In December 1972, I was part of a nationwide campaign that came tantalizingly close to getting the U.S. Senate to reject Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s choice for secretary of agriculture.
A coalition of grassroots farmers, consumers and scrappy public interest organizations (like the Agribusiness Accountability Project that Susan DeMarco and I then headed) teamed up with some gutsy, unabashedly progressive senators to undertake the almost impossible challenge of defeating the cabinet nominee of a president who’d just been elected in a landslide.
The 51-to-44 Senate vote was so close because we were able to expose Butz as … well, as butt-ugly — a shameless flack for big food corporations that gouge farmers and consumers alike. We brought the abusive power of corporate agribusiness into the public consciousness for the first time, but we had won only a moral victory, since there he was, ensconced in the seat of power. It horrified us that Nixon had been able to squeeze Butz into that seat, yet it turned out to be a blessing.
An arrogant, brusque, narrow-minded and dogmatic agricultural economist, Butz had risen to prominence in the small — but politically powerful — world of agriculture by devoting himself to the corporate takeover of the global food economy. He was dean of agriculture at Purdue University, but also a paid board member of Ralston Purina and other agribusiness giants. In these roles, he openly promoted the pre-eminence of middle-man food manufacturers over family farmers, whom he disdained.
“Agriculture is no longer a way of life,” he infamously barked at them. “It’s a business.” He callously instructed farmers to “get big or get out” — and he then proceeded to shove tens of thousands of them out by promoting an export-based, conglomerated, industrialized, globalized, and heavily subsidized corporate-run food economy. “Adapt,” he warned farmers, “or die.” The ruination of farms and rural communities, Butz added, “releases people to do something useful in our society.”
The whirling horror of Butz, however, spun off a blessing, which is that innovative, freethinking, populist-minded and rebellious small farmers and food artisans practically threw up at the resulting Twinkieization of America’s food. They were sickened that nature’s own rich contribution to human culture was being turned into just another plasticized product of corporate profiteers. “The central problem with modern industrial agriculture … (is) not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste, and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul,” said Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and former farm boy from Yamhill, Oregon. Rather than accept that, they threw themselves into creating and sustaining a viable, democratic alternative. The “good food” rebellion has since sprouted, spread and blossomed from coast to coast.