Jim Hightower

Until maybe 10 or 15 years ago, few Americans were paying much attention to food beyond its price. We’d become a thoroughly urban nation, more in touch with McDonald’s than Old MacDonald.

In recent years, however, there’s been a food awakening with the rise of “good food” grocery stores, the appearance of chef shows on television, and the spread of quality restaurants in places where a “blackboard special” previously would’ve been the two-fer-one spaghetti nite at the Chow Down Café. But something else happened, too: people realized that industrialized dinner had become a threat, from Mad Cow disease to pesticides to gene splicing. While we weren’t looking, the corporate powers grabbed control of dinner and have been messing with it in the most destructive ways.

But there’s good news. While the profiteers and politicians are headed one way with our food system, We the People are headed in quite another direction. A mass movement is growing to take back control of America’s food economy and culture.

There has been surging consumer demand for organic food. What began as a fringe market selling out of funky health-food stores and the rickety VW buses of ex-hippies is now mainstream. Our top export markets—especially Europe, Japan, and Latin America—insist on organic production.

Producing organically is economically viable for struggling farmers, and it’s environmentally essential. The question is no longer whether “organic” will become the major force in the food economy - but rather what it means to say “organic.”

Last year, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) promulgated its new green and white “USDA Organic” label—an official seal of approval that assures shoppers that foods with that label have been produced without the toxic chemicals, artificial fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, GMOs, irradiation, and other brutish techniques of agribusiness.

Getting this label was no small battle. The food giants vehemently opposed any such certification at first, and then their lobbyists got the Clinton administration to include genetic modification, irradiation, and even the use of toxic sludge as approved “organic” methods in the first draft of the labeling rules. The USDA got more protests against this perversion than any other federal agency ever received on a proposed rule. It had to back down.

The USDA label is a step forward for the environment and our health. But the label is only the first step, and it will actually be a hindrance to the pure food movement if we stop there. The label defines organic merely as a technical process, rather than a structural concept that is centered on the culture of agriculture.

Under the USDA’s definition, our nation’s food supply would be considered organic even if (1) all of the production is controlled by General Mills, (2) it is produced 7,000 miles away on Chinese state farms using forced labor, and (3) sales are monopolized by Wal-Mart’s supermarket division.

This is not a paranoid scenario. Indeed, corporations that ridiculed organic production only a couple of years ago now are grabbing for the green label. Wal-Mart is bringing its labor-exploiting, farmer-squeezing management ethic to organic retailing. And firms in China already are applying for organic certification to sell in the US.

Far from organic, this corporate grab is purely plutocratic, nothing but profiteering dressed up in a green suit. “Organic” refers to a social organism with the complexity of a living thing in which the parts are unified, connected not only to each other but also to something larger—specifically to our democratic ideals. It’s more about fairness and respect than it is about parts-per-billion of pesticide residues.

Excerpted from Thieves in High Places, Jim Hightower, 2003. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a division of Penguin Group.

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