Bite Back!

How Americans can reclaim their food: An excerpt from Swim Against the Current.


Sometimes, it’s the small things in life that leave me stumped.

Things like:

– Glue. Why doesn’t it stick to the inside of the bottle?

– When Noah brought two of every species aboard the Ark, where did he put the termites?

– The guy who invented bagpipes-what was he really trying to do?

By nature, we are a questioning species. After “Mommy” and “Daddy,” the first word shaped by our baby brains is “Why?” Indeed, many a toddler has driven parents bonkers with the incessant, highpitched repetition of this query.

But as we get older, “Why?” becomes a radical question when directed to the actions of the Powers That Be-which is why most established institutions go out of their way to teach us, from school age forward, that ours is not to reason why. Accept things as they are, we are instructed, and just keep repeating to yourself:

It’s for my own good.

It’s in the national interest.

It’s the natural order of things.

It’s the magic of the marketplace.

The experts know best.

This mantra is foisted on us not only in the fields of business and politics, but also in the very conduct of our lives. The reigning ethos of America’s corporate culture-its official religion, really-is consumerism. Kids, for example, no longer just go out and play. They plug in to their electronic gizmos, buy expensive brand-name outfits, get booked for playdates, and learn from an early age that life’s reward is buying stuff.

Consumerism is not a “life,” it’s a substitute for life. To elevate it to the level of a predominant social goal demeans the human spirit, restricts our potential, distorts our society, and endangers our world. It’s essential (and uplifting) that more and more people these days are questioning this superficial ethos, looking for something deeper, and, in essence, asking, “What is life?”

After all, we Americans are not condemned to be passive recipients of whatever is doled out to us. We’re a stronger people than that, possessing both the individual fortitude and the collective rebelliousness to make big changes in the economic and social terms of how we live. It’s not the metaphysical that people are exploring, but the practicalities and the personal aspects of living in a way that can be at once more satisfying and more suited to our moral beliefs than what the shallow consumer system dictates.

The basic question is this:

Will we let greedheaded profiteers determine the boundaries of our lives? Or will we take charge, blazing new paths for ourselves and our country?

It’s in our character to question authority. After all, that’s how America came to be. And, periodically, We the People have had to make a hard assessment of where we were headed as a society … and make important corrections to the course. Over generations, it has been this questioning instinct of grassroots people that has sparked a continuum of progressive changes. Corrections such as ending slavery have been huge moral shifts. Such others as public education have profoundly altered the way we live, more closely reflecting our egalitarian values.

Every important change began with commonsense people having doubts about the status quo and asking questions aloud, which emboldened others to say, “You know, I was wondering about that same thing.” When enough people spoke up, a social awakening spread, and multitudes of people started to take action individually and in groups. At this point, the people became a movement … and change began to happen.


This is not a phenomenon you find only in history books but is a living, integral part of our society. In fact, right now, we’re in the midst of a dramatic revolt over something that touches each of our lives every day in the most basic way: dinner.

During the last fifty years, control over America’s food policies quietly shifted from farmers and consumers to corporate executives, shortsighted bureaucrats, and economists. These are people who could not run a watermelon stand if we gave them the melons and had the highway patrol flag down customers for them. Yet they took charge of the decisions that direct everything from how food is grown and processed to what our children eat in school.

They were not good deciders, because their interests are not ours. Agricorps don’t see food as a juicy, luscious, nutritious product of nature but as a profit center to be conglomeratized, industrialized, and globalized. We’re not talking about the making of some computer gadget here, but about our dinner! The natural state of food production is that it’s small-scale, agrarian, and local. This is because plants and animals are living creatures. Economies of scale are achieved at a surprisingly small level, with both productivity and quality being enhanced by the ability of farmers and artisans to be personally involved with their crops and livestock.

But the agribusiness powers perverted agriculture production from the high art and science of cooperating with nature into a high-cost, high-tech process of overwhelming nature.

