The Future of the Food Movement

Sometimes checking Twitter compulsively pays off. Last Friday, while checking my feed yet again, I noticed a tweet from Michael Pollan with information on a limited number of tickets for the last Edible Education 101 lecture at UC Berkeley, organized by The Edible Schoolyard Project. Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman would discuss the future of the food movement. My daughter MK and I each snagged a ticket before they disappeared in mere minutes. The event was this past Monday night.

I’ll present you with just some highlights. Writing with pencil and paper and in the small, quiet lecture hall of about 150 people, I think my scratching annoyed the woman sitting next to me—she kept looking down at my notebook—so I didn’t write constantly, which I should have because the lecture was brilliant. You can watch it online here.

Before introducing Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, the Master of Ceremonies set the tone, saying:

“The crisis in the food system in a crisis in culture.” 

Food connects everything in our culture—labor, the soil, education, health, growing, eating, family. If we improve one area, we improve the others. If we abuse one, it affects the others. A food system that relies on poisoning the soil relies on slave labor and vice versa. Not that we actually have an official food system, as I learned Monday. That relatively new term suggests that this country has created an organized network to provide its citizens food. It hasn’t.

What does success look like?

Michael Pollan asked us how we would feel if McDonald’s went all organic, if Wal-Mart carried all pastured meat or Coca-Cola grew organic corn for its high-fructose corn syrup. Imagine fields and fields of organic corn not sprayed with atrazine, protecting the farmers, improving the soil. Several people giggled or moaned.

He went on to say that “The people drawn to this movement are looking for something more profound” and that we’re interested in the big picture—the social aspects of food, not just eliminating the pesticides. Although Whole Foods and Chipotle have resulted in some benefits, we have to do better.

The lecture kept coming back to ideas of social justice in the food system—and food is a social justice issue. I think the audience would agree we need:

  • A fair wage for farm workers and income equality for all
  • The democratization of healthy food
  • The soil and environment enriched by, not depleted from, agriculture
  • Families able to afford to take time to cook and eat together
  • Adequate education, housing, healthcare

So what issues can activists address and win? McDonald’s announced that it will no longer source antibiotic-treated chicken. Michael Pollan called that a victory. Will I eat at McDonalds? Of course not but I welcome fewer antibiotics in our food system.

Why should we worry about antibiotics? Every year, 23000 Americans die from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Mark Bittman approached the White House about this. “Not to worry,” he was told. Homeland Security is on it, creating stronger antibiotics to tackle the superbugs created by, well, antiobiotics. (Do you feel better?)

Here’s something else I hadn’t thought about before Monday night: When the food movement tackles antibiotic use in industrial agriculture, it takes on not one, but two giants: Big Ag and Big Pharma. Two powerful forces. (But so are Pollan and Bittman!) Is that fight “winable”?

Pollan said the food movement needs to find more powerful allies, such as the insurance industry. With Obamacare in place and insurance companies unable to dump clients with pre-existing conditions like Type II Diabetes, the industry has a vested interest in lowering the rates of this once-rare disease. That will come by encouraging those it covers to eat healthier. In other words, the insurance industry needs to take on Big Food.

Where is the food movement now?

Michael Pollan described the food movement as very new, very young and barely existent, and weak but with potential. Still in its early stages and with disparate parts, some of which fight each other (eg., vegans versus farmers pasturing cows), the movement does not have the giant numbers or organizational structure of the environmental movement. Regardless of all of that, he said the corporations are terrified.

He and Mark Bittman gave a powerful example. When Florida tomato pickers couldn’t get anywhere with the growers to improve working conditions—some going as far as staging a hunger strike—they went directly to the brands. They shamed the big corporate buyers—Burger King, McDonald’s, Walmart—and worked with them to finally strike an agreement last year with the growers to improve working conditions and wages. Lately, we’ve seen fast food workers using these same tactics to some success.

Pollan said corporations cherish their brands and will do just about anything to protect those brands. We need to exploit this politically.

“Corporations are powerful but very vulnerable.” — Michael Pollan

If you read my blog at all or sat in that lecture hall Monday night, you already have an interest in, and know about, food issues. But as Michael Pollan said, food issues come as news for many people. Many still don’t realize that most of the “food-like substances” in the grocery store merely pose as food, and that they shouldn’t eat these processed products.

