Why You Should Know Who Grew Your Food
‘We Have a Juggernaut Coming At Us’
April 1996 – In the late 1970s, the administration of then-Governor Jerry Brown promulgated the regulations that paved the way for the creation of certified farmers markets, of which there are now more than 250 in California. With the governorship and a couple of failed bids for the U.S. presidency now fading into memory, Brown is more deeply involved than ever with the issue of local control of food.
The vehicle for his work these days is an organization called We the People, which occupies a building in the warehouse district between the railroad tracks and the freeway in downtown Oakland.
‘The people in charge probably didn’t get it until they had their heads chopped off.’
Q: Do you have any memories of the origins of the direct marketing regulations?
A: We were concerned that produce that did not meet the size standards of the marketing orders was being thrown away. At the same time there were elderly people who could not afford to have food. We wanted farmers to have an alternative outlet. The idea was to link up the farmer with the consumer through direct marketing.
My philosophy was one of greater self reliance, a philosophy of decentralization, of more person-to-person contact. That’s what I was espousing. That’s what I still espouse. That’s the whole point of the We the People program here in Oakland. The farmers markets were another step to giving people an opportunity to take more power over their own lives — and also to provide another outlet for organic produce. That is important because the production and distribution of food is increasingly being monopolized and controlled by large corporate structures, large financial structures. So this was an effort to get back to the basics.
There’s a whole philosophy here: E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder. These were the people who were thinking about it, talking about it, who we were meeting with. It was a movement that was against the drift toward more anonymity, more distant markets, more passivity on the part of the citizen and the consumer. When the farmer can sell directly to the consumer, it is a more active process. There’s more contact. The consumer can know, who am I buying this from? What’s their name? Do they have a face? Is the food they are selling coming out of Mexico with pesticides?
Q: Doesn’t the proliferation and success of farmers markets belie the concern about multinational corporations taking over the food supply?
A: Not at all. Multinational corporations do control. They control the politicians. They control the media. They control the pattern of consumption, entertainment, thinking. They’re destroying the planet and laying the foundation for violent outbursts and racial division. That’s all true.
Q: But as far as food is concerned, people who know about farmers markets have an alternative. The choice is theirs to make.
A: As far as food is concerned, multinational corporations have taken control of seeds. Genetic engineering companies want to create a situation where you have to get permission from a corporation to eat. And the corporate executives don’t live in the community. They don’t send their kids to the same school. They don’t go to the same churches. They don’t play in the same parks. They don’t swim in the same pools. They don’t go to the same movies. In effect they’re creating a colonial society here in America through the global accumulation of financial power. And that is certainly found in the food production and distribution system. It is not immune from the overall process of late stage capitalism.
Farmers markets are green shoots coming out of the gun. They represent hope and they need to be cultivated. But we have a juggernaut coming at us.
Q: Small farmers with diversified production, such as many of those who grow for farmers markets, have never received much from government farm programs while large producers of commodity crops have often been given lavish federal aid. Should small farmers try to get a bigger piece of the pie, or push to abolish the pie as a part of the problem?
Government for Rent
A: The government is a bunch of whores. Look at the people who pay to elect the government. Small farmers or cooperative activists do not pay anything other than a microscopic speck of the money spent to elect Congress. That being the case, they will get nothing back. That’s a very important point. It costs in direct campaign contributions $600 million to elect the Congress. How much do the people you’re talking about contribute to that pot? If your answer is zero or close to it, don’t expect them to compete with Archer Daniels Midland for influence.
We have to deal with where we are. We have to create cooperatives, we have to create intentional communities, we have to work for local cooperation where we are.
Government is the tool of the moneyed powers. That concentration of power is happening because Congress is bought off. The system is rigged. And anyone who because of some schoolbook imagery thinks we have some sort of a democratically elected government is not reading the signs of the times.
So you have to take direct action and do things where you are. Where there is a sufficient social movement of self-reliant communities, there can be political change. There must be political change. But that won’t come from disconnected spectators watching Westinghouse and General Electric and Disney television, thinking that they’re going to get the kind of information that will build a constituency that will care about organic food production, or farmers markets, or anything that isn’t a part of the large-scale market.
The logic of the market is that Safeway should be taken over by an investment firm and broken down in a way that will maximize the value of the investment. Human beings have nothing to do with that equation other than the people who are making the money at the top. Everything else is propaganda.
Q: Haven’t multinational corporations created many things, such as personal computers, that have helped lots of ordinary people?
A: Yes, and they gave us Windows 95-and you have to go out and spend another thousand bucks to make it all efficient. It’s another form of addiction.
Sure, I have computers. [He points toward a computer flickering on a nearby desk.] I like computers. I like the Internet. It’s a tool that can be used. But don’t be misled into thinking that these technologies are anything other than aspects of a degenerate economic system.
Becoming More Vegetarian
Q: Have your politics changed your eating habits?
A: Well, I suppose the first person who impressed me in terms of eating was Nathan Pritikin, who I put on the Rollins Commission. He advocated a diet of 80 percent grains, complex carbohydrates, 10 percent protein, and 10 percent fat, more or less. Now we’ve got Dean Ornish who says that 90 percent of heart bypass operations are unneeded. We have Dr. [John] McDougall [author of “The McDougall Program for a Healthy Heart.”] What all these people are recommending is basically tending toward a vegetarian diet. Now we have Lester Brown who says that the Chinese, as they industrialize and continue their rapid economic growth, will drive the price of grain through the roof. And it will never go back again. Why? Because they want to be like us. They want to eat pig and cow and chicken. So certainly over the years either for health reasons or temperament or global consciousness, I’ve certainly become more vegetarian. It looks to me to be obvious that the whole world cannot eat an American diet. So therefore, when I look at all of these factors, the more I have tried to eat mostly organic fruits, vegetables and grains. That’s what’s sustainable and healthful.
Q: I understand you are starting a food co-op.
A: We are modeling it on the Park Slope food co-op. That means you have to have owner-worker-shoppers. You can’t shop unless you work, you can’t work unless you own. And there will be a professional staff to support them.
Q: Food cooperatives have been around for quite awhile and have never really caught on outside of a few people in the counter culture. Are Americans more receptive now than they were in the past?
A: The other day at the farmers market in Oakland there were thousands of people. But these are still sprouts coming out of the ground. The world is still the world according to the New York Times business section. It’s all about mergers, the Dow. But there’s a movement coming. And capitalism is definitely shaky now. It’s shaky because it’s based on insatiable desires in a biologically limited world.
It is creating inequality, economic anxiety, racial division and the destruction of natural systems, all of which are showing up in higher prices, higher crime rates, greater collective neurosis and utter distaste for politicians who are not responding to these realities.
It’s a crazy society now. It’s the richest society ever and yet people are overworked. There’s more unemployment, more crime, more confusion, more broken marriages. This is a breakdown. Every culture breaks down. Every society breaks down, whether it’s Rome, Spain, the British Empire. The people in charge probably didn’t get it until they had their heads chopped off.
– Mark Thompson