Summer 2005
From the MOFGA Spring Growth 2005 Conference:
Local and Organic in a Global Food Economy: What is Our Role – As Farmers, Consumers and Citizens?

Molly Anderson
Molly Anderson told Spring Growth Conference attendees that individual and local actions  will have to be combined with other local and global efforts to ensure a just and sustainable agriculture and a peaceful world. English photo.

By Jean English

© 2005. For information on reproducing this article, please contact the author.

Molly Anderson, U.S. Regional Program Manager for Oxfam America, asked how we link local and global food systems to build better, stronger, sustainable food systems that become the norm rather than a fringe movement.

“It’s gratifying, in the 20 years that I’ve worked with organic and sustainable agriculture, to see the organic, whole foods movement becoming more acceptable by people who would have totally dismissed this when I first started in this field,” she noted. Still, more change is necessary – and Anderson doesn’t believe that facts will change people’s minds. “Creating a better food system requires new values and attitudes,” she said, but “people interpret the facts that they see around them to fit the framework that they already hold. So people still say America has the best, most abundant, safest food system in the world. Nothing you can say or show them can make a difference.

“A lot of the values and attitudes that we need to inculcate into society are already here. They just aren’t the dominant values and attitudes.” Broad alliances are essential to spread these values beyond the small groups that hold them now into the broader social system and to allow them to influence our political system, “which is really where we’ll begin to see the major changes taking place.” Linking local food systems and reforming the global food and trading system magnifies the impact of changed values.

Price is Prime

Anderson then asked why people make particular food choices. Some research says that price is not the main factor, but people may take for granted the fact that they’re looking for cheap food to the extent that they don’t even include it when asked. “Watch people’s behavior in stores. They look at price. They’re going for the cheap stuff, even when the good stuff is there, but a little higher priced.” Anderson empathized with the Spring Growth farmer who told of the difficulty of selling her product and getting people to recognize that its price reflected its true value.

“A shared norm that we have in our society is that we believe that people act in their economic self-interest. They don’t. This whole idea of the rational man that our economic system is founded on is a falsehood. I find the analog of the human ape to be far more apt. We tend to do things that fit our biological hardwiring and align with training from our families, authorities, peers, from observing people around us, from responding to stimulation (a huge one, because we’re in this sea of advertising); and far down my list is conscious selection among options. This is getting to the rational person model, but it doesn’t operate as much. It does sometimes, and it’s one of the sources of alternative values that we need to raise to a higher level in society in order to make big system changes.”

When people shop, they “don’t go through a long list of qualities of the food;” instead, they go by their internalized norms, which may be: organic is better; local is better; my family loves red apples and won’t eat green ones, so I’ll buy this bag [without looking at the Washington State label] … “People use this ‘code’ to make choices simple. If they had to make choices every time they chose food [based on several criteria], they would be overwhelmed.”

Prevalent Social Norms: The Freedom to Destroy

The problem, Anderson continued, is that the “internalized norms in our society are completely counter to the public interest and human and environmental health and the ability of ecosystems to continue to provide the services that are completely essential for us to survive.” She listed three categories of prevalent norms in U.S. society that affect food choices.

First is personal freedom and choice – “a really big one in our society today.” Consumers get messages telling them, ‘This is something you need to do to ensure freedom;’ messages such as ‘Eat what you want, as much as you want.’ Thus the rising cost of obesity and overweight. “The rise in childhood obesity is truly frightening, especially when you consider these kids grow up to have a whole raft of health problems.” Anderson said that 11.1% of aggregate medical spending can be attributed to people getting the wrong message about food – and much of this is paid through Medicaid and Medicare, so “the public is bearing the cost through taxes. This is one of the externalized costs of our food system.”

Part of this message is: “Nobody has the right to tell you what to eat, to make laws to prohibit fast food industries from coming into your town, for instance.” This is part of the backlash from things like lawsuits against McDonalds. Anderson noted the Web site that says “the food police [such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest] are trying to tell you, ‘You are too stupid,’ but you know better. You need to defend your freedom to choose.”

Second is the importance of price, convenience and quantity. “We consider a ‘good deal’ is a lot for a low price. You can just imagine, then, the counter messages of supermarket flyers saying, ‘Come in customers! You can pay even more here than at our competitors, but [the food] will look better and really is better.'” You don’t see this, she said. “It’s not part of our social norm. Where food is grown, who’s growing it, how these people are compensated … those messages … disappear in the prevalence of this attention to price, quantity and convenience.” The trade-off for cheap, abundant food is environmental degradation. “We’re destroying our planet by making poor choices and trade-offs. We’re destroying our lives.”

One trade-off that concerns Anderson most is the concentration of control over food among fewer and fewer people and companies. “There are people behind those companies, like the five members of Sam Walton’s family, who are in the top 10 of the world’s richest people from what they’re making off WalMart. There’s money in the food system,” but fewer people are extracting that money. These people have power not just over food but over our whole society and the inputs we need to continue.

The third prevalent norm is that of minimal social responsibility, reflected in the “exploitation of labor in a race to the bottom. We cannot have the prices we have now unless we continue to exploit labor.”

Anderson discussed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, recently documented in National Geographic. “The Coalition brings attention to the fact that farm workers at labor camps in Florida are held in conditions that you can’t call anything but slavery. They are not allowed to leave. They don’t have access to water in the fields sometimes. Their living conditions are abysmal.”

Our society, she continued, “has bought into the ‘fact’ that food is not a right. It is a right in most other countries.” Likewise, food aid to people who need it, or development aid to prevent hunger and poverty worldwide, “are not considered obligations in our country. The United States, of industrialized countries, provides the smallest percentage of our gross domestic product to foreign aid.”

Consequently, even in the United States, the percentage of households that are food insecure is increasing. In 2003, it was 11.2 percent.

