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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 11/24/2010

Momma, what's in that turkey?

By Mark Winne
Guest Blogger

About this blog: Some consumers are fighting back against factory farms, genetic engineering and the use of chemicals. They are turning unused land into local farms, rejecting genetically modified seed, creating dairy collectives -- in essence, undertaking a range of measures to reassert their control over the food they eat. In “Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture,” recently released by Beacon Press, Mark Winne tells their tales. Here, he wonders if Thanksgiving isn’t a time to consider the message of these innovators.


Thanksgiving is traditionally the day we set aside for the celebration of abundance. Though we bemoan our comparatively mild acts of gluttony, there is a culturally symbolic meaning to our satiety – we have risen above the age-old curse of scarcity to a plateau of food security.

But like all celebrations, Thanksgiving also calls upon us to contemplate its meaning. We ask why others aren’t doing as well as we are and respond with more generous acts of charity. Increasingly we grow concerned about how our food is produced and turn instead to admittedly expensive free-range turkey and organic sweet potatoes. I call these thoughtful accompaniments to our feasting the act of getting our heads above the plate.

Wrestling with the breathtaking disparities between America’s rich and poor is something we have regularly done at Thanksgiving. And while it can be disturbing and unpleasant, these confrontations with our nation’s shortcomings can sharpen our appetites for real change.

But there is one group that would prefer that we not overindulge our urge for contemplation. It is the industrial food system which in recent years has sickened 1500 people with egg-related salmonella poisoning, overused antibiotics in livestock creating antibiotic resistance in humans, and given us high fructose corn syrup and fast food that have made obesity our number one public health problem.

Our globe’s corporate food giants don’t want us to think too much about their flaws. Spokespersons for biotech giants, the corn industry, and America’s Farm Bureau Federation have dismissed those who question their methods as “extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the days of 40 acres and a mule” and “urban aesthetes and green activists.” After all, they ask, “Who will feed a hungry world?”

No doubt, the population forecast that 9.5 billion people will show up for dinner in 2050 is a frightening prospect. Many credible experts have suggested that drastic measures will be required to set a spread big enough to feed them all. But contrary to the principles of democracy whereby robust debate is integral to problem solving, the industrial food system cultivates the general public in the same way it does mushrooms: it keeps them in the dark and feeds them manure.

In the face of industrial agriculture’s penchant for serving up fear tactics to support its use of questionable technologies and to avoid government regulation, we need more citizen participation and activism to prepare for population growth, not less.

In Boulder, Colo., a county food policy council (there are now over 100 of these citizen groups across America) considered a proposal to plant genetically modified sugar beet seeds on publicly owned farm land. After a long period of public debate, the Council rejected the proposal and opted instead for developing a sustainable land use plan that would use their public resource to produce food for local consumption.

Enjoy the fat and happy feeling that follows Thanksgiving dinner, but don’t avoid the contemplative moments. Getting our heads above the plate may be our best assurance for many happy Thanksgivings to come.

By Mark Winne  | November 24, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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I was just wondering how you define industrial or factory farms? Is it when someone doesn't live on their farm? Or is there a size threshold that makes it a factory farm? When does a family farm become a factory farm?

Posted by: mdpostreader | November 30, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

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