Reflections on Transforming the Food System

YES! readers respond to Madhu Suri Prakash and Wendell Berry.
Wendell Berry photo by Charlie Pearl

Wendell Berry on his front porch in Port Royal, Kentucky, earlier this year.

Photo by Charlie Pearl/State-Journal.

In our Summer issue, we printed the correspondence between contributing editor Madhu Suri Prakash and her friend, author and poet Wendell Berry. (Click here to read their letters). Below are responses from readers who joined in the conversation:


A Quieter Life Now
In an exchange of letters with a dear friend, Wendell Berry explains why his writing is only a small part of the movement against greed and waste.

Dear Madhu:

I read with appreciation and amusement your exchange with Wendell Berry in the most recent issue of Yes! magazine. Your proposal, Berry's response, and the parting tweaks you delivered one another in that exchange were at once thought-provoking and engaging. I wanted to engage a bit on the issues that both of you raised.

Your proposal, that Wendell put his moral weight behind a request to the president to put $5 billion toward rebuilding small farm agriculture, could hardly be more attractive. Yet Berry demurs, and not just because he rejects such a leadership role. He makes three points, one somewhat obscure, the others fairly clear. Of the latter, he notes that the movement both you and he desire is already "at work without grants, without official instruction or permission, and mostly unnoticed by the politicians and the news media." And he goes on to say that, regardless of anything he has contributed, this movement "would be happening because the justifications of individual and corporate greed are now exhausted, and better ways are available." Those ways, indeed, "will be helped along, as we know, by large historical forces such as rising energy costs, rising ecological and social costs, and the inability of governments, large institutions, and corporations to respond effectively."

This point sets the context for the more obscure objection to your proposal, it seems to me, namely that the movement you both endorse will eventually have political power of its own, power vulnerable to the "simplification and corruption that will come with power," but which he hopes the movement can avoid. He says this in passing, but I think it is the heart of the dilemma that faces us, and it occupies almost all of his final note: "I don't think there is much to be gained from answering the oversimplifications of the politicians with our own oversimplifications. The World, the given World, is complex and finally mysterious. The truth of it cannot be reduced to campaign slogans or bumper stickers."

"I don't think there is much to be gained from answering the oversimplifications of the politicians with our own oversimplifications. The truth of it cannot be reduced to campaign slogans or bumper stickers". -Wendell Berry

If I read him right, Berry is insisting that no simple demand, such as bestowing $5 billion on rescuing small farms, can meet the need we currently face. For one thing, governments and large institutions are simply unable to respond effectively to what we really mean by this. In the legislative and bureaucratic processes that would accompany such a turn in policy, its good intentions would be twisted and tied up in so many trammels that those of us in the trenches could scarcely recognize it. Or we would be required to expend so much time, energy, and money attempting to conform with Congressional and bureaucratic requirements that we would have little time to do what we do best.

This, in essence, is how the current system works. The USDA is an octopus, like the World Bank. Among its many arms are some that favor small-scale agriculture, farmers markets, real food for the poor, soil conservation, and all the rest. There are armies of intermediaries, mostly NGOs, skilled at gaining access to the small monies available through these programs and passing them on to good people on the ground. In the process, local purposes are honed to fit bureaucratic requirements, money is spent on administration, promotion, paperwork, and what have you that never reaches the supposed beneficiaries, and changes are made, but on such a small scale that the overall wasteful system of subsidized, industrial agriculture and food provision is scarcely touched. Even so, Republicans in Congress today are bent on eliminating much of the meager funding currently provided for such programs.

It can get worse. The Food Safety Bill is an example. People rallied in the small farm/local food movement to protect small farmers from the expensive record-keeping and one-size-fits-all requirements of the original bill. We drove through the Tester-Hagen amendment to S.B. 510, only to find that it puts small farmers in essentially the same position that the original bill did, under the guise of an exception for small farmers.

This isn't how movements are built or nurtured. Simplifications are necessary—in this I disagree with Berry. But they have to be simplifications that really strike at the root of the problem. In the case of the Farm Bill, the most effective simplification says, the problem is a system of subsidies that essentially freeze in place the current system of agricultural production. This is Wes Jackson's version. I think it's right, oversimplified though it is. The next question is how we overturn this system.

Here answers may differ. Jackson, supported by Wendell Berry, proposes a radical rethinking of our agricultural system, issuing in a 50-year plan to move to perennial crops. It would be hard to build a movement around Jackson's science-based proposal. Others propose to do what we are doing, building local food systems in the face of the industrial system that dominates our economy, even at the most local level. We're talking here not so much about a social movement as about movement in a certain direction, with lots of connections among players. And most of these folks ignore the Farm Bill.

Farmer with vegetables, photo by sea turtle

Government regulations threaten the existence of small farms rather than allowing them to thrive. Madhu Suri Prakash says it's time for that to change.

Photo by sea turtle

This is where Berry's heart is, and Berry's answer seems to me clear. The Farm Bill and all it represents are dinosaurs. Whether they will perish by a comet collision on Wall Street or fade away as fossil fuels disappear from our menu of energy choices may not be clear. But they are doomed. Our job is to build for the future. We can let the bankers continue to petition the president, because we can safely assume that the bankers are the people the president is most likely to attend.

But this doesn't end the discussion or the dilemma we face. The Farm Bill and the enormous web of regulations that the current system has spun around our food system, for good as well as bad purposes, impinge upon all of us. How do we confront these, particularly as they stand in the way of our achieving economic viability, launching our farmers markets or local food processing facilities, or raising animals for meat in a healthy and humane way? We can practice "guerrilla canning," as one successful local foods entrepreneur put it, finding ways to conform with regulations county-by-county as health inspectors imposed new restrictions at each farmers market he attended. We can go "gray market," as most of the raw milk producers have done, skirting the law, barely, sometimes not at all, with workarounds like "dairy shares." Or we can fight for regulations that make sense for small producers and consumers who want real, fresh food.

