Forgetting Farm Justice: Revisionist Food Movement History and Strategy


This is a response to the article, “Reform or Transformation?  The Pivotal Role of Food Justice in the U.S. Food Movement,” by Eric Holt-Gimenez and Yi Wang (Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, Vol. 5, No. 1, Food Justice, Autumn 2011, pp. 83-102, Indiana University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/racethmulglocon.5.1.83 .)

My general response is that this article essentially leaves out most of our history as a movement, from the decades prior to the Great Depression to today.  As a result it gives us only a partial picture, which then leads to inadequate conclusions. I give a movement analysis I’ve used in conclusion.

The article gives a kind of general overview of history as follows.  First, the movement is said to have arisen “even before the onset of the current food price crisis,” which, of course, was very recent.  We then have descriptions of movement sectors, with citations dated 2008, 2010, 2005, 2008 and 2005, which likely reinforces that point. Later, in the section on the “Corporate Food Regime,” it’s divided into three parts, 1800s to the Great Depression, World War II to the 1980s, and then, starting with President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the 3rd phase leading up to today.  (Related to this, Michael Pollan typically sees the 1970s as the key time of change for the worse, while Ken Cook of EWG focuses on the 1990s.)

Missing Farm Justice Movement History

What’s missing in the picture is the farm part, the farm justice or family farm movement, which is arguably a much bigger part of the movement than what’s covered, so most movement history is left out. I find this to be common in recent food movement books, (which can be contrasted with Al Krebs 1992 book, “The Corporate Reapers:  From Seedling to Supermarket,” which documents this history extensively and prior to the rise of the food movement sectors covered).  The sustainable agriculture movement is included, but also missing are other farm activism sectors, which are potential members of our movement, and a majority of which have often supported us contrary to widespread food movement views.

We find then that mention is made of Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Conagra and Walmart as key players. These, though, are the key corporations that have been identified and vigorously fought against, concretely, by the unmentioned Family Farm Justice Movement, for decades.  Prior to that and also left out are the earlier movement phases like rural populism (late 1800s,) which had alternate political parties and influence in some states.  Missing next is the of the farm justice activism of the farm depression of the 1920s.  Very general references to these times does misses what we can learn from these specific movements.

Next the huge changes and enormous success for farm and food justice that came out of the New Deal, are omitted.  This is probably the most important historical predecessor of the movements in recent decades.  It brought “fair trade” “living wage” farm prices for more than a decade, (1942-1952,) reinforced in 1941 as an economic stimulus by the banking committees in Congress.  This is rarely known in the food movement.

The recent phase began in general in 1953.  It changed a lot, but what the data of price floor drops clearly show it was a gradual change, a gradual worsening in policy from 1953 to today, with 1996 as another key turning point, when market management policies and programs ended for most crops (price floors and ceilings and acreage reductions and reserve supplies).

For this more recent phase consider the following missing parts, not found in the articles analysis  of movement history.  We had a huge activist movement that started during the 1950s.  By the 1960s we had 10,000 at a national rally in Iowa.  Has the new food movement phase ever had that?  I dumped milk during the 1960s for an organization that was at the forefront of the movement to challenge the “Corporate Food Regime,”  the NFO.  Moving ahead to a subsequent phase, the movement camped on the mall in Washington DC for months during the 1970s, with tractors.  During the 1980s the farm unity and farmers alliance coalitions sprang up all across North America.  We had one the state where the whole legislature went to Washington to lobby the federal legislature. In Iowa and other states we passed our own Commodity Title legislation at the state level, the minimum price bills.  We in Iowa required the presidential candidates to come before us and debate the issues on our terms, with us as moderators asking the questions.  We wrote our own farm bill and it passed in the Senate!  Has the new “Food Movement” ever done any of that?  “Food justice movement?  Community Food Security Movement?  We again had a 1985 rally with 10,000 farmers showing up.  Then thousands of farmers from all across America voted in forums on platform planks and delegates that were taken by 1,400 movement leaders to the United Farmer and Rancher Congress, where a national platform was decided.

