Skip to content

You Are What You Eat

June 2010

I have a button on my backpack that says: “If You Are What You Eat, Then I’m Fast, Cheap, and Easy.” Thankfully, this quip is sarcastic in my case, but for many people, including many of those working for global justice, it is all too true. Whether due to marketing hype or sheer convenience, usually smart folks can fall down when it comes to what they put in their mouths. The personal is political, and this is reflected each time someone votes for “business as usual” by giving their money to a fast-food chain or big box retailer. The result is a broken food/farm system that is systematically abusing animals, exploiting workers, perverting biodiversity, undermining democracy, jeopardizing health, and destroying the planet. If we believe that another world is possible, then we need to radically transform how we eat, and this means incorporating food sovereignty into our thinking and organizing.

I grew up in central Minnesota, on a small farm straight out of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone, surrounded by grazing dairy cows and century old farms homesteaded by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. Sadly, I’m no longer looking forward to my high school reunions since so many of my classmates have seen their family farm sold on the auction block to the highest bidder. The “unsettling of America,” described by Wendell Berry decades ago, has actually been the order of the day for centuries. Whether it was the conquistadors outlawing quinoa cultivation by the Inca, pioneers wiping out bison as a form of bio-warfare against the tribes of the Great Plains, or the death squads in Colombia now liquidating peasants who stand in the way of agrofuel plantations, these policies end up benefiting global agribusiness cartels and the current empire they sustain.

Since so few people are now physically connected with the land, it might be worth sharing some rude rural realities. The United States now has more prisoners than farmers. In fact, some of the prisoners are farmers! I know of at least one farm family that is behind bars for writing bad checks simply to keep the electricity on so they could milk their cows. Close to half of U.S. farmers do not even own the land they now cultivate. When I’m asked which nation needs land reform the most, the U.S. is always at the top of my list. Despite their best efforts to be productive and efficient, the majority of farmers in the U.S. do not even get parity (i.e. a fair price to cover their costs, plus a living wage). Consequently, rural people usually have to send someone off-farm to earn enough to make ends meet, and – if they are lucky – also get some healthcare benefits. This sorry scenario is not just limited to family farmers. It goes all the way up the food chain from the undocumented farmworker, to the non-unionized meatpacker, to the part-time minimum wage fast-food cook or grocery clerk. For every dollar spent on an apple at Walmart, only four-cents goes to the apple picker and seven-cents to the apple farmer, compared to sixty- eight cents for the mega retailer. Walmart alone now sells 20% of all U.S. conventional groceries and is the largest organic retailer, as well.

It was not always like this. Many of the European settlers who first came to the U.S. were landless peasants themselves, fleeing persecution by wealthy abusive landlords. In their hope for a better life in the New World, they often found solidarity with indigenous communities of hunters, gatherers, fishers, and farmers who were already here. This is why the democratic egalitarian principles of the Iroquois Confederacy resonated so well amongst the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, though they hardly went far enough in actual practice. Like the Diggers defending the Commons from Enclosure, in 1776 colonial America the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness also meant access to land, and the capacity to grow food. If the state violated this agreement, then it was the right of the people to abolish it and create another government that would promote the general welfare.

Thus, one finds numerous episodes of popular rural resistance throughout U.S. history: the Whiskey Rebellion of the late 18th century in New England; the post Civil War Grange Movement followed by the Populists who took on the robber barons and railroad monopolies in the latter half of the 19th century; the Industrial Workers of the World members who agitated amongst harvest stiffs across the Great Plains in the early 20th century through the Agricultural Workers Organization; the founding of the United Farm Workers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to fight slavery in the farm fields in California; and the creation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to defend African American farmers in the South. Both of these later struggles were critical facets of the broader 1960s Civil Rights movement. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida is still waging this fight today to win fair wages and human rights for tomato pickers.

