Alan Lewis directs Government Affairs and Food and Agriculture Policy for Natural Grocers - Vitamin Cottage, a thriving 60-year-old natural food grocery chain operating 90 stores in fifteen states. His work sourcing healthy sustainably farmed foods for Natural Grocers keeps his customers happy and healthy and enables numerous family farmers to thrive. Alan is active in many trade organizations and sits on the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council. His focus is on communicating with local and federal policy makers using frameworks that are non-confrontational and inclusive. In his TEDx talk, archived in VIDEO’s – Candy’s Room, Alan reveals the sophisticated methods used by the food industry “fibberati” to manipulate, deceive and distract us and suggests that we can resist these nefarious tactics by making conscious food choices based on core values that support a sustainable and just food system.
As an industry insider, Alan Lewis knows just how badly the food system is broken. Alan’s insights are far reaching. In this, the third part of my interview with Alan, we discuss the extent of Big Ag's control over government farm policy, and promising solutions going forward including the battle to protect meaningful truthful product labeling, the resurgence of small family farms, localized food distribution and the coming food revolution.
LOCALIZED FOOD RE-DISTRIBUTION
STEPHEN: I notice a groundswell. Many people are interested in becoming sustainable, small family farmers. Everyone is sharing knowledge, sharing information, success stories. Are you seeing that too?
ALAN: There are two parts to that. One is just urban agriculture. People planting farms or large gardens on urban lots and in their yards. And typically people produce far more food, far more zucchini, far more tomatoes, far more cucumbers than they want to eat or can or preserve. That’s excess, fresh produce that goes out in the community. So in my neighborhood, Elise Raw - that’s her real name - has a system to collect all that excess garden goods and then redistribute them to people for free. If you get sophisticated about urban farming, then you’re sophisticated about preserving and canning and processing. And in your pantry you’ve got salsas and preserves or whatever that will keep you going for 6 or 7 months. And it’s fresh and it’s nutritious and it’s really low cost because you grow it in your own garden.
STEPHEN: Systems have to be created where people collect all these overages and share it amongst each other. So if I’ve got a hundred zucchinis I don’t need, would there be a food pantry somewhere where I could trade or give it away?
ALAN: You wrap it up during the week. And on Saturday, there’s share day, and anyone who comes in, doesn’t matter who they are or how much they have or what car they’re driving. That’s share day.
STEPHEN: Would it be house to house or an assembly point?
ALAN: Well, in my neighborhood, Elise Raw at The Garden has a place where she’s intentionally building this urban agricultural center as a resource for the community. But she’s also got specialized bikes with trailers. These human powered bikes are loaded with fresh produce, They’re going down the streets, and they’re going to people who are shut ins or have identified themselves as in need, and the produce is delivered door to door. Very cool. All year long they are collecting and distributing rescued food from the nearby grocery stores. This is good quality stuff. Does it necessarily change someone’s life to have a couple zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes? Not so much, but it changes your outlook when your neighbors are taking care of you.
STEPHEN: I bet those people are really looking forward to those deliveries, when the person on the bike comes around.
ALAN: You bet. Big smiles. Scaling that up one notch, you’ve got the farmers and ranchers - and I’m going to speak about Colorado - that are redeveloping local production and processing.
Typically a rancher will have a cow/calf operation which is a fancy word for a couple of bulls, hundreds of cows, and those calves come out, and they’re raised for 8, 9 months on grass and grain and they’re sold to the feed lots. The feedlot is going to take subsidized corn and soy and lots of antibiotic growth hormones and pump that steer or that calf up until they’re well over 1,200 pounds. The slaughterhouse buys them by the truckload.
But that gets us back to vertically integrated processing. The profit in the value chain is going back to that feedlot that’s buying subsidized corn and selling those full weight animals to the slaughterhouse. So, regionally, the ranchers are getting together and rebuilding the old slaughterhouses so that they can put those calves out on pasture for an additional year and have a full weight animal to take to market. They have it slaughtered nearby, on their behalf. They get the meat and the profit. They can sell it, eat it, share it. But they’re getting the full value of that animal, and the cost to raise it on their own grass pastures is really, really low.
STEPHEN: That’s really great, because that’s a problem here in California.
