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Carla Wise Headshot

What the Food Movement Can Learn From OWS This Thanksgiving

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What is it about Occupy Wall Street? No structure, no leaders, no demands, no political organization, no agreement on future plans. And yet, it continues, and it resonates. Progressives and environmentalists, climate activists and social justice advocates are all cheering this phenomenon that is, at its heart, total anarchy. I find that as an environmental writer and food movement advocate, I am heartened too. What exactly is going on here? And why does it seem worthwhile for the food movement to join the spirit of OWS?

I think the reason the OWS movement has captured the imagination of so many is that it finally points to the heart of the problem we all face. This problem two-fold: we know just how broken and corrupted by money our government, economic, and political systems are. And we see that the channels for addressing the truly monumental challenges of our time, including an extremely unhealthy, environmentally destructive, dangerous and inhumane food system, a broken health care system, a looming climate crisis, growing income inequality, and chronic unemployment, are blocked because the richest people and the biggest multinational corporations have come to control our government, our regulations, our tax and subsidy systems, and even our elections.

Here is how this realization applies to the food movement this time of year: the Thanksgiving bargain ads have returned. One favorite is the free turkey: spend 100 dollars shopping here, and we'll throw in a free turkey. Being an ambivalent meat-eater who has given up buying factory-farmed meat, I find these offers both scary and a bit disrespectful to the turkey. And yet, this year especially, who wouldn't love a free turkey? A cloud of financial worry has infected nearly all of us 99%. I just heard of another friend who lost his job because the company where he's worked for 20 years went under.

Meanwhile, the Thanksgiving meal I will help prepare will involve a free-range turkey, organic produce, and a pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkin, eggs from cage-free hens and organic whipped cream. We'll buy locally-sourced foods when we can. The higher costs Thanksgiving really brings it home: healthier, environmentally-friendly, local food costs more -- often much more.

We know that although our industrial food is cheap, this food is arriving to us courtesy of the loss of our topsoil, the bankrupting of many of our best farmers, extraordinarily high greenhouse gas emissions, mistreatment of livestock, ever rising health risks from antibiotic-resistant bacteria and food born illnesses, the fattening and sickening of our people, and toxic chemicals invading our soil, water, and air. We know about problems caused by farm subsidies, CAFOs, rBGH, GMO corn and soy, vertical integration of food companies, and on and on.

Even so, the cost difference between industrial food and food from smaller diversified ecologically healthier farms closer to home is a huge barrier to improving our food system. The cost difference is partly caused by government food policy. Tom Philpott, one of my favorite food writers, discussed this recently in an article at Mother Jones called "The Deal with $8 Eggs." He argued that a big portion of the cost advantage of industrial food could be eliminated with better food safety and environmental regulations, rules actually designed to protect the environment and the public health.

We also need major changes in our farm subsidy system, which pays farmers to grow commodities -- corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton -- resulting in an oversupply of the wrong types of food produced the wrong way. We could alter farm subsidies so they wouldn't benefit agribusiness giants, but instead support small and mid-sized farms using better farming practices growing better food. Philpott believes if this happened, the cost advantages of producing the worst, most unhealthy, most environmentally destructive products now flooding the American food system would shrink or disappear.

What Philpott doesn't explore is why we have been completely unable to institute these changes. The reality is that all efforts to change the subsidy structure in farm bills, or enact better regulations to protect farm animals, or enforce regulations meant to prevent a few large meatpackers from controlling and exploiting small and mid-sized ranchers, get successfully blocked, challenged, or watered down. This is because we have lost control of our government, regulators, and finances. Huge companies with deep pockets now stop any meaningful reforms. This is what OWS is protesting.

Thanksgiving seems like a good time to ask this question: how do we move from illuminating the terrible costs and harms of our industrialized, globalized, corporate-controlled food system to changing it? Buying ingredients to make a Thanksgiving feast, it is important to purchase food thoughtfully. Supporting the rebuilding of local food systems is critical too. The OWS message is that this isn't enough. We can't really begin to fix our food system until we take back control of our economy and our government from the 1%. While the OWS protesters in New York may focus on Bank of America and Chase, it is the corporate giants of food and agriculture, such as Monsanto, Tyson Foods, Nestle and ADM that are the 1% in the food world. These richest and most powerful controllers of the global food supply are successfully blocking positive change.

It's time for us in the food movement to take this lesson from OWS. They have correctly diagnosed the problem. The great promise of this is that if enough of us 99% see this, we can join together and find ways to begin to fix it. For those of us working for better food, it's time to join OWS this Thanksgiving to get started.

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