In the early 1970s, Jim Hightower founded the Agribusiness Accountability Project, a public-interest project that focused on corporate power in the food economy. In the 1980s, he served two back-to-back terms as the Texas Agriculture Commissioner, fostering organic production, supporting small farmers, and creating strong pesticide regulations. Today, Hightower speaks regularly about national politics and examines the “powers that be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be.” But as wide-ranging as his messages have become, he is still deeply rooted in his experience supporting alternative food systems.
In his latest book, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow, Hightower offers advice to readers interested in questioning authority, trusting their values, and standing up for their beliefs. He points to today’s burgeoning alternative-food movements as a powerful example of real change originating outside the spheres of policy and lawmaking.
How do you see your advice in Swim Against the Current applying to food?
The general rule of questioning authority, pursuing progressive values, bucking the system, and defying the corporate order not only applies to the food economy, it’s what’s happening to that economy.
The last 30 to 40 years have produced a remarkable revolution in the corporate system of food production, a revolution spawned not by politicians or corporate interests but by ordinary people, small farmers, food artisans, consumers, cooperatives, environmentalists, and others. These folks are teaming up to say we want a good food system based on local production, local economies, organic and sustainable production, good nutrition and good health, and common sense.
These aren’t merely ideals; these are based on the practical result. In the book I quote my friend John Dromgoole, a pioneer in the organic-gardening movement, who points out that “those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” And that’s a very powerful reality.
Tell us a bit more about this food movement.
The cooperative movement has really been instrumental in developing the grassroots food revolution. Go back to the 1960s and early 1970s, to the emergence of major food cooperatives at the retail level; we have one here in Austin called Wheatsville. These started in hippie enclaves, and they have matured along with the hippies into a true economic force. They were also the initial introduction for many consumers to a good food system.
These co-ops began as fledgling enterprises and are flourishing all across the country. In addition, a great number of artisanal food-production cooperatives — making everything from cheeses to drinks — have developed around the country. CSAs (community-supported agriculture) are also an important part of the change. They ensure that consumers’ money stays within their local economies.
In your book, you discuss Organic Valley Farms as a model for a successful, independent, and values-driven cooperative company. You also point out that their biggest competitor, Horizon Organics, is owned by corporate giant Dean Foods. But the two companies make products that look very similar in the store. How can consumers educate themselves about this kind of core difference?
For one, you have to do a bit of digging on your own. You have to at least question the brands that are coming your way.
If a company like Wal-Mart is bringing organic berries from China, for instance, I don’t tend to believe that they are a truly an organic product. Wal-Mart can’t assure us that the medicine it sells doesn’t contain toxic ingredients, much less ensure that the food systems behind their products are meeting our sustainability standards.
Secondly, there are organizations that support organic consumers. I’d recommend learning about the ones in your local area. The Organic Consumers Association is a great place to start.
Do you think significant changes in our nation’s food systems will occur after the next presidential election?
I see the possibility for big changes in governmental policy, but no guarantees. True change only comes when the people themselves demand change and generate a response from the political establishment. The good news is we are electing more and more people who are supportive of good food policies. The bad news is we haven’t elected enough of them.
Can you talk about how your experience as the Texas Agriculture Commissioner has affected your work today?
I have been preaching a populist approach to politics and policies as a writer and activist since early in my career, and when I managed to get elected to that office, the whole purpose was to see if we could implement a populist approach to food and environmental policies.
I chose that office deliberately because it had marketing authority, it had pesticide-regulatory authority, it had a big staff, and it had all this potential not just to talk about populist policies, but to implement them.
So we brought in a very diverse talent base — people who’d been involved in community organizing, people who had themselves been farmers, marketing experts from the food-retail industry, and people who represented farmworkers. We brought all these people together and began to discuss with them what a government agency could do to help promote these good food policies.
And from their ideas we then developed programs, and not only put them in place but also had staff who could go out and provide hands-on support for people who wanted to implement them. So we were able to succeed in a broad range of those areas and to show a model of what a sensible agriculture policy might look like.
The experience — both in terms of getting elected and holding office — just confirmed the beauty of the populist approach.
Last word on the populist approach to food?
Well, essentially that it works. People are making a demand, the producers are responding to that demand, and increasingly the politicians have to be supportive. We can have the kind of food economy that we want. Or we can have the industrialized, conglomeratized, globalized system that the giant corporations have produced for us.
It’s up to us as a public within a democratic system to make the demands and produce the change. The good news is that people are doing this and they are succeeding in getting the response. So “keep pushing” is my best advice.
Twilight Greenaway is a writer living in the Bay Area. Her garden is even drier than usual this summer.
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