ALAN: You guys lost Bell Campo, and that’s part of the regional system that was pretty much outside of the Big AG game.
STEPHEN: I know farmers or ranchers who, when they need an animal slaughtered, have to call someone who is licensed who drives all the way in from El Paso in his mobile unit to do that.
It’s hard for me to imagine. These farmers or ranchers, raise organic, healthy, antibiotic free animals only to find their only choice when it’s time to process, is a slaughterhouse controlled by Big Ag. At those feedlots, their healthy animals will coexist side by side for weeks with unhealthy, factory farmed animals in crowded dirt pens, covered with their own waste, before passing through a high speed slaughtering plant alongside these sick factory farmed animals - a very virulent environment. The farmer or rancher is not even sure what condition the meat is in when he gets it back.
ALAN: And then you’re suddenly paying an immigrant $7 an hour, who is three hundred miles away, while you’ve got people in your community looking for work. What the hell is that, right? When you start looking at these holistic feedback loops of the integrated economy: of keeping this processing local and keeping the food local, it has these really dynamic effects that reinforce themselves and really reinvigorate a local community. My neighbors are so much better off buying directly from nearby farmers and ranchers.
STEPHEN: So a goal is to regain control again of the processing facilities. When Tyson and the other huge agri-businesses came in they took over all the slaughterhouses. They suggested guidelines, an industry ‘wish list’ for government legislation containing rules for ‘public safety’ creating huge hurdles and red tape for anyone who wanted to start up their own community slaughterhouse again.
THE SECRET DESIGN BEHIND MODERN GOVERNMENT FARM POLICY – PART 2
ALAN: That strategy was reinforced by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
After the Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act, they had one last hurrah after losing the midterm elections. In mid December 2010, they passed the Food Safety Modernization Act. People in food and ranching, the small producers, were just aghast at the requirements in that thing. The guidelines came out, and they were just unbelievably bureaucratic baloney. You’ve got to test your irrigation water every week. Well, that’s a $7000 or $8000 dollar bill every year. For what? By the time you get the test back, that water has been irrigated and it’s moved down the river or it’s evaporated. The testing regimen has no meaning to anything related to safety. That’s F.S.M.A. It’s a product of the biggest conglomerated Ag corporate interests putting rules in place that kind of make sense for their scale of operation. At least they can afford it, but they damn well know their smaller competitors and new entrants can’t.
STEPHEN: The Democratic Party’s ideology is to protect the middle class, blue-collar workers, and the disenfranchised. Why would the Democrats want to pass that?
ALAN: The Democrats do have this innate suspicion of corporate interests. But when I find small farmers and ranchers who are looking at those FSMA regulations and deciding to sell their farms, I know there’s something wrong.
STEPHEN: Obama was a champion, going back when he was campaigning through Iowa, for meaningful change on behalf of the small farmer. He’s very principled, but once he was elected, he had to act to rescue a national economy spiraling in free-fall toward a depression, he had to save Detroit, he had to fight tooth-and-nail to get successive economic stimulus packages passed. Passing the Affordable Care Act took enormous political capital. You can only fight so many battles. I get that. But I am so disappointed about the Farm Bill. It’s amazing, on a federal level, the power of Big Agriculture and their lobby. The meaningful change President Obama spoke of on behalf of the small farmer never happened.
ALAN: For the food movement, there’s nobody that looks to him for leadership, whatsoever. And Michelle Obama, who we also thought was our champion? She went to politically safer areas of fitness and nutrition. So the Obama administration -- partly because of the Clintons and the Gates foundation and others (who are) pro GMO, pro Big Ag - those people got their say and a lot of viable initiatives were marginalized.
STEPHEN: Change is going to have to be from the bottom up.
ALAN: That’s right. Progress can only be made outside of the system and without depending on the system. The idea of farmers creating cooperatives to build packing houses or granaries is the oldest idea in the book. All of these grain elevators and seed companies, these were all started as farmer co-ops. County level and regional level co-ops pooled capital, built the business, put their people in charge, and used the services they owned. When a company like Cargill has an opportunity to buy out one of those co-ops, or Monsanto can buy out one of those seed co-ops, they couldn’t be happier. You know what Cargill does to a co-op?
STEPHEN: They gut it.
