Los Lechugueros

People have been too kind. Online responses and an audience in Minneapolis have met my H5N2 commentary with the kind of reaction that marks as much a change in the cultural weather as anything in my presentation.

Stateside the outbreak has inspired many a suddenly impertinent child across scientific circles, op-ed pages and supermarkets. A growing murmur acknowledges the emperors of agribusiness are stripping themselves naked of their own rationale. The sector’s apologists, many wily as can be, and paid handsomely for the dupe, are appearing increasingly peddlers of an invisible cloth.

If I have added anything to the dawning realizations already underway, beyond whatever technical support conjoining epidemiology, evolution and economics, it is my lil’ bit in helping engender a sense, to turn around Gramsci, that the old order is dying and a new can indeed be born.

But are we ready for our own century?

I’ve been struck by the goodwilled’s repeated insistence this past week on relying on the market that has produced our present food system as some sort of universal organizing principle. As if the econometric measurements by which agribusiness prosper are the sole means by which any food system can exist.

Clem, one commenter, a nice guy, asks,

So next we should collectively look in a mirror and reflect on our personal poultry purchasing habits? If those chicken nuggets from a multinational restaurant chain we passed on the way home came from a bird in VERY large barn, are we not also part of the problem?

Clearly consumer choice structures the marketplace, but I don’t think demand is the panacea many in the food movement treat it.

First, ‘choice’ is routinely producer-led, and not just by advertisements. In controlling the means of production, capital routinely folds in its program all along the commodity chain. It squeezes value, yes, out of consumers, but also off the labor, for instance, of los lechugueros in the vid above, off lands expropriated and polluted and governments bought-and-sold.

So switching brand choices–-which I don’t entirely dismiss–-plays the game by rules capital has set. In its opposition even a conscious consumerism recapitulates the individualist (even reactionary) mindset underlying the present dysfunction. To agribusiness’s advantage.

Collective traps require collective interventions beyond looking at our separate selves in our collective mirrors.

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6 Responses to “Los Lechugueros”

  1. Thanks for suggesting I might be a nice guy… and I do hope you’re right. So next I want to push back a little. I don’t imagine a little brand switching will change the world overnight. Indeed there are likely many among us who even when trying would simply be changing one foul fowl for another. But sitting on our hands and watching without trying is worse.

    If everyone who wants to eat an egg or dine on broasted chicken were to build and operate a backyard coop we’d be headed for a different sort of problem. Capitalism may have an ugly side to it, but I don’t imagine it headed for the scrap heap in a NY minute. So while the winds of change are marshaled it may well serve to shop locally, buy brown eggs, and do the homework necessary to be part of the solution. It won’t be easy, and I hope you keep the faith and keep doing the fine job you’re doing.

    BTW, I think the boycott link is broken. 😦

  2. Just retried the boycott link and it worked… please disregard my mistake above.

  3. rgwallace Says:

    I’m glad, Clem, you took the spirit of quoting you in which it was intended: not a dis, but a discussion.

    Objecting to the consumerist model of change isn’t a council of despair. I uploaded the vid of los lechugueros to illustrate interventions in the food system can extend beyond consumer choice. We can support migrant labor’s fight for fair wages, humane working conditions and naturalization rights, for instance. Unions are routinely important checks on unsanitary conditions and inhumane practices upon the animals we eat.

    It’s unfortunate this way we place the cart before the horse, as it were, but perhaps it’s telling it takes thinking about the animals we eat to get foodies to treat the people preparing our food humanely.

    In the course of looking through such vids I discovered there is an entire genre of migrant laborers filming migrant laborers harvesting Big Ag crops. Some vids record terrible conditions. Some proudly record speedy production. All capture the fundamental humanity of immigrants working at an inhumane pace for little money. Entirely missing in the supermarket aisle.

    Nor do I say people *shouldn’t* be conscious of their consumption. The issue is whether *leaving it at that* adds to the problem.

    Phil Howard has documented the extent to which Big Food has cornered the organic market: http://bit.ly/1dl40FA. Tracking global inequality, the food system has bifurcated into organics for the haves and processed shit for the have-nots. Agribusiness is covering the split at both ends. So choosing better products doesn’t hurt them a bit. On the contrary.

  4. I’m glad you found videos that ‘proudly record speedy production’. The migrant worker life is not all doom and gloom. I won’t be an apologist for the whole of the system that puts such workers in their particular place – but I will offer that they can be happy. This is work for their hands. Often their legal status causes more concern than meager wages.