Another consequence of our limited social obligation to deal with hunger and poverty worldwide is the emerging human development crisis, “partly because the United States hasn’t stepped up to the plate. The total amount coming in from developing countries to repay debts and interest exceeds the total amount going back as aid. Most countries have slipped back with respect to the United Nations’ Human Development Goals (with respect to food, water, literacy, etc.).”

Three Alternative Food Norms

Anderson noted the exception in the room. “You have a community here that’s clearly committed to other kinds of food norms. Not everyone has that. Alternative [vs. prevalent] food norms are evident in at least three places. I see these as the seedbeds for growing these norms into something big enough to spread throughout society.”

Religious organizations are one such seedbed. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference (, for instance, has a “Values for Eaters” card that promotes ethics of eating through food choices. Anderson called the Conference “a wonderful resource on the ethics of eating,” which is getting church groups interested not just in alleviating hunger, but in preventing it by supporting beneficial food systems and communities. “This is a big movement in the United States and worldwide.”

Another seedbed includes “encounters with other cultures that still truly value food.” Anderson quoted a farmer who had gone on an exchange visit to Portugal and Spain. “Before I went,” he said, “I didn’t know what culture was. Their whole culture [in Portugal] is based around food. Their lives center around food that they’ve been growing for thousands of years. Food is sacred.”

“Some cultures have hung on to the sacredness of food,” said Anderson. “By and large, ours has not.”

The third seedbed includes “subcultures that promote different practices and values that protect the sacredness of food and encourage growing food in ways that are good for the environment and healthy for people, and try to encourage others to join in those values. I hope you’re not offended,” she added, “but I consider you folks a subculture.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW; in Florida is another subculture. One strategy the group used was to organize a boycott of Taco Bell and to have a woman dressed as a tomato hold a sign saying ‘CIW for a living wage’ as part of the farmworkers’ strategy to raise their wages. “They were asking Taco Bell to provide farm workers 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes they were picking … which would double their wages, if that 1 cent were shifted directly down to farmworkers and not skimmed off in the in-between stages.” In March, Taco Bell and Yum Brands (the parent company of Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken) agreed to the increase. “It’s amazing,” said Anderson. “It will take a lot of work to monitor, but Taco Bell promised 1 cent more per pound for all the tomatoes that they purchase; they’ll work preferentially with growers who can guarantee that they’ll pass that 1 cent per pound on to the farmworkers. Taco Bell and Yum Brands even promised to lobby for decent working conditions for farmworkers in other industries. To me, this is immensely encouraging. What a victory that CIW fought for four years, and that the biggest fast food company in the United States is saying, ‘Yes, we’ll do this.'”

Be the Change and Make Alliances

Anderson asked, “How do you change people’s values and attitudes if they don’t already agree with you?” Facts have no effect, she said, but two other routes do. First, adhere to Ghandi’s philosophy: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” “Your choices,” said Anderson, “when observed by other people, can make them think twice about what they’re doing.”

Second is to make alliances with church groups, consumer groups, other farm organizations, environmentalists, labor and public interest organizations. “I’m embarrassed to come to MOFGA and recommend this, because MOFGA has really been ahead of most organic farming organizations in recognizing the need for these broad alliances. You … were working with more mainstream farmers years ago when other organizations were saying they weren’t pure enough. You have recognized that it’s really important to protect your local farmers, and maybe there can be a shift into organic for them soon. But once the farmers are gone, they’re gone.”

Finally, Anderson believes that linking local initiatives with global actions can make a huge difference. The huge November 2004 march in Miami against the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement is one example. This was an “alliance between farmers, farm workers and rural communities in the United States and Mexico calling for food and justice and peace, which all go together. You can’t have peace worldwide when people are starving, because when they’re starving, they’re desperate. Joining forces in marches, in organizations, in finding common ground in policy initiatives … links what you’re doing locally with what’s happening internationally with the growing food reform movement.”

The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has a commodity policy dialog to help farm groups find common values and speak with one voice, for example. Oxfam tries to bring small farmers from developing and industrial countries (the United States and Europe) together to find common policy ground so that they can fight regional trade agreements, such as FTAA and CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), which “are not in the interest of farmers anywhere.”

The Earth Charter includes principles “that have everything to do with our food system,” Anderson concluded; principles “realizing the human rights that each person should have; the dignity of work. A number of organizations worldwide have said they promote the Earth Charter and commit themselves to working toward promoting policies that are in line with Earth Charter principles. What you do personally won’t make any difference if you don’t interact with people who aren’t converted.”

When asked how Maine might fight agreements such as CAFTA, Anderson said to ask proponents “what Maine stands to gain and who is going to benefit. The argument that it’s opening markets overseas for U.S. farmers is baloney. It’s not the farmer who benefits but the companies that are exporting. I can’t see how CAFTA is going to benefit the average person in Maine. It’s not going to benefit the average person in the United States!”

Asked if she supports legal bans against things like french fries, Anderson responded that our culture’s emphasis on personal freedom instead of social responsibility is problematic for her. “In our society, it is more common to think about what I deserve or what I can get away with instead of what I owe to other people or what my duty is to society. Overemphasizing the need to have a lot of personal choices-to me it’s problematic. I think it’s fine if a community wants to ban a fast food restaurant from moving in because they don’t want their kids buying french fries and hamburgers after school, and they don’t want the increased traffic and other things that go along with it. I wouldn’t ban a particular food. There are foods that you should eat in limited quantity. French fries are in that category.” She added that if people have abundant sources of healthful foods, and they’re the first thing to choose, and they have to go out of their way to get unhealthy foods and foods grown in unsustainable ways, people will choose fast foods less often. Instead, “fast food restaurants are easiest to get to and are at every turnoff on the highway.”

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