ALAN: Not just gut it. They take out the equipment, they take out the plumbing, they take out the electrical wiring. They make damn sure that building will never be used again. That’s what Cargill does to a co-op.
STEPHEN: It’s war.
ALAN: A war backed by lobbying and propaganda. There’s a Cargill advertising campaign called ‘America’s Independent Farmers.’ Beautiful videos that go on for 3 minutes. There’s mom and dad and the kid, and the dog barking at the goat, and the sun setting in the pasture, and the outside of the barn. They don’t show that inside that barn are 20,000 squawking turkeys, desperate to get out. They don’t show all of that vertical integrated indenture that that farmer suffers. So Cargill is maintaining this fiction that there’s an independent American farmer. Their branded products, like Shady Brook Farms – are made to look like they are produced with integrity and sustainable practices. Please!
STEPHEN: Well, that’s the propaganda, that’s the image.
ALAN: It’s really effective, it’s pervasive. We all want to believe what we are being told. Independent family farmer. There’s nothing independent about that family in the video, and yet, I’ll defend their choices. That was their best decision. I’m not going to tell them that was the wrong decision. How would I know? But at least Cargill could be honest about the system that they’re running, the game that they’re playing. It’s a big buy-in (for the farmer) and the odds are no better than 50/50 that the farmer will survive.
STEPHEN: With the Internet and social media, we have to increase awareness about the reality of the situation.
ALAN: I don’t think we’ll win that game. I don’t think we’ll win the propaganda game, because they have so much money and they’re so sophisticated. Remember, they did it with lead, with arsenic, with DDT, with asbestos, with tobacco. That’s institutional knowledge and research and expertise that no community group is going to replicate. You and I can’t fight back against such a sophisticated campaign.
So instead we step outside of their system and we create our own food system. We create our own reality that isn’t’ referencing anything that’s being told to us. We, and our neighbors and our farmers build something independent.
STEPHEN: And community by community, business by business, you make it work.
ALAN: Right. And remember how I said that the farmers realize how much power a community has? I’ve been telling these local food groups to really pay attention to how powerful they can be. The only thing I warn them of is that Monsanto is not stupid. They know about your grass roots campaign. They can’t beat you with grass roots, so they will start co-opting you. So watch out when you see their hipster PR flacks wanting to sponsor you and give you resources and advice, or when the extension agent shows up saying, “I’m from the government, I’d like to help ya.” Understand, that’s their response to you threatening their control with the system. Make no mistake, that’s their calculated response. And every time I say that, someone in the group says, ‘That just happened to us.’
So Monsanto and Cargill, in some odd twisted logic, want to act as champions of local food systems. You think they do - or maybe not?
STEPHEN: Maybe not. It’s diabolical, but they have all the tools. And their target is a community with isolated individuals in different stages of need.
BIG AG’S TAKEOVER OF UNIVERSITY AGRICULTURAL DEPARTMENTS, RESEARCH AND IDEOLOGY
ALAN: Our land grant colleges and their extension services are part and parcel of this industrialized, vertically integrated system. It’s just amazing how these folks can hold these two thoughts in their heads: they like the idea of the small independent American family farmer, yet everything they do supports a food system where the farmer makes no profit and takes all the risk.
STEPHEN: Right. There are college and university departments all across the country focusing on food and agriculture research and policy.
ALAN: And you know how they did that? They changed the law. In 1984, they changed the law to say, ‘Hey, if you develop any patented proprietary processes or products at a land grant university, you just go right ahead and patent that for yourself. Don’t worry about the public or government interest.’ Well, hell. Really? That’s my university. That’s my tax dollars. Those are my professors and research labs. But Monsanto gets the patent?
STEPHEN: And increasingly, for professors at those universities who have an opinion that’s contrary to the view that Big Ag supports or espouses, they are increasingly finding it harder to continue there – let alone be hired on as new faculty.
ALAN: Impossible. It’s their way or the highway.
STEPHEN: The whole point of universities should be that critical crucible of exchange and debate and development of ideas and ideology in every subject.
