Flawed Food History: Farm Justice Missing from Timeline


This should really be four or five blogs, a series.  The first is a response to the website of the Small Planet Institute, and specifically to their “interactive timeline of the food movement.”  A second (below) draws out the political implications, how the flawed history relates to flawed advocacy. A third is my positive alternative, which is omitted, but rather refers to one or two (ie. fourth blog) other blogs on farm history.  A fifth is found in my “disclaimers,” top and bottom, which discuss the other blogs in the context how farmer justice has been left out of food movement dialogues.  (I also plan to write two more related blogs, reviews of the farm justice provisions in Diet for a Hot Planet, and ditto for Diet for a Small Planet.) They various five blog units can be skipped over, read separately, etc.  Headings help show the way.  Please understand that I’m dealing with huge, US and global, progressive, conservative, mainstream media, etc. paradigm issues here, and I must post this draft of documented views, invite dialogue, and move quickly on to document other major examples of the problems I raise.

[DISCLAIMERS:  Please note upfront that I strongly share the values, intentions and general goals of the Small Planet Institute. My criticisms document ways to strengthen those values and goals, not weaken them (which is how Jim Hightower introduced Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times).  But see MORE DISCLAIMERS, important ones about the dilemmas of effective communication in this context, at the bottom.]

The aforementioned website, of the Small Planet Institute, and on the timeline page, features an invitation:  “Don’t see an important milestone?  Email us at info@smallplanet.org.”  I sent in an earlier version of this.  Now I’m sharing my views online (with minor editing for clarity and quick blog publication, with added headings, and with some new additions that I now think of, for better context and educational purposes.  Some [ie. bigger] additions are noted in brackets, [New …], some are not.)  I’ve left it worded in the second person (“you …, your,…”).  As a volunteer farm justice advocate, my time is limited. My purpose is to share a documented response, with little extra work. For context, I began by sharing this quote from the history of dairy justice:  

Feedback Letter (edited, revised, updated)

First, note this quote from Gene Cervi from Cervi’s Rocki Mointain Journal, in a review of the 1968 book, Holding Action, by Charles Walters Jr.:

“In simply reporting, correlating and organizing the facts as they have transpired in the last few years, Walters has given us a frightening insight into what is happening to our future food supply. . . . Walters makes the expose books on car safety, insurance rackets, drug monopolies, destruction of the sounds of spring by the pesticide makers and the high cost of funerals pale into relative insignificance compared to what is happening to the food industry. . . .  He has presented unassailable facts about farm disasters since 1950.  In the glare of harsh reality, the cruel advantages taken by the giant retail food chains of the organized food producers is apparent. . . .  The Walters book on our food condition is one of the most important books of our time and will stir men for a few generations.”

For My Main Concerns, (Timeline Omissions,) are not Stated Here. Read my Blogs.

Second, before seeing your timeline, I have written a blog which includes many items you leave off, which I’ve found to be important missing elements in “food movement history.” The blog is:  “Missing Food Movement History: Highlights of Family Farm Justice: 1950-2000,” (http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/5106/missing-food-movement-history-highlights-of-family-farm-justice-19502000).  Your timeline lends support to my thesis there.

You might also want to see a related blog, “The Women of Farm Justice: Forgotten by Women Today?” (http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/5152/the-women-of-farm-justice-forgotten-by-women-today)  Anna is one of the leading women of today that I mention in it. 

Critical Factual Errors

Here are what I perceive to be some factual errors in your timeline.  

You write that the “US Government Begins Subsidizing Corn” in 1973.  That’s not true.  Wheat, corn, and other feedgrain subsidies began in 1961, as seen in USDA data for feedgrains subsidies, which includes corn.  Go to this link, scroll down to “Government Payments:” “U.S. tables:” “Direct government payments by program, 1933-2010,” where an Excel spreadsheet can be downloaded.  