The Farm Bill and all it represents are doomed. Our job is to build for the future.

And those routes don't even address the enormous economic advantage the farm subsidy programs give to mammoth, soil consuming, water polluting, monoculture-based farming operations. Grow your own grain here in the Little Lake Valley? Who will cover your costs but the most affluent of local consumers? Replace Safeway with daily farmers markets? How do local producers compete in price for anything but organic products? So we do have political work to do. But it is not at all clear how to do it without the "simplification and corruption" that the incremental change strategy entails, without the sacrifice of the interests of many intended beneficiaries along the way. How many mini-farmers can afford organic certification? Yet we need lots and lots of mini-farmers if we are to have a viable local food system.

In both those battles—over the little, niggling regulations that make local food difficult to come by and expensive, over the massive misallocation of funds and priorities represented by the Farm Bill—we face enormous obstacles. From the corporate food sector with its special access to legislators, to the one-step-at-a-time mentality of advocacy organizations, to the vested interests of the food, health and environmental bureaucracies, to prevailing attitudes about food safety and convenience, much of the population, ourselves included, stands in the way of real change.

We have to continue to fight, humbly and patiently like Berry, because we know that "a better world is possible."

In the end, I share Berry's hope that "larger forces"—the depletion of oil and natural gas, the continuing financial crisis, outright rebellion of a population tossed aside by Wall Street—will make the triumph of the "little way" inevitable. And I also fear the enormous disruption that must needs come along that road. The World, Berry writes, "is complex and finally mysterious." And tragic, he often adds. Those who live close to the land learn pretty quickly to appreciate that mystery and the frequent tragedy and become humble in its presence, as Berry clearly is. But we have to continue to fight, humbly and patiently like Berry, because we know that "a better world is possible."

So I find your exchange immensely stimulating, frustrating as it may be to find a hero of the proportions of Wendell Berry put aside the temptations of power and call for our patient persistence.  But the refusal of power and the patient persistence of the "little traditions" of the world's indigenous and peasant peoples, which you've done so much to bring to our attention, may be the best way forward in our time.

Best wishes,

Michael Foley
Green Uprising Farm
Willits, California

To my dear friend (camerado) Madhu, to my mentor (in the same sense that Walt Whitman is my mentor) Wendell Berry, and to readers of YES!,

I write in response to sweet and powerful letters shared between Madhu Prakash and Wendell Berry, which remind me that we should write to each other of our dreams and resolutions.

Mr. Berry, I wrote this first in pencil from my bed while the forest wind poured through the windows into my bare feet.

Madhu Suri Prakash:
Madhu Prakash in the kitchen, photo by Doug PibelSoil, Seeds, Salt: Education
Brought Down to Earth

I admire both the boldness of Madhu’s invitation and Wendell Berry's humble refusal. Above all, we must do what we know we must do. I wonder, though, if Madhu’s prophetic dream should live on and find a creative political mouthpiece for mainstream public expression. Maybe we don't need a superhero, but as Gandhi knew, we need a dramatic politics. I think of David Brower and the full page ads this movement leader (the most effective conservationist in history) placed in the New York Times and Washington Post asking: "Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?" So today we have the Grand Canyon instead of another Lake Powell. So what if the IRS took away the Sierra Club's tax exempt privileges; so what if Browers' ads were oversimplifications. They caused a mainstream stir, helped expand the counter movement.

Where is this kind of bold activism today? With the Tea Party, I fear, while cultural creatives camp in the cracks of the system opting out of mainstream everything, including politics, the mainstream politics that still and will continue to dictate policies and actions that scale up the very kinds of practices that make dropping out seem so necessary. Of course this in not a critique of Wendell Berry opting out of another’s dream, but only a reflection on the need for Madhu’s bold vision—the dream of the open letter as movement-building politics.

Mr. Berry, Madhu and YES! say the counter movement is already happening, and of course I agree. Yet the movement that needs to be countered continues to grow precipitously, like all the graphs measuring atmospheric CO2 since 1950. I believe we need to hold not just hope, but hold too the paradoxical tension between hope and a realistic assessment that on many indicators, things continue to get worse. That is, we need to shape the trajectory of our hope with an honest assessment of how opposing trends continue to grow and spread in ways that will frustrate the counter movement and make life hard or impossible for people and places worldwide.

Maybe we don't need a superhero, but as Gandhi knew, we need a dramatic politics.

I too am amazed by the mostly unnoticed good work of what Paul Hawken calls "Blessed Unrest.” But the paradox that I think needs more holding is that we need to continue to get noticed—to opt into the mainstream with inspired proposals for radical common sense ideas—like Madhu’s $5 billion for local food. I'm certain that the Farm Bill Berry and Jackson are advocating speaks of this common radical sense. But Madhu’s vision—your dream—I read as something more: it is for prophesy, the prophetic voice, creative political strategy. It inspires me to boldly propose what might otherwise remain unthought and unheard of, no matter how small.

Love, your camerado,

David Greenwood

  • An interview with Wendell Berry midway through his four-day sit-in in the Kentucky governor's office in protest of mountaintop removal coal mining.

  • Václav Havel called it “the power of the powerless.” How regular people, from Denmark to Liberia, have stood up to power—and won.
  • Michael Pollan on how we could have a "Food Bill" instead of a Farm Bill.
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