National Farm AND Food Policy, Response to Bittman et al

Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter have been doing some integrative work on farm and food policy issues, as seen in the recent call for a “National Food Policy” from President Obama, in the Washington Post.

“How a national food policy could save millions of American lives”


This is an important contribution to the Farm and Food Movement of today, and deserves serious discussion.

The proposal certainly contains a broad diversity of ideas that are widely shared.  My response to it comes from the farm side, and specifically from the Farm Justice or Family Farm Movement point of view.  My thesis is that what’s needed is a policy that more fully incorporates the farm side into it, which means that it’s a policy that, in it’s formulation, includes, rather than excludes, the “family farm” point of view, which represents about 5 decades of extensive experience with the issues, and which which emphasizes farm-side justice (or “farm justice”).

In short, inclusion of “farm justice” farmers and perspectives significantly corrects, expands and strengthens the overall paradigm of KNOWLEDGE, reverses, in important ways, a major mega flaw in the paradigm of JUSTICE, and then leads to a much bigger and more powerful paradigm of STRATEGY.


I discuss it under the following, interrelated headings.














Ok, here it is.


This section focuses on the interplay of the politics and the timing of the proposal.  The proposals is timed as a response to the recent federal election, in which Democrats lost ground, and especially, lost the Senate.  It is a proposal to President Barack Obama about actions he can take now, before the Republicans take power.  While he could also take this action later, the idea seems to be that it would be an importantly assertive action that would expose flaws in the approach to food (and farm) issues by Republicans, and position the President well for the future.

One strength of the proposal, in this regard, is that it addresses key strengths, key positives, in relation to Obama and to our movement.  For example, it is tied strongly to his work on health care, the Affordable Care Act, which is surely important to his presidential legacy.  Likewise public health is an important new sector in our movement.

Other positive signs of initiative are attributed to Obama as well.  His antitrust hearings are mentioned, as are his “promises to regulate … antibiotics,” two items that did not succeed.  Also relevant is the work of First Lady Michelle Obama on food and health.  The two make a pair, therefore, around the health side of the food issue.

From a farmer perspective we could add that Obama was the candidate, (campaigning toward the Iowa caucuses,) who best listened to farmer voices.  He held and attended an important meeting with Iowa farmers.  Later at the state fair, when I asked both parties for literature related to agricuture, he was about the only candidate at any level who had anything.

On the other hand, farm justice advocates note that Obama has never shown much support for the big issues of cheap food, (as partly understood in this food policy proposal).  He’s never really supported Price Floor programs to make agribusiness pay instead of subsidies, (and instead of forcing farmers to subsidize agribusiness with cheap food, feed, fiber, etc.).  For example, while campaigning here, (in Cedar Rapids,) he advocated for a subsidy approach, with no price floors.  When I confronted him on this, he answered with something like “what farmers really need is a price in the market place,” but that’s the last we heard of him knowing anything about that.

Likewise, on the antitrust hearings, his lead man, Mark Toby of the Department of Justice, discounted farmers views as mere stories, prior to any hearing, and instead touted “experts” (i.e. Sheldon Kimmel of DOJ,) arguing that antitrust wouldn’t apply if the mega corporations could make the case that they were somehow helping consumers.  Certainly at the Ankeny hearing, here in Iowa, the deck was stacked in exactly that way.  Obama ended up getting tons of good press out of it, with nothing much resulting.

I don’t see, then, that there’s much chance of Obama supporting a national food policy with any teeth in it.  These things can easily be turned into spin.

See the next section for more thoughts on today’s political moment.


The document, which is proposed by couple of journalists and an academic scientist with Land Grant training, seems to give a lot of weight to the power of ideas, and to downplay the political struggle at the grassroots level, such as that which farmers have been fighting for 60 years, mostly without urban side support.  We’ve suffered massive losses, with the repeated exhaustion of important lead organizations, over those decades.  Meanwhile the farm bill has only gotten worse.

