The Politics of Food

by Joel Solkoff

Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. 1985. Hardcover. 238 pp.ISBN: 0871568462.

Reviewed by Paula Smith-Vanderslice

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This landmark book describes the changes in agricultural policy in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. Solkoff describes Earl Butz’s tenure as Secretary of Agriculture from 1972 to 1976, under then-Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. One president was too busy with the Watergate scandal, and the other didn’t care, so Butz had to have a power of his own (p.3). The book was written in 1985, and so needs to be taken historically to that year. Solkoff describes periods of surplus in this country as “boring,” and periods of shortage as exciting.

Butz’s most lasting contribution was to emphasize the importance of food. Until Butz arrived in office, farmers were paid by the U.S. government not to grow corn, wheat, rice and some other crops. The government was also using that money and legal mechanisms to keep prices of milk, oranges, sugar, meat, tomatoes, and other food artificially high. Congress opposed Butz’s view that agriculture was big business, as they had been writing policy for decades geared toward the family farmer. Butz opposed paying farmers not to grow, and keeping prices artificially high. His rhetoric was controversial, designed to get the government out of agriculture, and generated opposing congressional rhetoric by the Senate Agriculture Committee. In 1971, 4.6 percent of Americans lived and worked on farms. This was less than the population of New York and Philadelphia. There were fewer farmers than unemployed people. Most people didn’t know where their food originated, and had difficulty locating the nearest farm. Solkoff says that few understood that a cow needed to be pregnant to give milk, and what followed from that was increased productivity per cow from artificial insemination. For people living in the city, the geographic isolation of the farms’ row upon row of mass production was uncontemplated because it was invisible, and not experienced by them.

The Imperial Valley in California has become the 4th-richest agricultural county in the country because of irrigation and diversion of Colorado River water, serving the Eastern United States, and growing every commercial crop. Solkoff says that “except for baseball players, drug smugglers, army bomb testers, illegal aliens on the run, and people who love the desert, agriculture is the only reason for being in the Imperial Valley” (p.11). As farms were removed from America’s consciousness, the way they had been, small, was how they were still nostalgically remembered when thought of. Iowa was another place where agriculture did and does predominate, with the railroad taking people West in the late 19th century to more land and less expensive homes.

The American consumer became more aware of the high cost of not only the creation, but the maintenance of irrigation, such as Imperial Valley, through Butz’s actions while in office. The authority he had as Secretary of Agriculture was to control price and supply of food products. In the early 1970s, a combination of bad weather and drought worldwide, and several countries’ per capita income increase and changes in their policies upgrading the need for grain created a demand for U.S. grain, since the rest of the world’s supply was depleted. Another factor at the same time was the reduction in world fish catch, creating less fish meal for livestock feed. Also, world food production was not keeping pace with population increase. As the U.S. government was keeping prices high and increasing surpluses, it was difficult to believe that the world food shortage was real. During the Nixon administration, Butz raised prices, which were passed on through the retail system to the consumer’s household food budget. The Soviet grain deal was a part of this, as the Russians did not abandon their five-year plan to increase livestock grain feed, due to food riots and a desire to add meat to the bland diet of bread, potatoes, and other starches (p.47). The U.S. grain surplus was suddenly gone, and experts testified to Congress that maybe the surplus had been a reserve against world hunger (p.56).

In October, 1976, then-President Ford accepted Earl Butz’s forced resignation after a racist comment Butz made to singer Pat Boone on a plane after the Republican Convention. Pat had asked Butz why he thought the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, could not attract more Black voters. Butz made derogatory comments regarding sexual preference and defecation. The New York Times printed the comment, and in his resignation statement Butz said the “joke” didn’t represent his true feeling. He summarized his accomplishments as Secretary of Agriculture, saying that, “Farmers have had the yoke of bureaucratic control lifted from them,” with the marketplace replacing the government as “futures,” “cash prices,” and “commodities” became key words in discourse. The marketplace did away with congressional control and established food policy that involved adequate supplies at moderate prices as Butz’s legacy.

As consumers’ food costs were no longer kept artificially low, large corporate-like farms were discovering that reliable agricultural labor was becoming more scarce. In order to attract an efficient labor force, farms had to pay workers more. Cesar Chavez demonstrated that by improving farmworkers’ conditions, their work would become more efficient. In 1970, Chavez forced farmers, through his rhetoric, to sign union contracts with their fieldworkers. In 1962 he had formed the National Farm Workers Association, later called the United Farmworkers Union, or UFW, first competing with the Teamsters and AFL-CIO under George Meany. Later, the UFW became an AFL-CIO affiliate.

Chavez’s strong Chicano ethnic identification was essential to establishing his leadership. He understood from experience what discrimination was, where in the Imperial Valley some places had signs that said, “White Trade Only.” He successfully combined a religious, non-violent ethnic base as a force for change, and used the television medium to demonstrate to the world discrimination by local police against use of the Spanish term, “huelga,” instead of “strike,” during a grape strike on the picket line. By boycotting grapes, he hit the growers at the supermarket. He signed contracts with corporations including Tenneco, United Brands, Purex, Heublein, and Coca-Cola (p.123). The UFW represented workers nationwide and controlled a large part of fruit and vegetable crops by 1972. Migrant workers, according to a Labor Department report, were excluded from basic employee benefits such as worker’s compensation, minimum wages, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and other equal protection under Federal and states’ rights. Although during Butz’s tenure the term “migrant” was interpreted by five Federal agencies with six different definitions for purposes of program funding consideration, migrants began to receive food stamps, welfare, and general job training. The USDA’s publication, The Hired Farm Working Force, highlighted what was happening with migrant workers. The Department of Labor, HEW, and Agriculture began this assistance due to the national attention brought by the UFW (p.130).

After Butz’s resignation, the United States returned to a government food control policy (p.225). Solkoff warned in this book in 1985 about “…new global shortages that could reappear through drought, pestilence, or other plagues not even contemplated” (p.4). One year later, mad cow disease appeared in the United Kingdom, a brain disease that scientists think cattle developed when eating sheep by-products where it was present. In 1996, CJD, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a similar prion disease also affecting the brain, in humans, was linked to the tainted beef. Although hundreds of thousands of cattle were destroyed, as of 2000, the disease continues to appear in other countries (ref. World Book online).

Paula Smith-Vanderslice, B.S., is copy editor of Hunger Notes.