[New  Additionally, the interpretation of corn subsidies is false:  In the pop-up window you write: “…. The resultant increase in production creates a surplus of corn, leading to the creation of new corn-based products such as high fructose corn syrup. These ingredients quickly made their way into processed foods and sodas and have been linked to the rise in obesity rates in the US.”  In fact, yes, the farm bill was huge in causing these problems, but the cause was not the presence of subsidies, but rather the absence of price floors & supply management.  Price floors for corn and other commodity crops were lowered starting in 1953, as I show on various data charts, and the farm justice movement, especially NFO, quickly rose up to fight against this “food injustice.” (See more below).]

Another factual error, surely, is where you write that the “Price of Wheat Hits a Record High in 2007.”  We could similarly say that, compared to home prices in the 1950s, we’ve had many “record” home prices since then.  It’s different, however, if you adjust for inflation. In that case 1999 was the record wheat price (back to 1866)!  Oh, but that was the record LOW price.  (I computed all of this a few years ago, (and keep updating it,) so I’m using 2009 constant dollars and a GDP deflator, and not including the most recent years, [which tend to be less than half of records].)  Ok, let’s see, 2008 marketing year for wheat ranked, not #1, but number 110 out of 144, (in the bottom 25%,) while 2007 ranked even worse at 113 out of 144.   (Ok, perhaps 2007 was the greatest increase from the lowest price in history, I don’t know.)  

This “record price” stuff is a widespread myth, and I’ve rarely seen any “food crisis” article get it even close to correct.  (See my blog, “False on the Food Poverty Crisis:  25 Online Examples.”)  

[New I published a letter correcting our regional paper, (Cedar Rapids,) The Gazette on this (Price of corn not really a record).  Using the papers own methods and data, corn had merely tripled (330%) while the paper itself had “skyrocketed” by 750%. Adjusted for inflation, The Gazette went up a third since 1964, while corn’s “record” high price ($4, 2007-10, USDA-ERS, 2010 $) was less than half of the 1950s average ($8.80).  And this was all before I found an old newspaper, 1944, costing 5¢!  I suggested that they publish a headline about the “record high” costs of The Gazette, (instead of bashing corn).  They haven’t fixed this in a number of subsequent articles.  They buy syndications, which are never accurate on this.]

It’s all very similar for corn, rice, soybeans, cotton, barley, oats, grain sorghum.  I find the record high for wheat to be 1867.  The highest price since 1940 was 1947, at $18.27, (much higher than 2007!).  The other record lows are: corn: 2005, Soybeans: 2001, Cotton 2001, Rice 2001, Grain Sorghum 1999, Barley 1998, oats, 2000.  

Note on the Food Price Index

By the way, I’m sure you’ve heard of the UN FAO Food Price Index, and it’s interpretation.  In fact, however, it only goes back to 1990.  But since 1990 we’ve had the lowest prices in history for these crops (ie. 17 of the lowest 19 corn prices, 16 of the lowest 19 wheat prices, and 14 of the lowest 17 rice prices (or 19 of 27) and 15 of the lowest 17 cotton  prices, etc.)  When we then learn of the “record” price levels on the food index, they’re records since 1990.  They’re records for the lowest 20 years in farm price history.  It’s the highest, yes, but the highest of the lowest, rock bottom 20 years!  (Note, this is a bit apples and oranges.  I’m simply addressing the farm price component, which typically gets the blame, in the food costs of the food price index.  

[New.  On the food price issue, I’ve often seen little blame of agribusiness, in this falsely documented bashing of recent higher (ie. fair trade) farm prices (and the end of cheap corn!).  I find, however, that if you apply (and reasonably extend,) Stewart Smith’s method (pdf, see pp. 2-3) for viewing the farm share of the food dollar (he removes the share of the agribusiness input complex, selling to farmers, from the farm share).  In contrast to the false farm price bashing, I find, then, that by 2006, farm share had dropped to only 29% of the 1950 farm share, while the combined (output & input complexes, but not CAFO complex,) agribusiness share had grown by 90%, and with a net result that consumers pay 51% more! (See Brad Wilson, “Farm Bill Slides,” slide 6.)

