Food Writers Who Forget Rural America

A Montana rancher tells us more in 100 seconds about how to change the nation's food system than a New York Times columnist can in a year's worth of writing.

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New York Times columnist Mark Bittman continues to write about food as if farmers and rural communities didn’t exist. 

Bittman’s column Wednesday was about “fixing our food problem.” Bittman finds quite a bit that needs attention. He writes that what we grow and how we grow it has “been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals… I could go on.”

What the nation must do, Bittman commands, is to “figure out a way to uninvent this food system.”

Great! Maybe Bittman has something in mind for farmers and rural America. 

Well, you can read for yourself. The column is here. But you can take our word for it, there’s much more in this column about what should be done to improve the lives of farm animals than of the men and women who raise them.

What’s entirely missing from Bittman’s column — and what’s missing from almost all “foodie” writing — is any acknowledgement that the food industry has been rapidly consolidating, leaving farmers and communities powerless in an industrial system that is controlled by a handful of firms, from seed to grocery aisle. 

(We’ve made this complaint before. See Richard Oswald’s response here after Bittman wrote that changing the way a farm worked would be “simple.”) 

We remind Yonder readers that four years ago the Departments of Justice and Agriculture began an investigation of anti-trust in agriculture. The Obama administration held hearings on seed monopoly, meat monopoly and monopoly in the grocery business. Officials collected evidence from farmers and ag workers that their incomes and their lives were constricted by markets that were considerably less than free.

Then, nothing. The Obama administration took no action. All this happened without a peep from the New York Times or Bittman.

You can read a very good story on this entire debacle written by Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette. It ran the same day as Bittman’s column. Lutey writes: 

Ranchers like Ressa Charter, disappointed with the prices offered for cattle, had hoped President Barack Obama might ride to their rescue by reforming cattle markets after the 2008 election.

Instead, what they got was more like a six-second ride at the rodeo — a fast, furious round of hearings before getting bucked into the dirt. (See Ressa in the photo above.)

Lutey interviews Charter in a video that goes with this story. In 100 seconds, Charter makes more sense about how to develop a local AND fair food system than Bittman can conjure in a year’s worth of columns. 

Ressa Charter and Bittman want many of the same things — quality food grown and humanely raised in a way that preserves land and water. But Bittman and most other so-called “food movement” writers ignore the issues of power and markets that Charter sees as essential. 

The Times describes Mark Bittman’s column as being about “food and all things related.” Well, not quite “all.” Rural people and the economic power they must deal with are not included.

Bill Bishop is co-editor of The Daily Yonder.



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