Food Dialogue Fails: Firetrucks (Subsidies) Don’t Cause Fires (of Injustice)

Introduction:  The Lack of Dialogue


This blog summarizes a longer blog that includes footnotes, but which I still have not finished and posted:  “Failed Food Principles: Firetrucks (Subsidies) Don’t Cause the Fires of Injustice.”1  


Lately dairy farmers and others have been pushing to be included in food movement dialogues, and have cited cases of exclusion. 


Over time, this has led the food movement to failed advocacy, where food movement “principles” lead to advocacy that violates those principles.  Here’s the story.


Anomalies in the Food Paradigm


First, I note some anomalies that sould raise red flags about the success of food movement advocacy.  In these ways, the food movement has failed to adequately support it’s own values and goals.  Here are some examples.


The food movement has failed to support farm justice proposals and needs, such as:


  • the (top 2) key policies called for by African American cotton farmers;
  • the key macroeconomic policies of food sovereignty, as called for by La Via Campesina and the Africa Group at WTO;
  • price ceilings to protect the poor in the US and globally;
  • the key farm bill proposal that best confronts agribusiness about cheap corn, soybeans, milk, etc.; 
  • the farm bill proposal that eliminates farm commodity subsidies without hurting family farmers, thus freeing up the most money for other needs;
  • the key farm bill proposal that addresses the most acute agribusiness exploitation issue, the dairy crisis.


Instead they have unknowingly and unintentionally sided with agribusiness on these and other issues.  How could that be?


Right Here is Where Dialogue has Failed


There’s a reason why these anomalies have emerged, and it can be seen as a result of failed dialogue.  While some farmers have regularly been included in food movement discussions (ie. local, sustainable farmers,) those farmers have failed to address the biggest farm bill issues, the farm justice issues, the hidden issues that have exploited farmers and favored agribusiness by trillions of dollars.  Meanwhile, farm justice leaders, those who could have prevented this, have been left out of most of the important discussions.


The False Paradigm:  “All we need is Subsidy Reform”


The specific strategic problem is in the flawed subsidy paradigm. The food movement believes, falsely, that the presence of farm subsidies causes cheap corn, milk, soybeans, etc., that then lead to various problems of health and nutrition, sustainability, poverty, livestock concentration, corporate farming, development, etc., that have been highlighted in food books, films, videos and blogs in recent years.  In fact, however, these problems have been caused by the absence of market management policies and programs, by the reduction (1953-1995) and elimination (1996l-2012) of specific farm justice tools:  price floors and ceilings plus supply management, including reserve supplies).


Firetrucks (Subsidies) Do NOT Cause Fires (Cheap Corn, Cheap Milk)


This situation can be dramatized with the use of Jerry Brunetti’s firetruck analogy.    Subsidies are the firetrucks that have shown up to fight the fires of farm injustice that have been growing over the past six decades.  Unfortunately, this has made for a strong correlation between fires and firetrucks. The tragic conclusion is that the food movement thinks that subsidies are what caused the problems, that the firetrucks caused the fires. That has never been true.


The Evidence, (the Data,) is Hidden, Not Accessible, Not Known


These misunderstandings are reinforced by the ways that data has been used.  The Farm Subsidy Database provides data for the presence of the firetrucks.  It’s outrageous to see all of those fires and firetrucks.  The data clearly shows that they’re very expensive.  


At the same time, an even bigger body of evidence, the data that places farm subsidies into a proper context, has remained hidden to the food movement.  It was clearly visible to the massive farm justice movement of past decades, the NFO during the 1950s and 60s, the tractorcade & camping in Washington of the 70s, the state, national and international coalitions of the 1980s farm crisis.  They were mostly farmers, so they could see first hand how agribusiness was exploiting their businesses through the farm bill. 


For the food movement I’ve placed a good chunk of this missing data, “The Hidden Farm Bill,” online, where the food movement can begin to see it.


The Food Movement Clearly Does NOT Know that This is Happening


All of this goes against clear food movement values, goals and intentions.  They are clearly unaware that it is happening.  In fact, they are very very confident in their views about farm subsidies. 


“Local” and Sustainable Farmers have Let the Food Movement Astray


One reason explaining why the Food Movement has missed this is that they’ve inadvertently restricted their contacts with farmers mainly to those who were close at hand, like local and organic farmers.  For a variety of historical and political reasons, however, these farmers were not the ones who could help the food movement avoid farm subsidy myths. In particular, the Sustainable Agriculture Movement has turned away from farm justice, and has probably been the leading voice in blinding the food movement to these issues, the biggest ones in the farm bill, and the most acute farm crisis of our day, in the case of dairy.


Why Food/Farm Bill Principles have Failed


In all of this, we’ve seen major “farm bill principles” that strongly support farm justice (NYC Working Group, Seattle, Religious Working Group, Food Declaration, etc.).  How then could the movement so strongly turn away from farm justice?  I think the answer is simple.  The great principles met the false paradigm.  The result is that mere subsidy reforms, (and none of the major farm justice proposals, which remained largely hidden,) were seen as the way to actualize the obvious farm justice goals. 


The Principles VS The Anomalies


This can be seen in a comparison of the various lists of principles, mentioned above, with the anomalies, also listed above. Both the principles and the anomalies exist.  Something went wrong in between.  In part, what went wrong can be seen in the NYC principles, which also list specific policies that implement the principles.  The major farm justice policies, which are massively bigger in impact than all of the small listed policies combined, are missing, and mere subsidy reforms are found there in their place.


A Mega Issue:  General Principles Don’t Work in a Flawed Paradigm


The conclusion is clear.  General principles and other general messages don’t work.  For example, Michael Pollan’s repeated argument (in films, videos, articles,) that “corn subsidies” cause cheap corn, is false. Corn firetrucks don’t cause corn wildfires. The result is that the food movement has favored zero price floor, zero supply management policies and programs.  In this way it has taken the same side as agribusiness exploiters.


The bottom line is clear:  general messages on this topic are probably fine for members of the historical farm justice movement.  That’s one audience.  The food movement is a very different audience. For that audience, general messages about farm justice are not merely inappropriate.  We can see it very clearly now.  General farm bill principles, for Commodity Title issues, are scandalous.  Firetrucks do NOT cause fires.


1. Brad Wilson, “Failed Food Principles: Firetrucks (Subsidies) Aren’t What Cause the Fires of Injustice,” ZSpace (Sorry, I've gotten sidetracked as I've tried to respond to a long list of major myths, so this is still not published here at ZSpace or anywhere).

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