    I had an opportunity once to pick peaches in a large commercial orchard where migrants were employed. Accompanied by a relative who worked in this orchard we went out onto the vast landscape with a few words of introduction. Don’t get in the way, and don’t stray far from me or Uncle Dave. Boxes of peaches were filling up faster than I could imagine. It isn’t horrendous work, but trying to keep up with such talent is quite humbling. Muted chatter in Spanish among the trees was accompanied by laughter and I got the sense some good natured ribbing was going on. Perhaps my feeble attempts at keeping up were the cause for such mirth. Suddenly there was a total silence and as I looked about I noticed half-filled boxes unattended among the trees. I got whispered instructions to walk over between a pair of abandoned boxes and keep picking and filling into them. A couple of men came along and talked to my uncle for a few minutes. They poked about for a bit and then wandered off. Several minutes later the crew of migrants reappeared. Everyone went back to work, but the laughter was missing. The day grew hot and the work grew less enjoyable. I later learned that our visitors were ‘from the government’. Legal vs. Illegal gets mired in the weeds. These are very talented folk – and they do a job few of the rest of us wish to (or can do at their pace). To this day I still find myself conflicted over the issues of that day in the orchard. The farmer/owner was – strictly speaking – breaking the law. But providing work for talented migrants, work that our ‘unemployed’ legal neighbors won’t take, is a good thing. Treating migrants well is important. Just the same as treating well everyone we meet.

    Thanks for pointing to Phil Howard’s work. It helps point to the extent to which Big Food (or Big anything for that matter) can drive a narrative for the masses. But I don’t see all this commercial realignment as mere window dressing. There still remain some bad actors, but I have the feeling some of the worst are getting pushed aside. And so far as the less bad actors are concerned – we should remain vigilant. Learn more about food and its production. Grow a garden, and share our values. Good folks are out there. We should help them succeed.

  5. rgwallace Says:

    Thanks for the story, Clem. It speaks to the kinds of contradictions that extend down into our country’s historical core. Cheap labor upon which capital depends–earlier, slavery–is treated as both absolutely necessary and with a grave contempt that enforces its condition.

    The contradiction underpins present immigration policy: let ’em in easy but with the discipline of the threat of deportation. Indeed, as Ted Genoways’s recent book on Hormel describes, agribusiness has run ingress and egress to its advantage. Bounties for coyotes, but when immigrant labor organizes, all of a sudden the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows up checking documents.

    Sometimes atop the nativist fabric, everyone goes down, including, as in the Postville Raid, the company itself: http://bit.ly/1fKwISb.

    Clearly there is a racial dimension we’ve been dancing around here. By a kind of proactive assortment, farmers markets may be ‘spaces of whiteness’, as Val Cadieux and Rachel Slocum describe them, reifying ‘whiteness’ as a some sort of inherent well of ‘progressive’ change.

    To return to my initial post, these markets, however good-hearted the folk who run them, are tied into whites’ identities as consumers–and land owners and petty bourgeois management–at the exclusion of people of color who work the line in field and factory alike.

    I know that’s a picture painted with a broad brush, but still, it seems a segregation that folds in with agribusiness’s premises about the nature of the economy and social change. That we can only consume our way into a food justice Big Food largely controls.

    It is at this point you and I may begin to converge on something: helping good folks succeed means more than buying their produce.

  6. Yes, painting with a broad brush. Under the limitations inherent in working with such a brush I won’t belabor a more nuanced view. I sense we’d both line up on the same side of a plate with only one division etched upon it.

    But if one takes the time to dig into smaller corners of specific U.S. marketplaces I believe you find race playing a smaller role and financial status playing an increasing role. Poverty does still break down along some racial metrics (in broad strokes) but the situation is somewhat fluid and might even be reaching a point where one can suggest a light (faint though it might be) is starting to show at the end of the tunnel. Yes, more work remains in righting these wrongs, but while we’re at this I think we want to find and celebrate the successes that exist – they may serve as models to imitate and the needed oases in the desert we’re trying to cross.

    Because we tend to self assort within smaller community segments (viz, zip codes) the role of farmer’s markets would seem to me strongly correlated with financially and even racially homogenous groups. And as correlation has such a difficult time shining light on causality it is tough to see such markets as harbingers of major societal progress. Still, I have been to the farmer’s market in Knoxville TN, and it impresses me. It may still be short of the idyllic future marketplace for food as considered here, but we didn’t get where we are overnight. I doubt we’ll get out overnight either.

    So for me – solving situations around poverty may play a more central role then race in the not too distant future. And of course where poverty AND race intersect we need to deftly have a go at both.

    Have you seen the book Triple Package? I’ve not read it… just skimmed through some of the discussion around it. In a tangential way it appears to bear on this topic.

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