Three Ideas for the Food Movement (Small, Medium and Large)

04/16/2012 03:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2012
  • Jedediah Purdy Professor, Duke Law School; Author, 'A Tolerable Anarchy'

The food movement is young and growing. Like any growing movement, it needs more ideas -- small, medium, and large. These are (1) more concrete reforms, (2) sharper ways of framing its keys issues, and (3) a picture of how its values fit into the big problems and themes that cross-cut national and global politics.

Here, with humble intention, is one of each.

Small Concrete Reform: Help People to Look.

Around the country, farming states are passing "ag-gag" laws that punish activists who record and share horrific scenes from inside confined feeding operations and slaughterhouses. The reason is clear: when people get a good look at these scenes, they don't like them. They stop eating meat, switch to humanely raised meat, or start wanting to reform the meat industry.

In this area, it might be that the greatest potential for moral learning is in not looking away. That's why the meat industry is pressing so hard to ensure that no one gets to look.

Here's a way around it. Progressive states should adopt the following law: to sell meat in this state, you have to provide a public right of access to the feeding operations and slaughterhouses where the animals live.

The access can be virtual. Web-cams would do it. Labeling requirements for every pork chop or chicken would include the URL where the buyer could take a good look at the conditions that created the meat. States with ag-gag rules wouldn't adopt the labeling requirement, but they couldn't stop people from looking.

No one would have to look. Maybe no one would care. But if they did, they might reflect. If they reflected, they might object.

Other than passing new laws, the most effective way to change corporate practices is by putting consumer pressure on big retailers, like fast-food restaurants and the chain supermarkets, to impose new standards on their suppliers.

We need a stronger reform movement for meat production. Maybe it will begin with looking.

Medium Framing Idea: What if factory farming were a terrorist technique?

If you wanted to design a bio-warfare strategy against the U.S., you'd try to create a communicable, antibiotic-resistant bug that could attack humans. The best way to do that? Deliver low levels of antibiotics to a species that resembles us biologically, such as pigs. Keep them in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Rotate the animals frequently -- for instance, by slaughtering them, so that the bugs cycle rapidly through many hosts.

This is how we get most of our meat. Many people now realize it's not a great idea, but let's be plainer about it: the market has given us a farming technique that, if a terrorist group adopted it, we would regard as a brilliant stroke and a provocation to war.

It's true that no pig-farming Osama bin Laden planned this out. But the whole point of studying systems -- as ecology teaches us to do -- is to understand how complex, dispersed decisions produce results no one intended, as surely as if a mastermind had sketched them. The system we build can turn us into our own worst enemies.

We should be every bit as concerned about the bio-warfare we're preparing for ourselves as about what someone else might be planning for us. We should treat it as being just as urgent.

Large Worldview Idea: Reject false choices.

Anyone who spends time around the food movement has heard worries about equality. In the U.S., environmentally responsible food tends to cost more than the industrial kind. Globally, reforming food practice could reduce production as the number of mouths to feed around the world keeps growing.

Of course these are real problems, but we have to understand them in the right way.

Begin within the U.S. If people in (what is still) the world's richest country can't afford good food, that is not an argument against good food, any more than our unequal health-care system is an argument against good doctoring. Instead -- like inequality in health care -- it's an indictment of our economic system. It shows the bad ways that law and markets together have shaped that sector of the economy.

It's true that there are real tradeoffs. But it's also true that sometimes, when you're told that you can't have two good things together, your reply shouldn't be, "Oh, OK." It should be, "Why not?" Fairness and good food are both worth having. In fact, fairness in good food is worth having.

That's a bigger goal, and harder to achieve, than either just feeding everyone or just making some food production more sustainable. But sometimes a tradeoff means you have to get more radical and look for ways to make the two goals mutually supportive.

Globally, a similar point applies. The world is passing through a demographic bottleneck. Population is expected to peak sometime in the next century, then begin to decline as economic development, women's empowerment, and democracy help people choose to have fewer children. (Already many of the world's most developed countries are reproducing at rates that translate to a declining population. From an ecological perspective, we have to get to that trend everywhere.)

As we pass through the bottleneck, we should be trying to avoid a humanitarian crisis, preserve the natural world in the most diverse and resilient form we can and sow the seeds for a future culture that does more with less: more cultural life, connection and solidarity, and sharing; less exhausting and ruinous use of nature. We have to do all these things at once. If we fail at any of them, the next century will be that much harder and less successful.