In the summer of 1776 a small contingent of English colonists articulated a new set of unalienable rights over the archaic theory of divine right of kings, and the American ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy were born. Today, Americans are beginning to express a vision in which the rights that govern our personal and political lives must also extend to something as fundamental as growing the food that nourishes us.
What people are realizing is that, over the past sixty years, the ownership of our food supply has been consolidated into the hands of a few powerful multinational corporations. More and more Americans are finding that the abundance of “cheap” food comes at a high cost to our society, our individual rights and our collective future. As writers from Wendell Berry to Michael Pollan have eloquently argued, the industrialization of food in America has had fundamental health, environmental and economic consequences that can no longer be ignored.
By placing a high value on “cheap” food, Americans have unwittingly allowed corporate agribusiness to outsource the true cost of production onto society. The result has been the pollution of our nation’s rivers and streams, damage to our citizens’ health and a severe breakdown in our nation’s rural communities, where small farmers have been pushed off the land.
While it needs to be remembered that farming, and food production, is a business and a matter of economics, it is also something much more than that–and as the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture noted, “Our economic problems are really moral problems.” The truth is, food production has been a moral question since the founding of our nation, and even before, when our ancestors first ventured here, carving out a place for us by conquering America’s native inhabitants and then enslaving the inhabitants of another continent. Sadly, horrifying abuses can be found in this country today: for example, in the Pigford lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture, which showed rampant discrimination against African-American farmers by the USDA; among the Immokalee workers in the tomato fields of Florida; and in the bunkhouse of mentally disabled men who were discovered living and working in squalor for a turkey processor in Iowa this past winter.
At the same time, a new breed of eater is awakening to the fact that food is not just something of convenience, a balancing of flavor and calories and macronutrients, but part of a larger conversation about how our nation’s democracy functions. For this generation, the idea that we can have a positive impact on the environment, a farmer’s life, rural communities and the welfare of animals by what we choose to eat is only the beginning. Increasingly, Americans want to know where the food they eat comes from, how it was grown and who grew it, because they are beginning to understand the connection between our stomachs and our common destiny.
In an effort to reclaim our right of self-determination, America’s citizens are creating vibrant food democracies by buying food that is organic, sustainable, humane and fairly produced; planting gardens on rooftops and in abandoned lots in urban centers; signing up for community-supported agriculture (CSAs); writing letters to members of Congress demanding that the basic rights that have been enshrined in our Constitution extend to something as fundamental as food.
As we have learned in recent years, freedom in a democracy is only one election or legislative vote away from being extinguished. If we hope to build a sustainable food system for the twenty-first century, now is our time to act. We must be bold. We must be united. Food Democracy Now!
Also in This Forum
Alice Waters: A Healthy Constitution
Dan Barber: Why Cooking Matters
Grace Lee Boggs: Detroit’s “Quiet Revolution”
LaDonna Redmond: Food is Freedom