Stuffed Foodie Movement, Starved Peasant and Family Farm Movements?

The U.S. family farm movement, which has led the controversial direct fight against corporate power and for a just share of the wealth of agriculture for farmers and peasants world wide, has long been short on funding from foundations and major donors.  Starting in the 1990s the sustainable agriculture movement and more recently the even bigger food movement, has been much more successful at winning grant money for their work in less controversial matters such as policy development and consumer education.  The core fight for justice has been "starved," it seems, as new players on the scene have been "stuffed" with funding, often based upon a widespread false paradigm that spreads simple, clear misunderstandings about the most important issues.

The history of the family farm movement goes back to the Great Depression and on back to the farm movements of the 19th century.  At one time we were the majority in the U.S. 

Probably since the 1950s we’ve seen the need for a food movement to join us from the consumer side.  By then there were a lot more consumers than farmers.  

In the 1960s, the National Farmers Organization (NFO) was the lead family farm group.  At one large rally in Des Moines in the late 1960s, 10,000 gathered, many bringing along their Sears mail order catalogs, which were disgustingly tossed into a pile in the parking lot in protest against widespread corporate endorsement of policies designed to eliminate "excess resources" in agriculture, "mainly labor."  Such was NFO’s vigorous attack against the kinds of policies that have since devastated rural towns and regions across the U.S. and caused massive LDC (rural) poverty world wide for decades.

NFO largely lost in the media and with consumers and even churches for various reasons.  For many years they were then bogged down in an expensive corporate legal fight on antitrust issues, which they eventually won, (1980s?).  Eventually NFO changed into more of a marketing group than a movement leader.  More recently they’ve moved strongly into organic marketing under NFOrganics.

Sometime in the late 60s or early 70s Jim Hightower, Al Krebs and others started the Agribusiness Accountability Project in Washington D.C.  That tiny group framed the issues more successfully, and influenced family farm movements in future decades.

During the 1970s, the American Agriculture Movement (AAM) arose to prominence as the movement leader.  They drove tractors to Washington and camped on the mall for an extended period, again hoping to catch the attention of consumers to greatly broaden the movement.  Working without significant consumer support, they won important cost of living adjustments to bad policies rather than the needed reforms.  Their warnings were soon validated by the 1980s farm crisis.

In each case family farm movement leaders warned of a future when food would be dominated and consumers would be exploited by corporate agribusiness.  This call increased during during the 1980s farm crisis.  By then a variety of groups arose that were more successful at framing the movement as a social justice movement. Larger coalitions were formed, including minorities and labor. The movement had significant media attention one year, 1985, after several years of corporate claims that there was "no farm crisis," claims now soundly rebutted by abundant historical data. Significantly, mainline churches came on board with the family farm movement at their national offices, though locally church leaders often either ignored the crisis or went more with media spin that blamed farmers (rather than agribusiness) for it.  

As of the 1990s when I worked within national networks, a large sustainable agriculture component emerged, partly out of groups that had rejected the anti dumping views of the family farm movement.  In the lead up to the 1995/6 farm bill a large sustainable agriculture umbrella group was formed and attempts were made to bring together the family farm movement and sustainable agriculture.  That connection fell apart over inattention and disagreement related to commodity title issues.  Funded more richly by foundations and led by groups like the Center for Rural Affairs,  the sustainable agriculture movement did not take concrete positions against below cost gains (subsidization via below cost feeds) for animal factories or against export dumping (ie. positions for adequate price floors and supply management instead of subsidies as compensations for free market losses).  

In the 15 years since those efforts, other attempts to bring the majority of sustainable agriculture groups on board with family farm (anti-corporate) policies have at times seemed successful, but have always failed in the end.  

Meanwhile, an even larger food movement has arisen out of the sustainable agriculture movement.  In addition, the mainline churches have moved away from the deeper and more controversial justice issues of the family farm movement and joined with the food movement.  For example, During the 1980s mainline churches made farm price issues (antidumping price floors and supply management, combined with anti food crisis price ceilings and grain reserves) a top priority.  By the 2000s, these issues were missing in their new documents and web sites.  Instead, significantly, emphasis was often placed upon nonpolitical consumer/food strategies.

Behind all of this, surely, are the major choices of foundations about how to give out their money.  During the 1980s farm crisis there was some additional giving to family farm issues.  On the less controversial side were matters like crisis counseling and food pantries.  Those were safer investments for foundations than anything sounding too political.  Naturally, many new groups applied to family farm related money pots in the competitive grants process.

During the 1990s when I dabbled in grant writing, (helping to bring in $100,000 and failing to bring in several hundred thousand dollars), I was taught that foundations wanted to fund policy development and education, not direct confrontations with corporate power.  (A key exception was, and continues to be Farm Aid.)  The direct fight against continuing corporate domination in driving farmers ("excess resources") off the land world wide (and into labor pools in cities and slums, to drive down urban wages) had to be reframed within those terms to get much money.

Today, looking at the food movement that has emerged in the U.S. since the 1990s, what I mainly see is the result of a lot of "safe" contributions from the major foundations.  I see a lot of policy development work around food issues.  Just as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a complex series of policy initiatives, so too does, for example, the Community Food Security Coalition.  Both focus on the US, not the world farm and food crises.  Neither specifically oppose the largest issues in the farm bill (in terms of dollars of economic impact world wide), those of the family farm movement (listed above).  Neither addresses trade issues (ie. NAFTA, WTO).  Neither specifically opposes the policies that provide multibillion dollar below cost gains to animal factories (including meat packers), the transfat complex, the high fructose sugar complex, ethanol processors and export dumpers.  They preserve those massive secret, off the books subsidies even as the food movement in particular rants and raves over the results.  In fact, the food movement shows little evidence that they correctly understand these issues, while they frequently describe a false paradigm that ‘explains’ them.  That is, they "know a lot" that "ain’t so" about their top issues, (as I’ve repeatedly exposed; see my blog, http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/bradwilson,  or google "Brad Wilson" and "farm bill" or "Brad Wilson" and  "food crisis" or google my critiques of "Alice Waters" or "slow food" efforts).

This is not to say that the sustainable agriculture and food movements have developed mostly bad policies.  Most of their policy positions are good and welcomed by the family farm movement.  They provide partial (although too often partly contradictory) alternatives for when the family farm movement fails, as we have since the 1950s, on the major issue of who gets the wealth of agriculture worldwide. Likewise, important new studies of food have contributed enormously to long time family farm positions (ie. Michael Pollan, Food Inc.).  The problem, on the other hand, is that these new food exposes have not then led to accurate political analysis and action, but, as described above, the reverse (on the biggest, historically multi trillion dollar, farm bill issues).

Additionally, because the food movement in particular has false ideas about the Commodity Title of the Farm Bill, they divide themselves unnecessarily from farmers in general (beyond the family farm movement) and provide an abundance of falsehoods to be trashed by corporate agribusiness and pro agribusiness farm groups like Farm Bureau and the big commodity groups (NCGA, ASA, NPPC, etc.).  

All of this could have been avoided had a food movement and sustainable agriculture movement emerged in ways that more closely tied them to US family farm and world peasant movements.  

I suspect that the true explanation for all of this could be found, as usual, simply by following the money.  Foundations and other major donors have rapidly fed (stuffed?) U.S. sustainable agriculture and food movements, while family farm and peasant movements have remained hungry (or starving) for adequate funding to carry on their direct fight against abusive corporate power.

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