In contrast, there seems to have be, ongoing, a lot of optimism in the brand new, (at least at anything remotely approaching this scale,) urban-side food movement.  Meanwhile, the food movement seems to know little about the earlier political history of the issues, including lead issues in this proposal.

Consider, by contrast, the proposal of Progressive Populists and written by Al Krebs, “A Progressive Populist Declaration of Independence.”  It’s the focus of the Epilogue in Kreb’s book, The Corporate Reapers:  The Book of Agribusiness, an can be found as Appendix J. (cf. http://www.populist.com/07.16.krebs.html or http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/07/05/21st-century-populist-declaration-of-independence/).  The focus, to conclude Kreb’s own massive synthesis of the issue, was on corporatism, and populist struggle for power.  Clearly, the food movement today represents a new populist moment, a moment that could easily be lost of we do not effectively seize it.

Note that Krebs, (also originally a journalist,) wrote that out of decades of movement experience, (he was part of Jim Hightower’s Agribusiness Accountability Project during the 1970s, and he worked for PrairieFire Rural Action in Iowa during the 1980s-90s farm crisis.  He also had a back ground of extensive work with farm worker movements, in California, for example.  He also was closely in touch with consumer movements, having worked for Ralph Nader.  He also was a tireless advocate for bringing the food side of the issue into the farm-side movement for justice, (as was Jim Hightower, cf Eat Your Heart Out:  How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer, 1974).  (Cf. Hamburger USA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTu91MhVTVc&index=3&list=PL80BDEB0F29C939EB)

A key problem with being able to “seize the day,” seize the new populist moment, under the leadership of people like Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Ricardo Salvador, is that their synthesis misunderstands the key issues, thereby representing a much reduced paradigm of KNOWLEDGE, a backwards paradigm of JUSTICE, as I document below, and a paradigm of STRATEGY that leaves us divided and  conquered, essentially half of a movement.

According to movement strategist Bill Moyer, successful social movements must first win public understanding of the problem, and surely the food movement has been doing great on that, as it’s been all over mainstream media.  Just look at Bittman and Pollan!  Awesome!

The second step is to win public understanding of the policy problem.  Here the results are mixed, for example on the signature issue of cheap food.  The Food Movement has clearly gotten a message out mainstream that the root of the problem is in the farm bill, and basically in the Commodity Title.  Great!

Unfortunately, that’s where it ends, as it’s misunderstood, (in the movement and in this proposal,) that the problem is the ABSENCE of market management policies and programs, especially minimum Price Floors set at “living wage,” “fair trade” (i.e. “parity,”) levels, backed up by supply management.  (Plus topside Price Ceilings to protect the US and global poor, backed up by Reserve Suppliles.)

The third component to achieve a successful new populist moment is public knowledge of movement alternatives.  Here what’s “known” is the false solution of subsidy reforms, which does nothing about the cheap food or injustice against US and global farmers, (i.e.  including 80% of the the global “undernourished”).

Nothing can be won by advocacy that subverts the very goals being sought after.  Victory isn’t possible from such a strategy of unknowing support for agribusiness, such as junk food makers, CAFO corporations, and export dumpers.

This is explained further, below.


THE CASE FOR A FOOD FOCUS.   Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Ricardo Salvador are considered to be leaders in the US “Food” Movement.  It is no surprise, therefore, that these authors have chosen “food” as the key descriptive unit for their “national policy” statement.  They have distinguished it further  with the statement that “an agricultural policy is not the same as a food policy.”

On the other hand, they introduce the idea with reference to “how we produce and consume food.”  Throughout the piece they seem to swing back and forth between these two approaches.  “We have no food policy,” they argue, “for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.”

In part, this is related to a focus on health.  In the conclusion, for example, they refer to a “food system … that works for us rather than exploits us, … that encourages health rather than undermines it.”  Health is one of 2 concerns, (with the environment,) in a bullet point on “farm policies.”  It’s their key to the difference between “an agricultural policy” and “a food policy,” as mentioned above.  Health seems to be the signature issue for the article.