Other points covered

  • Des Moines, Iowa (Iowa is the second largest farming state) has installed the most expensive water-cleaning system in the world. The city is suing the farmers for polluting the water with farm fertilizer runoff, caused by industrial farming. (Have we simply gone mad?)
  • When Walmart conducted a massive carbon audit of its supply chain, it discovered that nitrogen fertilizer carbon generates more emissions than transportation. Think about that for a moment. This multi-national corporation ships stuff from China and elsewhere all over the world. And yet, the food causes more emissions.
  • Fear-mongering by some to protest GMOs has hurt the food movement. The problem with GM foods is the monoculture model it props up and encourages. Companies like Monsanto have made big promises (nitrogen-fixing corn for example) and delivered little (Round-Up Ready crops only). In reality, GMOs, a marketing scheme, exist simply to sell more pesticides. The food movement wastes a lot of energy fighting GMOs using scare tactics rather than encouraging transparency from these companies.
  • We don’t have to wait for governments to get their act together. We can build alternatives now. Today 10 percent of our food economy is local and we can participate in that as much as possible. The market share of local, organic, farmer’s market food keeps increasing and the big guys want a piece of it. That helps drive change.

Closing statements

At the end of the lecture, Mark Bittman offered a no-nonsense two-step approach to food:

  1. Get rid of non-foods.
  2. Eat the real stuff.

Michael Pollan asked us to contemplate this: “How can we make food just and clean and fair?”

After the lecture, I met Michael Pollan and he signed my copy of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. His books changed my life!IMG_20150428_061056

24 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing the link. And great photo – I bet it makes it onto your fridge, if not into a frame!!

    Madeleine.x

    1. You’re welcome, Madeleine. You can watch all the lectures on the Edible Schoolyard Project’s YouTube channel.

      I sent the pic to my sister and she made it her desktop screensaver. Maybe I will do that too 🙂

  2. thanks a heap for the note taking…
    the two step approach is simple and Effective…
    one of the biggest things for people to get is that they hold the power to make real changes around food by how they eat what they buy and by growing their own etc…
    it is a journey and along the way what we want to eat will change also
    social justice growing from outward from food also sounds sane.
    sandra

    1. Thanks for reading my notes, Sandra 🙂 We do have the power to make changes and different choices. That’s why the corporations are terrified–they know this even if we don’t!

      1. I read recently about someone had written a book – no idea now of name etc anyway what I do remember is that they postulated that the one thing that really terrifies the established structure is abandonment. revolution they can handle but to be left high and dry gives them no recourse. and I thought yes that is what we are doing everytime we grow a vege bake a loaf and choose local over corporation…

      2. We are Sandra. I tell people sourdough is the new tattoo 😉 If you want to rebel/abandon the establishment, cook your dinner!

  3. This is so inspiring. I’ve been trying to reduce waste and eat locally, because it’s frightening how out of touch we are with our food (or foodlike substances). Thank you for sharing!

    1. You’re welcome. Thanks for reading it. It was a very inspiring night. I agree, it IS frightening how out of touch we are with our food!

  4. Appreciating your reportage from the epi-centre 🙂

  5. Thank you for reporting on this lecture! It motivates me to keep cooking and eating the real stuff. I’m so glad you got that awesome picture with Pollan!

    1. Thank you Bobbi. I am glad too! I grabbed one of his books on my way out the door just in case he signed books afterward. It made my week! When I think of the political implications of how we eat, it keeps me motivated too! I don’t want to hand over my hard-earned cash to unethical corporations that would have me eat junk so they can reap higher profits!

  6. Another straight to the point post. Thanks! Thanks for photo!

    1. Thanks for checking it out Aggie 🙂

  7. Different coasts, same conversations–we need to be thinking big on this. Thanks so much for highlighting (as you always do!) the important stuff. I work on wellness issues here in NY, esp school kitchen gardens and related topics, and we were just talking about these challenges yesterday. Children are most vulnerable to deficiencies in the system. For their sake if not ours, we need to get smarter about how we feed ourselves. Food is not a small thing, it’s everything. Food is us.

