“…to make whole what has been smashed…”
— Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
All over the country, communities are organizing to establish food sovereignty. From low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee to Detroit and Brooklyn, to the very heart of industrial agriculture, people are getting their hands dirty and building up their own alternatives to industrial food. In a nation with billions of dollars invested in growing, processing, distributing, and marketing horrible food, these efforts seek to establish food as a force for pleasure, environmental stewardship, and community economic development.
And that, I think, is the most important green food story of our time.
However, the idea of universal, automatic progress seems as fanciful and absurd to me as that of eternal salvation/damnation. Progress is forever under siege; “the way things are” exerts a depressing weight on efforts to change the status quo. So in a spirit of hope amid gloom, I offer these “Top green food stories of 2007.” Please remind me of any I’ve missed, particularly hopeful ones.
1. Signs of the sustainable-food movement’s success, part I: If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. Corporate attempts to co-opt all things local and organic continued apace. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey decorated his stores with buy-local propaganda and waxed magnanimously in public about small farmers. When he thought no one was looking, he pined for fat profits, busted unions, and aimed for Wal-Mart-like market dominance. After Whole Foods snapped up its biggest competitor, even the normally supine Federal Trade Commission squawked, and small organic producers fretted for their future.
Meanwhile, food giants like Kraft continued their leveraged buyout of organic, seeking to gain control of the only part of the food industry that’s showing substantial growth.
2. Signs of the sustainable-food movement’s success, part II: The eat-local backlash. Along with the effort to commodify “local” and “organic,” there’s been an attempt to discredit these concepts. It started with a big Economist cover story late last year and has lately taken root within The New York Times. I devoted two Victual Reality columns (here and here)to responding to these critiques.
3. Total recall. While attempts to co-opt and discredit sustainable food gained force, cracks in the industrial food system began to show. The meat industry endured a series of humiliating recalls of hamburger tainted with E. coli 0157 — a strain deadly to humans that emerged only after cows began to be confined and fed corn on a mass scale in the ’70s. (Waste from the ethanol process, an increasingly common additive to cow rations, was shown to make the E. coli 0157 problem even worse.) Meanwhile, as food imports surged, the federal government was forced to issue a seemingly endless series of recalls on food grown or processed in China.
4. Farm bill fight. After an unprecedented level of public awareness and debate over the farm bill, the House and Senate both served up farm bill versions that pretty much preserve the status quo: federally underwritten overproduction of a few commodities, untempered by any substantial programs to support farmers or rebuild local food systems. I took an unpopular and unorthodox stance: that the main alternative policy proposals on the table didn’t really challenge the interests of Big Food. Environmental Defense begged to differ, as did the ag economist (and Gristmill blogger) Thomas Dobbs (and just about everyone else).