The authors use these very words, “signature issue,” in reference to First Lady Michelle Obama’s work on a “national agenda.”  It is, then, a theme related to influencing the President.

Elsewhere, however, they include environmental concerns, including climate change and our “carbon footprint,” the treatment of animals, and “a fair wage” in “the food industry.”  They also refer to feed for livestock and fuel, biofuels.  They also refer to “the ability of the world’s farmers to make a living from their land.”

THE CASE AGAINST A FOOD FOCUS.  What I see from the previous section is that the focus is not just on food, but is also on farming, in spite of the specific denial of the issues being matters of agricultural policy.  Here, after a brief introduction, is some more discussion from the farm side.

Some years ago, the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote a comprehensive “Study of History.”  Right up front he explained his view of the appropriate unit of study.  He chose the level of civilizations, arguing that that’s the context in which the big events of history happen.  Things tend to have a certain consistency within a civilization, but not between civilizations, though he looked for those patterns in his project.

My view is that we need good work of synthesis on many levels, and through a variety of lens.  I see, therefore, no general or inherent reason why there shouldn’t be a project on “food policy.”

In this case, however, I think there are big reasons not to limit the focus to food.  For one thing, our movement should be understood as a Farm and Food Movement.  That is essential for a variety of reasons.  (Sometimes the term “Sustainable Food” is used, but that too is too small of a unit.)

First, farming is a larger category, and the problems identified in the article cannot be solved for food without being solved for farming as a whole.  On this point we sometimes hear things that make sense to “food” leaders, but that are quite irrational from a “farm” point of view.  For example, for the goal of making healthy food more accessible, food movement leaders have called for significantly increasing production.  Recently at Sojourners, for example, Tom Philpott called for reducing production of corn and soybeans by 10% in the midwest, in order to increase production of vegetables and fruit.  I find, however, (using 2009 data,) that doing this in just 10 midwestern states would increase total vegetable and fruit acres by 160%!  Meaning to 260%!  An attempt to do such a thing would clearly be enormously destructive to the very goals of these food leaders.  Clearly, significant changes in the “food system” must take full account of the “farming system.”

Second, in the recent phase of Farm and Food Movement history, which started in the early 1950s, we were first a Family Farm Movement, for 4-5 decades, in which activists kept asking: “Where are the consumers?  Why aren’t they supporting us?”  This is the authentic genealogy of today’s food movement.  Our ancestors were farm activists, and today they are our forgotten and neglected elders.  This is a major problem that must be fixed, as I show in a variety of ways below.


This brings us to the stakeholder question.  When this article was linked recently on COMFOOD, one reflexive response was:  “sure would help to have like…a real farmer co-write these and not just a bunch of privileged white males.”  That was, I have good reason to believe, a response to some serious (or “fatal”) flaws in the proposal, which I examine below.  The specific flaws in the proposal, though, are massively shared in today’s food movement, leading it, for example, to unknowingly side with agribusiness against it’s own major goals, including major goals in this article.  This can only be fixed by expanding the Movement’s stakeholder base to include long time farm activists.

The stakeholder question, (sure would help to have like… a real farmer co-write these,) can be compared with similar work from the (forgotten) past decades from the farmer side of the issues.  For example, during the 1980s, Jim Hightower and Jim Nichols put together a comprehensive farm bill proposal.  In that case, however, they took it around the country to grassroots groups for input.  I attended one of those grassroots meetings. It was held in Iowa after the National Farm Crisis Action Rally, in February 1985, so people who could stay longer before going home to do chores, listened and gave input.  (And by the way, there were consumer, labor and church groups speaking at the rally.)

Another example is the United Farmer and Rancher Congress, sponsored by Farm Aid, in September 1986. More than 1,000 elected delegates attended, coming out of 500 local meetings in all of the lower 48 states.  So again, an extensive process of listening and discussion and voting went into formulating the final position statement.

