April 29, 2011

At the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting this year, Bob Stallman, the group’s president, lashed out at “self-appointed food elitists” who are “hell-bent on misleading consumers.” His target was the growing movement that calls for sustainable farming practices and questions the basic tenets of large-scale industrial agriculture in America.

The “elitist” epithet is a familiar line of attack. In the decade since my book “Fast Food Nation” was published, I’ve been called not only an elitist, but also a socialist, a communist and un-American. In 2009, the documentary “Food, Inc.,” directed by Robby Kenner, was described as “elitist foodie propaganda” by a prominent corporate lobbyist. Nutritionist Marion Nestle has been called a “food fascist,” while an attempt was recently made to cancel a university appearance by Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” who was accused of being an “anti-agricultural” elitist by a wealthy donor.

This name-calling is a form of misdirection, an attempt to evade a serious debate about U.S. agricultural policies. And it gets the elitism charge precisely backward. America’s current system of food production — overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, government subsidies and fossil fuels — is profoundly undemocratic. It is one more sign of how the few now rule the many. And it’s inflicting tremendous harm on American farmers, workers and consumers.

During the past 40 years, our food system has changed more than in the previous 40,000 years. Genetically modified corn and soybeans, cloned animals, McNuggets — none of these technological marvels existed in 1970. The concentrated economic power now prevalent in U.S. agriculture didn’t exist, either. For example, in 1970 the four largest meatpacking companies slaughtered about 21 percent of America’s cattle; today the four largest companies slaughter about 85 percent. The beef industry is more concentrated now than it was in 1906, when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle” and criticized the unchecked power of the “Beef Trust.” The markets for pork, poultry, grain, farm chemicals and seeds have also become highly concentrated.

America’s ranchers and farmers are suffering from this lack of competition for their goods. In 1970, farmers received about 32 cents for every consumer dollar spent on food; today they get about 16 cents. The average farm household now earns about 87 percent of its income from non-farm sources.

While small farmers and their families have been forced to take second jobs just to stay on their land, wealthy farmers have received substantial help from the federal government. Between 1995 and 2009, about $250 billion in federal subsidies was given directly to American farmers — and about three-quarters of that money was given to the wealthiest 10 percent. Those are the farmers whom the Farm Bureau represents, the ones attacking “big government” and calling the sustainability movement elitist.

Food industry workers are also bearing the brunt of the system’s recent changes. During the 1970s, meatpackers were among America’s highest-paid industrial workers; today they are among the lowest paid. Thanks to the growth of fast-food chains, the wages of restaurant workers have fallen, too. The restaurant industry has long been the largest employer of minimum-wage workers. Since 1968, thanks in part to the industry’s lobbying efforts, the real value of the minimum wage has dropped by 29 percent.

Migrant farmworkers have been hit especially hard. They pick the fresh fruits and vegetables considered the foundation of a healthy diet, but they are hardly well-rewarded for their back-breaking labor. The wages of some migrants, adjusted for inflation, have dropped by more than 50 percent since the late 1970s. Many grape-pickers in California now earn less than their counterparts did a generation ago, when misery in the fields inspired Cesar Chavez to start the United Farm Workers Union.

While workers are earning less, consumers are paying for this industrial food system with their health. Young children, the poor and people of color are being harmed the most. During the past 40 years, the obesity rate among American preschoolers has doubled. Among children ages 6 to 11, it has tripled. Obesity has been linked to asthma, cancer, heart disease and diabetes, among other ailments. Two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight, and economists from Cornell and Lehigh universities have estimated that obesity is now responsible for 17 percent of the nation’s annual medical costs, or roughly $168 billion.

African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and more likely to be poor. As upper-middle-class consumers increasingly seek out healthier foods, fast-food chains are targeting low-income minority communities — much like tobacco companies did when wealthy and well-educated people began to quit smoking.

Some aspects of today’s food movement do smack of elitism, and if left unchecked they could sideline the movement or make it irrelevant. Consider the expensive meals and obscure ingredients favored by a number of celebrity chefs, the snobbery that often oozes from restaurant connoisseurs, and the obsessive interest in exotic cooking techniques among a certain type of gourmand.

Those things may be irritating. But they generally don’t sicken or kill people. And our current industrial food system does.

Just last month, a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that nearly half of the beef, chicken, pork and turkey at supermarkets nationwide may be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. About 80 percent of the antibiotics in the United States are currently given to livestock, simply to make the animals grow faster or to prevent them from becoming sick amid the terribly overcrowded conditions at factory farms. In addition to antibiotic-resistant germs, a wide variety of other pathogens are being spread by this centralized and industrialized system for producing meat.

Children under age 4 are the most vulnerable to food-borne pathogens and to pesticide residues in food. According to a report by Georgetown University and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion. That figure does not include the cost of the roughly 20,000 annual deaths from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

One of the goals of the Farm Bureau Federation is to influence public opinion. In addition to denying the threat of global warming and attacking the legitimacy of federal environmental laws, the Farm Bureau recently created an entity called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to “enhance public trust in our food supply.” Backed by a long list of powerful trade groups, the alliance also plans to “serve as a resource to food companies” seeking to defend current agricultural practices.

But despite their talk of openness and trust, the giants of the food industry rarely engage in public debate with their critics. Instead they rely on well-paid surrogates — or they file lawsuits. In 1990, McDonald’s sued a small group called London Greenpeace for criticizing the chain’s food, starting a legal battle that lasted 15 years. In 1996, Texas cattlemen sued Oprah Winfrey for her assertion that mad cow disease might have come to the United States, and kept her in court for six years. Thirteen states passed “veggie libel laws” during the 1990s to facilitate similar lawsuits. Although the laws are unconstitutional, they remain on the books and serve their real purpose: to intimidate critics of industrial food.

In the same spirit of limiting public awareness, companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical have blocked the labeling of genetically modified foods, while the meatpacking industry has prevented the labeling of milk and meat from cloned animals. If genetic modification and cloning are such wonderful things, why aren’t companies eager to advertise the use of these revolutionary techniques?

The answer is that they don’t want people to think about what they’re eating. The survival of the current food system depends upon widespread ignorance of how it really operates. A Florida state senator recently introduced a bill making it a first-degree felony to take a photograph of any farm or processing plant — even from a public road — without the owner’s permission. Similar bills have been introduced in Minnesota and Iowa, with support from Monsanto.

The cheapness of today’s industrial food is an illusion, and the real cost is too high to pay. While the Farm Bureau Federation clings to an outdated mind-set, companies such as Wal-Mart, Danone, Kellogg’s, General Mills and Compass have invested in organic, sustainable production. Insurance companies such as Kaiser Permanente are opening farmers markets in low-income communities. Whole Foods is demanding fair labor practices, while Chipotle promotes the humane treatment of farm animals. Urban farms are being planted by visionaries such as Milwaukee’s Will Allen; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is defending the rights of poor migrants; Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is fighting to improve the lives of food-service workers; and Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver and first lady Michelle Obama are pushing for healthier food in schools.

Calling these efforts elitist renders the word meaningless. The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else. They live in the most polluted neighborhoods. They are exposed to the worst toxic chemicals on the job. They are sold the unhealthiest foods and can least afford the medical problems that result.

A food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable.

Eric Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and a co-producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.”

Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.