Growing up in the Midwest during the 1970s farm crisis, I watched many ‘tractorcades’ of family farmers departing for St. Paul to Washington, DC in the vague hope of influencing politicians. I also had farmer friends who chose suicide rather than face foreclosure – a situation that is repeating itself across the U.S. with the latest corporate induced financial meltdown.

Far more inspirational as a child was to hear tales of the “Bolt Weevils,” chronicled in a folksong by Dana Lyons as well as the book, Powerline, co-authored by the late Senator Paul Wellstone. This homegrown resistance movement turned out thousands of farmers and their allies across west central Minnesota against the energy giants, who were seizing prize farm land and threatening public health for the sake of a high voltage line. When petitions and lawsuits proved useless, the midnight toppling of towers and other sabotage ensued. Despite dozens of attempted arrests and a massive FBI operation, no Bolt Weevil ever went to jail. On one occasion when a few farmers were singled out as lead conspirators, the judge still had to release them as hundreds of agitated supporters surrounded the courthouse. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this example of solidarity, direct action, and non-cooperation today, particularly in relation to the ongoing Green Scare that has targeted radical environmentalists. In the early 1990s I went off to study agricultural economics at one of the many land grant colleges established under the 1862 Morrill Act “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” Of course, this noble mission was forgotten long ago as corporate agribusiness corrupted university curriculum and hijacked the public research agenda. I recall one patenting seminar for graduate students and researchers where an administrator from the Office of University and Industry Relations bluntly told us that the University of Wisconsin was no longer interested in the scientific value of our work, merely its commercial value. It was while struggling to get through my Ph.D dissertation that I first met John Kinsman, an organic dairy farmer, who had been protesting the selling of experimental dairy products from University of Wisconsin at Madison’s test herds to unsuspecting students, staff, and visitors since the mid 1980s.

Kinsman, who was hospitalized after toxic pesticide exposure, is one of the U.S. pioneers of the sustainable agriculture movement and current president of Family Farm Defenders (FFD). In 1993 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had finally ruled that recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) was “safe” for humans, but this was only after President Clinton had installed former Monsanto employee, Michael Taylor, at the FDA to rubberstamp its approval. Taylor is now back at the FDA under President Obama, serving as a go between for Monsanto, the Gates Foundation, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to push through biotech as part of the new “Gene Revolution” for Africa.

Farmer Resistance: National and International

Unlike many other “farmer” organizations that are just a front for agribusiness giants and commodity groups, Family Farm Defenders welcomes anyone who cares about sustainable agriculture, farm worker rights, animal welfare, consumer safety, fair trade, and food sovereignty. This inclusive perception of who is part of the global food/farm system aligns well with that of La Via Campesina, the largest umbrella organization for farmers, farmworkers, gatherers, hunters, fishers, herders, and foresters in the world. Thanks to this affiliation, FFD is often invited to send food/farm activists to international conferences, such as the February 2007 Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Forum held in Selingue, Mali, which drew over 600 participants from ninety countries, as well as the Fifth International Conference of La Via Campesina held in October 2008 in Matola, Mozambique.

At the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP15) held in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009, La Via Campesina had by far the strongest contingent of rural activists from across the globe, hosting several panels exposing the “false solutions” to climate change — such as agrofuels and biotech crops — as well as coordinating protests targeting those responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, such as the export factory farm industry. Joining others in a unified call for climate justice, La Via Campesina was instrumental in reminding official delegates that “one can’t eat carbon,” and that “cap and trade” proposals pushed by corporate agribusiness and the Obama Administration are only going to make climate change worse by marginalizing those family farmers and indigenous communities that are now doing the lion’s share of mitigating emissions.

La Via Campesina’s stance had been confirmed in 2008 by a 2,500 page report authored by 400 scientists for the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report concluded that smallscale organic agriculture is not only the best means to feed the world, but also the best response to climate change. Ultimately, the COP15 negotiations collapsed under the hypocritical weight of a few in the Global North who refused to take responsibility for their own pollution and tried to shift their clean up obligations onto the Global South. If Miami was already drowning due to rising sea levels rather than the Maldives, the ‘what, me worry?’ attitude of the U.S. in Copenhagen would have been much less tenable.