ALAN: Well, they start by over-divisionalizing it. There’s ag, there’s law, there’s English, there’s whatever, and they don’t talk. This is Wendell Berry’s point of view on agri-culture versus the rest of culture, right? And then within a department, especially in ag, they operate in an exclusive environment. There isn’t any debate, ideas aren’t challenged. There’s no self-criticism, there’s no self-awareness. At the Governor’s Ag conference in Colorado, the head of Ag Sciences at Colorado State University gets up. He’s a keynote speaker. He spends 45 minutes on a PowerPoint talking about “the nefarious shadow groups” of the environmental and animal rights activists who are attempting to run initiatives in these states that would hurt agriculture.
STEPHEN: Right, like we’re domestic terrorists or something.
ALAN: He used every word he could but terrorist. So he was describing citizens participating in the democratic process of the ballot initiative, representing their principles that the environment was important in and of itself and that just because you own the land does not mean you had absolute right to damage the quality of the environment. Now, that’s too much for me to agree with or not agree with that moment, but I was so mad at him. He had put up a slide that showed how all the eco-terrorists groups were interrelated. Tracked it back to some citified guy named Mark Ruffalo, in New York City. And some foreign gal named Yoko Ono. A nefarious group! Scary!
So I got up. This is 500 ag leaders from the whole state. I took the audience microphone and said, ‘Good presentation, thanks for being here. I don’t disagree with you on principle, but I have a question. These citizens who are going through the process, representing their principles and stating their case. You seem to think they’re completely illegitimate participants. When one citizen in Colorado wanted GMOs labeled and struggled to put $500,000 together, biotech from across the world descended on the state with 20 million dollars. Were they also illegitimate?’
He went on for 10 minutes, so flustered. He couldn’t answer the question, because there was no answer. It’s the first time anybody had said, ‘What the hell are you saying? You’re the leader of a public land grant university, and this is how you’re spending your time? Demonizing Yoko effing Ono, at age 78? Really?’
So yeah, way to get me going on this stuff, man.
NEW PATHS FORWARD
STEPHEN: At the federal level - politics aside - what would be common sense? What are the 5 or 6 most important policies that could achieve the most good at the federal level? For example, ending subsidies to the major agricultural corporations. Creating subsidies, or a program of subsidized small business loans for sustainable family farmers.
ALAN: Create a revenue or income limit for subsidies. If you’re over a million, you can only get so much. If you get to 2 million, it probably drops off. If you get to 5 million, you get zero. The whole system is entirely convoluted. Wipe it and start from scratch. Promote our common goals, not the goals of the Big Ag lobby.
STEPHEN: How about reviewing this mass - this morass - of farm policy laws from the perspective of eliminating anything that impedes small businesses from getting in the game. Streamlining the whole code.
ALAN: Yes. Farm Policy should be renamed Environment, Economic and Food Policy.
STEPHEN: What else? What other policy changes could be made to support a diversified community-based agricultural renaissance? What else could the Fed do, or stop doing?
ALAN: Let me pick off a few things. The department of justice needs to look at the oligopoly of commodity processing, meat processing and seed development. We used to have 500+ independent seed developers, and that’s important, because they’re developing very different types and varieties and stains of sugar beets, sugar, and corn for different regions and climates.
STEPHEN: And all that’s gone now because…
ALAN: Two things happened. 95 percent of them, all but a handful of those original companies, are now owned or controlled by 6 global chemical companies. Some were acquired, but most of them were bought just to be put out of business. So for instance, right now there is no viable non-GMO sugar beet variety being developed.
STEPHEN: So that has to happen.
ALAN: There’s not been a new non-GMO sugar beet variety developed in 20 years. So if you wanted to shift your production to a non-GMO sugar beet for some reason, good luck. The department of justice completely fell down on this. That shouldn’t have been allowed. Because it’s 6 companies, somehow, that’s just under the radar. 4 companies control beef, and that’s just under the radar. The fact is that, in any given place in the United States, if you want to sell your chickens, hogs, or cattle, you’ll have one offer a week, at one price. Where were Obama and Eric Holder? Asleep at the wheel.
STEPHEN: Tyson and these huge corporations are so ruthless. They each wanted to dominate the market, wanted to be number one. There came a point in the ‘60s where they realized they had to coexist, so they decided amongst themselves who the players were going to be in this game. They divvied up the whole country in terms of markets and regions. And the result was, as you just mentioned, that there is just one dominant company controlling each region, one buyer only for the product of the farmers or ranchers in that area.
