Thursday, September 3, 2015

The (Real) Important Food Stories of 2010


Barney Chapman Jamie Folsom When an editor at The Atlantic magazine listed the ten most important food policy stories of 2010, he left out people like Barney Chapman, a real life rancher. Chapman traveled from Texas to Fort Collins, Colorado, this summer to support proposed rules governing the sale of livestock — which was an important story.

One of the first things we noticed about The Atlantic’s list of the “10 Biggest Food Stories of 2010” is that there is no mention of either the people or the places that produce food. The only farmer (and only farm) the magazine mentions is First Lady Michelle Obama and her White House garden.

When it comes to “food policy,” according to The Atlantic, rural America doesn’t exist.

Instead, we see that the first story on the magazine’s list is “The Meat Trend.” Atlantic associate editor Daniel Fromson tells us there is a sudden “foodie passion for cured meats, braised veal cheeks, jammy bone marrow, and do-it-yourself butchering.” There is apparently a famous DIY butcher in Brooklyn.

In much of Yonder, butchering and curing meat isn’t so much a trend as what you do in the fall. Which got us wondering whether what The Atlantic considered the 10 biggest food stories were anything like what we’ve covered here at The Daily Yonder.

It’s probably not too much of a surprise that there is little overlap between The Atlantic's list and The Yonder. The Atlantic’s list of important stories includes “foraging,” for example. The story here is that there are now people roaming the countryside looking for mushrooms, ramps and even “weirder stuff.” (Weirder than a mushroom?) Also on the list are stories about reform of school lunch menus, the First Lady’s interest in food (and fat Americans) and the appearance of food trucks cluttering empty lots in every city.

White House photo by Samantha Appleton The First Lady's interest in home grown food was on the magazine's list of important food stories. Here Michelle Obama plants the garden last April with students from Bancroft Elementary School. The list is heavy on New York City. Included among the ten most important stories about “food policy,” for example, is the fact that New York has six new upscale Italian restaurants.

We would agree with a few of Fromson’s picks. The egg recall was a big deal, as is the continuing saga of the food safety bill. The Atlantic included the long-running battle over genetically modified food on its list. That’s an important story about food policy.

In other words, we’d put three out of The Atlantic’s ten food policy stories on our list. 

So, what stories are missing? Rural America, is the short answer. The magazine's list is void of just about everything having to do with life, commerce, power and politics outside the largest urban areas..

We’d like to hear from Yonder readers about what they consider the most important food policy stories of 2010, but here are some stories that are on our list:


In June, the federal Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) issued a set of proposed regulations that would remake the relationship between livestock raisers and meat packers. The new rules would give livestock raisers and rural communities new powers to confront a packing industry that is becoming increasingly concentrated.

Over 2,000 livestock raisers came to Fort Collins, Colorado, this summer largely to support the proposed rule. One cattle raisers’ group said the meeting to support the rules was “the most important day in the history of the U.S. cattle industry and in rural America.” 

The rules have met heavy opposition from some members of congress and from the big ag groups. The regulations are still pending.

The GIPSA rules have received almost no attention from “foodie” groups — or coverage from publications such as The Atlantic.

Peak Phosphorus

The world’s food supply depends on a mineral that is declining in production and is controlled by a cartel of companies and countries.

The decline in the production of phosphorus — not to mention the monopolization of this resource — is on our list of most important food policy stories.

Food Monopolies

The Departments of Justice and Agriculture have been holding hearings all year on increasing concentration in the food business. There was a session yesterday in Washington, D.C., examining the increasing concentration of retail grocers

The DOJ has said it may file antitrust actions in various sectors of the food business.

Monsanto has a lock on several seed markets in the country, a monopoly that has drawn the attention of the Department of Justice. Seed

One of the areas where the DOJ may take antitrust action is with the seed business, where the Monsanto Company has control of most of the corn, soybean and cotton planted in the country. Farmers have been agitating for years against the virtual monopoly Monsanto has in these markets. Now the government is interested. 

Meanwhile, this year there has been a pushback against Monsanto’s claims that its new corn seed produces higher yields. Farmers are finding that the new seed has no better yields than earlier models and the West Virginia attorney general is investigating whether Monsanto made false claims about its seed. 

One of the most interesting business stories of the year has been the collapse of Monsanto’s stock price in the midst of this controversy.