To say that they take shortcuts with food in their mad dash for profits understates reality. Let’s be blunt: they torture food. They apply massive doses of pesticides and artificial fertilizers to these living organisms. They inject animals with antibiotics and sex hormones. They turn lab technicians loose to alter the very DNA of organisms, manufacturing mutant “Frankenfoods.” They force grass-eating cows to become carnivores and even cannibals. They blast fruits and veggies with ripening gas and zap them with radiation. They dose the finished foodstuffs with assorted sugars, artificial flavorings, trans fats, and chemical preservatives. What we’re left with is “food” that has lost all connection to our good earth and America’s well-being.

(A long aside: In 1971, DeMarco and I were writing our first book. Titled Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times, it was an exposé of how tax-paid agriculture research schools were using public funds for projects that benefited corporations at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers … and food itself. The title referred to those hard, pale tomatoes wrapped in plastic that supermarkets used to sell. Remember those tasteless nuggets? They were thrust upon us because California’s agribusiness powers wanted to harvest their crop mechanically, rather than hiring farmworkers. Thus, in the late 1960s, the agriculture school at the University of California, Davis, dutifully produced a tomato harvester.

There was only one small problem: the machine crushed the tomatoes. So, the plant breeders at Davis, ever dutiful to corporate interests, returned to the lab, and-voilà!-they designed a hybrid tomato that was hard enough to withstand the machine’s grasp. Even then, it had to be harvested green. But, hey, no problem. Just gas those babies with a ripening chemical and they’ll turn pink enough to fool consumers into thinking the packages contain real tomatoes.

What a deal! Agribusiness got its machine and a machine-ready hard tomato at taxpayer expense-but within a couple of years after this technological “achievement” was introduced, five thousand small tomato farmers in California were put out of business by the mass-produced machine tomatoes, and some fifteen thousand farmworkers lost their harvesting jobs. Your tax dollars at work.

And what about consumers? Well, in the process of interviewing policy makers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] for our book, DeMarco discovered that the agriculture research establishment relegated consumer concerns to the “little ladies” [remember: it’s 1971] who taught home economics. Rarely were these women consulted when the plant breeders, engineers, and mechanics got together to “design” a food product.

The official line was that while the new machine-harvested tomato was not cheaper than nature’s own, at least consumers could buy it year-round. In an interview with a USDA official, DeMarco commented that the off-season supermarket “tomatoes” she’d tried had no taste and-other than shape-bore no relationship to the luscious tomatoes she’d grown up with in New Jersey. The official-in a sincere, life-moves-on tone-dismissed this concern as a minor drawback: “Your children will never know the difference.” End of long aside.)

Wrong. Even as he spoke, people were paying more attention, getting more concerned, and asking more questions than the aloof agribusiness power brokers could possibly imagine. A food awakening was already beginning to take hold. It’s understandable that the establishment would have been clueless about this, since it was driven by ordinary people, not by “leaders” (nearly all of whom were in harness and pulling mightily for the industrial agriculture model) and not by the likes of today’s Whole Foods empire (the company didn’t exist when people began to move; it only came along later to ride the commercial wave of the awakening).

DeMarco and I were in touch with this emerging movement through our work in the 1970s as codirectors of a public interest group with the unwieldy name of Agribusiness Accountability Project. In addition to research and writing, we did a lot of speaking in cities around the country. Some of our friends were baffled that we were going into urban areas to raise what they assumed were farm issues: “Why are you talking about agriculture?”

We weren’t. We were talking about power. We asked consumer-minded audiences, “If you can’t even control what’s in your dinner, what can you control? Who decided to take the flavor out of tomatoes? Why are breakfast cereal prices so high? Who says it’s ‘necessary’ to dump eight billion pounds of pesticides every year on America’s croplands, with the poisons contaminating the strawberries you give your kids as a treat?”

We were also talking about the emergence of a fledgling populist political alliance that had enormous potential to upset the best-laid plans of the food giants. Discussion of economic structure is usually a boring snore producer, but we found that people quickly and easily “got it” when we merely held up a box of Wheaties or a can of Campbell’s soup, products that most people in the seventies had in their kitchens. We then described what these packages held for the following:

Farmers: On average, only 18¢ of the consumer’s food dollar goes to the farmer (there’s less than a nickel’s worth of wheat in Wheaties. The box costs more).