Grassroots solidarity delegations are another great organizing tool that bypasses powerful elites and breaks down artificial barriers. At the invitation of our Via Campesina allies, FFD took eighteen members to Oaxaca, Mexico in January, 2008, to strategize with pro-democracy activists, strengthen ties with fair trade coffee co-ops, and to condemn the Mexican regime for its political repression. Thanks to such cross border pressure, one prominent Oaxacan prisoner, Flavio Sosa, was released a few months later. In return, FFD often hosts visits to the U.S. by farmers from elsewhere: Brazil, Venezuela, Timor-Leste, Uganda, and Kenya. Our experience is that when U.S. farmers see and hear for themselves the horrible economic conditions that force other farmers off their lands and across borders, they are much less likely to believe xenophobic rhetoric that scapegoats immigrants and, instead, focus their energy on the common enemy: corporate globalization.

Here in the U.S. we bear particular responsibility for this “race to the bottom” situation, since we provide the legal ‘casino’ for much of the runaway commodity speculation that manipulates world food prices to the detriment of farmers and consumers alike. This is why for several years now FFD and others have been staging protests to expose the corruption and demand federal anti-trust action on the steps of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, now subsumed within the Chicago Board of Trade. It is in Chicago that prices are set worldwide for everything from corn to wheat, from pork bellies to fertilizer. Unless you buy directly from a farmer, the free market is a myth today in agriculture, since most producers have been reduced to taking whatever they are told by the middlemen working for the food giants. For example, just three biotech outfits, Sygenta, Monsanto, and Dupont, now control over half of the seeds on earth.

The current global dairy crisis is a particularly poignant illustration of all that is wrong in our food farm system. Just one firm, Dean Foods, now controls a third of the fluid milk market in the U.S., including 80% of the organic milk market via its Horizon subsidiary. On the other hand, we have less than 75,000 dairy farmers left in the entire U.S. — 90% of them having gone extinct since I was a child. Some states have lost so many dairy farmers they are now importing a third to half of their milk from thousands of miles away. Each morning I bike by semi-loads of milk that have arrived overnight to Wisconsin courtesy of a “cheap” oil policy from taxpayer subsidized factory farms in New Mexico destined to become “Wisconsin” butter. Worse yet, those U.S. dairy farmers still clinging onto life are now receiving just half the price for milk that they got a year ago, while consumers are still paying about the same per gallon at the store and the dairy giants laugh all the way to the bank in the midst of a worldwide recession.

Some misguided economic pundits would counter that these low prices are due to over supply, conveniently forgetting the shenanigans happening in the “block cheddar market” at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or that under global free trade, it is much cheaper to import low grade milk protein concentrate than to bother using fresh domestic milk to manufacture the likes of Velveeta, Singles, or Mac’n Cheese. With FDA once again asleep at the wheel, there is also no worry about pesky food safety enforcement, even though milk protein concentrate is classified as an industrial ingredient to make adhesives and is not approved for human consumption (hence Kraft’s label makeover from “cheese food” to “cheese product.”)

Contrary to popular stereotypes, the U.S. is not feeding the world, and the typical farmer is not some old white guy on a tractor in the Dakotas. Over 85% of the world’s harvest never crosses a border and, in fact, most food is consumed within the bioregion where it was grown. The U.S. has been a ‘food deficit nation’ for years now — we currently import 13% of our total diet, including 22% of our fresh fruit, 25% of our fresh vegetables, 50% of our fruit juice, and 80% of our honey. Half of U.S. cropland is now devoted to just two crops — corn and soybeans — and much of that does not even go to feeding people directly, but instead becomes feedstock for factory farms, junk food makers, and agrofuel refineries. Even in a farm rich state like Wisconsin, over 90% of our food is imported from other states or abroad. In order to keep such globetrotting food “fresh,” corporate agribusiness must resort to all sorts of dubious technological fixes – from ethyln dioxide to nitrates to irradiation to carbon monoxide. Nonetheless, food contamination and food poisoning are skyrocketing, which not surprising given that imported produce has three times as much Salmonella as produce grown in the United States.