Nancy Smith, a Maine state representative, converted her dairy, Snafu Farm, to organic production, but she had to close her milk operation when the milk market collapsed. Dairy Implosion

The dairy business has been collapsing. Farmers are selling their herds. As small dairies go out of business, they are being replaced by mega-farms. 

Land Prices

As corn prices have jumped higher, so have rural land prices. Iowa farmland sold a few weeks ago for $13,000 an acre — and there is talk of a new land price bubble.

Rural Grocery Crisis

Small town groceries are disappearing. 

BP and Gulf Coast Fishing

The BP oil spill disrupted ways of life and commerce that have existed on the Gulf Coast for generations. Shrimpers and oystermen are still struggling to find the product and markets they lost in 2010. 


The Humane Society of the U.S. is attempting to rewrite laws governing livestock state by state through ballot initiatives. State legislators are particularly concerned with how the HSUS might alter the way food is produced in their states. 

Grain and Grain Elevator Speculation

As a way to profit off the rise in commodity prices, Wall Street has been buying and building grain elevators in the Midwest. The result is a growing concentration of ownership of these local resources. 

Okay, those are a few on the Yonder’s list of most important food policy stories. As you can see, not a one of these stories begins in Brooklyn.




Displacement of the rural

Dear Yonder--I just love you guys! Stories like this are a great response to the ubiquitously cosmopolicentric (sic: made up word) perspective of so many other publications.

"It is one of the most striking deformations of industrial capitalism that one of our most central and urgent and necessary activities [farming] could have been so displaced…that is can be plausibly associated only with the past or with distant lands" (Raymond Williams, 1973, p. 300).


Bravo, Bill and Richard, for undertaking this kind of media criticism. My addition to the list would be the ongoing debate over conducting zoonotic disease research in Kansas, the heart of cattle country:

A recent NRC report concluded that there is a 70% chance that foot and mouth disease pathogens would escape from the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) being built in Manhattan over the projected fifty-year life of the project. If FMD were found on the mainland United States, the economic impact on export-oriented ranchers would be immense.

don't discount Brooklyn!

I found this excellent piece when looking for coverage of the final DOJ/USDA ag antitrust workshop that was held in Washington DC yesterday. You're totally right about these being the real food stories of 2010. You make some really good points about the way food is often written about by the media and thought about by city-dwellers (esp those on the coasts, I'll admit) these days. I had to repond, because if we keep seeing ourselves as divided between rural and urban, I don't believe we'll be able to change the system.

I grew up in a mostly-farming community of 350 ppl in rural western Massachusetts. I now live in New York City (Brooklyn, in fact), and I work for WhyHunger, a non-profit that builds the movement for just and sustainable food for everyone - including a living wage and real market fairness for family farmers. With the support of my NYC-based organization, I've gone to four of the five DOJ/USDA workshops, in IA, WI, CO, and now DC. We've been part of a coalition that's also included National Family Farm Coalition (one of our strongest and most frequent partners), Family Farm Defenders, Iowa CCI, WORC, R-CALF, Rural Advancement Fdn, Food Democracy Now!, and Food and Water Watch, to mobilize people to go to the workshops around the country, send in comments to DOJ about ag antitrust (over 15,000 in the initial comment period at the end of last year and many more this year -- including a total of 240,000 signatures on petitions to reform our ag and food sectors and break up Big Food), and learn more about the issues.

It was a great privilege for me to go to Ankeny, Madison, and Ft. Collins and spend time with farmers and ranchers, some of whom I now consider friends (and many of whom reminded me of the farmers I grew up with). It was heartbreaking and humbling to hear directly about how consolidation in the ag and food sectors are destroying their livelihoods. Back in Brooklyn, many of my friends and I ARE part of various aspects of the food trends The Atlantic wrote about-- I grow food, compost, and support local farmers. I have Brooklyn and Bronx friends who have chickens and bees. AND, I also work with a lot of people in the lowest-income areas of the city who are growing thousands of pounds of food to feed their neighbors, who are starting their own farmers' markets because there's nowhere else to buy fresh and healthy food, whose famillies are rife with diebetes because the only food "choice" in their neighborhoods is 8 kinds of fried chicken and various flavors of high-fructose corn syrup, all made by the same company. For them, this work isn't a trend, it's a dire necessity. (The same is true for me, but in a longer-term way.)