Farmworkers: You could double the miserly wages they are paid and not raise the price of a can of soup even a penny.

Environment: Saturating fields with pesticides every year is literally killing the soil and has contaminated nearly half of America’s groundwater.

Energy: With centralized agribusiness, the typical food product travels fifteen hundred miles to get to your supermarket, wasting massive amounts of fuel.

Consumers: A handful of conglomerates monopolizes every aspect of the food economy, leaving consumers overcharged at the cash register and shortchanged on quality.

Let’s see-farmers, labor, environmentalists, and consumers. Gosh … that’s most of us! The Powers That Be work diligently to keep us divided, but if we could come together in a movement that involved us all, something big could happen.

And it is happening. Accelerating from the seventies, all parts of the movement have had their individual upchuck moments over the way the corporatized, industrialized, globalized food system is working, and they have been rebelling against it. Movements, however, don’t spring forth full-grown. Each part has to develop in its own way. In this case, the various parties had practically no connection, no awareness that all were seeking a better system. Although they had no central leaders, no road map or plan, they’ve gradually found their way by finding one another.

JIm Hightower and Susan DeMarco


The result is an alternative food economy that has begun to flourish and a proud movement that is surging in popularity.

There are some eight thousand organic farmers today, producing everything from wheat to meat (and thousands more farmers are making the transition to organic).

Some facts about the organic food market include the following:

– Sales of organic food topped $17 billion in 2006 and are increasing at about 20 percent a year-ten times the rate of other foods.

– About 40 percent of American shoppers regularly buy some organic foods.

– Sales of organic beer (O, progress!) rose 40 percent in 2005. Such entrepreneurial leaders as Morgan Wolaver, the maker of a terrific line of organic brews sold under the Wolaver label, have established an expanding niche for beers made with organic ingredients. (Disclosure: I have done extensive consumer research into the quality of his suds, although I am not under the influence as I write this.)

– Direct sales from local farmers to consumers are booming through some four thousand vibrant farmers’ markets in practically every city.

– Food co-ops (once the rather funky domain of hippies) are thriving, with about three hundred of them across the country, totaling $750 million a year in business and providing another way around the corporate system for local farmers, food artisans, and consumers.

– All levels of eateries-from white-tablecloth restaurants to Dot’s Diner-not only feature organic foods on their menus, but also pride themselves on having locally produced, seasonal ingredients.

– Such major wholesalers as Sysco, practically all supermarket chains, and giants such as Costco and even Wal-Mart now realize that the demand is so strong that they have to carry some organic foods.

Oh, and those kids who “will never know the difference”? They’ve been in the lead of this movement from the start. In the seventies, it was college kids who became the founders of food co-ops, organic farms, and other enterprising efforts to get around that hard tomato. In the eighties and the nineties, it was young moms who asked, “What’s in this stuff I’m feeding my kids?” and searched out better alternatives.

And today it’s the kids and the grandkids of all of the previously mentioned kids who are helping to push good food into that last refuge of awful “mystery meats” and prepackaged fat bombs: the school cafeteria. The farm-to-cafeteria movement has received little coverage by the national media establishment, but it is spreading across the country. More than four hundred school districts and two hundred university cafeterias now build their daily menus around fresh, mostly organic ingredients bought from local farmers and food makers.

Also, prodded by the example of Alice Waters-the pioneering visionary and a tireless promoter of America’s “good food” movement-many of the youngsters in these schools now grow some of their own food, as well as help to prepare and serve it, as part of a spreading “edible schoolyard” program. Some are even adopting a concept called “edible classroom,” where food is used as an integral part of the curric
lum, providing a t
ngible (and tasty) way to teach history, science, math, geometry, and other topics.

Just as good food springs from well-tended ground, so has this grassroots movement. No one in a position of power-political or economic-made any of these improvements happen. In a remarkably short time, ordinary Americans informed themselves, organized, and acted to assert their own values over those of the corporate structure. Family by family, business by business, they have changed not only the market but the culture. By taking charge of what goes on their plates, people are beginning to take charge of their lives.

Excerpted from Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow, by Jim Hightower with Susan DeMarco, published by John Wiley & Sons.