Christopher Leonard researched that extensively for his book, The Meat Racket. He focused on Don Tyson and the growth of Tyson. It’s like Walmart. Walmart comes into town and many small businesses die. Tyson comes into a region and all the small farmers and ranchers, the regional slaughterhouse, the small businesses that sustain that entire industry, go away. In this case, it’s even sadder. The farmers that wanted to remain farmers had to sign on and embrace the Tyson program. They soon found out that within that program, they can’t survive, they can’t sustain themselves. They’re working 7 days a week, endless hours. They would start to go under. Now why would Tyson rig the game so that these dedicated hard working farmers could not make enough to survive? Tyson needs these farmers, right? Tyson then sought out people overseas who could be induced to immigrate and become their next generation of farm-owner tenants. For example, in Laos or Cambodia there are mountain tribes, the Montagnards. They fought for us in the Vietnam War and have since been repressed by the Communist regime. Tyson encouraged Montagnard family immigration to take over these farms. There are pockets of them throughout Arkansas and Texas. Tyson encouraged this immigration, because they realized these are families - sometimes 2 or 3 families who will live together on one farm - and farm round the clock, and subsist on very little. They’re powerless and they’re used to living very modestly. So Tyson can further increase profitability by, in this case, slicing the farmer’s share of the pie, even smaller.
ALAN: They call it importing a slice of the third world.
STEPHEN: It’s unbelievable, this race to the bottom, in terms of the devastation, the havoc this has caused countless American farm families – the ones that used to do that and now have ‘lost the farm.’ What else?
ALAN: Another key thing is we stripped our universities of public funding, so they’re no longer public universities. They’re private research institutes. Colorado State University behaves like a private industry research institute, particularly for Syngenta’s GMO crops in Colorado. So you have hiring based on a private agenda, you have research based on a private agenda, and you have the resulting publications all based on a private agenda.
STEPHEN: Also, the indoctrination of the students who go through the agricultural program to get a degree.
ALAN: Yeah, and the extension service, right.
Those universities need to reassess their principles. Without that, you can’t have an honest and open ag conversation where a farmer could say, ‘These are my principles. Help me find ag systems and products and methods to reach my values.’ The conversation right now is, ‘We can offer you this. Take it or leave it. Who cares about values?’
The top organic program in the country by some measures is CSU and it’s just an empty shell of a department. There’s no significant activity. It’s just symbolic.
STEPHEN: Tell me a couple of other solutions. You and I are in a perfect world now where we, as the government, can just correct this. What else is there to do?
ALAN: Fund regional and local processing. Let the big conglomerates do what they want, but re-establish rules so that we can process chickens or mill flour. Help us store food locally instead of it going into this massive national system. USDA has all these little programs that make great window dressing, but there’s really no big money or big motivation behind it. It’s really a way to keep the activists at bay and to make people feel good. Fundamentally, it’s not changing the system. We need change.
The heart is these private initiatives. You’re looking at tech entrepreneurs and private foundations providing seed funding for change. Sometimes that’s for the better and sometimes it’s not. But if the Humane Society wants to help fund a local meat processing facility so that cows can eat grass their whole lives, that fits their agenda and mine.
STEPHEN: So you’re suggesting that these kinds of organizations should invest resources in initiatives like this, that they could be part of the solution?
ALAN: If you don’t like industrial feedlots, you try to can shut down feedlots all day long, but they’ll just pop right back up. But if you shift consumer demand to a humane and environmentally responsible meat production system, that doesn’t use feedlot meat, we don’t need the government to intervene. I think a lot of my answers are going to be ‘We don’t need the government for that.’ We need consumer awareness. We need change in consumer demand to drive change.
Milk processing is another thing that’s highly centralized. There are only 3 dairy processors in all of Texas that buy dairy milk. We need smaller buyers that make specialized products for different local markets. The regulatory hurdles and capital costs are enormous.
STEPHEN: With smaller operations, that would still be necessary, because food needs to be safety controlled.
ALAN: Yes, but this whole idea that safety only works on a large scale - there’s no basis for that. Large operations more easily incur and transmit pathogens, and they transmit them to much larger parts of the food chain. How is that safer?
