Video: Eric Schlosser Talks Food and Class

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Will Allen of Growing Power gives a composting workshop in inner-city Milwaukee.

One of the most effective arguments against transforming our food system is the class one: Sure, it's great if well-heeled coastal urbanites want to pay up for food grown without chemicals, but that kind of agriculture can never be productive enough to feed poor people. For that reason, we need monocropped fields of corn and soy, factory-scale livestock operations, and annual monsoons of agrochemical.

In this view, food system reform advocates like me are raging elitists, and Big Food institutions like McDonald's and Walmart are populist champions of the working poor.

I call it the two-food-systems solution: a niche local-organic one for the few willing to pay up; a dominant chemical-driven one for everyone else. In essence, that model describes what has evolved here in the United States over the past 20 years: vibrant islands of farmers markets and CSAs in a vast swamp chemically produced calories.

But what if we transformed the entire food system—precisely because it so ill-serves low-income people, who do the behind-the-scenes dirty, dangerous work to keep it humming?

At a conference I attended last May in DC, I heard Eric Schlosser—whose seminal 2001 book Fast Food Nation exposed the brutal working conditions that underpin what he called "all-American meal"—deliver a brief, damning refutation of the claim that Big Food is somehow the anti-elitist champion of America's working poor. The context of Schlosser's remarks was somewhat ironic, for he was introducing perhaps the most elite proponent of sustainable agriculture on Earth: His Royal Highness, Prince Charles of Wales, who went on to give an equally lucid and clear-eyed indictment of global industrial agriculture.

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