To be fair, the Family Farm Movement has had to work hard over the years at broadening it’s approach.  During the 1960s, within a 6 month period, the National Farmers Organization mobilized a million people in 19 states to come out to meetings against cheap food.  During the 70s 40,000 farmers attended a big rally in Washington, and at one point farmers camped out through the winter on the Mall.  It was really in the 1980s, however, that the appeal was most successfully broadened.  Still, “sustainable” family farmers split away and formed their own movement, even rejecting the key “farm justice” proposals and programs, and significant consumer side support didn’t show up much until the 21st century, and they too failed to connect with farmers on the key justice issues.  In fact, we see that in this very proposal.

The problems, then, with this new food-side proposal, start with the new Food Movement’s disconnect with the earlier decades of massive movement history, continuing in isolation from the Farm Justice (Family Farm) Movement.  While it’s shown some great support on sustainability issues, farmer-side justice is what has gotten left out.  Again, at root, I see it as a stakeholder issue.  This proposal has a stakeholder problem.  It misses the mark on farm justice.


In major ways, the stakeholder problem is a geographical shortcoming.  Today’s Food Movement is big on the coasts and in major cities.  The earlier Family Farm (Justice) Movement was big across the vast farming regions of the interior, (cornbelt, wheatbelt, cottonbelt, dairybelt, western rangelands).  The Food Movement and this proposal are weak in addressing the stakeholder concerns of these other regions.

Here we see that, Pollan hails from California, Bittman from New York City, De Shutter at the UN, and Salvador’s organization is East and West coast plus Chicago.  Though he spent time in Iowa, it was at Iowa State University, which has a long record of being far to the wrong side of the big justice issues (i.e. calling for cheap farm prices to drive farmers out of business, for example in major statements in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s).  His work has been a serious concern to leading farm justice advocates here, such as George Naylor, (former education director of the North American Farm Alliance, 80s-90s, and former president of the National Family Farm Coalition, 2000s,) and me.

What’s needed is fairly straightforward and simple.  The urban oriented food-side movement needs to thoroughly engage with the farm side movement movement of the rural regions in producing such a statement of national policy.


THE FARM SUBSIDY FLAW(S).  My concerns with the proposal relate to the understandings that are conveyed about the farm side of some key themes, especially the matter that is commonly known by the term “farm subsidies.”  On these questions, the Food Movement as a whole is strongly and widely consistent with it, which is why the concerns are so important.

I guess we’d say that the signature issue of agricutural policy that is highlighted is  the matter of farm subsidies for “corn and other grains,” which is then compared with the governments “My Plate” nutritional standards, and with various specific and very serious health concerns.

Farm-side policy is set into a historical context in the op-ed as follows:

“Our food system is largely a product of agricultural policies that made sense when the most important public health problem concerning food was the lack of it and when the United States saw “feeding the world” as its mission. These policies succeeded in boosting the productivity of American farmers, yet today they are obsolete and counterproductive, providing billions in public support to an industry that churns out a surfeit of unhealthy calories — while at the same time undermining the ability of the world’s farmers to make a living from their land.”

This is a serious misreading of history and of current reality, in a variety of important ways.  First, the agricultural policies of the past no longer exist, (with very minor exceptions,) so there is no comparison to be made.  More specifically, the policies of today make no sense for today of for the past.  To suggest that they ever made sense is to side with agribusiness exploiters against the goals of the proposal.

In contrast, the farm policies of the past made sense then, and they make sense today as well.  They are not obsolete, by any stretch of the imagination!  They’re the key farm policy solution that’s missing from this proposal, and from today’s Food Movement as a Whole, leading both, therefore, to (unknowingly) side directly with agribusiness and against their own very fine values and goals.  They’re also missing from the farm bill.

Second, it isn’t a one-sided issue (formerly a food shortage, now a food surplus).  The primary issue has always been oversupply.  There was never much of a time of an ongoing shortage of food.  As agricultural economist Daryll Ray has put it, for example, there were only “three times in a century,” the 20th century, when surpluses were not a problem (World War I, World War II, and the 1970s).

