The food movement needs to hone its political skills
I haven’t had a chance to weigh in on the issues raised by Andrew Martin’s recent NYT feature on the food movement. Despite the giddiness that comes with hearing that “a prominent food industry lobbyist… said he was amazed at how many members of Congress were carrying copies of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,'” some felt that the article, with its focus on Alice Waters — who becomes more controversial by the day — and Michael Pollan as food movement “leaders,” was a hit piece. Personally, I think of it as a reality check.
Obamafoodorama is on to something in seeing that the real response to the Martin piece was the article in the WaPo on Food Democracy Now‘s founder Dave Murphy (who goes entirely unmentioned in the NYT article). As Ob Fo points out:
[Murphy] has emerged as the most crucial and politically savvy actor in the on-going efforts to help move American agriculture into the 21st century. Mr. Murphy is fully conversant with economic policy regarding agriculture, and the way policy can and must be changed to provide both the eaters and farmers of America with the equivalent of health, job security, good education–the same goals of our President, but in a focused policy arena.
Ob Fo zeroes in on Murphy’s policy chops as providing the crucial Fifth Element that will bring the food movement into its own. But though Murphy’s policy expertise is crucial to his recent success and a key to bringing about reform, I think his importance goes beyond his grasp of the interlocking, interdisciplinary nature of food policy. In a nutshell, he understands politics.
And that’s the missing piece. Forgive me a bit of oversimplification when I say that up until now the media has portrayed the food movement as a fad — a bourgeois leftover from the ’60s counterculture. This may be why every article on alternative or organic or local food or food policy must by law use the word “hippie” at least once — even if it’s in the negative (as in “believe it or not, these particular foodies aren’t hippies.”) It’s a movement that has been perceived to offer a choice to those who are in a position to make it, i.e. affluent, educated consumers. Here’s how, Waters or Pollan tell us, you can opt out of the industrial food system. It was nothing more than a media phenomenon, a self-help — rather than a social — movement.
And why wouldn’t it be seen that way? “Foodies” certainly haven’t historically been players in the halls of power — more like a sideshow. As Ezra Klein has observed, it’s perfectly rational for politicians to cater exclusively to the needs of Big Ag — there aren’t any political advantages to opposing them. In that way, the food movement is the opposite of the environmental movement. In most parts of the country, simply branding a politician as anti-environmentalist is an effective political bludgeon. The environmental movement can bring serious political, legal and monetary firepower to bear when required. The food movement, to this point, has been almost totally lacking in those abilities. And that’s why people like Dave Murphy hold the key.
Or rather why his 90,000 strong mailing list holds the key. As Murphy (and hopefully others like him) are able to mobilize people to directly pressure members of Congress, the movement can begin to gain traction with the congressional committees that have held agricultural reform hostage lo these many years.
Yet, from the perspective of a “movement,” it’s still early in the game. It may indeed be generous to posit, as Michael Pollan did in the NYT article, that the food movement now is where environmentalism was in the ’70s. By that point, after all, the Sierra Club was already over seventy years old and had been lobbying legislators and combating developers since the Roosevelt administration – Teddy Roosevelt, that is. Unfortunately, we don’t have another 70 years to wait. Dave, if you’re listening, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
But the tipping point, if in fact we’ve reached it, may be in the broadening of the food movement base that has occurred over the last decade. As the sustainable ag folks come together with the fair trade folks come together with the international development folks come together with the climate change folks come together with the public health folks come together with the nutrition folks come together with the food safety folks, the movement begins to approach critical mass. Now that these previously disconnected groups have looked around and realized that they’re all playing on the same field, an economy of scale, social movement-style, kicks in.
The great failing of the NYT article is the way it seemed to minimize this phenomenon. As Tom Philpott wrote, Martin almost totally ignored, for example, the issue of class except to conclude, as Philpott put it, that “fresh, local, and organic food must be a niche market for the well-off and the food-obsessed.” Martin didn’t address any of the evidence here and abroad of the viability of programs to bring such food to working class and low-income people. Nor, for that matter, did Martin mention anything having to do with international trade, fair or otherwise, and its role in the food system’s unsustainability. Even health and nutrition got shortchanged as they had to play second-fiddle to the fight over ag subsidies, which Martin suggests is “the heart of the movement.”
Indeed, in Martin’s eyes, sustainable agriculture has as yet failed to “prove” that it can feed a growing world. Martin let the head of the National Corn Growers Association dismiss organic agriculture with the wave of a hand without even attempting to acknowledge the body of research that suggests it can indeed feed us all. At the same time, Martin observed that:
Last year, mandatory spending on farm subsidies was $7.5 billion, compared with $15 million for programs for organic and local foods, according to the House Appropriations Committee.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if those numbers were reversed, I’d bet dollars to donuts that sustainable ag could feed us all just fine. My gut instinct is that the momentum really is shifting. Of course, we’ll know the compost worm has truly turned when the chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association is the one forced to explain how they can possibly feed us all in the coming time of climate disruption, peak oil and depleted soil. Well? I’m waiting …