When South Korean farmer Lee Kyung-Hae stabbed himself to death on September 10th, 2003 on the barricade outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Cancun — in protest of U.S. taxpayer susbsidized rice dumping — he was hardly the first victim of corporate globalization. Indeed, many other names come to mind: Chico Mendes, Judi Bari, Ken Saro-Wiwa, among others. On October 21, 2007 Valmir Mota de Oliveira was shot to death by security guards hired by Syngenta in the western Brazilian state of Paraná state. Hundreds of activists with the Movimiento de los Trabajadores Rurales Sin Tierra (MST) had been occupying Sygenta’s research facility for over a year in order to block illegal cultivation of biotech crops. In India, as a result of Monsanto’s promises of prosperity through biotech cotton that later failed miserably, thousands of farmers have committed suicide. Other farmers, from France to the Philippines, have burned and uprooted these noxious biotech weeds instead. Here in the U.S. such an action would be deemed a federal felony — as well as an act of ‘eco-terrorism’ post 9/11) — and Monsanto has a vast war chest and army of patent lawyers devoted to suing contaminated farmers for “theft” of their biotechnologies.

“Food Security” versus Food Sovereignty

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are no longer any hungry people in the U.S., just an estimated thirty-six million people who are “food insecure.” The term “food security” was first invoked by Henry Kissinger before the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) at the height of the Cold War, and basically considers hunger a technical problem of how to get food to those who need it. It thus evades the deeper global justice debate about why hunger exists at all in a world that has plenty of food. Following Naomi Klein’s analysis of “disaster capitalism,” “food security” also functions as a Trojan Horse for market penetration and commodity dumping. For instance, in the context of Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response, there was little debate about whether displaced people would be eating “donated” irradiated foods or whether toxic FEMA trailers would be parked atop former community gardens.

In contrast to “food security,” most people in the world are more likely to talk about, and act upon, their local vision for food sovereignty. First elaborated back in 1996 by La Via Campesina, food sovereignty valorizes common sense principles of community autonomy, cultural integrity, and environmental stewardship — in other words, local people determining for themselves just what seeds they plant, what animals they raise, what type of farming occurs, and what they will ultimately eat for dinner. Food sovereignty is a term used by those who see food as a basic human right, not just another weapon or commodity, and who treat farmers with respect and dignity, rather than dismissing them as backward and anachronistic. In fact, one could argue that the Boston Tea Party which helped spark the American Revolution was a classic struggle, pitting food sovereignty against corporate profit.

Since the 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle, FFD has been planting the seeds of food sovereignty across the U.S. as a grassroots alternative to corporate globalization. Through this popular education campaign, we hope to bring U.S. global justice activists into a deeper solidarity relationship with their counterparts abroad, and bridge the divide that often exists between farmers and eaters, and between rural and urban communities here at home. The National Family Farm Coalition, Grassroots International, Rural Coalition, Community Food Security Coalition and Food First!, amongst others, have since joined FFD in this effort. One of our major challenges has been trying to bring the often-disparate struggles for fair trade, buy local, slow food, sustainable agriculture, and farm worker rights together under a broader food sovereignty umbrella. Another has been resisting efforts by the state to “criminalize” local agriculture, whether it is by outlawing the sale of raw milk, branding Food not Bombs a “terrorist” organization, hunting down “unlicensed” backyard chickens, or mandating the registration, RFID chipping, and tracking of all U.S. livestock through the National Animal Identification System.

