Why Our Life’s Work is Deconstructing Your Food System.
Daniel Griffith here – one of your local farmers.
Degeneration is a unifying force. Strange but surely it imbues both our scientific literature with a streamline of apolitical research and our hired political contestants with a meandering torrent of unscientific policies. But degeneration unifies these seemingly disparate streams–it is power amongst the powerful.
Degeneration and its neighbor, Climate Change, are comprehensive in their cross-the-aisle inclusivity. Their confluence with first world problems often centers as a wonderful campaign slogan. ”Don’t be a roadblock,” stumbled President Biden in a July, 2022 Press Conference. “You all have a duty…to act boldly on climate.” While certain iconoclast Republican politicians rebuke Climate Change as a hoax, no one can stand firm on loose ground. Here, in the adrift soils of another dust bowl, we become unified once again.
The United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) argued that nearly 30% of global, arable land has been degenerated and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argued that agriculture is to blame–it has caused 80% of deforestation and societies with greater agricultural expansion “result in larger declines in biodiversity.” Big agriculture, they say, is the problem.
Concurrently, big business surrounds big agriculture. It could be said that big agriculture is lonely without its lover, big business. Global conglomerates like Cargill, Bayer, and Nestlé command the international food system while only ten brands control nearly 40% of the food and beverage processing industry–this means that two handfuls of people control agricultural production and food processing for billions of people.
The inherent problem is that, instead of sovereignty, big business and its big agriculture demands servitude; instead of locality, big business demands globalization, monocultures of nutritionally impoverished soils and their peoples; instead of nutrients, big business demands profits to feed their globalization, streams of production to “feed the world.”
Its insatiable appetite to maximize production for national and international distribution is directly proportional to the decrease of nutritional availability in local communities where the production occurs. Landscapes here are stripped to feed the already stripped landscape of there and this transference of degeneration is labeled as “feeding the world” and “good business.” Big business and its big agriculture is a uniform confusion of movement with progress; it insults sacrifice with convenience; and its corporatized and centralized power marginalizes smallholder farmers and indigenous peoples and their knowledges.
This is not a good story.
But, just as land degeneration is a unifying force, so also is the degeneration of big business in the industrial world. Nestlé, one of these “big three,” has stated a goal to source half of their raw materials through regenerative agriculture by the year 2030. Regenerative agriculture is a modern modality of producing food that seeks to be the antithesis of its alternative, industrial and big agriculture–it builds biodiversity, it creates soil, it sequesters carbon, and more. But, does big business’ interest in “regenerative” agriculture address the social and political and ecological needs of the actual world?
We are determined “to get regenerative agriculture moving in the right direction,” writes Arnd Weinlaeder, Nestlé’s Purchasing Group Manager. But the monocultures of big agriculture that erode our climate, topple our forests and its surrounding biodiversity, destroy our soils and colonize its peoples and the monocultures of big business are one in the same. “Regenerative” or not, these monocultures of big agriculture and big business are a monoculture of paradigms–
Step 1, they come–leaving the degraded landscapes of home, they emigrate to the lush landscapes of “over there,” often well-inhabited by local peoples.
Step 2, they colonize–neglecting the beauties and genius of the place, they demand a near religious adherence to their systems, their species, their ways (“regenerative” systems, species and ways are no different).
Step 3, they produce–striving to feed the world, they demand production at all cost and they destroy and force nutritional poverty in the local environment.
Step 4, they profit–for how can any business live without it?
Regenerative or not, big business and its big agriculture systematically fails to address systemic social issues like land-access, local community health, cooperation of those communities, equitability, and food justice. They both fail to understand that simply improving the soil does not necessarily mean that they are improving the soul of Mother Earth and that culture, that people, that community, that lives upon that soil. They both fail to understand that forcibly improving the soil is just colonization with a new label–a regenerative label. They also fail to address the complex ecological realities of a changing climate: biodiversity and its needed, native species; nutrient-dense foods produced in local, nutrient-rich environments; healthy hydrological systems that resiliently nourish amidst debilitating and un-nourishing times; and the beautiful autonomy and justice of local landscape functions.
“Regenerative” or not, big business and big agriculture are incapable of true change because they are incapable of changing the paradigms in which they operate–the monoculture of land, of people.
This is an old story. It is a played-out story. But it is the mythology of our age–”we need to destroy the world to feed it” and “we need to feed the world by destroying you”–and its main actors are billionaires, business tycoons, and politicians.
