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Our Failed Food Movement

Calls for an end to industrialized agriculture are everywhere, but factory farms continue to grow in both size and influence. Where are we going wrong?
(Photo: ASchindl/Shutterstock)

(Photo: ASchindl/Shutterstock)

From the look of things, you’d be correct in thinking that a revolution in food production was underway. Calls for local, sustainable, slow, humane, organic, non-genetically modified, fair-wage, “real” food are not only ubiquitous, they’ve inspired a farm-to-table movement that seeks to end industrialized agriculture, empower small farmers, and replace Walmart with farmers markets. Hundreds if not thousands of books, articles, foundations, academic conferences, and documentaries have joined the cause, rallying around the idea that industrial agriculture should—and can—and will be stopped.

These efforts have spawned a unique public discourse, one ubiquitously re-iterating the message that industrial agriculture wreaks ecological havoc, endangers human health, and exploits workers in order to produce food that’s overly processed, overly cheap, and overly globalized. Given the intensity of this culinary zeitgeist (not to mention the fact it gets very little critical inquiry from an adoring media), there’s every reason to think that food-reform-minded Americans, voting with their forks, are finally changing how Americans eat.

It is always difficult to get beyond the rhetoric and quantify such trends, but one metric seems safe to assume: If the movement were working, factory farms would be in decline. But, as a report just released by Food and Water Watch reveals, the exact opposite is happening. While muckrakers have been exposing every hint of corruption in corporate agriculture, and while reformers have been busy creating programs to combat industrial agriculture with localized, “real food” alternatives, factory farms have been proliferating like superweeds in a field of Monsanto corn.

Barring dramatic economic decentralization, re-thinking food reform will likely mean tamping down what often seems like a knee-jerk opposition to anything with a corporate structure.

The report, called “Factory Farm Nation,” found that, as the Food Movement hit full tilt, livestock raised on factory farms increased by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012. Beef cattle populations in feedlots rose by five percent during the same 10-year period (despite a historic drought). The number of dairy cows being raised on factory farms doubled between 1997 and 2012; broiler chickens in CAFOs rose by 80 percent; and industrial hogs swelled by a third.

There are, I suppose, six million ways to dance around these numbers (“It would have been even worse without the movement!”). But, in so far as the Food Movement’s goal has been to reduce the impact of factory farming, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the reform effort—at least in the way it articulates and pursues its mission—isn’t working.

It’s essential to understand why. From its earliest roots (arguably dating back to the 1940s), the most notable attempts to check a rapidly industrializing food system have made the same error: They’ve tried to beat the devil at his own game. That is, they’ve sought to replace standard industrialized foods with more expensive, if more natural, variations of the same foods, quixotically convinced that a mass of consumers would share the outrage and pay more to put values into action. The movement, in other words, asked us to simply (and, sometimes, not so simply) replace commodity beef with grass-fed beef, industrial pork with pastured pork, or an imported conventional peach with a local organic peach. On bolder occasions, it has asked us to even sacrifice other consumer goods for better food, such as swapping Nikes for grapes.

These substitutes will always be popular with some consumers, but they eventually hit the brick wall of economic reality. The pricier food substitutes—subsidies notwithstanding—are more expensive for a reason. With rare exception, they require more labor per unit of production, miss out on scale economies, and, in most cases, are lower yielding. Adding to this economic challenge, advantages in the quality of more expensive alternatives are often not apparent enough for most consumers to justify the added expense. It’s not uncommon to see organic blueberries at twice the cost of conventional ones. Few consumers are prepared (financially or emotionally) to make that leap. In fact, to most people, even ethically concerned food people, blueberries are just blueberries. Food is just food.

(Photo: Kharkhan Oleg/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Kharkhan Oleg/Shutterstock)

It is, therefore, incumbent on any food reform effort that hopes to achieve real structural change to think above and beyond the more-expensive-substitute approach to eating. Rather than tinker with the status quo, it must re-define what it means to eat. Granted, this is a more radical challenge requiring a more radical vision than the one offered by what really has been a fairly conservative movement. But, as the Food and Water Watch report reminds us, dire measures call for an extreme response.

What might that response look like?

Begin with animal domestication. It’s got to go. Given the centrality of animal products to industrial agriculture (and many other industries), to attack the raising and slaughtering of animals would be a far more effective way to change our food system than localizing meat production or attempting to alter the manner of domestication. As it now stands, we’re urged to support pasture-based agriculture systems as a way to fight the industrial behemoth. But as the continued rise of factory farms indicates, this move isn’t working in any meaningful way.

It is incumbent on any food reform effort that hopes to achieve real structural change to think above and beyond the more-expensive-substitute approach to eating.

Food production consumes finite resources. There are, as a result, opportunity costs to consider. My barbecue-eating friends gasp at the aforementioned proposal, asking by what rights I dare deny them such a life-affirming pleasure. But this is pot-calling-the-kettle-black talk.

Because the vast majority of limited agrarian resources are dedicated to fattening animals, those resources can’t support what would be a far more responsible allocation: growing a vast array of plants for people to eat. Not only are the majority of edible-plant calories fed to animals (largely in the form of corn and soy), humans thereby derive a majority of their plant-based calories from a mere handful of plants. There are at least tens of thousands of edible, nutrient-dense plants that we could be cultivating. But we’re not, because animal domestication dramatically limits that transition. I might want to deny my friends their precious barbecue. But, as I see it, their barbecue is denying me a world of flavor.

Another major point to consider is size. Barring dramatic economic decentralization, re-thinking food reform will likely mean tamping down what often seems like a knee-jerk opposition to anything corporate in structure. The Food Movement hates Monsanto. I get it. But a legitimate hatred of Monsanto need not extend to a hatred of every corporation that relies on basic industrial processes to make food more affordable and accessible.

I’m for regional, seasonal, organic food sourced from the Saturday market as much as the next guy. But I also enjoy my bananas and coffee and a few processed foods year-round and am pleased to allow a corporation to bring me those items. This isn’t to say that corporations shouldn’t be required to pay living wages or practice stringent safety procedures or reduce their impact on soil, air, and water. It’s just to say that, if reformers hope to make a just and healthy diet available to all global consumers, they’ll need to make room for corporate food.

The Food and Water Watch report is a wake-up call for anyone who eats. But for those who seek to improve the way we eat, it’s a fire alarm. There is no reason to abandon efforts to localize the food we eat, but there’s every reason to think seriously about what we eat, and how that diet might radically change if we hope to put an end to the factory farming of domesticated animals.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.