By the 1990s this was all brought significantly into the fair trade movement and spread globally, under the leadership of groups like the Institutte for Agriculture and Trade Policy.  I suspect that this Family Farm Justice role was significant in, for example, the Africa Group at WTO supporting supply management and price floors for their long term, chronic problem of low farm prices, as these are farming countries, and mostly LDCs.  This likely also influenced La Via Campesina’s very similar stands on similar issues in their major policy document.

The article acts as if none of this ever existed.  In the earlier work of the family farm justice movement, however, this history was well known, and important.  For example, in Iowa during the 1980s, a Depression era law for a moratorium on farm foreclosures was drawn out, and our Republican Governor was forced to admit that their was a farm crisis and reinstated  it.

Missing Major Farm Justice Perspectives

These farm perspectives are then left out of the analysis. Consider the article’s analysis of the “global food price crisis of 2008.”   They include 2 key facts that are often omitted, which is good.  First, “90 percent of the world’s hungry” are that way because they “are simply too poor to buy enough food,” and second, most of them are “peasant farmers.”

This points directly to the central farm justice issue in the US and certainly globally:  low farm prices.  These low prices then lead to poverty and hunger.  A few years ago, prior to the rise in farm prices, the price issue was commonly found in articles.  The great injustice was “export dumping,” the farm injustice of low market prices.  This severe export dumping developed gradually over decades (interrupted briefly during the 1970s.  Starting in 1953, the US lowered price floors, and, as global price leader (price setter, with a bigger market share than OPEC in  oil), this dragged down world prices.  By 1981, prices were below full costs and that continued for 25 years.

Low farm prices contribute to poverty for peasant farmers, which causes hunger over decades, (and they were poor to start with).  WOW!  That’s really a huge issue to know about and to advocate against!


We find, however, that this huge point is not even made in the description of the food crisis.  On the contrary, it’s called a “food PRICE crisis,” (emphasis added,) not a “food POVERTY crisis,”  and by price, the authors clearly refer to the smaller issue of a few years of higher farm prices (which help reverse the long term trend of farm poverty and hunger,) and not the much bigger (nearly 6 decade) issue of lower and lower farm prices.  We see then the data in the article:  “In June 2008 … global food prices had risen 83% in three years,” and “a 45% increase in their world food price index in just nine months.”  So, when corn hit $7.03 at my elevator in June 2008, it was much higher than the price in 2005.  Not mentioned for context, however, is the fact that 2005 was the LOWEST price year in history, adjusted for inflation, going back to 1866.  Likewise, the food price index only goes back to 1990, so it ONLY covers the LOWEST 20 years of farm prices in history (ie. corn, wheat, rice, etc.). So here we had a 45% increase from some very low prices, and nothing anywhere close to record highs.  None of the part about low farm prices and export dumping is mentioned as a factor in the “food price crisis” for “peasant farmers” who’s problem is “poverty.”  Rather it’s all the reverse, as if farm rices were normal in 2005, the 2008 prices were way above normal.  They weren’t.  The average 2007-2009 market year prices for corn, wheat and rice were in the bottom 25% of all time prices, with 1 minor exception out of 9.

All of this is very relevant to the article’s discussion of the food movement’s “dominant narrative.” These food crisis issues are not concretely addressed at all in that narrative. Note that these huge mutitrillion dollar issues hugely impacting Africa and the global South (plus black farmers in the US,) are not included in the analysis of the racial component of the movement. Thus, while they write that “mainstream media” has taken hold of the food movement’s narrative, “it also tends to render the food histories and realities of low-income people and people of color invisible.”  I find, however, that this article does exactly that.