Long have we needed a new story. But today, our need is becoming disunifying. More and more energy and labels and markets are being pumped into the commodification of the world. More and more brands and their peoples are demanding absolute obedience to this new machine, this new, “regenerative,” and better machine. “Join the Regenerative Revolution,” they write. Yes, labels make everything, now, better. But local ecology and its local peoples are still being shoved out of the way or forced into its servitude. Welcome to the new (and so very old) story.
While the global elite and their puppet politicians argue for climate smart practices, their 4 Step Plan of come, colonize, produce, and profit, remains as the dominant and dunce-cap methodology of their mythology. Long have our brothers and sisters eroded into rivers and the western wind. Long have smallholder and indigenous farmers followed right behind them. Today, nothing is different because the story is not different–Nestlé and “regenerative” agriculture be damned.
Big business cannot long live without big agriculture and big agriculture cannot long live outside of this paradigm, this mythology of control. Corportists and their big corporations are the architects of the system and its underlying structures, the story of today. Can their far-reaching and world-molding tentacles become better by simply creating a “regenerative” label? Can they become “better” by simply doing less harm? I think not.
But, what about regional, local businesses?
There are a multitude of regional attempts to lessen the evils of big business’ 4 Step Plan. But, like any colonizer that seeks a top-down approach, those attempting to construct a regional, regenerative supply web that scaffolds the food system of the future are worthless. That is, they have no worth to the realities that affect our lives in any new or significant or abundant ways.
Many today are constructing these “regional and regenerative” programs that inherit the worst of colonialism–they are the persistent endemic that recurrently churns up the intrinsic beauties of local visions and their peoples in the name of institutional purchasing, large and scalable food system change, profit, and yes, pride.
“Look at us,” they yell behind small-but-perfectly-crafted brands and decently-funded marketing budgets, “we are changing the food system. Aren’t we, special!?”
Their relentless work is the work of an epidemiologist, those untouchable experts and top-tier citizens who reduce the great panoply of life’s modern problems into a single list of climate and social emergencies and then they reduce those supposed emergencies to a single cause, “the food system,” and then they assume that, if they only oppose the idea of that system but not actually the system itself, they become the necessary and doctoring messiahs of the world and their new messianic and well-funded-scientific-research-theology reigns.
Is this really it? Regional players and their small, messianic brands doing small things in ways that are not dissimilar to the big players doing big things is what we accept as a “regenerative” future? Is this what we, the hungry and community-starved and eroding people, are okay with?
As the Co-Founder of Commons Provisions, a local and flagrantly decentralized network of co-owning and collaborating farmers that works to serve its local community collectively, I have had a front-row seat, witnessing the forceable construction of this “new” and “regenerative” mythology. Many times have I met with the giants of big business and their wanna-be second cousins of the regional and small-brand food system and many times have I been entirely disappointed–not many, every.
In 1909, W.E.B. DuBois, the son of emancipated slaves and a Harvard educated sociologist, wrote that brands and their slavery to industrial mythology forcibly commit smallholder farmers into “paupers and prostitutes” in the name of progress; brands are “highwayman” that, “through organized economic aggression,” recognize “no justice” but only the “higher, moral law of money-making.” While DuBois wrote these words in regard to the regional wood market of the 1840s, I cannot help but see its similarity in the regional food market today.
The injustice of big and small brands alike has long plagued our world and long has the top-tier players in our stories been the epidemiologists of “change.” They market solutions to the problems they created in the beginning, deftly advertising their work as the work of experts, while the locally-understood and locally-balanced social and ecological realities submit to their masters as “paupers and prostitutes.” This is not a new story.
Just as big business cannot long live without big agriculture and big agriculture cannot long live outside of this paradigm, this mythology of control, so also is this true for their second cousins, regional and small brands.
To sit back, DuBois wrote, “is to depend on the simple justice of your cause in an industrial world that recognizes no justice.”
The question is not how to “regenerate the food system.” The question is how do the all of us, the only us, demand justice together in this modern and brand-dominated and entirely unjust world?
Don’t trust my words. Listen to our story.
Commons Provisions is often brought into the big and small brand’s inner circles. They befriend us, and then give us a bit too much information than is good for them. Then, when they realize that our diverse and growing and shared collective of human-scale and ecological farmers are not a streamlined system of linear production and are not as efficient as their current, “regeneratively labeled” feedlots, they kick us out of the room and tell us that our “farmers are just too small for this to work.”