On the other hand, we never want to run out of food, as a country or as a world!  So the problem of a lack of food, of “boosting the productivity of American farmers,” can never be dropped as “obsolete.”


Third, the meaning of the overproduction issue is, as Ray has put it, that the farm bill was originally created to fix the “lack of price responsiveness” “on both the supply and the demand sides for aggregate agriculture.”  In other words, the farm bill wasn’t created as a “temporary” measure to address the temporary problems of the Great Depression, as has so often been claimed by food and hunger groups.  It was created to address the lack of price responsiveness, which had been a problem for 60 years prior to the Great Depression, (with occasional brief exceptions).  Toward this end it was made into “permanent” legislation, (but only as a fall back position).

What this means is that farm markets, especially those for storable grains and other, similar “commodity” crops, don’t self-correct under ‘free’ market conditions.  That is, they don’t self-correct very well at all under most market conditions we’ve had over the past 150 years.  We see this very clearly on into the 21st century.  1997 to 2005 we had the lowest farm prices in history, (i.e. using USDA-ERS records,) including 8 of the 9 lowest prices for corn and soybeans.  This occurred after the ending of the original farm programs in 1996.  The 1996 farm bill failed so seriously, (and so soon after the 1980s farm crisis,) that Congress enacted 4 emergency farm bills, in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001.  (This hid the failure of Congress and ended up placing the blame on their victims, on farmers.)

For just four crops, (corn, soybeans, rice and peanuts, but NOT for wheat, cotton, oats, barley and grain sorghum,) we then had about seven years of much higher prices, above the full cost of production.  In 2014 we’ve again seen much lower prices for corn and soybeans, showing the need for the earlier farm programs.



Fourth and most importantly, giving subsidies to farmers doesn’t cause Cargill (exporter), ADM Corn Sweeteners, Tyson (CAFOs) or Shuanghui (CAFOs) to pay cheap prices to farmers, any more than food aid to hungry people in Africa is the cause of export dumping.  Giving food subsidies to poor people in rich countries does not cause Walmart to pay low wages. The poor people in rich countries, though they’re not as poor as poor people elsewhere, are not the ones to be blamed.  Since it’s well understood that cutting food aid or food stamps is not a solution, the same logic should be applied to farmers.  In all cases the subsidies are like firetrucks.  They’re associated with fires.  As it turns out, however, firetrucks don’t actually cause fires.  The correlations are not causations.

Translation:  While the “billions in public support to” the farmers in “an industry” is correlated with a food system that “churns out a surfeit of unhealthy calories,” there is no practically significant causal relationship.  Subsidies are not what cause the problem of junk food makers being able to pay cheap junk food ingredient prices to farmers.  It is meaningless to put the two together, and misleading, as it points to a solution that maintains the benefits to junk food makers, (buying cheap from farmers,) while blaming and further hurting their victims (farmers).

Additionally, since subsidies to farmers don’t cause cheap market prices, they’re not what has long been undermining the ability of the world’s farmers to make a living from their land.”  On these points, I don’t see where anyone, (i.e. including Pollan, Bittman, Salvador’s science organization,) has ever provided any valid evidence in support of these claims, the claims in the article.


This then brings us back to this signature argument of comparing vegetables and fruits with “corn and other grains.”  The structure of the argument, (as partly illustrated above,) is sort of like saying that people in poor neighborhoods are given a lot of food subsidies, while other people who really don’t make all that money don’t get them.  Therefore we should stop food subsides, as they cause poverty.  So the government is trying to stop poverty in one place, but then giving food subsidies at the same time, so we need a consistent policy.  And then, to make the absurdities of the argument even more explicit, we could refer to people on food stamps who get the most money, (the people with more kids,) as “Big Food,” in cahoots with the big food companies, (like we do with the farmers who get the most farm subsidies).  We could then say that the food subsidy recipients are the dominant lobby, as they get the most farm bill money.  We could say that they get what they’ve always wanted (low wages, but with big subsidies).  So isn’t this all totally absurd!

