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February 05, 2020 News » Cover Story

The scrappy champions of healthy food take on the predators of industrial ag 


click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

As we hurtle into the 2020s, the future of our food economy (and food itself) remains a fiercely contested competition between diametrically opposed visions: 1) a negative pole consisting of the concentrated forces of corporate agriBusiness, which view the dinner plate strictly in terms of their own profits; and 2) a positive pole of family farmers, consumers, food artisans, environmentalists and other grassroots advocates of agriCulture, who envision our food future from the perspective of personal and environmental health, sustainability and democratic control.

Of course, in this Time of Trump, the corporate interests rule national policy. If there were ever any doubts about which vision the Trumpeteers push, it was erased by the little-known fellow The Donald appointed to head the Dept. of Agriculture: Sonny Perdue. Hailing from Georgia, our biggest peanut-producing state, Sonny has proven to be the biggest goober of all. As chief of the agency created by Abraham Lincoln specifically to assist U.S. small farmers and rural communities, Perdue has been AWOL, blithely reclining in his ornate Washington office while farm prices plummeted, bankruptcies soared, and farmer suicides surged. 

click to enlarge Sonny Perdue, Department of Agriculture - USDA
  • USDA
  • Sonny Perdue, Department of Agriculture

Grotesquely, this no-show ag secretary has even found hilarity in his constituents’ crises. In August of last year, when producers began publicly protesting the increasing financial pain that Trump’s trade games with China were inflicting on them, their public servant responded with snark: “What do you call two farmers in a basement?” he asked at a Minnesota farm show. “A whine cellar,” he guffawed. 

Then, in October, Sonny suddenly bared his corporate soul by impersonating Earl Butz. Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture infamously commanded family farmers to “get big or get out,” warning them to “adapt” to the corporate-dictated food economy he was promoting “or die.” Likewise, Perdue, appearing at a Wisconsin dairy industry expo, rose on his hind legs and smugly lectured the state’s hard-hit farmers on the theoretical framework of Trumponomics: “In America, the big get bigger, and the small go out.” So, there you have it — the Sonny & Donnie farm program boils down to two words: Adios, chumps!

That’s the official policy of the land. And yet, the State of the Plate in 2019 was not all gloom. Despite cloddish Washington officials and predatory agribusiness giants, the scrappy champions of a prosperous, democratic food economy keep making gains. So, let’s review a few recent ups and downs in the struggle over life’s most basic need.


“Where’s the beef?” asked a 1980s Wendy’s ad campaign mocking the size of its competitors’ burger patties.

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Today, that question has turned existential as corporations, farmers and ranchers, environmentalists, animal rights groups, lawmakers, etc., fight to define “meat.” In simpler times, meat was bacon, burgers, chicken breasts — i.e., animal parts. But meatless meat has stampeded today’s marketplace. Venture capital-backed startups such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat as well as Big Meat oligarchs like Tyson and Smithfield are peddling highly processed meat-like mashups of plant materials, oils, genetically modified yeast, food starch, flavorings… and more.

But look out. Even tech-ier “meat” is on the way! Several corporations are running FrankenMeat experiments — extracting cells from tissue, blood, chicken embryos, cattle and fish, then stewing them in a bioreactor with a solution of chemicals, hormones and growth agents. Voila! the multiplying cells morph into what these lab wizards call a “food-grade cell-growth medium,” allowing faux-meat peddlers to shape and flavor it into salmon-like fillets, chicken-like nuggets and… whatnot.

Progress, or nonsense? The latter, I think. Rather than meeting real needs, these extreme, sci-fi fabrications are being foisted on us by futurists and investors declaring a “technological imperative”: If we have the technology and money to make such stuff, we must make it. Never mind the exorbitant cost of lab-manufactured meat and the serious lack of precautionary consideration of human and environmental consequences, corporations backed by bedazzled tech investors are scrambling to rush it to our plates. 


No one wants this on their tombstone: Killed by a Chicken.

Yet, some 35,000 Americans die each year from rampant infections caused by drug-resistant superbugs. These deadly bacteria flourish primarily because of the overuse of antibiotics in the giant factory farms that produce most of our poultry, hogs and cattle.

Corporate CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) pump massive doses of these drugs into the millions of animals jammed into tiny cages and overcrowded pens. As a result, more than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. go not to humans, but to Big Food animals! Why? Because: Antibiotics promote fast growth.

In intense confinement, diseases spread rapidly, so the animals in CAFOs are given antibiotics proactively to slow outbreaks.