Adopting internationally recognized principles of food sovereignty would have sweeping implications in a setting such as the U.S., which is most likely the reason corporate agribusiness and their political supporters have so fiercely resisted them. For instance, preemption legislation that takes away local control over the regulation of factory farms grossly undermines food sovereignty, as does lack of comprehensive country of origin labeling that would allow consumers to actually know where their food comes from. This even applies to organic foods, as corporate agribusiness scours the planet for the cheapest suppliers with bottom of the barrel standards. How a consumer could trust the integrity of Whole Foods “organics” imported from China is quite beyond me. Similarly, the corporate patenting of life-forms, expropriation of indigenous knowledge, and subsidized dumping of commodity crops are all flagrant violations of food sovereignty.

The food sovereignty struggle is particularly relevant today, as a global food shortage spawned by agrofuel expansion and commodity speculation triggered food rioting in the Global South and food rationing in the Global North. Close to half of the U.S. corn harvest in 2008 was diverted into making fuel — it takes as much grain to fill a twenty-five gallon SUV tank once as it does to feed a person all year. Given the taxpayer subsidies and federal mandates behind the boom, many farmers jumped on the agrofuel bandwagon, shifting land out of conservation programs and even away from other staple food crops. The result was cascading price hikes: eggs increased 36% in the U.S., cornmeal up 60% in Mexico, flour up 100% in Pakistan, and rice up 130% in Haiti. Meanwhile, the food giants posted record earnings: Cargill alone saw its profits climb by 50% to $4 billion in 2007 thanks to the global food crisis.

Adding insult to injury, the corporate response to the global food crisis has been to outsource even more commodity production under contract, create new agricultural hedge funds for wannabe speculators, and to try to corner the global market in farmland. Since 2008 over 180 such land grab schemes across the Global South have been exposed. Former AIG trader and current CEO of NY-based Jarch Capital, Philippe Heilberg, recently signed a deal with a Sudanese warlord to establish four thousand square kilometers worth of plantations. Another brazen attempt by the South Korean company, Daewoo, to purchase 1.3 million hectares in Madagascar – half of the country’s cropland – mostly to grow corn for export only fell apart after massive public outrage. Other land grabs are proceeding forward more quietly, often with the support of the World Bank, Gates Foundation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and others eager to push biotech crops and agrofuel plantations for carbon offset credits.

Organizing for Food Sovereignty

Thankfully, there are positive examples of food sovereignty in action all around us to counter such “agribusiness as usual.” Though these grassroots initiatives often don’t make splashy headlines, they do capture some of the best aspects of intentional community, mutual aid, reciprocity, and cross border solidarity that global justice activists would espouse. To give but a few examples: there are now more than 3,700 farmers’ markets in the U.S., having doubled in number since 1994; over nine million acres of land are now protected from development through 1,500 community landtrusts; there are over 1000 community supported agriculture (CSA) operations in the U.S. directly providing fresh food from farmers to eaters each week throughout the growing season; there are over 400 farm to school projects getting healthy local food back into cafeterias, as well as over 30 local and state food policy councils that are reclaiming democratic control over agriculture. From community gardens and local currencies to permaculture and seedsaving, there are countless opportunities to reclaim our local food/farm systems.

The Great Lakes bioregion has become a hotbed of such activity. For instance, the Oneida Tsyunhekwa Project near Green Bay, Wisconsin is reasserting indigenous food sovereignty through “Three Sisters,” squash, corn, and bean gardens, and a community-processing kitchen open to everyone. Similarly, the White Earth Land Recovery Project in northern Minnesota is defending the cultural integrity of “manoomin” — wild rice — from corporate bio-piracy, and promoting other traditional foods as a form of preventative medicine. Dane County boasts the largest farmers’ market in the U.S. , with over 15,000 people converging each Saturday during the growing season around the State Capitol in Madison, WI , to support hundreds of vendors and keep millions of dollars in the local economy. Over a third of U.S. organic dairy products now come from Wisconsin, where the fastest growing farm sector is small-scale and grass-based. In Milwaukee and Chicago, Growing Power has seen incredible success in bringing the joy of urban agriculture and delicious food to those who have been marginalized by the forces of gentrification.