All of this price stuff is another massive myth that hugely contributes to the failure of the food movement, mainstream media, and government, to responsibly face the dairy crisis, the most acute farm bill crisis of the 2008 and 2012 farm bills.  It’s part of why the food movement has excluded the major farm justice proposals (dairy justice bill, NFFC’s FFFA, NFU’s MDIS) from their advocacy, for example in this summer’s sign-on from Anna Lappe, Dan Imhoff, Kari Hamerschlag, and 70 “experts” of the food movement, discussed below.]

Actually, 2008 marketing year was the ONLY year wheat (“Commodity Costs and Returns”) went ABOVE zero (for full costs), going back from 2010 to 1979, and before that, 1975, (USDA-ERS).  Given that, why are you picking on wheat?!  In 2011, however, wheat rose again, to $2.89 per acre or $2,890 for 1,000 acres. (Note, this as return on the investment in 1,000 acres of farmland, equipment, etc., {not cheap,} after paying wages to the farmer and hired help.)  Ok, you get my point, right?  There’s a lot of talk in the new food movement about farmers recently making money, but it doesn’t square at all with the larger context of history, going back to 1953.  [And read Tim Wise’s analysis, “Still Waiting for the Farm Boom.”]

Political Observations (more of my main concerns)

I realize that there are many choices in such a timeline.  I see you have progressive food organizations, restaurants, corporations, books, films, etc., and also some negatives (food advertising, happy meal, patenting, voting yes on junk food, health problems for youth, obesity, etc.)  Michelle Obama is in there twice!  Your standards, then, could lead to all kinds of additional items.  My focus is, I think, central to your values, on farm justice which is food justice, on what are, arguably, the biggest and most acute farm bill issues of our time.

When I think of a movement fight against agribusiness, especially against food and feed processors (the agribusiness output complex, buying from farmers,) however, I don’t see much history represented along the lines of the major players and events, as discussed in my first blog above.  Instead I see more minor organizations, that have done little in the bigger fight. 

Structurally, for most of the big contentious fights, most of the previous work was done by the farm justice movement, and desperate calls for a food movement were largely unanswered.  Then there came a major division, where the sustainable agriculture movement largely split away from the farm justice movement.  (See my blog, “Cap Farm Subsidies at $250,000, or $25,000, or $0?” (http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/5126/cap-farm-subsidies-at-250000-or-25000-or-0).  The $250,000 is the sustainable agriculture movement.  They have not had policies to directly oppose cheap corn, even for unsustainable CAFOs.

Most of the food movement, when it finally arrived in force, followed the stewardship emphasis of the Sustainable Agriculture movement, AND it’s rejection of farm justice (ie. the $250,000 and not the $0 of eliminating the need for subsidies).  Do you understand those issues?  I was active in MSAWG during the 1990s, and worked to prevent this split.  At one point we had a debate and the churches chose to go with farm justice, [according to George Naylor].  Frances Moore Lappe was not, I believe, a participant in the farm justice movement, but rather opposed the major farm justice proposals as far back as the 1970s.  [George Naylor tells me of bringing these issues to her. The positions in her books show opposition, not support, for the main proposals of the farm justice movement, as I hope to explain in a subsequent blog.]  

Apparently the sustainability side believed that free markets would work, like they did for many years for organic farmers.  Therefore they saw no need for supply management or price floors, though the evidence has long been against that belief (see the 4 proofs on this in my 2 part video, “Michael Pollan Rebuttal” [and Daryll E. Ray’s piece on Henry Wallace(s), + column 248 + column 325]).

We find today, then, this:  “Experts Tell Congress: Support Healthy Food System, Not Big Ag,” but the actual proposals support agribusiness on the biggest issues, as they are zero price floor, zero supply management proposals.  A number of econometric studies [cited here, sumarized in chart on p. 21] plus the record of history indicates that that is a bad approach, (again, as I’ve documented in Michael Pollan Rebuttal and various “Farm Bill Slides.”)  I realize that Anna is part of that. 

What I’m giving now, then, is a political view on your timeline.  You include a lot of groups and individuals that have called for mere minor subsidy reforms, while unknowingly supporting agribusiness, as described [and documented] above.  I’ve been analyzing their views on the Commodity title for a number of years.  On the other hand, you leave out most of the leading farm justice organizations of history, those that also fought against cheap corn, [cheap milk,] etc., but that did so accurately, based upon the full data of how things work.  