Related to the missing farm perspective, I note a couple of supportive comments for the Corporate Food Regime. On p. 91 it’s said that it “efficiently creates … wealth,” and on page 92 a “cornucopian abundance.”  In fact, however, it’s greatly reduced our capacity for US and LDC wealth creation, first by lowering price floors, and then by replacing diversified livestock production with CAFOs.  “Oversupply” has not at all fed the world, that’s clearly the wrong question, according to the facts.  As in the poverty point, oversupply has created massive poverty.  It hasn’t addressed an imaginary food shortage crisis.  It’s greatly increased the real “global food poverty crisis.”

Strategic Movement Analysis (Sans Sufficient Attention to Farm Justice)

Ok, the charts toward the end, and the section, on From Coping to Regime Change:  The Pivotal Role of Food Justice,” gets to the heard of the thesis.  The chart goes from bad to good, from the corporate “neoliberal” position, to “reformist” government, to “progressive” movement measures to “radical” food justice and food sovereignty.

First, the huge underlying issue I’ve emphasized, low farm prices, are not visibly mentioned, nor is the historically huge part of the movement in the US, the family farm justice movement.  We do find, however, the word “parity” (fair trade, living wage farm prices) under Radical, even though it belongs under Reformist government. Reformist government is said to preserve the corporate regime periodically, cyclically.

This fits with how they present the history, lumping together the World War II era and the period from 1953 to the 1980s. Reformist government is said to preserve the Corporate Regime by giving subsidies (maintaining northern farm subsidies) and welfare instead of living wages from the corporations.  Government approaches are thus said to be always on the wrong side, with the implication that the real work is in radicalism, for some day when capitalism is overthrown, and not in the farm bill.

In fact, however, the “Reformist” government made corporations pay at fair trade, living wage levels, with no subsidies needed, during the parity years (1942-1952), with “protection from overproduction,” (which the chart lists under Radical).  Price floors were lowered, and subsidies were invented, but  over time compensations were not “maintained,” but rather prices plus subsidies went lower and lower and lower, as most farmers went out of business, and most of those that remained lost their livestock enterprises.  There is therefore some truth in the analysis, but big anomalies and contradictions that are hidden.

Related to this is the role described for sustainable agriculture and local food, which are surely part of the food movement and related sectors’ narratives.  Here, (under “Progressive” and “Radical,”) the emphasis is on “family and community-managed agriculture and food systems and regionally-based food systems.”  This is similar to the way that “food sovereignty” is often defined as only involving local and regional self reliant approaches.  In fact, however, from a farm justice movement point of view, the main thing about food sovereignty (or farm sovereignty) is at the macro level of government and international agreements, where the US would enact price floors and ceilings and supply management (so we’d make a profit on farm exports, as in past legislation,) with the help of trade agreements with Europe and the Global South.  These policies have been requested by the Africa Group at WTO and La Via Campesina, though the US food movement has usually missed that point.

Note also here that, here in Cedar Rapids, we have a huge farmers market now, with 4 meat vendors (livestock farmers). The Cedar Rapids region, however, the area halfway to Des Moines, Waterloo, Dubuque, Davenport and Iowa City, has more than 2,000 fairly large farms, and many thousands more of small toehold farms and acreages.  Local food is nowhere near to giving adequate markets to farmers in general. I have sold meat in Cedar Rapids. There’s no way the market could soon handle 20, 40, 80 meat vendors, let alone hundreds or thousands, and no profit at all can likely be made at smaller markets (except very gradually for a few farmers if they can develop enough customers purchasing large lots).  All of this is especially true if no macro level (market management, price floor/supply management) policies and programs are enacted, as a cheese vendor, for example, would still be compared to the rock bottom prices that typically undergird store bought cheese.

Another flaw I find here is that the narratives do not address the conservative side of the political spectrum.  Thus we face a farm bill debate this year during a time of economic crisis, with a huge emphasis on budget balancing in Washington. Additionally, we now see a major divide in the Republican Party between the corporate welfare and pro corporate regulation group (neoliberal?) vs. the purist approach that says no to all welfare and all regulation, (and all military adventurism).