Food Sovereignty – Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

While some global justice activists find building coalitions with U.S. family farmers and farmworkers to be daunting, the creative synergy that results makes the effort more than worthwhile. Just like in the Global South, the “digital divide” is very real in rural America — case in point, mass emails often garner few responses. Many FFD members don’t have computers and then there are thousands of Amish farmers who don’t even have phones! When we try to reach folks it is often better to send an action alert around with the milk truck or to post fliers in small town cafes, feed mills, and public libraries.

Talk radio is another venue that is often underestimated by activists. One half hour radio interview on a consumer’s right to know and a farmer’s right to label can generate hundreds of phone calls to a governor who previously thought it would be easy to just make everyone drink rBGH induced milk. Depending upon the issue and publicity, one should also be ready for a diverse audience! We have hosted rural townhall style meetings with farmers and immigrant farmworkers from a dozen countries and speaking half a dozen languages, and this requires not only multilingual literature and volunteer translators, but also culturally respectful food and a family friendly format. Progressive faith-based communities are another important outreach mechanism, whether it is a Catholic parish rural justice committee or the eco-halal buying club for an urban Moslem center.

Food sovereignty work should be part of the standard tool kit for any global justice activist. If we truly wish to build a new world from the ashes of the old, as the slogan of the IWW suggests, then we cannot be trapped in purely reactive mode. No one needs to suffer from chronic hunger in a food desert. We have the right and the capacity to reclaim the land, the seeds, our health, and our food as a common treasury for all. To paraphrase Anishinabe activist, Winona LaDuke, we don’t want a bigger slice, we want a whole new pie! Creating this reality is easier than most people realize, and – better yet – the process itself can be fun. Next time you have a meeting, why not invite everyone to a local food potluck? You will quickly see just how much an alternative community can flourish and grow once you rediscover the power behind putting culture back into agri-culture.


Barry, Casper and Paul Wellstone. Powerline – The First Battle of America’s Energy War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.

Center for Food Safety. Monsanto Versus U.S. Farmers. Washington, DC: Center for Food Safety, 2005. Available online at

Daniel, Shepard and Anuradha Mittal. The Great Land Grab – Rush for World’s Farmland Threatens Food Security for the Poor. Oakland, CA: The Oakland Institute, 2009. Available online at http;//

Desmarais, Annette. La Via Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants. London: Pluto Press, 2007.

ETC Group: Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration. Who Will Feed Us? – Questions for the Food and Climate Crisis. Ottawa, CA: ETC Group, 2009. Available online at

Food and Water Watch. The Poisoned Fruit of American Trade Policy: Produce Imports Overwhelm American Farmers and Consumers. San Francisco, CA: Food and Water Watch, 2008. Available online at

Hartmann, Thom. “American Rebellions,” Yes Magazine (May 2004).

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador, 2007.

Paul, Helena et al. Agriculture and Climate Change: Real Problems, False Solutions: Preliminary Report by Group de Reflexion Rural, Biofuelwatch, EcoNexus and NOAH – Friends of the Earth Denmark. Bonn: 2009. Available online at

Peck, John. “Via Campesina Confronts the Global Agrofuel Industrial Complex.” Z Magazine, January, 2009.

Pimbert, Michael. Towards Food Sovereignty: Reclaiming Autonomous Food Systems. London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2008.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, New York: Penguin, 2008.

Reyes, Oscar. “What is Wrong With Carbon Trading.” Carbon Trade Watch, A Project of the Transnational Institute. Netherlands, 2009. Available online at

Rice, Andrew. “Agro-Imperialism.” New York Times Magazine, 22 November 2009. 

Latest from the Learning Hub
Back To Top