The certainty of bread, and its price


The certainty of bread, and its price

Emerson and self-reliance, God and the devil battling over the heart of man, and hopeful anecdotes of activists in the alternative food system form the foundation of a veteran community organizer's new book and call to action.

In the book, subtitled "Fighting Back In An Age of Industrial Agriculture," Mark Winne lays out the battle lines for democracy itself, writing, "We will either shape our own food destiny or we will succumb to the one that is presented to us."

He draws a parallel to The Grand Inquisitor, the parable in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," in which the inquisitor berates Jesus for rejecting the devil's temptation to turn stones into bread and water into wine, offering instead the freedom to follow.

"Turn [stones] into bread," [the inquisitor told Jesus,] "and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient....In the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us....give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread."

That bread that most of us eat, with or without understanding, Mr. Winne says, is from the industrial food system, which is "highly organized, rational, efficient, and possesses a singular focus on the financial bottom line as both organization and management value." This system, lauded for providing an abundance of cheap food, is linked to the epidemic of diet-related disease, runaway health-care costs and long-term pollution of soil, water and air.

Further, he says that those leading the industrial food system are fighting for more control by

"framing issues in ways that make it appear either to be doing good or at least doing no harm; undermining democracy through legislative and legal actions; taking its business offshore by expanding into new foreign markets; and painting the alternative food system as an inadequate answer to world food needs."

Mr. Winne, who also wrote "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty," cites the work of Kelly Brownell and Kenneth Warner, who show similarities in the industrial food system framing strategy to that of Big Tobacco:

  • Focus on personal responsibility;

  • Raise fears that government action usurps personal freedom;

  • Vilify critics as "food police," leaders of a "nanny state," or "food fascists" and accuse them of looking to strip citizens of civil liberties;

  • Call studies critical of the industry "junk science;"

  • Declare there are no good or bad foods;

  • Emphasize exercise over diet; and

  • Plant doubt when concerns are raised about the industry.

"Do we forfeit our intellect, our passion and the muscles and tendons of our arms for the peace that comes from knowing that food will be provided?" Mr. Winne asks. "Do we mute our voices and let others who claim a higher wisdom in these matters make the decisions for us?"

In the second part of the book, Mr. Winne tells stories of farmers, teachers and activists who have triumphed over innate fears of physical labor, cooking for themselves and speaking up in public policy arenas.

Reasserting our control in the face of power, relearning skills that have atrophied, and rediscovering a triumphant kind of individualism that embraces both the self and community are the goals, he says, and then he paraphrases Emerson: "We must find a countermove that undercuts a system that demands our conformity...The argument we must make is for action, not contemplation...It will be through experience and participation, those rough but nimble teachers, that we re-create the skills we once had and now need again."


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