Yes!  So it should never be the structure of an argument that farmers are beneficiaries of the farm bill in recent years, that they’ve lobbied for cheap prices to be paid to them by agribusiness, or that they are, essentially part of the agribusiness complex.  All crop farmers are hurt by cheap prices, and the bigger the farm, the bigger the reduction, (which is why they receive bigger subsidies).  At the same time, subsidies have never come close to making up for the reductions in price levels that farmers have received over the years.  The problems are caused, then, not by the farm bills giving things to farmers, (as if corn is “King”).  They’ve always been caused by taking things away from farmers, by lowering farm prices such that, even with subsidies, the net result is a huge reduction (corn is a “pauper”).


Following our firetruck analogy above, the solution is not to simply eliminate firetrucks just because they correlate with fires.  The solution is to eliminate the NEED for fire trucks, to eliminate the NEED for farm subsidies.  That, however, is to speak negatively.  Positively speaking, what’s needed is to raise farm prices to fair levels, and that’s done, in part, by managing the supply to balance supply and demand.

We can also understand this in terms of the food subsidy analogy.  Poor people always need to be fed, of course, but most fundamentally they first need a living wage, plus adequate labor policies and full employment policies.  Our policies shouldn’t start with poor wages and etc., with the idea that the government should just write checks to hide the atrociousness of Congressional policies.  Justice is foundational.

The same holds for farmers.  Farmers shouldn’t subsidize everyone’s food below “living wage” farm price levels, as they have for 60 years, or below minimum wage levels over much of that time, or below costs, as they often have, even with subsidies, in recent decades.  (For example, in 6 USDA-ERS studies of “commodity costs and returns” for 6 major crops, farm prices plus subidies were below full costs overall, [for all years, on average,] in each case.)


The dominant narrative is economic.  The biggest key to winning is to win on economic issues.  LIkewise, this has been a huge political question for the Obama administration!

Tragically, as it turns out, synthesizing a powerful narrative for distributive economic justice has been the strength of the very Farm Justice (Family Farm) Movement that has been essentially excluded from a leadership role in the new urban-side food movement.  Our six decades of experience in fighting on these issues has yet to make it into this new movement.

One problem is that family farmers are very different and much misunderstood sort of creatures.  We’re blue collar businessmen and women, but then we come from an affectional, familistic cultural ethnicity.  We don’t seem to fit very well or rate very highly on the conventional scorecard of progressive, “politically correct” values.  All too often progressives are inclined to say:  “We’re for people, not for profit!”  It’s sort of like having a strategy meeting with agribusiness and conceding:  “We’ll take health, your can have wealth.”  In fact, however, as the Family Farm Movement well knows, we also win on the issue of profit, (profit for the people,) on private sector wealth creation and on jobs creation.  It’s a serious omission, a fatal flaw, to farm justice farmers, to NOT treat economic wealth, such as farm-side US and global distributive economic justice, as a signature issue.

This then, is another shortcoming of KNOWLEDGE that then fails as a paradigm of JUSTICE, that then fails as STRATEGY.  For one thing, we alone seem to know where our movement can find an extra $96 billion in Farm Bill money without further exploiting farmer victims.  We can then easily win arguments with the conservatives, with their hugely expensive welfare farm bill, where the US and all of our Farm States lose massive amounts of money over decades, on below cost farm exports to places like Russia and China.  Economic health, as defined by farm justice farmers, is BOTH more fiscally conservative AND more progressive.  This, I believe, is our most powerful argument.  While having these great ideas hasn’t been sufficient for victory by farmers alone, (as our numbers have shrunk so drastically these past 60 years,) all of that has changed with the rise of this awesome consumer side Food Movement.

Surely, Farm AND Food, both broadly conceived, must come together powerfully for any proposal of National Policy that has a hope of achieving the awesome vision that these writers have set before us.

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