These are the other stories the media doesn't tell.

What most struck me in the auditoriums in Ankeny, Madison, and Ft Collins (particularly at the popular town hall meetings the night before the official workshops) was that while the people looked different and the particulars of their stories were different, the anger, betrayal, and desire for a more just food system were the same as that of my friends and colleagues in NYC. I spoke up at each one of those town halls to tell the farmers about the stuggles that low-income urban eaters face; that my friends and colleagues in low-income urban areas are being screwed as badly as farmers, albeit in different ways; and that those of us who are lucky enough to have a real choice about our food are choosing to make ethical decisions, pay what food is truly worth (a lot more than we pay now, given the effort that goes into raising it), and work for a system in which food is fair for both farmers and eaters.

I've also taken the farmers' stories back with me and publicized them to my professional community -- which is both urban and rural people around the country working for a better food system. My series on the DOJ workshops is here, and the piece I wrote before yesterday's session is here (that one makes some of these same points I'm making here). A video I put on YouTube of part of the Iowa town hall has gotten almost 6400 views to date. Many city folks who care about food care about farms, and more and more of them are understanding that the health of rural farms and communities is inseparable from the health of our urban communities.

Contrary to how The Atlantic paints it, a lot of us on both sides of the rural/urban "divide" (and some of us who are from both) are working to communicate our common cause -- to each other, and to the media. The groups who have been organizing around these workshops will continue to work together (along with many others) around the Food & Farm Bill in the next couple of years. The only way we're going to change that massive legislation is through a strong, PUBLICIZED, movement of united (at least loosely!) farmers and consumers; rural and urban; young and old; black, brown, and white. And on and on. It would be an honor to have you join us.

PS- You wouldn't believe how many people I've talked to about GIPSA.

Siena Chrisman, Brooklyn, NY

A similar phenomenon in another context

I wrote a blog post this summer about the absence of rural people and places from legal scholarship.  One example I discussed was a 50-page law review article called "Food Fights, Food Rights" that made not a single use of the word "rural"!  Read the post here:


Big Food Stories

Thanks for pointing out that food must be grown.

I do wish you had included some of the more positive stories out there.  Surely we all need to be reminded of the problems of industrial agriculture, but it would also be useful for us to hear more about what folks are doing about it.

For example, Slow Money is a nonprofit started by Woody Tasch, author of a book by the same name, dedicated to creating a series of local food capital funds in which local residents would invest directly in their local food producers.  Thousands of people are signing on and in recognition of the fact that money is not everything, or at least fast money is not.  These folks are putting their money where their mouths are, so to speak so to speak, and blazing the trail for new kinds of local investing in which community is as important as profits.


As with other comments, I greatly appreciate the Yonder for great information about rural issues.  I lived in rural Oregon for 30 years before moving to Durham NC, and have been amazed at how dissociated people are from food.  One good thing - the locavore movement is very alive here, and many small farmers in (what's left of) the rural areas around Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh are doing well with the demand not only from Farmer's Markets but many restaurants which feature local only food.

However, water is becoming a critical issue all around the world.  Here in NC we've got coal ash ponds ready to spill into ground water and rivers, hog CAFOs polluting streams, and old factories releasing dioxin into water.  Did you notice that the oil waste from the BP cleanup was dumped into a rural majority African American county?  

The importance of this article

This article is so valuable! I hope everyone who reads it makes sure that you send this to any of your friends/family who are not rural and/or farmers/ranchers/fishermen. Link to it from your social networking sites--make a big deal out of it! The Atlantic shouldn't get off easily for having such a narrow, NYC, urban focus about something as huge as food and rural life--let's turn their cheeks beet red with embarrassment and send them out to the barn to shovel out some of their poop! The other comments, above, are so useful as well. Send this to your legislators to help them better understand their place on the scale of rural awareness--would they agree with the Atlantic, or are they already on top of all the issues identified by the Yonder? Agriculture teachers need to show this to their students. Thank you, Yonder, for this kind of work. As a small organic farmer in rural N. California, I know that my day-to-day "top 10 stories" don't always look the same as those of commodity growers in the mid-West, but when viewed through the Atlantic's lens, it's clear that I and the midwestern corn grower have so much in common, and are so NOT understood by much of America.