Attention shoppers: it’s going to take more than consciousness at the checkout line to fix our broken food system

Whole Life Times
By Christopher D. Cook

Bacterial scares aside, these are propitious days for good food. Burgeoning interest in organic, nontransfatty, local, slow, GMO-free foods suggests a ripening of consciousness that could transform today’s corporate industrial food system into something truly healthful and sustainable. A new Farm Bill on the near horizon combined with a Democratic Congress presents us with a unique opportunity to sway national discourse and policy in a healthier direction.

Yet, today’s most audible food rallying cry — echoed widely at sustainability conferences and in progressive media — exhorts us to “vote with our forks”; that is, put our money where our mouth is by consuming sustainable products. It’s a compellingly simple appeal, and (with $700 billion spent on food annually) not without its merits. But in the marketplace of ideas, this consumerist incantation of “people power” represents an intellectual currency whose value is precariously inflated. A far bolder, more ambitious prescription is needed to repair the multiple food crises plaguing us today.

That consumers carry some sway over the food they are sold is undeniable. Food corporations’ new-found passion for organics is nothing if not a scramble after consumers’ greenbacks. At least partly due to consumer (and activist groups’) pressure, Nabisco reduced transfats in their Oreo cookies, and Kentucky Fried Chicken will soon be deep-frying its millions of chicken parts in non-hydrogenated cooking oils. Progress, to be sure, but it’s just nibbling at the fringes. Meanwhile, the companies get free PR, a fat-gorging nation’s health concerns are quieted — and the underlying corporate-run food system that creates so many serious health and environmental problems goes unchallenged. Witness the Wal-Mart-led corporate takeover of organics, which is already leading to less-than-sustainable industrial organic farms and a steady diluting of federal standards.

Voting with our forks, while a useful first step, falls distressingly short of the needs and possibilities of this historical moment. From contaminated industrial food, to intensely polluting factory farms, to the millions of pounds of toxic pesticides still showered on our produce and ever-proliferating genetically manipulated crops, our food system is in desperate need of fundamental change. We can’t simply shop our way out of this mess. We need a compelling, coherent alternative that channels today’s excitement about good food far beyond the grocery checkout line, to cast votes for public policies and investments that restructure how food is made, marketed and consumed.

Consider what we are up against: today just four or five corporations control nearly every aspect of food, from seeds to commodity crops like grains, food processing, meat production and supermarkets. These firms’ intrinsic need to leverage massive volumes of seemingly cheap food propels a chain of exploitation: farmers pressured into unsustainable monocropping using pesticides; farm workers and meatpackers abused and underpaid to keep food ‘cheap’; and consumers (and taxpayers) footing the bill — in excess of $100 billion a year — for health ailments stemming from this food, which is not so cheap after all.

More than new and better products on our market shelves, and better ingredients in our fast food, America needs a new New Deal for food and agriculture. This starts with the 2007 Farm Bill, that legislative behemoth covering all things food-related, from food stamps to farm subsidies. Groups such as the Community Food Security Coalition, America Farmland Trust, The National Family Farm Coalition and many others are already pushing a promising array of health and sustainability measures.

Broadly, we need to begin redirecting the $25 billion our government spends subsidizing primarily large-scale industrial farming of commodities like corn (used primarily for meat production and fattening food sweeteners, and increasingly for fuel) toward sustainable organic farming. This means shifting our tax dollars to support small to midsized organic farms (and transitional agriculture). It means targeting incentives for local and regional food marketing to improve food security for poor people while expanding markets for area farmers. It means encouraging cities and counties to develop food planning policies that link local farmers with institutions such as schools, hospitals and jails that expand access to healthy food in poor neighborhoods and that educate city residents about the need for sustainable food and farming. It means public investment in a new food and farming infrastructure that makes sustainable, healthful food an everyday reality.

Beyond “voting” at the checkout line, we need to cast critical votes in the arenas of public discourse, policymaking and politics to affect fundamental change. Our votes can come through writing letters to newspapers and politicians, educating peers and neighbors, speaking in community and city meetings, and protesting and agitating for policies that invest in systemic reform, coaxing food and farming from the grasp of corporate shareholders. Until we create such deep fixes, our shopping is just the beginning of our efforts to fix food, instead of the final act it should be.

      Christopher D. Cook is the author of “Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis” (New Press). He has written for



The Economist


Mother Jones


The Christian Science Monitor

      and elsewhere. His website is


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