New Agriculture Needs Out from Under the Corporate Thumb

Last week, Walmart announced a $1-million grant for Growing Power, a Milwaukee- and Chicago-based organization started by Will Allen that focuses on equal access to healthy food for all communities. The Good Food Revolution was aflutter with reactions. Should Growing Power accept Walmart's support? Can big corporations really be part of the transformation in farming and food, or are they merely participating to rack up do-gooder points?

In a reaction to Will Allen's Facebook message explaining the decision to take the funding, Zac Henson declared, "The revolution will not be grant-funded." Henson's perspective raises a crucial and unresolved question: can New Agriculture succeed without the financial and operational support of the corporate network it aims to subvert?

The problem with Growing Power accepting Walmart funding or pursuing the PepsiCo grant they're after is not whether powerful corporate interests and dollars ought to be part of shifting the food system. They should. The agriculture movement is not exclusive; it has emerged from concerns shared by citizens, nonprofits, governments and multinationals alike.

The deeper problem the funding decision exposes is that if New Agriculture relies on money and support from Industrial Agriculture (and I call it that very intentionally; I am talking here, as I have before, about those corporations that apply traditional notions of efficiency, economies of scale, and operational rigidity to an agricultural system that performs anything but linearly and predictably), then the paradigm of agricultural production and food consumption does not change. Instead, the predominant market system prevails and organizations like Growing Power that fuel the new model in fact exist within the dominant system as a subject of corporate efforts to participate in the cutting edge.

We need a more profound shift than that to sustain the agricultural resurgence we're witnessing. In New Agriculture, decisions and information do not need to be centralized in the hands of a few powerful companies. Rather, a diverse base of producers and consumers is beginning to coordinate the production, marketing, purchase and consumption of wholesome food with alternative markets, new tools and inclusive approaches. It looks like Windowfarms providing farming kits to citizen growers. It looks like Plovgh giving farms a way to earn more for their crops by reaching their customers en masse. It looks like hundreds of thousands of farms in this country reclaiming their economic fate by putting their land into food crops instead of commodities and selling that food directly to the people who eat it.

Growing Power is part of the reason New Agriculture finally feels accessible, but their decision to take support from a corporate giant places them squarely within the corporate framework. Negative reactions to the organization's decisions express the disappointment that a leader on the alternative path just nestled itself into the hierarchy it aims to change. Its values and mission just became a line item within Walmart's annual report (or, worse, its Corporate Social Responsibility report) instead of a call for an entirely different way. It reminds us that we're stuck.

To have the lasting impact that the world needs, New Agriculture needs to stand on its own. To do so, it has to be profitable. New Agriculture does not need a re-funneling of corporate money, money that, because of the dominant structure it perpetuates, won't give us the market changes that will keep farmers on the land, improve the quality of our soil, and yield healthful food crops and relationships across our agriculture.

We need new business models that are built for New Agriculture, that reward the producer and the consumer, that value decisions that are optimal economically as well as environmentally and ethically, that give influence back to the people who grow the food and the people who eat it. Only when the companies that are clearing a truly alternative agricultural path are prepared to upend and eventually replace the old paradigm of the agricultural sector with connectivity, community and environmental stewardship will we have a chance of sustaining the revitalization of our farms and food.

This piece also appears on Plovgh.

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