grew up on peanut butter sandwiches for lunch at school. Parents are becoming increasingly skeptical of the advertising, fearing the effects of processing, additives, and excessive sugar and salt in so many foods.
So while these advertisements continue to play a huge role in influencing food consumption, my sense is the ads are running into resistance, that more people are tuning them out and looking for wholesome alternatives, even if it’s just a local farmers market every week or two during the summer.
MK: Your dedication at the front of the book sounds like the Declaration of Food Independence, “To the brave men and women . . . who are risking their personal security and livelihoods so that many others may have access to fresh and wholesome food.” Are we entering into an American food revolution?
DG: I wish I could say we are moving headstrong into this new era of revolution around food rights. We are definitely moving into a new era of awareness about the power of food in determining health and concerns about accessing good wholesome food. Too often, though, it’s farmers who are out there fighting the regulators nearly alone, while their customers or food club members, who are often middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites and big-city residents, disappear into the woodwork when the going gets tough. Farmers need to know that consumers are going to go to bat for them.
Why isn’t that happening more often? Certainly part of it has to do with fear – many people don’t want trouble, don’t want to get on any government lists, don’t want to have to take time to go to court on behalf of a farmer.
But I think there is something else at work: Many people who would consider themselves progressive politically, care about civil rights, simply can’t believe our public health community and agriculture regulators would so aggressively, even viciously, go after small farms engaged in private commerce. These progressives want very badly to believe that the public health professionals and the medical community truly care about the public’s health and are trying to do what’s right.
These people also want to believe that the judges are fairly enforcing laws. In other words, they want to believe the system is basically okay. So they tend to blame the aggressive enforcement efforts against small farms as the work of a few overly aggressive regulators, or else to think that maybe the farmers are doing something wrong safety-wise so as to bring the problems on themselves
The mainstream media reinforce these attitudes, taking at face value whatever the FDA, CDC and state agencies say about the potential hazards of privately-available food. The media, like the public in general, figures the regulators at these agencies must know what they are doing. So the media tend to report the regulators’ version of events – for example, their contention that that all farmers, even those selling food privately, need retail licenses.
MK: You write of a “Rosa Parks moment” in the food rights movement. Tell us more.
DG: Rosa Parks was the black woman who refused orders to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus back in 1955, as blacks were accustomed to doing. The willingness of this woman to stand up all alone for her rights, and be arrested for violating the law, not only served as a powerful example to other blacks, it helped educate people around the country about the blatant discrimination continuing in much of the South. It helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement that exploded in the 1960s.
Food rights organizers would like to see consumers similarly stand up and say “no” when regulators seize food from farms and private food clubs – stand up and say, “No, that is my food, and I am not going to let you take it.”
The problem with that approach is that today’s regulators are smarter than the enforcement agents in Alabama back in the 1950s. Today’s regulators plan their attacks on farmers to avoid consumers, so as to reduce the risk of a Rosa Parks-type incident. So food rights supporters have had to come up with other approaches, and I describe a few particularly dramatic approaches in my book.
MK: Your epilogue would not be described as optimistic. For instance a raw foods buying club is now operating underground in California to avoid prosecution. Are you hopeful that the 1776 spirit will lead to a United States of food independence from Big Agriculture and the government protecting their franchise on food?
DG: As I said, there is a lot of fear out there. A big part of the intent in cracking down on small farms is to hold them out there as examples, to achieve what is known in law enforcement as “deterrent value.” That has worked to an extent with both farmers and consumers. After all, these regulators are law enforcement professionals, they know what they are doing when it comes to using bully tactics to sow seeds of fear.
There are some encouraging things happening in just the last few years, though. As one example, we have seen the launching of a “Food Sovereignty” effort whereby local towns pass ordinances allowing private sales of food by farmers and other food producers directly to individuals. This effort began in Maine and has attracted 10 towns to pass ordinances. Other towns scattered around the country have similarly passed such ordinances, all the way out to Santa Cruz, California.
Historically, messing with people’s food hasn’t served governments well. People get pissed off when they can’t obtain foods they consider essential to good health. In the past, the problem has invariably been one of insufficient supplies, due to droughts or wars. Now, the problem is self-appointed regulators who are taking it on themselves to decide which foods should and shouldn’t be allowed, and the government apparatus backing them up on it.
My concern is if the opposition efforts don’t expand more aggressively, we’ll run out of farmers before we run out of excuses.
MK: One final question, how did the Amish come to figure in the battle for personal food choice?
DG: The Amish have committed themselves to remaining true to old-time values, old-time ways of doing things. That includes old-time ways of producing food, without pesticides and hormones and antibiotics, using traditional crop rotation methods. It also means a commitment to slaughtering their own cattle, pigs and chickens to avoid dealing with what many see as unsanitary USDA facilities. It often means a commitment to raw milk and other dairy. As a result of these old-time values, more refugees from our factory-food system are seeking out food from Amish farms. I describe this phenomenon at length in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights – including my own experiences with Amish farmers.
At the same time, the government has come after Amish farmers with a vengeance. Four of the seven farmers described in my book as targeted for tough enforcement are Amish farmers or of Amish descent.
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