Farm justice is also called the family farm movement, and it is the bridge between various progressive groups and farmers at large [which are mainly exposed to the mainstream farm press].  In the past the major limitation was […] the lack of any adequate consumer side (ie. food) movement support. On the other hand, a major limitation today is that, [while, thankfully,] the food movement has arrived in force, it does not know the operative farm justice issues and the politics of them [and the implications for sustainability, climate change, health and food justice, etc.].  

Related to this, you mention farm aid, but not the Farm Aid Congress (United Farmer and Rancher Congress).  It was recently described to me as the most incredible event in movement history (I think by Mark Ritchie‘s brother, who heads the League of Rural Voters).  I think he’s right.  [It’s now been added. I attended one of the many hearings all across the US, and voted for delegates.  There were more than 1000 delegates, from about every state.]

Ok, so then you don’t have the farmers in Washington during the 1970s or much of anything about the massive action of the 1980s, and the mobilizations of the 1950s and 60s are totally missing. For example, while searching for the quote at the top, I  picked out a book on NFO history.  It includes photos of a number of huge gatherings, mostly of men, in the fights of that era, including a 1967 rally of 35,000 NFO members.  Other photos are of milk dumping, (I participated, as a child, during the late 1960s).  Here’s another, in 1971 (FYI: March, and countersuit in May) the NFO’s lawsuit against Mid American Dairymen a “super cooperative,” began.  It took just over 20 years and NFO won $21.4 million (apparently 1991). [More recently I’ve skimmed the headlines of the NFO Reporter for 1962-1972.  In 1 6 month period during the 60s they report that more than 1,000,000 people, mainly business people whose livelihoods were at stake, (farmers,) attended advocacy outreach meetings to address cheap food issues, cheap farm prices, and ways to directly confront agribusiness about them.  And that they did!]

In general, I see the “successful” [for agribusiness] dividing of the movement during the 1990s, as one of the most important events in movement history.  I see it as a consequence of the agribusiness diversion strategy known as farm subsidies.  That is surely the most “successful” agribusiness strategy against us in our history, and it has got the food movement well geared to blame farmers for the “fire” (remove %23 from link to get there) instead of agribusiness, fire trucks instead of the corporate “arsonists” who called for lowering price floors to run a third of farmers out of business within five years (and eventually, for the US to lose money on farm exports for a quarter century (ie. 1981-2006 except 1996 for a sum of 8 crops).  This division should be on the timeline, or at least when it is overcome (before the next farm bill? hopefully) it should be there.  

Do you know who the main leaders are who even know about this split?  Who are working hard to heal it?

Additional Observations, FYI

Another event you miss is when the McGovern committee came out (1970s) in support of the vegetable transfat industrial complex, by the favoring of vegetable transfats over saturated fats, in spite of the data. [See a few citations here.]  Have you heard of that one?  [A nutritionist here told me that it took 20 years to get hospitals here to quit recommending margarine (instead of butter) to heart patients.  That is another issue where agribusiness seems still to have won. 

You seem to have left out A.V. Krebs book “The Corporate Reapers,” which remains unsurpassed on how it places food movement issues within the broader context of the farm justice movement in history.  If it were laid out like Anna’s book it would be 1,500 pages long, the equivalent of five 300 page books.  [That’s a massive effort.  A national treasure!]

I see that you have the “First Food Studies Program” in 1996.  Of course, there were food studies in the Land Grant Complex, in Home Economics, dating way back, but that might be more like the corporate events you list.  (I used the Yearbooks of Agriculture VS. readings from social critics [like Hightower, whom you include,] on food and other topics in my 1986 Farm Studies course. 

I see you have World Population Hits 6 Billion, 1999, a general fact not food oriented, but not the date when rural population became smaller than urban population (a few years later?).

You have the Increase in Women Farmers, but not the long line of Harvesting Our Potential /womens’ conferences, that I describe in my blog on Women of Farm Justice, also discussed above.

