Mark Winne on Who Will Feed Us: The Industrial or the Alternative Food System?

A book review of “Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, And Smart-Cookin

by Peter Mann

Who will control the future of our food – the globally dominant industrial system of Big Food and Industrial Agriculture or the Alternative Food System which is sustainable, local, and based on values of democracy and justice? Many of us who fight back against the industrial food system and struggle to build an alternative will recognize ourselves in Mark Winne’s book Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture. It exposes some of our dominant fears but also reveals our deepest hopes. 

Fighting the Big Organizations 

One of the biggest fears many people have is that there is no realistic alternative to the industrial food system. Winne points to the dominant anti-hunger role of the “Big Organizations” – big government, big industry, big foundations, big academia, not forgetting “big media.” They portray themselves as indispensable to feeding a hungry world – “too many people, too little food” – although these claims have long since been refuted. They use the alliance of philanthropy with public policy to win acceptance for biotechnology and GMOs, as in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The industrial food system seeks to make us believe that it has our best interests at heart, but in fact “prefers dominance to fairness and authority to freedom.”

Fighting Back describes four ways in which the industrial food system fights for control: “framing the issues in ways that make it appear 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.” This sounds very familiar to me.

The Costs of the Industrial Food System 

While the industrial food system is gigantic and seemingly omnipresent, Fighting Back highlights its enormous costs and deadly weaknesses. These include devastating costs in terms of the pollution of water, soil, and air by factory farms; cruelty to animals and unjust treatment of farm workers and food workers in conventional and factory farming; the epidemics of obesity and diabetes by the products of Big Food. On the model of Big Tobacco’s response to critics, Big Food’s framing strategy is to focus on the personal freedom of consumers, undermine government intervention, attack “food police”, and reject criticism as “junk science.” It is still amazing to what extent both big government and big media overlook or collude with these positions, as in the pollution issues from factory farms and the health effects from junk food.

Entering the Alternative Food System

Eloquent and powerful as Mark Winne’s critique of the industrial food system is, the most original achievement of his book is about entering the alternative food system. He has built on his previous book, Closing the Food Gap, and taken the argument to a new level that is both personal and spiritual. He speaks of fighting for the soul of the American food system – its food, air, and water – and sees the real struggle taking place not simply at the level of food distribution and access, but at the level of who we are and how we live. He describes the intimacy of knowing our food, recognizing food as a bridge to nature, to land, to gardening, farming, ranching, family meals and spiritual and religious practices. Good food is “healthy, green, fair, affordable.” The locavore movement is “for something”, not “against something.” Fighting Back is, however, realistic. Despite real expansion, a little over 2 percent of food sales are “good food” now, “projected to go to only 10 percent by 2016.” This is one of the deep hopes I mentioned earlier: how do we scale up to compete with the industrial food system?

Overcoming Our Fears

The key thesis of this book is that control of our food system is slipping away from us, others are making decisions for us, and this is threatening our democracy. We are being called to recover skills, power, and our individual selves as part of a community. This leads Mark Winne to nine chapters describing potentially wholesale changes to build mass participation in “the good food system.” These chapters deal with food production, food education, and food democracy, and all deal with fundamental problems, what Fighting Back calls “innate fears” – fear of growing our food, cooking our food, and changing public policy – all of which are transmitted and intensified from one generation to another. All three fears alienate us from our food system and provide ways for the industrial food system to exploit these fears and drive us into their camp. 

The path to victory, according to Fighting Back is by a “renaissance in food knowledge and a reemergence of citizen democracy” exemplified in the nine chapters. I recommend you read the nine chapters and their stories: they were, for me, full of revelations, from their descriptions of communities rebuilding themselves around food, to a view of American history through the lens of food sovereignty, to Mark’s insight that a dynamic part of the coming food revolution will emerge from America’s colleges and universities. There appear glimpses of the global movement around food sovereignty, notably in Russia and South Korea, but I think Mark’s argument would be even stronger if it linked to the international social movements fighting industrial agriculture and Big Food. 

The Spiritual Perspective

Finally, I want to mention the spiritual perspective that runs through Fighting Back. Mark frequently uses the Grand Inquisitor parable of authority versus freedom in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to illustrate the painful choices we face to determine “…the future of our food, and more profoundly, the future of humankind. Will we eat the heavenly bread or the earthly bread?” His closing reflection follows D.H.Lawrence who “…finds a unity of sorts between the sacred and the secular…the sowing of land and the harvesting of crops.” Good food is both the earthly and heavenly bread, in Mark’s words perhaps “as much as we can ever know of paradise on earth, and joyfully so.”

Peter Mann is Director Emeritus of WhyHunger’s Global Movements Program