We see this in farm politics, in the Iowa Corn Caucus report cards (http://www.iowacorn.org/index.cfm?nodeID=33275&audienceID=1). Here we see that Gingrich gets an A and Santorum an A- on  corporate conservtivism, for their support of deregulation to allow more pollution and to reduce restrictions on trade for big business, but also increased regulation to help biofuels (required percents), plus biofuel subsidies and farm subsidies. Paul and Cain, as an anti Washington purista gets D’s, and Bachman a D+.  More in the center of the pack are Perry, C-, then Romney and Obama with B’s.  What I see as significant here is the critique, during the economic crisis, of corporate conservativism, which is seen both inside and outside of the religious right. Thi Meanwhile Congress has a record low rating.  This can also be seen as a huge opening for a different political narrative.

In response, (or lack of response,) to these political realities we’re presented in the article with the four categories of politics, from neoliberal to reformist to progressive to radical. I find that the food movement generally, including the sustainable agriculture movement, finds itself in a narrative of going to ask for bigger government checks anyway.  In the article I see racism emphasized as a way to move the movement farther in a radical, socialist sounding direction, geared toward ending capitalism. Where, though, does this exist politically in the US in any significant way?  How, in some utopian future, does this change occur? How does it avoid regression into something far worse?

This then strikes me as an example of “Ineffective” side of the “Change Agent” role identified by Bill Moyer, a movement theorist who has influenced the family farm movement (described in greater detail just below).  The ineffective Change Agent can be “Utopian: promotes visions of perfectionism disconnected from current movement needs.”   On the other hand, “Ineffective” aspects of the “Citizen” role include the “Naive citizen” and the “Super-patriot.” These are matters relevant to winning support from farmers and other rural people who are not now much in our movement, and that are courted by agribusiness public relations.

An Alternate Model I’ve Used

I would propose instead a 2 sided model of radical centrism, instead of the continuum of neoliberal (bad) to radical (good).  This is not at all a centrism of half traditional conservative and half of something sort of liberal.  It’s not a call for zero price floors plus huge farm subsidies, for example, it’s a rejection of both.  Neither is it a call for reducing or ending farm subsidies for “big farms” to give the money to other programs, with no mention of price floors, as we find all across the US and EU food movements.  Since almost all of the top 10% of subsidy recipients are family sized farms, and almost all of the bottom 80% are not valid farms, but rather are small/tiny fractions of full time family farms, the food movement’s program would devastate the farmers that they rely on for a wide range of goals, such as developing an alternative food system. It would rapidly pave the way for the Corporate Food Regime.  That is clearly a program to destined to drive farmers and rural residents hugely toward agribusiness perspectives.

Instead I  propose market management, an approach that was the law of the land for decades, an approach even supported by Republican Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, (once in 1985).  In it the US makes a profit on farm exports!  In it huge progress is made on a wide range of food movement goals through the private sector, without government checks, plus, no subsidies are needed, so fewer “bucks” are needed in the farm bill to get the same “bang,” as I’ve explained elsewhere.  This then, brings farmers and other rural people back away from corporate agribusiness.  It hugely addresses the current political climate, serving as a private sector economic stimulus as in the Steagall Amendment of 1941.

What follows is more of my overall movement analysis.

In some ways the article is similar to my own recent interpretation based upon the work of Bill Moyer, which is linked in my content box, “Issue Organizing”  “Success Charts” (http://zcomm.org/author/bradwilson/).  See related Moyer materials linked there

Here’s the direct link to the charts discussed below:  http://asen.org.au/files/2008/10/moyer_charts.pdf.

Moyer’s first chart (p. 1) deals with the “Reformer” vs “Rebel” vs other roles, that also relate to the history of successful movements.

On Moyer’s p. 3 chart, I argue that we’re winning, in that 1. we’ve won “Public Awareness of the Problem,” the multitrillion dollar mega problem of cheap farm commodities, (top line), which has been discussed in the food books and films and in hundreds of mainstream media editorials and articles, plus on mainstream TV.