This constant overdosing promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in both livestock and the humans who work with and eat them. Thus, once-effective, vital drugs become useless, and thousands of people die.

The good news is that a coalition of food safety advocates is pushing restaurant chains to stop selling antibiotic-laden meat. Just three years ago, the coalition’s annual “Chain Reactions Scorecard” found that 20 of the 25 largest food chains had no policies to limit antibiotics in any of their meats. The latest report, however, finds that Chipotle and Panera are now A-rated for selling mostly antibiotic-free meats, and 15 other chains have announced policies to reduce the dosage in some products, especially chickens.

That’s laudable, but the biggest abusers are beef corporations, which account for 43 percent of antibiotics used in meat sold by chain outlets. Of the 25 largest burger chains surveyed, only two (Shake Shack and BurgerFi) got an A for selling antibiotic-free beef. Twenty-two chains (including Burger King, Whataburger and In-N-Out) scored big fat Fs for having no plans to limit drug content. McDonald’s, the biggest of all burger pushers, moved up from F to a C, pledging that by the end of 2020, it will announce antibiotic “reduction targets.”

Meanwhile, Washington still refuses to require the industry to end abuse of these critically important drugs, so preventable illness and death continue. To join the grassroots effort to stop this homicidal insanity, link up with


Saying he loves America’s “patriot farmers,” Trump brags he’s doled $28 billion of our tax dollars to mitigate the losses farm families are suffering. (Yes, the losses largely stem from his own ag and trade policies — but never mind that.)

One grateful recipient is the JBS family, a pork producer that got a whopping $78 million from our generous president — way more than any other U.S. hog farmer. But wait. JBS is not a family, not American, and certainly not a patriot. This voracious $50-billion-a-year Brazilian behemoth is the biggest of the Big Four global conglomerates that control 85 percent of U.S. beef production, nearly 70 percent of pork and about 40 percent of poultry. Bribery and other illegal acts — which JBS honchos admitted to in court — helped the company get Brazilian bank loans that have enabled it to take over five U.S. meat giants since 2007, including Swift and Co., Pilgrim’s Pride, Smithfield Foods’ beef division, and Cargill’s pork operations.

JBS has wielded this market might to squeeze out smaller competitors, underpay ranchers, recklessly maim meat plant workers (achieving the second-highest rate of serious employee injury among all corporations in our country), manipulate consumer meat prices, and carelessly endanger public health (including causing the largest recall of contaminated ground beef in U.S. history). The colossus has also cashed in on Trump’s inept tariff fight with China — first by pocketing his bailout subsidy and then by removing much of its U.S. pork processing from the U.S. to its foreign plants, enabling JBS to scoot around China’s tariffs on U.S. pork.

Some patriot. A group of independent ranchers has launched a #StopTheStealin social media campaign and is hosting rallies in protest of Washington’s continuous coddling of meat monopolists. Join the fight:


If you’ve been to a farmers market recently, you were likely impressed with the diverse cornucopia of foods, but you might also have noted a growing diversity among the farmers and food crafters. Women, Latinxs, African Americans, Vietnamese, inner-city teens and so many more communities are steadily changing the white-male face of farming. Indeed, the latest U.S. farm census reports a 27 percent increase since 2012 in the number of women running farm operations — and more are coming as women now make up the majority in ag colleges and training programs.

Reasons vary, but one common thread is job satisfaction and personal fulfillment — doing work that has integrity and purpose bigger than a paycheck and a rung on the corporate ladder. Katherine Tanner is a good example. As the Austin Chronicle reported, she was earning a nice sum as an executive recruiter on the 30th floor of a Seattle high-rise. But yearning for something richer, she returned to her Texas hometown, Fredericksburg, to explore work in sustainable agriculture. With good luck, skills and the support of a local farm family, she’s now co-owner of Hat & Heart Farm.

It’s not romantic — it’s a lot of hard work. “I’m out here planting, picking, weeding, washing, packing, hauling. I feel like I’m learning a bachelor’s degree amount of knowledge every month. I always wanted to do something of meaning that added to the world and didn’t subtract from it,” she says. “I am uplifted every day, even though I’m working harder than I ever have in my entire life. There’s so much more connection to the Earth, to the people, and to the community.”

Interested? The National Young Farmers Coalition is one place to help you get started:


Jim Hightower and Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins

Feb. 15, 6:15-9 p.m.

CC’s Cornerstone Arts Center, 825 N. Cascade Ave.

Free, theater doors open at 6:15 p.m.


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