STEPHEN: I was just examining an investigation into Dairygold, and it’s just a horror story, what goes in those dairies.
ALAN: Right. They’re going to be safety issues from time to time, often from uncontrollable events. But if it’s in a JBS packing plant, that’s 30, 40, 100 million pounds of contaminated hamburger on grocery shelves. If it’s in a local or regional processor, it might be a few thousand pounds. Far fewer people are at risk, and its much easier to recall, to get it back. But FSMA was written to favor large scale factories, as if large scale was safer. Very odd. There’s not a lot of logic behind it, except that It’s what will give those companies a leg up.
STEPHEN: Tell me your opinion about ‘Ag Is America.’
ALAN: ‘Ag is America’... It’s just one of the dozens of front groups put in place by the bitoech and Big Ag lobby to control consumers’ opinions about them. I came across their website because I look at this stuff all the time. I study how Big Ag communicates and messages. I look at the tightly coordinated and time campaigns they roll out on each issue. Since the messaging appears as a thousand whispers in people’s news feeds, they forget it’s a propaganda campaign intentionally designed to confuse them.
Ag Is America. They are part of a campaign in which is attempting to shame farmers who don’t choose to use GMO crops and chemical agriculture. They use attacks like, ‘You are letting ideology get in the way of a choice to use more profitable agricultural systems.’ It’s astounding to see them attack farmers’ values, especially regarding organic and non chemical agriculture. Ideology – it’s a strange and powerful term. It sounds so official and authoritative. But pull back the sheets. Ag Is America is shaming them as if farmers’ long held personal beliefs and values are bad. Big Ag crop systems are more profitable for the GMO crop producer, for the GMO seed company, and the pesticide makers. It’s not more profitable for the farmer. Whose ideology is on display here? Whose ideology is suspect?
STEPHEN: How do we respond to that?
ALAN: There are two ways that food activists fight back. First, there’s the 'Oh my God' commentary. 'Oh My God,' look at what Big AG is doing to these chickens, the hogs, the cows, the environment, whatever, right? Show the pics. Visceral reactions have a role in communicating the importance of an issue and getting others to pay attention.
But the second way to fight back, where I like to be, and what I am fascinated by, is watching the propaganda, the manipulation, the narrative history of these campaigns come together. Show consumers the tricks and manipulation they are subjected to.
This puts the attention-grabbing stuff into context. Then you’ve got a conversation started. That’s my role here. That’s what my TED talk is about, that’s what my speeches are about. Each of us is a part of something bigger. Whether you signed up for it or not, you are a part of something and you are playing a role that matters.
STEPHEN: It’s happening right now.
ALAN: You’re an American and you’re in a point of history that’s critical. Understand who you are and who you can be and what you need to know in order to be effective.
Back to your question about what needs to be done. People need to be empowered. People need to understand that they can make these changes.
STEPHEN: Agreed. They have to become aware, not just of the situation, but aware of their own power. I’m a big believer of that. That’s what this country was built on. It started with‘We don’t want to be subjects anymore.’
ALAN: Yes! It’s the idea of do the One Thing. Do one thing today. Do one thing to make a difference.
STEPHEN: Right. I just think of the potential of a return, a rebirth nationwide of sustainable family farms, of vibrant rural communities, of hundreds of thousands of new, local jobs created by a return to small-scale sustainable family farms - each operation uniquely geared for the modern era. There’s so much happening. Restaurants. Food to table. Lots of people are getting clued in on this, making healthy life choices, getting active. I’m interested in local operations succeeding, flourishing and adjusting so we can get rid of the food deserts, and begin to make a big dent in Big Ag - take the ‘big’ out of Big Ag. I look forward to ending the horror and suffering endured by factory farmed animals.
ALAN: That’s the challenge, right, that’s the fun stuff. It’s local, it’s meaningful. You can watch it happen in your lifetime.
STEPHEN: If the power grows, and it starts to influence economics from the ground up, the government can’t ignore it. It’s not Republican/Democrat, it’s demonstrating how healthy sustainable food systems and businesses should work – and it can set the stage for proper change at higher and higher levels of government. Interesting times. Thanks for this, Alan. It’s a great start.
ALAN: It is.