2. We’ve also won “Public Opposition to Powerholder Policies,” as it’s been widely reported in the media that the Commodity Title of the farm bill is where the problem lies.  It looks, therefore, like we’ve won 2/3 of what we need to be successful.

On line 2 (middle), however, there’s a problem, as the the vast majority of the US and European food and related movements believe that this powerholder policy problem is in the presence of farm subsidies and not in the absence of adequate price floors and ceilings, plus top and bottom side supply management (where no subsidies are needed).

As we move on then to the bottom line, “Public Support for Movement Alternatives,”  the middle line ends up being support for mere subsidy reforms, for zero price floor positions which are the major injustices, so at that point most of the movement doesn’t rise to success, but, out of blindness to the farm justice side of things, crashes downward.  Thus we saw in the last farm bill that the food movement supported zero price floor proposals, the same as agribusiness has called for for decades.  In fact, the recent “reformist” proposals in Congress that were supported by the food movement were much worse than the severe Corporate exploitation positions of the 1960s, as in the CED report calling for running 1/3 of US farmers off the land within five years by lowering price floors drastically (but not eliminating, like the food movement naively advocated in 2006-8).

Going back to the chart on page 1,  I argue then that, on this, the biggest (historically multitrillion dollar) issue, most of the movement tends toward the “ineffective” “reformer” category, with unknowning “co-optation” that inadvertently “identifies more with officail powerholders than grassroots” US, EU and LDC farmers.  It “promotes minor reforms” and “does not advocate paradigm shifts” on this, the central issue.   Meanwhile a smaller group deals with these issues in an effective “change agent” role that is the correct “strategy and tactics for waging long-term movements” and that “promotes alternatives and paradigm shifts.”

Related to all of this is my view that there are 2 parts to the farm bill.  One is market management, the presence or absence of adequate price floors and supply management (including set asides and reserves) in the Commodity title.  This is the big money, the multitrillion dollar money, much bigger than subsidies.  Add to that, (for impact inside of the US, and for balance between crops and livestock, which uses grain or forage for feed,) a Competition Title (ie. GIPSA) to regulate livestock markets to prevent exploitation there.  (Outside of the farm bill, add trade reform.)  This is the trunk of the farm bill tree with enormous global impact, (much bigger than the nutrition title, as it impacts market money as a whole and not just checks from the government) and with enormous impact on the issues of various other farm bill titles (conservation, rural development, nutrition, trade, research, credit).

The other part of the farm bill (the other titles, where the government writes out checks rather than manages markets,) is (are) supplementary, to fix what can’t be handled by the Commodity Title.

We see then that the Commodity Title, in affecting the big money of the market (or not, with zero price floors), has a huge impact on conservation, with adequate price floors and supply management preserving resource conserving crop rotations instead of CAFOs.  Supplementary money is still needed to fine tune the system, but less is needed with a good Commodity Title.  It’s similar for the Research Title, where zero price floors and low market prices  in the Commodity Title fueled a raging fire of bad technology (HFHS, transfats, CAFOs, GMOs and chemicals instead or rotations because farmers lost livestock to cheap feed prices, biofuels, etc.).  Simply pouring money into sustainable Research, without fixing the market crisis of massive subsidization for this research and development is a losing cause.  Thus, as with Moyer, subsidy reforms with the zero price floors of the food movement are “minor reforms,” “co-optation,” etc.

Finally, overall the article, “Reform or Transformation” mostly remains in generalizations and doesn’t concretely illustrate what is huge and strategic, as I’ve done here with the key, multitrillion dollar issue.  It emphasizes a lot of recommended principles and values, but since the farm justice part is left out, and the food movement radically misunderstands the farm subsidy issue, the principles cannot lead to concrete results of movement success.  Clearly, these authors are guilty of their own charges of siding with the Corporate Food Regime.


(Author’s note:  If and when I get time I’ll add more specific footnotes and links in the text.  Until then, see my similar articles for sources.)










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