Here are a two more thoughts.  It was projected (in the early 1980s I think) that there would be no black farmers by 1990, but of course, real life isn’t a projection.  Likewise, Stewart Smith projected, from 1910-1997 data, that there would be no farm share of the food dollar by 2020, just 8 years from now. 

I apologize for giving you so much feedback all at once.  Please understand that I work on these issues in my free time and it helps me a lot to give such feedback all at once and not try to spoon feed it.  It’s a dilemma, and right now I’m sitting on my review of Anna’s book, which primarily critiques only her coverage of the Commodity Title (and trade?). In spite of it’s narrow focus, it’s still longer than I hoped it would.


No one from the Small Planet Institute responded to me on this feedback, so it has remained hidden from public view.  With this blog, the missing farm justice is Publicly exposed.  

I do find, however, that, as of 8/13/12, 2 items that I sent in had been added to the timeline:  the housewives revolt and the United Farmer and Rancher Congress (farm aid congress).  The factual corrections were not fixed, however.  This shows, then, that they read it, and must have disagreed or they would have at least fixed the corrections.  Another factor is that, in the original, I didn’t provide actual links to the correct information, (like I do in this blog, though I did provide some blog titles that could have been searched and found,) and in one case I specifically asked them to contact me for sources.  In that way I sort of made dialogue a requirement, and they declined my invitation.  

Are other farm justice advocates finding similar challenges to dialogue between farm justice (and it’s huge contributions to food justice,) and the food movement?

[MORE DISCLAIMERS:  There are huge dilemmas for effective communication here.  My view, as I’ve tried to present it, is that the related issues are technically narrow, but massive in size and implications.  This blog, then, and my connecting it to other work of the Lappes, may feel like a massive negative load to be dumping on well intended food movement leaders.  And yet they’re almost wholly unknown in the food movement.  My hundreds of blog comments over the years, and emails to leaders, have not led to any significant dialogue, let alone change.    

On the positive side, I’ve tried to stick to “observable,” documented feedback, in a context of shared values.  On the other hand, communication doesn’t work when it’s more than can be used.  Also, here and elsewhere, repeatedly, I have had little access to books, films, etc. before they’re written, and the writers/producers have apparently had inadequate access to documented farm justice ideas (Decades of documentation are poorly represented online.)  I’ve also violated the timing criteria of “Constructive Feedback”  (ie. David Johnson, Reaching Out). So I’ve reviewed a lot of stuff after the fact, as the misunderstandings have continued and grown over the past five years. In another case, The Story of Stuff, invited, advanced documentation of falsehoods failed, without ever being rebutted, and largely without dialogue. Incredibly, to me, George Naylor failed to be adequately understood by Michael Pollan (major book interview) and Anna Sofia Joanes (film: Fresh).  I’m in a new film coming out this fall, with George and others.  We’ll see.

On the other hand, consider some context. I strongly believe that others, including the top farm justice leaders (ie. IATP, NFFC, FWW, Tim Wise) have gone the other way, and have not provided strong enough communication.  I’ve had fights with all of the above on this very point. They don’t like such feedback either.  I argue, nevertheless, that in light of the need for a reformed food movement paradigm, an the fact that farm justice is a “Hidden Farm Bill” for the food movement, it takes something more to break through.  Understandably farm justice organizations don’t want unproductive turf fights with closed minded food, hunger, sustainability, church, etc. NGOs with whom they otherwise agree.  Other farm justice leaders appear to have given up, and there I include a few who have compromised, and signed on to false advocacy proposals.  That’s a dilemma, when to compromise, and when to hold firm.  Key groups refused to sign on to the letter from Anna, Dan Imhoff, etc., while a few others compromised, or simply don’t understand the wonderful opportunity, after decades of waiting, which the food movement now potentially offers to the cause of farm justice. 

In conclusion, clearly the timeline itself is well intended and a great idea, useful as far as it goes.  Beyond US Farm Bill farm justice issues and their implications, and possibly a few related matters, such as those related to the myths hurting dairy, I have no criticisms of the food movement, or these specific representatives, or their site, but rather welcome it all.]

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