Why I’d Rather Be a Team Big Dissident, Than a Team Small Cheerleader

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This piece originally appeared in REALFOOD.ORG.

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I’m coming up on half way through Maureen Ogle’s In Meat We Trust, which I’m enjoying and learning a lot from. It gives me the context to understand the historical context for the point she made the other day.:

On one side of the conflict stand the members of Team Big. They support an “industrial” model of farming that includes large scale, specialization, and the use of technologies like concentrated agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs), specialized seeds, and genetically modified organisms.

On the other side stands Team Small: Reformers who argue that industrial agriculture is bad for people, animals, and the environment. They want to replace it with small-scale, family-owned-and-operated farms that rely less on “inputs” and more on nature and are oriented to local rather than national and global markets.

I’m not a betting woman, but if someone demanded my money or my life, I’d bet on Team Big. Not because I believe that the industrial model is inherently superior, but because Team Small’s boutique-like alternative ignores the structural and historical realities that the industrial model was designed to address. Yes, in our affluent society, there’s room aplenty for the niche agriculture favored by Team Small. But as a foundation for agriculture as a whole, history shows that it cannot succeed.

Which goes to the discomfort I very quickly began to feel almost as soon as I started to identify myself with the Food Movement. I am greatly inspired by a lot of the animating spirit of the movement. I’m an environmentalist. I’m naturally inclined to root for the small guy. I’m critical of capitalism. I think the Standard American Diet is a national disgrace. All of that means that I want to see big improvements in our environmental impacts and big improvements in diet related health outcomes, especially for low income citizens. I don’t just want to read stories about cool projects that people are doing. I want to see significant improvements in CDC numbers on diabetes, heart disease and low income life expectancy.

As much as farmer’s markets, CSAs, and co-op stores appeal to me, they can’t achieve the scale of changes that I want to see. To me reforming our food system means improving industrial agriculture, not trying to replace it. I’m interested in what a left/progressive response to the major issues in industrial ag looks like. How are our labor laws failing farm workers? Which best practices need to be better integrated into current systems? How can we extend school lunch reform into every cafeteria? What are the proper regulatory responses to antibiotics in meat production, water pollution from agricultural sources, soil erosion, greenhouse gases? We live in an industrial society, with the population largely centered in cities. Just as we don’t expect our phones, or cars, or sneakers, or medicine to be locally made by small producers, we can’t expect our food to come from those kinds of producers in way that approaches the scale that we consume.

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On issues like healthcare and energy, liberals and progressives quite clearly see reform as meaning setting standards for the industry as well as encouraging scalable new approaches that can have major impacts. No one is proposing replacing our healthcare system with a ragtag network of scrappy community clinics. Healthcare reform means reforming the healthcare industry, not de-industrializing it. Why wouldn’t we approach the food system the same way? Where the Food Movement is pushing for evidence based regulatory reform, I’m there, all the way. Where they are pushing for improvements in school lunches at the local and federal level, I’m there. Where the Food Movement stands with farm workers and fast food workers for better pay and working conditions, I’m with them.

But, I also see a lot of projects and attention given to projects that can only amount to becoming rounding errors. In fact, it sometimes seems like antagonism towards scalablity is the price of admission. Farmer’s markets are great cultural assets for a community, they can be smart place-making and economic development moves for local governments. But in a country of 314 million people, in a 15.6 trillion dollar economy, they will always be a rounding error in the food system. I’m more interested in seeing supermarket chains that serve the triple bottom line.

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