What do they mean, “too small?” What do you think they mean? Let’s break this down.
It is a network of half-acre veggie farmers, cattle and livestock farmers, women-owned farmers, BIPOC farmers, fruit and nut farmers, veteran farmers, etc., but it is also a network of human and local farmers and we recognize it as such. The average size of a farm in our network is 150 acres–34% smaller than the average farm size in the United States. On average, smallholder farmers work 87 hours a week farming and generate $18,000 a year.
Looking at things from only this perspective, it means that, to have worth in these Regional Brand Epidemiologist’s “new and well-funded and regional and regenerative systems,” you need to be a landed gentry who can take feed-lot prices for “regenerative” foods that you raise via an industrial scale. A diverse and localized community of human-scale farmers have no equity in this big or small “regenerative” system.
Case in point–one of these local and small brands just kicked out a large number of local and human-scale producers when they brought in a landed giant from South Georgia to take over the “regional supply.”
Case in point–one of these organizations sat me down last week, arguing that my words are divisive and disunifying, while their monstrosity of an organization develops their role in this “better system” by buying their domestic meats from a mere handful of of landed, gentry, large, and commercial “farms” and ships those provisions all over the United States. That is, they transport the gentrified foods of there to the depleted soils of here, out-competing and pummeling the local, smallholder producers along the way.
Case in point–one of these local organizations recently published an article about how amazing and wonderful and world-changing their brand is, in part, because they are supporting the local, K-12 school system in the Mid-Atlantic with better and more-nutritious foods while simultaneously giving nearly 30 local farms a wholesale outlet. But, as a member of those conversations and opportunities in 2022, we at Commons can tell you that nearly ALL but one of our local and diversified farms in the collective found that the purchase of this meat would come at a severe cost to their farm businesses–as the purchase order (PO) only included the meats that are easy to sell via other and currently-existing channels and, even then, were many, many dollars below needed value. In other words, these farmers would sell at a significant loss what they could easily sell at a significant gain elsewhere. But, this organization proselytizes this as progress…? “Look at us, feeding the local children.” Pride, remember?
We could continue with a multitude of examples, but let’s leave it there for now and end with this–
It is time for “regenerative food systems” to radicalize or get out of the way, to step aside and allow human-scale, disruptive, actually diverse and localized collectives to emerge and feed the world, one community by one community at a time. It is time for Indigenous knowledge and land rights and collective local communities acting together and equitably to challenge technocracy, big market dominance, globalization’s beneficent facade, and corporate dominance’s near universal potency–regardless if it is Nestlé or a regional, small brand.
The current “regeneration of the food system” model sustains the systematic social, political, and nutritional deformities inherent in the colonial and top-down approach of Mother Culture–that evil, unnatural, and highly industrialized step-mother of us all.
Regeneration is teetering on the edge of cementing its position as a movement that perpetuates the business-as-usual systems in place of deconstructing “the system” entirely from the ground up–from the roots to the fruits, from the local to the global, from the soul to the soil, from the people to the organizations.
Today, we are offered “regenerative solutions” that are really just a delusion of progress; a prostitution of values; an insult to Mother Earth’s sacrifice; and we are told that, if we don’t conform, we are ostentatious actors in the disunity of their world.
Seriously? Outright acceptance or else? “Paupers and prostitutes,” remember?
No one is perfect but let us imperfectly include everyone and see where it goes. Diversity and its friend’s equity and justice demand it. Justice cannot be done without thought, patience, and an intense dedication to place. It could be said that justice can only be a product of a local place and it could be said that justice is dangerous when it is dissociated from the pursuit of universal truth contained within a coalesced community of a local place. Justice and its cousins are a local property with universal impact. Perhaps there, in this undulating and local and meadowed and just collective resides a true “regeneration” Perhaps.
If 150 acre farmers are too small to “save the world;” if collectives of local farmers that co-own and collaborate with their local community are too inefficient to “save the world;” if big business and its big agriculture is the only way forward; if absolute servitude to “better” regional brands is the only option; if questioning “their” systems is disunifying; then let it burn.
Let this all burn.
 Jarosz, L. 2014. Comparing food security and food sovereignty discourses. Dialogues in Human Geography 4 (2): 168–181. https:// doi.org/10.1177/2043820614537161.
All photos author supplied.