The Upchuck Rebellion

By Jim Hightower with Susan DeMarco

This article is adapted from their new book, Swim Against The Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow (Wiley, 2008)

Right now, we’re in the midst of a dramatic revolt over something that touches each of our lives every day in the most basic way: dinner!

During the last 50 years, control over America’s food policies quietly shifted from farmers and consumers to corporate executives, shortsighted bureaucrats and economists. These are people who could not run a watermelon stand if we gave them the melons and had the highway patrol flag down customers for them. Yet they took charge of the decisions that direct everything from how food is grown and processed to what our children eat in school.

They were not good deciders, because their interests are not ours. Agricorps don’t see food as a juicy, luscious, nutritious product of nature, but as a profit center to be conglomeratized, industrialized and globalized. We’re not talking about the making of some computer gadget here, but about our dinner! The natural state of food production is that it’s small-scale, agrarian and local. This is because plants and animals are living creatures. Economies of scale are achieved at a surprisingly small level, with both productivity and quality being enhanced by the ability of farmers and artisans to be personally involved with their crops and livestock.

But the agribusiness powers perverted agriculture production from the high art and science of cooperating with nature into a high-cost, high-tech process of overwhelming nature.

To say that they take shortcuts with food in their mad dash for profits understates reality. Let’s be blunt: they torture food! They apply massive doses of pesticides and artificial fertilizers to these living organisms. They inject animals with antibiotics and sex hormones. They turn lab technicians loose to alter the very DNA of organisms, manufacturing mutant “Frankenfoods.” They force grass-eating cows to become carnivores and even cannibals. They blast fruits and veggies with ripening gas and zap them with radiation. They dose the finished foodstuffs with assorted sugars, artificial flavorings, trans fats and chemical preservatives. What we’re left with is “food” that has lost all connection to our good earth and America’s well-being.

In an interview with a USDA official in the early ’70s, Susan DeMarco commented that the off-season supermarket “tomatoes” she’d tried had no taste and (other than shape) bore no relationship to the luscious tomatoes she’d grown up with in New Jersey. The official—in a sincere, life-moves-on tone—dismissed this concern as a minor drawback: “Your children will never know the difference.”  

Wrong. Even as he spoke, people were paying more attention, getting more concerned, and asking more questions than the aloof agribusiness power brokers could possibly imagine. Even as early as 1971, a food awakening was already beginning to take hold. DeMarco and I were in touch with this emerging movement through our work in the 1970s as co-directors of a public interest group with the unwieldy name of Agribusiness Accountability Project. In addition to research and writing, we did a lot of speaking in cities around the country. Some of our friends were baffled that we were going into urban areas to raise what they assumed were farm issues: “Why are you talking about agriculture?”

We weren’t. We were talking about power. We asked consumer-minded audiences, “If you can’t even control what’s in your dinner, what can you control? Who decided to take the flavor out of tomatoes? Why are breakfast cereal prices so high? Who says it’s ‘necessary’ to dump 8 billion pounds of pesticides every year on America’s croplands, with these poisons contaminating the strawberries you give your kids as a treat?”

We were also talking about the emergence of a fledgling populist political alliance that had enormous potential to upset the best-laid plans of the food giants. Discussion of economic structure is usually snore-out-loud boring, but we found that people quickly got into it (and easily “got it”) when we merely held up a box of Wheaties or a can of Campbell’s soup, products that most people in the ’70s had in their kitchens. We then described what these packages held for:

Farmers: On average, only 18¢ of the consumer’s food dollar goes to the farmer (there’s less than a nickel’s worth of wheat in Wheaties. The box costs more).

Farm Workers: You could double the miserly wages they are paid and not raise the price of a can of soup even a penny.

Environment: Saturating fields with pesticides every year is literally killing the soil and has contaminated nearly half of America’s groundwater.

Energy: With centralized agribusiness, the typical food product travels 15 hundred miles to get to your supermarket, wasting massive amounts of fuel.

Consumers: A handful of conglomerates monopolize every aspect of the food economy, leaving consumers overcharged at the cash register and shortchanged on quality.

Let’s see—farmers, laborers, environmentalists and consumers. Gosh, that’s most of us! The Powers That Be work diligently to keep us divided, but if we could come together in a movement that involved us all, something big could happen.

And it is happening. Accelerating from the ’70s, all parts of the movement have had their individual upchuck moments over the way the corporatized, industrialized, globalized food system is working, and they have been rebelling against it. Movements, however, don’t spring forth full-grown. Each part has to develop in its own way. In this case, the various parties had practically no connection, no awareness that all were seeking a better system. Although they had no central leaders, no road map or plan, they’ve gradually found their way by finding one another.

The result is an alternative food economy that has begun to flourish and a proud movement that is surging in popularity:

  • There are some 8,000 organic farmers today, producing everything from wheat to meat (and thousands more farmers are making the transition to organic).
  • Sales of organic food topped $16.7 billion in 2006 and are increasing at about 20 percent a year—10 times the rate of other foods.
  • About 40 percent of American shoppers regularly buy some organic foods.
  • Sales of organic beer (O, progress!) rose 40 percent in 2005. Such entrepreneurial leaders as Morgan Wolaver, the maker of a terrific line of organic brews sold under the Wolaver label, have established an expanding niche for beers made with organic ingredients. (Public disclosure: I have done extensive consumer research into the quality of his suds, although I am not under the influence as I write this.)
  • Direct sales from local farmers to consumers are booming at some 4,000 vibrant farmers markets in practically every city.
  • Food co-ops are thriving, with about 300 of them across the country, totaling $750 million a year in business and providing another way around the corporate system for local farmers, food artisans, and consumers.
  • All levels of eateries—from high-end restaurants to Dot’s Diner—feature organic foods on their menus, as well as locally produced, seasonal ingredients.
  • Such major wholesalers as Sysco, practically all supermarket chains, and giants such as Costco and even Wal-Mart now carry some organic foods, due to consumer demand.

Oh, and those kids who the USDA official declared “will never know the difference?” They’ve been in the lead of this movement from the start. In the ’70s, it was college kids who became the founders of food co-ops, organic farms and other enterprising efforts to get around that hard tomato. In the ’80s and the ’90s, it was young moms who asked, “What’s in this stuff I’m feeding my kids?” and searched out better alternatives.

And today it’s the kids and the grandkids of all of the previously mentioned kids who are helping to push good food into that last refuge of awful “mystery meats” and prepackaged fat bombs: the school cafeteria! The farm-to-cafeteria movement has received little coverage by the national media establishment, but it is spreading across the country. More than 400 school districts and 200 university cafeterias now build their daily menus around fresh, mostly organic ingredients bought from local farmers and food makers.

Also, prodded by the example of Alice Waters—the pioneering visionary and tireless promoter of America’s “good food” movement—many of the youngsters in these schools now grow some of their own food, as well as help to prepare and serve it, as part of a spreading “edible schoolyard” program. Some are even adopting a concept called “edible classroom,” where food is used as an integral part of the curriculum, providing a tangible (and tasty) way to teach history, science, math, geometry and other topics.

Just as good food springs from well-tended ground, so has this grassroots movement. In a remarkably short time, ordinary Americans informed themselves, organized and acted to assert their own values over those of the corporate structure. Family by family, business by business, they have changed not only the market but also the culture. By taking charge of what goes on their plates, people are beginning to take charge of their lives.