    1. I agree, Lori. Food is everything! It’s amazing that we have lost sight of that. Someone at the lecture quoted Alice Waters as saying the best place to start teaching people about food is in schools with kids at age five. Did you see the documentary Fat Chance? All these kids 12, 13, 14 who are obese and diabetic. Terrible! The processed food companies push the stuff at school, the parents don’t know how to feed their kids (and why would they, no one teaches this anymore!) and the kids are doomed. Hats off to you for working on this in NY 🙂 Oh I just learned today that Mark Bittman has a book coming out, a compilation of his NYT columns. Should be great!

      1. And don’t forget advertising! It costs jillions to make humans forget how great real food tastes. Thx for the boost–I am thrilled to be able to work with a great group of people who are also pulling in this important direction. (That mean, you, too!!!) 🙂

  8. lindsaychichester says: Reply

    Hi Anne Marie (and others),
    I just wanted to offer some insight from the agriculture side of things. First, I am glad these conversations are happening and that people are interested in how their food is grown/raised, however, the fear mongering and finger pointing needs to stop. A little about me for perspective, I grew up on a cow/calf and sheep ranch in Northern California. I went on to study agriculture (systems ag, microbiology, food safety, communication, meat, etc.) at universities in Oklahoma and Texas, and I now live and work in Nebraska. I am the fourth generation on my family’s ranch and agriculture runs in my veins.

    Just a couple of thoughts to consider from your post, “The soil and environment enriched by, not depleted from, agriculture” — did you know that much of the land that is being farmed and ranched in the US has been in the same family for 100+ years? In order to grow grass, livestock, crops, etc. on this ground it is important that we take care of it. On my family ranch we manage invasive weeds (wild iris and thistle) and we also use manure to fertilize the ground to give it the nutrients it needs to keep producing grass, especially during a drought! If a farming/ranching family can keep utilizing the same ground for generations they must be doing something right. Food for thought, farmers and ranchers are required by the Department of Ag to take a pesticide application class every three years before they can apply pesticides on their property. Ironically, the biggest misuse of pesticides comes from homeowners seeking the “perfect” lawn.

    I am glad that many retailers and restaurants are now giving people a choice to support the system in which their food was grown/raised (i.e. organic, natural, GMO free, etc.). However, there have been MANY peer-reviewed research studies done from around the world indicating the above mentioned systems are just as safe, healthy, nutritious, and wholesome to conventionally produced foods. There will always be people who are struggling to just put food on the table for their family, let alone buying a specialty product. While we may choose one type of food over another, our preferences cannot condemn others choices for doing the best they can with the resources they have.

    Finally, I will leave you with this thought, farmers and ranchers know better than most people how to produce food. They have been doing it for centuries and generations. They are not dumb people by any stretch of the imagination, as they have to be current on plant science, animal science, animal/plant reproduction, chemistry, economics, international trade, marketing/promotion, and so much more to make their enterprise a success. While we can choose to support the production system we believe in with our dollars, we also need to support the people growing/raising food across all systems before they are put out of business and food import becomes the name of the game.

    If anyone has any questions about ag or would like resources on various ag topics I would be glad to provide them. I can be found at agriculturalwithdrlindsay.com

    PS – an agricultural movie to balance the conversation is Farmland.

    1. Ummm…did you actually read my post? Where is the fear mongering? Where do I say “all farming is bad,” “eliminate all farmers” or “farmers are morons”? As for specialty products, the fact that the FDA categorizes fruits and vegetables as specialty products is a huge problem right there. Where do I judge anyone for eating only the bad food they can afford? They eat the unhealthy processed food, made from subsidized monocultures, because it costs much less than real food.

      1. lindsaychichester says:

        Yes, I read your post. It seems that you and/or Michael Pollen were making generalizations about agriculture. It is not fair or just to lump farmers and ranchers who do not grow for a small/local area into “big Ag”. Trust me, those of us in agriculture realize there are areas that can be improved across all Ag sectors, but these changes will also need people to stand behind and support production agriculture instead of demonizing it.

    1. At the lecture he and Mark Bittman talked a little about GMOs during the question and answer period (if you want to watch, it’s near the end of the video). They said that Monsanto has promised really nutritious GE crops but has really only delivered lots of Roundup Ready. That seemed to be their problem with GMOs. They didn’t seem anti-GMO technology per se, more anti-how-it’s-being-used-now.

      1. Thank you. Very interesting. I personally am not very open to GMOs, but my high school chemistry teacher is.

      2. I don’t think technology will save us. And Monsanto simply wants to control the seeds. If they can patent the seeds, they control everything. No thanks.

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